Monday, August 31, 2015

Talking Points from the Premiership

Neilson deserves little sympathy over Collum remarks
"In the recent past, the statistics involving the officials have shown a lot of red cards against us, so we have to prepare for it.”  

With these words Robbie Neilson has no doubt earned himself a trip to Hampden to explain himself  to the powers that be.  The most surprising thing for me from his post match interview was that he  made a point of saying the team had trained last week to specifically deal with playing a man down. I  always assumed that that was a standard part of every teams training.  

Most people seem to agree that the red card shown to Callum Paterson by fans favourite Willie Collum, was harsh.  Hearts will appeal but despite Paterson winning the ball without showing his studs, I imagine a strong enough argument can be made that he used excessive force to make success unlikely. And no one had a better view of the incident than Collum.  But it is not criticising the referee’s decision that will get Neilson in to trouble.  It will be the strong implication he made that, at best, Hearts are the victims of a statistical anomaly whereby they receive a disproportionate number of red cards shown by a particular official, or at worst, are the victims of a biased referee who intentionally shows unwarranted red cards to Hearts players as some kind of vendetta against the team. And for that I have little sympathy.  

Managers have stressful jobs and the fact that their livelihoods can in part be determined by how good the officials are at their job makes certain outbursts understandable. But for a manager to suggest that a referee is not completely impartial damages the game to the extent that it cannot be tolerated by the SFA. That’s not to say they should throw the book at him by any means.  Rather, that he should know better and can’t really complain that he’s been taken to task.  

How the red card impacted the eventual result is harder to say than might seem apparent.  Of course the sequence of events would suggest that Collum’s decision cost Hearts three points, but you might argue they’d have gone on to lose the match anyway.  The equaliser came from an individual error followed by a stunning finish, and Hearts have struggled to defend set pieces all season.  

Hearts probably would have won this game, or at least not lost it, had they finished with 11 men, but that’s because Willie Collum made a bad decision, not because he has it in for the Jambos. IM

Celtic fans run out of patience with the status quo
I can't say I hold much truck with the Green Brigade, Celtic's 'ultras' group.  It's probably because they once unfurled a banner at an away game in Inverness which read "Our songs were born in famine and suffering" when it was quite clear that the closest that the perpetrators had come to famine and suffering was when the local chip shop had closed early on a bank holiday.

They've certainly had a penchant for more controversial banners than that in the recent past; it is, however, unusual for them to directly criticise the team.  So Saturday's display at Celtic Park - "gutless in Malmo, clueless in boardroom" is worth noting.  Are Celtic fans beginning to lose patience with a seemingly neverending cycle of an easy title win but no glamour games in Europe?

There wasn't too much on the pitch here to improve their mood, as this was a routine and workmanlike win rather than a flashy one.  Perhaps it was misguided of Ronny Deila to try and elicit a post-match 'roar' as well; most of the support seemed unimpressed.

The thing is, there has been enough evidence from the first month of the season to suggest that the domestic campaign might not be all that routine.  The trip to Pittodrie straight after the international break already looks tasty; after all, Celtic will have more players away on international duty, and depending on the events of the next few days, may no longer have Virgil Van Dijk. LS

Is flogging Christie the right solution to ICT's problems?
Inverness simply can’t buy a win just now. Taking a point from Dens Park would have been considered very acceptable prior to the match but, for what seems like the umpteenth time under John Hughes, they conceded late on in the game to drop two points as Dundee grabbed a deserved equaliser. A simple punt up the park wasn’t dealt with by the Highlanders' makeshift defence and Kane Hemmings pounced to grab a share of the spoils. 

It could have been worse for the Highlanders as earlier on Danny Devine inexplicably chose to fist away a looping cross in the box but Mark Stewart’s penalty was saved by Owain Fon Williams, his second penalty save of the season already. A match low on quality didn’t come to life until the second half when David Raven curled a wonderful shout beyond Scott Bain in the Dundee goal.

Thereafter it was classic end to end football right until the final whistle when Dundee snatched a point before Andréa Mbuyi-Mutombo crowned a forgetful performance with a needless scissor hack of Nick Ross which was reminiscent of a Black Widow take out in an Avengers film. Mutombo will now be banned for at least one game, possibly more if his punishment is increased, which would be a further blow for Hughes given his strained squad.

With only a couple of days to go until the transfer window closes there is still an opportunity for Hughes to strengthen the team; however this would appear to be predicated on selling highly rated youngster Ryan Christie who has been flogged so much in post match interviews that he may as well have been playing recently with a ‘For Sale’ sign stuck to his back.  An offer from Celtic has been accepted with rumours of a loan back to Inverness also included as part of any deal. 

It’s likely that any fee will be well below Christie’s true value but with the transfer window about to ‘slam’ shut (it never closes quietly of course), and Hughes hamstrung by the lack of finance available to him selling prize assets to reinvest in the side looks like his only option. It could be a pivotal couple of days for Hughes. The core of last year’s Cup winning side remain a number are out with long term injuries and the players signed to replace the likes of Shinnie, Ross, Mckay and Watkins, so far, haven’t looked up to the task.  What is left of this transfer window would go a long way to shaping the rest of the season for ICT. AS

Andrew Davies - signing of the season?
Andrew Davies was an England under-21 international.  In January 2008 Southampton paid £1million for him; seven months later, Stoke City paid £1.3million for him.  This guy has pedigree.  And he's still only 30.  How on earth has he ended up playing at centre back for Ross County?

Given that Davies was a first choice (when fit, which wasn't always the case) in League One for Bradford City last season, one suspects that he commands a relatively handsome wage now he has moved to Dingwall.  At the moment it looks like money well spent.  For the second consecutive game he scored from a set piece (courtesy, again, of some woeful defending) but more importantly he looks like a rock at the back, someone who belongs at a much higher level.  He coasted through this match against Dundee United, with and without the ball.

With another new signing, Chris Robertson, well embedded alongside him, as well as two excellent full backs, there's a case for saying that County now have one of the best back fours in the good enough to take them comfortably into the top six.  Unless he gets crocked, Davies will be in the Team of the Year - you heard it here first. LS

Aberdeen march on
Dons fans made up 2478 of the 4940 in attendance at Firhill, 16 more than the home support.  They came, they refrained from wanting to fight Kingsley the mascot, and they saw Aberdeen conquer Partick Thistle Nil to maintain their 100% record in the league.

