Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Talking points from the Premiership

Inverness shoot themselves in the foot...again
Why do I only get to write about ICT when we don't win.  It can't be coincidence that our drop in form has come while regular contributor Andrew Sutherland has been missing; he's suffered a setback in his recovery from a broken laptop.

Caley Thistle's vulnerability at set pieces is becoming frightening; two more goals conceded in this game from these situations.  I've previously noted that this weakness seems to have become prevalent since Ryan Esson replaced the taller, more commanding Dean Brill in goal, but no blame could be attached to him here.  The first came as a consequence of an unfortunate flick on by David Raven, while the second was just shambolic, panicky defending of an awkward corner.

The frustration was all too palpable in Inverness; the home side played some terrific football for an hour and carved Aberdeen open again and again; Marley Watkins' extraordinary first half miss (Graeme Shinnie not only put it on a plate for him, but provided silver cutlery and china teacups as well) was just one of a host of clear chances spurned before Eddie Ofere's opener.  On another day, it could have been three or four-nil to the home side before the lacklustre Dons turned the game on it's head.

At least there's no sign of the tools being downed ahead of a cup final.  But if Caley Thistle blow third place, it'll be their own fault. LS

Celtic have ruined Dundee United's season
One of the unforeseen consequences of how well Aberdeen have been doing is having to pay attention to the results of the league leaders so late into a season.  So with the Dons once again closing the gap to five points on Saturday afternoon, attention once again turned to Celtic's Sunday lunchtime appointment with Dundee United.

Mind-bogglingly, this was the seventh time the two sides had met this season, and the thought of the two sides meeting each other once again prompted the question of further league reconstruction to address the possibility of this happening again. if the Championship this season has shown us anything, it is that the league could easily support a competitive first tier of at least sixteen teams, and perhaps even more...

 The prospect of these teams concluding their trilogy in seven parts clearly didn't enhuse the paying punters.  Over 12,000 fans saw their first league encounter at Tannadice; by the time of the Scottish Cup Quarter Final, they barely made it over 10,000; and on Sunday, the attendance was well under five figures.  Those matches have seen similarly diminishing returns for United in terms of results too - a win; a draw; and now a comprehensive 3-0 defeat.

Witnessing former Dees hitman Leigh Griffiths claiming all three goals must have had the United faithful choking on thier Tunnocks teacakes.  It can't have helped that Arab supporters had to watch their former Terrors twosome play pivotal roles in their downfall - Stuart Armstrong was involved in the build-up play for the first goal, while Gary Mackay-Steven was brought down for the penalty (albeit the tackle was actually just outside the box) that led to the third.  When Armstrong and Mackay-Steven departed Tannadice in February, Dundee United were looking forward to a Scottish League Cup final, still in the Scottish Cup, and only six points off the top of the Premiership.  On Sunday they departed with a further three points towards a further Premiership title for their new employers, who had also dumped them out of both cup competitions.

As they watched GMS replace the Hazelhead Zola in the second half, you could have forgiven fans (and not just Arabs) wistfully wondering what might have been had both still been in tangerine and black, and not green and white hoops. MI

St. Mirren keep themselves relevant for a little longer
Back in August, I suggested on this very blog that the writing was already on the wall regarding  St Mirren’s survival.  Despite strong efforts from Ross County and Motherwell, nothing has happened in the subsequent eight month to make me change my opinion.  But fair play to them for making the last few weeks of the season at least semi-­interesting at the bottom of the table.

Firstly though, this game shouldn’t even have happened.  Kilmarnock had requested a home fixture for the weekend to coincide with the 50th anniversary of their only top flight league win.  Any sensible governing body would see the opportunity to assist one of their members to make the most of a great marketing opportunity at a time when it has never been more difficult to get  people into a Scottish football stadium. But they didn’t.  Idiots.

One good thing this game has done though is highlight the upside of another Scottish football oddity; the split.  Victory against Kilmarnock means that The Buddies are now 7 points behind  Motherwell with 4 games to play.  That’s still an unlikely number of points to claw back, but now  that they are only playing teams in the bottom half of the league, every game now looks winnable.  Players and supporters have something to hold on to in a way they would if they had the equivalent of Hull’s fixtures in England.

A couple more unlikely results for St Mirren, and the visit of Motherwell on May 16th could  actually be a bit of an occasion. IM

It can't be fluky that St. Johnstone are fourth
As one St. Johnstone fan put it on Twitter, "How come every team seems to have their 'worst performance of the season' against us?"

Paul Hartley was the latest vanquished manager to say as such, describing Dundee as "poor for the full game" and criticizing "our intensity, our tempo and how we passed the ball."

