Thursday, December 29, 2016

Talking Points from the Premiership

Inverness are in a mess
With the Highland Derby coming up this weekend, Richie Foran reached for the cliche cannon after this defeat: "if you are a boy, don't get on that bus to Dingwall.  If you are a man then good as we need brave men now".  That's the sort of guff a man under pressure starts spouting.

The stats make grim reading for Inverness Caley Thistle.  Winless in nine games, their worst run in a decade.  One win in thirteen.  The worst defensive record in the Premiership, with one clean sheet all season.  Their lowest points total after twenty games in any of their twenty-three seasons as a club, in any division.

And the problems on the park are much the same as they were in August.  There's no pace in attack.  The lone striker is constantly isolated as no-one gets up to support him quickly enough.  Players are being played out of position (Liam Polworth on the wing?!).  The midfield aren't protecting the defence well enough, and that plus individual errors means soft goals are frequently being conceded, often when the team are on top.

The second half against Motherwell was particularly galling; ICT had dominated the first half, but fell behind to a wind-assisted Craig Clay strike that completely caught out Owain Fon Williams.  Spooked by this, the home side stopped trying to outplay Motherwell and instead resorted to thirty-five minutes of aimless hoofball and long throws.  Let's be clear; wind doesn't stop anyone from passing the ball on the deck.

At what point does the buck stop with the manager?  The change in approach wasn't a deliberate move by Foran, but was a desperate response from players who lack confidence and/or heart at the moment.  The failure of his senior players to show any leadership was deeply depressing, but so too was the manager's inability to change things from the touchline.

For the record, Motherwell were also pretty hopeless.  But they won.  Inverness are in complete freefall.  That four year contract (yes, you read that right) that rookie Foran was given in the summer looks pretty daft right now. LS

Hearts make Kris Boyd eat his words
It wasn't clear what was giving the Hearts fans the most pleasure on Tuesday night - the 4-0 shellacking of Kilmarnock or the opportunity to goad Kris Boyd for his foolish tabloid comments about Ian Cathro.  "You're getting f***** by a laptop", they chanted.

Of course, one swallow does not make a summer; just as Cathro's slow start did not make him the next John McGlynn, so one impressive victory does not make him the next Alex Ferguson.  But Hearts looked impressive, albeit against a Kilmarnock side who were toothless in attack and who offered zero resistance at the back.

Lee Clark bemoaned the lack of quality available to him after the game, and insisted new players will arrive in January.  One can understand his wish for reinforcements - the defence, albeit shorn of experienced heads like Miles Addison and Scott Boyd, were a mess, whilst up front Boyd looked out of shape again and Nathan Tyson has yet to score for the club or look like doing so.

That said, Clark has signed seventeen players permanently or on loan since the end of last season.  His request for more will have raised an eyebrow or two in the Rugby Park boardroom.  Some loanees will leave next month and create a little space, but how many chances should the Englishman be given to completely overhaul this squad? LS

Christie grabs his opportunity
As a Caley Thistle fan who still dreamt that Ryan Christie might return on loan in January, the news that he was outstanding against Ross County was bittersweet.  The 21 year old has been on the fringes of the Celtic squad for much of the season but took full advantage of his rare start, impressing hugely before being replaced on the hour.

Given his display, one wonders if Brendan Rodgers' decision was a tactical one or rather a move to save the player's legs - after all there is a rather bigger game coming up on Saturday.  It would probably still be a surprise if Christie was to start at Ibrox, but Tom Rogic remains a big doubt for that game, potentially leaving a vacancy in that number 10 role.  Christie has certainly staked his claim for it.  And yeah, there's no chance he'll be coming back north next month. LS

Rangers and St. Johnstone show some flexibility
So it turns out that Rangers can play a formation other than 4-3-3; with Lee Wallace injured and no natural left-back available, they surprised everyone in Perth by starting with a back three and with James Tavernier and Barrie McKay as very attack-minded wing backs.  And it worked for the early stages, with McKay's goal as reward for their dominance.

But credit to Tommy Wright for then switching St. Johnstone to a similar system, and to his players for being flexible enough to make the change.  Whilst they only got a foothold back in the game thanks to a horrendous error from Rob Kiernan (who was linked with a £2million move in January by some crazy newspaper), they matched Rangers after that and thoroughly deserved the draw - a result which looks all the more impressive given that Murray Davidson was out and Danny Swanson only fit enough for a late cameo.  St. Johnstone are still unbeaten this season against Rangers, Hearts and Aberdeen. LS

Can Thistle find some consistency at last?
Back-to-back wins have catapulted Partick Thistle up to sixth place, which makes this blogger's preseason prediction that they would finish in that position look slightly less ridiculous now.  That said, they are still closer to bottom spot than they are to fifth, and there's a long way to go.

The question is whether this wee spurt is sustainable.  Plenty of Thistle players are on form just now; Kris Doolan appears to be on one of his occasional goalscoring streaks; Chris Erskine is playing with his shoulders high and his head up; Ryan Edwards is dominating the midfield with his energy; Adam Barton is strolling games at centre-back; Tomas Cerny's return in goal has lifted confidence hugely.

But consistency has been Thistle's problem ever since they returned to the top flight.  They have Kilmarnock at home next, a very winnable game; a victory would give them significant breathing space at the bottom going into the winter break.  But just how much would you bet on Partick Thistle winning a third consecutive game? LS

Accies just aren't winning enough games
The stats don't look good for Hamilton Accies; defeat at Pittodrie leaves them ten games without a win, and their only victory in sixteen games was actually against Aberdeen at home.  There have of course been a lot of draws, which is why they're still not bottom (albeit on goal difference) but it's not looking good.

Accies do things their own way, of course; working on a tight budget, they remain determined to develop their own talent  four academy products started this game, though three of them are longstanding first team regulars.  The fourth, Scott McMann, has struggled since getting into the team and was sent off late on.

The trouble for Martin Canning is that there is no James McCarthy or James McArthur on the horizon.  Other youngsters like Darren Lyon, Greg Docherty (both injured for this game) and Eamonn Brophy (a used sub) will probably end up making a living in the lower end of the Premiership or the Championship, but will not go further in the game.  Meanwhile, Canning hasn't found a signing to match the likes of Tony Andreu, who shone for his predecessor Alex Neil.

Canning's record as Accies manager is quite staggering - this was his seventy-sixth league match in charge, the equivalent of two seasons, and he has just sixteen wins in that time.  It's a small miracle Accies are still a top flight club; it's also a small miracle that they aren't bottom at the moment.  But this could be the year they finally go down. LS

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 19, 2016

Talking Points from the Premiership

Celtic's reserves struggle to step up
Celtic continued their waltz towards title number six in a row with a routine yet nervy win over Dundee at Celtic Park on Saturday.  Leigh Griffiths and Nir Bitton scored the goals that made the difference and it was the third game in a row with a goal from last season's top scorer.

Brendan Rodgers rang the changes and it made for a lack of width for Celtic as Gary Mackay-Steven and Ryan Christie both seemed to want to cut inside, leaving what seemed like four central attacking midfielders.  The absence of first-choice full-backs Kieran Tierney (injured) and Mikael Lustig (benched) was also noticeable.  Christian Gamboa and Emilio Izaguirre both had tough shifts down their respective flanks and couldn't offer the same attacking prowess.  So Celtic toiled as they tried to break down Dundee.