In fairness to the Jags, the 'nil' wasn't for the want of trying, as they had more shots on goal than their opponents.  Of the few shots that were on target, they also found Dons keeper Danny Ward in superb form; the best of his saves being a stunning stop to deny a Sean Welsh toepoke.

At the other end, there was a question of handball in the build up to Adam Rooney's opener - not so much whether or not it was handball (it was blatant) but how the officiating team managed to miss it.  There was no question mark over the second goal, though - Tomas Cerny did well to get down to his right to stop David Goodwillie's shot across the face of goal, but was unlucky to see Kenny McLean (who was also involved in the build up) on hand to bury the rebound into the back of the net.  It topped off an outstanding performance from McLean, who is turning out to be a bargain signing.

Five games played, five wins in a row.  Aberdeen have matched the start by the last title-winning team under Fergie in season 1984-85.  One more win for the Dons and they'll make history in their own right.  Just the small matter of beating Celtic at Pittodrie...MI

Baraclough's recruitment makes the difference
Motherwell made it clear that one of their reasons for appointing Ian Baraclough was his extensive contacts book; the Englishman has certainly used it to good effect with eight signings this summer.  Theo Robinson, the Jamaican international forward, is the latest; he may struggle to get game time though given that Louis Moult, brought in from Wrexham, scored again against Kilmarnock and combined well with Scott McDonald.  Moult is only in the lineup because another summer arrival, Wes Fletcher, is injured.  There were solid performances from goalkeeper Connor Ripley and defender Kieran Kennedy as well.

Contrast that with Killie, whose only signing from a non-Scottish club in this transfer window is a reserve keeper on loan from Swansea.  Gary Locke's insistence on signing former Hearts and Rangers players hasn't done him any good at all.  This was a better performance from Kilmarnock than we've seen recently, but it came away from home against a team who had lost their previous four league games, and they didn't do enough to warrant a point.  Locke says he needs more defenders, but he hasn't got any room in his budget; maybe he shouldn't have spent it on Lee McCulloch and Steven Smith?  If he is given the funds, the depressing reality is that he would almost certainly use them to move for the recently released Ranger Marius Zaliukas during the international break. 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, August 27, 2015

The state of the Union(ists)

Image result for darren mcgregor
Darren McGregor's departure raises more questions than answers

On the pitch, Rangers have got it sorted at last.

Yes, I type that through the keyboard equivalent of gritted teeth; my disdain for both cheeks of the Old Firm arse (cue some Celtic fans instantly tweeting me to tell me that "there is no Old Firm") has never been a secret, and like fans of many other diddy teams I have taken rather a lot of amusement from their recent plight.

But having taken the novel approach of appointing a competent manager, the Gers look set to cruise the Scottish Championship in the way that Hearts did last season.  They look so much better in every area of the pitch; the defence looks more solid and less gaffe-prone; in attack they have already proved that they can hurt opponents in all sorts of different ways.  Heck, right-back James Tavernier has already got five goals this season.  They look fit, they look motivated and they look very capable.

Quality recruitment has helped.  I recently read the outstanding book The Nowhere Men, about the life of football scouts, where the point is frequently made that managers often live and die by how good they are at signing and selling players.  'Quality' is not a adjective that would be used to describe the squad-building of the last three years, but this summer Mark Warburton has made some great additions - Tavernier, Danny Wilson and Rob Kiernan in defence, Andy Halliday and Jason Holt in midfield, Martyn Waghorn up front, plus a bunch of loan signings who have already made more impact than most of the Newcastle loanees who stole a wage last season.

This common sense, economical approach is somewhat in contrast to the narrative that has come out of Ibrox - and therefore been trumpeted as fact by the Scottish press - for most of the summer.  With the Three Bears, led by South Africa-based billionaire Dave King, now apparently calling the shots, there was talk of millions being invested, of 'top top players' coming to Govan.  We've had, for example, the drawn-out Scott Allan affair, which ended with the Hibernian midfielder signing for Celtic instead.

This was probably a PR tactic to boost season ticket sales; given that Ibrox is full to the brim for home games again, it seems to have worked, and the results mean that nobody is complaining that the team is full of players they haven't heard of.  Allan is a case in point; I'm not convinced that, Halliday, Holt and Nicky Law in central midfield, there was a need to sign him at all.

But given the successful start to the campaign, this week's activity was somewhat odd.  Not the arrival on loan of Arsenal's Gedion Zelalem, a talented midfielder who will fit well into the new setup (though not so well as to justify this sycophantic piece in the Guardian - "dribble like Iniesta and pass like Xavi"?!).  And the exit of Lithuanian veteran Marius Zaliukas, who hardly impressed when fit last season, was not unexpected either; one wouldn't be surprised to see him sign for Kilmarnock, as it's the sort of depressing, relatively thoughtless move that Gary Locke would make.

Darren McGregor's departure, on the other hand, was a big surprise...nay, a shock.  The ex-St. Mirren man was the club's player of the year last season, and deservedly so.  Often played out of position at right-back, he impressed whilst those around him floundered, and his excellent attitude put many higher profile and better remunerated teammates to shame.  He was expected to make a significant contribution this season, even when Kiernan and Wilson were signed.

Not so.  He had his contract terminated by good old mutual consent this week, and signed for Championship rivals Hibernian the next day.  Given that Rangers spent the summer fruitlessly pursuing Hibs' star of last year, it seems deliciously ironic that it was in fact the Edinburgh side that signed Rangers' best player of 2014-15, rather than the other way round.

Two questions come to mind.  Firstly, why let him go?  With Zaliukas offski, the Gers have only five defenders in the squad now, with only one right-back and one left-back.  It seems very unlikely that Wilson and Kiernan will stay fit for the whole campaign; even if they did, Rangers are competing on four fronts, and right now you wouldn't bet against them going deep into all three cup competitions.  Squad depth will be important.

The second question: why didn't they try for a transfer fee?  McGregor was still under contract.  With a week of the transfer window left, it's not impossible that they could have got a six figure fee for a decent and versatile defender.  Instead, they almost certainly had to offer him something of a payoff, which will not have amounted to petty cash.