And yet, quietly, St. Johnstone have clambered up to fourth in the table, and, with the teams around them out of form, must feel they have a shot at nicking third.  It's hard to put a finger on why they're doing so well, other than that they are clearly superb at stopping their opponents from playing.  It's difficult to identify standout players; I first thought of Michael O'Halloran, but the forward didn't even start this game and the club's lack of goals - only St. Mirren have scored fewer this season - seems to contraindicate my instinct.  That said, Danny Swanson's good form (he scored a great goal and was a menace throughout) should help them in the final third.  So yeah, I'm really not sure how Tommy Wright's side have got into this position.  But it clearly isn't a fluke.

Oh, and by the way - that dive from Greg Stewart?  Embarrassing. LS

County lose their momentum
A fortnight off is probably the last thing Ross County needed, given a stunning run of form over the last couple of months; perhaps it hindered their momentum a bit.  Or maybe the absence of the high-intensity Jackson Irvine, missing with injury, prevented them from pressing Partick Thistle as effectively as they needed to.  Or maybe they really need to find a new keeper in the summer - Mark Brown was culpable for the second goal, might have done a bit better with the opener (I know Frederic Frans put his foot through it, but he was a long, long way out) and was nearly embarrassed when caught dallying in possession by Ryan Stevenson, and yet he's still a more reliable option than Antonio Reguero.  Or maybe it's that the visitors were on top of their game; their only defeat in the last five was to Celtic.

Whatever the reason, County were rotten - only a single shot on goal all day, scored by Michael Gardyne early on against the run of play - and blew a great chance to open up a decisive gap on Motherwell.  Next week's match at Fir Park is shaping up to be a right humdinger; if the Staggies lose that, then suddenly they are in a bit of trouble again. LS

Motherwell can't afford a Laing layoff
Accies' first goal on Friday night was painful for Motherwell and their fans in more ways than one.  Coming when the Steelmen were well on top, it was just the latest example of terrible defending from the Steelmen this season - Steven McManus was caught woefully out of position, having failed to track Jason Scotland after winning an initial header against the Trinidadian, and Scotland was played in by a pass into the resultant gap; potentially worse is that McManus' fellow centre-back, Louis Laing, appeared to injure himself in a futile attempt to prevent the goal and had to go off.

Laing was replaced by Fraser Kerr, who looked as uncomfortable in the centre of defence as he does in every other position he has been used in this season.  Whilst Motherwell might have got something from this match, had they not been dreadfully profligate in front of goal, they always give the impression of needing to score two or three goals to win at the best of times.  If Laing doesn't recover quickly, their ability to keep opponents out is diminished further.

After showing signs of life, Ian Baraclough's side have now lost their last two.  Lose at home to Ross County this weekend, and an eleventh place finish will be all but certain.  LS

Martin Ingram (MI) is our Aberdeen Correspondent.  Legend has it that he is the tallest man in the Red Army.  He writes regularly for Aberdeen fanzine The Red Final.

Iain Meredith (IM) is technically a Rangers fan, but these days he tends to support them ironically.  He only agreed to help with this blog because now he can tell his wife that he's "only watching the game to help a friend out".

Lawrie Spence (LS) has ranted and spouted his ill-informed opinions on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007.  He has a life outside this blog.  Honestly.

Andrew Sutherland (AS) occasionally writes for When Saturday Comes.  He would never miss an ICT match unless he was offered a date with the lead singer of CHVRCHES...who he would then take to said ICT match.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Doncaster's denouement?

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Neil Doncaster, grinning inanely as usual

Neil Doncaster has been the Chief Executive of the Scottish Premier League, and subsequently the Scottish Professional Football League, since July 2009.  His (nearly) six years as the figurehead of club football in this country have not exactly been distinguished.  For example, STV were able to publish an article this week titled 'Neil Doncaster's most memorable blunders', which listed some, but by no means all, of the cock-ups that have occurred during his tenure.

At the time of writing, the league is coming to the end of a second straight season without any title sponsor.  The TV deal is worth a relative pittance to clubs, and yet allows the broadcasters to extend it to 2019 with only a marginal increase in income.  He received a 16 per cent pay rise in 2013 to a staggering £200,000 per year, announced at the same time as the league's income had dropped six per cent.  His response to criticism is standard - the sort of inane grin that an infant makes when you find him drawing on the walls with crayon.

In March, he presented a lecture at the University of Leeds.  The subject?  'Crisis management in football'.  My irony-meter has never quite recovered from that one.

