Friday, May 29, 2015

Scottish Cup Final Preview - Inverness CT

After stunning Celtic in the semi-final, can Caley Thistle finish the job?
Caley Thistle's PR folk have certainly earned their keep in the last few weeks.  There's barely a statue in Inverness which hasn't been photographed with a scarf around it's neck, or a roundabout left without a banner.  The high street is covered in pictures of individual players with the slogan "This Is Our Time".  In hindsight, Ross Draper probably wishes he'd smiled more for his.

The slogan is spot on, though.  Twenty-one years old this year, Inverness Caledonian Thistle are in their first Scottish Cup final.  It's not all that unlikely that, twenty-one years from now, they might not have appeared in another.  If they do, it's quite possible they'll be the underdogs, against someone like Celtic, or Aberdeen, or a resurgent Rangers.  On Saturday, though, they are pitted against Falkirk, from a division below.  They are very much the favourites.  They may not - in fact, probably won't - ever get a better opportunity than this to win the cup.

Falkirk will feel the same, of course.  But this is the most talented and most successful squad in ICT's history.  They've just finished third in the league and guaranteed a first crack at European football.  And they've done it with a bit of style, too.  John Hughes was maligned by many when he arrived in the Highlands in the winter of 2013; even more so after a tough first few months.  His insistence on a passing game seemed naive, as Scottish Premiership players surely weren't capable of that sort of skill and touch.  His squad trusted in him, that much was obvious, but the fans were very wary.

So the demand for humble pie in Inverness has been through the roof over the last twelve months.  Caley Thistle kept up with Celtic and Aberdeen for a decent chunk of the campaign, though it was always inevitable that they would fall away.  They were well worthy of that top three finish.  And few (mostly Celtic fans who still lie awake at night muttering obscenities under their breath at Josh Meekings) begrudge them their opportunity at glory.

Hughes will feel that, if his side play the way they can (and have), then they will win.  The semi-final showcased some of that ability on the ball, helped by the large playing area and the good quality surface which allowed the likes of Ryan Christie to thrive.  The 19 year old, son of club legend and former manager Charlie, has been the poster boy for the club's season after scooping the Football Writer's Young Player of the Year award.  In truth, he's blown a wee bit hot and cold, but there's no question that he's been hindered by the surfaces he's had to play on at times (including the one in Inverness).  But on his day he has a touch and vision far beyond any player that has ever come through the club's youth system.

Christie will either play between midfield and attack or on the right flank, depending on whether Yogi opts for the 4-2-3-1 which has usually been his formation of choice, or the 4-4-2 which succeeded in the semi.  The personnel are unlikely to be different, but it's the positioning of Christie and forward Marley Watkins, who will either use his blistering pace on the right touchline or up front alongside Edward Ofere, that would be altered.

Nigerian Ofere has got to be one of the most ungainly footballers I've ever seen.  He walks like a baby giraffe trying to work out how to use its legs effectively.  But appearances are deceptive.  He's tall and good in the air, yet has a perfectly decent touch.  He looks slow, but seems to be able to escape defenders.  His technique makes him perfect for the linkup play that Hughes wants from his centre-forward, but his strength and height allow him to be used as a target man too.  Caley Thistle are very lucky to have him, especially after losing Billy Mckay in January, and will be even luckier if they hold onto him for next season.

For the most part the rest of the team picks itself, I reckon.  With Dean Brill injured, Ryan Esson will start in goal.  For the second year in a row, central defensive stalwart Gary Warren misses a final because of suspension (he wasn't available for the League Cup final last year either) so for the second year in a row Danny Devine gets to play in the big game after warming the bench for most of the season.  It's not a huge blow.  Devine is more like fellow centre back Josh Meekings in that he's quick and good on the ball, and not quite as powerful or dominant in the air as Warren, but he's perfectly competent.

David Raven and Graeme Shinnie will prowl forward from the full-back areas; expect Shinnie to spend more time attacking than defending as he looks to go out on the highest of highs before joining Aberdeen in the summer.  Because of this, I suspect Yogi will pick the hardworking Danny Williams to play on the left side of midfield, rather than the more offensive-minded Nick Ross or Aaron Doran.  Williams is a tireless runner who also shows good discipline.  He may not be as big a threat in the final third as others, but expect him to be subbed in the final quarter of the game, so that Ross or Doran can have a go at a tiring defence.  Big Ross Draper will provide the physical presence in midfield (if Falkirk are to have a chance, their nippy flair players will have to escape his clutches) and Greg Tansey will be the metronome, dictating the tempo and directing the play, as well as having a few attempts to score a screamer from distance.