The suspended Scott Brown was also missed; Nir Bitton lacks his bite, but the Israeli's goal, a finish as good as you are likely to see from outside the area, somewhat made up for it.

The best domestic start for any Celtic manager ever continues to roll on although the last three games have been a bit of a slog.  Big matches against Hamilton, Partick Thistle and Ross County and the small matter of a visit to Ibrox are still to come before 2017.  Twelve points out of twelve and the league is over. PF

Aberdeen stutter at the wrong time
Last Tuesday night, Aberdeen lost the opportunity of closing the gap to second placed Rangers when floodlight failure hit Pittodrie Stadium.  This weekend, the Dons once again failed to add to their own league points tally in a match that we may end up reflecting on as the game that lights finally went out on their tenure as the second best side in Scottish Football.

With minutes remaining in the match, Aberdeen had worked hard to overcome an early deficit.  While other strikers in this league earn plaudits for their goalscoring feats, Liam Boyce continues to quietly go about his business for Ross County; his deft poach from Michael Gardyne's cross saw him also slide into first place in the top scorers list, the first man to double figures in the Premiership so far.  However, the Dons managed to rein back the Staggies after a Shay Logan cross flashed across the box for Niall McGinn to convert at the back post.

With ten minutes remaining, a key moment in the match; a desperate lunge by Kenny van der Weg brought down Jonny Hayes and refer Craig Thomson immediately brandished a red card.  With Ross County down to ten men, it appeared as if Aberdeen had been given an opportunity to snatch a victory from the jaws of defeat.  Instead, a late cross into the box was nodded down by Andrew Davies and Ryan Dow reacted first with a looping header for the winner.

So, a valuable win for Ross County, which sees them return to the top six of the season following a variable run of form over the last couple of months.  As for Aberdeen, they now fall seven points behind Rangers and, with a transfer window round the corner that may see the latter strengthen further, the former will struggle to find a way to close that gap in future. MI

Should Partick Thistle write off the Celtic game?
If anything, Partick Thistle will feel they dropped two points at Tynecastle, given their second half dominance after Sean Welsh's equalizer.  However, the draw keeps them bottom of the table as we head into the busy festive period.

And Thistle's is busier than most, because on Tuesday they play at Celtic Park - the fixture which, for the second year running, was scandalously rearranged so the Champions could send their reserves to play in a friendly.  That will be the second of five games in just fifteen days before the winter break.  They then have a trip to Dingwall on Friday night followed by home games against Dundee and Kilmarnock.

Those three games are of utmost importance to Thistle's hopes of avoiding the drop.  In contrast, their infamous record against Celtic is well known; no wins in their last thirty meetings since January 1994, and nineteen consecutive defeats.  With the hopes of getting anything from this one slim-to-zero, should Alan Archibald rest his first team to keep them fresh for the critical clashes to come?  It must be tempting, though a shellacking could wreck club morale regardless of who starts. LS

Little for ICT to be happy about despite a draw
An away point is always a decent result in this league (unless you're one of the Gruesome Twosome), but it was about the only positive Caley Thistle could take away from Rugby Park.  They'd be bottom of the league but for Gary Warren's late equalizer, and could be there on Christmas Day unless they take something from Ibrox next week.

There was again precious little to reassure Inverness supporters that the rest of the season won't be a fight against the drop.  Injury problems seemed to have eased, but such was the strangeness of Richie Foran's lineup that this author queried whether the seven on the bench might have beaten the eleven in the starting lineup in a match.

Foran clearly wanted to stop the bleeding, but the worst defence in the league still managed to concede despite five defenders starting the game.  And as a consequence the team's attacking threat was further blunted, especially with no natural wide players in the team.  Add in a knee injury to the team's only likely goalscorer, Lonsana Doumbouya, and the future does not look bright.

This author has been on the brink of writing a 'Foran Out' blog for a few weeks now.  Given that ICT have now gone seven games without a win, it may come relatively soon.  However, there are some bookies offering 10-1 on them going down, which I'd say are pretty generous odds.  LS

St. Johnstone struggle at home again
It has been a weird old season for St. Johnstone so far - one where they are unbeaten in five games against Aberdeen, Hearts and Rangers and could have won all five, yet where four of their five league defeats have come to Inverness, Kilmarnock, Partick and Ross County.  Consistently inconsistent and all that.

Most curious is the complete desertion of their home form.  The Perth Saints have a deserved reputation for being difficult to beat, and no more so at McDiarmid Park.  Until now.  They've won three out of nine league games in Perth, and the latter three of the aforementioned losses have come on their home turf.  At least they managed to salvage a point against Motherwell, but it was another poor result from their perspective.

Next up are Rangers at home.  Perhaps, given the nature of the opponent and the size of the travelling support, Tommy Wright can, and should, convince his players to treat it like an away game? LS

Waghorn's return to form a welcome boost for Rangers
After two morale boosting wins at Ibrox against Aberdeen and Hearts, Rangers knew that a lot of that good work would have been undone had they slipped up at New Douglas Park on Friday night. Given some of the performances they've put in away from home, that was always a distinct possibility.

 The surprise in the starting lineup was Martyn Waghorn’s return to the team, and boy has he been missed. Not that a team who spends £1.8m on a striker should miss a Geordie with hamstrings made of paper, but having a natural goalscorer makes all the difference in these types of games. Rangers took their chances and looked home and hosed until Andy Halliday had a brain fart at right back.

 This could turn out to be a pivotal weekend in the race for second with the other contenders dropping points. Aberdeen look horribly inconsistent just now and Hearts’ new manager is bound to take some time to find his feet. If Waghorn can show the kind of form that he showed in the Championship then what is already a nice 7 point cushion could quickly become unassailable.

The most disappointing part of the game was the quiet performance of Ali Crawford. He’s been great to watch this season and will surely go on to bigger and better things. A game on live TV under the lights would have been the perfect opportunity to show off his talents, but credit to Rangers for keeping him under wraps. IM

Paul Fisher (PF) is our Celtic correspondent, and spent a number of years helping with Celtic Live.  He is actually a professional journalist.

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

Iain Meredith (IM) is technically our Rangers Correspondent, though these days he tends to support them ironically.  He only agreed to help with this blog so he could 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.

Friday, December 16, 2016

What will happen in January?

The Premiership may shut up shop for most of January, but plenty of managers will be running up big bills on their mobile phones.  It's the last chance for clubs to strengthen, either by bringing in that proven goalscorer, or that solid defender, or both.  Many players will also be keeping an ear to the ground; some will be hoping that dream move might come to fruition, whilst others will be hoping their agent can arrange for them to get away from whichever club has stuck them on the bench or in the stand.  Hamilton Accies will sign some random foreigners who will make a handful of appearances and then disappear, and Kilmarnock will probably loan an entire XI of players in the hope that a few might actually be competent.

So what does Narey's Toepoker think will happen next month?

Four Premiership players are only under contract until sometime in the January window.  The only one set to be kept on is Hamilton Accies' Lennard Sowah, who was signed in October and has made himself a regular in defence when fit.  His teammate Richard 'Shaka' Roy (where on earth does that nickname come from?) will surely be away though; the Trinidadian striker has played just 21 minutes for the first team and hasn't been seen since a missed sitter against Kilmarnock in mid-August.

Thorsten Stuckmann was signed by Partick Thistle because of an injury crisis and will be offski if Ryan Scully has recovered from a dislocated shoulder in time to back up Tomas Cerny.  And Motherwell's Lee Lucas has rarely been fit enough to make a contribution.

