Thursday, December 31, 2015

End of year quiz

Happy new year, everyone, when it comes.  For your amusement, here's a quiz looking back at 2015 in Scottish football.  How well do you know your SPFL?

2015 Scottish football quiz

Let's look back at 2015 in Scottish football. Twenty many will you get right?

Lets start back in January 2015 - which striker scored four goals in one game that month?

Kris Doolan
Josh Magennis
Billy Mckay
Adam Rooney

Which Scottish club had the highest win percentage in all competitions in 2015?

Albion Rovers

And which Scottish club had the lowest winning percentage in all competitions in 2015?

Dundee United
St. Mirren
Alloa Athletic

Montrose very nearly became the first team to be relegated from the SPFL. Who did they beat to secure their League Two status?

Brora Rangers
Cove Rangers
Edinburgh City

Dundee United have played 35 league games since Stuart Armstrong and Gary Mackay-Steven left for Celtic at the end of January. How many have they won?


St. Mirren played thirty-eight league games in 2015. How many did they win?


Cammy Bell's horrendous blunder at Fir Park helped Motherwell to victory in the Promotion/Relegation playoff. Whose shot did he fumble into his own net?

Lionel Ainsworth
Marvin Johnson
Scott McDonald
Stephen Pearson

How many Premiership goals did Billy Mckay score in 2015?


What happened to Carl Tremarco in the Scottish Cup Final?

He got injured in the warmup
He scored
He got sent off
He handballed on the line but the referee missed it

What reason did Adam Matthews give for leaving Celtic in the summer?

"I need regular first-team football"
"I've won everything I can with Celtic"
"I've always wanted to work with Dick Advocaat"
"The league in Scotland isn't great"

Why was Kallum Higginbotham's summer move to Kilmarnock unexpected?

He was a boyhood Ayr United fan
He was sent off against Killie last season
He had previously slagged off plastic pitches
He had previously been in a relationship with Jamie Hamill's missus

Which of these players scored the highest number of Premiership goals in 2015?

Liam Boyce
Kris Doolan
Leigh Griffiths
Adam Rooney

Which of these current Kilmarnock players didn't previously play for Gary Locke at Hearts?

Conrad Balatoni
Dale Carrick
Jamie Hamill
Scott Robinson

Who was the SFWA Footballer of the Year for 2014/15?

Craig Gordon
Stefan Johansen
Adam Rooney
Greg Stewart

Which of these teams didn't beat Rangers in 2015?

Queen of the South
Raith Rovers

How many games did Celtic win in the Europa League Group Stage this season?


Dundee United recently signed Florent Sinama-Pongolle. Which of these is not a former club of his?

Atletico Madrid
Sporting Lisbon

Now onto the national team. How many minutes did Matt Ritchie play in his first two competitive internationals?


How many goals did Steven Fletcher score for Scotland in 2015?


And finally, which of these teams didn't qualify for Euro 2016?

Northern Ireland

Oh dear.

You just watch English football, don't you? Or you're a Rangers/Celtic fan and therefore don't give a damn about the other 40 Scottish teams...

Not bad

You're a bit like Hibs. Good, but not good enough.

Top of the table

Either you've been reading this blog all year, or you looked up all the answers on Wikipedia...

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Talking Points from the Premiership

Motherwell were sensational
Some idiot (*whistles*) wrote on here last week that Celtic were going to coast to the title.  Admittedly, I wasn't the only one who didn't see this coming; Motherwell win at Celtic Park, for the first time in eight years?  That sounds more like an April fool than a Christmas cracker.

Criticism comes easier than praise, so it is incredibly tempting to focus on the many deficiencies of the home side's performance.  But by God Motherwell were brilliant.  Mark McGhee took a big gamble by starting with two forwards, and then another big one by bringing on Lionel Ainsworth at half-time for the ill Liam Grimshaw; both paid off, even if Ainsworth was only on the pitch for 36 minutes - he was subbed as part of the reorganization that followed the loss of Stephen McManus to a concussion.

Many a team would have wilted after falling behind so unluckily (Nir Bitton scoring with the aid of a huge deflection), but 'Well stuck at it and deserved their win.  Louis Moult was outstanding, with his two goals taking him to nine in the league.  If he scores another nine in the second half of the campaign, he will be safe.  The star, however, was Marvin Johnson - his pace caused havoc down the Celtic right, taking advantage of Mikel Lustig's advanced starting position.  It wouldn't be a surprise if other managers take note of the damage a quicksilver winger can do to the champions.

To be fair, there were great performances everywhere for the Steelmen, who finished the game with two teenagers (Ben Hall and Luke Watt) and the relatively youthful Louis Laing in their defence.  This result should keep Motherwell fans warm and fuzzy all the way to Christmas Day, and gives hope to the rest of us. LS

Kilmarnock are a shambles
It is hard to say whether we should be lauding Aberdeen for their wonderful attacking play or lambasting Kilmarnock for their woeful defending, and while the cliched response would be to say that it was a combination of both (which is, of course, true - they are cliches for a reason...) for at least a couple of the goals it would be charitable to claim that Killie were actually defending.

The first goal was a case in point.  Kenny McLean's left footed delivery may well have been into the 'corridor of uncertainty' (Geoffrey Boycott is probably receiving weekly royalties for that phrase...) but Niall McGinn's run was not tracked by young Ross Barbour, allowing him to nod home from inside the six yard box.  I didn't think the second goal was as bad from a defensive stand point - McGinn's decision to cross with the outside of his right boot clearly gave Adam Rooney that crucial half-step to time his run in front of Killie skipper Mark Connolly and power home his header - but judging from the boos that rang out from the home support they clearly were not impressed.

