Friday, July 31, 2015

2015/16 Premiership preview - Hamilton Accies

Hamilton Academical FC logo.svg

LAST SEASON: 7th, 53pts

NOTABLE INS: Antons Kurakins (Ventspils), Gramosz Kurtaj (Banik Most), Alan Martin (Clyde), Christian Nade (Raith Rovers), Chris Turner (Dumbarton), Carlton Morris (Norwich City, loan)

NOTABLE OUTS: Blair Currie (Annan Athletic), Nigel Hasselbaink (Excelsior), Stephen Hendrie (West Ham United, £1m), Liam Lynch (Limerick), Jon Routledge (Dumbarton), Nico Sumsky (Airdrieonians, loan), Jason Scotland

LAST SEASON'S BEST XI (departed players crossed out): McGovern, Gordon, Devlin, Garcia Tena, Hendrie, Gillespie, Imrie, McKinnon, Andreu, Crawford, Antoine-Curier

Last season, everyone who predicted that Accies would go down (which was pretty much everyone) was left to consume varying types of headgear, as they instead shot to the top end of the table.  It was that great start that kept them up; the January departures of player-boss Alex Neil and top scorers Tony Andreu and Mickael Antoine-Curier coincided with a slide so great that it cost them a top six position and raised legitimate concerns over Martin Canning's suitability to replace Neil.

After the split, there were some green shoots of recovery evident though, which gave the impression that the new manager was beginning to reach the peak of the steep learning curve.

Then he only went and signed Christian Nade!

Canning's transfer dealings thus far have been very risky.  In an era where clubs have succeeded either by finding young gems in the youth academy or lower league teams (Hamilton themselves would be a good example) or by picking up decent English players on the cheap, he has instead brought in a number of foreign players.  That's not to say they won't be any good - left-back Antons Kurakins is a Latvian international and should adequately replace the departed Stephen Hendrie - but many an unknown foreign player has come to Scotland and only a few have made the impact that Tony Andreu have.  Many more have ended up on the scrapheap.  It'll be interesting to see which category German midfielder Gramosz Kurtaj (signed from the Czech second division) and Spanish striker Salva Chamorro (from the Spanish third division) fall into.

Nade, of course, has been around the block - albeit very slowly and having stopped halfway round to lean on a wall for a wee breather.  The giant forward did okay last year...for Raith Rovers.  Hardly a standout in our second tier, it would be foolish to expect him to be anything other than an option off the bench - he could certainly come on to either rough up defenders, or to eat them.  In fact, the most intriguing of the newcomers is powerful striker Carlton Morris, sent up on loan by Alex Neil.  He may not be the last young Canary to come to New Douglas Park, and may be their best hope for goals.  Whoever does play up top will have plenty of support, for the Accies philosophy is to get the ball forward quickly and to be unafraid of getting the likes of Ali Crawford and Dougie Imrie into dangerous areas.

It makes for open matches, and when it goes wrong it can leave the back line horrendously exposed.  Crawford is a livewire in the final third, but his tendency to neglect his defensive duties was exploited many a time.  Holding midfielder Grant Gillespie deserves sympathy for being constantly unprotected, and for having to constantly worry that Darian McKinnon will pick a fight with an opponent, or a teammate, or possibly himself.

At the other end of the pitch, Hamilton need to be tighter than they were last season.  A fully-fit Ziggy Gordon at right-back will help, but the centre of the defence was a real point of weakness; Canning will surely concentrate on coaching duties, and with Mikey Devlin recovering from injury it looks like Lurch-a-like Lucas and Jesus Garcia Tena - comfortable in possession but woeful positionally - will start the season as first choices.  That will have opposing forwards licking their lips.  Michael McGovern was excellent in goal last season, but then he got plenty of practice.

I worry that Accies are not as strong as they were this time last year, and that they haven't got as capable a leader.  Yup, I got egg on my face last year by tipping them for the drop, but I'm risking it again this year.  Even a stopped clock is correct sometimes, right?

THE SQUAD (players born after 1 January 1994 in italics)
Goalkeepers: Darren Hill, Alan Martin, Michael McGovern
Defenders: Martin Canning, Michael Devlin, Jesus Garcia Tena, Ziggy Gordon, Antons Kurakins, Lucas, Kieran MacDonald, Scott McMann, Craig Watson
Midfielders: Ali Crawford, Greg Docherty, Grant Gillespie, Dougie Imrie, Gramoz Kurtaj, Louis Longridge, Darren Lyon, Darian McKinnon, Daniel Redmond
Forwards: Steven Boyd, Eamonn Brophy, Salva Chamorro, Carlton Morris, Christian Nade, Andy Ryan


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.

2015/16 Premiership preview - Dundee United

Dundee United FC logo.svg

LAST SEASON: 5th, 56pts

NOTABLE INS: Mark Durnan (Queen of the South, £40k), Darko Bodul (Rheindorf Altach), Coll Donaldson (Queens Park Rangers), Rodney Sneijder (Almere City)

NOTABLE OUTS: Nadir Ciftci (Celtic, £1.2m), Calum Butcher (Burton Albion), Radoslaw Cierzniak (Wisla Krakow), Jaroslaw Fojut (Pogon Szczesin), Michael Gardyne (Ross County, loan made permanent), Brian Graham (Ross County), Kudus Oyenuga (Hartlepool United), Darren Petrie (Raith Rovers), Keith Watson

LAST SEASON'S BEST XI (departed players crossed out): Cierzniak, McGowan, Fojut, Morris, Dixon, Paton, Rankin, Erskine, ArmstrongMackay-StevenCiftci

Rewind about fourteen months.  Andrew Robertson.  Ryan Gauld.  Stuart Armstrong.  Gary Mackay-Steven.  Nadir Ciftci.

Granted, Dundee United hardly traded them all in for some magic beans, but, as the old proverb goes, money doesn't make you happy - if you're an Arab, anyway.

The second half of 2014/15 was as much of a disaster as the first half was a success; eleven points from your last fifteen games is relegation form.  Whatever the rights and wrongs of it, the story that Jackie McNamara got a cut of every sale stuck in the craw of the support and has left United under pressure both on and off the pitch...especially as there is precious little sign of the £9million-plus made from the five players above going back into the first team.

They did sign one big name this summer...but unfortunately the surname (Sneijder) is bigger than the first name (Rodney).  If the Dutch schemer is half as good as his older brother, then they'll be laughing.  However, his pedigree as an Ajax graduate is not matched by his recent playing history - without a club since February, he spent the year before that playing intermittently in the Dutch second division.  McNamara is said to rate him highly, but he's far from a sure thing.

In fact, when one looks at the squad now, one doesn't see a whole lot of proven quality.  Potential, yes; John Souttar was great - nay, magnificent - in midfield in the spring, but looks lightweight and uncertain in defence; Charlie Telfer, Blair Spittal and Aiden Connolly have shown flashes of brilliance, but they have been too few to justify relying on them week-in, week-out; Robbie Muirhead has popped up with a few goals here and there; there are high hopes for new defenders Coll Donaldson and Mark Durnan.

But (and I'm aware I'm dangerously close to Alan Hansen territory here) will United be able to rely on these youngsters week-in, week-out?  As for the older heads, perhaps the likes of full-backs Paul Dixon and Ryan McGowan, midfielders Paul Paton and John Rankin, and forward Henri Anier can start performing like they did a year or two back.  Or, just as likely, they will pick up where they left off.

One feature of Jackie Mac's tenure has been that, despite his own background as a player, he struggles to organize a defence.  Even at the best of times, they had to be bailed out by the forwards.  But even before Ciftci left for Celtic they looked far weaker in attack.  Muirhead is still young, Mario Bilate was only half-decent before he got repeatedly hamstrung, and Anier has so far been a shadow of the busy player that previously impressed at Motherwell.  A new striker - one far, far better than what they've got - is needed.  Will Darko Bodul, brought in from Austria, be that man?  The Arabs had better hope so.

It remains to be seen whether Durnan, a 22 year old who has never played above Championship level, and ex-Livingston trainee Donaldson, 20, are ready to dramatically improve a backline so poor that they were actually weakened by losing Radoslaw Ciernziak and Jaroslaw Fojut.  The situation in goal is particularly perplexing, with three young, inexperienced players competing for the jersey.  If none of Luis Zwick, Marc McCallum or Gregor Szromnik are up to the task (a real possibility), questions must be asked of why an experienced keeper hasn't been drafted in instead.  A young keeper, plus two young central defenders, may equal a few hairy moments...though it would be hard to outdo some of the last year's Keystone Cops defending.