If Falkirk are to cause an upset, they will have to stay tight and frustrate Inverness - I can't see them successfully pressing high up the pitch.  When they get the ball, they'll have to keep it.  Their best opportunities will come if Caley Thistle are caught in possession thirty yards from their own goal - which happens depressingly often - and from set pieces; ICT have a decent amount of height, but their insistence on keeping two or three men up front when defending corners, along with Esson's difficulty commanding his box, leaves them vulnerable.

But, on paper at least, there is a significant difference in quality.  As I said above, Inverness probably won't get a better chance to win the Scottish Cup than this.

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

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Scottish Cup Final Preview - Falkirk

Can Craig Sibbald (no.10) and Blair Alston (no.8) fire Falkirk to cup glory?

The last time Falkirk met Inverness Caledonian Thistle, the stakes were also pretty damn high.  On 23rd May 2009, the two sides clashed in the Highlands, with Scottish Premiership survival at stake.  The home side had Ross Tokely sent off in the first half; after the break, Michael Higdon shinned in the only goal of the game to keep the Bairns up and consign Inverness to relegation.  John Hughes was in the away dugout that day.  A week later, he was also in the dugout as Falkirk played Rangers in the 2008/09 Scottish Cup final.  Nacho Novo scored the only goal as the Gers lifted the cup.

Since then, Inverness and Falkirk have had rather contrasting trajectories.  Caley Thistle came back up at the first attempt, they passed Falkirk on their way up.  Relegated in the summer of 2010, four consecutive third placed finishes in the second tier followed.  Six years on, Yogi Hughes is the manager of Caley Thistle.

Caley Thistle will be favourites.  Of course they will be.  They've just finished third in the Premiership.  They've knocked out three other top flight sides on the way to the final (even if they were somewhat, er, fortuitious in the semi final against Celtic).  This is unquestionably the strongest squad they've had in their 21 year history.  Falkirk, meanwhile, finished fifth in the Championship this season, which perhaps suggests that this isn't even the best Falkirk side of recent years, let alone in the club's history.  They didn't play a single Premiership team en route to Hampden.

And yet, on Saturday, the club appears in its fourth Scottish Cup final (they won it in 1913 and 1957, and were beaten by Kilmarnock in 1997).  And they may not get a better chance to win the cup again for, well, ever.  The town certainly seems to have recognized it; they are likely to take along more than 18,000 fans to the match, which will considerably outnumber their opponents' support.  And, whereas Inverness boss Hughes lost in his only final, Falkirk have in Peter Houston a manager who has lifted the cup before, with Dundee United in 2010.

Under Hughes, Falkirk had a reputation for trying to play a passing game which was easy on the eye.  That dogma was followed - and possibly pushed even harder - by successors Steven Pressley and Gary Holt.  When Holt left to take charge of Norwich's youth system last summer, and was replaced by the more seasoned Houston, most expected a more pragmatic, direct style.  For the most part they were wrong.  Whilst they are a bit more compact, and the addition of a few veterans has made them more streetwise, he's declined to curb the flamboyance of his more creative players. 

Craig Sibbald, for example, has flourished.  Sibbald made his first team debut at just 16 and has been talked about ever since for his deft footwork and skill on the ball.  But nearly four years on, fellow Falkirk prodigies such as Murray Wallace, Stephen Kingsley, Jay Fulton and Conor McGrandles have all been signed by bigger clubs.  Sibbald is still here, partly because he shone only sporadically.  Whether it's because of Houston, or because of maturity and experience (more than 150 first team games now!) he has been sensational all season long.  It was his header that won the semi-final against Hibs.  He scooped every single one of the club's end of the season awards.  His time is coming, or may have already come.

Sibbald is just one of several youthful players who will start the final, not least because more seasoned campaigners Mark Kerr and John Baird, both signed in January, are cup-tied.  It's quite likely that seven outfield players will be aged 23 or under.  That includes some other considerable talents. Peter Grant, son of the Celtic player of the same name, is an outstanding central defender.  Luke Leahy, an attacker brought north from the English non-leagues at 17, has in the last year been converted into an adventurous left-back whose forays forward are somewhat reminiscent of Graeme Shinnie, who he'll face at Hampden.  Will Vaulks was a central defender who seemed to lack a bit of height; he's now a box-to-box midfielder with a crunching tackle and a blistering shot.

But the loss of the thoughtful, ice-cool Kerr to the midfield and the Duracell bunny-like Baird to the attack will be hard to absorb.  It'll mean a tactical change, for a start.  They've been best this season when playing 4-4-2 but, without Baird, Houston will surely deploy a lone striker who, fitness depending, will be the terrific Rory Loy.  Loy has scored 34 times in two seasons, but his clever linkup play and thoughtful running are worth just as much as the goals are; that's why, after this match, he's signing for Dundee.  But whilst he has a good leap, he is no target man.  

