Friday, January 29, 2016

Sideways and backwards: are Caley Thistle the most boring team in Scotland?

Schemes such as 'Pay What You Can' deserve plenty of praise, in my view.  A Saturday in mid-January, an unexciting opponent (sorry, Partick Thistle fans, but you'd say the same about us) - why not try something different to get the punters in?

If my memory serves me right (and it may not), this is the third time Caley Thistle have tried such a venture, and my understanding is that it has been a mild success each time.  Compared to a corresponding fixture from last season, about 800 more folk pitched up; this may not sound impressive, but that's a 30% increase.

Most of those punters won't come along to more than a handful of games each year, if that.  I heard plenty of anecdotes about folk attending an ICT game for the first time; certainly, I saw a chap who I used to work with several years ago who I don't recall being a football fan at all.

The obvious aim of Pay What You Can is to get people to come along, and entertain them sufficiently that they might come back more often, paying the full whack to get in.  The powers that be must have been dreaming of a thriller that finished 4-3, with penalties, red cards and plenty of action and controversy.

It was not a day for John Hughes and Alan Archibald to give a mutual team-talk along the lines of "let's both crowd the midfield, and play a lone striker who won't get any support from his teammates".

My dad's post-match comments were telling; "I remember a Hearts-Clyde game in the seventies that might have been even worse than this." (being a pedant, I looked this up - this was in 1974)

Inverness vs Partick Thistle was without doubt one of the poorest football matches I have ever attended.  Anyone who paid even a quid to get in was cheated.  It wasn't terrible because of the pitch, or the weather, or the quality of the players; it was terrible because of the gameplans of the two managers.  One of my work colleagues missed the game because of a severe ear infection.  I suspect that was less painful than watching this game.

I'll award Alan Archibald a Mulligan here.  His side had conceded four in the first half against Dundee the previous week; most managers, in the circumstances, would look to keep things tight and grind out a result.  I don't remember Partick created a single chance in the game.  Caley Thistle managed three clear cut opportunities (Miles Storey's long ranger that Tomas Cerny saved well doesn't count, because it was so far out that it doesn't count as a half chance).  Inverness dominated possession, and yet managed to look like scoring only three times.

The pattern was depressingly familiar to season ticket holders.  I've actually designed a flowchart which describes Caley Thistle's tactics for most games this season:

The strategy seems to be to keep the ball until the opposition loses concentration and leaves gaps...though with just one attacker on the pitch it's difficult to exploit said gaps on the rare occasions they appear.  Therefore it's just a load of sideways and backwards passing, possibly in the hope that opposing players might be bored to death.  As a medical professional, I can safely say that it is pretty rare that healthy young men drop dead from boredom.

Now, I know what most of you are thinking: it's only a year since they finished third in the league and won the cup, and he's already moaning.  Fair enough.  2015-16 was never going to live up to that even in the best of circumstances.  As it is, the squad lost four of its best players in the last twelve months - Graeme Shinnie, Billy Mckay, Ryan Christie and Marley Watkins - all of whom were integral to attacking play.  That sort of quality cannot be easily replaced at any club with such a modest budget.

That said, the attempts to replace them have been pretty laughable, with the exception of Miles Storey.  Hughes suggested that Dani Lopez would get into double figures, but the Spaniard managed a single goal (in a game where we were being gubbed), got injured and then spat at a St. Johnstone youngster in a reserve game before returning to Spain in January.  Our meandering build-up play was actually still too fast for Lopez, who moved like a wheelie-bin in a stiff breeze but didn't have as impressive a first touch.

Andrea Mbuyi-Mutombo is a box of tricks...tricks which never come off.  He's like a magician who keeps expecting to find a rabbit in his hat, even though the hat has been empty every previous time he's reached inside it.  Another attacker, Jordan Roberts, arrived from Aldershot in the summer to some fanfare but developed a chronic groin problem before the start of the league season.  Now ostensibly fit, he's made the bench for the last month...and barely come off it.  Against Thistle, he wasn't even sent out to warm up.

Roberts is just one of multiple crocked players this season.  Inverness were fortunate last year to keep the majority of the squad fit for long periods; this year has been the exact opposite.  They've lost Aaron Doran to a cracked kneecap, Josh Meekings for two lengthy absences with knee injuries, Christie to a knee problem before he moved to Celtic, Ross Draper to an ankle problem.  James Vincent, the cup final hero, always misses plenty of games with various knocks.  Dean Brill hasn't played since dislocating his kneecap nine months ago.  Gary Warren, hard-as-nails as he is, tried to walk off a broken ankle on opening day against Motherwell.  Even he couldn't manage that.

In fact, given that things have been so bad that even Lewis Horner has started a few matches, the current sixth place in the league is quite an achievement.  But my goodness it has been grim viewing.