According to the papers, the answer to the two questions is simple: it's because Rangers didn't want to stand in McGregor's way.  Well, I call bullshit on that one.  An alternative view is that it is a cost-cutting measure.  At the time of writing, the squad has been streamlined to fourteen players over the age of 21, plus a few youngsters and three loanees.

And that takes us to the one issue that remains: the finances.  For the rich investors haven't really invested much at all, beyond some loans.  Despite the terrible relationship with Mike Ashley, the club of course refused to pay back his £5million loan, and show no sign of doing so, even though settling the bill would considerably loosen the hold he has over the club.  Whilst the squad cull at the end of last season has reduced costs, have they really made enough from 30,000 or so season tickets to get through the season?

Time will tell.  I do know one thing, though.  In February 2012 I bet a work colleague £20 Rangers would be liquidated, and won.  In February 2015 I bet the same colleague £20 they wouldn't go up, and won.  This season, I don't think I will be betting against them.

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, August 19, 2015

Five years of screwing up the coefficient

In the second of a two-part article, Martin Ingram reminisces (and grimaces) about the performances of Scottish clubs in Europe over the last five years, which have contributed to our modest co-efficient standing...

For the 2015-16 European competitions, the UEFA member associations were allocated according to their 2014 UEFA country coefficients, which took into account their performance in European competitions from 2009-10 to 2013-14. (Scotland was ranked 23rd in the 2014 UEFA country coefficient, for your information.)  This table may (or may not) show who performed to expectation, and who did not.

2009-10 2010-11 2011-12 2012-13 2013-14
2014-15 2015-16


Dundee United







St. Johnstone

(red=didn't progress as far as expected; grey=progressed as far as expected; green=progressed further than expected. Based on each side's UEFA team ranking at the time)

Cast your mind back to the 2009-2010 season…Celtic manager Tony Mowbray had signed Marc-Antoine Fortune (mind him?) in a deal worth £3.8 million; Aberdeen started the new season under new manager Mark McGhee; St. Johnstone were competing in the Scottish Premier League again after being promoted as First Division champions the previous season, and Inverness Caledonian Thistle would go on to win promotion to the SPL for the first time as First Division champions.

The Premier League champions that season would be Rangers. As reigning champions, Rangers also gained direct entry into the Group stage of the 2009-10 UEFA Champions League. (Scotland was ranked 10th in the 2014 UEFA country coefficient, for your information.) Rangers ranked 28 in the UEFA Team Rankings and barely over a year removed from appearing in the UEFA Cup final, were seeded in Pot 2 and favourites to qualify for the knockout phase. Instead, they failed to win any of their six matches (including a couple of 4-1 humpings at home to Sevilla and Unirea Urziceni) as they finished bottom of the group and unceremoniously dumped out of European football, not even able to manage a third-placed finish that would have seen them enter the round of 32 stage in the first season of the new-fangled Europa League.  Celtic entered the ‘Non-champions’ stream of Champions League qualifying rounds, but could hardly be blamed for going out to Arsenal in the play-off round.

Celtic were directly transferred to the Europa League Group Stages, but hardly covered themselves in glory - they finished 3rd from a group they were expected to qualify from based on their ranking. Hearts went out in the play-off round of the Europa League, although in fairness they were ranked below their conquerors Dinamo Zagreb.  Motherwell (who qualified through the UEFA Fair Play ranking) actually managed to win a couple of European ties before going out in the 3rd Qualifying Round to a Steaua Bucharest that was ranked above Celtic; Aberdeen went out at the same stage, but in far more embarrassing circumstances – in Mark McGhee’s first game in charge of his old club, his side went down 5-1 at home to Sigma Olomouc of the Czech Republic. Other than the witnessing a tired Dons getting picked apart in the final 10 minutes as they thanklessly chased a positive result in vain, and experiencing the bizarre sight of Derek Young (who played at right back that day) watching cross-field balls repeatedly whistle over his head like a dog by the flight of a Frisbee, my enduring memory is driving to South Queensferry after the match for a friend’s wedding that was taking place the following day – on entering the local pub, I was greeted by a Hibernian supporter who chose to laugh in my face while deriding my team’s humiliating performance. (More on Hibernian’s efforts in Europe later…)

Possibly the most embarrassing result of the lot was Falkirk’s 2nd qualifying round exit to Vaduz of Liechtenstein, who then played in the second tier of the Swiss league system. Falkirk’s own participation came as a result of being the Scottish Cup runners-up, a qualifying route that stubbornly persisted for far too long following the defunction of the European Cup Winners’ Cup. Indeed, this historic anomaly wasn’t changed until 2014.

(NB - for all that the above results make for pitiful reading, the 2009-2010 season was actually an improvement on the previous season, where Celtic, Rangers, Motherwell, Queen of the South - another beneficiary of qualification by reason of being Scottish Cup runners up - and Hibernian failed to progress a single round in European competition between them!)

Rangers provide their last significant contribution to Scotland’s Club Coefficient. Again being provided direct entry into the Champions League Group stage, they again failed to qualify for the knockout stage – however, after transferring to Round of 32 in the Europa League, they did manage to knockout the higher ranked Sporting Lisbon before bowing out to PSV Eindhoven in the last 16. Celtic once again failed to progress from ‘Non-champions’ qualifying, knocked out by the higher ranked Sporting Braga in the 3rd qualifying round.

Celtic again dropped down to the Europa League, this time into the Play-off round, but after an encouraging 2-0 home win, the Celts were hammered 4-0 in the return leg at lower ranked Utrecht and missed out on the Group Stage; Dundee United & Motherwell were also knocked out at the same stage, both by higher ranked opposition - United were knocked out by AEK Athens, while Well actually managed to win a couple of rounds against Nordic opposition before finally being conquered by Odense of Denmark. Less impressive were Hibs, thrashed 6-2 on aggregate by the lower ranked NK Maribor. Of course, you wouldn’t expect to see the Old Firm stumble against such Slovenian small fry…

The final death throes of Rangers in Europe. Entering the Champions League in the 3rd Qualifying Round, the Gers (still ranked 33 in the UEFA Team Rankings at this time) were beaten 1-0 at Ibrox by Malmo and could only manage a 1-1 draw in the return leg in Sweden. Dropping down to the Play-off round of the Europa League, they drew none other than… NK Maribor! Beaten, 2-1 in Slovenia, the Light Blues couldn’t win the home leg and went out of a second consecutive European competition in the space of just over three weeks.

