Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Talking Points from the Premiership

Celtic lay down a marker with win over Aberdeen
Brendan Rodgers has made more progress in two months at Celtic Park than Ronny Deila managed in two years.  In Europe, qualification to the UEFA Champions League has been achieved and Celtic will now have glamour ties against Barcelona, Man City and Borussia Mönchengladbach - plus additional revenue of around £20 million - to look forward to.  Domestically, Celtic have now played the teams that finished 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th in the Premiership last season and defeated them all to comfortably reach the quarter finals of the League Cup and lead the league - with a game in hand - going into the international break.

The writing was pretty much on Aberdeen's wall from the moment Leigh Griffiths nutmegged Kenny McLean and struck a shot from the edge of the box and off the inside of the near post for the opening goal.  Sure, the Dons levelled the scores against the run of play through Adam Rooney, but parity only lasted a matter of minutes as Andy Considine rashly charged out of position to close down Tom Rogic, allowing the Aussie to play in James Forrest to fire in a sumptuous finish with the outside of his right boot.

As the second half wore on, Aberdeen rarely threatened to peg Celtic back a second time.  Late in the game, a clumsy challenge in the box by Mark Reynolds on Scott Sinclair (possibly an unnecessary one, too, with Shay Logan tracking back to cover) led to a red card for the former and a penalty that was scored by the latter.  Rogic's late free-kick put further gloss on the result.

The final scoreline may have been a touch harsh on Aberdeen.  For all of their dominance, Celtic actually struggled to make many clearcut chances; however, they were ruthlessly efficient with the opportunities they did create.  Asked after the match if any of the other teams in Scotland could live with Celtic's attack, Griffiths didn't think so.  On the evidence of what I saw from Messrs Forrest, Griffiths, Rogic & Sinclair on Saturday, I don't think so either. MI

Boyd inspires Kilmarnock
When Kris Boyd trudged off the pitch in injury time to be replaced by Souleymane Coulibaly, Kilmarnock manager Lee Clark led the standing ovation.  Boyd had rolled back the years with a crisp left-footed finish across the keeper to give Killie the lead...though the scene of him outrunning Clint Hill to reach the through ball reminded this writer of a Dad's Race at a primary school sports day.

But that was just one of the veteran's contributions.  Playing as a lone striker, Boyd's hold-up play as outstanding.  And so was his work-rate.  When his side went down to ten men, he took over a role as the first line of defence with gusto, chasing down opponents and even winning the ball in a slide tackle with a few minutes left.

Maybe Boyd was particularly up for this game because he was playing a former club.  But whilst Steven Smith is the skipper, this was a captain's performance that could have only inspired the quartet of teenage midfielders he was playing in front of.

One couldn't help thinking back to Boyd's peak; in those days, neither Rangers nor Scotland felt they could trust him as a lone frontman, given that he rarely offered anything outside the penalty box.  Imagine how successful he might have been had he put shifts in like this every week when he was in his twenties.  Still, at thirty-three, he seems to have realized that he needed to add to his game in order to remain relevant - a bit too late for my liking, but it made for a highly enjoyable watch on Friday night. LS

Foran's subs rescue Inverness
Losing a fourth straight league game would have been reason for Caley Thistle to panic, particularly when their next two matches are against Aberdeen and Celtic.  But there would have been huge disappointment had they not ground out a win against St. Johnstone, given the number of chances they passed up in a dominant first half.

Tommy Wright's perplexing decision to start David Wotherspoon in central midfield, rather than Murray Davidson, turned this into a far more open encounter than one expected.  With next-to-no pressing in the middle of the park, Greg Tansey and particularly Iain Vigurs dictated operations in the opening 45 minutes.  Had it not been for some profligate finishing and some great goalkeeping from Alan Mannus, Inverness could have been out of sight by the break.

Whilst Davidson's half-time introduction made the game far more even, the home side still got the goal they deserved.  But Wright's further attacking substitutions, coupled with an almost instant panic from ICT after they took the lead, saw the game quickly turn into a siege around the home goal.  Richard Foster's equalizer had, in truth, been coming.

However, Richie Foran showed that he's no(t entirely a) mug with clever switches of his own.  Bringing on three new attackers and telling them to stay high up the pitch effectively forced his players to abandon their defensive mindset, and gave them back the momentum.  No-one could argue that in the end Josh Meekings' scrambled winner (Arthur Montford would have enjoyed that) was thoroughly deserved. LS

Hearts hit their stride
What better way for the good people of Edinburgh to get away from all the business of festival season in the capital, than a nice afternoon out in Glasgow’s leafy west end to watch a cracker of a football game.  I appreciate a tactical, defensive game as much as the next football hipster, but there’s something nice about watching two teams play two up front and go at each other.  And not only did we get a couple of set piece goals, but they were classics of the genre, with extra points for Liam Lindsay for putting his header in off the bar.

Hearts appear to have hit their stride. They look good going forward, strong at the back, and have strength in depth that everyone other than Celtic will be envious of.  Whether they can separate themselves from Rangers and Aberdeen, and hang onto the Champions' coattails may depend on whether they can keep hold of Callum Paterson for the season, the one player who would be difficult for them to replace.

A special shout out to Tony Watt too. His last minute winner was very well taken, and given that a quick Google of his name hasn’t brought up anything of significance, it was probably the highlight of his career so far. IM

Without Irvine, Ross County are overrun in midfield
Two midfielders playing as full-backs and no Ali Crawford (missing with concussion); Hamilton Accies should have been there for the taking.  Yet Martin Canning's side ground out a first win of the season which they thoroughly deserved.  Jim McIntyre made some comments about the pitch but the truth is that he made a mess of setting up his side.  As in defeat to Dundee on opening day, his side were outnumbered and outfought in midfield, denied any time on the ball by energetic Accies whilst Massimo Donati sat in front of his defence controlling the game.

