Saturday, March 26, 2016

What compliance?

It turns out that Tony McGlennan, the SFA Compliance Officer, actually still exists.

I had run a Twitter poll earlier in the week comparing McGlennan's apparent disappearance to the fates of Spinal Tap's cursed drummers.  Unfortunately for Mixu Paatelainen, McGlennan has not in fact spontaneously combusted, or choked on someone else's vomit (if you haven't seen the film, you really should).  The lawyer has decided to pull up Dundee United's Finnish boss for making gestures at Dundee fans sat behind him during the derby.

You see, Mixu - having dealt with 90 minutes of dog's abuse - celebrated his side's comeback from two down by cupping his ears to them, and then giving the gesture that is universally translated as "get it right up you".  Personally, I thought it was hilarious; it reminds me of the Only An Excuse sketch where a bunch of fans (also Dundee supporters, coincidentally) give Neil Lennon horrendous abuse and then all simultaneously react with horror and offence when the Northern Irishman responded with a middle finger.

However, McGlennan clearly doesn't share my warped sense of humour.  He seems determined to now clamp down on managers for stepping even slightly out of line.  Derek McInnes was recently cited after Aberdeen's win at Tannadice - his crime was getting sent to the stand for having the temerity to point out that Bobby Madden's decision to book Graeme Shinnie for diving, when he should have either given what was a stonewall penalty or let play continue with an advantage (for Aberdeen scored from the loose ball).

McInnes got off.  Cowdenbeath's Colin Nish may not be so lucky after he was sent to the stand during the Fife derby...though it's not clear why Dunfermline's manager and assistant manager, who also received the same fate, have not been cited.  Go back a few months, and you have Caley Thistle's John Hughes getting a one match ban after he heavily criticized the performance of Andrew Dallas, who has inherited his father's name and self-confidence but sadly none of his refereeing ability.

So managers need to watch out.  Do anything other than lean on the side of the dugout with a glum expression and arms folded, and McGlennan will be all over you like a rash.  Players, on the other hand, need not worry.

Do you remember the days when Peter Pawlett couldn't belly flop in the box without receiving a two game ban, when Lee McCulloch couldn't stamp on a defenseless opponent without being dragged to Hampden, when Jim Goodwin wasn't able to get away with attempting to commit Grievous Bodily Harm on a football pitch?  Now, were Goodwin actually able to get a game for St. Mirren, he could probably hack at an opposing striker with a machete and avoid punishment so long as the officials missed it.

So much for retrospective punishments.  A fortnight ago Motherwell's Scott McDonald elbowed Coll Donaldson of Dundee United flush in the face; referee Crawford Allan missed it, but BT Sport's cameras didn't, and replayed the incident so often that you'd have thought that Chris Sutton had some sort of personal vendetta against the Australian forward.  And yet McDonald received nothing from the SFA; he was free to play the following week against Aberdeen where, ironically, he was a victim of an equally vicious elbow.  On this occasion, the referee did see it (he could hardly miss it!) and Barry Robson was dismissed.

Divers are getting away with it again too.  Ross Draper escaped any sort of censure after winning a penalty against Aberdeen on live telly by suddenly but temporarily losing the use of his legs.  Hibernian's League Cup semi-final win came partly because Liam Henderson conned the officials into giving a penalty; again, no action.

In fact, the only player I can think of who has got banned this season was Henderson's teammate Fraser Fyvie...whose crime was to hold his face after being barged in the chest by Rangers' Andy Halliday so that the Gers midfielder would be unfairly sent off.

This could, I suppose, be a change in policy that wasn't made public.  After all, the Compliance Officer's job is a thankless one.  He's not blessed with multiple camera angles of every incident at every game, nor with the time/resources to go through 540 minutes of Premiership football every weekend.  Previous accusations of 'Trial by Sportscene' where a player would only be pulled up if the incident was shown in the BBC highlights, were not unreasonable.  It could be argued that the standards have to be the same for everyone...though the successful use of TV evidence in other sports such as rugby shows up that argument as a rubbish one.

But it could be that he, and his paymasters, were well and truly spooked by the infamous Josh Meekings incident last April.  Whilst there was little doubt that the Caley Thistle defender's handball on the goalline should have resulted in a penalty and a red card, McGlennan's attempt to get the Englishman a retrospective ban, which would have prevented him from playing in the Scottish Cup Final, were cack-handed to say the least.  There was no precedent for such a decision, and it seemed an awful coincidence that Celtic had raised an absolute stink about it.  When it was thrown out, the press described it as 'a humiliation', which wasn't far off the mark.

Was this one embarrassment too far for McGlennan?  Judging by his lack of action this season, quite possibly.

Or maybe the SFA have made a conscious decision to roll back retrospective punishments.  Either way, the message seems to be the following: managers need to shut up and play nice, but players can do anything they damn well please, as long as the officials have their backs turned.  I can't say it's a message that I'm especially happy with.

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, March 21, 2016

Talking points from the Premiership

Is there such a thing as a crap Dundee derby?
At Tannadice we had the curious spectacle of a substitute (David Mitchell) coming on for a substitute (Nicky Low) who came on for a substitute (Thomas Konrad).  One for future pub quizzes, no?  It was nothing more than a wee footnote in this game though, which was a wonderful spectacle containing the amount of passion and aggression one expects from a derby, and also rather more quality than Scottish football is generally given credit for.  Each of the three Dundee derbies this season has been a cracker; is there a match in football that comes closer to guaranteeing viewers a good game?