And yet, remarkably, he has remained in his post - and even, in 2012, fought off competition to be made Chief Exec of the SPFL after the leagues were merged.  And that was in the aftermath of the shambolic handling of the Rangers liquidation saga.  But, for a cool 200k, he seems willing to be the public face and perennial laughing stock for the league board, a group of club representatives which has barely changed over that six year period.  All that can be said of them is that they appear to feel Doncaster is worth the money, and that the only other board member who is not attached to a club, chairman, Ralph Topping, is sufficiently shameless that he brought his grandson along to present the medals at the League Cup Final last season - a tournament that he and his cronies couldn't even find a sponsor for.

It is the board who make the decisions on behalf of the clubs; a little birdie told me previously that TV and sponsorship deals are made and presented to clubs as a fait accompli.  Hence a situation where, for example, matches were being transmitted live on BBC Alba, at a loss to clubs - the minimal money from the Beeb did not nearly compensate from lost gate receipts and hospitality.  But the clubs have the power to vote out these useless idiots; it remains a mystery to the average fan why, every year, they do not.

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Neil Doncaster resorts to his default expression
This week's events may change that.  The attempt to schedule Hearts-Rangers a day later than every other match on the final day of the Championship season was cack-handed even by the remarkable standards Doncaster has previously set himself.  Apart from royally pissing off Hearts and their fans by rescheduling the match at less than three weeks notice, the move raised the dreaded spectre of 'sporting integrity' once more, as it potentially gave Rangers an advantage in the race for second place - with the other matches being played on the Saturday, the Gers would know what result they needed to finish above the likes of Hibs and Queen of the South.

Was it a deliberate attempt to aid the Ibrox side?  I very much doubt it, as that amount of cunning is well beyond Doncaster's limited faculties.  It should also be noted that Rangers made it quite clear that they had no part in this fiasco.  More likely, it was a clumsy move to keep Sky Sports happy by giving them a match at a time the TV company wanted it.

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God knows what is happening out of shot here

The league, however, reckoned without Ann Budge, who runs the show at Hearts, and Leann Dempster, Chief Exec of Hibs.  With a level of integrity and determination that should shame many of their contemporaries in Scottish football, they smacked down the SPFL.  Budge, a highly successful businesswomen used to having to deal with other businesspeople, gives the impression that she can't quite believe that a professional organization and business (which is what the SPFL is meant to be) is run by folk who probably couldn't be trusted to run with scissors in their hands.  Dempster, meanwhile, was already looking for blood after accusations that the Hibees, and others, were looking to do all the other teams out of huge sums of money from the playoffs.  The spectacularly inflated and inaccurate figures that the press were bandying about, before Dempster shot them down a few hours later by providing a level of transparency that Doncaster could have done without, made me wonder whether the SPFL had actually briefed the press against Hibs on this issue in advance.

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Would you pay this man £200,000 to run your league?

The fallout was increased spectacularly when, late in the evening, the SPFL released a statement that challenged the assertions from Budge and Dempster - by claiming ignorance as to what all the fuss was about.  It was such a horrendous PR move that it's not impossible to believe that the person who dictated/wrote it might have been under the influence of something.  For a start, why not just leave it till the morning?

When, the next day, the inevitable backtracking occurred, the parting shot from the league was the comment "the SPFL would like to thank Sky Sports for it's flexibility and understanding".  No apology to the fans for being messed around, no acknowledgement of an error of judgement, but instead a bit of grovelling to a TV channel which pays well below market rate for the right to broadcast our matches at inconvenient times (just see the 12:15 kickoff in Glasgow for ICT-Celtic tomorrow!).  That tells you everything about the league's priorities.

The non-apology just seemed to irritate Budge and Dempster further; the two have demanded an investigation into the governance of the league.  Once Doncaster gets hold of a dictionary and manages to find out what 'governance' means, he will be in for a bit of a shock.

One wouldn't be surprised if this might be the straw that breaks the camel's back.  What chance Doncaster quietly walking away this summer?  Only when he, and the tired old men who have been pulling his puppet strings for six years, are gone, can Scottish football hope to move forward.  I don't suppose we could replace them with Budge and Dempster?

Lawrie Spence has ranted and spouted his ill-informed opinions on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007.  He has a life outside this blog.  Honestly.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Talking points from the Premiership

Where do St. Mirren go from here?
Oh dear.  Oh dear.  Oh dear.  Just to recap, St. Mirren's last two matches have been against the two sides immediately above them in the league.  They've lost them by an aggregate score of 8-0.  Both games were on live telly too.  Gary Teale's post-match interview suggests he has accepted that relegation is inevitable; judging by their performance, his players had come to that conclusion even before kickoff.  Aside from the inevitable Jim Goodwin tantrums as goals were conceded, there was little sign that the Buddies were hurting.