Celtic’s own Europa League campaign could well have been derailed at the same stage after Sion defeated them in the initial two-legged tie by an aggregate score of 3-1; however, Sion were forced to forfeit the tie after UEFA found them guilty of fielding ineligible players over the two games. Celtic progressed to the Group Stage – for all the good it did them; they finished third in the group and were knocked out before reaching the knockout stages. It is open to interpretation whether you consider that Celtic were unlucky in this respect… Although benefitting from Sion having to forfeit the Play-off round tie, this was not before the Group Stage draw had been made with Sion in it. Due to Sion’s lower ranking, they were seeded in Pot 4 for the group draw – Celtic’s far superior ranking would have seen them in Pot 2. On the other side of the coin, Celtic’s ranking would have also indicated an expected finish of second place in the group they replaced Sion in – a result that would have seen them qualify for the knockout phase.

Hearts made the play-off round of the Europa League with a win over Paksi SE of Hungary before having the misfortune of drawing Tottenham Hotspur in the play-off round - Spurs hammered the Jam Tarts 5-0 at Tynecastle to effectively settle the tie in the first leg. Dundee United was also desperately unlucky to go out to lower ranked Slask Wroclaw in the 2nd qualifying round. I was living in Dundee at the time and as this coincided with the Dandies’ own European exile an Arab friend of mine was good enough to invite me along with him to the George Fox Stand for the return leg at Tannadice. Trailing 1-0 from the first leg in Poland, the Terrors roared into a 2-0 lead in the opening 5 minutes through ‘silverkissers’ (look it up on Twitter…) Keith Watson and David Goodwillie; later, a John Daly penalty before HT had them up 3-1 on the night and 3-2 on aggregate. Unfortunately, late in the game Slask curled a superb shot into the top right-hand corner from 25 yards out and despite United throwing men forward in the closing stages - and Daly hitting the crossbar in injury time – the Poles went through on away goals.

Arguably the only time since the 2008 UEFA Cup final that either side of the Old Firm has inarguably ‘punched above its weight’ in European competition.  Having twice went to ‘Hel’ and back – Helskini & Helsingborg to be precise – to reach the Champions League Group Stage, Celtic came through a group containing Barcelona, Benfica and Spartak Moscow to finish second and qualify for the Round of 16.  The 2-1 win over Barca, on the week that the club celebrated their 125th anniversary, remains one of the Euro highlights at Celtic Park. They were comfortably ousted 5-0 on aggregate by Juventus, but that does not detract from the success of getting to the knockout phase of the Champions League in the first place. Following the demise of The Rangers Football Club Plc, Motherwell also found itself in the rarefied air of Champions League football, but was also ousted 5-0 on aggregate to Panathinaikos. (Despite finishing second in Greece the previous season, Panathinaikos was higher ranked than Celtic that season.)

Motherwell, as with the other Scottish clubs in that season’s Europa League, had little luck of the draw.  Well drew Levante of Spain in the play-off round, losing 3-0 on aggregate to round, while at the same stage of the competition Hearts drew opposition from the English Premier League for the second successive season and did not disgrace themselves – a 1-0 loss at Tynecastle followed by a 1-1 draw at Anfield. It was also my own second successive visit to Tannadice on European business – this time in the Shed – to see United this time take on Dynamo Moscow. Again, I can attest that the Terrors performed admirably on the night, leading 2-1 before being denied victory when a deflected shot looped over the United keeper to level matters in injury time. It seemed a crucial blow at the time, although the subsequent 5-0 pumping handed out by the Musora in the return leg suggests they had a gear or two in reserve… St. Johnstone rounded out a fruitless Europa League campaign, losing 2-0 in Turkey to Eskisehirspor and only capable of a 1-1 draw in the return leg in Perth.

Celtic managed to get through three rounds – and as the seeded team in each round – to qualify for the Champions League Group Stages, but not before a massive scare in the play-off round against Kazakh Sheep Sacrificers Shakhtar – recovering from a 2-0 defeat in Karagandy to win 3-0 at Celtic Park in the return leg. Having been drawn into a group involving fellow former European champions Milan, Barca & Ajax, a 2-1 home win against the latter was all Celtic had to show for their efforts as they finished bottom of the group and fell out of Europe.

In the Europa League, Motherwell were beaten home and away in the third qualifying round by Kuban Krasnodar; by contrast, St. Johnstone managed to join Well in the same round by pulling off an upset victory over Rosenborg with a fine 1-0 win in Trondheim, followed up with a 1-1 draw back in Perth – Saints also came agonisingly close to another upset, finally bowing out following a penalty shootout loss to Minsk.  The only embarrassment this season was Hibernian.  Not that it was unexpected to go out to a favoured Malmo side, but to lose 9-0 on aggregate?  And to lose 7 (SEVEN) of them at Easter Road to boot?? Surely the most humiliating result suffered by a Scottish side in our history of competing in European fitba’ - I certainly hope a certain Hibee in South Queensferry was watching…

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.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Scottish clubs aren't underachieving in Europe at all

In the first of a two parter, Martin Ingram dispels the myth that Scottish sides are underachieving in Europe...

Celtic Park will be packed for the first leg of the UEFA Champions League Play-off against Malmö FF of Sweden on Wednesday.  Participating in the ‘Champions Route’ (for league champions), Celtic – the last team standing of Scotland’s club participants in Europe this season - were drawn as the seeded team and go into the tie as favourites to qualify for the Champions League group stages and reap the associated riches.  Regardless of the result, this will not be the end of Celtic’s European campaign; the losing team will simply enter the group stage of the Europa League instead.  However, there is no doubt that, with the Bhoys expected to cruise to another Scottish Premiership title come next May – and preferably also a domestic cup or two – progress to the Champions League Group Stage is the benchmark that this side, and manager Ronny Deila, is ultimately going to be measured against.