It helps that United are so gung-ho at the moment; despite having their fingers burned by Motherwell's attackers last week, they again stuck with three at the back and pushed on their wing-backs.  It was no surprise that Nick Ross, Gary Harkins and most prominently Greg Stewart took advantage of the space left behind.  Kane Hemmings' first half double - the second would have been an extraordinary miss had he not sliced his right foot shot so much that it deflected in off his left foot - was appropriate reward for the visitors being simply better organized and more thoughtful.

Scott Bain's sending off and the resultant penalty turned the game on it's head though, and United resorted to an aerial bombardment that eventually yielded an equalizer.  One wonders if Mixu Paatelainen might have been better trying to find an intricate path through the Dundee defence - crippled by the loss of Konrad and Kostadin Gadzhalov to injury and with Paul McGinn as an auxiliary central defender - once he'd got Scott Fraser on the pitch.  Perhaps he also might have ditched one of his three centre backs given that Dundee had long given up any pretence of attack.

This result was great for the neutrals, but not so for either club.  United need wins if they are to stay up, not draws.  Dundee, despite some great football at times this season, and a budget which is probably the fifth biggest in the Premiership, have drawn too many games and run a real risk of finishing up in the bottom half.  Of course if that happens we get a fourth clash between these two teams, which would be rather great for the rest of us. LS

Why can't Killie compete like this every week?
Having drawn with them twice already this season, Kilmarnock came within seconds of being unbeaten against Celtic this season, before being undone by Tom Rogic's stunning winner.  Whilst the visitors had plenty of chances of their own, this match was well balanced and had the decisive goal come at the other end it would hardly have been daylight robbery.  Killie were well organized in defence, full of running in midfield, and willing to throw players forward when the opportunity arose.  Manager Lee Clark was effusive in his praise afterwards, and rightly so.

So why can't they do this every week?  Since Clark's arrival, they have picked up a solitary point out of a possible fifteen and are now just seven clear of Dundee United (and five adrift of Hamilton Accies).  The worry is that, under Gary Locke, Kilmarnock were capable of outstanding performances one week (the two previous Celtic clashes, for example), and absolute stinkers the next.  This weekend's efforts may be a sign that Killie are on the right track under Clark...but it's just as likely that it was another flash in the pan. LS

Motherwell escaped a red card yet again
The post-mortem report from Fir Park was mainly focussed - not unreasonably - on Aberdeen's second half self-combustion.  One up and heading for victory, they managed to lose two goals and a player in the space of six crazy minutes.  The manner of conceding was particularly galling; several Dons defenders letting a loose ball bounce around for Scott McDonald to head home, and then Mark Reynolds' dreadful blunder that allowed Louis Moult in to score.  This may be a vintage Aberdeen season (at least by modern standards) but Reynolds has been well below his best.  Add in Barry Robson's lunacy - ironically, his victim, McDonald, escaped punishment last week against Dundee United for an elbow just as blatant as Robson's - and it's hard to see how it could have gone more wrong.  Surely (and I know we've said this several times already this season) Celtic can't blow the title now?

Just a wee thought, though - Aberdeen's penalty in the first half was a stonewaller, with Jonny Hayes tripped by Kieran Kennedy.  Hayes was clean through with only Connor Ripley to beat, though.  Surely it was a clear goalscoring opportunity, and a red card?  Referee Don Robertson thought otherwise, though I can't work out for the life of me how he could come to any other conclusion.  One imagines that Aberdeen would have won this game - just as Dundee United would have done last week - had the referee at Fir Park done his job. LS

Caley Thistle rain on County's parade
Ross County were a week removed from a cup triumph, and have cemented themselves in the top half of the table all season long.  Inverness, in contrast, had been toiling for weeks, struggling with form and a seemingly neverending injury list.  And yet again, Caley Thistle won in Dingwall - for the fifth time in five attempts since John Hughes pitched up in the Highlands.  Talk about a hoodoo.

County away is pretty much the only game for which Yogi will change his 'pass sideways and backwards at all costs' policy...and it works so well that one wonders why on earth he doesn't try it for other matches.  ICT pack the pitch with strong, powerful players - Ross Draper and Liam Hughes could probably both outwrestle grizzly bears - and then hit on the counter when they're in front.  The Staggies never seem to have an answer to it.

Scoring first might be the key...but Alex Schalk headed wide from six yards and Jackson Irvine contrived to hit the post when clean through, before Liam Polworth struck at the other end.  After that, the result was never in doubt.  Choosing to hold their cup parade straight after a local derby was always going to tempt fate. LS

St. Johnstone take advantage of youthful naivety
This time last week you may recall reading glowing words of praise regarding the Hearts defence.  This group of young players were performing well individually and as a unit and had that potential to to be solid foundation of a good Hearts team for years to come.  Clearly they were so delighted to receive the Narey’s Toepoker Seal of Approval that they spent a few days on the lash celebrating.