Hughes has spoken of bringing in some new faces to provide 'magic' before the end of the transfer window.  Well, time is running out there.  If he doesn't we'll probably grind out enough points to stay up with a little bit to spare, but it's not going to be much fun for the home support.  For whatever reason, the three men and a dog who traipse down the A9 to away games get far more for their buck - 18 scored and 20 conceded in 11 league away games this season, against just 12 scored and 12 conceded in 12 home games.  Maybe we should hire a hypnotist to convince the players (or maybe the manager!) that every game is an away game?

This Saturday, it's Hearts at home.  On live telly.  Hopefully the Jambos will provide a bit of entertainment, or there is a real risk that thousands of viewers will develop an irrepressible urge to gouge their own eyes out rather than watch this tedium.  Or, alternatively, they might change the channel, which I suppose would also work.

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, January 26, 2016

Talking Points from the Premiership

Pressure shifts to Kilmarnock
A brief flash of light in the darkness?  Or the start of the greatest comeback since Elvis?  It's too early to say, but this was the sort of performance and result that United are certainly capable of, if they avoid a stupid defensive blunder (or at least leave it till they are five goals up) and their attackers play to their potential.

Whilst the pressure is still very much on the Terrors - they remain eleven points adrift - a chunk of it now shifts to their vanquished opponents.  Every time Kilmarnock seem to put a wee run of results together, it all falls apart in the form of a spectacular heavy defeat.  This was the fifth time this season that they've conceded four or more in a single game.  Gary Locke's side now face back to back league games against Motherwell and Hamilton (which sandwich the traditional 'lie down and offer no resistance' cup tie at Ibrox).  United too have a run of games against sides bottom of the table.  Can they carry on the momentum? LS

If you’re not part of the solution…
The ICT v Partick match saw supporters offered the opportunity to 'pay what they can' to attend. Just over 3500 were in attendance to witness a match which was drab to say the least - just three shots on target between both sides.  Whilst Thistle were particularly negative and seldom threatened to cross the half way line let alone trouble the home goal, Inverness toiled to create chances of note.

The crowd was over 400 greater than the same fixture played earlier in the season, although this took place on a Wednesday night, and over 800 greater than when the sides met in December 2014.   Whilst a number of factors affect attendance at football, cost is almost certainly the primary reason as to why fans stay away.  Had this offer not been in place ‘walk up’ supporters would have faced shelling out £21 for a ticket at a time when money is quite scarce after the festive break so credit to Inverness for looking at ways to boost the crowd. Hamilton allowed fans to attend a game against ICT for 10p, as part of their ‘celebration’ of Alex Neil's tenure at the club, and over 5000 fans were in attendance indicating an interest in football at Hamilton albeit one that can be promptly curbed by prohibitive ticket prices.

Fans of Ross County bore the brunt of some criticism from journalists over the weekend when 144 fans made the trip to watch their side play Motherwell.  Whilst this is a poor away crowd it’s no different from some of the away trips seen in Inverness or Dingwall from sides who, by comparison, have to make fewer trips up and down the A9 than the Highland teams.

Unfortunately, this seems to be lapped up by journalists covering the game in Scotland, typically those still bemoaning the loss of Rangers to the old Third Division, and much is made of low crowds at games. Indeed, numbers to date actually show that most clubs in Scotland’s top tier are experiencing an increase in their average crowds yet almost nothing is heard of this. It shouldn’t really be a surprise to most that fans are happy to attend games when they can but are not prepared to spend £20 to do so every week. Perhaps instead of criticising clubs like Ross County for the level of their away support it might be more helpful if some journalists actually attempted to investigate what stops fans from attending games on a more regular basis? AS

Dons more impressive than narrow win suggests
There are apparently folk on Aberdeen message boards laying into Adam Rooney.  Presumably these are people who have something against strikers who score many goals; maybe they yearn for the days of Calvin Zola's unthreatening meanders around the opposition penalty area?  These people should be banned from Pittodrie and the sooner facial recognition technology can be brought into the stadium so that we can more thoroughly police these faceless and unrecognisable social media users the better.

Rooney is already over the 50 goal threshold for the Dons, a feat achieved before he'd even seen in his second anniversary at the club, and his 16th league goal of this season was the difference against Dundee on Friday Night Fitba'.  Given that he is the defending Premiership top goalscorer, and this season only trails the runaway favourite for player of the season in Leigh Griffiths, it is hard to imagine (a) who critics of the big Irishman would see as a realistic upgrade, or (b) why they continue to be critical of him in the first place.  Clearly, there's no pleasing some folk.

For Dundee, the only reason the final scoreline wasn't much worse than 1-0 was due to the former Dandy in the Dees' goal.  Scott Bain had already made an excellent stop from Rooney at the start of the match - he actually managed to scramble across the face of goal to get a right paw on Rooney's opener, but seeing as how the strike came in from no more than a couple of yards he could only parry into the goal side of the side netting.  Bain also made a hat-trick of point blank saves from, of all people, centre half Ash Taylor - the last of them, just before half-time, was a full stretch flying save to his left that looked incredible.  He'd already been called up to the Scotland squad the previous season and hopefully there's an opportunity to earn a full cap in the foreseeable future.