Predicting how well United will do this season is difficult, because it depends very much on the progress that the kids make.  If being a year older and a year wiser is enough to take them to the next level, then the results could be spectacular.  But that might not be the case, especially if they start the season poorly and confidence evaporates as it did earlier this year.  In that case, it might be a right slog, and McNamara may not be around to see much of it.

I'm fully prepared to eat humble pie in a few months if United are riding high.  But I'm going to go with my instinct here and make two controversial predictions: that they will finish below Dundee, and that they won't even make the top six.  Tin hat at the ready...

THE SQUAD (players born after 1 January 1994 in italics)
Goalkeepers: Marc McCallum, Michal Szromnik, Luis Zwick
Defenders: Sean Dillon, Paul Dixon, Coll Donaldson, Mark Durnan, Ryan McGowan, Callum Morris, John Souttar, Euan Spark
Midfielders: Aiden Connolly, Ali Coote, Chris Erskine, Scott Fraser, Justin Johnson, Paul Paton, John Rankin, Scott Smith, Rodney Sneijder, Blair Spittal, Charlie Telfer
Forwards: Ola Adeyemo, Henri Anier, Mario Bilate, Darko Bodul, Ryan Dow, Robbie Muirhead, Simon Murray


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.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

2015/16 Premiership preview - Partick Thistle

Partick Thistle FC logo.svg

LAST SEASON: 8th, 46pts

NOTABLE INS: David Amoo (Carlisle United), Callum Booth (Hibernian, loan made permanent), Tomas Cerny (Hibernian), Gary Miller (St. Johnstone)

NOTABLE OUTS: James Craigen (Raith Rovers), Scott Fox (Ross County), Kallum Higginbotham (Kilmarnock), Dale Keenan (Stranraer), Ben Richards-Everton (Dunfermline Athletic), Stephen O'Donnell (Luton Town), Lyle Taylor (Scunthorpe United, end of loan), Conrad Balatoni, Jonathan Black, Ryan Finnie

LAST SEASON'S BEST XI (departed players crossed out): Fox, O'Donnell, Frans, Balatoni, Booth, Osman, Bannigan, Higginbotham, Stevenson, Lawless, Taylor

Remarkably, Partick Thistle failed to win back-to-back league games in the whole of the 2013/14 season, and for most of 2014/15.  That's not because they were hopeless, but because they were hopeless at the worst possible times.  Last season they thumped Caley Thistle in Inverness and gubbed Accies and Ross County at home, but contrived to lose twice to St. Mirren.

The only thing consistent about them was their inconsistency. which meant that even as late as the spring they still weren't entirely safe from relegation despite being vastly superior to the sides below them.  And then something clicked; they won six out of nine games (including three against top six opposition), played some damn good football, and finished eighth in the league but with the fourth best goal difference in the league.

Alan Archibald must have thought he'd finally cracked it; now he could concentrate on looking up the table rather than down it.  And then he lost nearly half of his best eleven.

So it's cheerio to goalkeeper Scott Fox, right-back Stephen O'Donnell, central defender Conrad Balatoni, attacking midfielder Kallum Higginbotham and striker Lyle Taylor.  Gallingly, Fox and Higginbotham have signed for bottom six rivals.  The former made a big song and dance about needing to play at a higher level to improve his chances of a future Scotland callup...and then signed for Ross County.  Meanwhile, Higginbotham signed for Kilmarnock only a few months after criticizing their artificial pitch and proudly announcing that there was no way he would ever join a club who played on such a surface.  I wonder what changed his mind?

Taylor may be back for a third loan spell later in the year if/when his latest club, AFC Wimbledon, give up on him.  Whilst Kris Doolan is a clever little forward who works hard and is good for a few goals, Taylor's power, strength and aerial ability make the Jags a far different proposition.  And whilst Archibald would love his team to play tiki-taka, the quality of playing surfaces (including their own) ultimately requires them to be more direct.  Without the big Montserrat international, they are simply not as dangerous.  As it stands, the only way they will scare opposing defences on a regular basis is if they play Kingsley, the infamous new mascot, up front.

The loss of O'Donnell and Balatoni will probably hurt them most.  Balatoni had just come off the best season of his career, and has chosen to try his luck in England.  O'Donnell is hugely underrated; on his day he was one of the best right-backs in the league and was a menace whenever allowed to overlap on the flank.  In Gary Miller, Archibald has signed a direct replacement of very similar style but who just isn't quite as talented.  Frederic Frans and Danny Seaborne might be a good enough duo to compensate for Balatoni's departure, but there's very little cover beyond raw youngsters.

With Fox having left, the goalkeeper position is also in a state of flux.  Whilst he was never as good as that one international callup suggested, the alternatives are not reassuring.  Tomas Cerny has spent the last 6 months on Hibs' bench and Paul Gallacher is probably at a point where he should be concentrating more on coaching, so it'll be interesting to see if Academy product Ryan Scully, fresh from two seasons on loan at Dunfermline, gets given his chance.

On the bright(ish) side, Callum Booth has been signed permanently after proving himself to be the only competent left-back at the club last season (they must have used about half a dozen players in that position) - but he's a player who couldn't break into the Hibs team in the last few years.

Even without Higginbotham they do still have talent in midfield.  Stuart Bannigan and Gary Fraser are still relatively young, but neither excelled last season.  Bannigan has enough experience now that Partick are entitled to look for him to take responsibility in the middle of the pitch.  Importantly, they kept hold of the titanic Abdul Osman, who didn't lose a physical battle all season.  Steven Lawless should provide plenty of flair as long as he keeps out of the bookies'.  Given the relative paucity of signings so far, they will need ex-Liverpool trainee David Amoo to hit the ground running.

Are things really as grim as I make it sound?  Well, almost any team in this league suffers badly when they lose two or three first choice players.  Partick have lost five, and it's not absolutely clear that they've been replaced.  Rather than aiming for mid-table, the priority once again has to be to avoid the drop.  And unless reinforcements are on the way, my prediction might prove over-generous.

THE SQUAD (players born after 1 January 1994 in italics)
Goalkeepers: Tomas Cerny, Paul Gallacher, Ryan Scully
Defenders: Callum Booth, Frederic Frans, Jack Hendry, Liam Lindsay, Gary Miller, Danny Seaborne
Midfielders: Stuart Bannigan, Gary Fraser, Steven Lawless, Declan McDaid, Abdul Osman, Ryan Stevenson, Sean Welsh, David Wilson
Forwards: David Amoo, Kris Doolan, Christie Elliott, Jordan Leyden, Neil McLaughlin


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.

2015/16 Premiership preview - St. Johnstone

StJohnstoneFC crest new.png

LAST SEASON: 4th, 57pts

NOTABLE INS: Liam Craig (Hibernian), Graham Cummins (Exeter City), Liam Gordon (Heart of Midlothian), Brad McKay (Heart of Midlothian), Joe Shaughnessy (Aberdeen), John Sutton (Motherwell)

NOTABLE OUTS:  Lee Croft (Oldham Athletic), Gary Miller (Partick Thistle), Liam Gordon (Elgin City, loan), George Hunter (Elgin City, loan), Brian Graham (Dundee United, end of loan), Danny Swanson (Coventry City, end of loan), Steve Banks (retired), James McFadden

LAST SEASON'S BEST XI (departed players crossed out): Mannus, Mackay, Anderson, Wright, Easton, Wotherspoon, Davidson, Millar, SwansonGraham, O'Halloran

St. Johnstone's latest European run was depressingly short, but a fourth consecutive qualification for the Europa League was an astounding achievement and one that seemed to largely fly under the radar of the Scottish football community.

There are a few reasons for that.  One, of course, is that they are not Rangers or Celtic and therefore the media often forget they exist.  Another is that they are such a well-run club that there are never any scandals or fan revolts to report on (at least since Steve Lomas I allowed to say that?).  And on the pitch they don't have anyone who especially stands out now that Stevie May is long gone.

They are also, to be honest, not very exciting to watch.  34 scored, 34 conceded; only Celtic and Aberdeen conceded fewer goals last season in the league, but only St. Mirren scored fewer.  The number of goals in all their league matches was the fewest in Scotland last season.