Teale talked about the possibility of turning to his Academy for alternatives as the season winds down.  It's an interesting thought, giving the likes of Jack Baird, Lewis Morgan, Adam Brown and others extended runs in the team in preparation for life in the Championship.  Preparing for the future might not do any favours to Teale's (probably remote) chances of being kept on next season, though, and he may want to try and finish the campaign with a few positive results, in the hope that it might convince the board to extend his contract.

On the other hand, given the way his senior players have let him down, maybe blooding the youngsters is his best hope of a win or two.  They can't do much worse than the current bunch. LS

Have United turned the corner?
Well, someone's rotten run had to end here.  In the end, it was the home side wot won it, courtesy of Chris Erskine's strike - their first goal from open play in eight games - but post-match claims from the United management team that they were focusing on getting back in the fight for third reeked of wishful thinking.

Let's go through the list of Accies chances: one cleared off the line; a shot against the post; an excellent penalty shout for handball denied; another shot against the post; a great save from Rado Ciernziak; another shot against the post (the woodwork emerged as United's man of the match here); more great saves from Ciernziak.  The Tannadice house is still made of straw, it's just that Hamilton inexplicably failed to blow it down before the late sucker punch from Erskine.

Did Martin Canning run over a black cat on his way to being confirmed as Accies boss?  He's still winless, with only 4 points out of a possible 39.  For 3 months, they've needed just that one more win to guarantee top six status, but they never got it.  There has been more cause for optimism recently - they should have beaten St. Johnstone last week too - but the results still aren't coming.  With no danger of finishing in the playoff place, Canning must be tempted to start blooding more youngsters and look towards 2015/16...but he really needs a victory to reassure the fans, the chairman and possibly even himself that he's up to the job.

United, meanwhile, will have to do a heck of a lot more than this if they are to prevent the word 'crisis' being banded about as freely as it is now. LS

St. Johnstone's stuffiness deserves plaudits
With so many options around these days that allow us to watch some of the best football from around the world, I generally have very little time for St Johnstone and their dreary, defensive  style. But that does not mean I do not have the utmost respect for Tommy Wright and the job he has done.  Winning the Scottish Cup last season was the kind of high point that quite often leads to a dramatic slump, particularly when it’s quickly followed by the departure of the best player you’ve had in perhaps  a generation.

However, Wright has adapted to the loss of Stevie May and it was a great achievement when this victory on Saturday, thanks to a lovely curled effort from Brian Graham, secured a fourth consecutive top six finish for the Perth side.  That's remarkable consistency considering their modest budget..even it has meant building  success on a decidedly dull, if effective, defensive game plan.  Only St. Mirren have scored fewer goals, but only Celtic and Aberdeen have conceded fewer.  So no wonder Wright has signed up keeper Alan Mannus and defender Tam Scobbie on new deals.

My wee soft spot for St Johnstone will only last so long however, if they continue to serve up dross - their league games this season average a total of just 1.85 goals per game, the lowest ratio of any team in the English or Scottish league.  I fully understand managers have to what they can to ensure success, but if the boring football continues next season, I will demand summary relegation! IM

Killie beaten by Beaton
While Aberdeen deserved their win over the balance of play, it was hard not to empathise with Killie, who seemed to be on the wrong end of a number of dubious refereeing decisions.

Although Aberdeen dominated the first 45 minutes, it looked as if the homeside were going to have the best chance of the half after Tope Obadeyi breezed past Willo Flood to bear in on goal. Instead, the referee judged that he had shoved Flood and awarded a free kick to the Dons - if anything, it appeared that Flood tried and failed to hold back Obadeyi, and he didn't claim to be fouled either.

The Dons' opener, just before half-time, came after Willo Flood at first tried to take a quick free kick (which came to nothing); however referee John Beaton called it back because he wasn't ready.  From the retake, Niall McGinn swung a cross into the six yard box for Don Daniels, who knocked it back across the face of the goal for Adam Rooney to nod home from point blank range.  However, Kilmarnock started the second half with a bang when Craig Slater finished off a counter-attack with a fantastic shot from outside the box for the equaliser.

It was another counter attack that saw the Dons regain the lead, although this one arose after Beaton failed to award a foul for a Mark Reynolds challenge on Josh Magennis. Kenny McLean's raking cross-field pass found McGinn in space on the right flank, pulling David Syme out of central defence to cover the absence of his upfield left-back. McGinn wasted no time turning the young defender inside-out and delivering a cross for the onrushing Cammie Smith to head the Dons back in front.

At least the ref managed to correctly award Kilmarnock a last minute penalty after Aberdeen keeper Scott Brown inexplicably bundled over Lee Miller.  Luckily for Brown, he redeemed himself by guessing the right way to save the resulting penalty kick.  It turned out to be a bittersweet day for Slater - scoring a 25 yard screamer one minute, missing from the spot the next.  That's fitba'
for you. MI

Dress rehearsal tells us little about the real event
So, I missed this match because of a family wedding.  There was great happiness and joy at the service, though...when word came through that ICT had nicked a point.  The various reports I've had from spectators have roughly consisted of "the first five minutes were great, then nothing happened".