Graeme Shinnie was skipper for the day in the absence of Captain (Ryan) Jack to injury and suspended vice-captain Mark Reynolds.  He was immense on the night and fully deserved to be named man of the match.  With Shinnie at left back, Kenny McLean was also excellent - he oozed class on the ball, and also did the ugly stuff well off the ball.  McLean was also ably abetted by young Craig Storie in his second consecutive start in central midfield.  While there have been recent rumours of Aberdeen looking to bring in Partick Thistle's Stuart Bannigan on a pre-contract agreement, they may do better to consider giving youngsters like Storie and Cammy Smith an extended run in the team first.

The win keeps Aberdeen in touching distance of Celtic, with the league leaders visiting Pittodrie in their next fixture.  Yes, the Dons need to beat them if the title race is to remain a realistic one - for a purely selfish reason, any other result would be a seriously depressing end to my birthday - but at least we can come out of the January transfer window able to say that there is still a realistic title race to speak of.  Wouldn't it be nice to be able to say that for at least a couple weeks longer? MI

St. Johnstone are losing games and losing players

Losing at Celtic Park is hardly something that Tommy Wright will lose sleep over; any points obtained in this fixture were always going to be a bonus for St. Johnstone, especially with a cup semi-final to come next week.  The biggest priority was to escape without any injuries...and the Perth Saints failed in this respect.  Murray Davidson broke down with a hip problem in the second half; Dave Mackay's ongoing hip troubles meant he was fit enough only for the bench.

With Chris Millar likely to miss out with a hamstring problem too, Wright has not his problems to seek for what increasingly feels like an away fixture, despite being at a 'neutral' venue; if playing Hibs in Edinburgh (albeit at Tynecastle) wasn't already disadvantageous, an SPFL screw up over tickets leaves St. Johnstone with a smaller allocation than originally promised, and Hibs with a larger one - leaving Saints fans outnumbered about 4 to 1.

One suspects any further Rangers bid this week for Michael O'Halloran will be rebuffed, regardless of the amount offered - it's currently hard enough for Wright to find eleven fit players as it is. LS

County prepare perfectly for Hampden
Ross County bounced back from consecutive defeats with victory in a decent game in Motherwell.  With a bit of better finishing it could easily have been a higher scoring game, but given the usual state of fare served up at Fir Park in January it would be churlish to complain.  The opening goal came from Jackson Irvine who only started because Martin Woods got injured in the warmup.  Given the amount of time and space the Australian was given at a corner, it can only be assumed that nobody gave Motherwell the updated teamsheet.

The result, and to an extent the performance, will no doubt give County a boost going into their League Cup semi final against Celtic on Sunday.  Five years after making the Scottish Cup Final by defeating the same opponent, it would be a nice validation of the tremendous work done by Jim McIntyre if they could once again shock Celtic in a semi final.  I imagine the very thought of playing a Highland team at Hampden brings Celtic players out in a cold sweat.  They wouldn’t feel much better after seeing Scott Fox’s spectacular save from Keith Lasley late on to deny Motherwell a share of the points.  It was a stop that even Josh Meekings would have been proud of. IM

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

Iain Meredith (IM) is technically a Rangers fan, but these days he tends to support them ironically.  He 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.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Dundee United stare relegation in the face

This may be the happiest Mixu Paatelainen has looked at any point as Dundee United manager

"Dundee United face D-day" say the BBC.  The manager says "it would be an unbelievable achievement to stay up".  "I have played in European ties and I have played in cup finals, but this is bigger than any cup final I have played in" says midfielder John Rankin ahead of tomorrow's home game with Kilmarnock.

Now, that last statement is just a great big fib.  A home game against Kilmarnock in January is not 'bigger than any cup final' and never will be.  It's a grandiose cliche that's really meant to keep the fans onside, to prove the players do care (and perhaps to convince the players themselves).

So too the talk of a great big team meeting this week  (given the size of the squad, they probably had to hire out a small theatre for it) where, according to Rankin, "we aired a few grievances", there were arguments, and some players were "battered and bruised" - he doesn't say if he meant this literally.  As a result, "training this week has been at a different tempo, a different standard".  Aye, sure.

Still, the Killie game is a big one...though so has every United game for weeks now.  But we're now three months into the Mixu Era at Dundee United.  This seems like a reasonable point to take stock on how things are going.


When Jackie McNamara was punted, United had won just one league game and amassed just five points.  Under Mixu Paatelainen, they have, er, won just one league game and amassed just five points.


If the season had started when Mixu had just taken over, they would still be bottom - even behind Hamilton Accies who in recent months have been defending like a pub team who have just come out of the pub.  Only one point adrift when the big Finn pitched up, the gap to eleventh is now a whopping fourteen points.  There are just sixteen games to go.

Their next four games are against the four teams immediately above them - Kilmarnock tomorrow, then Partick Thistle, Hamilton and Motherwell in succession.  If they're going to dig themselves out of this deep, deep hole, they're going to have to win these games.

Then again, I said that in November and December, where they had a run of favourable matches; they lost to Accies (after leading), drew with Killie (who played for more than an hour with 10 men), lost to Partick and drew in Inverness (where they led twice and conceded an injury time equalizer).