The risk with writing about St. Johnstone is that they end up unintentionally damned with faint praise.  But they have for several years been an incredibly well drilled and well organized team who always seem to be greater than the sum of their parts.  A lot of credit must go to manager Tommy Wright for this.  The loss of May deprived the Perth Saints of a shedload of goals, so they reverted to what they do best, which is to defend and frustrate.  There's nothing wrong with that, unless of course it's your team that's being frustrated.

And they do it very well, not least because the back line have played together for a long time now.  Alan Mannus in goal, Dave Mackay at right-back, Steven Anderson and Frazer Wright in the centre, Brian Easton on the left, Tam Scobbie as cover for the centre and the left side; each of these players has more than 70 first team appearances for the club.

The risk is that age finally catches up with some of them.  Wright and Mackay are now 35.  The former's lack of pace now means that his manager is loathe to use him against opponents blessed with speed in attack.  And whilst the fans still sing of how they dream of 'a team of Dave Mackays', he surely can't get up and down that wing like he used to.

Midfielders Simon Lappin and Chris Millar, and strikers Steven Maclean and John Sutton, are also very much the wrong side of 30.  In footballing terms, it's not quite time for sheltered housing and incontinence pads, but maybe a pipe and a pair of slippers is justified?

The boss seems to have recognized this as he has brought in some younger legs at the back.  Joe Shaughnessy and Brad McKay will be ultimately expected to succeed Mackay and Wright, and St. Johnstone's hopes of remaining in the top six for the medium term may depend on them being able to do so.  After a bright start at Aberdeen, injuries have derailed Shaughnessy's development and he's played very little first team football in the last eighteen months.  McKay is still young for a centre-back, but he was never quite able to crack the Hearts lineup on a regular basis.  Add in doubts over whether Scobbie can be anything more than a decent backup and there is reason to worry that the foundations might be finally eroding.

The midfield unit finished last season really strongly, with Millar producing the greatest football of his career and Murray Davidson finally returning to something like his best.  It was just typical of the latter's luck that he injured his knee against Alashkert and will be out till the autumn.  With no signs of Danny Swanson extending his loan spell, they could be really short of creativity.  Maybe Liam Craig will play like he did in his previous spell in Perth, but it's quite possible that his two years at Easter Road have irreparably damaged him.  His claims that Hibs played him out of position sounded awfully like he doth protest too much.

And what about the goals?  Whilst they were disappointed that Brian Graham chose not to join them permanently, the arrival of John Sutton should offset that nicely.  The target man's game has never been about speed, so his advancing years are unlikely to hinder him much.  What he does need, though, is service.  Michael O'Halloran was a revelation last year and should continue to improve; his speed and power should complement Sutton nicely.

One wonders, however, if Steven Maclean's time has passed.  The clever veteran missed the first half of last season with a knee injury which now prevents him playing on artificial pitches, and he failed to score in his last 20 appearances.  The wild cards are Chris Kane, the nippy youngster who is highly thought of at McDiarmid Park, and Irishman Graham Cummins who has joined from Exeter.

So there are plenty of reasons why I could justify predicting St. Johnstone to drop down the table in 2015/16.  And yet one can't help feeling that they will be as solid and stuffy as ever, and yet another top six finish will be accompanied by ignorant mutterings of "how on earth did they manage that?"

THE SQUAD (players born after 1 January 1994 in italics)
Goalkeepers: Zander Clark, Alan Mannus
Defenders: Steven Anderson, Brian Easton, Dave Mackay, Brad McKay, Tam Scobbie, Joe Shaughnessy, Frazer Wright
Midfielders: Scott Brown, Liam Caddis, Liam Craig, Murray Davidson, Simon Lappin, Chris Millar, Craig Thomson, David Wotherspoon
Forwards: Graham Cummins, Dylan Easton, Chris Kane, Steven MacLean, Michael O'Halloran, John Sutton


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, July 29, 2015

2015/16 Premiership preview - Heart of Midlothian

Heart of Midlothian FC logo.svg

LAST SEASON: Promoted from the Championship

NOTABLE INS: Gavin Reilly (Queen of the South, £40k), Blazej Augustyn (Gornik Zabrze), Juanma (Kalloni), Igor Rossi (Maritimo)

NOTABLE OUTS: Dale Carrick (Kilmarnock), Liam Gordon (St. Johnstone), Jason Holt (Rangers), James Keatings (Hibernian), Brad McKay (St. Johnstone), Scott Robinson (Kilmarnock), Danny Wilson (Rangers), Liam Henderson (Stenhousemuir, loan), Genero Zeefuik (Groningen, end of loan), Adam Eckersley

LAST SEASON'S BEST XI (departed players crossed out): Alexander, Paterson, Wilson, Ozturk, Eckersley, Buaben, Gomis, King, Walker, Sow, Zeefuik

Welcome back, Hearts.  We've missed you.  No, really.  Tynecastle is a great away day, and the decent support the Jambos take around the country is very welcome indeed.

A season in the Championship doesn't seem to have done them any harm at all.  On the contrary, it's galvanised everyone associated with the club.  Off the pitch, everything is now in excellent order, with the wonderful Ann Budge overseeing operations.  On it, their group of excellent young players have picked up another season of experience which should serve them well back in the top flight.

How high can Hearts aim this season?  They have sold more season tickets than anyone else in the division except Celtic, but Aberdeen are still a fair bit stronger too.  There is, however, not very much between the other teams in the Premiership.  A top six finish is perfectly realistic; could they even finish as high as third?

That will depend on whether they are actually stronger or weaker than they were last year.  Some important players have actually left - captain Danny Wilson, left-back Adam Eckersley (surprisingly let go), the freescoring Gennero Zeefuik.  Pole Blazej Augustyn has plenty of experience and it will be hoped he can replace Wilson, and if they push through the signing of Juwon Oshaniwa, just a year after he represented Nigeria at the World Cup, they will probably be even better off on the left.  They've also acquired Brazilian Igor Rossi Branco, possibly just for his awesome name.  If he turns out to be half-decent, then that's a bonus.

With Neil Alexander still a reliable keeper at 37 and Callum Paterson (young enough to be Alexander's son) offering a strong, powerful presence at right-back, the defence should be in good long as new captain Alim Ozturk only steps out of defence when there is cover for him.  The cover should come from two of Morgaro Gomis, Prince Buaben and Miguel Pallardo, each of whom are very competent defensive midfielders.  It is worth remembering that the former two did not impress in their last spells in the top flight though.  Pallardo however may well be a standout this season with his comfort in possession.

They won't be too short of flair either.  Last time they were in the Premiership, Billy King and Sam Nicholson showed flashes but appeared a bit lightweight, while Jason Walker shone occasionally but was often totally uninvolved.  Each of them have improved dramatically since then, with King in particular a real star last season.  And surely they will keep getting better.  It's also worth keeping an eye out for teenager Sean McKirdy, who is very highly rated and might make a breakthrough this season.

Osman Sow may be deployed as a more physical presence out wide, but he should be capable of leading the line as long as he is fit.  Director of Football Craig Levein has hedged his bets by bringing in two more forwards, though.  I can't say I know much about Spaniard Juanma, who had been playing in Greece.  Ex-Queen of the South striker Gavin Reilly is an intriguing signing though; he has surprisingly good technique for his size, but is he ready to make the step up?  Oh, and Soufiane El Hassnaoui is still here, too.

It seems churlish to say that they are a regular goalscorer away from being very competitive, as that's the case for most clubs!  But in Hearts' case, it is true.  But avoiding relegation is the least of their concerns.  They'll be aiming much, much higher, and quite right too.

THE SQUAD (players born after 1 January 1994 in italics)
Goalkeepers: Neil Alexander, Scott Gallacher, Jack Hamilton
Defenders: Blazej Augustyn, Jordan McGhee, Kevin McHattie, Alim Ozturk, Callum Paterson, Igor Rossi, Liam Smith
Midfielders: Kenny Anderson, Angus Beith, Prince Buaben, Morgaro Gomis, Billy King, Sean McKirdy, Sam Nicholson, Miguel Pallardo, Jamie Walker
Forwards: Robbie Buchanan, Sofiane El Hassnaoui, Nathan Flanagan, Juanma, Gary Oliver, Gavin Reilly, Alistair Roy, Osman Sow


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.

