Sunday, July 31, 2016

2016-17 Premiership preview - Ross County

Ross County F.C. logo.png

LAST SEASON: 6th, 48pts

NOTABLE INS: Erik Cikos (unattached), Aaron McCarey (Wolverhampton Wanderers), Jay McEveley (Sheffield United), Christopher Routis (Bradford City), Kenny Van Der Weg (NAC Breda)

NOTABLE OUTS: Jackson Irvine (Burton Albion, £150k), Stewart Murdoch (Dundee United), Jamie Reckord (Oldham Athletic), David Goodwillie (Aberdeen, end of loan), Gary Woods (Leyton Orient, end of loan), Raffaele De Vita, Chris Konopka

LAST SEASON'S BEST XI (departed players crossed out): Fox, Fraser, Quinn, Davies, Foster, Gardyne, Irvine, Woods, Franks, Boyce, Schalk

Back in mid-June, I was looking across the Moray Firth with envy.  In contrast to the uncertainty sweeping around Caledonian Stadium, Ross County looked positively assured.  Coming off their most successful season ever, they had held on to their best players and had added to the squad too.  With a fine starting XI and impressive depth, it could be argued that they looked even stronger than when they won the League Cup.

Then, in the space of a couple of July days, it all went horribly wrong.  The team's spine couldn't have been more dramatically ripped out if Sub-Zero from Mortal Kombat had turned up and performed his Fatality move on them.

Okay, so that's a teensy bit of an exaggeration.  But I'm sure Jim McIntyre could have done without the news that captain Andrew Davies' wife hasn't settled in the Highlands - come on, there's lots of lovely places to live near Dingwall, honest - and so he was looking to return south.  Davies was outstanding last season, both as a centre-half and as a leader.  Whilst new boys Jay McEveley and Chris Routis can also play in that area, it'll be hard to emulate Davies.  McEveley has the best chance; the ex-Scotland international has followed a similar path by moving north after years playing in the English lower leagues, though he was better known in his younger days as a left back.  And Davies will at least give his all until a new club comes in, though he has handed the armband to Paul Quinn.

But the worst news, at least for the fans, was to come.  County will pocket around £150,000 for Jackson Irvine, but the Aussie's well-deserved move to Burton Albion robs them of arguably their greatest ever talent.  How the Staggies ever managed to procure a player with such an engine and such ability is beyond me, though that only partly compensated for the worst haircut in Scottish football since Ally McCoist went blonde.  They may never see Irvine's like again.  Players of his quality only rarely pitch up at provincial Scottish clubs; finding an adequate replacement is a hell of a task.

His departure leaves County woefully short in central midfield; perhaps McIntyre now regrets letting Stewart Murdoch join Dundee United.  Martin Woods and Ian McShane are tidy enough but have zero physical presence; Routis could be used in this area to provide some beef, but surely there must be at least one more signing in this area.

Ditto on the flanks, where Michael Gardyne is a fixture on one side and Jonathan Franks adequate enough on the other, but there's scant else besides either Tony Dingwall, who seemed to regress last season, or an out-of-position Ricky Foster.  Foster was a revelation at left-back after Christmas, looking like he was enjoying his football for the first time in about eight years.  It would be a shame if he had to switch position.

Davies notwithstanding, County are in pretty decent shape defensively, even though veteran Scott Boyd seems to have been frozen out.  Thankfully Quinn and Chris Robertson are very capable centre-halves, while Slovak Erik Cikos returns for a second spell at the club to compete with Marcus Fraser on the right, and Foster, McEveley and Dutch signing Kenny Van Der Weg are left-back options.  And keeper Scott Fox proved doubters wrong last season with a string of impressive performances between the sticks.  He's still iffy at his near post, though.

And most bosses in the league would kill (or at least maim) to have the same attacking options as McIntyre.  Liam Boyce, Craig Curran, Brian Graham and Alex Schalk are all different sorts of striker, yet all are capable of getting into double figures.  And they can be deployed in multiple combinations too.  It's good to see Curran healthy again; the busy Englishman missed most of last season after suffering multiple concussions and it was feared he might have to quit football.  If he can rekindle his relationship - metaphorically speaking - with Boyce, then no-one will relish playing them.