The third goal, however, was calamitous defending.  Straight from the restart, McLean got down the left flank and lofted a fairly regulation cross into the box, yet Jonny Hayes was able to prod the ball home in the middle of the box with literally no defender within 10 yards of him. Stuart Findlay, left back on the day although a centre back by trade, went to cover Rooney's run to the front post, but there was no-one behind him and Hayes is allowed to run through to nutmeg the keeper.

Having reviewed the highlights, it looks as if Greg Kiltie was first covering Hayes at kick off, although I would be surprised if the winger was expected to track him that far back.  Whomever was at fault, it was terrible defending, especially when you consider that Killie had managed to get that badly out of their defensive shape within seconds of kick off.  If the home fans weren't impressed with the last goal, they were certainly not amused at this one.

At least Aberdeen's fourth goal was a cracker.  With fresh legs on the park, Cammie Smith slipped a quality pass through to Peter Pawlett, and his back heel pass fell perfectly for the onrushing Shay Logan to wrap up the scoring.  For all the success that the Dons have had this season, this was the first time they managed to score four goals.  For Killie, this was the fourth time this season that they'd conceded at least four goals at Rugby Park.  They now tie Dundee United for having conceded the most goals in the Premiership this season, and if they want to keep ahead of them in the league standings then addressing those failings would be a good start. MI

Accies hand Dundee a mighty boost
Are Dundee United truly awful, or on a poor run of form that tends to happen to at least one team each season?  A similar question could be asked of Hamilton Accies after watching the first 25 minutes down the other end of Tannadice Street on Saturday afternoon. Any team can have an off day, but rarely have I seen a top flight team conceded four goals in such a short period of time and in such a shambolic manner.

Paul Hartley had recently bemoaned his team's slow starts; after this, he understandably praised the tempo of his team, and how they came flying out of the traps.  That said, if the opposition have a collective panic attack every time you hoof the ball forward, the chances are you’re going to have a relatively comfortable afternoon.

Each of Kane Hemmings’ three goals must rank among the easiest he’s scored, although he
does get some credit for calm finish to complete the hat-trick.  Greg Stewart's strike was one of those
satisfying curlers that looks even better when the camera is right behind the player, but Hamilton’s defenders were practically begging him to shoot there.

Lawrie questioned this week whether United’s travails were distracting from Dundee’s own
troubles given they hadn’t won in their previous 8 games. It was a legitimate point, but looking at
how congested the table is from 5th to 10th, and how generally poor those teams have been
this season, it’s likely that mediocrity will be more than sufficient to achieve a safe but boring
end to the season. IM

Hughes' stubbornness leaves Horner hanging
Having previously endured a run of just one win in their previous six league games the prospect of ICT facing the bottom two sides in the Scottish Premiership, Kilmarnock and Dundee United, in back-to-back home games offered up a real chance to get their stuttering season back on track. Despite picking up four points out of six, ICT supporters were left frustrated with the perceived negative approach from John Hughes’ men, especially against Kilmarnock, and also scratching their heads as first team regulars have been left out of the starting lineup with little nor no obvious reason behind their absence.

On Saturday, right-back David Raven remained on the bench despite an injury to Josh Meekings. Instead of recalling Raven to the side Hughes chose to pick utility man Lewis Horner.  Horner had a torrid afternoon, caught out of position for both United goals and generally struggling all game. Despite it being the season of goodwill the home support were quick to let Horner know what they thought of his showing in a surprisingly hostile show of emotions and it seemed certain that he would be withdrawn at half time to shore up a porous Inverness defence which was breached when John Rankin lashed the ball into the net after Horner was beaten by Scott Fraser down the Inverness right. Rankin’s goal was the first scored by a United player other than Billy Mckay since August.

Hughes persisted with Horner after the break and the former Hibs man grabbed a vital equaliser in injury time; Liam Polworth had earlier scored for Inverness but Mckay put United ahead again after Despite grabbing the equaliser Horner himself admitted that it didn’t make up for his poor performance but he wasn’t helped by an apparent unwillingness from Hughes to adapt his tactics to counter the United threat down the left and offer the struggling right-back more protection.

Hughes is known to be stubborn and will rigorously stick to how he believes the game should be played. It’s hard to argue with given that he secured the Scottish Cup and European football last season, but on other occasions his refusal to alter his style causes problems for his team. One of the main reasons Horner was so often out of position was because of the way ICT set themselves up from goal kicks where both full-backs step up to or near the halfway line with one midfielder dropping slightly in front of the centre-backs. The second United goal came from such an instance.  An aimless goal kick from Fon Williams was won in the air by United and quickly fed out wide to Erskine who had cleverly positioned himself in the gap vacated by Horner moving up the pitch and the cross was eventually bundled in by Mckay after some calamitous defending. 

Horner didn’t cover himself in glory but he wasn’t helped by his manager's reluctance to provide him with some help. ICT fans will be hoping that Yogi's stubbornness subsides because Inverness are not in a position where they can afford not to be playing their best defenders each week. AS

Four in a row for Partick Thistle
1977 was the year the original ‘ Star Wars' opened in cinemas. It was also the last time Partick Thistle had won four top-flight games in a row. They were confident of matching this heading into this one against a Ross County side who have faltered in recent weeks, following their early season promise.

 The Staggies has the best of the early chances. Skipper Andrew Davies found himself in acres of space to latch onto Martin Woods whipped in free kick 6 yards out, however he failed to a make a decent connection and Tomas Cerny made a smart stop with his left leg.  Cerny was less impressive when Jonathan Franks latched onto a loose ball across the Jags back four, initially coming out and then scrambling back as the former Middlesbrough man burst down the right. However his cross was eventually swept clear – danger averted.  Franks was again causing problems down the right flank, and his lofted cross found Michael Gardyne at the edge of the box, who then volleyed just over.

Despite the Dingwall men having the best of the first half, it was Partick Thistle who fortuitously opened the scoring. Stuart Bannigan delivered from the left and Davies, from almost exactly the same spot as his missed first half chance, made a better connection and thumped past his own keeper.  Oops.