As a dress rehearsal for next week's Cup semi-final, we learned little.  The poor surface stopped both sides from playing possession football effectively.  Inverness got some joy from playing high up the pitch in the first half, but were forced back as they tired; one wouldn't be surprised to see the champions-elect carving them open late in the rematch at Hampden.  Whilst the better surface may benefit John Hughes' side, it can only aid Ronny Deila's too.

Interestingly, Deila suggested that, in hindsight, he should have used Leigh Griffiths and John Guidetti as a tandem, rather than replacing the former with the latter.  Will he go with two strikers on Sunday?  I doubt it.  Instead, expect Kris Commons to return, with Stefan Johansen drifting wide.  Celtic will miss the cup-tied Stuart Armstrong and Gary Mackay-Steven, but that didn't do them much harm in the League Cup Final, did it? LS

Partick have room for error
There isn't much to say about the action in this game; given that both teams are in danger of ending up in eleventh place, it was strangely lacking in intensity...though the wind, and a pitch with more potholes than the A9, didn't help.  But it's a bit odd that Partick, who have been playing well recently, are even in this situation at all.  They are vastly superior to Motherwell, and it was no surprise that they won this.

It was no surprise that Motherwell's back line let them down again. either.  The first goal was a catastrophe for Louis Laing, who's had a bit of an up-and-down time in Scotland since arriving on loan from Nottingham Forest.  As a free-kick was swung in deep, Laing followed everyone towards the near post, failing to notice that the man he was marking, Stuart Bannigan, had peeled off to the far post; Bannigan's header back across goal was knocked into the net by Lyle Taylor.  The second wasn't any better from a defensive point of view, as both Laing and Steven McManus failed to track Taylor's dart into the six yard box to finish Callum Booth's cross.

Whilst Motherwell were much less effective in attack without the injured Marvin Johnson, it will be their defence that is to blame if they end up in eleventh.  Manager Ian Baraclough called the result "a blip".  He had better be right.  It was a blip they could do without though, as it gives Partick seven points worth of breathing space.  Whether they can maintain top flight status for a thirtieth consecutive season now comes down to five post-split games, and possibly - even probably? - a two-legged playoff. LS

Martin Ingram (MI) is our Aberdeen Correspondent.  Legend has it that he is the tallest man in the Red Army.  He writes regularly for Aberdeen fanzine The Red Final.

Iain Meredith (IM) is technically a Rangers fan, but these days he tends to support them ironically.  He only agreed to help with this blog because now he can tell his wife that he's "only watching the game to help a friend out".

Lawrie Spence (LS) has ranted and spouted his ill-informed opinions on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007.  He has a life outside this blog.  Honestly.

Andrew Sutherland (AS) occasionally writes for When Saturday Comes.  He would never miss an ICT match unless he was offered a date with the lead singer of CHVRCHES...who he would then take to said ICT match.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Playoff picture is as clear as mud

So, St. Mirren are doomed to the Championship then.  Not mathematically, yet, but now they're ten points adrift with six games left.  They wouldn't be able to escape this predicament if they had Steve McQueen as manager; instead they have Gary Teale, the mastermind who, for a must-win game, sent out his team to play against Motherwell in the same way they did when they tried unsuccessfully to defend for 90 minutes against Celtic, but without his best defender from that game (Jeroen Tesselaar).  I don't imagine that Teale will be joining the Buddies in the second tier next season, either as manager or as a member of the playing staff.

So with their fate pretty much certain, the conversation moves onto the relegation/promotion playoffs.  Who will finish eleventh in the Premiership, and potentially face the fate that befell Hibernian this time last year?  And who would they play in the playoff final?  A month ago, I'd have said that Hibs looked to be the likely opponent, and a formidable one.  But their recent downturn in form has coincided with Stuart McCall's transformation of Rangers.  McCall appears to be the Viagra that has fixed months of impotence at Ibrox (that metaphor may keep you awake tonight).  I recently made a £20 bet with a work colleague that Rangers wouldn't be promoted this season - three days later, McCall replaced Kenny McDowall and it no longer looks like such a smart wager.  However, the Gers only went and got beat by Queen of the South last night, so who knows?

St. Mirren down, Hearts up, but who else will be in the Premiership next season?

That same colleague asked me this week who I thought that Rangers could be up against in a playoff final, and who would be the most beatable opponent.  My response to the first question was a Gallic shrug (you know, one accompanied by a protruding bottom lip and the words "I don't know" in a terrible French accent); to the second query, I answered "whoever has lost their last three games of the league season".