2015/16 Premiership preview - Motherwell


LAST SEASON: 11th, 36pts

NOTABLE INS: Joe Chalmers (Celtic), David Clarkson (Dundee), Wes Fletcher (York City), Kieran Kennedy (Leicester City), Louis Laing (Nottingham Forest, loan made permanent), Louis Moult (Wrexham)

NOTABLE OUTS: Stuart Carswell (St. Mirren), Lee Erwin (Leeds United), Paul Lawson (Formartine United), Bob McHugh (Falkirk), Simon Ramsden (Gateshead), Ross Stewart (Albion Rovers), John Sutton (St. Johnstone), Nathan Thomas (Mansfield Town), Conor Grant (Everton, end of loan), George Long (Sheffield United, end of loan), Mark O'Brien (Derby County, end of loan), Anthony Straker (York City, end of loan), Adam Cummins, Zaine Francis-Angol, Fraser Kerr, Iain Vigurs

LAST SEASON'S BEST XI (departed players crossed out): Long, Law, Laing, McManus, Hammell, Ainsworth, Lasley, Pearson, Johnson, Erwin, McDonald

Scott McDonald's return to Motherwell in February, seven and a half years after he left for Celtic, was of enormous significance - the results (seven wins in the thirteen matches he played) prove that.  It wasn't just the Australian international's own abilities, but the way he seemed to inspire his teammates, especially young forward Lee Erwin.

Erwin has left for Leeds United, but to the delight of all down Fir Park way McDonald has turned down lucrative offers from elsewhere to sign a new deal.  'Skippy' has given everyone at the club a spring in their step.

Aside from McDonald, many of Ian Baraclough's previous signings were from the 'let's sign loads of players and hopefully a few won't be duds' school of thought.  Harsh?  Not really.  Motherwell were staring relegation in the face for long periods of last season, and even though the likes of McDonald and fellow returnee Stephen Pearson really galvanised them, many of the others were loanees who weren't worth keeping on - central defender Louis Laing being the exception.

But one of the major reasons for appointing Baraclough was his self-professed list of contacts, especially down south.  And he's rustled up a few interesting players.  Up front, Louis Moult and Wes Fletcher have been added to replace Erwin and John Sutton, with the former commanding a transfer fee from Wrexham.  Fletcher has been a regular in League Two for the last two years, so he's unlikely to be a slouch.  In defence, the arrival of Leicester youngster Kieran Kennedy, along with the permanent purchase of Laing, might be a sign that the fading Stephen McManus' days are numbered.

Kennedy might also be used at right-back though, which was a huge problem position last season occupied at times by various luminaries as Simon Ramsden, Frazer Kerr, Anthony Straker and Josh Law.  He can't do any worse than those predecessors.  And Motherwell surely can't defend any worse than they did for most of last season.  Having a fit Stevie Hammell all season will help considerably, though they are still searching for a quality goalkeeper; a smartarse would say that, even if the rumours linking them with Craig Samson are true, the search still isn't over.

The one area Baraclough hasn't added to so far is midfield.  He certainly has ability in the wide areas, with Marvin Johnson's blistering pace on the left and Lionel Ainsworth's trickery coming in from the right, but the trick is getting them to play well more often than one game in three.  In the centre, Keith Lasley (36 in September) looked much less leggy when he had the tireless Pearson to do all the running, but can they get yet another full season out of the housewives' favourite?  This might be the season that Jack Leitch, injured for most of 2014/15, makes a breakthrough in that area of the pitch, while fellow youngster Dom Thomas may become more than a supersub on the wing.

That leaves just one pressing question - why sign David Clarkson again?  My theory is that he's needed to make up the numbers (with McDonald, Pearson, Lasley and Hammell) in a five-a-side team called 'Steelmen 2003/04'.  It's the only logical reason I can think of.

It does seem pretty certain that Motherwell will be much, much better than they were last season.  Are Baraclough's new boys good enough to keep them away from the drop?  Probably.  Are they good enough to drag them up to the heights of Stuart McCall's last two full seasons?  Er, I wouldn't put my mortgage on that one...

THE SQUAD (players born after 1 January 1994 in italics)
Goalkeepers: Dan Twardzik
Defenders: Joe Chalmers, David Ferguson, Steven Hammell, Kieran Kennedy, Louis Laing, Josh Law, Steven McManus, Craig Reid, Luke Watt
Midfielders: Lionel Ainsworth, Chris Cadden, Marvin Johnson, Keith Lasley, Jack Leitch, Ross MacLean, Stephen Pearson, Dominic Thomas
Forwards: David Clarkson, Wes Fletcher, Scott McDonald, Craig Moore, Louis Moult


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.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

2015/16 Premiership preview - Inverness Caledonian Thistle

Inverness Caledonian Thistle.svg

LAST SEASON: 3rd, 65pts

NOTABLE INS: Owain Fon Williams (Tranmere Rovers), Dani Lopez (La Roda), Jordan Roberts (Aldershot Town), Nat Wedderburn (Cowdenbeath)

NOTABLE OUTS: Tarmo Kink (Levadia), Nick Ross (Dundee), Graeme Shinnie (Aberdeen), Marley Watkins (Barnsley), Eddie Ofere

LAST SEASON'S BEST XI (departed players crossed out): Brill, Raven, Warren, Meekings, Shinnie, Tansey, Draper, Williams, Christie, WatkinsMckay

Finishing third in the league and winning the Scottish Cup would take some topping, even in the best of circumstances.

Without Graeme Shinnie and Marley Watkins, John Hughes' Caley Thistle have no hope of emulating last season's remarkable success.

That's not to say that they won't do well, but any team would struggle after losing some of their best players.  ICT would rather have held on to striker Eddie Ofere and attacking midfielder Nick Ross, but they've gone too.  Oh, and they never really properly replaced Billy Mckay, who left at the end of January.

They're likely to try and promote players from within - midfielder Danny Williams, for example, looks like he's being converted to left-back to replace Shinnie, while Aaron Doran, who spent much of last season on the bench, appears to be back in favour after spending the summer eating nothing but salad.  But there are still some big holes to fill.

Ex-Cowdenbeath centre-back/midfielder Nat Wedderburn is big enough to fill a crater, but his signing shows a willingness to think outside the box that has done the Highlanders well in previous years.  He may be legally required to make a beeping noise when he walks backwards, but he won't lose a physical battle and has a surprisingly good touch.  He also gives an alternative option if Ross Draper's poor end to last season continues into this campaign.

Wedderburn is probably a squad player though, whereas ex-Aldershot winger Jordan Roberts and Spanish striker Dani Lopez will be expected to make a big impact.  Roberts has impressed in pre-season with his pace and willingness to run at players, though he has a reputation for not doing his defensive work.  Lopez has the cliched 'good touch for a big man', but it remains to be seen if he will be as effective in front of goal as he is with his back to it.

The other signing, rather curiously, was Welsh international squad keeper Owain Fon Williams (what is it about us and Welsh players with very Welsh names?).  He had a rough debut in the Europa League, but should be fine once he's learned the names of his defenders.  His signing suggests that Dean Brill is a long way from a comeback from his knee injury, and that Hughes no longer has faith in veteran Ryan Esson.  Esson's failure to command his box left the team very vulnerable on set pieces at the end of last season, and it looks like he'll be focusing on his coaching duties.

The back four should be solid enough, as in Gary Warren, Josh Meekings and Danny Devine they have some quality centre-backs.  Devine impressed in the spring and in order to accomodate him Hughes has sometimes moved Meekings to right-back; however, he'd be better off sticking with David Raven there, who is far more comfortable in that role even if he wasn't at his best last season.  If Williams can to some extent replace Shinnie, then they're laughing.

The big concern is that, whilst the team are capable of monopolizing possession, they struggle to create gaps in the final third.  Part of that is a lack of pace, especially now Watkins has left.  Doran, Ryan Christie (who should continue to improve after being named Young Player of the Year) and Greg Tansey are all capable of playing the killer pass, but who will they play it to?  Lopez has looked sluggish so far, and though he shouldn't be judged until he has a few more matches under his belt he has the turning circle of a bus.  Williams or Carl Tremarco (who has the athleticism if not the skill) will provide width on the left touchline, but it's hard to see who will do so on the other flank or who might get in behind opposing defences.  It's no surprise that a contract has been offered to Andrea Mbuyi-Mutombo, a trialist whose attributes seem rather similar to those of the departed Watkins.

So another top three finish is too much to ask, but on the other hand a collapse to the other end of table, a la Motherwell last year, seems unlikely also.  Finishing in the top half should always be considered an achievement for a club of this size, and once again it should be within their grasp.