If that was one for the bloopers reel, Kris Doolan came up with a reel of his own.  Firstly, he looped a header onto the crossbar and proceeded to rattle the bar again with the follow-up, although admittedly Scott Fox had a big part to play in the second effort with an excellent reflex save on his return to Firhill.  Doolan desperately stretched to try and nod in at the third attempt but only managed to knock the ball to safety.

Referred (I think this is meant to be 'referee' but I like to believe it is a Freudian slip - Ed) Andrew Dallas waved away claims from Jackson Irvine for a penalty late on as the Aussie burst into the box and appeared to be tugged back by Abdul Osman. Although it would’ve been soft, I’ve seen them given.  Matias Pogba then showed why he plys his trade in the SPL and not at the same elite level as his brother Paul, when he ballooned a header over from 6 yards in the dying embers.

But Partick hung on for that fourth straight win - for them, The Force has indeed awakened in the last couple of months.  ST

Saints and Hearts justify their lofty league positions
How does one come up with any new insight on the St. Johnstone-Hearts game?  We all know Juanma was a moron for headbutting David Wotherspoon.  We all know St. Johnstone created enough chances to win three games.  And we all suspect that Steven Maclean's skied penalty may have narrowly missed Tim Peake in the International Space Station.

If there is one thing to take away from this match, it's that it will be a huge surprise if these two teams don't finish third and fourth in the table (in which order, I'm not sure).  Both are good value for their current elevated positions, and there is plenty to like about both of them.  And that's really all I've got! 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 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.

Stuart Taylor (ST) is Wick Academy's team doctor. He is an Aberdeen fan, especially now they're doing well again.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Just how bad are Dundee United?

Dundee United absolutely suck.  They've won two league games so far this season.  They've scored only eight times from open play and only one player (Billy Mckay) has scored for them since August.  They've already used 30 different players this season.  They were pumped in the League Cup by Hibs, who are in the division below.  They suck.

For the last couple of editions of Talking Points, I've been keeping track of just how terrible United's start to the season is - only one team has ever had fewer points after this many games.  For weeks, I've assumed that the turning point is just around the corner, but every Saturday they lose again.  Eight points adrift at the bottom, they are undoubtedly relegation candidates.

And now I've said that, they'll probably win in Inverness on Saturday.  Gah.

But how does this Dundee United team compare to some of the worst in recent history?  Well, here's a summary of the four worst sides in Scotland's top flight since we went to three points for a win...and a few others who had dreadful starts to the season but somehow dragged themselves out of the mire.  Who would have thought that United could have a worse team than one with Jamie Buchan in it?

The Hall of Shame
5th - 2003-04 Partick Thistle
Won 6, drew 8, lost 24, scored 39, conceded 67, 26pts. Relegated with 4 games left

Management duo Gerry Britton and Derek Whyte didn't come close to keeping Thistle up
Remarkably, the Jags nearly managed to stay up, until common sense took over and the SPL agreed to let Inverness be promoted after all.  It would have been a travesty if Partick Thistle had survived, not just in terms of fair play but because they were useless.

It started in the dugout with John Lambie's retirement in the summer of 2003.  His long-time assistant Gerry Collins succeeded him...lasting 13 weeks in which they won no games, picked up only two points out of forty-two, and got knocked out of the League Cup by Peterhead.  His replacements, playing duo Derek Whyte and Gerry Britton couldn't do much worse, though they did try.  Fourteen points adrift by February, the biggest surprise is that relegation wasn't confirmed until after the split.

To be fair, they were financially hamstrung at the time - even losing Stephen Craigen to Motherwell because they could pay higher wages (despite being in administration!)  The playing squad?  Aside from James Grady, who scored a spirited 15 goals, to be honest the only ones I've heard of are the ones whose careers were already winding down by this point.  Who on earth was Jean-Yves Anis?  He started more than half their league games!

Most used XI: Kenny Arthur, Jean-Yves Anis, Adrian Madaschi, Kenny Milne, Grant Murray, Derek Fleming, Jamie Mitchell, David Rowson, John-Paul McBride, Gerry Britton, James Grady

4th - 2011-12 Dunfermline Athletic
Won 5, drew 10, lost 23, scored 40, conceded 82, 25pts. Relegated with 1 game left

Jim Jefferies didn't have a clue how to keep Dunfermline up either
In hindsight, the Pars are one of the weakest sides to be promoted in recent times, and completely failed to bring in the sort of quality they needed to have a shot at survival (no, Kevin Rutkiewicz, Mark Kerr and Andrew Barrowman do not count as 'quality').  And it only got worse when keeper Paul Gallacher got injured and backup Chris Smith, surely one of the worst goalies to play at this level, got a string of matches in which to make a string of blunders.

Jim McIntyre didn't have a chance with this bunch; Jim Jefferies, who replaced him late in the season, didn't either.  Only Gallacher, loanee Jordan McMillan and Joe Cardle got another shot at SPL football.  And it's only got worse since; administration followed within a year, and last season they were closer to the bottom of League One than the top.  Only now under Allan Johnston have things turned around at East End Park.

Most used XI: Paul Gallacher, Patrick Boyle, Andy Dowie, Alex Keddie, Austin McCann, Paul Burns, Martin Hardie, Gary Mason, Joe Cardle, David Graham, Andy Kirk

3rd - 2007-08 Gretna
Won 5, drew 8, lost 25, scored 32, conceded 83, 13pts (10pt deduction for entering administration).  Relegated with 7 games left

Gretna's fairytale ended not just with relegation, but liquidation
The Gretna story was fun right up until they reached the SPL.  Brooks Mileson and his llamas, a Scottish Cup final appearance, a UEFA Cup tie.  Then manager Rowan Alexander stepped down/was forced out (depending on who you believe) in March 2007 and their run to promotion nearly collapsed under Davie Irons; the game that saw them go up, a 3-2 win on the final day of the season in Dingwall, is one of the best matches this blogger has ever been to.