St Johnstone’s first two goals were almost identical. To concede once from a corner that bounces inside the six yard box is careless.  To do it twice is something else.  The third goal was a nice finish by Darnell Fisher at the end of a sweeping counter-attack; Fisher might not have had so much time to pick his spot however had Perry Kitchen and Jordan McGhee not both been so focused on the ball that they didn't track the Saints man bursting through the right channel.

Robbie Neilson was rightly disappointed that his defence looked so fragile given how well it had been playing recently.  One of things that impressed me about the team, and the back line in particular, is the young average age.  But with that youth is bound to come some inconsistency, and days like Saturday will happen every so often.

St Johnstone are a good team and it’s no surprise that they were able to take advantage of Hearts’ off day.  Tommy Wright has done a consistently good job with this team and probably deserves more credit than he’s getting. They look odds on for a fifth consecutive top six finish, and that would be a very impressive achievement. IM

Pogba starts living up to his name
So much for the Accies revival; after last week's win, they looked like they were heading for another one at half-time against Partick Thistle, only for the visitors to turn the game on its head with two quick goals.  Thistle did remarkably well given their defensive travails; Liam Lindsay was injured in the warmup, so with Frederic Frans unavailable and Mustapha Dumbuya only fit enough for a second half sub's appearance Gary Miller ended up in central defence and Sean Welsh at right-back.  And of course it was Ryan Edwards, the hirsute Australian drafted in as a last minute replacement for Lindsay, who grabbed the winner with a wonderful diving header.

Edwards was however completely unmarked in the six yard box; so too was Mathias Pogba when he headed Thistle level.  Whilst that reflects poorly on Accies' dreadful back line, Pogba was such a handful that he would probably have been an awkward opponent for anyone.  The big Frenchman has struggled since moving north in August, partly down to a lack of fitness and then a spate of injuries.  This was only his second goal in Scotland, and his first since October (which was also, incidentally, against Hamilton)...on the same weekend that his more prestigious brother Paul struck in the Turin derby as well.

But there's no doubt that the lesser Pogba has some quality.  Now that he's a bit leaner, a bit more mobile and, crucially, a bit more confident, I fancy there are some more goals in him this season.  And if they come in the next couple of games, Thistle could make the top six yet. LS

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.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Caveat Emptor!

A photo appeared on twitter recently which got me thinking. It showed Jim McLean shaking hands with “Mr Dundee United”, gentleman centre-half Doug Smith on what I would think was his retirement, dating the picture around end of season ‘75/76.  Also in the picture were portents of things to come – Paul Sturrock, John Holt and Ray Stewart.  And Billy Steele.  It’s the presence of Billy Steel in the photo which got me thinking.

I started watching United regularly in 1973. While Jim McLean already had a reputation for giving youth its chance, what excited me then was the players United signed – or the anticipation of.  Each brought a promise of something different to the team, and my expectations for each new signing were absurdly high.  I can still remember the frisson when United picked up Billy Steele from Rangers on a free. In my youthful naivety, I assumed that he would be a vital addition to the first team.   Certainly three goals during the League Cup sectional ties in August ’75 was a pretty good start. Unfortunately, that was about as good as it got for the less talented Billy Steel(e) who plied a footballing trade in Dundee.  He rarely featured again, and was punted to Dumbarton for £5k in September ’76 (note: Dumbarton seems to be a recurring theme in what follows).

Signed a couple of months later was The Next Player To Attempt To Replace Andy Gray©, Dumbarton’s Barry Gibb lookalike Tom McAdam.  To be fair, Tom didn’t do too badly.  He lasted a couple of years, 74 games and 24 goals, without convincing.  Even I could see that he wasn’t really a good fit for United and Jim McLean.  He played centre-forward, and, er, that’s about it.  It was obvious by then that McLean liked players who were very adaptable, and capable of playing in more than one position.

Which is curious, given that Celtic then turned Tom into a pretty decent centre-half.

The next Game Changer was Billy Williamson, a player with respectable first team experience at Aberdeen and a League Cup winners’ medal, signed in February ’77.  Just the sort of player we needed to supplement the youthful skills of Narey, Holt, Payne, Sturrock etc.  Six months, seven starts and one goal later, he was swapped for Dundee’s Scottish international midfielder, the late Bobby Robinson. We definitely got the better of that deal.

What next?  Paul Sturrock and the emerging Davie Dodds needed an experienced striker to play alongside.  Dumbarton’s prolific beanpole John Bourke (The Next Player To Attempt To Replace Tom McAdam© as he was known to the Dumbarton fans) was seen as the answer, and a fee was paid in September ‘77.  My fading memory precludes me from quoting it here, but it was a decent amount.  However, the culture shock of moving from the west coast to Dundee was too great for Bourke.  He played one season (29 starts, 6 goals) then did a bunk, refusing to turn up for pre-season training in July ’78 and was duly flogged for £40k to Killie.  Still, I suppose some respect is due to Big John for having the cojones to stand up to Wee Jim and fleeing back to the sun-baked climes of Dunbartonshire, fun and sunshine, there’s enough for everyone.  All that’s missing is the sea, but don’t worry, you can suntaaaaaaan!