Make no mistake, October is a tough time for a new manager to take charge.  For nearly three months Mixu had to rely mostly on Jackie Mac's squad, with transfer window rules preventing him bringing in anything other than free agents.  In this case, there wasn't even the traditional New Manager Bounce, where it seems that even appointing Coco The Clown leads to a short-term improvement in results.

United did win Mixu's third match in charge - against Ross County - but that came in between a drubbing at Celtic and an embarrassing cup loss at Easter Road.  That victory over County remains their only one in twelve league games.  The stats are grim: ten goals scored in that time (only six from open play), against twenty-five conceded.  Aside from the County game, they've scored first in five other matches, from which they've come away with a point.

What can we deduce from this?

Well, there have been no signs whatsoever that Mixu can get more from the players he was bequeathed than his predecessor managed.  It would be a stretch to say that anyone has played well this season, under either regime; perhaps the exception is Billy Mckay, who was signed on loan at the end of August, but even the Northern Irishman has shown a hesistancy in front of goal that was rarely evident in his last two years at Inverness.

Perhaps this can be taken as evidence that McNamara left behind a dreadful squad - a suspicion many of us had at the start of the season.  Too many quality players had left in 2015; too many of those remaining were youngsters with plenty of potential but who were essentially unproven; of the veterans, many seemed to be well past their best; the signings last summer were risky at best, and only Mckay has worked out.  Rodney Sneijder, Aaron Kuhl and Adam Taggart are already gone, while Darko Bodul will leave imminently.  Mark Durnan and Coll Donaldson are both young and may be salvageable, but when called upon both have been dreadful.

But even despite transfer window limitations, Mixu has brought in half a team - and so far, they haven't been any better than the players they replaced.  Guy Demel's years of experience didn't stop him getting stupidly sent off in the derby.  Florent Sinama Pongolle was injured a few minutes into his first start.  Gavin Gunning can take sole responsibility for a number of goals conceded on his watch, and part of the collective responsibility for plenty more.  Riku Riski has only started one game, but I'm not sure he even touched the ball in that match with Celtic.

Most damning of all is the situation in goal.  United had to wait six weeks for Eiji Kawashima to get a work permit, so they could upgrade from the terrible tandem of Michal Szromnik and Luis Zwick between the sticks - picking between the two is like asking someone to choose between eating dog mess or a bowl of vomit for their dinner.  And yet Kawashima blundered in his debut against Dundee with a punch that wouldn't have hurt a butterfly, and wasn't impressive against Celtic (though neither were his defenders).  Expect the word 'kamikaze' to be thrown around a lot over the next few months.

Maybe today's new boy, West Ham loanee Kyle Knoyle, will improve the situation at full-back - he's a direct replacement for Ryan McGowan, who has legged it back to China - but it's not an ideal environment to parachute a raw teenager into.  It's hard to see how he could make the backline look more fragile than it already is, though.

McGowan wasn't the only defender who struggled badly, and part of that is surely tactical.  Mixu has for weeks deployed a back three with wing-backs,  The logic is obvious - that's effectively five defenders on the pitch, which should at least tighten things up - but the experiment has, in general, been a disaster.  None of them ever look comfortable.  Celtic exposed the problems beautifully last Friday, getting in behind the wing-backs frequently as the centre-backs were unwilling to move across to provide cover, and getting between the lines as no-one was willing to step out to close down the space.  Add in the frequent individual errors which cost them goals even when there are more defenders playing, and all its done is reduce the side's attacking threat.  The stubborn persistence with this failing tactic is bizarre.

And whilst it is dangerous to question Mixu's man-management just on his comments to the press, his constant criticisms of his players in public surely can't be helping.  Within ten days of taking over he derided one performance as "absolutely rubbish".  He cancelled time off during the November international break as punishment for further poor showings.  He made it clear quickly that he intended to replace most of the players (a tactic that backfired badly on Terry Butcher at Hibs).  Do the comments about training this week reflect badly on his ability to motivate too?

The bottom line is that United are doomed to relegation, unless someone (Accies, perhaps?) has a Hibs-esque collapse...and even then they will probably need about twenty more points just to finish eleventh.  Not impossible, but not likely, especially given the current frailties.  And if the arse doesn't fall out of any else's season, another thirty points might not be enough.

The rest of the season is as much about proving that Mixu is the right man to take them back up from the Championship.  It's still early days, but he's not made a compelling case so far.  Again, Butcher and Hibs come to mind.  Have the players bought in to his plans?  Will they ever?

Still, they're not the worst team in top flight history - not yet anyway.  Another eight points would save them from that distinction.  And if fans need some solace, they should rewind to 2000-01; Alex Smith's side had even fewer points at this stage of the season.  They stayed up.  What price a repeat?