With no space for their strikers to drop deep into and a lack of quality wide play, County were blunt offensively.  Credit for that should go to Canning. whose gameplan was spot on.  But that's twice that County have been beaten and outplayed by a team playing 4-2-3-1; whilst against Dundee they were in a shambolic 3-5-2, this time they were in a standard 4-4-2 and still struggled.  Without an energetic, physical midfield player (Jackson Irvine scored for Burton Albion on Friday night, by the way), they can't compensate for being a man short in that area.  Either McIntyre needs to find a replacement for him - Prince Buaben would be a decent addition, if the rumours are true - or change system. LS

Motherwell and Dundee are both short of firepower
What to take away from a fairly turgid goalless draw at Fir Park?  Probably that both Motherwell and Dundee looked solid at the back.  Kevin Gomis made an assured debut for the Dark Blues and should be an upgrade on Julien Etxabeguren.  At the other end, 22 year old Ben Heneghan impressed again and looks like a fine signing by Mark McGhee who may yet go on to bigger and brighter things.

On the flip side, both sides could really improve in an attacking sense.  Motherwell will be sorted after the international break when Louis Moult returns from injury.  Dundee on the other hand, cannot be so confident.  Faissal El Bakhtaoui offered only a sporadic threat up front, and whilst it could be claimed that he is still finding his feet at this level the bottom line is that there is still a massive Kane Hemmings-shaped hole up front that hasn't been filled - and a Greg Stewart-shaped one on the flank that hasn't been filled either.  Adequately replacing even one of them has so far been beyond Paul Hartley...and he's running out of time to do so. LS

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

Iain Meredith (IM) is technically our Rangers Correspondent, though these days he tends to support them ironically.  He only agreed to help with this blog so he could tell his wife that he's "only watching the game to help a friend out".

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

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Striving for crumbs

Celtic were this close to screwing up their Champions League dream for a third straight year.  Playing like a bunch of rabbits caught in the headlights of a massive Israeli truck, they nearly managed to throw away their three goal advantage from the first leg.  Hapoel Beer'Sheva's second goal was a particular lowlight; Saidy Janko, hapless all night, collided with Craig Gordon as the goalkeeper made an easy catch; it was like watching a Saturday night drunk on a narrow street stagger into a fellow pedestrian with remarkably buttery fingers.

Still, it was job done.  The Bhoys are back in the big time.  The Champions League brings them some prestige, a lot of excitement, and most importantly (though the club will never admit it out loud), loadsamoney.  There's no need for a Forster- or Van Dijk-esque sale to fill a gaping accounting hole; the total income from prize money, TV cash and gate receipts will be somewhere around £20million.  And that's just if they lose all six group games...which they will if they continue to defend like a Benny Hill sketch.

But that cash could pay for some very decent players, and their wages; Brendan Rodgers can also tempt them with the prospect of a few games against Europe's elite.  Celtic now have the option of reinforcing with some very big guns...at least in comparison to their domestic opponents.

One recurring theme of their qualifying campaign is that their progress is a 'good thing' for Scottish football in general.  It improves the co-efficient - in fact, the bonus points they attained for getting to the group stage are worth more than the three wins and a draw they managed in the qualifying rounds.  It also leads to substantial 'solidarity payments' for other Scottish Premiership clubs.  And, in theory at least, having a seat at the top table of continental competition should make our league look a but more impressive and attract some more sponsors.

Time will tell regarding the latter point.  Given that the 'solidarity payments' are worth more to each club than their annual income from the League's title sponsorship with Ladbrokes, it's fair to say that the only way is up in that regard.

And sure, a better co-efficient score benefits all Scottish clubs - if it is much much better than this for four or five seasons in a row.  As I have previously pointed out, the system is set up in such a way that our Europa League representatives can't be realistically expected to contribute much more than they already do.

As for the cash, 'solidarity' seems like a rather unfortunate word to use, even when we're talking a figure of circa £200,000 here.  To a club like Inverness Caley Thistle or Partick Thistle, that's equivalent to two extra home games against Old Firm opposition, and about 15% of their annual playing budget.  One would almost forgive various club chairmen if they were to turn up at the front door of Celtic Park and request the privilege of kissing Peter Lawwell's feet.

But that figure is a big fat 1% of what Celtic will get...and they won't even get it till September next year.  It's like the way a local crow monopolises my back garden bird feeder, scaring the other local birds to the point that, even when it isn't there, they content themselves with the crumbs that have made their way to the grass below.

Last year's Sporting Intelligence Global Wage Survey claimed the wage gap between Scotland's top two clubs was greater in percentage terms (more than 500%!!) than in any of the other major sporting leagues it covers.  And that wealth gap - is chasm a better noun? - is now going to grow even wider.  Ronny Deila's ineptitude and a need for a degree of financial prudence meant that their was a semblence of a title race in the last two seasons.  Now, even taking into account the presence of Rangers, Celtic seem as invincible as at any other point in the last five years.

"Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it" - George Santayana

Watching the first half of their win over St. Johnstone brought to mind Rangers' first season under Dick Advocaat, a season where David Murray spent £36million of someone else's money; that season they went to Perth and won 7-0, with even Stephane Guivarc'h scoring twice.  That dominance was nothing compared to how a few years later Martin O'Neill's Celtic won the league with just a single defeat and a goal difference of plus seventy-six.  In thirteen of their league games they won by three or more goals, and finished 45 points ahead of third place.

That period of Scottish football history was shortly after the creation of the SPL, which was ultimately based around the concept that Glasgow's gruesome twosome would bring in the megabucks, and sufficient cash would drip down to the other clubs that the big two's flourishing would keep them healthy too.  I don't remember that ending awfully well for many folk.

One of the major reasons for that is the way that Scottish football was so eclipsed in quality and exposure (one begets the other, of course), by what was happening across the border.  Ironically, given Celtic's desperate need for group stage qualification, the English Premier League is now so awash with cash that finishing bottom of the table this season is worth more money that winning the Champions League.  It can be debated whether it is the best league in the world, but it's hard to argue with the competitive nature - just look at last year's table.  Manchester City aren't going to win by three or more goals in a third of their games...probably not, anyway.