In the continuing quest for a goalscorer around this time, United then signed Scotland’s entire stock of professional footballers called Gordon Wallace.  One (the better one, more of which later) was a free from Dundee in ’76.  The other, signed October ’77, was prolific (another recurring theme here) for Raith Rovers.  So much so, that there’s a street in Raith named after him.  Probably.  You can guess the next bit.  9 starts, 3 goals, hasta la vista en route to Berwick Rangers, where I don’t think he’s commemorated in any way.  Well, apart from The Gordon Wallace Berwick International Airport.

The final name in this cavalcade of mediocrity is that of Stranraer goal machine Derek Frye.  Following in the footsteps of McAdam, Bourke, and Crap Gordon Wallace, Frye stepped up a league or two and promptly got altitude sickness of capability.  1 goal in 8 games over a year, and off he popped to Ayr United in August ’79.  I did name a cat after him though.  Big brute, huge testicles, massive claws, borderline psychotic, capable of turning from purring house pet to Kray-like violence in a nanosecond.  If only human Derek had displayed such a killer instinct in the penalty box. But enough of tired metaphors.

Now I’m sure United bought other players during this period, but these are the names which always spring to mind, all failing to make the grade at the level they were signed to play at (notwithstanding “Barry” McAdam’s successful positional change at Celtic, could have been a Tragedy that Jim didn’t spot that potential).

Conversely, United did very well in picking up some old pros as short terms fixes – The Good Gordon Wallace, Alec Rennie, Henry Hall to name a few, all capable of imparting their knowledge on the park to their (much) younger team mates, and making valuable contributions in their own way.  Indeed, Henry Hall deserves special mention, as his goals in ‘75/’76 helped stop United getting relegated in the first season of the Premier League.  And where might that have led should such an event have come to pass?  Jim McLean getting fired?  I remember plenty at Tannadice calling for his head around that time.  You fools!
Anyway, by the end of season 1978/79, I had no expectation that United would ever pay a fee for a player which would ever be justified.  Did it matter?  The youth policy was throwing up players every year who were totally schooled by McLean, knew their roles and were ultra-disciplined in how they filled them - Gray, Narey, Payne, Holt, Stewart, Sturrock, Stark, Dodds, Milne.  The production line was rolling.

And then. Summer ’79. I was a student, working for Dundee Parks Department.  On the way to work, I bought the Daily Express.  I make no apologies for that. It was cheap.  The SENSATIONAL back page splash was United paying £100,000 for Willie Pettigrew!


Fair to say, the grass edgings on the paths of Orchar Park didn’t get their usual professional attention that day.  Here was United signing a full international, a quality player proven at the level we were playing at.  What had changed?  Who cared!  Willie was soon banging them in, with the aplomb you get for £100k.

But if we were chuffed with Pettigrew, paying £165k (A Scottish transfer record. I’ll repeat that – a Scottish transfer record) for Eamonn Bannon two months later really was heading into uncharted waters – and in more ways than one.  By December ’79, United had won their first ever trophy, with Willie scoring twice in the final.

So we come back to Billy Steele et al.  What is apparent (with hindsight) is that United paid money for some pretty rubbish players during the mid/late 70s, whilst at the same time bringing through a golden generation of home-grown youngsters.  Whatever changed with regards to United’s signing policy, I’d argue that paying the big bucks for Pettigrew and Bannon provided the final impetus to change Dundee United from also-rans to trophy winners.

In summary, as with most things, you get what you pay for.  Jim always liked to compare United to a corner shop competing with supermarkets.  There’s a certain irony that it was only when his own buying habits moved from the corner shop to Harrods that the Dundee United jigsaw was completed.

I’ve not mentioned two players who were also bought by the club during the 70s who were instrumental in the success of the team 1979 – 87. Paul Hegarty (The First Player To Attempt To Replace Andy Gray©), £40k from Accies in ’74, converted to centre half in Nov ’76, went on to enjoy a stellar career and captain his country. Ian Phillip, £25k from Dundee in ’78. The holding midfielder’s holding midfielder. The man Claude Makele calls Le Dieu. Or Ian. Can’t remember which. Two league cup winners medals, 5 games in the league winning season.

Thanks to for all stats!

Peter Clark saw Dundee United win the league at Dens in 1983. His wife suspects everything since has been a bit disappointing.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Talking Points from the Premiership

Hearts' young defence impresses
Hearts have conceded a total of four league goals in 2016. That stat is less impressive when it’s pointed out that they’ve conceded 100% of those goals to Kilmarnock and Dundee United; clearly complacency against rubbish teams is a problem.

It’s a bit of a football cliché, but a team with a solid defence really is more than halfway to being a good team, and this Hearts back line is better than most. The cliché they are defying however is the one that says good defences have to be anchored by an experienced veteran, someone who’s “been there, done that,” etc and so on. Just now that rugged veteran is a 23 year old Turk, and he's playing with three Scottish teenagers.

I find watching this Hearts team to be a bittersweet experience. Two things I love about football are solid defensive units, and good, young Scottish players, and this Hearts team combines those things beautifully. In the old days they would have stayed together for years, and as they matured they’d have won a couple of league titles, and maybe made a decent run in the Fairs Cup.  They'd also have a cool nickname, like “The Great Wall of Gorgie™.”