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, January 19, 2016

Talking Points from the Premiership

We love Armageddon
On a ByTheMin Aberdeen podcast earlier this week, BT Sport commentator Derek Rae mentioned how their broadcast team thought they could differentiate themselves from other ventures by being positive about Scottish football - an approach that would be nice for our overlords at the Scottish Professional Football League to adopt once in a while.  So rather than talking down the standard of the defending and the quality of the near-frozen pitch (although bravo to the groundstaff at Victoria Park for managing to keep the game on!) I'd say this was one of the best games I've watched this season.  

In the first half alone the momentum swung violently from one team to another.  Aberdeen looked like they would overrun Ross County in the first 15 minutes, with a flurry of corners and attempts on goal.  Then, suddenly, it all went the way of the Staggies - former Don Ricky Foster had a shot tipped over the bar, then Ian McShane was clumsily bundled in the box by Ash Taylor for what should have been a penalty.  Momentum swung fully their way moments later - Mark Reynolds pulled back Alex Schalk on the edge of the box and, as the last defender, received a red card; McShane duly stepped up to smack a low free kick under the premature leap of the defensive wall and into the net.

A man and a goal to the good within the space of a minute, it looked like County were fully in the ascendancy - and yet, they would find themselves behind less than 10 minutes later!  First, Chris Robertson pulled Adam Rooney down in the box and the striker pulled himself back up to score the resultant penalty.  Then, Jonny Hayes managed to conjure a yard of space on the left to whip in a cross to the back post for the onrushing Shay Logan - he was sandwiched by Foster and Jamie Reckord, but whomever it came off last the result was the ball looping into the back of the net.  An incredible first half wasn't even finished yet - Hayes intercepted the ball at halfway and his mazy run should have resulted in more than the ball being blazed over the bar; at the other end, returning Dons keeper Scott Brown made a magnificent double save from Brian Graham and Foster to preserve the lead; and back at the County end, another Rooney shot looked like it would be parried into the net by Scott Fox, but the keeper managed to scramble across the face of the goal to paw the ball clear.  Phew!

The second half could never live up to the dramatic first, but still had a couple more goals to entertain the crowded masses.  On the hour mark, Graeme Shinnie bombed down the left flank to fire another low cross - Rooney managed to flick it over Staggies skipper Andrew Davies at the front post, and Logan beat Reckord to the ball to score his second(?) goal.  It looked as if the ten men were going to see out the match comfortably, however another Lovejoy screamer meant that the Dons had to see out a more nervy last 10 minutes to hang on for a very hard fought three points.

It was an important win for Aberdeen to put behind the disappointment of their most recent cup exit - it seemed even more of an achievement having played for so long with 10 men and means that the Dons continue to hang onto Celtic's coat-tails by their fingertips with a Pittodrie dust-up with the Champions looming in just over a couple of weeks.  Ross County will be rightly disappointed themselves, but can expect a turn in fortune once they get some of their players back to form and fitness - Jackson Irvine surprisingly came off the bench rather than starting, while Liam Boyce and Craig Curran were clearly missed further forward - with a view to improving their place in the top half of the table.  After all, it's important to be positive. MI

Hearts at their best
The biggest shock in last weekend’s Scottish Cup 4th round was Annan horsing Hamilton Accies.  The second biggest shock was that Hearts only beat Aberdeen 1­-0.  It’s fair to say the Jambos have built a reputation this season as a “physical’ side, with all the negative connotations that come with that.  Against Aberdeen they showed the positive side of it and bullied the Dons, easily winning 50:50 challenges, shoulder barges and aerial balls without being able to capitalise on their early goal.

On Saturday they got all of that frustration in front of goal out, and poor Motherwell were on the receiving end.  Three goals in the first quarter set up an easy victory that was all the more impressive in light of the visitors' recent form.  I reflected on Mark McGhee’s second first game as ‘Well boss on these very pages and was less than impressed; I’m sure that his desire to prove me wrong played a big part in his team’s resurgence.  However, the absurdly congested middle of the Premiership table means that this defeat leaves them a point above the playoff position.

There’s only one team in the league that can handle Hearts on this kind of form at Tynecastle, particularly when short of numbers in midfield.  Sometimes they are a bit dirty, but when they’re on their game and just on the edge with their physicality, this Hearts team are great fun to watch.  If there was a way to combine the best aspects of Hearts and Aberdeen, Celtic would really have their work cut out. IM

Killie benefit from already being in scrappy mode
Rewind about a month and most of us had Kilmarnock pencilled in for eleventh least as long as they kept Gary Locke in the dugout.  Sure, they're still in that dreaded playoff position, but they've hung onto everyone else's coat-tails and are not only level on points with Accies and Partick Thistle, but only four points off the top six.

Locke and his players seem to have already grasped that they are in a relegation battle, and are playing as such.  Saturday, in snowy conditions that meant that the game had to be stopped in both halves for the lines to be cleared (why hasn't Killie's little orange tractor got its own Twitter account yet?), was perfect for scrapping, and so the home side ran out deserved winners over an Inverness team whose tippy-tappy stuff couldn't have been more inappropriate in the circumstances.