Moreover he hasn't played since 6th March due to injury.  He's back in training, and he's taken part in some of the bounce games the club have arranged to try and keep sharp during this four week gap without a game, but Houston has been coy over how fit he'll be.  The temptation to start him and hope for the best may be too great though.  The other options up front are minimal.  Taylor Morgan led the line in the semi-final - a big lug of a striker who has contributed virtually nothing whilst on loan since the new year, whilst the other forwards are surely too inexperienced to start on such a stage.

Aside from Loy, they can also call on experience in defence, in the shape of goalkeeper Jamie MacDonald (previously a cup winner with Hearts in 2012, and a member of this blog's 2013-14 Team Of The Year) and centre-back David McCracken, whose organizational skills just about compensate for a terrible lack of pace.  Caley Thistle's penchant for trying to get behind defences may make him very vulnerable.  

Were Kerr and Baird available, Houston might feel that his midfield, with ex-Hibs man Tom Taiwo tucking in from the right side, could protect the defence and they could stifle and frustrate Inverness, especially with two hard-working forwards who could harass their centre-backs in possession.  Without them, he probably has to change to 4-2-3-1, a far more attacking formation which potentially suits their opponents more.  But there isn't much in the way of depth, so he doesn't really have a lot of alternatives.  From the neutrals' point of view, it could make for a very open game.

But Houston thrives on setting up teams for single, one-off matches.  He's had nearly a month to concentrate completely on this one, and Falkirk will be as prepared as they can possibly be.  Will that be enough to win them the trophy?  Well, they might need a bit of luck.  But Caley Thistle surely used up all theirs in the semi-final, didn't they?

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, May 25, 2015

Talking Points from the Premiership

St. Johnstone win on Russell Anderson Day
So on the final day of the season, St Johnstone secured 4th place in the Premiership with a gutsy win at Pittodrie.  With that win, the reigning Scottish Cup holders will also now have a vested interest in next weekend's Scottish Cup final - with a chance of European football, they will now be firmly in the ICT camp.

Chris Kane's goal gave St Johnstone the win - it was literally his first involvement after coming off the bench, beating the offside trap to run onto a James McFadden through ball and slot past Scott Brown.  The Perth Saints probably haven't got the credit they've deserved, but Tommy Wright's side have have had a fine season.  While I'm not sure exactly how many Saints fans came up for the game, it looked (and sounded) like every one of them were in the away section.  Fair play to them, and well done to their team.

For Dons fans, the result was irrelevant.  This day was all about one man, Aberdeen captain and legend Russell Anderson.  It was an emotional day for Russell as he played his final game for the club, as it was for the supporters who turned out to show their appreciation, and social media continues to explode with tributes.  

When Russell returned to Aberdeen for his second spell with the club, he said that he still had unfinished business at Pittodrie.  He's now finished up as a Cup-winning captain, and leaves the 1st team in its healthiest league finish for a generation.  Russell will now be taking up a full time role behind the scenes at Aberdeen, but with regard to his retirement I would simply add my own 'thank you' for all that he has given to the Dons during his playing career.  Hopefully, we will all enjoy the bright future ahead...MI

United are in danger of falling behind their rivals
It may have been too little too late to save Dundee Utd’s European dreams, but victory in Saturday’s derby certainly went to the team who needed it most.  The second half of the season has been nothing short of calamitous for United as they slid from an exciting tussle with Aberdeen and Inverness to a fifth place finish behind St. Johnstone.  As has been noted many times on this blog and elsewhere, selling your two best players to a rival will do that to you.

Dundee on the other hand will be relatively pleased with their first season back in the Premiership (what a stupid name for a football league).  A top six finish, achieved playing some relatively decent football is as much as you can expect from a newly promoted side.  Rangers would bite your hand off if you offered them a similar scenario come next May.

Each team is taking a very different approach to the summer.  Dundee have already signed up five players for next season and will once again be prioritizing avoiding relegation in a strengthened league.  Dundee United on the other hand no doubt need to strengthen, but the biggest question they have to answer in the off season is what to do with Nadir Ciftci.  A couple of weeks ago I named him “the poor man’s Diego Costa.”  Clearly he sees himself as more of a Luis Suarez.  The Costa comparison is pertinent however; he’s a strong, imposing centre forward with an eye for goal and a penchant for winding up the opposition.  It seems likely that Celtic will come  in with an offer for the Turk, and assuming it’s not derisory, they will more than likely cash in on a player who is looking more trouble than he's worth.    

That would leave a gaping hole for Jackie McNamara in the position where it’s most difficult to find value for money.  Should they lose Ciftci, and considering the other needs this team has, it would not be the biggest shock in the world to see Dundee finish next season ahead of their cross-­street rival.