The question is whether Ali Crawford and Callum Paterson leave during January or hang around till the summer.  Paterson is attracting loads of interest from down south; if a rumoured £500,000 bid from Derby County comes through then surely Hearts will cash in on their best player as he is out of contract in the summer.

Crawford will be the next chick to fly from the Hamilton nest, and though he is tied up till 2018 it probably wouldn't take a huge bid to sign him.  However, Accies will be relegated if he leaves, so they may plead him to hang around till the end of the season.

Souleymane Coulibaly's scoring rate has slowed down in recent weeks, but he's been hot for Kilmarnock, scoring all sorts of goals and plenty of them.  He's another player who could be the subject of a January bid.

Miles Storey's move to Aberdeen has been a disaster so far, with the attacker unable to force his way into the starting lineup and rarely seen, even as a sub, in his favoured centre-forward role.  With plenty of forward options already available, Derek McInnes might let him move elsewhere.  Whilst you'd imagine some English clubs would fancy him, I would be amazed if Caley Thistle, where he impressed last year on loan, didn't pick up the phone.

Celtic's fixture congestion will ease after New Year so there won't be much need for squad rotation; expect a few youngsters to go out on loan, with Eoghan O'Connell, Liam Henderson and Ryan Christie obvious choices.  All would improve any other Premiership club, while Hibs might try to loan Henderson for a second time.  But Brendan Rodgers might prefer them to be blooded south of the border.

James Penrice might be an left-field choice for this list, but the teenage left-back, 18 in December, stood out in a couple of appearances for Partick Thistle at the end of last season.  He's nowhere near their first team picture just now but would do a great job in the Championship.

Whether Rangers really do need to reduce their wage bill imminently or not, it's clear that Philippe Senderos is a waste of space.  The question is whether he can be moved on, or whether the Swiss defender will insist on sitting around picking up huge wads of cash whilst contributing little.

Teammate Martyn Waghorn has gone from star striker to bit-part player and there must be a chance that he returns to England, particularly if someone was to offer a fee for him.

Hearts' left-back Juwon Oshaniwa would love to even be 'bit-part'; unless Ian Cathro takes an unlikely liking to the erratic Nigerian, he has no future at Tynecastle.  Another player with no future is Dundee's Dutch striker Jordi Teijsse, who is well down the pecking order despite his team's goalscoring problems, having failed to make the step up from amateur football in his homeland.  Teijsse has also admitted to homesickness.

Motherwell have blooded a lot of young players this season; maybe more seasoned pros Kieran Kennedy and Jacob Blyth would have seen action had they not got injured at the wrong time, but Kennedy has never really been in McGhee's good books and Blyth has been anonymous since he arrived in the summer.

Kilmarnock signed a gazillion players in the summer and afterward - more of that in a minute - and several of them were loanees.  George Green has already returned south, though the club failed to announce it publicly (we won't hold our breath given they still haven't let us know that Michael N'goo has left Rugby Park).

A few other loan players' deals expire during this window.  Will Boyle has been a regular in defence in recent weeks, mainly because Jonathan Burn is injured; with Scott Boyd and Miles Addison on the books, surely only one of the youngsters needs kept on.  Luke Hendrie is first choice right back so is likely to stay.  In contrast, midfielder Charlee Adams has only been a sub in recent weeks, while striker Flo Bojaj got a surprise start against Celtic but has rarely done much else.

Mark McGhee revealed at Motherwell's AGM that Luka Belic probably would never kick a ball for the club due to injuries and poor form.  He apparently criticized West Ham for thinking a player of his quality would walk into a Scottish Premiership team...which makes one wonder if McGhee had even scouted Belic before signing him!

Aberdeen will surely try to keep James Maddison for the rest of the season, while Caley Thistle have indicated that they would like to extend Larnell Cole's stay in the Highlands.

Oh, and there's David Bates at Rangers.  Who, I hear you say?  Bates is a Raith Rovers youngster who Rangers loaned in August to beef up their development squad depth.  He's actually been on the bench for a couple of senior games, but he'll be off back to Kirkcaldy.

Brendan Rodgers' squad is more bloated than the average middle-aged Scotsman, and there are certainly a few players with no future at Celtic Park.  Kris Commons, for a start.  The 33 year old was an excellent servant for Neil Lennon and, initially, Ronny Deila, but he hasn't played a competitive game since April.  Unsurprisingly, he's been linked with a reunion with his old boss at Hibs.

Nadir Ciftci made the odd sub appearance earlier this season, but Rodgers has quickly realised he's nowhere near good enough for Celtic.  Rumours of a return to Dundee United are probably lazy journalism, but if he wants to kickstart his career he needs to get away from Parkhead.

Long-forgotten reserve keeper Logan Bailly is set to return to Belgium and sign for Gent.

Efe Ambrose is out of contract in the summer, but had a trial with Wolves last month and Celtic will surely let him go for nothing if an offer comes.  Dedryck Boyata has played the odd game recently, but is fourth-choice centre-back and I wonder if he might look for a move too.

This deserves its own section, because Jamie Cobain, Dapo Kayode, Joshua Webb and Martin Smith all signed one year deals in the summer (or, in Kayode's case, September) but between them they've made four league starts - all by Smith.  Cobain and Webb haven't played since the League Cup group stage, and Kayode hasn't played at all . Might some or all of them exit Rugby Park?

Callum McFadzean is worth a mention too; the Scotland under-21 international signed a three year contract in July, but has only played one minute of first team action since August.  Injuries have played a part, but he wasn't a regular even when fit.

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

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Talking Points from the Premiership

Rangers are looking more and more like the best of the rest
There are certainly a few folk out there - Stephen Craigen will definitely be one - who will have celebrated Hearts' defeat at Ibrox as justification for their narrow-minded view of Ian Cathro's if the Jambos should normally be expected to register a convincing away win at Ibrox.  It will be a long time yet before we can tell if Cathro is a success or a failure.

This result was of far more importance to the home side.  Rangers continue to look pretty lacklustre at times, yet they've now won four of their last five (the aberration being a loss at Tynecastle); more importantly, in the three way battle for second place, they've opened up a gap of four points over Aberdeen and five over Hearts.

Barrie McKay's claims that his side hadn't given up on the title were, of course, crowd-pleasing tosh; the gap to Celtic will only grow from here.  But whilst they aren't doing it with a lot of style, Rangers are well on their way to nabbing the second place that should have been their target at the start of the season. LS

Niall McGinn's struggles continue
Aberdeen are still above Hearts in the table, but another couple of points dropped means they fall further behind in the race for second spot.  The Dons are paying for failing to win matches against the better teams in the league - only six points from six games against the other teams in the top 5; St. Johnstone actually have a better record in that respect and would be right up there but for being so fallible against weaker sides.

In a desperate attempt to inject some life into his attack, Derek McInnes made a double change at half-time, which included hooking Niall McGinn.  The Northern Irishman had come off the bench to score in midweek against Kilmarnock, raising hope that his recent funk might be over.  Not so.  He was turgid here, as he has been for much of the season.

Is it a case of fatigue, given that McGinn went to Euro 2016 in the summer and was playing in Aberdeen's European games in July?  Or is it something deeper?  It's a problem that needs solved, because his spark, both in goals and assists, is badly missed.  And if McGinn doesn't perk up soon, McInnes may be tempted to let his contract, which expires in the summer, run out. LS

Dundee's strikers are not giving value for money
There's already a feeling amongst the bottom seven that every point is a prisoner, so perhaps Dundee and Ross County both went away reasonably satisfied with their draw at Dens.  County at least found the net...but Liam Boyce's effort was disallowed, preventing the Ulsterman from adding to his nine league goals so far in the campaign.