Whoever is in form now may not necessarily be in form at the end of May.  If a week is a long time in politics, then a month is an age in football.  It's not long since St. Mirren won in Dingwall with ten men, convincing every man and his dog that Ross County were going to finish bottom.  On 13th February, they had just twelve points and were adrift at the bottom; eight games later, they have thirty-four points.  That's seven wins in the last eight, compared to only two in the previous twenty-four league matches.  That's a staggering turnaround.

It's come because Jim McIntyre made some damn good signings in January (he's signed twelve players since he took over in September, so some of them had to be decent).  The addition of the clever winger Raffaele De Vita and the tireless Craig Curran have boosted the attack no end, and provided the energy required to play the high pressing game that McIntyre desires.  Meanwhile, Jamie Reckord and Marcus Fraser have been so outstanding as full-backs that they've already been given extended deals.  In the later days of Derek Adams' reign, the attitude of the squad looked hopeless, but now the team is full of players who look like they would run into a brick wall if it would help the cause.  County have momentum with a capital 'M'.

So do Motherwell, who also looked a shambles just a short while back.  Now they've won four and drawn one of the last six - and the defeat was at Pittodrie, where they led at half-time.  Is it a coincidence that the revival coincides with the return of prodigal son Scott McDonald to Fir Park?  Whilst he's chipped in with three goals, he's also brought the best out of young Lee Erwin, who has in spectacular form.  The rejuvenation of Lionel Ainsworth and the arrival of pacy Marvin Johnson means that there is plenty of service, something that Well's forwards have been devoid of for so much of the season.  That said, I'm not convinced Ian Baraclough has solved their defensive woes - he's using Josh Law and Anthony Straker as auxiliary full-backs, and their only clean sheets of 2015 were against the struggling St. Mirren and Hamilton.

But the two teams are in such good form that they've actually pulled others into the mix.  Motherwell's hosts this weekend are Partick Thistle, who are only four points better off and just a solitary point ahead of County.  That's even though the Jags have recently beaten Dundee United, St. Johnstone and ICT, and drew at Pittodrie last week.  They even have a positive goal difference. It's crazy that they are far from safe, but they've paid for terrible inconsistency (their win over Inverness was the first time they'd won two in a row in nearly two years) and the woeful Firhill pitch that has stopped them from playing their passing game.

Kilmarnock have been thinking more about nicking a top six spot than what's below them, but they aren't safe either despite having 38 points.  They seemed to improve considerably in terms of attitude and organization when Gary Locke replaced Allan Johnston in the dugout, but they've actually only won one of the last six (against St. Mirren) and lost their last two - at Ross County and at home to Motherwell.  It'd be embarrassing as anything if they were to go down after giving Locke a three year contract last week.  They are probably only one win away from being able to get out their buckets and spades, but the squad is so thin that even Paul Cairney got a start last week.

There's still a long way to go.  The highest finishing total for any team that has finished eleventh in the top flight (under the current league structure) is 41 points, so that seems like a reasonable target for the Premiership teams to aspire to.  But it's still far from clear which top flight club will drop into the playoffs...and it's not much clearer who their opponent will be.  It'll be fun finding out.

Lawrie Spence (LS) has ranted and spouted his ill-informed opinions on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007.  He has a life outside this blog.  Honestly.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Talking points from the Premiership

Ross Cpunty's Jackson Irvine takes his team-mates' congratulations after scoring
Ross County's Martin Woods, Jackson Irvine and Craig Curran celebrate with a rendition of 'Nessun Dorma'  

The arse has fallen out of Dundee United's season
This was Jackie McNamara's hundredth game as Dundee United manager, and it's safe to say that he's never been under as much pressure at Tannadice as he is just now.  United may be fourth in the league, but they haven't won in two months - a run which started shortly after the exit of Gary Mackay-Steven and Stuart Armstrong, whose departures, it was revealed this week, led to a financial bonus for McNamara (not that there's anything obviously wrong with that unless he actually has control over the transfers).  This news, plus revelations that very little of the money from the big player sales in the past year will go to the club, have really stuck in the craw of the fans.

Meanwhile, they haven't scored in open play in their last six games; there appears to be a collective slump from every single player bar Radoslaw Ciernziak and Nadir Ciftci; and a side who were in the fight for second place back in January are now five points ahead of their seventh placed city rivals.  Not only have the wheels come off, but the engine has broken, the gearbox has crumbled into pieces and the driver has had a heart attack.