The lack of reinforcements (apart from the exotic Fabian Yantorno) raised alarm bells.  So did the embarassment of Alexander turning up to try and sit in the dugout for their opening match...which had to be played at Fir Park because the club's ground wasn't up to scratch.  It soon became clear that Mileson had run out of money; there was huge squad turnover as the high earners who had taken them up the league were discarded in favour of cheap foreigners, English non-leaguers and loanees.  Remarkably, the 37 players used during the season included Kyle Naughton (now at Swansea) and Aurelien Collin, who has established himself in MLS.

The midden hit the windmill when the money ran out in February.  Irons left, with Mick Wadsworth guiding the team to the end of the season.  The club went into administration in March, making 22 players redundant.  Even if they hadn't got a ten point deduction they'd have gone down...and they'd have gone bust.  They did manage to fulfil their fixtures - and beat Hearts in the last one - and were liquidated that summer with debts of £5million.

Most used XI: Greg Fleming, Kyle Naughton, Aurelien Collin, Chris Innes, Craig Barr, Allan Jenkins, Nicky Deverdics, Gavin Skelton, Paul Murray, Fabian Yantorno, Kenny Deuchar

2nd - 2001-02 St. Johnstone
Won 5, drew 6, lost 27, scored 24, conceded 62, 21pts.  Relegated with 4 games left

Tommy Lovenkrands in action for St Johnstone
Tommy Lovenkrands was Peter's older, more rubbish brother
Only two seasons earlier, Sandy Clark's St. Johnstone played Monaco in the UEFA Cup; in hindsight, he was allowed to ride that wave for far too long.  Clark was sacked in September 2001 with the side winless in their opening league games and having sold their best player, Momo Sylla, to Celtic.  Their first SPL victory under new boss Billy Stark didn't come till November, at which point they had won only two of thirty-one in the league going back to the previous December.

Whilst the defence was hardly reliable, it was up front that the Perth Saints struggled most.  Paul Hartley (before he was good) was top scorer in the league with just four goals.  The strikers - including veterans Willie Falconer, Paddy Connolly and Darren Jackson as well as wonderboy-that-never-was Keigan Parker and Peter Lovenkrands' much crappier older brother Tommy - couldn't hit a cow's backside with a banjo.

They failed to score in half their league games, and their record of 24 goals for the whole season was an SPL record until it was broken by the same team eight years later.  That one was made of stronger stuff - after years of Stark (and one nightmare campaign under John Connolly), St Johnstone rebuilt under Owen Coyle and Derek McInnes and finally returned to the top flight in 2008.

Most used XI: Alan Miller, Mark Lynch, Nick Dasovic, Grant Murray, Darren Dods, Stuart McCluskey, Paul Kane, Paul Hartley, Tommy Lovenkrands, Paddy Connolly, Willie Falconer

1st - 2005-06 Livingston
Won 4, drew 6, lost 28, scored 25. conceded 79, 18pts.  Relegated with 2 games left

Paul Lambert did rather better after leaving Livingston than the club did

Livi's collapse was almost as quick as their rise through the leagues; the 2004 League Cup winners went into administration a month before that triumph.  In 2004-05 they survived only on the final day of the season, under the leadership of Richard Gough (and with the iffy signing of Hassan Kachloul).  With neither sticking around, Paul Lambert took on the challenge in his first managerial post; he did so badly - two wins in twenty-six games!!! - that it's amazing to think that he went on to manage in the English Premier League.  His Waterloo was a 7-0 thumping at Easter Road.  Ouch.

John Robertson replaced Lambert in February but lost his first six games (Lambert had lost his last six) and the game was up shortly after the split.  Livi took just six points from their last nineteen games and managed only four league wins all season.  If you ignore Gretna's points deduction, they are, in terms of points scored, the worst team in SPL history.

As stated above, it didn't do Lambert any long term harm.  The squad that season also included Wes Hoolahan, Graham Dorrans and Robert Snodgrass, all of whom have gone on to play in England's top flight and earn international caps.

Most used XI: Roddy MacKenzie, Dave Mackay, Harald Pinxten, Greg Strong, Jason Dair, Richard Brittain, Paul Tierney, Allan Walker, Derek Adams, Wes Hoolahan, Paul Dalglish

And the teams who turned it around...
2000-01 Dundee United
5pts after 18 games, finished eleventh with 35pts

So what do you think Jim McLean did next?
This was the season of that Jim McLean interview, Alex Smith's collection of foreign has-beens and never-wheres (the three Honduran signings were later parodied on Only An Excuse as having formed a Peruvian pipeflute band after exiting).  Smith replaced Paul Sturrock only two games into the season; United had been in the top three the previous December, but collapsed since then.  Sound familiar?  Luggy had spent £200,000 on Darlington winger Neil Heaney that summer.  Who?  Exactly.

Theirs is the worst start to a season in the SPL era...yet this United team, with bastions such as Jamie Buchan, Hasney Aljofree and Jim Lauchlan, avoided the drop despite winning just once in the league before the turn of the year.  They won their last four games, which was just as well as St. Mirren, who were relegated at their expense, finished with 11 points from their last five matches.

Most used XI: Alan Combe, Hasney Aljofree, Jason De Vos, Jim Lauchlan, Danny Griffin, Jamie Buchan, David Hannah, Craig Easton, Charlie Miller, Derek Lilley, Stephen Thompson

2005-06 Dunfermline
9pts from 18 games, finished eleventh with 33pts

Getting peppered with shots at East End Park for a year did a young Allan McGregor no harm at all

Having only avoided the drop the previous year thanks to a rescue act from Jim Leishman, the Pars discovered that their own stalwart wasn't much good over the course of a whole season; they were saved by Livingston's extraordinary ineptitude and were actually fifteen points above the Lions by the end of the season.  That's not to say they were any good, though they did reach the League Cup final where they lost 3-0 to Celtic.  That was the campaign's highlight; the nadir was getting pumped by the same team 8-1 on their own ground in the league.