How Dundee would love a striker as prolific.  In contrast, their top scorer in all competitions remains Kane Hemmings...who left the club in July.  They are the lowest scorers in the Premiership with just fourteen so far, and three of those came on opening day in Dingwall.  Whilst the recent move to a back three has made them far more solid, their attacking verve has not improved at all.

Paul Hartley started lanky Canadian Marcus Haber up front in this one, for the sixth straight game.  Haber has just one goal so far, putting him level with Faissal El Bakhtaoui.  Rory Loy has three in the league, but two of those were penalties.  What's worse is the overall cost of these players.  I'm not sure about Haber, who came from Crewe Alexandra, but El Bakhtaoui was pursued by several clubs last summer and will certainly be on a decent wage by bottom six standards.  And as for Loy, good sources told me when he left Falkirk eighteen months ago that Dundee had offered him a wage greater than two grand per week, which if true is dreadful value for money.

And that's before we get to Uruk-Hai lookalike Yordi Teijsse, who has drifted out of first team contention.  Sure, Hemmings and Greg Stewart were always going to be hard to replace, but Hartley's current crop of forwards should be scoring far more often than this. LS

Griffiths forces his way back into first team reckoning
Going by the first half-hour at Firhill, one might have feared that weeks on the substitute's bench had drained Leigh Griffiths of his mojo.  He scuffed one early opportunity straight at Tomas Cerny, then dragged a shot so far wide that he tried to cover up his embarrassment by claiming for a non-existent deflection and feigning shock that Craig Thomson failed to award the corner.  Finally, he raced through one-on-one only for Cerny, just outside his penalty area, to nick the ball off his toe without having to go to ground.  A lack of conviction, perhaps.

Not so.  A fine cross from Griffiths set up Stuart Armstrong for the opener, and he had an assist in Armstrong's second too - though it was just a short pass from a free kick.  But by then he was back to his usual self, going on to twist Adam Barton inside out before scoring with aplomb.

The Scotland striker can be forgiven for being a wee bit rusty; it was only his second Celtic start since the end of August.  But given that Moussa Dembele has actually scored only once in his last seven games, Brendan Rodgers might be tempted to restore Griffiths to the frontline on a regular basis. LS

Ali Crawford is ready to leave Accies
Ali Crawford will not be at Hamilton Accies by the end of the coming summer; Martin Canning has pretty much said so himself.  Crawford has finally found some consistency this season and has thrived in an Accies system which is focused on getting him as much of the ball as possible.  Not only is he scoring good goals - though his free kick against Inverness should really have been saved (Owain Fon Williams had a back problem, but his positioning in these situations is often suspect anyway) - he is scoring plenty of them; that was his seventh of the campaign.

The worry for Canning is that someone swoops sooner.  Crawford is hardly on the same level as the likes of James McCarthy or James McArthur were, so a much smaller fee would prise him from New Douglas Park.   Even £250,000 might be enough, and is a fee which might tempt the likes of Aberdeen, Rangers or Hearts as well as a plethora of English clubs.

But if Crawford goes in January, then Accies will go down.  It's as simple as that.  So expect them to hold out as long as possible and try to get a few more months out of their most talented player.  LS

Plenty of youth, not a lot of quality
It's fair to say that the 'highlights' from Fir Park were rather padded out; this was not a classic affair at all.  What to take away from such a dour encounter?

About the only striking feature was the youth on the pitch.  Killie have been known for playing kids since the days of Kenny Shiels.  Here, academy graduates Greg Taylor and Rory McKenzie started, with Dean Hawkshaw coming on as a sub.  There were three more who were also on the bench, and don't forget that Greg Kiltie, the best of their young guns, is injured.

This season Motherwell have also turned to younger blood, though given their budget cuts it's more out of necessity than ideology.  Craig Cadden and Jack McMillan would have started this if available, but Ross MacLean kept his place after an impressive performance against Celtic, with David Ferguson also in the team and 17 year old Jake Hastie coming on in the second half.

Is this a good thing for Scottish football?  We always talk about wanting young players to get action, but recent history suggests few, if any, of these boys will play at a higher level than this.  Hopefully I'll be proven wrong though. LS

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

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Will Brendan Rodgers get bored?

That defeat to Lincoln Red Imps seems a long time ago now.

Let's face it, Brendan Rodgers is at Celtic Park because his managerial stock was not at all high after a pretty rotten year or so at the end of his tenure at Liverpool.  And after a hapless debut defeat to a bunch of part-timers, it was at an all-time low.

Admittedly, the only way was up after that Gibraltar humiliation, and following two mediocre seasons under Ronny Deila's leadership.  But the leap that Celtic have taken so far this season has been greater than most Celtic fans would have dreamed of.  And the credit for that should go entirely to Brendan Rodgers.

As we approach the end of 2016, Rodgers is unbeaten against all domestic opponents, the only mild aberration being a draw in Inverness where Celtic were denied multiple times by a combination of the woodwork and a superhuman goalkeeper before conceding a last-gasp equalizer against the run of play.  They won the League Cup, beating the second-best team in the country (sorry, Rangers fans!) by a convincing margin.  They lead the league by eight points, and have three games in hand on their nearest chasers.  And they have won both Old Firm derbies so far, the first by a score of 5-1.  If this were a music compilation, it would be named Now That's What I Call Dominance.

Whilst Celtic fans are of course used to winning - the club are aiming for a sixth consecutive title - it's been a while since they've won with such style.   This is their best start to a league season since 2003/04, and that Celtic side boasted the likes of Henrik Larsson, John Hartson, Chris Sutton, Neil Lennon and Bobo Balde.  The budget is tighter nowadays, but the quality of the football is higher than it has been for a long time.

Whilst Rodgers has made some useful signings - this summer Moussa Dembele will command the highest transfer fee ever received for a Celtic player, while Scott Sinclair has found his mojo again - more importantly he has had a positive impact on several players he inherited from Deila.  James Forrest, Stuart Armstrong and Jozo Simunovic are particular beneficiaries of his coaching.

Rodgers might also have been heavily criticized at times when Liverpool manager for unusual tactics, but his use of a lopsided back four - with Kieran Tierney or Emilio Izaguirre bombing forward on the left whilst Mikel Lustig tends to tuck in from the right to support the centre-backs - has been enormously successful against Scottish opponents.  Whilst there is still a bit of defensive frailty, the attacking prowess is such that they can bet on themselves to outscore the opposition if Motherwell discovered last weekend.

Such is their overwhelming superiority that, barring a major off-day or some Josh Meekings-esque ill fortune in one of their Scottish Cup ties, Celtic are surely going to win the treble this season.

So it's really going rather well.  In fact, how much better can it get?

The only room for improvement is in Europe, where Rodgers took Celtic to the Champions League Group Stage for the first time in three seasons, but failed to win a game in a very difficult group.  The three points they obtained over six matches against Barcelona, Manchester City and Borussia Moenchengladbach was three more than I thought they would manage.  But at no point did they even look like finishing third in that group, let alone make the last sixteen.