But unless they replace Irvine properly, another top six finish might be too much of an ask.  That said, I can't see them near the bottom of the table either.  There's too much experience, heart and drive in this squad.  But, after a glorious 2015-16 season, this year might be a bit of an anticlimax.

THE SQUAD (players born after 1 January 1995 in italics)
Goalkeepers: Scott Fox, Aaron McCarey
Defenders: Scott Boyd, Erik Cikos, Andrew Davies, Richard Foster, Marcus Fraser, Jay McEveley, Chris McLaughlin, Paul Quinn, Chris Robertson, Chris Routis, Kenny Van Der Weg
Midfielders: Tony Dingwall, Jonathan Franks, Michael Gardyne, Ian McShane, Martin Woods
Forwards: Liam Boyce, Craig Curran, Brian Graham, Greg Morrison, Alex Schalk


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.

2016-17 Premiership preview - St. Johnstone

StJohnstoneFC crest new.png

LAST SEASON: 4th, 56pts

NOTABLE INS: Blair Alston (Falkirk), Michael Coulson (York City), Paul Paton (Dundee United), Keith Watson (St. Mirren)

NOTABLE OUTS: Michael Doyle (Greenock Morton), Plamen Krachunov (Ethnikos), John Sutton (St. Mirren), Darnell Fisher (Celtic, end of loan), Scott Brown, Simon Lappin

LAST SEASON'S BEST XI (departed players crossed out): Mannus, Fisher, Shaughnessy, Anderson, Easton, Wotherspoon, Millar, Davidson, O'Halloran, Cummins, MacLean

It's enormously tempting to just fill this preview with the same old cliches I use every year.  "Hard-working".  "Well-organized".  "Tough to break down".  "Greater than the sum of their parts".

If it seems like the same old story every season, that's probably because it is.  St. Johnstone run a tight ship with a prudent budget and tend to build their squad around experienced, reliable players.  Rarely (except when they play Aberdeen, it seems) do they excite.  And yet one simply cannot argue with five consecutive top six finishes.  Only Celtic can match that.

Last season that run looked doomed as the team initially struggled to compensate for the January sale of Michael O'Halloran to Rangers.  But it all clicked again in the spring, and they were the division's on-form team after the split.  They missed out on Europe for the first time in five years, but that may work in the favour of a small squad which probably didn't benefit from kicking off last season in fricking Armenia.

This, along with the fact that the club didn't lose any first choice players this summer (apart from Celtic loanee Darnell Fisher), surely works in their favour.  Therefore there's no reason why they can't continue as they left off in May.  The four new signings will compete for places, though there's no guarantee any of them will walk into this team.  Blair Alston, from Falkirk, is the most intriguing; a creative midfielder who was anonymous in some games but took others by the scruff of the neck.  At 24, there were signs last year that he was maturing into a player who could be relied on every week, and St. Johnstone could be the ones to benefit.

I did see some derision - mostly from Dundee United fans - regarding the arrivals of Paul Paton and Keith Watson.  Watson is a solid enough right-back who, if Joe Shaughnessy's future is indeed in the central defence, offers a competent alternative to Cuptie Mackay if the veteran's 36 year old knee doesn't bounce back from recent surgery.  Meanwhile, Paton is hardly a player you'd pay to watch but United were so much more solid with him protecting the defence.  The controlled aggression and positional discipline make him the sort of player Tommy Wright covets.

The other new boy is a bit of a wildcard; winger Michael Coulson stood out at York City when he wasn't injured.  A hard worker (that cliche again!), he will probably supplant the likes of David Wotherspoon and Danny Swanson, who has impressed in pre-season after a mediocre campaign.  None of them are speedsters though, and pace in attack is certainly something that has been lacking since O'Halloran's exit.