My own team, Aberdeen, were the last Scottish team to depart from the Europa League qualification process.  St. Johnstone and ICT went out at the first time of asking, in the 1st and 2nd qualifying rounds for the Europa League, respectively - the Perth Saints will have been upset to have gone out to Alashkert of Armenia; however ICT realistically always had a tough draw against Astra Giurgiu of Romania, who still remain in the competition following victory over West Ham United.  Having narrowly squeezed past FK Shkendija of Macedonia on away goals thanks to a first leg strike by Niall McGinn, the Dons pulled off a fantastic upset by then knocking out HNK Rijeka of Croatia - an emphatic 3-0 win on the Adriatic Coast was followed by a nervy but ultimately sufficient 2-2 draw at Pittodrie.

Despite most neutral observers acknowledging a cracking result for Scottish fitba’, there were still those who wished to rain on our parade. Ewan Murray of the Guardian tweeted, following the win in Rijeka: “People also telling us what a sensational result this is… Having never heard of the opposition a month ago.”

This was rather missing the point, given that Rijeka had made the group stages of the Europa League in the previous two seasons, and were unbeaten in 12 home matches during those runs.  Sevilla, a team I think most folk have heard of, failed to win there last season and they went on to win the tournament.

Unfortunately, Aberdeen couldn’t capitalise further on this and went out in the next round to Kairat Almaty of Kazakhstan. Aberdeen’s demise was greeted with the following tweet by Keith Jackson of the Daily Record: “This Aberdeen result is nothing to gloat about. Another eye watering boot in the hawmaws for the reputation of Scottish football.”

Firstly, I can confirm that I managed to restrain myself from getting right in the faces of my work colleagues on Friday morning to brag about our 1-1 draw the previous night and failure to get through the 3rd round of Europa League qualifying. Secondly, I think we need to have a far more realistic reappraisal of the current status of Scottish club fitba’ as compared to the top clubs from other European leagues. For example, Gerard Gohou, the Ivorian striker who scored the away goal that ultimately secured Kairat’s progress to the next round, is apparently on a salary of 1.8million Euros. That would be around one third of Aberdeen’s entire staff wages. (That is to say, the entire staff wages, not just the players…) 

 That’s not to make an excuse for losing – I didn’t think there was that much difference between the teams over the two legs, and was disappointed that the Dons went out – but to bring some realism to the task that faces Scottish clubs in competing against teams from supposed ‘minnow’ nations with well-funded squads of international footballers. (I also assume that Anatoliy Tymoshchuk didn’t go there for pocket money and ‘Borat’ mankinis) Nor is it to say that Scottish clubs should be spending what they do not have – I think that has been tried before and look what happened.

Keith Jackson also continues to regurgitate a certain myth, which he perpetuated in an article for his particular tabloid paper, about Celtic’s chances in Europe being undermined by the rest of Scottish football. (An article that was dissected in far greater detail in the last edition of The Red Final – thought I’d get a plug in there!)  “It’s grossly unfair Scotland’s champions must be saddled with the baggage of others every time they step on a plane and ridiculous that Deila will be back at Lennoxtown … to begin his pre-season schedule.”

As for the “others”?  “There is … a weight of responsibility pressing down on the shoulders of Aberdeen, St. Johnstone and newcomers Caley Thistle. If Scotland’s rot is to stop these three will have to begin landing some blows.”  To suggest that these teams begin to landing some blows is a bit insulting, seeing as it at once insinuates that ICT could have done anything other than this given that they were making their European debut, while also completely missing the ties won by the very same Aberdeen and St. Johnstone teams over the last couple of seasons against Rosenborg & Lucerne (in the case of the Perth Saints) and Groningen (in the case of the Dons) all teams with coefficients very much higher than ours. Nobody is asking that anyone fall at our feet for winning those ties but the results do not warrant such a degree of snide and disrespectful denigration.

(We’ll not dwell on Motherwell here, who fell afoul of Keith Lasley’s inability to restrain himself from fouling Icelanders in his own penalty area as the Steelmen went out at the first hurdle to Stjarnan a year ago)

By contrast, Celtic lost 4-1 to Legia Warsaw in Poland and 2-0 at Murrayfield in their Champions League 3rd qualifying round tie last season, which appeared to give Legia a 6-1 aggregate victory. However the result of the second game was annulled by UEFA because Legia had fielded a player who should have been serving a suspension (Bartosz Bereszynski came on in the 86th minute) – Celtic were instead given a 3-0 victory in the second leg, which meant that they won the tie on the away goals rule. Rules are rules, of course, but even the most one-eyed Celtic supporters must have considered themselves a tad fortunate to get through this one.

Progressing to the play-off round of the Champions League, the seeded side drew NK Maribor. The Slovenians duly proceeded to collect their third consecutive Scottish scalp, courtesy of a shock 1-0 victory in the second leg in Glasgow. Having transferred to the Europa League Group Stage instead, Celtic did manage to progress to the Round of 32 before being narrowly edged out by Inter Milan 4-3 on aggregate. (It should be noted that, in terms of relative rankings, Inter Milan were rated as better than Celtic by the same order of magnitude as Groningen were over Aberdeen that season, and Rosenborg were over St. Johnstone the season before that)

The target for last season was clearly qualification for the Champions League Group Stages, and in that respect Ronny Deila’s first European campaign fell short of expectations. While Deila still managed to deliver domestically with a League and League Cup double, a second successive failure to reach the Champions League Group Stages - and the riches that come with it – and questions about Ronny’s long term future may suddenly start resurfacing.

Part 2 tomorrow - looking back at the last five seasons, and which teams did themselves proud and which let themselves down?  You might be surprised...

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.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Talking Points from the Premiership

Jackie Mac for the sack?
Aye, so who saw this result coming then?  Accies hadn't scored in their first two league games of the season, and had managed just 14 goals in Martin Canning's previous 21 games as manager.  Yet they absolutely annihilated Dundee United here.

It has been a feature of United under Jackie MacNamara that they rarely, if ever, have a match under control - even when the likes of GMS, Armstrong and Ciftci were wearing Tangerine.  Too often he gambles that his flair players will produce some magic in the midst of the mess; Blair Spittal's sensational double in the derby is a good example, distracting from how Dundee were on top for long periods.  When there's no magic (an increasingly common occurrence in recent months) and the opposition are in the mood to take advantage of the midfield frailty, it can be grim viewing.  And so it proved here.