But what would it take to go further?  The gap between Celtic and the the continent's top clubs is akin to that between Celtic and other Scottish Premiership sides, only in reverse.  Barcelona's annual turnover is about ten times higher.  Whilst this year's progress will bring in upwards of £20million, that's still just a few drops in the ocean at this level.  And whilst a more favourable draw in next year's Group Stage would make third place, and a subsequent Europa League run, a realistic aim, Celtic will still need to play three qualifying ties just to get there.  A place in the last sixteen?  Even with reinforcements, they'd need Tony Watt and a hell of a lot of luck to manage that.

Improving on this impressive first season is going to take a lot of doing.  In fact, getting Celtic to where they want to be - up with the European elite - borders on impossible, akin to trying to reach the stratosphere with little more than a bicycle and some homemade wings.

In contrast, the prospect of any domestic challenge is distant at best.  Aberdeen and Hearts simply don't have the resources; Rangers are still a financial basket-case.  We've all had Championship Manager saves that we've stopped playing because we got bored of winning all the time - might this happen to Rodgers in real life?  The prospect of comfortably beating Partick Thistle three times a year can only motivate one for so long.

That's not to say Rodgers' head will be turned all that easily.  After all, he is a Northern Irishman who supported Celtic in his youth, and that sort of loyalty can go a long way.  But he is also ambitious.  And come this summer, his stock will be high again.  I bet there will be a few English Premier League clubs looking for a new manager, and Rodgers' name will be on shortlists.

So the biggest single risk to Celtic's resurgence is that Rodgers decides to deal with his unfinished business in England.  Of course, if he leaves they might manage to replace him with another excellent coach.  But they might also end up with another Deila...

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 5, 2016

The fall and fall of St Mirren

Samson, Van Zanten, McAusland, Goodwin, Dummett, Teale, McGowan, Newton, McGinn, Thompson, Goncalves.

I'm not aware of any Buddies fan giving their children those eleven middle names, but just three and a half years ago that team won the Scottish League Cup, beating Hearts 3-2.

None of those eleven are at the club now. Nor are any of the five substitutes on the bench that day.

If St. Mirren are to visit Hampden again anytime soon, it will probably be for an away game at Queen's Park.  For they lie bottom of the Scottish Championship with just four points from their opening fourteen games, already nine points adrift of the side above them.  All the points have come from draws.

It's quite a plunge.  And even more so considering that the club have never dropped below Scotland's second tier in their history.

The increasingly difficult task of keeping them in the Championship now falls to Jack Ross, appointed manager on 4th October.  Ross is well thought of in the Scottish game, something of a journeyman player - including two seasons at St. Mirren in his twilight years - who was also the inaugural chairman of PFA Scotland.  He was also a coach at Hearts for a spell, leaving shortly before his first managerial post at Alloa.

He couldn't keep Alloa up - to be fair, when he arrived last December the part-timers were also bottom of this league and had only a few more points than the Buddies have now.  But a smart start to the Wasps' League One campaign convinced St. Mirren that he was the man to save them.

In cup competitions, he's done alright - his first match was a shock Challenge Cup win at Easter Road, and the club are in the semi-finals of that tournament.  But in the league, they've played six matches under Ross' management...and lost all six.  The last point was at home to Falkirk on 1st October.  They played Falkirk again at the weekend and led 1-0 at half-time, but went to pieces after young defender Jack Baird got a straight red just before the break and went down 3-1.

Add in the embarrassment of having to postpone a cup tie with Spartans because the undersoil heating was on the blink, and the revelation that the club have resorted to advertising on LinkedIn for players, and it's hard to see how things could get worse.

The most recent league win?  On 16th April against Greenock Morton, some 231 days before that Falkirk match.  Tomorrow they travel to Dumfries, to face a Queen of the South side also in nightmare form but who are under a new manager of their own, Gary Naysmith.  Ross' hopes of a new manager bounce seem to be long gone.

The start of St. Mirren's rapid decline was almost certainly when the club chose to let Danny Lennon, the League Cup winning manager, go at the end of the 2013-14 season.  At the time, it looked like an understandable decision; only a late run of form had pulled them clear of the first relegation playoff between Premiership and Championship sides, but in his four years in Paisley St. Mirren never finished eighth once and eleventh three times.  His nine lives seemed used up, and there was appetite for change.  After all, why shouldn't the Paisley side be able to compete with the likes of Motherwell, Inverness and St. Johnstone?  Cheerio Danny, thanks for the memories.

Unfortunately, chairman Stewart Gilmour's idea of 'change' was rather different from everyone else's.  And so instead of a fresh new face, the fans got a familiar, well-lined one - Lennon's assistant Tommy Craig.  The appointment was a disaster.

Craig had a reputation as a good number two, but his brief experience as a club manager, a rotten spell in Belgium, should have scared off the Buddies board.  His recruitment was absolutely dreadful and seemed based around a cosy relationship with Manchester City, who loaned such luminaries as Ellis Plummer and Adam Drury; for good measure the club also signed James Marwood, the son of City's chief executive.

Moreover, his decision to rely heavily on talismanic veteran Steven Thompson backfired spectacularly after 'Thommohawk' got injured, but the failure to bring in adequate backup for a 36 year old was foolish to the extreme.  Craig didn't do himself any favours by holding up a piece of paper at the club AGM which he claimed had a list of strikers that he had tried to sign...and then refusing to let anybody look at said piece of paper.

He lasted nineteen games, before a cup replay pumping at Inverness finished him off.  St. Mirren had won just three of those matches, and by the time of his exit in December 2014, St. Mirren were embroiled in a relegation battle.  They were only still alive and kicking because, remarkably, Motherwell and Ross County were equally useless.

Both those clubs changed managers sooner and reinforced impressively in January.  St. Mirren?  They made another veteran player, Gary Teale, caretaker...for two months, including the transfer window.  In those two months they picked up seven points out of twenty-seven...and appointed Teale for the rest of the season anyway.

Would a more experienced boss have saved them?  By mid-April, when a home thumping by County had all but guaranteed relegation, Stewart Gilmour was asking himself the same question  But it was too late.  Demotion was confirmed with three games left; St. Mirren won just nine league matches all season.  They had signed 14 players that season; none are at the club now and only one - perenially injured Alan Gow- stuck around for a year in the Championship.

And not just any Championship; if the Buddies were to bounce back, they would have to do it despite opposition from Rangers and Hibernian amongst others.  The budget was cut, which was surely a logical reason for appointing Ian Murray as Teale's replacement.  Murray had been expected to move up in the world at some point; he was one of the most highly-rated young managers in the country, who had kept part-time Dumbarton in the division for three consecutive seasons on a shoestring budget.  It appeared that, at last, they had put someone decent in the dugout.

So much for that.  Murray lasted twenty matches - one more than Tommy Craig did -  and resigned almost a year to the day after Craig had been sacked.  The final straw was a defeat at his old club Dumbarton.  He experienced victory five times as St. Mirren manager, and three of those wins were in the Challenge Cup.  St. Mirren were bottom of the table.

"He was hamstrung by his budget", recounts Dave MacFarlane, St. Mirren fan and editor of Born Offside, "But the step up from part-time football seemed too much for him.  He never seemed to know his best eleven and his signings were rank rotten."

Indeed they were.  Murray signed eleven players, including experienced veterans Keith Watson, Andy Webster and Jamie Langfield.  He also brought in Scott Agnew from his old club and a bunch of loanees.  On paper, they certainly wouldn't match Rangers or Hibs, but to be behind part-time opposition was something else altogether.  Only three Murray signings remain - Webster, Langfield and Calum Gallagher.  None are currently first-choice players.