But for now The Arabs can bask in the glory of their derby day win, enjoy those fabled 'bragging rights,' and look forward to their club unearthing the next Robertson, Gauld, Armstrong, or Mackay­Steven. Good luck with that. IM

Brittain departs as a County legend
The term 'legend' is thrown at football players far too often; for example, a Kilmarnock fan on my timeline last night bemoaned such a description being given to Alexei Eremenko.  A good player, sure, and one who has done more than a few spectacular things in the club's colours, but a legend?  Nae chance.

On the other hand, the tag probably does suit Richard Brittain, whose seven year love affair with the Black Isle came to an end with a short appearance as a substitute at Rugby Park.  For most of that period, he has been club captain, and he led out the side in the 2010 Scottish Cup final, and lifted the 2011-12 Scottish First Division trophy as well.  Whilst his on-field personality didn't necessarily endear him to opposing fans, he has a reputation as one of football's good guys, and he has publicly demonstrated his affection for Ross County and their fans on several occasions.

It's a marker of how much esteem Jim McIntyre is held in now that there was barely a murmur of complaint from the support at the decision to release him.  Brittain may look back with regret on his decision to play for several months at the start of the season with a hip injury, when the club were in dire straits, as he never got to demonstrate what he can do.  But he probably does lack the mobility to play in the high-energy, busy midfield that his manager wants - which is why the far less gifted Martin Woods is seen as a better option.

What next for him?  He's thirty-two in September, but there's no reason to believe that his excellent footballing brain, or his delicious right foot, cannot do a job for a little longer if he is back to full fitness.  He'd certainly be a fine signing for any Championship club.  And it wouldn't be all that surprising to see him back in Dingwall next season, playing for an opponent - perhaps even Kilmarnock? LS

Could Archibald's good work be undone this summer?
This match was a bit of a damp squib; Motherwell passed up the chance to build up some morale and momentum ahead of the Rangers double-header, instead choosing to rest several players.  Partick, in contrast, were already thinking of next term, choosing to blood a few youths and give some fringe players a game.

Alan Archibald, after a few hiccups around the winter-time, can feel pleased with the job he's done at Firhill this season; they have taken another wee step forward this year, even if they still seem a bit away from the top six.  Ideally, 2015-16 will be a campaign where the threat of relegation never rears it's ugly head.

Unfortunately, that may not be so straightforward.  The manager admitted at the end of the game that he's not confident that Scott Fox, Conrad Balatoni or Kallum Higginbotham will sign on for another campaign.  Given that Stephen O'Donnell's departure seems inevitable, that's a lot of holes to fill - goalkeeper, right-back, centre-back and attacking midfield.  It's unclear if striker Lyle Taylor will stay at the club after his loan deal expires.  The manager will surely have irons in the fire, but it may be hard enough for Partick Thistle to tread water, let alone move up a level. LS

Best. 5-0 defeat. Ever.
With a cup final next weekend, it's fair to say that Caley Thistle fans - and probably the players - didn't give a toss about this game.  I wasn't surprised (in fact I was delighted) that Graeme Shinnie, Josh Meekings, David Raven, Ross Draper, Greg Tansey, Marley Watkins and Eddie Ofere saw absolutely zero action; in fact, John Hughes was so keen to avoid injuries that he even subbed goalkeeper Ryan Esson midway through the second half.

After seeing a teamsheet which included Lewis Horner, Liam Polworth and Tarmo Kink - each making their first league start of the season - I'd have taken a 5-0 pounding, especially given that, after Celtic raced into a two goal lead, I worried it could end up a cricket score.

So, everyone was happy in the end; Celtic got an impressive, emphatic win to ignite their title party, as well as some measure of revenge for the cup semi-final, while ICT have no new injuries ahead of their trip to Hampden. LS

We may not see St. Mirren in the Premiership again for a while
The appointment of Ian Murray this week as St. Mirren's manager looks pretty astute.  Murray has done a wonderful job for the last two and a half years at Dumbarton, so he knows what the Scottish Championship is all about and at just thirty-four years old he seems to be a man with a bright future.

But it's going to be hard for him, because St. Mirren are going to require a lot of rebuilding, even if they hold onto their talented teenagers John McGinn and Stevie Mallan.  Even now, there are only 11 players over the age of twenty-one at the club - and that includes outgoing player-boss Gary Teale and loanee James Dayton, as well as the ancient Steven Thompson who must be seriously considering retirement.

Teale himself seems to have had one eye on the future with recent team selections, giving the likes of Jack Baird and Lewis Morgan the chance to impress as well.  These lads have done enough to suggest that Murray can rely on them next season.  But he's going to have to bring in a lot of new faces if his squad is to have a shout at a quick return to the top flight.  And with the board still desperate to sell the club, he may not get the financial backing that he probably needs. 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.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Why does Strachan distrust SPFL players?