And yet here we are again; massive inequality between the big fish and the tiddlers that share not so much a pond as a puddle.  And yet, given the way the SPFL are only interested in marketing the 'return of the Old Firm' this season - and the SPFL board are simply doing what the clubs tell them - the diddy teams seem not only happy with this scenario but to be encouraging it.

However, I have a nagging thought that is really rather worrying.  These clubs are generally run by people who have had some semblence of business success.  I'm just a blogger and a fan, whose only prior business experience was as joint-Head of Advertising for a Young Enterprise project in High School.  Is it possible that they are in the right, that this terrible, uninspired, short-termist view of how to run the SPFL,  which will inevitably lead to an increasingly unequal, uncompetitive and rather unappealing and disinteresting (both to current fans and those from elsewhere) competition, is actually the only way to keep us all afloat.

It's all very, very depressing.

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, August 23, 2016

Talking Points from the Premiership

Too many holes in the Rangers midfield
Mark Warburton himself said that Rangers were "below par" even in victory over Motherwell.  The failure to keep a clean sheet for the third league game in a row - they've conceded in the first half of all of them - is a significant part of the problem.  Whilst the visitors' goal came from good work out wide (Marvin Johnson is the perfect player to expose James Tavernier's deficiencies), Motherwell looked most dangerous in the space between the home side's centre-backs and central midfielders, a space often large enough to drive a fleet of buses through.  Both Scott McDonald and Lionel Ainsworth should have had more joy than they did - one would drift into that gap with the other looking to get in behind the defence.

Warburton deployed three central midfield players, all of whom looked to get on the ball but none of whom did nearly enough to protect their backline when out of possession.  Record signing (calm down Bluenoses, I'm only teasing) Joe Garner was paraded at half-time, but one wonders if another forward is really more of a priority than a central midfielder with positional sense and the ability to make a clean tackle. LS

Celtic's attack could blow everyone away
First, a couple of caveats.  There was a debutant at right-back, and the first choice central defensive pairing of Steven Anderson and Tam Scobbie were missing.  And even Ronny Deila's Celtic smashed six past a decent Dundee United side in the early days of his first season in charge.

But still, Tommy Wright sides don't often get ripped to shreds like this.  Celtic's first half performance was outstanding, just like in midweek.  They looked like they would score every time they went over the halfway line.  Brendan Rodgers has found his first choice attacking quartet; Tom Rogic is in the form of his life (and for me is the Celt most likely to make a big move anytime soon); Leigh Griffiths is as impressive as ever (even if he did dive); and as everyone else is saying, James Forrest is a different player from the one who stagnated for the last few years.  And Scott Sinclair isn't really up to speed yet.  It's scary.

I vehemently disagreed with Celtic fans who thought the opening day win at Tynecastle was 'the sort of game Champions win', because I thought they were pretty lucky.  This one, though, sets a potentially unreachable benchmark.  I remember how in the early Dick Advocaat days Rangers seemed to thump everybody - including an 8-0 win in Perth, in fact.  I worry that this Celtic side could start to do the same.  The defence remains a real weakness, but is there an opponent in this league who can score enough goals to keep up? LS

Has O'Connor solved the Dons' defensive problems?
Reports that Dons winger Niall McGinn is expected to follow Adam Rooney in signing a new contract will be sweet music to the ears of Aberdeen supporters, whose chants of "Don't sell McGinn" following his sumptuous strike from a free kick to open the scoring at Pittodrie - have clearly fallen on hearing ears.

While McGinn's goal lent a bit of class to proceedings, the contribution of stand-in skipper Graeme Shinnie was every bit as important as he was unceremoniously bundled over by opposing captain Abdul Osman for the free kick; later, he would capitalise on Liam Lindsay's lethargy to nick the ball away from him and lay up Miles Storey to score. 

Yet it was not Shinnie who was named man of the match.  Anthony O'Connor, continuing his strong start at the club, has managed to combine controlled aggression with a composure in central defense that has so often been lacking from others.  It was perhaps telling that it was after he was pushed forward into central midfield that Partick Thistle finally got on the scoresheet through a late Chris Erskine thunderbolt - all the more impressive, considering the Jags had just went down to 10 men after the referee dished out consecutive bookings to Sean Walsh for first committing a foul and then incessantly moaning to the officials about that decision - a particularly daft thing to do, seeing as McGinn had also been booked in the first half for a similar incident of back-chatting.

So three points finally in the bag for Aberdeen, while the travelling Thistle support must have been please with both the performance and the perseverance of their team, which look well placed for a top-six push if they can keep stringing efforts like this together. MI

On the outside, looking in…
After a resounding thumping at Tynecastle there are already some mutterings that Inverness were foolish to get rid of John Hughes.  Whilst those who may not have followed the saga of Hughes and his very public fall out with the ICT hierarchy may indeed feel justified in questioning why he was sent on his way, supporters of Caley Thistle know Yogi's time had come to an end and it was best for all parties for him to move.  His ambitions for the club, whilst largely admirable, could not be achieved with the resources on offer to him and it was no great surprise Richie Foran was appointed as his successor.

For any rookie manager the learning curve is steep and for Foran it’s no different. One of his major tasks has been to improve a squad that has seen some dreadful recruitment decisions over the past couple of seasons with a seemingly endless parade of midfielders arriving whilst areas of the side in desperate need of strengthening went unaddressed. With new arrivals including wide men Billy King and Jake Mulraney fans were thrilled to see some attacking promise installed into the side and whilst there were some promising showings in the League Cup group stages the start of the league campaign has been a dismal one for Foran who also saw his side dumped out of the League Cup at Alloa. 