United had their chances in this dour game, but not many - only five efforts on goal in a home game is pitiful.  Not quite as pitiful as the defending though.  Jackson Irvine had the freedom of Dundee to head home the first.  As if that wasn't enough of a warning, he had a second goal disallowed after an infringement...and yet United still didn't do enough to hinder him from hitting the post with another header, with the rebound turned in for the winner by Raffaele De Vita.  The home side looked like they didn't want to be out there, and the boos that rang around Tannadice suggested the fans didn't want them out there either.

It's derby day on Wednesday.  Dundee haven't won any of the last nine clashes with their neighbours, with an aggregate score of 11-3 to United in the three matches this season.  The Dark Blues won't get a better chance than this, as United look absolutely spent. LS

Erwin justifies the hype
Lee Erwin apparently has plenty of admirers out there; the Motherwell forward has been scouted by several English Championship clubs this season.  Given that he hadn't scored since opening day, and had spent much of the season on the bench, I'd struggled to understand the fuss.  His glorious winner at Rugby Park might solve part of the mystery; he left Tope Obadeyi for dead, then ghosted past Ross Barbour and absolutely rifled a shot into the bottom corner.  

My first thought when Scott McDonald returned to Fir Park was that, given his excellent off-the-ball play, he would be the perfect foil for big John Sutton.  Ian Baraclough thought otherwise, and paired him with Erwin instead.  Whilst neither are particularly good in the air, they work hard and have excellent vision.  Already, they look like a potent front pairing.  Now that Lionel Ainsworth has rediscovered his mojo, Motherwell are a different proposition in attack.

Their problem, of course, is that Ross County are flying too.  Motherwell can effectively kill off St. Mirren by beating them at Fir Park on Tuesday night, but the eleventh placed team still has to face a playoff.  Baraclough just needs his team to get enough points on the board that they overtake somebody...if not County, then maybe Partick...or even a Killie side who, though ten points ahead, look dangerously close to already being in holiday mode. LS

Canning lets his team down
Given Accies' recent form, this wasn't on anyone's list of fixtures in which Martin Canning would break his duck.  But an international break is a long time in football, and after Ali Crawford took advantage of Danny Swanson's compulsion to hug teammate Dave Mackay instead of clearing the danger, and the home side took the lead, they went toe-to-toe with the Perth Saints for nearly an hour.

That was until the player-manager shot himself and his team in the foot by trying to amputate Michael O'Halloran's.  It was a shocking challenge, deserving of the straight red that was shown.  Remarkably and disgracefully, several Accies players sprinted to the nearby linesman to give him abuse...as if the foul hadn't been so obvious that the ref, every supporter in the ground and little ameoba developing on the surface of a planetoid orbiting Alpha Centauri couldn't have seen it.  No one can doubt that Canning cares, but this was the latest moment to be added to the growing list of reasons why Hamilton fans are uneasy about his appointment.

It probably cost them a couple of points here.  It was all St. Johnstone after that, with Brian Graham deservedly heading an equalizer, and Hamilton were grateful for the draw which leaves them now winless in twelve.  Incredibly, they are still in the top six, though Dundee have games in hand on them; they are probably going to have to win at Tannadice next weekend to be on the right side of the split.  They'll have to do it without their suspended player-manager, though. LS

Taylor the jet-lagged Jag
While the buzz around the Dons support before the game concerned a first start for Development League top scorer Lawrence Shankland - fresh from scoring a brace on for Scotland U21 - the striker who made the biggest impact on this game was another player who scored an international goal this week.

Partick Thistle's Lyle Taylor - in his second loan spell with the Jags, currently on loan from Scunthorpe United - plays for the small Caribbean island of Montserrat.   After scoring on his debut in a 2-1 defeat at Curacao on the evening of Friday 27 March, he also played in the return leg in St John's last Tuesday evening - although they were knocked out of 2018 FIFA World Cup CONCACAF qualification at the first round (bear in mind we're only half way through our Euro 2016 qualification group...) the 2-2 draw was still historic, marking the first time the Emerald Boys avoided defeat in a World Cup qualification match.

Lyle travelled back to Scotland in time to be in the Partick Thistle squad to play Aberdeen.  Although starting on the bench, he replaced the hamstrung Kris Doolan after just half an hour.  In less than 15 minutes on the park, he could have had the Jags two up.  Twice Taylor found himself one-on-one with the Dons goalkeeper; Jamie Langfield did well to come out and save the first chance, yet Taylor will be kicking himself for missing the target with the second, lobbing the keeper but sending his effort wide of the post.

One moment in the second half typified the effort that the striker gave to the cause.  Chasing after a ball that was racing out of play, he realised too late that he would be unable to keep the ball in play.  Unfortunately, the combination of his own momentum and the slippery surface meant he was unable to keep himself in play either... after careering into the South Stand barrier, Taylor flipped over 180 degrees - indeed, had he not managing to stop himself with some gymnastic athleticism I can barely fathom, I fully expected to witness him back-flip onto an unsuspecting toddler in the front row.