This modern football though, and the chances are that at least one or two of them will head off to Glasgow or England and Hearts will have made a very tidy profit. The most likely candidate is John Souttar, who we can only hope develops into the kind of good international centre-half that Scotland once used to take for granted.

If Robbie Neilson can keep them together over the summer though, add a few more pieces to put around Jamie “Apparently Not As Good as James Forrest” Walker, then he might have sights on the top two next season. Here’s hoping. IM

Dons do about enough
Having ground out a couple of important wins in consecutive midweek away trips to Tannadice and Firhill, Aberdeen arrived back home to face a Kilmarnock team still trying to escape the relegation playoff place.

Pre-match discussion around the home support seemed to revolve around how many thousands of fans would be at Pittodrie and how many goals the Dons would put past Killie.  In both respects, the results were satisfactory without being particularly impressive.

On the goal front, it was Aberdeen who opened the scoring in the first half following a Jonny Hayes cross-cum-shot that Jamie MacDonald had to shepherd around the far post.  Barry Robson, who has been brought back into the fold in recent weeks to great effect, produced an assist from a corner for the second consecutive game, with Ash Taylor heading in the outswinging centre in from close range.  The Dons saw that lead through to half time following a 45 minutes in which they had dominated proceedings and never looked in trouble.  
Yet, minutes into the second half, Killie were level.  Ryan Jack could have done better to stop Greg Kiltie from lobbing in a cross from the right, and both Scott Brown and Shay Logan failed to stop Rory McKenzie heading the ball back across goal for former Don, Josh 'Mad Dog' Magennis from heading past a strewn Taylor from inside the six yard box.  

Following that goal, the game went end to end, with each side looking likely to score the next goal - first Kiltie ran at the Dons defenders before forcing a save out of Brown; then Niall McGinn rattled a trademark shot off the woodwork; before Magennis ghosted past Andy Considine to send a shot across the face of goal.

Finally, it was the Dons that got the winning strike.  Hayes beat McKenzie for pace down the left flank and his cross was met by a diving header from Logan.  It was also clear from Shay's subsequent somersaulting that recent Dons loanee Simon Church hadn't witnessed a Logan goal celebration before, Churchy following too closely behind and almost getting a gobful of studs for his trouble.

Logan's contribution wasn't done, either, as those same studs were put to use clearing a Magennis cross for a corner with Tope Obadeyi lurking with intent, sealing a well deserved man of the match performance.

The announced attendance of under 14,000 was somewhat underwhelming for a team that still rightly considered a title challenger, particularly given this was the penultimate home game before the split and also the only home game that Aberdeen will have all month, and while I still don't get the obsession of Guardian golf correspondence Ewan Murray tweeting about "shamefully bad" hoe crowds at Pittodrie, it is nonetheless admittedly frustrating that these numbers do not seem to reflect the fantastic away support that the club has repeatedly brought for years now.

As for Kilmarnock, the only solace they can have is that they have got a tough away fixture out of the way without losing any of their eight point advantage over bottom dwellers Dundee United.  They are, however, now five points adrift of complete safety and will need to start winning matches sooner rather than later to avoid the perils of what will be a highly competitive playoff fixture in just over a couple of months time. MI

Dundee United aren't interested in draws
Friday night's game was a cracker.  It's not often an away side plays with such abandon, but perhaps Mixu Paatelainen has reasoned that, if Dundee United are to stay up, they have to win games; a point here and there is no good to them.  After all, if they win one and lose two out of three, that's better than drawing two and losing one.

And so United took some quite remarkable risks here.  Motherwell lined up with three forwards, but Mixu stuck to his back three, even though his wing-backs were playing so high up the pitch that they may as well have been wingers.  Paul Dixon had three efforts on goal in the first half alone, taking advantage of Marvin Johnson's unwillingness to track back.  Of course, the flipside was that Johnson ran riot in the space that United left him; whilst the winger's goal came from a header at a set piece, he created numerous chances in open play, including Louis Moult's winner.

Had United not conceded right on half-time, it's reasonable to believe they could have won this game - after Henri Anier's cracking opener they were well on top.  This super-cavalier style may not save them, but at least they'll go down in flames. LS

McGregor makes his case
What dirt does James Forrest have on Gordon Strachan?  Dodgy pictures?  Recordings of phone calls?  Something like that is the only explanation for why the Celtic winger is still a sure thing for a Scotland call-up.  Forrest has started only ten league games for the club this season, despite being pretty much injury-free.  His reluctance to sign a new contract doesn't seem to have helped his cause.

Ronny Deila has so many options to pick from for his trio of attacking midfielders - too many, really.  But who would have predicted a few months ago that Gary Mackay-Steven and Callum McGregor would have got so high up the pecking order?  Both were struggling even to make the bench; now they've got the run of games they probably needed to get up to speed and prove their worth.  McGregor was outstanding at Firhill, taking his goal beautifully but also providing a really disciplined and intelligent display on the right flank.  Forrest, meanwhile, languished on the bench.

Not that Strachan is fussed, though.  Forrest clearly has something these other guys don't.  It's anyone's guess what that something is. LS

Hughes is in a panic
When John Hughes starts mixing his metaphors in post-match interviews, it's a sign that he's stressed.  Hence his "the same guys are going back to the well all the time. We need two or three back to take the weight off them" comments are worrying.