In truth the Irishman was badly let down by his team on Saturday. ICT have rarely looked so outfought on the pitch as they were on Saturday and a number of the players looked scared to impose themselves on the match.  Hearts on the other hand, despite their own apparent problems on and off the pitch, looked a fluid and capable attacking force as they carved a lacklustre opponent apart taking advantage of some defensive horror shows but also impressing with some fine team goals. The scoreline certainly did not flatter them.
Caley Thistle looked like a newly promoted team struggling to deal with the step up in quality from the league below...but the thing is that the core of this side finished a respectable 7th last season with only Miles Storey the only key player that left in the summer.  Foran has limited funds to work with, perhaps even more limited given that his predecessor was paid off only a few months into a new two year deal. If he wants to succeed as manager he’s going to have to play a blinder in the transfer market and recruit smartly...something his predecessor did poorly.

Whilst those looking on from outside of Inverness will be thinking that ICT might get what they deserve for getting rid of Hughes those better informed know it was a change that had to be made. He has an almighty task ahead of him but it’s right that Inverness find themselves in this situation and right for Foran to be given time to justify the faith put in him by the Caley Thistle board. AS

Killie's scattergun signings are a huge risk
Kilmarnock have, on average, signed a new player every ten and a half days since Lee Clark took over in mid-February.  Yes, I know that stat is a bit iffy, but only because fifteen of those new faces have arrived in this transfer window...including three more in the twenty-four hours before the trip to Dingwall.  Right-back Luke Hendrie and central midfielder Charlee Adams went straight into the side...even though Clark has already signed two right-backs and three central midfielders in the last couple of months.  Basically, he's throwing lots of players at the wall and hoping some stick.

So it's reasonable to excuse another defeat, given that the players are all getting to know each other; only four of the starting lineup have played more than seven matches for the club.  But the size of the influx must make it difficult to pinpoint the best XI.  And there is a longer-term issue, in that eight of them are on loan deals till January.  If they're rubbish, Kilmarnock can punt them.  But if they're any good, won't their parent club want them back?  And if they're somewhere in between, will that be sufficient for this league?

As for the short-term, they didn't manage a single shot on target against Ross County, and their only 'chance' on the Sportscene highlights was a penalty appeal that was never a penalty in a million years.  Oh dear. LS

Dundee and Hamilton reinforce well
Dundee against Hamilton is hardly a marquee game, but I can't understand why it was shifted to Friday night - surely their neighbours, in the lower division, should be the ones obliged to shift their game?

So there is a solitary minute of highlights - basically both goals - for me to work from.  Not much I can say other than Darren Lyon has a foot like a traction engine and that Mark O'Hara still looks like the best value signing of the summer.

More interesting perhaps is the imminent strengthening of both squads.  Dundee have finally, correctly, decided they can't wait for James McPake's return and signed an allegedly competent central defender in Kevin Gomis.  Accies have gone and signed one too - in a remarkable reversal of the Ziggy Gordon move, Martin Canning has managed to snap up Partick Thistle's best defender from last season.  How he's managed to convince Daniel Seaborne to move to New Douglas Park is beyond me, but with him and Zangief from Streetfighter II (come on, that's exactly who Georgios Sarris looks like) solidifying the defence, and with Kilmarnock and Inverness a complete shambles, staying up for a third year running looks just a bit less unlikely. LS

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

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) is our Caley Thistle Correspondent.  He would never miss an ICT match unless he was offered a date with the lead singer of CHVRCHES...who he would then take to said ICT match.  He occasionally writes for When Saturday Comes.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Who else could come or go?

We're two games into the Scottish Premiership season, and just two weeks from the end of the transfer window.  So managers now have a good idea of the further reinforcements they need, but they don't have a lot of time left to get them!

So what further business might each club do?  And who might they try to move on before the end of August?

NEEDS: The Dons have done plenty of business already this summer, and it wouldn't be a surprise if there are no more signings in this window.  If a half-decent central defender was to become available, however, then they should jump at the chance to acquire him.

FURTHER EXITS? Peter Pawlett was linked with a loan move to Hibs last month, and he's badly in need of regular games.  Derek McInnes may wait for Jonny Hayes to return to fitness before sanctioning his departure though.

NEEDS: I imagine Brendan Rodgers would like to strengthen in most areas, but a lot depends on whether the club qualify for the Champions League - that would give him far greater financial clout, and make it easier to tempt players to move to Scotland.

FURTHER EXITS? Despite a few folk leaving, the squad remains bloated.  Expect a concerted effort to move on the likes of Logan Bailly (if fit), Efe Ambrose, Emilio Izaguirre, Kris Commons, Liam Henderson, Stefan Johansen, Gary Mackay-Steven and Nadir Ciftci, either on loan or on permanent deals.  None of them seem to have a future at Celtic Park.

NEEDS: Despite bringing in Faissal El Bakhtaoui as a replacement for Kane Hemmings, the club have been linked with Hearts striker Juanma, as they badly need to increase their attacking firepower.  Losing Greg Stewart was a blow, but Paul Hartley has himself said "he's irreplaceable".  The defence remains a weakness, but they seem comfortable to blood young Cammy Kerr at right-back and to muddle on until James McPake is fit to return in central defence.

FURTHER EXITS? Actually, they're relatively short of numbers - they didn't fill the bench on Saturday - so it would be a surprise if anyone else leaves.

NEEDS: Quality in pretty much every area.  Accies played with two midfielders as full-backs last weekend; they really can't go on like that.  But the budget is tight.

FURTHER EXITS? Once the dust has settled, expect a few fringe youngsters to go out on loan.  There will be increasing fear that Ali Crawford, outstanding so far this season, could be subject of a bid or two in the next fortnight.

NEEDS: The Jambos did a lot of business early this summer, and seem to be well covered in every position.  It wouldn't be unlike Craig Levein to suddenly add a random European player to the squad though.

FURTHER EXITS? As mentioned above, Juanma has been linked with Dundee after falling behind Conor Sammon and Tony Watt in the striking pecking order.  Juwon Oshaniwa has been supplanted at left-back and is surplus to requirements.