Incidentally, this was the most successful season of Mark Burchill's career, as he scored fifteen goals.  And the goalkeeper was one Allan McGregor, on loan for the campaign from Rangers.  It was third time unlucky the next season, as the Pars were relegated.

Most used XI: Allan McGregor, Greg Shields, Andy Tod, Scott Wilson, Greg Ross, Scott Thomson, Lee Makel, Gary Mason, Darren Young, Mark Burchill, Noel Hunt

2014-15 Ross County
10pts from 18 games, finished ninth with 44pts

Image result for liam boyce ross county 2015
The emergence of Liam Boyce as a lethal striker helped County avoid the drop
Last season's County side didn't quite look doomed by December, but only because Motherwell and St. Mirren were equally abysmal.  Jim McIntyre, who replaced Derek Adams in September, was given licence to bring in almost entirely a new squad - and by the spring he had found enough decent players (and finally managed to get his message across) that the Staggies went on a stunning run of form that kept them up with some room to spare.

Most used XI: Mark Brown, Marcus Fraser, Paul Quinn, Scott Boyd, Jamie Reckord, Michael Gardyne, Jackson Irvine, Martin Woods, Filip Kiss, Liam Boyce, Craig Curran

1999-00 Aberdeen
12pts from 18 games, finished tenth (out of ten!) with 33pts

Image result for hicham zerouali aberdeen
Hicham Zerouali was a rare bright spot in Aberdeen's season
Ebbe Skovdahl arrived in the Pittodrie hotseat with plenty of fanfare...and promptly lost his first seven league games.  At least in the seventh game they actually managed to score their first goal of the campaign.  Over the course of the season, nearly £1million was spent on David Preece, Thomas Solberg, Rachid Belabed and Hicham Zerouali, whilst Arild Stavrum arrived too.  Luckily for the Dons, it was clear with months to spare that there would be no relegation due to Falkirk not meeting the SPL's new stadium criteria.

So Skovdahl was able to concentrate on rebuilding the squad and on the cup competitions - they reached the League Cup final (losing to Celtic) and the Scottish Cup final (losing to Rangers after Robbie Winters had to go in goal for 87 minutes!).  And with Stavrum, Zerouali and Skovdahl establishing themselves as cult heroes, Dons fans tend to look back on this season with surprising fondness.

Most used XI: Jim Leighton, Thomas Solberg, Russell Anderson, Jamie McAllister, Andreas Mayer, Paul Bernard, Cato Guntveit, Robbie Winters, Andy Dow, Eoin Jess, Arild Stavrum

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, December 14, 2015

Talking Points from the Premiership

Celtic are going to crush everyone again
Less than seventy-two hours after a difficult away game in Turkey, Celtic travelled to Perth in frigid conditions to take on a St. Johnstone side who have been on fire for the last two months.  And Leigh Griffiths, Scott Brown and Nir Bitton were missing.  It wasn't unreasonable to think that Ronny Deila's side might be vulnerable.

So much for that.  Say what you like about their European campaign, but Celtic's record in league games straight after continental duty has been impeccable - ten wins out of ten.  Like so many times this season, the champions started slowly and could have fallen behind...and like so many times this season, once they got the opening goal they ran away with it.  Is that a bit of luck, or just that other teams don't believe in themselves, or that other teams just aren't good enough?  Probably a bit of the second, and a bit of the third.

Nadir Ciftci's sudden return to form bodes ill for everyone else; the biggest weakness seemed to be an overdependence on Griffiths for goals.  Going into the second half of the season, Celtic have a four point lead plus a game in hand on Aberdeen.  At a similar stage last year the gap was smaller - just 2 points.  And there's no further European distraction.  Depressingly for the rest of us, it looks like no-one's anywhere nearer to challenging their dominance.  This victory, over one of the stronger teams they'll play this season, confirms that their name is already on the 2015-16 title trophy. LS

Hearts, Hearts, Inglorious Hearts
Kudos to over 1200 Hearts fans (notwithstanding the one muppet who let off the firework in the away end...) who made it to Pittodrie despite a Saturday lunchtime ko in the middle of December with the game on TV and travel disruptions caused by the Forth Road Bridge closure.  I was out at the Old School House later that day with a couple of those Hearts fans, when I bumped into another one of those Hearts fans, Guardian & Observer golf correspondence Ewan Murray.  While he agreed with me that it was a good Hearts support, I saw that he tweeted afterwards that Aberdeen's home turn - in an overall attendance of 13,000 - was "very poor".  A recurring theme from Murray, which in fairness he admitted himself, but do folks agree or disagree with him that a home attendance of nearly 12,000 in the same circumstances - minus the Forth Road Bridge issue - is "very poor"?

But I digress... Anyway, chapeau to the Hearts fans. As for their team...

The Jambos were torn apart when the teams last met at Tynecastle and Robbie Neilson clearly set his team out to stop the Dons doing that again - by any means necessary. Peter Pawlett - in for the injured Niall McGinn - was fouled twice by Jordan McGhee in the first ten minutes, and that set the tone for the rest of the match. To provide some balance, this wasn't the case across the pitch - the impressive Jonny Hayes tormented Callum Paterson down the left flank, but to his credit Paterson tried to defend him cleanly throughout the match.  However that was the exception rather than the rule.

Miguel Pallardo was tormentor-in.chief.  Having earlier challenged Graeme Shinnie so late that he fouled him with his knees, he was later booked for a bad foul on Pawlett.  Undeterred, Pallardo tripped up Hayes a minute later.  Referee Craig Thomson blinked, providing Neilson with the opportunity to hook him - with barely half an hour gone - to stop him from getting himself sent off.