THE SQUAD (players born after 1 January 1994 in italics)
Goalkeepers: Dean Brill, Ryan Esson, Owain Fon Williams, Cameron Mackay
Defenders: Danny Devine, Lewis Horner, Josh Meekings, David Raven, Carl Tremarco, Gary Warren
Midfielders: Aaron Doran, Ross Draper, Richie Foran, Liam Polworth, Jordan Roberts, Greg Tansey, James Vincent, Nat Wedderburn, Danny Williams
Forwards: Ryan Christie, Calum Ferguson, Dani Lopez, Ali Sutherland


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.

2015/16 Premiership preview - Ross County

Ross County F.C. logo.png

LAST SEASON: 9th, 44pts

NOTABLE INS: Ian McShane (Queen of the South, £50k), Andrew Davies (Bradford City), Richard Foster (Rangers), Scott Fox (Partick Thistle), Jonathan Franks (Hartlepool United), Michael Gardyne (Dundee United, loan made permanent), Brian Graham (Dundee United), Darren Holden (Hartlepool United), Jackson Irvine (Celtic, loan made permanent), Stewart Murdoch (Fleetwood Town), Chris Robertson (Port Vale), Dan Bachmann (Stoke City, loan)

NOTABLE OUTS: Darren Barr (Dumbarton), Richard Brittain (Brora Rangers), Mark Brown (Dumbarton), Joe Cardle (Dunfermline Athletic), Graham Carey (Plymouth Argyle), Jake Jervis (Plymouth Argyle), Ruben Palazuelos (CD Guijuelo), Paul Quinn (Aberdeen), Antonio Reguero (Hibernian), Darvydas Sernas (Zalgiris Vilnius), Martin Woods (Shrewsbury Town), Cameron Burgess (Fulham, end of loan), Filip Kiss (Cardiff City, end of loan), Terry Dunfield, Ben Frempah, Abdoulaye Meite, Steven Ross, Steven Saunders

LAST SEASON'S BEST XI (departed players crossed out): Brown, Fraser, Boyd, P. Quinn, Reckord, Gardyne, Woods, Irvine, De Vita, Boyce, Curran

The last four transfer windows have been very busy up Dingwall way.  It's as if they've tried to sign a new team each time.  You'd be forgiven for thinking that this summer was more of the same, with the number of new faces running into double figures.  But it isn't.  It's not even close.

After two chaotic seasons spent dicing with the drop, Ross County are in no mood for more of the same.  Their man(ager, Jim McIntyre) has a plan.

Step one - get some players who would run through brick walls for you.  Step two - get organized in defence.  Step three - sign busy forwards who will chase everything and snap at defenders.  Step four- find a couple of creative wide players who can get up the pitch quickly on the break.  Okay, it may not be out of Pep Guardiola's book, but County's springtime resurgence showed how effective the strategy is.

Crucially, most of the cogs in the machine have been signed up on long-term deals.  Jamie Reckord and Marcus Fraser are very underrated full-backs who can defend well and overlap effectively; Michael Gardyne - in his third spell in Dingwall - seems to be twice the player in a County shirt as he is in any other; Raffaele De Vita has a beautiful right foot; Liam Boyce and Craig Curran are as important for their nuisance value up front as they are for their goals...which came increasingly frequently towards the end of the last campaign.

Meanwhile, the boss has been ruthless with those who just don't fit.  Even club captain Richard Brittain was let go after eight years in the Highlands.  It seemed like a ruthless move, especially since he played a number of matches last season with an injury, but it's the correct one.  There is sufficient trust in McIntyre that the fans showed barely any dissent.

Most of the signings have been to provide depth, after a cull which has seen nineteen players leave.  However, big striker Brian Graham will not have turned down a permanent move to St. Johnstone just to sit on the bench and may edge out Curran or Boyce.  And Andrew Davies, installed as new skipper, could be one of the signings of the summer in the Premiership.  A former England under-21 international who Stoke spent a seven figure sum on in 2008, Davies was outstanding for Bradford City in League least, when he was fit.  He has been injury-prone and started only a little more than half of their league games over his three years at Valley Parade.  But Bradford wanted to keep him, and he should be a class above anything that's gone before him at the Global Energy Stadium.  He's certainly an improvement over Paul Quinn, who has left for Aberdeen.

(Yes, they signed Ricky Foster as well, but he probably won't be a first choice.  And, given that he's earned some decent wages in the last two years and he's from Elgin, he's probably a relatively inexpensive squad player, so let's not spend too much time on that one)

And to cap it all, they've managed to convince Jackson Irvine to remain in Dingwall on a permanent basis after a successful season on loan from Celtic.  The Aussie was outstanding after Christmas, and his combination of physicality, stamina and technique is found in very few midfields in this country.  Irvine and his new teammate Ian McShane (signed from Queen of the South) both cost small development fees, which tells you that Roy MacGregor, the club's sugar daddy, has not been afraid to splash the cash.

Irvine's partner in crime - or at least in central midfield - Martin Woods, has returned to England, so either McShane or another new boy, ex-Falkirk man Stewart Murdoch, will replace him.  The latter has been playing with Fleetwood Town but his more defensive and cautious style make him more likely to be a backup for Irvine.  McShane shone at times for McIntyre's old club but was just as often  anonymous.  He'll probably be better in possession than Woods, but less reliable without it.

The obvious potential weakness is between the sticks.  McIntyre correctly recognised he needed a better goalkeeper than the mediocre Mark Brown and the error-prone Antonio Reguero, but Scott Fox  has gone downhill since his surprise Scotland call-up in 2013 and his great reflexes do not entirely compensate for his vulnerability on crosses.  He also has a terrible habit of letting shots in at his near post.  The manager has spent all summer trying to find another keeper to compete with Fox and it'll be interesting to see if Dan Bachmann, brought in on loan from Stoke, gets the nod over a permanent signing who will not be on peanuts.

The travails of the last two years seem an age away.  Ross County have learnt from their mistakes, and they are on the up again.  Don't bet on them ending up in a third successive relegation battle.  In fact, you'd be better off putting your cash on a top six finish.  That might ultimately prove a little bit beyond them, but only a little bit.  And, in a league where there is little to choose between most of the teams, this could be a fun season on the Black Isle.

THE SQUAD (players born after 1 January 1994 in italics)
Goalkeepers: Dan Bachmann, Scott Fox
Defenders: Scott Boyd, Andrew Davies, Richard Foster, Marcus Fraser, Darren Holden, Jamie Reckord, Chris Robertson
Midfielders: Raffaele Da Vita, Tony Dingwall, Jonathan Franks, Michael Gardyne, Jackson Irvine, Ian McShane, Stewart Murdoch, Rocco Quinn
Forwards: Liam Boyce, Craig Curran, Brian Graham


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, July 27, 2015

2015/16 Premiership preview - Aberdeen

Aberdeen FC logo.svg

LAST SEASON: 2nd, 75pts

NOTABLE INS: Joe Nuttall (Manchester City), Paul Quinn (Ross County), Graeme Shinnie (Inverness Caledonian Thistle), Danny Ward (Liverpool, loan)

NOTABLE OUTS: Andrew Driver (De Graafschap), Kieran Gibbons (Livingston), Nicky Low (Dundee), Declan McManus (Fleetwood Town), Craig Murray (East Fife), Clark Robertson (Blackpool), Joe Shaughnessy (St. Johnstone), Donervon Daniels (West Bromwich Albion, end of loan), Russell Anderson (retired), Jamie Masson

LAST SEASON'S BEST XI (departed players crossed out): Brown, Logan, Taylor, Reynolds, Considine, Flood, Jack, Hayes, Pawlett, McGinn, Rooney

It turns out that after several years of playground chants correctly claiming otherwise, Aberdeen can, once again, "kick a jellybean".  In 2013/14 they won silverware for the first time in aeons, lifting the League Cup.  Last season, they didn't pick up a trophy, but they did finish second in the league - their highest league finish for twenty-one years.  And for the second year running, they've done themselves proud in the Europa League qualifiers.  The supporters, starved of success for so long, are once again sated.

They're not completely full up, though; for that to happen, they'd have to go one step further and win the league - which, at the moment, is unthinkable.  The gap to Celtic at the end of last season was seventeen points (which, mind you, would have been accounted for if Aberdeen had won three of the four encounters with the champions, instead of losing all four).  The priority, really, is establishing themselves as being much, much better than the rest.