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Gordon Strachan's Scotland tenure has been largely a success...but with few players from the domestic league
Earlier this week, Gordon Strachan named his Scotland squad for the Qatar and Republic of Ireland games this June.  While I share most right-thinking supporters’ outrage at the Scottish FA’s decision to arrange an international friendly game with Qatar in the first place, I shall for the moment set aside any underlying concerns over human rights issues and abuse of workers, and instead advocate for the poor Scots currently plying their trade as professional footballers in this country to be given the chance to represent their national team. (Never let it be said that this writer does not have his priorities in order…)

Only seven of the twenty-six players called up play in Scotland. Much was made in the media of Dundee goalkeeper Scott Bain getting his first call-up to the Scotland squad, and it is a call-up that is fully deserved based on the performances I have seen from him this season (admittedly, these have predominantly been performances that have been frustrating Aberdeen all season, but great performances nonetheless…).  However, it’s questionable whether he will actually get to participate in either of the forthcoming matches.

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Dundee's Scott Bain was called up for the first time...but will be third string keeper
Strachan has called up other goalies from our domestic league – see Partick Thistle’s Scott Fox and Kilmarnock’s Craig Samson - who remain on the same number of international caps as I do.  Hell, even Jamie Langfield has been called up in the past, so it can hardly be that privileged a position.  Regular Scotland squad bridesmaid Mark Reynolds was the only other uncapped player in the squad, with Celtic regulars Craig Gordon, Charlie Mulgrew, Scott Brown, James Forrest and Leigh Griffiths making up the SPFL contingent.  But what about ICT’s Graeme Shinnie?  Aberdeen’s Ryan Jack?  Celtic’s (and, erstwhile, Dundee United’s) Gary Mackay-Steven and Stuart Armstrong?

In the nineteen Scotland internationals that have been played since the beginning of 2013, Strachan has awarded just thirty-eight caps to player who were, at that time, plying their trade in Scotland.  By far the majority of those (twenty-six) have been awarded to just two players – Scotland skipper Brown (fourteen) and Mulgrew (twelve).  Another three Celtic players have been capped by Strachan so far - Forrest and Gordon, who have two caps apiece; and Kris Commons, who came off the bench for the last 15 minutes of Strachan’s first game in charge at Pittodrie against Estonia before retiring from international football.

Outwith Celtic, only 7 (SEVEN!) Scotland caps have been awarded to players at Scottish clubs in those nineteen games, a shockingly low number. As you may have noticed, I have so far been avoiding saying ‘SPFL Premiership’ – is that because Lee Wallace is one of the seven, you ask?  Worse - he’s two of the seven; two substitute appearances while he was playing for Rangers in the Scottish third tier.  How depressing.  

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Strachan was happy to call up Lee Wallace when he was plying his trade in Scotland's fourth tier
Andrew Robertson made a couple of substitute appearances as a Dundee United player, though he didn’t make his first start until after joining Hull City; Andy Webster managed a full 90 minutes at the Estonia match at Pittodrie while a Hearts player and was never selected again; Leigh Griffiths started one match for Scotland while on loan to Hibs from Wolves, making it to 64 minutes before being hooked; and Gary Mackay-Steven, when he was still at Dundee United, came on for his only Scotland appearance to date at the 84 minute mark.

To put the above into context, the number of caps Gordon Strachan has given to SPFL players is less than the number of caps he’s given to players at English Championship side Brighton & Hove Albion – indeed, as many caps as former Kilmarnock defender and current Seagulls skipper Gordon Greer has managed to obtain all by himself.  When explaining to the media why Greer came in for the injured Grant Hanley to make his first competitive start in the 2-2 draw in Poland, Strachan's assistant Mark McGhee explained “I see Gordon a lot as I live in Brighton and I see a bit of Brighton and they defend with composure. We knew we’d require that when we played in Poland.”  Some Dons fans were delighted to learn that the club are playing Brighton for Jamie Langfield's testimonial - it might get the Scotland coaches to watch an Aberdeen game for a change.  Sadly, that would only be likely if the match was going to be played at Falmer Stadium rather than Pittodrie.

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Is it right that Brighton veteran Gordon Greer is considered a better option than Aberdeen's Mark Reynolds?
On that particular night, manager Gordon Strachan had Greer, Christophe Berra of Ipswich and Aberdeen’s Mark Reynolds as possible replacements.  So far was Reynolds from the Scotland manager’s reckoning that, in spite of Hanley having to be withdrawn from the Scotland squad the day before the game, he couldn’t even find a place on the bloated twelve-man bench.  During the last set of international fixtures, and in spite of Strachan promising that all squad members would get a run out in one of the two matches, Reynolds still sat on the bench for the entire friendly match against Northern Ireland, and in the stand against Gibraltar.