The Dons were dominant in the first half.  Neil Alexander made a few great saves, stopping a reaction left foot shot from Hayes, then denying a header from Andy Considine after he was left completely unmarked from a Hayes free kick. (had he directed his header either side of the keeper it would have been a goal.  But he didn't.  So it wasn't.)  Alexander also saved from Kenny McLean to keep the game scoreless at half time. 

Even when Hearts had their own opportunities they resulted from their own foul play.  Early in the second half Pawlett was tugged back while in possession in his own half, allowing Hearts to win the ball and get it to Sam Nicholson, who drifted infield to smash a dipping long-range effort off the bar.  A minute later, Nicholson himself was doing the tugging back and found himself the next Jambo to be booked.  While Aberdeen tried to let their feet do the talking, Osman Sow preferred to let his elbow talk to Shinnie's head.  Fan foul play leads to players having to leave the field in order to be assessed under concussion protocol, ye ken yer watching a roch game - less Premier League, mair Buchan League...(stop with that Doric crap Martin, this isn't Sunset Song! - Ed)

The bookings came thick and fast as the game degenerated into a scrap.  Blazej Augustyn saw yellow for a bodycheck on the breaking Shinnie, while McGhee finally went in the referee's notepad after shifting his bad intentions to Shay Logan.  Both bookings were either side of a yellow card to Willo Flood for a bad foul on Arnaud Djoum - the latter seemed so disinterested throughout the game that I am amazed he ended up with the ball long enough to be fouled by someone in the first place.

Sadly, for all that one may criticise Hearts for their tactics, the blunt reality is that they were effective, continually breaking up the play.  Without McGinn, the Dons were ineffectual from the set piece opportunities that followed.  I wrote in my last Talking Points piece about how the Ulsterman had been directly involved in all of Aberdeen's goals in the previous few games, and he was badly missed here; the home side had the majority of the pressure but became a bit predictable as the match wore on.

In the end, the decisive action came from McGhee, whose inexplicable handball in the box from McLean's cross allowed Rooney to convert the ensuing penalty with a strike that beat Alexander's outstretched glove to the bottom right corner of the goal.  (As an aside, I have no idea how McGhee managed to stay on the park after deliberately punching the ball in the penalty area, other than that Thomson had set his mind on Hearts finishing the game with 11 men.)

Aberdeen were better over the 90 minutes and although they were lucky to be literally handed the breakthrough at the end they deserved their win.  Hearts, however, will need to take a long, hard look at themselves.  For a team lying third in the league table, and with genuine aspirations to rise higher, this was depressing, and all the more frustrating given that they have players who can play better football than this; Paterson and Nicholson particularly impressed in spite of the negative attitude displayed by some their teammates. MI

Doolan keeps on doing it
Kris Doolan's winner for Partick Thistle was a belated birthday gift for the forward, who turned 29 last week.  The goal was much like the other seventy-nine he has scored for the Jags over nearly seven seasons at Firhill - from inside the penalty box, where he displayed quicker speed of thought than the defenders around him.

The fact that Doolan continues to score goals at this level continues to surprise; Partick's longest serving player, he wasn't exactly prolific in the second tier, and in each of the last three seasons his manager has brought in another striker in January to usurp him (first Steven Craig, and then Lyle Taylor on two occasions).  Whilst he scored nine times in the league last season, four of those came on a single evening against Hamilton.

And yet the former Auchinleck Talbot striker continues to prove his worth.  He might be wee at 5ft 7in, and he doesn't have blistering pace or astounding technique, but much like St. Johnstone's Steven Maclean he seems to think so much quicker than most of his opponents.  And unlike Maclean, he covers a lot of ground.  To be honest, Dundee United could do with some grafters like him.

Doolan's latest one year contract expires in the summer.  One wouldn't bet against Alan Archibald keeping him on again.

Oh, and in other news, Dundee United move 'up' to fourth in the standings for Worst Start To A Top Flight Season...LS

Worst starts in the top flight since 3pts for a win was introduced

Dundee United 2000-01 18 1 2 15 11 36 5
Dunfermline 2005-06 18 2 3 13 10 31 9
St. Johnstone 2001-02 18 2 3 13 12 33 9
Dundee United 2015-16 18 2 3 13 13 34 9
Partick Thistle 2003-04 18 2 3 13 17 35 9

Caley Thistle are their own worst enemy
Caley Thistle's result against Kilmarnock was rather better than the performance.  Whilst the visitors were so abject that any outcome other than a home win would have been outrageous, it would be a stretch to say that John Hughes' side impressed...other than the lovely move that led to a second goal for Iain Vigurs.  With the opener handed to them on a plate by the most glorious of blunders by Kevin McHattie - passing the ball along your own byline is never wise - Caley Thistle chose to settle into their usual "pass the ball backwards and sideways until it's given away" philosophy.  Going by post-match comments from the players and the manager, they were quite chuffed with the first 45 minutes; those of us freezing our backsides off in the stands would have preferred more action.

As alluded to after the game by Hughes, ICT have struggled to dominate teams for a whole ninety minutes, and they looked very uncomifortable after Gary Locke switched to a 4-4-2 at half-time.  The back four should have known better than to sit so deep - is Dale Carrick really that quick? - and the passing game broke down alarmingly.  Kilmarnock got back into the game without playing well or clever - but their direct football, plus the lively substitute Greg Kiltie - caused problems.