Those of us at Narey's Toepoker would still make Kilmarnock favourites to play in that playoff, but not by that much.  They may have an advantage over the teams above them because they've already realized that it's time for scrapping.  By the time others realize, their situations could be far more dire.  It's going to be close, and the biggest motivation for any of them to clinch a top six spot is because they can't get relegated.  In fact, this season the team in sixth could finish wth fewer points than the team in eleventh. LS

Who needs a holding midfielder?
Maybe, had they been playing a more stout opponent (I don't mean 'stout' in the Mixu Paatelainen sense of the word), Celtic would have been far more exposed.  But against a Dundee United side devoid of anyone who could break up play - John Rankin, bless him, ran around like a dog chasing a ball - Ronny Deila was able to deploy five attack minded midfielders and get away with it...and then some.  No Scott Brown, no Nir Bitton?  No bother.  Celtic were in all-out attack mode, and they could have easily managed double the four goals they put past Eiji Kawashima.

United couldn't have been more willing to indulge the champions, mind.  Mixu's insistence on sticking with three at the back was daft against a team playing only a lone striker, especially as none of the trio were willing to step forward to stop Kris Commons getting between the lines.  Celtic also ran riot in the wide areas, and one shudders to think what might have happened had they deployed a natural winger on the left who might have taken more advantage of Ryan McGowan's poor performance than Stuart Armstrong did.

That said, the home side did expose the lack of a holding midfield player once...and scored as a result; John Souttar bursting out of defence with the ball, with no-one to stop him playing in Simon Murray.  It was a cracking goal, which tells you what United can be capable of.  Unfortunately, the ones they conceded tell you what they're usually capable of.

Will Ronny Deila try such an aggressive lineup again in the future?  I doubt it - they're perfectly capable of scoring plenty with Brown and/or Bitton in the lineup.  But let's hope they do because it was really rather fun to watch. LS

Harkins' winter wonderland
Rightly or wrongly, Gary Harkins has a bit of a reputation for being the sort of player who is either up for it, or not at all up for it.  A freezing, snowy winter's afternoon at Firhill surely is the type of match in which he'd hide, right?  So much for that; the mercurial midfielder was pretty much unplayable in barely playable conditions against Partick Thistle.  Two goals later (and he won a penalty too), and this match was over as a contest by half-time.  His second was just gorgeous, smashed over Tomas Cerny from the edge of the box and dipping deliciously under the crossbar.  His mock-nonchalant non-celebration just added to the spectacle.

It would have helped, of course, if the first three goals hadn't been pretty much gifted.  The first was a nightmare for Liam Lindsay - who was later sent off - as the young defender was dispossessed by Harkins and then hung out a lazy leg to give away a spot-kick.  The second was the result of a Tomas Cerny punch that wouldn't have hurt a butterfly.  And the third was inexcusable - rule one of playing Dundee is "never, ever, let Greg Stewart come inside onto his left foot to have a shot".

So much for Thistle's revival - they are now level on points with Kilmarnock and Accies and back in the playoff dogfight.  Worryingly for Alan Archibald, they were utterly bossed in midfield in the absence of Abdul Osman.  With Osman linked with moves away in the summer, and Stuart Bannigan apparently interesting Aberdeen sooner than that, the Jags are at risk of losing their midfield backbone - two players that they would really struggle to replace. LS

O'Halloran overshadows Perth proceedings
What to say about St. Johnstone v Accies?  It was a terrible game by all accounts, not helped by the atrocious Perth pitch; the ball couldn't have bobbled more if the turf had been ploughed pre-kickoff.  Credit to Sportscene for actually stretching the highlights out to nearly two minutes - the most interesting moment of which was Steven Anderson handballing in the box and then holding his head afterwards in an attempt to con referee Andrew Dallas (who may have judged it accidental anyway).

The big talking point, of course, was the absence of the home side's talisman, Michael O'Halloran - he had been dropped in case all the midweek speculation regarding a move to Rangers had screwed him up.  It says something for the boy's professionalism (or lack of) if all the talk had messed his head - whilst doubtless plenty of players would still see it as a step up, he's not going to be offered the crazy money that the Gers were paying the likes of Ian Black or Fran Sandaza...or, if he is, they're doomed again.

Rangers' tactics were pretty embarrassing, I thought; I'd have loved to see more journalists calling out their derisory bids as such, and criticizing them for a pretty ill-disguised attempt to unsettle a player...rather than helpfully contributing to the process.  St. Johnstone don't need to sell the attacker urgently, as he has 18 months on his contract.  A figure closer to that received for Stevie May two summer ago - around £600,000 - would seem appropriate to this blogger.

After a wonderful autumn, Saints' have hit a sticky patch just now, and it's worth noting that only eight points separate them (in fourth) from that relegation playoff spot.  It would take an almighty collapse and a bizarre run of results to drop them into trouble...but I imagine they'd like a few more points on the board before letting O'Halloran leave for Ibrox. 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.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Keep or release?