Accies love flooding players forward from midfield at pace, and so they were in good shape to really hurt United.  Norwich loanee Carlton Morris' intelligent movement drew the centre-backs, giving acres for Gramoz Kurtaj and Ali Crawford to maraud into.  John Rankin and John Souttar, sitting in front of the United defence, simply couldn't cover all the space.  Rankin was left so twisted by Crawford for the opening goal that he's probably in bed with an acute episode of vertigo.

Crawford even managed two assists - the first a cross for Lucas which proved that last season's difficulties with high balls into the box haven't been fixed, the second a rather fortuitous ricochet that put Morris clear to score.  United didn't turn up until they were 3-0 down; hell, just to add to the ignominy, Christian Nade practically walked the ball into the net for a late fourth goal.  Christian Nade!

After the game, McNamara called it "the worst half" of his reign.  The truth is that this has been coming for a while; all their weaknesses, and there are many, were exposed for all to see here.  As a one-off event, the calls from many fans for the manager's head on a plate were harsh.  In the context of a run of just four wins in twenty-two games since Armstrong and GMS left, maybe not so much.  With so many youngsters, full of potential but still woefully inconsistent, this is going to be a season of transition for Dundee United.  But will McNamara be around to see the end of it? LS

Don’t let the scoreline fool you. Saturdays match between Celtic and ICT was incredibly one sided until Celtic started to look towards their midweek European fixture and took off captain Scott Brown who had dominated the game until that point. Thereafter they really eased up and ICT were able to conjure up two goals to make the score line look, on face value, a little bit more palatable.

Atrocious may be a bit harsh to describe the Inverness performance but take nothing away from Celtic. They were sublime and they carved the Highlanders open time and time again. The only surprise was that the Hoops were just two goals up at half time when in truth they could easily have hit four or five. John Hughes must be concerned at his side's apparent inability to defend set pieces, an achilles heel for months now. The opening goal came when Mikael Lustig got free of his marker and on to the end of a Stefan Johansen free kick.  Leight Griffiths then took advantage of Danny Devine's lack of spatial awareness to put Celtic two up.

More lackadaisical defending led to two second half goals for Stuart Armstrong, the second of which was the sort of blunder that occurs so often under the stewardship of Hughes. Trying to play their way out of trouble Inverness were gradually forced back until a suicidal ball played across the penalty area was seized upon by Celtic and Armstrong who clinically made it 4-0. After the Brown substitution and the introduction of Ryan Christie from the bench, (left out for tactical reason, Hughes claimed - nothing to do with a rumoured approach for the youngster from Swansea) the game turned. A neat ball in behind the Celtic defence was collected by Christie and he nabbed his second goal in a week with a cool finish. A consolation maybe but it was still a nice finish from the highly rated forward who then turned provider for Dani Lopez who surprised everyone in the stadium, not least the ICT fans who have seen him play this season, by beating Gordon from about 25 yards out with a low drive.

Whilst Inverness didn’t have the quality to really test the Celtic defence Deila will be a little bit concerned at how his side conceded two goals. Whilst the Norwegian was happy to focus on the first hour of the game, he will be looking at how to address his defensive frailties which will undoubtedly be punished by stronger teams in the league such as Aberdeen or, more likely, in Europe.

For Inverness it was always unlikely that they would take anything from Celtic Park especially given the starting XI which Celtic put out which must have been as close to full strength as they could get. Again, the makeshift ICT defence was struggling for parts of the game and made some critical mistakes which cost them goals. Inverness only came into the game once Celtic eased off but both goals that were scored were well taken. Christie injected some pace and direction to an otherwise blunt Inverness attack and fans of the club will be hoping he is still there at the end of the August transfer window. AS

Aberdeen are made of tough stuff these days
Aberdeen went through a tough 90 minutes at Motherwell, however Derek McInnes and his men continued their 100% record with a hard fought win at Fir Park.

The home side perhaps caught the Dons cold following their first midweek break of the season. With Graeme Shinnie caught too far forward with Well in possession, Scott McDonald cleverly slipped Lionel Ainsworth down the right flank, forcing Ash Taylor out to cover him; Ainsworth squared it back to McDonald, who forced a save out of Danny Ward, but it ball bounced out to Marvin Johnson, who volleyed the ball into the net for the opener.  It may be a tad critical to notice that the last two goals conceded by Ward have come from saves he has pushed into the path of the eventual goalscorers, rather than round the post or away to safety - but for that, he has been pitch perfect for the Dons so far this season.

But it's a long time since this Aberdeen side crumbled under the first signs of adversity.  After failing to beat Louis Laing with an initial attempt at a cross from the left, Niall McGinn patiently worked the ball back onto his right foot - his subsequent inswinger snuck past the heels of Josh Law, was then missed by David Goodwillie and keeper Connor Ripley, before dribbling in off the base of the post to level the score.  It was messy, but they all count.

Aberdeen pressed the play before half time, with Goodwillie having a goal disallowed for handball and then having another effort saved by Ripley at point blank range.  The Dons finally took the lead with another bizarre goal.  From a Niall McGinn free kick, Ripley chose to run head first into Laing's backside rather than come out for the cross, and Ash Taylor gratefully accepted the opportunity to nod home into the vacated net.  There was even time for another patented McGinn effort off the woodwork before the end of the match.

It must have been another hard result for Ian Baraclough to swallow, now a third defeat in a row.  It could have been worse - the initial match report on the BBC Sport website had stated that Motherwell had yet to win a league match this season, which must come as concerning news to the Well supporters that apparently beating ICT doesn't even count as a league win nowadays... 

Aberdeen next welcome Paul Hartley's Dundee, a side that proved to be something of a bogey for the Dons last season.  If they are to retain their 100% record next weekend, they will likely require to produce their best performance of the season so far. MI

St. Johnstone's defensive woes
Given how well Dundee are playing just now, it's a travesty that the BBC could only rustle up two minutes and five seconds of highlights of this game.  But that's a subject for another day...

This would be an opportune moment to point out that I predicted Dundee would finish fourth in the league, and got a lot of stick for that.  Yet their start to the season has been impressive enough that few would bet against that.  They look solid in every area - Scott Bain is in stunning form in goal, Kane Hemmings and Greg Stewart are on fire up front and Gary Harkins looks as hungry as he has ever been, both literally and metaphorically given his improved fitness.