As for goals, attention will turn yet again to the evergreen Steven MacLean whose strike rate and nous remain as potent as ever.  He may be 34 in August, but MacLean shows no sign of going off a cliff, mainly because speed was never his thing anyway.  The Scottish Teddy Sheringham?  Graham Cummins and Chris Kane will fight to partner him; both will put in a shift but are quite streaky in front of goal.  Still, they create space for that impressive midfield with Swanson, Wotherspoon, Murray Davidson and Liam Craig all capable of chipping in.

At the other end, the defence got more solid as last season went on, with Steven Anderson and Brian Easton still to see the plaudits they deserve for their impressive consistency.  It didn't surprise this writer that Zander Clark seems to now be first choice in goal; Alan Mannus might have been in Northern Ireland's Euro 2016 squad but he looked to be in decline last season, and Clark has earned his chance to establish himself.

Yet again, the Perth Saints will run one of the Premiership's more prudent budgets, yet they should finish in the top half yet again.  It's hard to argue with suggestions that Tommy Wright is some sort of genius.  He's managed to cope with the loss of players like O'Halloran and Stevie May, and hits more often than he misses in the transfer market.  And yes, he can clearly organize a team.  It feels like a matter of time until someone decent (no, Dundee United don't count!) comes calling for the Northern Irishman.  Until then, St. Johnstone will make hay.

THE SQUAD (players born after 1 January 1995 in italics)
Goalkeepers: Zander Clark, Alan Mannus
Defenders: Steven Anderson, Brian Easton, Liam Gordon, Dave Mackay, Brad McKay, Tam Scobbie, Joe Shaughnessy, Keith Watson
Midfielders: Blair Alston, Michael Coulson, Liam Craig, Murray Davidson, Chris Millar, Paul Paton, Danny Swanson, Craig Thomson, David Wotherspoon
Forwards: Graham Cummins, George Hunter, Greg Hurst, Chris Kane, Steven MacLean


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.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

League Cup struggles to capture the imagination

Given Scottish football's longstanding failure to embrace new, interesting ideas, we should probably be grateful for the new League Cup format.  Bringing in a group stage certainly freshens it up, allowing minnows a crack at a top flight team or two.  Playing it in late July, where it almost has a monopoly on live football before the league campaigns begin north and south of the border, is a smart move as well.

And for me, the best bit is the penalty shootouts in the event of a draw, earning the winner of the shootout a bonus point.  BT Sport's coverage of the kicks at the end of the Arbroath v Dundee United game certainly helps; the camera angle made me feel like I was playing World Cup Italia 90 on the Mega Drive again.

In fact, BT Sport's relentless enthusiasm for Scottish football remains a massive boon, and if it means more footage of the presenters' notes being blown away in a Gayfield gale, and the eventual inevitable brawl between Michael Stewart and Chris Sutton, then so much the better.  Stewart will probably win that fight, as Sutton won't be able to resist backing into him and then theatrically throwing himself to the ground.

The July start, three weeks before the SPFL games begin, was also more likely to throw up some shocks, at least initially.  Plenty of Premiership and Championship clubs are yet to complete their summer recruiting (Kilmarnock being the exception!).  Several of them played only one or two friendlies before this weekend, giving the impression that League Cup group games were their true pre-season.

But while the group format means that losing the first match doesn't mean elimination, the chances of getting to the knockout stages are drastically reduced...especially as only four second placed sides go through.  I'd expect nine points to be required to get one of those twelve spots in the next round, so Dundee may rue dropping points at East Fife (and losing the shootout too!).  And as for Hamilton Accies, the concern is that the defeat to Ayr is a sign not just that they aren't ready for this season, but that they never will be.  Kilmarnock and Inverness made heavy weather of defeating League Two opponents, but at least they managed to do so.

The big concern for the tournament organizers, though, will be the attendances from the opening round of matches.  Just seven of the thirteen games broke 1,000 spectators.  991 were at Ayr v Hamilton; 557 attended Montrose v Ross County; 487 went through the turnstiles for Cowdenbeath v Inverness.  Clearly it hasn't captured the imagination yet.

Here's where I feel the SPFL missed a trick.  The groups are not properly regionalized - how else would one explain Dumbarton and Forfar being in the same section?  I would have ditched seeding altogether (or almost altogether) - and based the groups entirely on local geography.  It doesn't matter if there are two top flight teams in a section (ICT and Ross County, for example) or none at all (imagine a group located around Falkirk).  