Right, so it's January...which means players who are in the last six months of their contracts can start looking elsewhere.  Not that there tends to be much in the way of 'pre-contracts' in Scotland...last year there was Graeme Shinnie and Gary Mackay-Steven (who made his move to Celtic permanent in the January 2015 window anyway).  Most of the out of contract players - 133, by my count (only players with first team experience are included) - will just be happy to get new deals with their current clubs.

Regulars will know that I've made a Herculean effort to keep squad lists and contract details updated on this page.  So here's how each club stands, and how they might deal with their impending free agents...

(note - if any of this info is wrong, please be a darling and let me know?  Cheers)

Out of contract: Scott Brown, David Goodwillie, Shaleum Logan, Barry Robson, Craig Storie

Sign them up! Shay Logan has proven himself to be a capable right-back, but there have been rumblings that he wants to return to England.  Maybe Derek McInnes can convince him to stay?

Time to move on? David Goodwillie hasn't started a game since mid-October; chances are he is on decent wages, and unless he takes a pay cut the Dons might replace him with someone of better value.  There's every chance that 37 year old Barry Robson might retire.  And will Scott Brown want to stay to be a backup keeper?

Out of contract: Derk Boerrigter, James Forrest, Charlie Mulgrew

Sign them up! James Forrest divides opinion to say the least, but it would be a shock if he didn't get a new deal, partly because he is Celtic-through-and-through, partly because Ronny Deila rates him, and partly because he could be a saleable asset in the future.

Time to move on? Charlie Mulgrew has struggled badly with injuries and form this season, but his versatility might convince the club to keep him.  Derk Boerrigter will be punted in January if Celtic can find someone to take him.

Out of contract: Kostadin Gadzhalov, Gary Harkins, Gary Irvine, Cammy Kerr, Thomas Konrad, Paul McGinn, Paul McGowan, Kevin Thomson

Sign them up! Paul McGowan has kept himself out of trouble since moving to Tayside and remains one of the league's better creative players.  Young Cammy Kerr looks like a prospect and started the new year derby.  Paul McGinn remains a first choice at right-back, even though his form has been up and down.

Time to move on? Dundee look like a better team when Kevin Thomson is fit...but that isn't very often.  Paul Hartley could do with a less fragile holding midfield player.  Kostadin Gadzhalov and Thomas Konrad are no better than reserves in central defence, while Gary Harkins and Gary Irvine have long associations with the Dark Blues but neither have been regulars this season.

Out of contract: Aidan Connolly, Guy Demel, Ryan Dow, Chris Erskine, Gavin Gunning, Eiji Kawashima, Marc McCallum, Ryan McGowan, Callum Morris, John Rankin, Jamie Robson, Florent Sinama Pongolle, Scott Smith, John Souttar, Euan Spark

Sign them up! What United do will depend on who they bring in during this window, and what division they end up in.  They certainly want to give John Souttar a new deal (but whether the youngster will sign it is another matter).  Ryan Dow is a limited player, but gives the sort of effort that has been lacking from many of his teammates and might be worth a new deal.  John Rankin's experience is likely to be useful, either in the Premiership or the Championship.

Time to move on? Ryan McGowan has been linked with a pre-contract move to Aberdeen.  Recent signings Guy Demel, Eiji Kawashima and Florent Sinama Pongolle all have a 'gone at the end of the season' vibe.  Marc McCallum is now fourth choice keeper and could make permanent his recent loan spell at Livingston.  Aidan Connolly was a McNamara favourite but doesn't seem to be a Mixu one.  Callum Morris' recent knee injury may work against him.
(6/1/16 update: Jamie Robson has signed a new contract)

Out of contract: Eamonn Brophy, Alex D'Acol, Jesus Garcia Tena, Ziggy Gordon, Dougie Imrie, Louis Longridge, Lucas, Christopher Mandiangu, Alan Martin, Scott McMann, Michael McGovern, Darian McKinnon, Christian Nade, Daniel Redmond, Jamie Sendles-White

Sign them up! Michael McGovern has been linked with Hibs; Accies need to keep the Northern Ireland international keeper if they can.  Ziggy Gordon will also attract attention from elsewhere, and would be too old to command a development fee if he leaves.  Lucas has proven a competent central defender at times, and at least provides a goal threat at set plays.  Young forward Brophy has plenty of admirers.  I'm not a big fan of Darian McKinnon's uncompromising style, but Martin Canning appears to be a fan.  Dougie Imrie is on the coaching staff anyway and hasn't shown signs of slowing down yet.

Time to move on? Jesus Garcia Tena looks like a decent Championship player, no more; the same could be said of Louis Longridge.  Alex D'Acol and Christian Nade have offered little other than nuisance value.
(6/1/16 update: Darian McKinnon and Dougie Imrie have signed new contracts)

Out of contract: Neil Alexander, Kenny Anderson, Blazej Augustyn, Angus Beith, Nathan Flanagan, Scott Gallacher, Liam Henderson, Callum Morrison, Miguel Pallardo, Alistair Roy, Liam Smith, Osman Sow, Danny Swanson

Sign them up! Osman Sow will be approached by a number of suitors this summer, so it will be a coup if Hearts can keep the Swede at Tynecastle.  Veteran Neil Alexander remains a reliable keeper, while Blazej Augustyn has established himself in defence.