Inverness have managed just two clean sheets all season, and are dreadful for conceding late goals and from set it was a given that Killie would grab a late consolation from a badly defended corner.  Inexplicably (they've been doing this all season), Caley Thistle kept three players in attack when defending a corner with a few minutes left.  It's just crazy - it means there is far more space in the box for opponents to use to run and attack the ball.  Not only that, but I can't remember ever seeing ICT score a goal on the counterattack after a clearance.  It's a stupid tactic, and why Yogi persists with it is nuts.  If other teams aren't capable of beating them, Inverness will do their level best to beat themselves. LS

Dundee are quietly on the slide
Have the troubles at Tannadice overshadowed some significant problems just along the road?  In January, I was sat at a wedding reception with Motherwell's team doctor on an afternoon when Dundee pumped the Steelmen 4-1.  From February onwards, though, the Dark Blues have won just five games out of thirty; defeat at Fir Park leaves them without a win in ten and with just two victories in four months.

As Paul Hartley pointed out post-match, a better start to games might help.  In their last eleven matches, they've conceded nine goals in the first twenty minutes of the match; they've scored only twice in the first half of their last fifteen games (compared to fifteen second half goals!).

That's atrocious, but no-one seems to have cottoned on yet.  Dundee have slid down to ninth in the table now, which is unacceptable for a side which invested significantly in its squad in the summer.  A few more iffy results and might Hartley be under pressure? LS

County's strength in depth
Only 100 seconds of highlights for a clash between two top six sides?  Naff off again, Sportscene.  Accies-County had 26 shots on goal and plenty of incident.  It deserved far more attention than it got.

Neither side were in good form coming into this; in hindsight, Jim McIntyre's wholesale changes (five in all) to his lineup proved a better move than Martin Canning's insistence on mostly sticking with the players who started the season so well.  It tells you something about County's strength in depth that Jamie Reckord, Chris Robertson and Raffaele De Vita had previously been warming the bench; the former two certainly made the backline look more comfortable than it has in recent weeks.  Most importantly, though, Michael Gardyne made a fifteen minute cameo on his return from injury, setting up a goal and being denied another by an erroneous offside flag.

Perhaps Canning will consider a few changes ahead of next week's trip to Dens Park.  It certainly wouldn't be a surprise to see Jesus Garcia Tena restored to that leaky defence.  But when you look at that Accies bench, there aren't exactly many alternatives when that starting XI are out of form. LS

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

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

Monday, December 7, 2015

Talking points from the Premiership

St Johnstone's ruthlessness keeps the winning streak going
Seven straight wins on the road.  St Johnstone continue to defy both short and long term expectations of them.  Pound for pound, the Premiership's top three sides appear to be comfortably better than the rest of the division, but the form of Tommy Wright's team allows them to knock on the door of the newly formed establishment.  If there was any doubt whatsoever, fourth place in the league is theirs to lose and it would take a brave punt to bet against that.

In some respects this was a classic St Johnstone display in terms of how they managed the game's circumstances, even if they have and will play much better this season.  A run of the mill start saw an early goal that was seemingly scored out of nothing, but it was an early indicator of the pattern of the match.  With Murray Davidson pressuring Martin Woods to go backwards, Woods bucked the responsibility of starting a passing move off again - with Ricky Foster and Scott Boyd in a triangle around him - and instead placed scrutiny on his namesake Gary.  The goalkeeper had to deal with a backpass which bounced and spun in slippery conditions, but even so he took at least a couple of seconds too long to clear the ball.  David Wotherspoon showed the reason why managers want players to close down the goalkeeper at any opportunity.

The fourth-minute goal allowed St Johnstone to immediately tighten up their midfield and take control of the match for the next 20 minutes or so.  Liam Craig started the match surprisingly high up the pitch, but as soon as Wotherspoon scored he slotted into central midfield beside Davidson, with Chris Millar sweeping up behind them in a 4-5-1/4-3-3 shape.  Davidson and Craig made it difficult for Martin Woods and Jackson Irvine to find any space to make or receive passes, with Ross County's centre-backs having a lot of touches on the ball while St Johnstone sat back.  While County's centre-backs moved the ball from side to side quickly, there was not much space to pass into and not much more game intelligence to drag St Johnstone out of shape.  Andrew Davies is among the better players in the division in passing from the back, but as he strode forward Jackson Irvine or Martin Woods would drop short to look for the ball and somehow make both players' roles redundant. When passes were made into territory further upfield, they were typically to Liam Boyce to try to turn and open angles for others, but in doing so County encroached into Millar's territory and he did an excellent job of reading the play ahead of him and snuffing out attacks.  Most of the movement from County's front six came by Tony Dingwall cutting in from the left into hidden pockets, when the team actually needed some width and an ability to beat a man 1v1 on the flanks.  Jim McIntyre's 4-4-2 system has been successful and largely based on width and deliveries into the box, but it has strangely lacked both in the recent run of poor form - without a left-footed player on the left flank nor a winger on the pitch at all, it wasn't a surprise to see County caged in for most of the first half.

Yet they persevered and made a very presentable chance before Wotherspoon scored his second.  County found just enough of a chink in St Johnstone's armour and Foster's inswinging cross to Stewart Murdoch at the far post, marked by Wotherspoon, should have resulted in an equaliser.  It didn't and St Johnstone showed how efficient they continue to be when Wotherspoon got 1v1 against Murdoch.  Wotherspoon did all the right things and shaped his shot well, even if it was slightly too close for the goalkeeper to save more often than not.  Gary Woods was probably still rattled by his earlier mistake and let the shot sail through his outstretched hands - Woods was at fault at all three goals, but until this match had enjoyed a faultless if brief Ross County career in Scott Fox's absence.  On the flipside, Wotherspoon had a very good game in the way he shielded the ball on the left flank and tried to bring others into play, as well as in the manner in which he tracked Marcus Fraser and Murdoch toward his own goal.  With Scott Boyd and Foster performing man-marking jobs on Steven MacLean and Michael O'Halloran to a high standard, Wotherspoon was St Johnstone's key attacking player and delivered.