Still, at least they avoided the drop, as former Rangers and Dundee midfielder Alex Rae was parachuted in to steady the ship.  Rae was given licence to bring in more experience, and the likes of
 defender Gary Irvine, midfielder Rocco Quinn and forward David Clarkson helped steer them to a relatively respectable sixth in the table.  There was light at the end of the tunnel...but that was because the tunnel was on fire.

Rae made big changes in the summer, bringing in seven new faces, including John Sutton who returned to the club nine years after the end of his first spell.  Gary Mackenzie, a former Scotland squad centre-back, was added too, as were Rangers loanees Tom Walsh and Ryan Hardie who had impressed at Championship clubs the previous year.  Whilst it would be probably too much to expect them to match Hibs or Dundee United over a full campaign, a playoff place seemed a reasonable bet.

But Rae recruited a bizarrely unbalanced squad.  Aside from Quinn, his midfield options were all youths.  There was a complete dearth of wide players.  And whilst he had a plethora of striking options - Sutton, Clarkson, Gallagher, Hardie and Lawrence Shankland - he was incapable of finding a combination that worked, and there was never enough time to allow a partnership to gel.  There was rumours very early this season that he had 'lost the dressing room', whatever that means.  But his exit made him the fourth St. Mirren manager in succession to last less than nine months.

So onto Ross, who wasn't first choice; finally the club showed ambition and aimed high, only to be rebuffed by Billy Davies and John Hughes.

In complete contrast to events on the pitch, fans are relatively satisfied with where things are heading off the field.  In July, a takeover deal was finalised which made former director Gordon Scott club chairman and paved the way for the club to ultimately be owned by the supporters.  Given that Scott's predecessor, Stewart Gilmour, had been looking to sell for some time and had somewhat tightened the pursestrings, it was a welcome move.

But the long drawn-out wait for action hasn't done anyone any favours, with the budget understandably limited and the air of uncertainty unsettling.

There may yet be positive progress for St Mirren, but they are likely to go backwards before they can go forwards.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Talking Points from the Premiership (and League Cup Final)

Aberdeen were utterly outclassed
Derek McInnes deployed a deeply conservative approach to the Cup Final; sit deep, allow Celtic possession and keep the play in front of them.  These tactics proved to be effective for all of 15 minutes before coming undone.  Jozo Simunovic, doing a decent impersonation of Virgil van Dijk, carried the ball forward into the Aberdeen half; his first attempted pass was intercepted by Andy Considine, however the ball broke back to him and he powered through to find Tom Rogic at the second time of asking.  Rogic cut inside and hit a terrific strike across Joe Lewis and into the bottom corner to take the lead.

It was an unfortunate day all around for Considine, one of the few Aberdeen players who could not be faulted for his efforts but for whom the ball never rolled his way.  In what turned out to be the critical turning point of the match, Considine's header from James Maddison's free kick delivery forced Craig Gordon into a save; had he managed to direct it either side of the Celtic keeper it would have levelled the match.  In fairness to him, he at least managed to get his header on target, which should instantly put him ahead of Grant Hanley in the pecking order for national team selection.

Moments later, the match as a contest was over, if it was ever a contest in the first place.  Tom Rogic languidly swept the ball to James Forrest on the edge of the centre circle; from there, Forrest ran unopposed into the Aberdeen penalty area before finding the angle to beat Lewis for Celtic's second.

Rogic again picked out Forrest during the second half, this time a give-and-go into the penalty area.  Anthony O'Connor, culpable in the build up for the second goal for backing off Forrest's run, was at fault again for bundling into Forrest as he made his run into the box.  O'Connor was by now carrying an injury, for which he was substituted immediately after Moussa Dembele sent Lewis the wrong way from the resulting penalty kick.  He would soon cut a morose figure on the Dons bench, lurking under his black hoodie like some sulking Sith Lord.

The final half an hour of the match passed without any major incident, as Celtic sailed serenely to their 100th major trophy and their 1st under manager Brendan Rodgers.  In the end, it was another faultless performance by the Hoops, but it was such a disappointment that Aberdeen couldn't knock them out of cruise control at any point of the match.  With the League Cup now secured and a yawning gap already established in the League, the thought of the champions further tooling up in the January transfer window should be a sobering thought for supporters of all other sides in Scottish fitba.

Dodoo is a much better option than Garner
Joe Dodoo ruined Saturday lunchtime for me.

 I was building up quite an air of superiority as watched Rangers struggle against a Partick Thistle team who can’t buy a win a home just now, and considered how Mark Warburton’s substitutions were making no impact whatsoever. Just as I was thinking about what remarks I would make at the press conference to unveil me as Rangers’ new manager, substitute Dodoo scored a peach of an equaliser, a classy winner, and ended my managerial career before it had started.

 It turned out the problem with this game wasn’t the substitutions, but the starting lineup. More specifically, Joe Garner.

 This could easily become a weekly rant against Garner, so hopefully I can say my piece and be done with it. He’s not very good, he doesn’t seem to have a great attitude, and with Joey Barton now gone, the spotlight will on shine brighter on him. Dodoo has surely done enough to permanently replace him in a startling frontline that desperately needs to get it’s act together. Even Caley Thistle have scored more league goals than Rangers this season.

 Despite the glaring weakness at set pieces, Rangers have a pretty decent defensive record and appear to have learned some of the lessons dished out by Celtic in September. If they can start scoring goals more regularly, second place could become very achievable. The difficulty in predicting how likely that is to happen is that I’m finding it hard to figure out how good Rangers are just now. Winning ugly is a good habit, and seven games undefeated is a decent run. But Dundee and Partick Thistle are bad teams and it shouldn’t take injury time winners to beat them. Games against Hearts and Aberdeen within three days will tell us a lot. IM

Watt next?
When Hearts won at Fir Park on 30 September, Tony Watt shone.  Constantly getting on possession and driving forward, he showcased all the qualities that made him such a starlet in his Celtic days.  All he was missing was a goal.

Fast forward two months, and the striker was an unused substitute when the two sides met again.  And Hearts were better off without him.  For in the intervening time Watt has demonstrated all the liabilities that have seen him fail at Celtic, Standard Liege and Charlton Athletic.  He plays too much like he's the biggest kid in the primary school playground - always wanting the ball, always keeping it to himself, and shouting at everyone else when things don't work out.

The Jambos have been in need of a goalscoring striker, and it is not Watt but Bjorn Johnsen who looks most like delivering.  The Norwegian-American looked like a clumsy oaf when he arrived in Scotland in August but has got himself fit and match sharp.  His finish for the opener was anything but clumsy, as he danced around Craig Samson after being put through by Arnaud Djoum; he then displayed his selflessness by heralding his French teammates contribution.  His second goal, a controlled header, also showed technique which did not look evident a couple of months back.

A front pair of Johnsen and Robbie Muirhead, who looks like turning around his career at Tynecastle, appears to be the future for Robbie Neilson's side.  Watt's future?  It's very unclear right now. LS

Inverness struggle again
It had to happen some time. After sixteen games against Dundee without defeat Caley Thistle finally lost to the Dark Blues as goals from Craig Wighton and Kostadin Gadzhalov were enough for the three points despite Carl Tremarcos late header which gave the visitors a glimmer of hope.