Their summer activities suggest that they are doing so.  They had three weaknesses last season - left-back, goalkeeper and general depth.  The former wasn't even that much of a weakness, as Andrew Considine did so well that new boy Graeme Shinnie, one of the best left-backs in the country in recent years, has been deployed in midfield instead in the early European games.  In goal, Derek McInnes no longer has to decide which of Scott Brown and Jamie Langfield was least likely to blunder; instead he has brought in Liverpool talent Danny Ward on loan and stuck him straight in the side.

Depth is less of an issue too, now that Shinnie and Paul Quinn, both of whom are extremely versatile, are on board.  Last season they'd have struggled if Mark Reynolds got injured - last week they kept a clean sheet in Croatia without him.  It helps, of course, that Ash Taylor has put all the blunders of last autumn well behind him and revealed himself to be very competent, while Shay Logan is a great right-back as long as he keeps his head and his concentration.

If David Goodwillie's performances against Rijeka were anything to go by, they even have an alternative to Adam Rooney up front, though interest in ex-St Johnstone man Stevie May persists.  But Rooney was the Premiership's top scorer last season and there's no reason to think that he shouldn't get well into double figures again.  Niall McGinn will also chip in with plenty of goals and assists coming in from wide areas.  And there are hopes that Development League top scorer Lawrence Shankland will have a breakout year.

In midfield, there is a selection headache because there are so many decent options, especially if Shinnie is competing to play there.  New captain Ryan Jack will play in the centre, and Jonny Hayes has to be in the side somewhere - whether it's on one flank, the other flank, or in the middle depends on circumstance.  Also available are Willo Flood, Kenny McLean, Cammy Smith, Peter Pawlett and even veteran Barry Robson.  Not too shabby, eh?

Aberdeen are in a kind of limbo at the moment - they are stronger in every area than pretty much every other Premiership side bar one, but they are probably weaker than Celtic in every area.  The title may be impossible, but finishing third or lower would be an underachievement.  The target therefore has to be to close that seventeen point gap, and to succeed in the cups.  Oh, and actually taking some points off Celtic this time would be nice.

THE SQUAD (players born after 1 January 1994 in italics)
Goalkeepers: Scott Brown, Jamie Langfield, Danny Ward
Defenders: Andrew Considine, Shaleum Logan, Paul Quinn, Mark Reynolds, Graeme Shinnie, Ash Taylor
Midfielders: Willo Flood, Jonny Hayes, Ryan Jack, Kenny McLean, Peter Pawlett, Barry Robson, Frank Ross, Cammy Smith, Craig Storie
Forwards: David Goodwillie, Niall McGinn, Joe Nuttall, Adam Rooney, Lawrence Shankland, Scott Wright


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.

2015/16 Premiership preview - Kilmarnock


LAST SEASON: 10th, 41pts

NOTABLE INS: Kris Boyd (Rangers), Dale Carrick (Heart of Midlothian), Kallum Higginbotham (Partick Thistle), Jamie MacDonald (Falkirk), Lee McCulloch (Rangers), Scott Robinson (Heart of Midlothian), Steven Smith (Rangers), Stuart Findlay (Celtic, loan)

NOTABLE OUTS: Paul Cairney (Stranraer), Manuel Pascali (Cittadella), Conor Brennan (Stranraer, loan), Chris Chantler, Sammy Clingan, Nathan Eccleston, Alexei Eremenko, Lee Miller, Michael Ngoo

LAST SEASON'S BEST XI (departed players crossed out): Samson, Barbour, Ashcroft, Connolly, ChantlerClingan, Slater, Obadeyi, Eremenko, McKenzie, Magennis

The Allan Johnston era (if 18 months is long enough to be referred to as 'an era') was one to forget.  The focus on youth and technique championed by predecessor Kenny Shiels was quickly dismantled, in favour of a direct style based more on running than thought.  In his first season, they only stayed up because of Kris Boyd's goals.  Last time around, they survived only because of the hopelessness of sides below them.

Replacing Johnston with assistant Gary Locke - and giving him a three year contract - was a bizarre move at a time where drastic change was called for.  At Hearts, Locke proved he could motivate players for a time, but whilst the situation at Tynecastle makes it difficult to judge whether he can form any sort of medium-term strategy, he certainly showed that he's no tactical genius.  And so, to the surprise of no-one, he got a few decent performances out of the players before a nightmare run put them inexplicably close to finishing in the relegation playoff spot.

His summer recruitment doesn't inspire confidence.  It was no surprise to see Boyd return for a third spell, but whilst it would be harsh to completely write him off at 32 he had a nightmare at Rangers last season with just three league goals.  There's no way he'll get anywhere near repeating his feats of 2014/15, when he finished top scorer.

Signing his erstwhile Ibrox teammates Steven Smith and Lee McCulloch was perplexing.  McCulloch's own three year deal, at 37, is less crazy if it is primarily focused on him being assistant manager, because there's no way he should be anywhere near the pitch now.  Smith can hit a mean free kick, but he didn't even look that comfortable at Championship level.  And rumour has it that Marius Zaliukas is next on Locke's list.  Now all that's missing is the appointment of Ally McCoist as club gardener.

Locke's other new boys are mostly his old boys - Jamie McDonald , Dale Carrick and Scott Robinson played under him at Hearts.  The latter didn't impress back then and couldn't get near the team last season though, whilst McDonald underperformed at Falkirk last season.  If he can wind the clock back a year or so then he should be a better option than Craig Samson, but there's not much in it.  Carrick is a bit of a wild card; he is a capable forward, but he lost nearly all of last season because of his chocolate hamstrings.

Meanwhile, Kallum Higginbotham arrived only a few months after loudly criticizing artificial surfaces and announcing he'd never want to join a club who played on one.  One wonders how much money it took to change his mind.  With Alexei Eremenko gone - the right move, because his occasional spark of genius no longer compensated for long periods of standing around doing nothing - there will be a huge emphasis on Higginbotham to create chances for Boyd.  On the flanks, Tope Obadeyi and Josh Magennis are big powerful players who will run all day, just not necessarily in the right direction.  They will cause trouble, but just as often for their own teammates as for the opposition.  They will do Boyd's running for him, but will they lay on goalscoring opportunities as well?

Rory McKenzie and Chris Johnston are more creative, but often seem too lightweight for this level.  Perhaps teenager Greg Kiltie will get more playing time; he looked good playing just off a centre forward in April and May.  Out of the current crop of young players, he looks the one most likely to go on to better things.

Are there positives?  Mark Connolly, certainly; the centre back was great last season and has replaced the departing Manuel Pascali as captain.  If he can mentor either highly related young loanee Stuart Findlay or Lee Ashcroft (a bombscare last season), then the defence might not be so bad.  Right-back Daryl Westlake was all right when fit.  Craig Slater is a good player who had a poor campaign, often because he was punted wide.  With a good partner, he could stand out in the middle of the pitch, but it is debatable whether Robinson or Jamie Hamill fit that description.  Young Mark O'Hara is an option there, but his development would be helped by playing him consistently in the same position rather than chopping and changing between defence and midfield.

If Boyd provides the goods, then Killie will be all right - anybody with a fifteen-goals-a-season striker would be.  If not, then it's hard to see who will fill the void.  Given some of last year's travails, it's hard to give the defence the benefit of the doubt too.  With the manager unlikely to make the team more than the sum of their parts, there is justified worry at Rugby Park that it could be a long and very stressful season at the wrong end of the table.  Could Kilmarnock's twenty-third consecutive season in the top flight be their last for a while?

THE SQUAD (players born after 1 January 1994 in italics)
Goalkeepers: Jamie MacDonald, Craig Samson
Defenders: Lee Ashcroft, Ross Barbour, Mark Connolly, Stuart Findlay, Lee McCulloch, Mark O'Hara, Steven Smith, David Syme, Darryl Westlake
Midfielders: Jamie Hamill, Kallum Higginbotham, Chris Johnston, Greg Kiltie, Scott Robinson, Craig Slater, Aaron Splaine
Forwards: Kris Boyd, Dale Carrick, Josh Magennis, Rory McKenzie, Tope Obadeyi


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

Sunday, July 26, 2015

2015/16 Premiership preview - Celtic

Celtic crest

LAST SEASON: 1st, 92pts

NOTABLE INS: Dedryck Boyata (Manchester City, £1.5m), Nadir Ciftci (Dundee United, £1.2m), Logan Bailly (OH Leuven, £250k), Saidy Janko (Manchester United)

NOTABLE OUTS: Adam Matthews (Sunderland, £2m), Amido Balde (Metz), Joe Chalmers (Motherwell), Holmbert Fridjonsson (KR Reykjavik), John Herron (Blackpool), Jackson Irvine (Ross County, loan made permanent), Teemu Pukki (Brondby, loan made permanent), Michael Duffy (Alloa Athletic, loan), Jason Denayer (Manchester City, end of loan), John Guidetti (Manchester City, end of loan), Aleksandar Tonev (Aston Villa, end of loan), Mubarak Wakaso (Rubin Kazan, end of loan), Lukasz Zaluska

LAST SEASON'S BEST XI (departed players crossed out): Gordon, Lustig, Denayer, Van Dijk, Izaguirre, Brown, Bitton, Forrest, Commons, Johansen, Griffiths

As is the annual tradition, let's start by congratulating Celtic on winning the 2015/16 Scottish Premiership title.