NEEDS: They desperately needed a powerful centre-back even before Kevin McNaughton was lost for the season.  Farid El Alagui is on trial, but they could do with a striker who has pace rather than brawn.

FURTHER EXITS: They're another team who are relatively short on numbers.  If El Alagui joins, Alex Fisher may be let out of his contract early.

NEEDS: Lee Clark has already signed a gazillion players and seems to be throwing them at the wall to see if any of them stick.

FURTHER EXITS: Conrad Balatoni has no squad number and was deleted from the club's website, so it's safe to say he'll be 'mutually consented' if he can't find a new club.  

NEEDS: They're probably pretty well set, especially if they give midfielder Lee Lucas a longer deal.  A better keeper would be nice, but I doubt the budget stretches that far.

FURTHER EXITS: It was no surprise to see Louis Laing return to England on loan; his fellow defender Kieran Kennedy might also be a candidate for a move south as he doesn't seem to be in Mark McGhee's plans.  

NEEDS: Possibly another midfielder now Stuart Bannigan is out long-term, but they may have enough options to cope.

FURTHER EXITS: Keeper David Crawford's short-term contract won't be extended now Tomas Cerny is fit again.  I'm not convinced Mathias Pogba has a future at the club beyond being "the target man we throw on if we're behind with ten minutes left and need to punt the ball forward".

NEEDS: I'm not sure a £1.5m 28 year old striker who scored only six goals in the English Championship last season counts as a 'need' for Rangers, but what do I know?  They do need better defenders, so it's no surprise to see Philippe Senderos and Joleon Lescott's names flagged up.

FURTHER EXITS: Robbie Crawford and Andy Murdoch weren't given squad numbers, so they seem set to be the latest Rangers youth products to fail to make the grade.  If I were Jason Holt, I'd be worried about my lack of action so far this season.

NEEDS: A replacement for Jackson Irvine, but that might be beyond them.  They've been linked with Turkish midfielder Erdem Sen.

FURTHER EXITS: Veteran Scott Boyd has been ostracized, but it's his testimonial year so he's not keen to leave and Roy MacGregor isn't as keen as his manager on forcing out such a loyal servant.  Now Andrew Davies is staying, the club have too many centre-backs, so Chris Robertson might be a candidate to move on.

NEEDS: A striker who could take the goalscoring load off Steven MacLean would be useful.  Otherwise they'll be fine when they've got a few folk back from injuries.

FURTHER EXITS: I'd have said Brad McKay, but he's forced himself back into the first team reckoning after a terrible first season in Perth.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Talking Points from the Premiership

Foran has his work cut out
It doesn't happen very often, but Ross County beat their rivals Caley Thistle in the league.  It was the first time they have done so under Jim McIntyre's management and, indeed, since Alex Cooper scored the winner for them in January 2014.

A lot of football has come and gone since then, but the general themes of the Highland Derbies of the last few years were that Inverness could dominate midfield and hurt their rivals with pace behind the defence. Neither happened to an important extent in this most recent match and the 2-3 scoreline flattered Richie Foran's team.

Perhaps the key thing that is missing from this Inverness side at the moment is some genuine pace and up top, to threaten with runs into space behind opposing centre-backs.  Scott Boden received precious little service of any quality, but on the whole Paul Quinn and Andrew Davies dealt with him in relative comfort, because he would ordinarily drop short to touch the ball. County's centre-backs are at the stage of their careers where they relish having the game played in front of him and Andrew Davies battered away any loose ball that came within his vicinity.  From Billy Mckay to Marley Watkins and Miles Storey, Caley Thistle have had forwards who could play off - or cruise past - the last shoulder for years, which is one of the reasons why they have done so well in the derby in recent years.  Farid El Alagui appears to be on trial at the club, but he won't add any qualities that reserve target-man Alex Fisher already can.  They need a fast player to stretch the pitch and open space for creative players like Iain Vigurs and Billy King.

Ironically, it was a one-off long ball by Ross Draper behind the defence that Boden latched on to make the scoreline 1-2 going into the break - Andrew Davies might or might not have played him onside by being five yards behind the rest of his defence for no apparent reason, but Andrew Dallas' whistle went before the goal happened and it shouldn't have stood.  It seemed to have been a fluke incident on the stroke of half-time caused by Davies' poor position, rather than being part of an overal pattern of the match.   Before then, Liam Boyce had scored a couple of technically exquisite goals and County looked at ease going into the break, first by initially pressing high up the pitch to encourage mistakes from Caley Thistle's defence, then by sitting back with two banks of four.  

The lack of pace behind County's defence made things difficult for Caley Thistle further back in their team.  Jim McIntyre often sets his side up in derby matches to press Inverness very high in the first half.  Even if McIntyre can set up a blockade across midfield to stop passes into forwards' feet, his team have so often been caught out with a long ball over its defence.  Boden's goal was the exception to the rule, but with Boyce and his strike partner Craig Curran hounding Caley Thistle's defence, and the midfield four behind them putting pressure on as well, Caley Thistle didn't have the easy out-ball of yore.  Greg Tansey is a player who particularly likes to lift his head and find runners in space, to turn defence into attack in an instant, but there were few such options with none of Vigurs, King nor Liam Polworth looking to make a penetrating run beyond their centre-forward. Tansey had one of his poorest derby performances in some time, with loose passes and shooting causing no trouble but the team wasn't set up to his principal strength. Without the raking ball into a channel to turn County's defence, McIntyre's team was able to wear the opponent's defence down.  Among Owain Fon Williams' fumble outside the penalty area and other moments where Caley Thistle were dispossessed in their defensive third of the pitch, County could have had a higher score with just slightly more quality applied.