It wouldn’t have been hard for the Scotland management to notice how Reynolds was playing had anyone cared to check on his performances.  Indeed, prior to getting a rest last weekend, he’d played in every minute of every league game for Aberdeen over the last two seasons. Indeed, if you watch Aberdeen then you literally can’t miss him. On the other hand, if McGhee can watch Brighton he can then get home for his tea.

Let’s be honest, Gordon Strachan has done a good job as the manager of the Scottish national football team to date, and it’s hard to argue with his results. But there are a lot of people who obviously don’t rate the SPFL – not least those who are supposedly responsible for organising the game in Scotland and promoting it to the wider world – and are happy to denigrate Scottish football, implying that the standard of football is not good enough. Yet, it hasn’t seemed to deter the national team coaches of Belgium (Jason Denayer), the Netherlands (Virgil van Dyk), England (Fraser Forster), Slovakia (Filip Kiss), Wales (Kyle Letheren and Adam Matthews), Greece (Georgios Samaras) and Ghana (Wakaso Mubarak) from calling up players from the SPFL; these nations are currently ranked ahead of us by FIFA.  Even our imminent World Cup qualifying opponents, the Republic of Ireland, have called up the SPFL Premiership’s top goal scorer in Adam Rooney.

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Before his international debut, Matt Ritchie had never even been to Scotland
I would argue that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the standard of Scottish football that should deter the national manager from selecting players from its ranks when they are patently good enough to do so.  Furthermore, it is important to foster the link between the Scotland national team and its supporters, many of whom live in Scotland and support Scottish football teams.  While I bear no particular ill will to Scotland’s most recent debutant, Bournemouth’s Matt Ritchie - or indeed to Strachan for seeking to improve the resources he has at his disposal – it can feel disenfranchising to hear a player who has been selected to play for the national team admit that he thinks of himself as English rather than Scottish, or that he hadn’t visited Scotland until the day he arrived for his international debut.

Maybe none of the above matters.  If Gordon Strachan gets us to our first major competition in 20 years and never plays another SPFL player in the process, he’ll still get the full backing of the SFA and the undying admiration and appreciation of a Tartan Army that has been starved of tangible achievements for almost a generation.  But it wouldn’t hurt to play Mark Reynolds just once, would it?

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.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Comparing Scottish Premiership clubs wages - 2013/14

Those nice chaps at Sporting Intelligence have published their annual Global Sports Salary Survey.  For reasons that are beyond me, they continue to assess Scottish Premiership clubs (even if they do still refer to it as the SPL) and put them in the same list with the behemoths that populate the English Premier League, La Liga, the Bundesliga...all the biggest, best and richest sides in the world, really.  So whilst at the top of the list you have the likes of Paris St. Germain, Real Madrid and Manchester City, at the bottom (literally) are Inverness Caley Thistle, Partick Thistle and Ross County.

Hey, I'm not complaining.

Plenty of readers disputed last year's findings; sarcastic comments can be found on several Dundee United forums, for a start, and there were even accusations that I'd falsified the whole thing!  All I can say is that I'm reporting on findings by another organization, who specialize in looking at this sort of stuff.  I imagine they are a good ballpark figure.  They're certainly believable.

Remember, these are for the 2013/14 season, which is why Hibs and Hearts are mentioned but Dundee and Hamilton aren't.  And it's for the top flight only, which is why there's no acknowledgement of the existence of Rangers.

So here is the crappy little table showing the new figures, in comparison to previous years.

Average first team player weekly wage (£)
2013/14 2012/13 2011/12 2010/11
Celtic 17345 22103 21253 20457
Aberdeen 2706 3033 2906 3002
Hibernian 1965 2565 2804 3322
Dundee United 1760 2125 2503 2513
St. Mirren 1508 1520 2007 2046
Kilmarnock 1442 1897 2274 2404
St. Johnstone 1308 1533 1920 1960
Motherwell 1301 1523 2296 2319
Hearts 1231 3206 5305 6310
Inverness CT 1032 1023 954 1122
Partick 875
Ross County 692 748

Here are some musings...

Celtic still out-resource everyone in Scotland by a country mile
For the second season running, Celtic's wage bill is greater than the sum of all eleven other teams put together.  But their average first team player wage dropped by more than 20%.  As with the previous year, they lag behind every English top flight club.  They also pay less than most Bundesliga clubs, but more than most Ligue 1 and Serie A sides.