Come on, it's inevitable.  They won the league by 17 points last season.  The worst that can happen is that Aberdeen narrow the gap a bit.  At best, we might be able to pretend there's a contest right up to Easter again.

This makes previewing Celtic's season hard, because having more resources than every other Premiership club put together means they have better players in every position too.  So any criticism has to be taken in the context of where the club are aiming to be - back in the group stages of the Champions League.  For all their domestic dominance, a second successive failure to get through the qualifiers would leave another enormous hole in their finances.

It's not as if, compared to Celtic bosses of the past, Ronny Deila has been given a huge budget to work with.  So far this summer the net spend is less than a million pounds; the last time the club's net spend in a season was seven figures was when Gordon Strachan was boss.  And missing out on the big bucks last season won't have helped.  But the team were impressive enough in the first half of 2015 to reassure Deila that only some tinkering is required, rather than a major overhaul.

And so the transfer activity has been concentrated on filling gaps left by departing players.  One backup keeper out (Lukasz Zaluska), one in (Logan Bailly); one centre-back out (Jason Denayer), one in (Dedryck Boyata); one right-back out (Adam Matthews), one in (Saidy Janko), one striker out (John Guidetti), one in (Nadir Ciftci).  Time will tell if the new faces are an improvement on what's gone before.

Deila can afford all of the new boys to be failures bar Boyata, who he needs to do well - not only to replace the outstanding loanee Denayer, but because it seems inevitable that Virgil Van Dijk will leave once the European qualifiers are over.  If that means the disaster-prone Efe Ambrose is playing more regularly this season, the league might be marginally more interesting.  The £1.2million spent on Ciftci was a curious move; whilst he is proven against league opponents, is he really better than what they've already got?  And has he got the ability for the big European stage?  We'll see.

Celtic won't be short of goals on weekends though.  And even if he joins Stefan Scepovic as a bust, they can still turn to Leigh Griffiths and Anthony Stokes.  The attacking midfield options are delicious - only three out of Gary Mackay-Steven, Stuart Armstrong, Kris Commons, Stefan Johansen, James Forrest and Ciftci would play, which leaves the prospect of the others being available as subs.  Scott Brown and Nir Bitton will boss every other midfield in the country, though it would be nice to see young Liam Henderson get some action too.

Even if Janko isn't impressive (and he probably will be, given that Manchester United wanted to keep him), Mikael Lustig will be fit again at right-back.  On the other side, Emilio Izaguirre seems to have had a new lease of life under Deila after a few unremarkable seasons.  And of course they're set with Craig Gordon in goal.

But can they succeed in Europe?  I'm not sure.  They're definitely more cohesive and  more impressive than twelve months ago, and they will be seeded in every qualifying round, but there are some very difficult opponents out there.  If they do get through, I imagine they'd be favourites to finish bottom of a group.  But let's cross that bridge when they come to it.  Just being in the Champions League will be enough.

Win a treble and progress in Europe, and Deila will be a deity.  Accomplish neither, and it'll be interesting to see whether five-in-a-row and a single cup (or even none at all) will be sufficient to stave off any grumbling.

THE SQUAD (players born after 1 January 1994 in italics)
Goalkeepers: Logan Bailly, Craig Gordon
Defenders: Efe Ambrose, Dedryck Boyata, Darnell Fisher, Emilio Izaguirre, Saidy Janko, Mikael Lustig, Charlie Mulgrew, Eoghan O'Connell, Kieran Tierney, Virgil Van Dijk
Midfielders: Stuart Armstrong, Nir Bitton, Derk Boerrigter, Scott Brown, Kris Commons, Liam Henderson, Stefan Johansen, Gary Mackay-Steven, Dylan McGeouch, Callum McGregor, Tom Rogic
Forwards: Nadir Ciftci, James Forrest, Leigh Griffiths, Stefan Scepovic, Anthony Stokes


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.

2015-16 Premiership preview - Dundee

Dundee FC crest.svg

LAST SEASON: 6th, 45pts

NOTABLE INS: Kevin Holt (Queen of the South, £40k), Kane Hemmings (Barnsley), Julen Leanizbarrutia (East Fife), Nicky Low (Aberdeen), Rory Loy (Falkirk), Daryll Meggatt (Alloa Athletic), David Mitchell (Stranraer), Nick Ross (Inverness Caledonian Thistle)

NOTABLE OUTS: Kyle Benedictus (Raith Rovers), Martin Boyle (Hibernian, loan made permanent), David Clarkson (Motherwell), Kyle Letheren (Blackpool), Kevin McBride (Airdrieonians), Jamie Reid (Arbroath), Craig Wighton (Raith Rovers, loan), Alex Harris (Hibernian, end of loan), Iain Davidson, Willie Dyer, Paul Heffernan, Jim McAlister, Stephen McGinn

LAST SEASON'S BEST XI (departed players crossed out): Bain, P. McGinn, Konrad, McPake, Irvine, McAlister, Thomson, S. McGinn, McGowan, Stewart, Clarkson

Dundee might seem like an unusual team to start the previews with, but it's because Paul Hartley did most of his summer business early.  With eight players already brought in, I'd like to assume that they are unlikely to bring in some sort of galactico who transforms the team and renders all I've written irrelevant.  Famous last words...

It wasn't really a surprise that, despite a sixth place finish, (their highest for thirteen years), Hartley chucked thirteen players and signed so many new ones.  The ex-Celtic and Scotland player is the sort of guy who would willingly sacrifice his granny if it guaranteed three points.  He doesn't do sentiment; less than eighteen months after he took over at Dens Park, there is only one senior player who was signed by a predecessor - Gary Irvine, for the record.

His sort of player - energetic and disciplined without the ball, tactically astute enough to switch formations two or even three times during a game - doesn't grow on trees.  The signings are far from haphazard; he's spent plenty of time pondering his side's weaknesses - presumably whilst stroking that lovely beard of his - and looking for superior players who will still fit into his system.

It helps that Dundee's American backers have been willing to give their manager a budget that should at least rival more than half of their opponents this season.  This allowed them to see off Falkirk striker Rory Loy's other suitors, to pay about forty grand or so for young left back Kevin Holt, and to convince Nick Ross to leave Europa League-bound Inverness.

When parading Ross, Hartley stated that improving his creative midfield options had been a summer priority, and he has done so by bringing in the ex-Caley Thistle man and Aberdeen's exciting but injury-prone Nicky Low.  Ross fits in to the preferred 4-2-3-1 far better than Gary Harkins, who faded last season after a bright start and will be kept out of his preferred central role by Paul McGowan.  McGowan seemed revitalized by a move away from Greater Glasgow and all his dodgy mates, and may be even better in 2015/16 now he is no longer physically or psychologically weighed down by an electronic tag.

That should mean more chances for the centre-forward, who will surely gobble more of them up too; either the clever, coy Loy, or the strong and powerful Kane Hemmings will lead the line, and both are a major upgrade over David Clarkson or Paul Heffernan.  It's a big ask for Greg Stewart to repeat his tally of fifteen goals, but the former Cowdenbeath man was a revelation last year to the point that he was nominated for Player of the Year. He will chip in with a decent amount from the right flank.

If they are to add further reinforcements, it will surely be in the engine room.  It was a surprise to see Jim McAlister turn down a new deal, and I didn't agree with those who thought Kevin Thomson did alright last year.  To my untrained eye, he looked as ponderous and as injury-prone as he was at Hibs.  Maybe Low will play in that area, or maybe Simon Ferry will be better after a rotten campaign blighted by illness, but I still think they could do a lot better.