St. Johnstone, in contrast, have not started the season well; they haven't led a game for a single minute this season, they've conceded a goal by the seventeenth minute in each of their four league matches; they've conceded more goals in those four games than they did in the last thirteen games of last season.

The backline, a strength for so long, is currently the problem.  It doesn't help that Steven Anderson is still recovering from a facial injury sustained in the Europa League qualifiers, but nor does it help that they don't feel they can currently trust Frazer Wright or Brad McKay, both subs on Saturday.  35 year old Wright is simply too vulnerable against mobile forwards, whilst McKay, brought in from Hearts as his potential long-term replacement, has struggled thus far.

In this match Tommy Wright started with Dave Mackay and Tam Scobbie, both best suited in the full-back roles, in the centre of defence.  Whilst Brian Easton is as solid as ever on the left, it's also been a rough start for another newcomer, Joe Shaughnessy, on the right; the Irishman was left floundering by Nicky Low in the build-up to Dundee's second goal.  The boss would surely prefer to have the tried and tested Mackay over there, instead of plugging an Anderson-shaped hole.

Given the Perth Saints don't score enough goals at the best of times, they can't afford to be fragile at the other end.  Anderson is out until at least the middle of next month; will the manager need to bring in another centre-back before the end of the transfer window as well. LS

Hearts can grind out wins too
Victory over Ross County preserved Hearts' 100% record, and keeps them top of the table, at least for now.  Dingwall is a difficult place to go, but two early goals put them in the driving seat and they managed to hang on even after Liam Boyce's penalty reduced the deficit.

Impressively, the Jambos showed that they could see such a match out; they slowed down play, frustrated the home side and effectively killed the game off.  Robbie Neilson noted as much himself -"The foreign guys coming in know how to manage a game - the younger Scottish boys are starting to pick that up as well, how to win a game. You don't always have to win it by playing wonderful football; at times you have to win it by managing it properly."

Hearts have the talent, and they increasingly have the knowhow.  Just how high can they finish this season?  Pretty high, I reckon. LS

Killie need to win on days like these
Kilmarnock are a bad team by pretty much any measure you want to use. Although the league table doesn’t really mean anything at this stage of the season, they currently occupy the position that many expect them to finish in. They have also won one of their last 13 games.  

Having unexpectedly held Celtic in midweek however, they headed to Glasgow’s west end with a bit of spring in their step. They still couldn’t get that elusive win, but a decent display by Josh Magennis and a goal from Kris Boyd showed that if they are to stay up, their best bet will probably be to attack. While not exactly superstars, Boyd, Magennis and Kallum Higginbotham are pretty good options for a team in the lower reaches of the Premiership, and if Gary Locke  can find the imagination to get the most out of them then they might just have enough goals in  them to survive.  

The reality however is that a point is all they got and was perhaps more than they deserved.  Thistle were the better team and will be very disappointed to have conceded a late equaliser, even taking into account that they played the last quarter of the game with 10 men.  

While any points prised from the cold, undead hands of Kingsley are to be cherished, draws  aren’t going to be enough of Killie this season and they need to start winning soon. IM

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.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Talking points from the Premiership

Kilmarnock are the pits
“I haven’t seen Aberdeen but I know they went out [of Europe] and maybe that might be a positive thing for us. We’ve just got to stick to our game plan and hopefully we get the three points.”

Why had Kilmarnock right-back Darryl Westlake not seen Aberdeen? (As he told STV, above, in advance of Sunday's game.)  One wonders what Kilmarnock do all week.  The Killie back four were well positioned for about the first half-hour, playing with a high back line early in proceedings, however once Aberdeen got over their sluggish start and really started to motor there was only ever one team in it.

Westlake certainly saw plenty of Jonny Hayes during the first 45 minutes of this game.  After persistently fouling Hayes (and finally getting booked for it at the third attempt) Westlake was uncharacteristically 'less robust' when trying to tackle him on the edge of the penalty area (likely aware that a further foul would have resulted in a sending off); the ball broke to Graeme Shinnie, who arrowed a shot with the outside of his left foot past Jamie MacDonald and into the top right corner to open the scoring.  Westlake will have needed a hug at half time.

By way of contrast, Aberdeen's right-back could have had a hat-trick.  Shay Logan had a header saved at point-blank range by MacDonald in the first half.  Later he denied by a last ditch headed clearance by Steven Smith, then he stung MacDonald's gloves with another shot at goal towards the end of of the match.  By this time, Willo Flood had been upended in the box by Lee Ashcroft and Adam Rooney sent MacDonald the wrong way from the resulting penalty kick.  The match was settled with over half an hour still to play.  

A couple of errant headers in the second half was all that Kilmarnock managed to produce going forward - the second missed by the hilariously immobile Kris Boyd, greeted to a chorus of derisory cheers and 'Sumo' chants by the home support.  Killie offered little up front, and were barely any threat at all.  Even after only two games, they look in trouble.  Their opening two league games have produced zero goals and just a single shot on target.  Already bottom of the Premiership, next up is a midweek fixture against Celtic.  

For Aberdeen, after another consummate team performance they will now finally get a midweek rest following the postponement of their home game with Hamilton.  It was a postponement requested by the Dons at a time when they felt they may still be in European competition, however with their Europa League run having now come to and end they may regret not getting the opportunity to maintain their early season momentum and keep pace with league leaders Celtic and new challengers Hearts. MI

A nice Sunday lunchtime jaunt for Celtic
John Collins' comments, reported in the Sunday papers, that other Scottish clubs were "not clever enough" and "not quick enough" to properly test Celtic were rude and disrespectful...but seemed less so after the first half at Firhill.  Celtic were only one up after the first 45 minutes, but should have been out of sight despite barely needing to break sweat.

Partick Thistle (apparently referring to them as 'Partick' is insufficient for their supporters) offered no more resistance other than a bank of four and a bank of five, all within thirty yards of their own goal, and a challenge to Celtic to pass through them - which wasn't much of a challenge given a lack of pressure on the ball.