ICT struggled to really get going in the game and found their route to goal all too easily snuffed out by the three centre backs of Dundee who marshalled Lousana Doumbouya with ease and forced the away side to try and attack down the flanks where there tended to be more space. However, wide men Billy King and Aaron Doran struggled to create anything of note with both men frequently drifting inside from the wing and into the congested centre of the pitch where numerous dark blue shirts were waiting to stifle them.

Foran bemoaned the result claiming it was the best performance of the season but one suspects that he is shielding the players from another poor result where they really struggled to get going. After a good run only a few weeks ago things aren’t really clicking for the Highlanders right now. A lack of creative spark combined with conceding an average of two goals a game is making things really difficult for Foran right now and it isn’t much fun to watch either.

The last time ICT really clicked, save for the midweek drubbing of Motherwell, was in the reverse fixture against Dundee at the end of September and although Dundee too went on a poor run it seems that Hartley has managed to revive their fortunes in recent weeks.

Wighton continued his impressive run in the side with another strong showing and a well taken goal, the youngster showing great composure to curl the ball beyond Fon Williams to open the scoring and he was also key to relieving any pressure on the Dundee back line willingly chasing down long balls forward and putting Inverness defenders under pressure. His dogged determination right until the end of the game led to the dismissal of Lewis Horner as the defender struggled to keep up with Wighton as he broke forward and he hauled him down which brought a deserved red card. This impressive display together with the assured performance at the back from Gadzhalov, O’Dea and Gomis meant Dundee fans were able to taste victory against ICT for the first time in seven years and now find themselves catapulted up the table into seventh place.

But both sets of fans, despite their current differing form, will still be looking nervously down the table. The top four in the league seems pretty settled and St Johnstone should have enough to secure fifth but everyone else is playing for the infamous sixth spot as well as battling to avoid relegation and the play off spot. The importance of sustaining a good run in the league for teams like Dundee and ICT is greater than ever. Whilst Dundee will be looking forward with a sense of renewed optimism ICT will be looking to upcoming matches against Saint Johnstone, Hamilton and Kilmarnock as excellent opportunities to secure three points. But then again, so will they. AS

County pay for their profligacy
The trouble for Ross County on Saturday was that good performances don't win matches; goals do.  Liam Boyce wasn't the problem; the Northern Irishman is in excellent form and nabbed his eighth goal of the season with a deft header.  But his teammates couldn't follow his lead.

Alex Schalk will shoulder a decent proportion of the blame; the Dutch substitute's movement was tremendous, but he screwed up no fewer than four one-on-one situations.  Even more galling is the fact that when he did hit the net he was denied by an offside flag despite being a good couple of yards onside.  It was one of the poorest decisions you'll see from an assistant this season.

And so Ali Crawford made County pay with a lovely free kick, despite Accies being under the cosh all day.  These things apparently even themselves out over the course of a season, but the bottom of the Premiership is so tight that those two dropped points could prove very important in the long run. LS

Andrew Sutherland (AS) is our Caley Thistle Correspondent.  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.  He occasionally writes for When Saturday Comes.

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

Iain Meredith (IM) is technically our Rangers Correspondent, though these days he tends to support them ironically.  He only agreed to help with this blog so he could 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.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Talking Points from the Premiership

Hayes and MacLean shine in Inverness
You could forgive ICT supporters for viewing the visit of Aberdeen, especially with the Christmas advertising season now in full swing, as akin to being haunted by the ghosts of Caley Thistle past.  Jonny Hayes was on fire; the Caley Jags would have needed half a dozen defenders to stop him when he plays like this.  When Hayes was tripped in the box by Gary Warren, fellow ICT alumni Adam Rooney scored the resulting penalty.  Even former captain Graeme Shinnie rubbed salt into the wound in the second half with a tackle on Brad McKay that required the latter to be stretchered off the pitch, although the Dons did refrain from adding insult to injury with any late Miles Storey cameo.

Towards the end of the game, Josh Meekings finally managed to stop Hayes by taking him out of action with a two footed lunge; Jonny still managed to slip the ball through for the on-running McLean to finish.  Although Kenny had already scored earlier in the game (his first goal, a well struck free kick after Aaron Doran fouled James Maddison, equalising 'Big Lon' Lonsana Doumbouya's opener, a neat head-flick from Ross Draper's equally neat cross) his second goal better demonstrated what Aberdeen require out of him; not only showing the willingness to beat Draper to the loose ball deep in his own half, but following that up with the desire to provide the overlapping run for the fast breaking Hayes.  

It would be fair to say that McLean has under performed so far this season.  However, with Maddison having taken over his previous role in attacking midfield and Ryan Jack back alongside him in central midfield this has allowed him more freedom and, hopefully, he can crack on from here - a similar performance in the League Cup Final on Sunday would be a good start. MI

Three at the back works well for 'Well
Motherwell switched to three-at-the-back against Partick Thistle; time will tell if this was a one-off to match the formation of their opponents or a long-term change, but there was no question it worked extremely well.  Undoubtedly assisted by the torpor of their opponents, 'Well put in an outstanding performance which was at least the equal of the big wins they've already had at Fir Park against Hamilton and Ross County.

The new system certainly covers up the lack of wingers at the club - does Luka Belic actually exist? - and it allowed Richard Tait, already a quietly impressive presence at right-back since arriving in the summer from Grimsby, to maraud forward to great effect; twice he nearly scored.  More pertinently, it means two central strikers.  Louis Moult and Scott McDonald both scored (the former thanks to an horrendous blunder from Thistle keeper Thorsten Stuckmann), but their off-the-ball movement was key.  Both are keen to come deep to get possession into feet, but the forwards understand each other so well that their runs were always complimentary.  Thistle's own back three couldn't tell who was going to step up and who was going to get in behind.

The flip-side is that a 3-5-2 probably means no place for the fun but erratic Lionel Ainsworth, or targetman Ryan Bowman (for whom the club paid a small fee on deadline day).  But if it works as well as this then no-one at Fir Park will care. LS

Rangers still struggle to turn dominance into goals
I don’t know what was more predictable on Saturday - the third placed team in the league beating the eleventh placed team at home, or the fact Rangers struggled so badly to turn their overwhelming domination into goals. They had 70% of possession along with 14 corners, and 18 shots, yet it took an injury time goal from Harry Forrester to avoid yet another draw against a team that really should be put away without much in the way of drama.

The fact that the home side kept pushing to the end and finally took away all three points is at least something to for the fans to hold on to, but the concern over an inability to turn pressure into goals should be a big worry.  Even if the decision makers at Ibrox accept that Celtic are too far ahead this season to be able to do much about it, they would surely have thought that at least £1.8 million for a striker would have brought them an easier path through these types of games.  There’s a chance that Joe Garner could yet make us look back at this season and realise that Joey Barton wasn’t the biggest waste of money at Rangers; it’s certainly going to be a crowded field.

As for Dundee, they weren’t very good and Ross County’s win in Perth sent them to the bottom of the league.  The crowded picture in the bottom half of the league means they shouldn’t be panicking quite yet, as a couple of decent results will have them shooting up the league.   But given the backing that Hartley has received over the last couple of years there will surely be an expectation that things are turned around quickly, otherwise it could be a very uncomfortable Christmas. IM

 Craig Curran's sixty-third minute goal effectively clinched victory for Ross County, giving them a three goal cushion.  That it came with his head was somewhat reassuring.  The Englishman missed most of last season because of problems following concussions, first in a game against Dundee United in August and then again at Inverness in January.  His recovery was so slow that the striker actually feared he might never play again.