Time to move on? Scott Gallacher and Kenny Anderson have already been told they can go.  Danny Swanson hasn't impressed since joining in September.  Miguel Pallardo seems to have been pushed down the pecking order by Arnaud Djoum.
(6/1/16 update: Kenny Anderson has been released)

Out of contract: Dean Brill, Danny Devine, Aaron Doran, Ross Draper, Ryan Esson, Calum Ferguson, Owain Fon Williams, Lewis Horner, Dani Lopez, Cameron Mackay, Andrea Mbuyi-Mutombo, Liam Polworth, David Raven, Jordan Roberts, Ali Sutherland, Carl Tremarco, Iain Vigurs, Jamie Vincent, Nat Wedderburn, Danny Williams

Sign them up! ICT barely have anyone under contract for next season, so expect plenty of these players to stick around.  Ross Draper has already been offered a new deal.  Liam Polworth has been a revelation this season and will surely stay.  Owain Fon Williams, Danny Devine, Danny Williams and Jamie Vincent have all been first team regulars this season, so it would be a shock if Yogi didn't offer them new deals.

Time to move on? Dani Lopez's spell in Scotland has been pretty disastrous and he could be let go in this window if a new club can be found.  Andrea Mbuyi-Mutombo is all flash and no substance.  The futures of Dean Brill and Aaron Doran will be dependent on their recoveries from serious knee injuries.  David Raven has been a good servant, but there have been rumours that he fell out with the manager.

Out of contract: Lee Ashcroft, Ross Barbour, Conor Brennan, Dean Hawkshaw, Chris Johnston, Rory McKenzie, Scott McLean, Craig Slater, Aaron Splaine, David Syme, Darryl Westlake

Sign them up! Youngsters Aaron Splaine and David Syme are on the fringes of the first team and are surely worth another year or two.  Rory McKenzie was having a good season prior to recent injury, and Craig Slater is a decent enough midfielder at this level.

Time to move on? Lee Ashcroft and Ross Barbour may be academy graduates, but they're now 22 and haven't cemented a place in the team.  Darryl Westlake has had injury problems but hasn't been a regular when fit.  Chris Johnston is currently recovering from a cruciate injury, so his future must be uncertain.

Out of contract: Chris Cadden, David Clarkson, David Ferguson, Wes Fletcher, Steven Hammell, Keith Lasley, Jack Leitch, Scott McDonald, Stephen McManus, Craig Moore, Craig Reid, Theo Robinson, Craig Samson, Dan Twardzik

Sign them up! You know, it's not impossible that all these players are let go...but Scott McDonald has been in good form and still has something left in his legs, while Stephen McManus has been much improved under Mark McGhee.  Steven Hammell remains a reliable option at left-back.

Time to move on? It's clear that neither Dan Twardzik nor Craig Reid have any future at Fir Park.  David Clarkson is well past his best.  And could this May be the end of Keith Lasley's indian summer? (yes, I know I've been asking that for two years...)

Out of contract: David Amoo, Stuart Bannigan, Callum Booth, Tomas Cerny, Kris Doolan, Ryan Edwards, Frederic Frans, Paul Gallacher, Steven Lawless, Jordan Leyden, Neil McLaughlin, Gary Miller, Abdul Osman, Mathias Pogba, Ryan Scully, Danny Seaborne, Ryan Stevenson, David Wilson

Sign them up! Eighteen players out of contract, so Alan Archibald is bound to re-sign many of them once Thistle's top flight status is secured.  Top of the list will be first team regulars Tomas Cerny Callum Booth, Stuart Bannigan, Abdul Osman, Danny Seaborne, Steven Lawless and Kris Doolan...assuming they all want to stay.

Time to move on? Ryan Stevenson is clearly surplus to requirements, as he's been loaned to Ayr United.  Players who have been mostly on the bench - Frederic Frans and Mathias Pogba, for example - haven't done enough to justify a new deal.

Out of contract: Rocco Quinn, Jamie Reckord, Alex Schalk

Sign them up! Reckord is a perfectly competent left-back, and it would be a surprise if he wasn't offered a new contract.

Time to move on? Alex Schalk hasn't had much of a chance so far; injuries should give him a run in the team to show what he can do.  Quinn is in his fifth season at County, but he isn't a first choice and it might be time for him to return to the central belt to find regular action.

Out of contract: Steven Anderson, Scott Brown, Liam Caddis, Liam Craig, Greg Hurst, Simon Lappin, Steven Maclean, Craig Thomson

Sign them up! Anderson has been a stalwart, and it would be a shock if he didn't commit to another season or two.  Steven Maclean is getting on a bit, but he's been as sharp as ever this season and is surely worth an extension.

Time to move on? Scott Brown and Liam Caddis have had plenty of opportunities over the last few years and haven't taken them.  Have veterans Liam Craig and Simon Lappin done enough to warrant a contract offer?

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.