Aberdeen are spending more on wages than the chasing pack
I wouldn't be surprised if the Dons' average wage was higher in 2014/15, given they've got their house in order.  Even last season they were paying far more than Dundee United.

The contrast between Hibs and Hearts
According to this, Hibernian had the third highest wage bill in the Premiership last season...a season which ended with their relegation.  Dear oh dear.  Their Edinburgh rivals cut their wage bill by nearly two-thirds after going into administration

Motherwell punched well above their weight
The surprise is not that Motherwell slid down the table this season, but that it took so long to happen.  Finishing second with the eighth highest wage bill last season is a hell of a feat.  The further cuts put in place in summer 2014 took their toll.

St. Mirren players haven't been giving value for money
The Buddies' average wage held just about steady, which put them up to fifth in the list from ninth in 2012/13; that might be skewed by the fact they have a relatively small squad (so the total wage bill may not be that high).  But the figures are further evidence for their fans that the club have been underachieving for a long time now.

And what about Rangers?
Oh, if we must...their wage bill didn't fall by much in 2013/14, and was still well ahead of Aberdeen's.  A figure of around £4000-5000 as an average first team wage doesn't seem unrealistic.

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, May 18, 2015

Talking points from the Premiership

"So, what does my forehead smell like?" Having Mark Connolly's head attached to his shoulder probably didn't help Josh Magennis' mood

Kilmarnock fight for the right
I bet the photographer who perfectly caught Josh Magennis' headbutt on team-mate Jamie Hamill made a nice little earner this weekend.  Violent conduct is a sending-off offence, even when it's your own team-mate...and even if Jamie Hamill is the victim, though I imagine a lot of people have been tempted to stick the nut on Hamill over the years.  To my surprise, the highlights capture the incident perfectly...and, damningly, they also show that referee John Beaton was pretty much looking directly at the fracas.  He couldn't have missed it unless he was having some sort of absence seizure.

It was a complete dereliction of duty from the official, and it's reasonable to assume that, given Killie were only one up at the time, the match would have taken a rather different turn had Magennis got his marching orders.  The Ulsterman went on to score Killie's fourth goal, and gave Hamill a big sloppy kiss afterwards - this is possibly a bigger crime than the headbutt.  Gary Locke subsequently claimed that he wasn't in the slightest bit bothered by the altercation between two of his players.  At least it showed that Kilmarnock had some fight in them when it mattered most.

So Killie stay up for another season, but there's no question that they will have to buck up their ideas to avoid being relegation candidates next season.  This squad is simply not good enough, and has too much dead wood in it.  But the problem of how to prepare for next season's Premiership is one that Gary Locke would much rather have, compared to the prospect of getting his team ready for a clash with Hibs or Rangers. LS

McManus assault was a disgrace
The compliance officer will have a busy week, if he still exists; he's been very quiet since the Josh Meekings fiasco, though that might have been because of the time taken to count every single one of Steven Lawless' football bets over the last two years.  Aside from Magennis, he should take an interest in footage from St. Mirren Park, where it was surprising to discover the referee was not Willie Collum but Brian Colvin.  Motherwell's penalty was at best iffy, with Lee Erwin's fall looking gloriously fake, but it was nothing compared to the red card that was dished out to Scott McDonald late on, or the red card that inexplicably wasn't issued to Stephen McManus.

McDonald's dismissal will be appealed, and I imagine he'll get off - his 'victim', Thomas Reilly, defended him in the papers today (though Paul Paton got banned earlier this season even when Jonny Hayes told the world he hadn't been spat on).  Quite right too; McDonald does have his arm up, but Reilly walks into it.  It's never violent conduct.  There was a suggestion on Sportsound that the decision was made by fourth official Andrew Dallas, though Chic Young bizarrely insisted (against all the TV evidence now available) that Colvin had the card out so quickly that it couldn't possibly be the case.  Dallas, possibly because of the family name, is being fast-tracked through the system - too quickly for some; his last match resulted in heavy criticism from the managers of both St. Johnstone and Inverness.

McManus' smash into Alan Gow, on the other hand, would be called 'Unnecessary Roughness' if it happened on an American Football field.  There's clearly no attempt to pull out of the challenge, or even to avoid impacting the opponent's skull.  It was nasty, it was brutal, and even worse was the assailant's casual trot away from the incident without even checking as to whether Gow's head was still attached to his body (thankfully, he was discharged from hospital on Sunday after a diagnosis of concussion).  A precedent set by Livingston's Jason Talbot earlier this season allows the compliance officer to cite McManus even though he was booked at the time.  I would be deeply offended if it is not used.