There are concerns in defence for Foran to think about, but they might be able to sort themselves out.  For instance, the lack of genuine cover for Josh Meekings in the centre caused a problem in this match.  Kevin McNaughton might be claimed to be able to cover anywhere across the back line, but the derby should have confirmed to Foran that McNaughton shouldn't be the first change at centre-back if it can be allowed.  McNaughton was probably the smallest centre-back in the Premiership at the weekend, but that can be compensated with positioning, anticipation and a good sense of timing.  None of those were particularly evident in Liam Boyce's first goal, where a simple play of one striker running into a channel, to cross for the other, pulled McNaughton too much to the near post. It allowed Boyce several yards of space in the most dangerous area of the pitch and was a naive piece of defending by a veteran defender. McNaughton didn't last long in the match due to injury, but it was telling that right-back David Raven made a better job of deputising alongside Gary Warren.  It should be a lesson learned for a rookie manager, but Meekings will be back soon to reprise one of the best defensive partnerships in the league and that should help improve matters.

The core quartet of Warren, Meekings, Draper and Tansey can compete with any in the league. Foran is fortunate to inherit such a competitive unit, but how he manages the shape of the team will define how he himself competes as a manager in a cut-throat division.  If he can find himself a pacy striker to lengthen the playing area of the pitch, to bring the best out of Vigurs, King and Tansey, then Caley Thistle ought to be fine and could yet have a fruitful season.  Yet with the next four fixtures billed against teams expected to finish in the top half of the league, Foran will need to find a winning formula pretty soon. JAM

Rangers still look fragile
After Saturday, I’m not sure Mark Warburton will be any clearer on how far up the table his side can finish this season. To paraphrase Dickens; it was the best of Rangers, it was the worst of Rangers.

The first half was one way traffic with a great improvement in attacking play compared to the display against Hamilton on the opening day.  Some particularly pleasing interplay between Barrie McKay and Lee Wallace led to Kenny Miller’s goal, and some better finishing from the octogenarian (or it feels like that, anyway) striker would have put the visitors out of sight by half time.

The midfield also looked more balanced with Jordan Rossiter in the holding role, while the Dundee defence struggled to cope with Harry Forrester's pace and movement.  The latter's fruitful afternoon came to a premature end; fortunately for Rangers, it was because his manager subbed him.  Forrester could - nay, should - have been shown a second yellow on two occasions as he launched himself into a series of challenges with a sense of gay abandon.

However, they were once again undone by a set piece.  I have a horrible feeling that I’ll be able to copy and paste that sentence a lot this season; on this occasion Joey Barton fell asleep and allowed Mark O’Hara, again Dundee's outstanding player, a free header that undeservedly brought the Dees right back into it.

The second period was far more ponderous from the visitors; all the attacking verve was replaced by defensive uncertainty.  Dundee didn't have enough firepower to take advantage though, which will strengthen Paul Hartley’s case that at least some of the Kane Hemmings and Greg Stewart money should be invested in more attacking options.

Had Dundee been able to make more of Rangers’ defensive frailties, the Ibrox side may well have been looking at two points from two games and some rather uncomfortable questions. IM

Two up top is the way to go for Kilmarnock
Many neutrals would have eyed up Accies v Killie as a clash between the two most likely teams to go down.  Does this result mean that Lee Clark's side are in better shape (or, more accurately, less rubbish)?  Maybe, maybe not.  They deservedly trailed at half-time, and last week's defensive shortcomings were once again on show.  Worryingly, the goal they conceded was a poor one from keeper Jamie MacDonald's point of view.  If he goes through a rough patch, that really will be a problem...though his later save from Ali Crawford is reassuring.  Crawford also hit the post late on with a lovely free kick.  Given his impressive start of the season, I wouldn't bet against someone making an offer for the schemer.

There are signs, though, that Lee Clark's summer shopping spree has rustled up at least a couple of gems.  Souleymane Coulibaly had impressed in League Cup games and, having been benched in favour of Kris Boyd, he came on and scored a beautiful winner.  Boyd (who is increasingly a walking advertisement for hair transplants) had earlier equalized after fine work from tricky winger Jordan Jones.  Jones, formerly of Middlesbrough, certainly has enough trickery to upset a lot of right-backs in this league.  The change to 4-4-2 was hugely successful and will give Clark food for thought; perhaps Coulibaly and Boyd from the start, with Jones and Rory McKenzie as old fashioned wingers, is the way to go?

It was deeply harsh on Accies, and concerning too.  If they can't win games where they're far superior, how will they fair in the likely majority where they aren't?  It probably is the case that these are the two poorest sides in the Premiership, but at the moment you'd fancy Accies for the drop. LS

Motherwell should have forked out for a competent keeper
The main highlight from Fir Park, of course, was Scott McDonald's outstanding punch into the St. Johnstone net late on.  A close second for me was seeing Richard Tait, Motherwell's right-back, take a flyer over the advertising hoardings after crossing for Chris Cadden to score.  He had plenty of time to hurdle it, yet seemed to treat it as a High Jump bar.  His subsequent rollover and return to his feet was pretty smooth, though, and since everyone else was focused on how his team had taken the lead, I reckon he got away with it.

Craig Samson could do with some of McDonald's handling skills, and some of Tait's agility.  The home goalkeeper was at fault for both St. Johnstone goals; letting Danny Swanson's effort through his legs was bad enough, but it was nothing compared to his blunder for the winner.  I've often thought it was risky for keepers to try and pat down shots aimed at their mid-riff, with the plan being to pick it up on the bounce.  Samson made a hash of Chris Kane's shot, letting it spin far enough away from him that Steven MacLean could pounce and score.

Despite the occasional Scotland callup of yesteryear, Samson has never been an especially impressive keeper; having been let go by Kilmarnock just over a year ago, he sat on Motherwell's bench for the whole of last season behind loanee Connor Ripley, but is currently preferred to Dean Brill, who was a decent enough keeper at Inverness before a bad knee injury.