Instead there should have been a focus on having as many local derbies as possible.  Add in a wee trophy for the annual winners of each group - a 'Galloway Cup' for the winners of the Kilmarnock/Ayr/Queen of the South/Annan/Stranraer section, for example - and I reckon that'd get the punters in, which is the most important thing.

(Yes, I know there would be variables caused by teams dropping out of League Two or qualifying for Europe or whatever, but I don't think those make it unworkable).

Anyway, the jury's still out on the new League Cup, and understandably so given that it's only been around for five minutes.  But Tuesday night's matches are unlikely to throw up many big talking points.  After all, there's only one Premiership team involved - Rangers at home to Annan.

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.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

It's not Kilmarnock's fault the national team is in a mess

Lee Clark had warned there would be a clearout at Kilmarnock, and he wasn't kidding.

Their manager has taken full advantage of his first transfer window as Killie boss to try and construct the sort of team that he wants.  No fewer than sixteen players with first team experience have been punted from Rugby Park this summer, some of whom have actually been paid off to leave.  In the last week, eleven new faces have arrived - literally a new team, given that there is one keeper, four defenders, four midfielders and two forwards.

It's not too long since Kilmarnock, under Mixu Paatelainen and Kenny Shiels, prided themselves on giving youth a chance.  Clark, in contrast, clearly isn't impressed with the youngsters he inherited.

It has not escaped notice that there aren't many Scots amongst them.  Despite Gordon Parks' ignorant claims in today's Sunday Mail, they aren't all English - 'just' six of them - but there is but a solitary Scot, Callum McFadzean, who has spent all his career so far in England.

Parks isn't the only person to criticize this signing policy - though no-one else managed to emulate his preposterous claim that Killie had "abandoned their duty to the Scottish game".

During these European Championships, it's become pretty standard to look at the success of smaller countries than our own and wonder what we're doing wrong.  Iceland, for example, have stunning facilities and large numbers of outstanding coaches.  Why, I asked my father last week, couldn't Scotland manage that?

"Because football isn't a business there", he replied.  Clubs in Iceland don't rise and fall based on one good or bad season from their first team.  Turnover does not reach millions of pounds.  The clubs don't just choose to engage overwhelmingly with the local community; it's the only way they survive.  And so, fifteen years on from the big investments in pitches and coaches that followed an economic boom, they're reaping the rewards.

Where is Kilmarnock's motivation to do this?  They've managed one top six finish in the top flight in the last nine seasons...which means that most of the other eight campaigns have involved battling against relegation.  Their own financial woes mean that demotion to the Championship could lead to administration or worse.  For all the youths that got their shot at glory in the last decade, only Liam Kelly, Matthew Kennedy and Robbie Muirhead have departed for fees - adding up to about £750,000.  Their biggest sales were in fact Conor Sammon and Craig Bryson, neither of whom came through the local academy.

Killie's situation can be extrapolated onto other clubs.  Inverness Caley Thistle had their most successful seasons on the back of Terry Butcher signing a bunch of rough diamonds from England's lower leagues.  Ross County are more willing to sign Scots, but they won this season's League Cup without a single local product.  Are Parks and his ilk seriously going to turn round and say these clubs shouldn't be allowed to succeed unless they can do it with their own talent?

"A damning abandonment of their responsibility for the greater good of Scottish football", my arse.

After all, it's not as if Celtic - Kieran Tierney aside - are exactly flinging talented kids around willy-nilly.  And they have the cash, and the coaches, and the facilities.  So what's their excuse?  And why aren't journalists picking on them?  Scotland's youth-age teams have been filled with Celtic and Rangers youngsters for years, remarkably few of whom go on to become anything much.

Yes, Scotland's national team is an absolute mess.  Yes, we're not developing the players.  But the problem is not Kilmarnock, or any of the other diddy teams.  The problem is the environment in which they are forced to operate.  Once someone in a position of power pulls themselves away from their big fancy dinners and realizes that, then maybe we'll get somewhere.

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.