Results elsewhere would have effectively condemned Motherwell to eleventh even if they had won this match.  The table doesn't lie, and they deserve to be there.  I couldn't begin to guess how they might fare against Rangers or Hibs.  Their attack badly needs McDonald, but their defence is already terrible enough with McManus; without him, I just can't see them staying up. LS

Could McIntyre and McGregor be County's perfect combination?
Maybe there’s something in the Highland water?  Last year Inverness appointed a manager who wasn’t the obvious choice and whose past record didn’t exactly get the pulse racing; now, John Hughes is Manager of the Year.

In September, things looked grim across the Kessock Bridge. An attempt to improve the squad  with foreign imports had failed and the man management style of Derek Adams had left morale at rock bottom.  Relegation looked a distinct possibility.  So County chairman Roy MacGregor bit the bullet and replaced Adams with Jim McIntyre from Queen of the South.  Initially there appeared to be little improvement. But McIntyre was allowed to bring in multiple new signings in January and given the chance to mould the kind of squad he felt he required to avoid relegation, and the results were very impressive indeed.  A run of 9 games without defeat effectively pulled them clear of St Mirren and Motherwell, and Premiership  status was secured on Saturday with victory  over  Hamilton.

It’s not easy to turn around a team for a manager coming in mid season, so all credit to McIntyre  for the work he has done.  But it would have been impossible had he not also received the backing of a board that could easily have told their new manager, “We’ve already spent a lot of money on this squad, it’s your job to get them playing.”

It will be interesting to see if they can carry their late season form into next term and avoid another scrap at the bottom, but there's hope that just like their neighbours south of the Moray Firth,  they have found a manager who fits nicely with their club. IM

Don Don, Heeds and Reebs
It's been quite a while since Aberdeen have participated in a game that received the lowest billing on Sunday night's 'Sportscene'.  But I would concede that it was justified, given the match involved two sides already locked into their final league positions and with little more to play for than pride.  Over the piece, a score draw was probably an acceptable result all around, with both Dundee and Aberdeen managing to end their respective run of defeats.  

Luka Tankulic opened the scoring for Dundee against the run of play at Dens Park.  A discombobulated Don Daniels managed to lose track of a speculative punt into the box and Jim McAlister took advantage to nod the ball into the path of Tankulic, who coolly chipped past the keeper to score.  Don Don will now be heading back to West Bromwich Albion following the end of his loan spell, although when he departed Dens Park late in the second half it probably provided as much interest to the Dees, who got to see Nicky Low for the first time since being signed by Paul Hartley for next season.

As for Aberdeen, they left it late to equalise; so late that even goalkeeper Scott Brown came forward for the injury time corner.  (incidentally, the corner was conceded following a cross from 17 year old Francis Ross, who came off the bench to make his debut for the Dons.)  From Barry Robson's corner, Ash Taylor powered a header off the post and Rooney bundled the ball over the line from the resulting reeb.  (Is 'heeds 'n' reebs' still a thing? I hope so...)  Scott Brown may have got the assist, but even if he didn't get a touch of the ball I'd like to think that the overall distraction provided by his gamboling around the six-yard box still contributed to some confusion in the Dundee defence. 

Andy Considine was later quoted saying the late fightback exemplified Aberdeen's "winning mentality", which reads a bit weird considering they only drew the match, but I ken fit he meant.  It was still impressive to see how much a last minute equaliser, in what was otherwise an essentially meaningless end of season league fixture, still meant to the players - and it was certainly well received by the travelling Dons support. MI

Why are St. Johnstone fourth? Here's your answer
Best goalless draw ever.  There were twenty-eight efforts on goal; due to a combination of good goalkeeping, an invisible forcefield around both goals, Michael O'Halloran's inability to head the ball (I wasted an hour trying unsuccessfully to make a GIF showing the moment in the first half when, six yards out with a free header, the ball hits him on the nose and goes off in the complete opposite direction from where he intended) and that James Forrest miss, which is even funnier if you concentrate on the reactions of the Celtic fans behind that goal.

Anyone begrudging St. Johnstone their late run at a Europa League spot was shut up by an exceptional performance by the home side, who showed remarkable energy for so late in the season and who took advantage of the incohesion caused by so many changes to the Celtic side.  If Ronny Deila learned a lesson from this, it is that he needs Nir Biton to anchor midfield so Scott Brown can maraud.  With the former absent and the latter sat deep all evening, the terrific duo of Chris Millar and Murray Davidson actually had the better of it in the middle of the park.  That might have been Davidson's best performance for two years, and he was unlucky to hit the post right at the death.

The Perth Saints still have their weaknesses - they've never quite replaced Stevie May's goals, and Tam Scobbie is not a long-term answer at centre-back - but as ever they are a terrific unit.  Good enough to deserve fourth place?  As someone who watched Dundee United play this weekend, I'd say a definite 'yes' to that one. 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.