Thankfully he appears back to full fitness, physically and psychologically.  Curran's partnership with Liam Boyce was a huge part of County's incredible form in 2015, and whilst Boyce got most of the goals he benefitted from his colleague's endless industry and street-smarts.  The Northern Irishman was on target late on in Perth as well, and the duo's form,fitness and goals will be critical to how the Staggies' season shapes up. LS

Does Boyata have a future at Celtic?
It turns out that Dedryck Boyata does still exist after all.  The Dutch centre-back made his first competitive appearance under Brendan Rodgers at Rugby Park, a consequence of injury to Jozo Simunovic and a need to protect Kolo Toure ahead of Wednesday's game against Barcelona.  Whilst Boyata has had injury problems of his own, he had done nothing when fit to suggest he should be higher up the queue; at least this shows he is still ranked above Efe Ambrose.

So he slotted into the backline, and did a decent enough job - after all, Celtic kept a clean sheet which means they haven't conceded a league goal since 24th September, when Souleymane Coulibaly scored a screamer at Celtic Park for Killie.   It would be a stretch to laud his performance - there were a few errant passes out of defence which were reminiscent of last season's bumbling Boyata - but rustiness is forgivable.

With 35 year old Toure a one year stopgap solution in defence, Rodgers will need to find a long term plan for that position.  Does he have sufficient quality already in his squad?  Erik Sviatchenko is solid but limited (at continental level at least), Ambrose is well out of the picture and Mikael Lustig is probably still better off at right-back.  It's easy to forget that Boyata was deemed good enough to play for Manchester City at 19; this writer saw him start a league game against Arsenal six years ago (he was sent off after five minutes, but that's beside the point!).  The talent is there; can Rodgers coax it out of him? LS

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

Iain Meredith (IM) is technically our Rangers Correspondent, though these days he tends to support them ironically.  He only agreed to help with this blog so he could 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.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Scottish Premiership wages - 2016/17

The Sporting Intelligence Global Sports Salary Survey is always worth a look - not least because they continue to include the Scottish Premiership as one of it's 'soccer' leagues, despite the fact the bottom half a dozen spots on the list (of 333 sporting teams!) are now routinely occupied by Scottish clubs.

Depressingly, they still call it the SPL...

And frustratingly, there appears to be a two year gap without data.  Previously these surveys were published around May and June, and would be a year out.  Thus the May 2015 survey used data from the 2013/14 season.  However, delaying this one to November has allowed them to use data from the current campaign - which is great because we get a snapshot of what things are like right now, but not so much because they've skipped 2014/15 and 2015/16.

Or maybe not.  Nick Harris, editor of Sporting Intelligence, explained to me, "the short answer is there is a one-year gap due to change in timing of the survey.  And the missing season is 2015-16. The latest survey, GSSS 2015, had numbers at summer 2014, deliberately so.  They were numbers, in effect, ahead of the 2014-15 season, and a good indication of 2014-15.  But they used the 2013-14 teams and were described as summer 2014 because we didn't at the time of compilation for GSSS 2015 have access to full sets of accounts for 14-15 to 'backstop' the data we'd compiled."

Coincidentally (and I'm sure it's a coincidence as the other leagues are using 2016/17 data) it means the Scottish data includes Rangers, who haven't been in a survey since liquidation.

Anyway, here's a crude table showing where things are apparently at.

Average first team player wage (£/week)
2016/17 2015/16 2014/15 2013/14 2012/13 2011/12 2010/11
CELTIC 13805      ? 17345      ? 22103 21253 20457
RANGERS 6094      ?      ? 11501 15798
ABERDEEN 2590      ? 2706      ? 3033 2906 3002
HEARTS 1671      ? 1231      ? 3206 5305 6310
DUNDEE 1189      ?      ? 906
INVERNESS 1026      ? 1032      ? 1023 954 1122
MOTHERWELL 949      ? 1301      ? 1523 2296 2319
KILMARNOCK 941      ? 1442      ? 1897 2274 2404
ROSS COUNTY 914      ? 692      ? 748
ST JOHNSTONE 908      ? 1308      ? 1533 1920 1960
PARTICK 821      ? 875      ?
HAMILTON 819      ?      ?

And here's what we can extrapolate from it...

Celtic continue to cut costs
The average wage of a first teamer at Celtic has dropped by 38% in just over three years.  The effect of consecutive failures to make the Champions League, or a case of resting on their laurels as a result of the lack of competition?  It's not new for them to rank behind every single English Premier League club - even Burnley this time round - but actually their average wage would put them mid-table in Italy, Spain and Germany, and in the top six in France.

Still a massive imbalance
In 2012/14 and 2013/14, Celtic's wage bill was greater than all the other sides put together; that is no longer true because of Rangers' presence in the top flight.  Celtic and Rangers together pay more than twice the other ten clubs combined.  Note that Rangers' average wage is still less than half what it was in the Oldco era.

Very little between the bottom eight
The report notes that "It is a quirk of the season that Ross County had a particularly small first-team squad during the survey period (21 players) and Hamilton a large one (34). Ross County’s total bill, we reckon, will be smaller due to fewer players - but all things being equal, slightly better players earning a bit more each".  Given that Dundee, Inverness and St. Johnstone have relatively compact squads as well, there's probably little or nothing to choose between the eight diddiest clubs in terms of budget.

Dundee underachieving?
I've often claimed the Dark Blues are punching below their weight, based on an awful lot of hearsay that they are paying better wages than other sides at the wrong end of the table.  Whilst the point I made above still stands, this data supports the belief that the club's American owners aren't getting value for money.

How accurate is this?
It's hard to say.  'Average first team player wage' is obviously not the same as 'annual wage budget', which might be a better parameter to work with.  But nearly all Scottish clubs are coy about this.  In addition, we don't know who counts as a first team player at each club - if Accies have 34, it includes several youngsters who are likely to be on buttons.  I also wonder if Hearts' figures are skewed by a similar issue.  But it's better than nothing.  This was what Nick Harris had to say:

"Numbers are sourced from various places including unions, clubs, agents, leagues and administrative bodies. As you know, nobody publishes this stuff. Nobody will confirm any of it, on the record at least.

 But of course the Company House accounts will only get you total company salary bills and generally no breakdown of where that money goes. (Although Rangers, interestingly, have started declaring the total first-team bill in their accounts).  And there is the issue of account-lag, which is why until this time we've had 'historic' seasons in the report, ie completed ones for which we can backstop.

 However, after seven years and better sources all the time, we feel able to produce good reliable numbers for all the leagues we cover; so for that reason as well as a general scheduling one, we've moved to 'live' seasons for the current report for all the football leagues that up to now have been account-lagged.

 I'm pretty confident that our numbers are a better reflection of salary bills at the teams featured than you'll get anywhere else. I'd also be pretty confident that I'd be able to predict, now, the total club wage bills, based on our data, that will be appearing at Companies House for the 2016-17 season .... when they drop at some point as late as Spring 2018.

 The only other caveat to using the new method and numbers is mentioned in the introductory essay of the new report you can download today - and that is that successful clubs will in all probability be paying a good few percentage points higher than the figures we've got, because of bonuses. At some clubs these could have really dramatic effect."

So, in conclusion, you don't have to take this with a big pinch of salt.

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.

(With thanks to Nick Harris for taking so much time to reply to my queries, and in so much detail!)