I'd worried pre-kickoff that their rookie centre-back pairing of Jack Hendry and Liam Lindsay - three top-flight starts between them - would struggle, but they acquitted themselves fairly well.  The problem was further up the pitch, with lone forward Ryan Stevenson incapable of holding the ball up or hounding opposing defenders, while Steven Lawless and David Wilson on the flanks were horrendous in possession and dreadful at tracking back.  Lawless was especially poor on his return from a ban for betting - one hopes he didn't have his own team on his coupon this week.

The Jags were better after the break, especially when new striker Mathias Pogba came off the bench and started throwing his weight about.  Thistle were so much better in each of the last two seasons with big Lyle Taylor up front; this Frenchman should fill that role effectively.  With possession more often established further up the pitch, Alan Archibald's side looked far more comfortable.

Of course, that might have also been because Celtic coasted through the second period after Kris Commons' strike.  One wonders what the score might have been had the Champions approached this with all guns blazing. LS

Too much tinkering from Neilson

Most would call it Political Correctness gone mad, but I wasn't surprised that the SFA raised an eyebrow when St. Johnstone defender Brad McKay called Hearts striker Juanma "a typical foreigner" last week.  If I referred to anyone in that manner in my line of work, I'd be pulled up for it.

It was also rather amusing given that McKay's early slip against his former club had gifted the Spaniard a goal in that game, and he had a generally torrid afternoon against the big forward.  But he won't be the only one this season; Juanma struck twice at Dens Park as Hearts came from behind to make it six points out of six - with both wins against sides that finished in the top six last season.  The winner came after some superb footwork under pressure, with Julen Extabeguren left looking foolish as he slid past the sidestepping Spaniard.  In this case "a typical foreigner" appears to mean "far superior to Scottish players".

They hardly had it all their own way though - the first half was one way traffic as Dundee tried to add to Kane Hemmings' early goal.  Robbie Neilson's bizarre decision to play a diamond midfield with Alim Ozturk in front of the central defenders didn't help - such was the onslaught that the Turk effectively ended up as a third centre back and the Jambos had no answer as Kevin Holt and Paul McGinn caused havoc in wide areas.  Neil Alexander may be 37 but he proved with a string of saves in the first half that he is still one of the best keepers in the league.

Neilson managed to find a half-time solution without making a substitution - debutant Juwon Oshaniwa moved to left midfield and Igor Rossi shifted into left-back with Ozturk dropping back.  Going 4-4-2 gave them far more of a foothold in the game.  But his experimentation was unnecessary and he was lucky to get away with it.  His Plan A is more than good enough as it is. LS*

Curran will have plenty of chances to work on his celebrations
In the second half of last season, Ross County weren't the best team in terms of quality, but they might have been the best in terms of workrate.  In short, no-one scraps as well as them.  That's meant as a compliment, not a slight.  Craig Curran, their two goal hero against Accies, epitomises that brilliantly.  His technique would usually make a Spaniard cry (though his first strike was an acrobatic finish after a goalmouth melee), but he runs all day long and never gives up anything.  He's only completed ninety minutes in two of nineteen starts for the Staggies...because he ends up knackered and needs peeled off the pitch with a quarter of an hour to go.

If County have added a bit of panache to their play - and their second goal suggests so - then they will be a very difficult opponent this season.  Right-back Marcus Fraser has been involved in plenty of goals since joining from Celtic in January, and on this occasion he showed some great timing and skill to burst forward and link up with Michael Gardyne before riding a challenge and leaving it on a plate for Curran.  Fraser is still just 21, and seems to have flown under the radar; I'd say he was one of the best four or five players at his position in this league.

There's reason to believe that there will be plenty more goals for County this season, and plenty more for Curran.  In which case I do hope he comes up with better goal celebrations than his efforts here.  But that was the only criticism that could be made of him. LS*

United's Murray looks like he belongs
According the highlights on the BBC website, Dundee Utd’s visit to Fir Park was an end to end classic. Given that only about 90 seconds of a 2 minute video was given to football highlights however, it would have had to plumb the depths of Switzerland v Ukraine at the 2006 World Cup to not find enough action to entertain for that length of time.

United of course collapsed following the sales of Stuart Armstrong and Gary Mackay-Steven midseason, and then sold Nadir Ciftci in the summer. Jackie McNamara needs his next generation of youths to step up to the plate; six players aged 21 or under started this game. Simon Murray was not one of them – he came off the bench and, at 23, is practically a veteran at Tannadice – but he is a rookie at this level. A year ago, he was playing for Arbroath; a year before that, he was at Tayport.

Well, his finish for United's second goal looked like that of a far more accomplished striker than his background suggests. McNamara was glowing in his praise of Murray after the game and if he keeps scoring like that then he will be the next man to leave for big money.

Assuming Murray does go on to fulfil his potential, a question is raised: who was the last really good Scottish footballer with ginger hair? David Hopkin? IM

Christie needs to find some consistency
How would your club fare with eight players out injured?  I'd bet that, unless your club is Celtic, you'd really be struggling.  Well, Caley Thistle could name only three outfield subs, with a total of zero first-team starts between them, against St. Johnstone.  Taking that into account, a draw in Perth after leading for most of the game is not too shabby.

That said, St. Johnstone did themselves no favours.  They should have been aware that Inverness were down to the bare bones - Ross Draper at centre-back, Lewis Horner on the right wing! - yet they started with just John Sutton as a lone striker.  It wasn't until Tommy Wright threw on some more forwards that they managed to get back into the game.  A more aggressive plan - a la Motherwell last week against the Highlanders - would have reaped dividends.

Ryan Christie scored for the Caley Jags and shone throughout.  Playing in his more favoured central role, Christie is very adept at finding gaps between the lines and caused havoc doing so in this match.  Despite being a fan, I thought his Young Player of the Year award last year was awfully generous, probably because his best performances tend to be on his travels.  He often looks like he tries too hard at home matches, not helped by an element of the support who expect magic every time he touches the ball.  He hasn't scored a goal at the Caledonian Stadium for eleven months.

If he is to win a Scotland cap, as John Hughes brazenly predicted post-match, Christie will need to start playing like this every week.  One fears that he'll be rather less effective against Partick Thistle in the Highlands on Wednesday. LS

*with thanks this week to Laurie Dunsire and John A Maxwell for observations on the Dundee-Hearts and Ross County-Accies games - it's hard to write this when the BBC only put up 90 seconds of highlights.

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.