Two goals down at half-time and facing one of the most clinical counter-attacking teams in the division, County needed to do something quite different to get back into the match.  It didn't happen in the first 15 minutes after the break, as McIntyre insisted on sticking with the starting line-up and with St Johnstone's Millar still being tactically the most important player on the pitch, as the spare man in midfield.  After an hour, Alex Schalk was brought on in place of Dingwall and County moved to a diamond midfield, with the Dutchman playing just behind the other forwards.  It was a surprise in as much as one might expect Schalk's small size and burst of speed to be used as the forward highest up the pitch, to play off the shoulder of the last defender, but he showed some smart touches to bring others into play and his pace gave Millar some positional problems.  Schalk's introduction stretched the game, as did Jon Franks's cameo. St Johnstone didn't react well to the change of tactical circumstances and as County brought the score to 2-2, it looked like there was only going to be one winner.

However, you can only keep O'Halloran quiet for so long.  With the playing area opening up and County's full-backs pushing forward to provide width to the diamond shape, it gave the St Johnstone winger just enough of a window in the match to play a crucial role in winning the match.  A knock-down by MacLean allowed O'Halloran to get goal-side of the County defence for the first time in the match, with Davies feeling compelled to bring him down outside the box.  Dave Mackay curled a cunning free-kick around the outside of the poorly-organised wall in a manner eerily similar to one scored against County two seasons ago.  While County haven't scored from a direct free-kick in a run of 71 competitive matches, St Johnstone showed the difference between aiming for the top six and being good enough to stay there. JAM

Are Aberdeen back to their best?
This was more like the Aberdeen of the start of the season.  With a trip down the A90 to play a Dundee team that have been hard to beat in the last couple of months, and caused them all sorts of problems last season, the Dons were all over the Dees in an opening half an hour that saw them storm into an early lead that they never relinquished.  

Given the stormy weather the game was played in, it was the Hayes-Rooney-McGinn trident that sank the Dundee.  From a flurry of early pressure, a Jonny Hayes ball in was backheeled by Ash Taylor into the path of Niall McGinn, who lashed home to opening the scoring.  Shortly after, Adam Rooney was involved in the build-up play for a goal that he would ultimately be on the end of - laying back a loose ball in the penalty area, McGinn swept the ball from left to right via Willo Flood (another apt name in these playing conditions...) to Hurricane Hayes, whose ball found Rooney unmarked at the back post to make it 2-0.

Niall McGinn was once again supreme for the Dons, even in a match where he only managed to play the first 45 minutes.  In the last three matches, he has contributed to all six of Aberdeen's goals - scoring two, assisting two and directly involved in the build-up for the other two.  When McGinn and Hayes both play well they look a great side, and when Rooney is providing the finishing they more often than not bag three points. 

It was a great win for Aberdeen on a day with so many other matches postponed - they are now firmly ensconced in second place, as many points ahead of Hearts in third as they are now behind Celtic at the top.  As for Dundee, a run of seven games without a win sees them stuck in seventh place - worse still, they are now within range of both Thistles should they win their games in hand. Mid-table mediocrity is no disaster, but Paul Hartley and his charges surely have higher aspirations than that. MI

Dundee United haven't turned the corner yet
Dundee United have conceded some poor goals...well, actually a lot of poor goals...this season so far, but the one they let in after only a few minutes at Rugby Park was particularly dreadful.  It was a cracking ball in by Josh Magennis, but Kris Boyd has rarely had an easier finish than when he ghosted into a bus-sized gap between Sean Dillon and Gavin Gunning to tap-in.  This was the third straight game that Mixu Paatelainen has sent out his team with three centre-backs (despite BBC pundit Allan Preston claiming it was the first time) and they still don't look in the slightest bit comfortable with it.  

In contrast, Killie switched to a 4-5-1 with Magennis going wide and Boyd recalled through the centre, and looked like they'd been using it all season.  Maybe that's just because Gunning was playing against them; only a wonderful save from Michal Szromnik prevented Tope Obadeyi from taking advantage of a horrendous fresh-air kick from the defender at a long throw-in.  If I was to do something like that at seven-a-sides tonight, I'd get slaughtered.

If Killie had taken their plethora of early chances, United would have been pumped and Mixu would be feeling plenty nervous.  But they didn't, and the red card for Stuart Findlay and resultant penalty brought them back into the game.  They failed to make the extra man count, though.  If it can be argued that Billy Mckay and Blair Spittal wasted glorious chances (and Spittal might have had a penalty too), it should also be pointed out that at the other end Boyd missed a sitter and Craig Slater hit the post.

At least the Terrors are creating goalscoring opportunities.  But they still haven't clicked under Mixu - that's just 4 points out of 21 since he took over (along with a League Cup thumping at Hibs), and if the season had started when he arrived United would still be bottom.  The next three opponents are Partick, Inverness and Motherwell - by the end of that run they have to be closer to the sides above them if they are to save themselves. LS

Worst starts in the top flight since 3pts for a win was introduced
Motherwell 2002-03 17 2 3 12 17 35 9
St. Johnstone 2001-02 17 2 3 12 12 31 9 Relegated
Ross County 2014-15 17 2 3 12 17 37 9
Dundee United 2015-16 17 2 3 12 13 33 9
Gretna 2007-08 17 2 3 12 15 39 9 Relegated
Aberdeen 1998-99 17 2 3 12 17 54 9
St. Mirren 2014-15 17 2 2 13 11 31 8 Relegated
Dunfermline 2005-06 17 2 2 13 10 31 8
Livingston 2005-06 17 1 5 11 9 35 8 Relegated
Partick Thistle 2003-04 17 1 3 13 13 34 6 Relegated
Dundee United 2000-01 17 1 2 14 11 35 5

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.

John A Maxwell (JAM) is co-editor of Tell Him He's Pele, the acclaimed website focused on Scottish lower league football.  He is an authority on all things Ross County.  Legend has it that the 'A' stands for 'awesome'.

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.