A central defender wouldn't go amiss either even if James McPake can do the unthinkable and go two consecutive seasons without injury.  Kostadin Gadzhalov, Thomas Konrad and Julen Lean...Julen Leaniz...oh, let's just call him Julen - are all options, but I'm not overly fussed about any of them.  At least they're well set at full-back with Holt and Paul McGinn, and young goalkeeper Scott Bain is destined for far greater things.

I think there's a real possibility that Dundee could be even better this year.  The one thing to watch out for is Hartley himself; his time at Alloa suggested that he's not brilliant when things start to go wrong, and if his intensity becomes too much for his squad, it might backfire.  Pre-season has been marked by some interesting formations and selections, and whilst it is dangerous to read much into that there will be a concern that he overthinks and overcomplicates things.  More likely, he may do so well that a bigger club comes calling.  But a second top six finish is eminently achievable, and probably the least they should aim for.  And whisper it, but they might be the best team in the City of Discovery this season...

THE SQUAD (players born after 1 January 1994 in italics)
Goalkeepers: Scott Bain, David Mitchell
Defenders: Kostadin Gadzhalov, Kevin Holt, Gary Irvine, Cammy Kerr, Thomas Konrad, Julen Leanizburrutia, Paul McGinn, Darryl Meggatt, James McPake
Midfielders: Andrew Black, Dylan Carreiro, Calvin Colquhoun, Simon Ferry, Gary Harkins, Nicky Low, Paul McGowan, Nick Ross, Kevin Thomson
Forwards: Kane Hemmings, Rory Loy, Phil Roberts, Greg Stewart, Luka Tankulic


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, July 22, 2015

Rangers or Hibs?

Saturday lunchtime should be interesting.  In the olden days, a Hibernian v Rangers game would have been a very decent curtain-raiser for a new Scottish football season.  And I suppose it still is...except rather than being a league clash, it's a game in the first round of the Petrofac Training Cup.

Whilst both teams will surely have designs on some silverware - I don't for a second believe Mark Warburton's comments about it being an extension of pre-season - it will also be a useful early indicator of which team might be strongest ahead of their second consecutive Championship campaigns.  Yes, I know there are eight other clubs in the division, including a St. Mirren side who have just dropped out of the top flight, but these two are very much favourites.

Which is in better shape?  Well, you decide.  I've done my best to showcase the squads below.  The formations are little more than a guess, based on Rangers' tactics in pre-season and Stubbs' previous predilection for a midfield diamond (so there are various players who are quite obviously out of position), but it's a pretty good guide.  I've also jumped the conclusion that Jason Holt's move to Ibrox is just a matter of time.

So, Rangers or Hibs?

The Rangers squad ahead of the new season

There's been lots of change at Ibrox, with eleven players (plus five Newcastle loanees) punted and Mark Warburton given enough cash to bring in three guys from Wigan and to attract Danny Wilson back to the club.  The arrivals of Wilson, Rob Kiernan and James Tavernier, along with keeper Wes Foderingham, should vastly improve the quality and depth at the back.  Andy Halliday and Jason Holt (assuming he joins) should add creativity, but the only obvious holding midfielder is young Andy Murdoch (Halliday played in that role vs Burnley this week).  The hardworking Martyn Waghorn will surely convert plenty of the chances that come his way, but if he gets hurt can Rangers really rely on Kenny Miller and Nicky Clark up front? (a wee caveat - Tom Walsh isn't mentioned above, while Fraser Aird is at left-back because he played there in pre-season!)

The Hibs squad ahead of the new season

Alan Stubbs would surely have preferred to hold on to Scott Robertson and Dylan McGeouch, and he may have to ditch his preferred midfield diamond as a consequence.  A 3-5-2, with Jordan Forster as an extra centre back, is a potential option.  Marvin Bartley should be a good acquisition to sit in front of the defence and Scott Allan and Fraser Fyvie provide midfield quality that most Premiership clubs would envy.  In Jason Cummings, Farid El Alagui and Dominique Malonga they are spoiled for strikers too.  Martin Boyle and new boy Danny Carmichael should give them wide options if required.  The obvious weakness is a lack of defensive depth with a paucity of options should anyone get injured.

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, July 13, 2015

Who is to blame for our crappy coefficient?

Every year, by tradition, at least one of our clubs makes a prat of themselves in Europe.

This season was St. Johnstone's turn, as they became the first Scottish team to be knocked out in the First Qualifying Round of the Europa League since such a round was brought into existence.  Losing on away goals to Alashkert - fourth in last season's eight team Armenian Premier League - was an embarrassment whichever way you look at it.

It has also led to the annual bout soul-searching and wailing about our lousy UEFA co-efficient, which forces Celtic to play three ties to make it to the Champions League, and makes two of our three Europa League entrants start their season at a time when professional footballers were all previously entitled to still be behaving like Jack Grealish.

Even before the second leg of the Perth Saints' tie, there was some touchiness on the subject; Celtic assistant manager John Collins made the "we're being held back by other Scottish clubs"-type comment that now seems to be spat out every July by someone in the club's management team.  (It's amazing how Collins and Deila defended Scottish football's quality when Celtic weren't exactly running away with the league).  St. Johnstone manager Tommy Wright's pre-game rant suggesting that Celtic were as much to blame as anyone else for the coefficient was, in hindsight, spectacularly ill-timed.

But was Wright right?  Whose fault is this?

It's not actually that hard a question to answer, when you look at how the coefficient is calculated.  (I'll do my best to keep this simple!).  Each season's total is an average of the number of points won by each Scottish side who played in Europe; last season, Celtic scored 10.5, Aberdeen 3.5, St. Johnstone 1.5 and Motherwell 0.5.  That's a total of 16, which when divided by 4, gives a total for 2014/15 of 4.0 points.  The coefficient is the combination of the previous five seasons' totals.

Clubs do not gain points from winning over two legs, but from the results of the individual legs.  This means that, so far this season, St. Johnstone have gained as many coefficient points from a loss and a win versus Alashkert as Aberdeen have from two draws against Albanians Shkendija.  Those slagging St. Johnstone would do well to note that, if the Dons lose both legs to Rijeka of Croatia, both clubs will have made an equal (and almost negligible) coefficient contribution in 2015/16.

The target is for Scotland to be ranked fifteenth or higher in Europe; currently, we are twenty-third.  Being fifteenth not only would allow Celtic to start their campaign a round later, but would give us a second team in the Champions League qualifiers.  Being ranked twelfth would give the Scottish champions an automatic place in the group stages, but let's not get ahead of ourselves.

The coefficient of Romania, currently fifteenth,  is 26.299, or an average of 5.26 points per season.  In contrast, ours is 17.900, or an average of 3.58 per season.

As you can probably guess, Celtic have been recently contributing more to the coefficient than everyone else put together, which is where the 'held back' argument comes from.

But the other clubs would argue that it is rather easier for Celtic to amass points.

What would be considered a good European campaign?  For a diddy team (that is, anyone but Celtic), I'd say that Aberdeen's run last season, where they beat Groningen of Holland before losing to Real Sociedad, was rather impressive.  And yet they compiled just 3.5 points, and were still a tie away from making the group stages of the Europa League.

Celtic scored 10.5 points last season, after dropping from the Champions League into the Europa League and reaching the last 32 of the latter competition.  In 2013/14, when they finished bottom of their Champions League group, they scored 10.5 points as well.  That's because there is a four point bonus for qualifying for the Champions League group stages.  In 2012/13, they scored 20 points; that's because they got a further set of bonus points for making the last 16 of the Champions League.

If all the 'diddy teams' we have in Europe emulated Aberdeen's 2014/15 campaign, Celtic would need to score 10.5 points, the same as the last two seasons, in order to hit that average of 5.26 points.  Is it realistic for the likes of Aberdeen and Inverness to score 3.5 points each season?  Unlikely, I'd say; Caley Thistle would need to beat Romanians Astra and then somebody else a hell of a lot better in the next round just to get close to that figure.  This season, the Dons would need to play two further ties - and probably win both of them - to get there.

That would require Celtic to chip in to a greater extent, but if they get to the Champions League group stages, they will have picked up somewhere between 7 and 10 points already...with six more matches to play.  That is, I reckon, a whole lot more realistic.

The last time that Scotland has met that magic target of 5.26 points? 2007/08, when Rangers made it to the UEFA Cup final.  That was a long, long time ago.

So the crappy coefficient is everyone's fault.  But only Celtic currently have the power to sufficiently improve it.

Clear as mud?

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.