Taylor sunk to his knees at full time, the jet-lagged Jag having clearly given his all.  Although he ultimately failed to grab the goal that could have given Partick Thistle all three points, the effort that he and his team-mates demonstrated on Saturday - coupled with the string of positive results this effort has produced in recent weeks - suggests the Jags should be safe from the relegation battle currently facing those clubs below them in the Premiership table. MI

Forrest fire
In recent times, James Forrest has been moving steadily closer to joining the vast of group of Rangers and Celtic youth products labelled as 'never quite fulfilled his potential'.  The last couple of years have been blighted with injury problems, apparently all related to a back complaint.  In fact, he has managed to play in more than half Celtic's league games in only one season.

2014/15 has hardly been vintage; nearly three months out at the start of the campaign, then in and out of the team; on Friday night he made only his eighth league start of the season.  Like most wingers, he could do with a run of games to get his confidence up, but a combination of niggles, poor performances and the arrival of Gary Mackay-Steven have prevented him from doing so.  This was a rare chance to shine then, and as the match reached the hour mark, he appeared to have fluffed it.  Every time Forrest ran at an opponent, he seemed to lose the ball; every time he passed it, he appeared to give it away.  In his frustration he committed a few fouls - a sign, perhaps, of him trying too hard.  He wasn't so much in Jeroen Tesselaar's pocket as locked in a small wooden box in his closet.

And yet, cometh the moment, cometh Forrest; St. Mirren had defended wonderfully for the first two-thirds of the match, but were undone by one moment of sleepiness from left winger Kieran Sadlier.  The Buddies' wide men had tracked Celtic's full-backs manfully all evening long...until Sadlier dozed off once.  Lo and behold, Adam Matthews wandered in behind, and the home defence instantly lapsed into a shambles.  Forrest, who had wandered in off the right flank, was the spare man picked out by Matthews, and finished beautifully.

There was never going to be any way back for St. Mirren after that - whilst Gary Teale proved he can set up and organize a team, in attack they looked about as dangerous, and directionless, as a blind hedgehog in a paper bag.  Anything they got from this game would have been a bonus though - the upcoming clashes with Motherwell and Ross County this week are far more critical.  Forrest did need to get something from this game, though, and he did.  Ronny Deila clearly likes him, and his ability to dribble the ball long distances and to inject pace to the attack are rare at this level.  But one can't help thinking that he may never manage to stay fit long enough to become the player he could be. LS

Flagging ICT stagger towards the end of the season
Using the dreadful 'marathon' analogy, Caley Thistle are stumbling towards the finish line, tongue lolling, eyes unfocussed, hurling one wobbly leg in front of the other and desperately hoping that each will support their weight.  And yet, because of Dundee United's problems, ICT are increasingly likely to nick the bronze medal and finish third in the league.

To be fair, Dundee are no mugs; in fact, this game went largely as Paul Hartley would have planned.  The visitors sat in during the first half, refusing to be drawn up the pitch, and then used their superior energy levels (I've not seen a fitter team this season) to have a right go after the break.  The only thing that went wrong was that they switched off immediately after scoring, allowing an instant equalizer from Graeme Shinnie.  Inverness looked a bit jaded, and a bit lacking up top, with Marley Watkins willing but not nearly as effective as Billy Mckay.  However, their insistence on keeping the ball on the deck didn't help.  The pitch is like a snooker table...a snooker table which hasn't been replaced in forty years in the sort of bar where the cues are more often used as weapons than for playing with.  The constant bobble wrecked many a first touch.  Poor Ryan Christie was left looking stupid frequently as he took his eye off the ball to assess what was around him, only to find that said ball had jumped over his foot and run away.

But Caley Thistle will still probably nick third.  Incredibly, Dundee might yet miss out on the top six, unless they beat their struggling neighbours in midweek; their remaining pre-split matches are versus St. Johnstone and Celtic. LS

Martin Ingram (MI) is our Aberdeen Correspondent.  Legend has it that he is the tallest man in the Red Army.  He writes regularly for Aberdeen fanzine The Red Final.

Lawrie Spence (LS) has ranted and spouted his ill-informed opinions on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007.  He has a life outside this blog.  Honestly.

Iain Meredith (IM) is in California on holiday.  He was unable to contribute because "Endless blue skies and the company of endlessly optimistic people means I'm not really in the right frame of mind to write about Scottish football this week."

Andrew Sutherland (AS) was given compassionate leave this week because of the demise of his faithful laptop (2009-2015).