Not as worrying as Caley Thistle's result and performance against Accies, mind.  This was a terrible game between two terrible sides, the difference being that it was Inverness who blundered and gifted a goal.  Hamilton had won just two games since the end of September coming into this match; they're now level on points with their opponents.

Hughes was entitled to point to his extensive list of absentees as an excuse of sorts - Caley Thistle were down ten first team players, with Miles Storey also only fit enough for a brief cameo.  Any other side in the league (bar Celtic) would struggle in those circumstances.  But it's not as if Hughes was throwing a bunch of raw youths into the fray - quite the opposite in fact, with every starter having played more than 50 senior games.  These players have sufficient experience, but lack quality.

What was especially surprising about this match was the way Yogi lost his nerve when Hamilton scored.  The goal came against the run of play, with ICT's passing football finally creating chances and stretching Accies.  Hughes has stuck to his guns in far more trying circumstances than this, yet on this occasion he responded by bringing on Richie Foran (who, after barely any football in two years, is clearly spent) up front alongside the lumbering Liam Hughes and instructing his players to punt high balls at the duo.  When Storey was introduced, he was stuck out on the right touchline.

It was a desperate and ill-thought out move.  Lucas Tagliapetra and Michael Devlin are clumsy and slow, but they are also tall, strong and good in the air.  Inverness finished with one shot on target - the same number they managed in each of their last two games.

Whisper it, but Caley Thistle could easily finish eleventh.  Whether they do or not probably depends on Kilmarnock's competence - it's hard to see the Highlanders grinding out many more wins between now and May. 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.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Motherwell v Dundee United live blog!!!

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Rangers' return, and what it means for the rest of us

Image result for martyn waghorn
Rangers will be back in the top flight next season - forgive me for not looking forward to it

Last night's win over Raith Rovers put Rangers 14 points clear at the top of the Championship, with 9 games left.  It's now a question of when, not if, they clinch automatic promotion.  So, after four years away, they're coming back.  There's no use pretending otherwise anymore.

Back in that fateful summer of '12, SPL Chief Exec Neil Doncaster predicted "armageddon" (his own words!!!) and his SFA equivalent, Stewart Regan, warned of "social unrest" (his own words!!!) if the blue cheek of the Old Firm arse wasn't present at Scottish football's top table.  That these two are still in their jobs four years on tells you something about how badly our game is run.

Doncaster and co have done their best to fulfil their own prophecies, failing to do anything meaningful to promote Scottish football, and frequently talking it down, as if Glasgow derbies (and not ones that involve Partick Thistle) are the only games that actually count for anything and the other 40 SPFL clubs may as well be randomly allocated their results and their places in the league table.  

It's been a fun few years
Despite the worst efforts of the powers that be, I'd say that the last few years have really been rather fun.  There have been three different League Cup winners (and there will be a fourth, with Ross County meeting Hibs in this season's final).  There have been three different Scottish Cup winners.  How many of St. Mirren, Aberdeen, Inverness and St. Johnstone would have managed such a moment in the sun under the old system?  For the fans of diddy clubs - defined as, basically, anyone who isn't Rangers or Celtic - it's been a rare old time.

Sure, Celtic have walked the league for four straight years, but to those of us who don't support the green cheek either, there is next to no difference between a one-horse race and a two-horse one.  The rest of the clubs have been several furlongs back for a long time.  After all, only once between 1995 and 2012 did a diddy team finish second in the table - a Hearts side fueled by Vladimir Romanov's roubles - and on no other occasion since the SPL era began had the team in third finished within 10 points of second place. 

This golden period - and, as an Inverness fan, it has definitely been golden - seems to have coincided with other top flight clubs sorting themselves out.  Gone are the horrendous debts of the post-Setanta years.  Aberdeen, Dundee United, Kilmarnock and others have done deals with major shareholders or banks, and pulled themselves out of their financial rut.  Hearts took their administration medicine, and have risen from the intensive care unit as a stronger and more stable entity than they've been in my lifetime.  Heck. some clubs are even managing to pay transfer fees!

So, will we return to the old status quo?
Rangers have taken a year longer than expected to pull themselves back to the top table, thanks to the incompetency of, well, pretty much everyone involved at the club last season.  But, on the field at least, they are leaps and bounds ahead of where they were twelve months ago.  They've managed to nab an astute manager, in Mark Warburton, who has proven himself savvy in the transfer market,  Some cash had to be spent to land guys like James Tavernier, Martyn Waghorn and Michael O'Halloran, but they are each of infinitely better value than some of the duds that came before them (a reminder - David Templeton cost £800,000!).

However, unlike the Gers sides of the David Murray years, they are not loaded with top European talent.  Of course, Celtic are nowhere near that level anymore either but, as it stands, there is a huge gap.  For Wes Foderingham, read Craig Gordon.  For Andy Halliday, read Scott Brown.  For Waghorn, read Leigh Griffiths.  You'd have to be crazy to think that any Rangers player could walk into the Celtic starting XI.

That makes them no different from any other Scottish club, mind.  After all, Celtic's budget is greater than the other eleven Premiership sides put together.  Rangers do still have the second highest wage bill in the country, but it's currently about a third of Celtic's.  Therefore a more realistic target is to aim for second spot.  It would certainly be a shock if Zadok The Priest was heard around Ibrox anytime soon.