Samson isn't the long-term answer.  But is Brill?  Most teams in this league can't afford two outstanding goalkeepers; a better option is usually to get one, and use a youngster, a loanee or a veteran as a backup.  Instead, Motherwell have two goalies who would be high quality backups at most clubs.  Maybe they'd have been better pooling the money and blowing it on someone who is a good starter. LS

Dull Dons do little to encourage the locals
What can I say about this match?  No, really... what can I say about this match?  Um... well, Wes Burns hit the crossbar with a header.  Niall McGinn made some good runs and also had a couple of good efforts, which was nice.  Tony Watt also had a couple of chances in the second half but was unable to take the opportunities to open his account with the Jambos.

It appears that this game was just like the last one between two teams at Pittodrie - Aberdeen having the better of the possession; Hearts (cynically?) intent on stopping Aberdeen play; barely a shot on goal by either team; Ewan Murray criticising the Pittodrie attendance - with the exception that Jordan McGhee wasn't on hand to inexplicably concede a penalty at the end of the match.

Mr Murray is entitled to opine on whether people in Aberdeen care about football.  Personally, I think the north-east folk do still care about their fitba', but they surely need to be offered something at least resembling football in order to encourage them to spend their time (and money) on a Saturday afternoon.  On this occasion, as I checked the final score around 5pm, I didn't feel much cause to regret my own decision to enjoy a selection of barbecued meats and malt whiskies in preference to the alternative fare that appeared to be served up by these two sides. MI

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

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

Iain Meredith (IM) is technically our Rangers Correspondent, though these days he tends to support them ironically.  He only agreed to help with this blog so he could tell his wife that he's "only watching the game to help a friend out".

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

Monday, August 8, 2016

Premiership Talking Points

Will Walker or Brown be cited?
Apart from dating Rosie Webster from Corrie, and earning shed loads of cash on the Man City bench, Scott Sinclair has had little to shout about in his career over the past few years. However, he managed to pull off a miracle on Sunday. No, not scoring the winning goal on his debut, although quite impressive. The fact he managed to get the SFA administrators to work a weekend and push through his registration was a minor miracle.

The more cynical amongst us may question how Celtic managed to pull this off, however I’m sure that the SFA would have bent over backwards in this way for any other Premiership team (wink wink).

It'll be interesting to see if the beaks at Hampden show further interest in this match; first we had Jamie Walker flopping dramatically to the deck following minimal (or no) contact from Kieran Tierney to win a penalty.  Last season the Compliance Officer rolled back somewhat on punishments for simulation though.  But precedents suggest calling opponents 'a cheat' is also a disciplinable offence - will Scotland captain Scott Brown be cited for calling out Walker as such?  Again, we'll see...

Other points of interest:
- A cracking performance and goal from James Forrest.  The wideman is out of contract in five months; is this him trying to impress suitors, or looking for a new contract offer?

- Whenever Hearts play this season, we're going to hear a lot of mentions about that goal Tony Watt scored against Barcelona.  It was nearly four years ago, for god's sake!

- An early contender for clearance of the season by Igor Rossi.  I'm all for him celebrating it like he scored a goal - it was roughly worth the same as doing so. ST.

Rangers toil
For four years the world had been waiting for this moment.  Millions, if not billions had followed every step of the journey and as the moment got closer and closer the anticipation had almost reached fever pitch.  Journalists have worked themselves into a frenzy as allegations of corruption and mismanagement plagued those in charge. And when it finally happened, it was all a bit meh.

But that’s enough about the Olympic Games opening ceremony. Rangers played a football match on Saturday.

Whatever your views are on Rangers, and I’m sure you have some, it was nice to have a big occasion for the opening of the new season.  50,000 fans turned up for a game that had been highly anticipated, particularly since last season’s Scottish Cup semi final.  I personally appreciate some top level trolling, so the“Going for 55” card display in the Sandy Jardine Stand was truly a sight to behold.

According to the stats Rangers bossed this game and should count themselves very unlucky to not win comfortably. The eye test tells a different story however; after a opening burst of energy, they looked sluggish and lacking in imagination to break down a well organised and industrious Accies.

Of particular concern was the display of Niko Kranjcar, although I didn’t think he was bad enough to warrant an entire piece from the BBC.  Harry Forrester added some pace and urgency when he replaced to Croatian, and his contribution to the equaliser was lovely.  Of greater concern for Rangers will be the injury to Martyn Waghorn.  If they’re going to turn statistical dominance into points then Waghorn will have to be on top form and a lengthy absence may leave Mark Warburton struggling to find a focal point for his attacking play.

Hamilton fans on the other hand should take great heart from this performance.  I expect them to be fighting it out with Kilmarnock to avoid the drop, mainly because I don’t fancy Martin Canning as a manager. They were well worth their point on Saturday though, and Ali Crawford is a player.  If they can keep that combination going then they shouldn’t have much to worry about.

Rangers’ main challengers this season will be Aberdeen and Hearts, both of whom also dropped points at the weekend, albeit to better teams than Hamilton.  Warburton is a good manager will get this team to click sooner or later, but Saturday’s performance suggests that it might be a bit later than many fans would like. IM

Exquisite Ainsworth
When he scored Motherwell's third goal at Ibrox in the first leg of their 2014-15 relegation playoff, my good friend John A Maxwell tweeted "that's why you gotta play Ainsworth."  Lionel Ainsworth's ability to conjure a goal out of nothing, either for himself or someone else, is rare.  But it goes hand in hand with entire games where he contributes little.

During the Steelmen's excellent run in the spring, the Englishman was mostly found on the bench.  With Mark McGhee having switched to a 4-3-3, he couldn't displace any of the three on-form forwards; nor did he work hard enough for a place in midfield (the same issue which makes playing him in a 4-4-2 a risk).  It wouldn't have been a surprise if he had moved on this summer.

But with Louis Moult recovering from surgery, Ainsworth got his opportunity at Rugby Park and showed exactly why it's impossible not to love him.  His opening goal was just sublime; a perfect chip of Jamie MacDonald.  Not one of those volleyed ones that are scooped over the keeper; this was with the ball on the deck, when one on one with a keeper at an angle.  No-one would have blamed him if he'd just lashed a shot at goal that might or might not have found it's way past Kilmarnock's shot stopper.   But he judged it so well that the ball had nearly hit the ground again by the time it went in...yet MacDonald could do nothing.