As alluded to above, Aberdeen and Hearts have made hay whilst the sun shone.  Both are now considerably stronger than the other top flight sides.  Both are still a way away from Celtic's level - the Dons' 'challenge' this season is more down to Ronny Deila's struggles than Derek McInnes' successes - but they now dwarf the likes of St. Johnstone, Inverness et al both in the quality of their starting lineup and in squad depth.

Would the current Rangers team be capable of finishing ahead of either of them?  Maybe, but I wouldn't bank on it.  Not without further reinforcements.  And whilst Dave King and his mates managed to rustle up half a mil for O'Halloran, and Mike Ashley has finally been sidelined, the fact is that the club is still getting by on short-term loans.

Warburton and his superiors will probably be realistic about their 2016-17 prospects; it will make their lives a lot easier if the fans, who of course were brought up on McCoist, Gascoigne, Laudrup, De Boer (so good you'd think there was two of him!) and the like, are patient for at least that first year.

"Looking forward" to playing Rangers again
What does Rangers' return mean for the rest of us?  Well, presuming that ICT stay up this year - not a given, by the way - it means one or two home games against them.  Forgive me for my feeling of dread.  Whilst winning such games has always brought me huge joy, with John Rankin's long-range winner in December 2006 one of my favourite football moments, those moments are all too rare.  Most of these matches are defeats, defeats without many redeeming features.

The atmosphere which goes with it is a particular factor.  I'm not going to claim that Rangers fans are worse than Celtic ones, or that their songs are more offensive; only when these two visit do I see grown men urinating on the pavement and in the bushes on the way to the stadium, and only when these two visit do I see grown men drinking booze in the street (for some reason, Rangers fans always seem to be slogging Buckfast, while Celtic fans opt for Strongbow).  It feels intimidating.  I certainly wouldn't feel safe celebrating any result outside the ground until I'd got back to my car.  

Harsh?  Maybe.  But it's how it feels.  As for away game, Inverness have gone to Ibrox twice in the cup in recent years, and twice the away support has been pelted by missiles from the home fans.  That was a new phenomenon, but one that worries me.  Their support was encouraged, four summers ago, to foster an air of grievance at the clubs who, supposedly, wronged them by throwing them out of the SPL.  Has four years of playing lower league opposition calmed these feelings?  Or will next season be seen as an opportunity for revenge, both on the field and off it?

This is an opportunity for positive change
One of the other ludicrous quotes from four years, much mocked since, originated from Daily Record hack Keith Jackson: "Scottish football needs a strong Rangers."  The last four years prove that it does not.  It would benefit, however, from Rangers being part of a setup where all teams are encouraged to thrive, where Celtic and Rangers openly and happily work with other clubs and the SPFL to promote our national game as something worth watching even when neither of those two clubs are playing.

If next year sees a return to the BL (Before Liquidation) years, then the predictions of armageddon may yet come true after all.

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, March 1, 2016

Talking Points from the Premiership

Paton inspires another United win
Back-to-back league wins, you say?  This is the first time Dundee United have managed that since December 2014; half of the starting lineup that day aren't even at the club now.  But can the current crop manage the Lazarus-esque comeback that they require to stay up?  Well, United are still eight points adrift, but have a game in hand on the two teams immediately above them.  A feat that looked impossible is now merely improbable.

Having Paul Paton for the rest of the season will help.  The midfielder scored for the second consecutive week, with a clever late run into the box that left him unmarked at a corner, but it's not the goals that Mixu Paatelainen will care about.  During open play. the Northern Irishman sits alongside John Rankin, in front of the three central defenders.  It's not very adventurous, but it makes the Terrors so much more solid.  The duo can concentrate on breaking up play - here they dominated Ian McShane and Martin Woods, as Jim McIntyre bizarrely deployed the more imposing Jackson Irvine on the flank - and United can rely on their creative attacking threats to produce some goals.

Paton missed the last eight months of 2015 with injury; if United can keep him fit, it will only improve their chances of survival.

(Oh, and on another note - is there actually any grass on Ross County's pitch?!)  LS

10 man Celtic frustrated
It's weird, feeling sorry for Celtic.  Not because of the officials - I thought in real-time that Dedryck Boyata's red card was correct, and after watching the replay about a dozen times I still can't tell if it was wrong or not, and after all Craig Thomson did award them two penalties - but because they really should have been out of sight in this game, even with ten men.

Accies are tough to watch at the best of times.  Here, they played sensibly against ten men, keeping possession and waiting for their opponents to tire, but they created barely anything until Eamonn Brophy scored.  Ali Crawford was terrific, showing a hunger to get on the ball, but the players around him were pretty poor.  They also kept resorting to tactical fouls far too often - a complaint levelled at Accies by many opposing fans this season.  Hamilton committed 26 fouls in this match, which really broke up the play (this, I presume, was the point).  Despite being a man up, they were grateful to Michael McGovern, who denied Gary Mackay-Steven and Leigh Griffiths in one-on-ones before also saving Griffiths' penalty.

It was at least refreshing to hear Ronny Deila defend the referee - I can think of plenty of managers (including his predecessor) who have slaughtered officials that have made blatantly correct decisions against their club.  If nothing else, Deila is entitled to be unimpressed by Boyata's handling of the situation; the Dutchman should have reached the loose ball before Carlton Morris, but seemed to casually lumber across to close down the danger; he then could have stayed on his feet and ushered the Hamilton forward away from goal, rather than attempt a desperate lunge.  Boyata has plenty of experience, and he should know better. LS

Injuries catch up with Aberdeen
This will probably be remembered as the day where Aberdeen's playing resources were finally stretched to breaking point.  Already without Jonny Hayes, and with Shay Logan suspended, news then tumbled down Merkland Road East that Adam Rooney - the one player the Dons can't afford to lose for an extended period - would be out for six weeks.  Indeed, so irreplaceable is the Irishman that it actually appeared that Derek McInnes had sent out a team without a centre forward at all, opting to go with a 'false 9' instead - well, if playing without a centre forward is good enough for Yogi Hughes...

Not that Rooney's absence looked as if it would deter Aberdeen from short term success.  From one of a slew of corners won by the Dons on the day (St Johnstone didn't manage to earn a single corner in contrast), Simon Church opportunistically poached the opener from barely a yard out, reacting first to a second ball following a fine save by Alan Mannus from Ash Taylor.  After a fairly open first half, Aberdeen gradually turned the pressure up after the break and it seemed more likely they would extend their lead than that the Saints would equalise.

Yet, for all the pressure, for all the dominance of territory and possession, that second goal would not come for the Dons - and St Johnstone, who had won on their previous two visits to Pittodrie and almost salvaged a three goal deficit in their previous meeting just three weeks ago, must have been aware that their resolute defending might just pay dividends come the nerve-jangling final minutes of the match.

So it came to pass that the Saints managed to march into the Reds' penalty area, the beneficiaries of yet another bombscare of an attempted clearance from Taylor, and returning skipper Ryan Jack - pressed into right back duties, in Logan's absence, for what must have been the first time in years - conceded a penalty in challenging Liam Craig in the box.  It was difficult to tell from the television replays afterwards whether Jack made contact with ball or man, but it is always foolhardy for a defender to leave his feet and lunge into a tackle in the penalty area and, regardless of whether it was a soft penalty for the referee to award or not, it is the kind of challenge that always carries the risk of such a decision.  Craig duly picked himself up to slot home the spot kick and ran off to celebrate, cupping his ears derisorily to the bemused children and parents in the family stand.

So Aberdeen failed once again to capitalise on yet another slip from leaders Celtic, in one of the more shambolic league races in recent memory.  St Johnstone, meanwhile, creep ever further back up the Premiership table - now fourth in the table - yet are further away from third placed Hearts (9 points) than they are from 11th placed Kilmarnock (8 points), so still have a fair bit more hard graft to complete yet. MI

The last, and I think only, time I saw Jamie MacDonald in the flesh, he was picking himself off the Hampden turf after gifting James Vincent the winning goal in the Scottish Cup final.  He performed rather better at Tynecastle on Saturday, and Kilmarnock can be thankful for that.

The game itself has been overshadowed by claims that Josh Magennis was racially abused by a member of the home support, but during the 90 minutes it was the Kilmarnock keeper who looked set to grab most of the headlines.  It’s hard not to feel for a man who saves two penalties and still ends upon the losing side. And although there’s not much excuse for a penalty taker giving the keeper any chance of saving a shot from 12 yards with no defenders in the way, they were both very good saves from decent penalties.

Kilmarnock are now two points off tenth place, but now unexpectedly find themselves looking over their shoulder, now that Dundee Utd have at last begun to impersonate a professional football team after all.  The fixture list won’t give Lee Clark much solace; four of the five pre-­split games are against teams currently in the top six, including back to back games against Aberdeen and Celtic.  (the other game is at Firhill, so that will likely be postponed due to light drizzle in the West End of Glasgow)

Amid the scrappy play, and allegations of racism, there was one heartwarming story to come out of Gorgie on Saturday; nine years after West Ham hijacked his proposed transfer from Bordeaux to Rangers, Julien Faubert finally fulfilled his lifelong dream of playing in Scotland. IM

Motherwell are still in with a shout of top six
You know, before this game, Partick Thistle had been going really well.  Had the league started in October, they'd be fourth.  They had deservingly beaten St. Johnstone last week.  And yet here they were outclassed by Motherwell, whose defensive frailties weren't exposed till they were already three up;  It's thought that Connor Ripley conceded from Callum Booth's effort because he'd fallen asleep in the home goal from lack of activity.

Thistle's problems mainly stem from a lack of goals.  Kris Doolan has eight in the league, David Amoo has four, and no-one else has managed more than two.  They can't really afford to fall behind, so when 19 year old Aidan Nesbitt conceded a penalty by fouling 36 year old Keith Lasley - exactly the sort of foul you'd expect given their respective ages, with Lasley cleverly drawing it by running across the youngster, and Nesbitt failing to get out of the way - they were up against it.

Thistle do still have games in hand, including several at home.  They're only four points off the top six.  Motherwell, even more remarkably given the ineptitude they've shown for long periods this season, are just three points adrift of sixth.  What odds one (or both) of these sides scraping into the top half? 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.