'Exquisite' is the appropriate adjective, I think.  We could go on at length about Killie's huge problems, but let's just savour a bit of real quality, something we don't see that often in Scottish football. LS

Warning signs for County?
So much for Dundee struggling post-Hemmings and Stewart (he hasn't gone yet, but he missed this game with an ankle injury).  Ross County were dispatched with surprising ease, suggesting that Paul Hartley might actually know what he's doing.

He certainly had one over his opposite number.  Jim McIntyre's three-at-the-back experiment was an unmitigated disaster.  It seems like a logical way of getting his best eleven players on the park, given that he has a plethora of good forwards and there's a massive Jackson Irvine-shaped hole in centre-mid.  But someone needs to lend him a copy of Inverting The Pyramid.  Three centre-halfs is a rotten system against anyone playing one up front or a 4-3-3.    Dundee did the former, and with Mark O'Hara providing more energy than the entire County midfield put together, this was a riot.

Expect the Staggies to go back to 4-4-2 soon enough.  Firstly, playing Liam Boyce behind two strikers and relying on him for creativity is just a rotten idea.  Secondly, deploying Michael Gardyne as a wing-back is even worse.  And thirdly, and most worryingly, Andrew Davies really didn't look up for this.  Last year's captain wants to return to England and is just playing out time till another club takes him on.  Talented as he is, County can't afford any passengers, especially with a derby next week. If McIntyre tries this folly again, they'll get creamed. LS

Bore draw in Perth
In the 15 competitive fixtures between Tommy Wright's St Johnstone and Derek McInnes' Aberdeen to date, the overall record now stands at 5 wins for the Saints and 5 wins for the Dons with 5 matches drawn.  Remarkably, the overall goal tally across these fixtures also stands at a stalemate.  1,350 regulation minutes (that's 90 minutes short of 24 hrs!) have so far failed to separate the sides, currently at 18-all and counting.  However, the two sides could have gone another 24 hrs without threatening add to that overall tally.

It says everything you need to know about the game that the majority of chances either came from long range shots or long throw-ins.  From Aberdeen's perspective, it was encouraging to see their captain, Ryan Jack, continue his resurgence to form - he had a couple of long range efforts, as well as a header that forced a save from the keeper; however, while the Dons started the game without either of Adam Rooney, Niall McGinn or the injured Jonny Hayes for the first time in the McInnes era, it was still disappointing to witness how few opportunities they created for their front three given their dominance of possession.  It's not as if they've been getting off to blistering starts beforehand, either; they haven't scored a goal in the first half of a competitive fixture since April.

For St Johnstone, you would imagine that they would be more pleased with earning a point, and with the defensive performance they managed to put in; yet, they may also be frustrated given that they arguably still manufactured the better chances.  Well, I say 'manufactured'... perhaps their best chance of the first half came after Brian Easton - perhaps having flashbacks to the worldy he scored at Pittodrie last season - sclaffed a low shot into the box and straight into the path of Graham Cummins, but the striker could only side foot his shot into the keeper.  At least he managed to hit that one; an even better chance fell to him in the second half, but when the ball was cut across to him on the edge of the six yard box he could only muster a fresh air swipe with his left leg.

So, all in all, pretty uninspiring stuff.  Next weekend will surely be more entertaining fare for both sets of supporters.  Surely? MI

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

Iain Meredith (IM) is technically our Rangers Correspondent, though these days he tends to support them ironically.  He only agreed to help with this blog so he could tell his wife that he's "only watching the game to help a friend out".

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

Andrew Sutherland (AS) is our Caley Thistle Correspondent.  He would never miss an ICT match unless he was offered a date with the lead singer of CHVRCHES...who he would then take to said ICT match.  He occasionally writes for When Saturday Comes.  

Stuart Taylor (ST) used to be a team doctor in the Highland League, where players were made of tougher stuff and were more likely to miss games for 'helping with the lambing' than injury.  He is an Aberdeen fan, now they're doing well again.

Friday, August 5, 2016

2016-17 Premiership preview - Celtic

Celtic crest

LAST SEASON: Champions, 86pts

NOTABLE INS: Kristoffer Ajer (Start, £500k), Moussa Dembele (Fulham, £500k), PJ Crossan (Dunfermline Athletic, £130k), Kolo Toure (Liverpool)

NOTABLE OUTS: Colin Kazim-Richards (Coritiba), Stefan Scepovic (Getafe, loan made permanent), Anthony Stokes (Blackburn Rovers), Scott Allan (Rotherham United, loan), Michael Duffy (Dundee, loan), Joe Thomson (Dumbarton, loan), Tyler Blackett (Manchester United, end of loan), Derk Boerrigter, Carlton Cole, Charlie Mulgrew

LAST SEASON'S BEST XI (Departed players crossed out): Gordon, Lustig, Boyata, Sviatchenko, Tierney, Brown, Bitton, McGregor, Rogic, Roberts, Griffiths

A trained monkey could have guided Celtic to a fifth consecutive title last season.  No, I don't think that's unfair on Ronny Deila at all; having a wage budget greater than the sum of the eleven other Premiership clubs put together means an enormous advantage in quality and depth.  The fact that Aberdeen weren't completely shaken off until well into the Spring, along with embarrassing semi-final failures in both domestic cups and a completely incompetent European campaign, meant that the Norwegian had to go.

It's hard to see how they can be quite so far below the sum of their parts again...or it was until the debacle in Gibraltar against Lincoln Red Imps.  Time will tell if that was just a blip, or an early sign that either Brendan Rodgers is not the tactical guru he likes to think he is, or even that the much needed clearout isn't happening fast enough.

Perhaps Rodgers doesn't have the budget the Scottish media wanted us to believe he would when he replaced Deila - the idea that Joe Allen might ever have been tempted to Glasgow always seemed ludicrous - or maybe he's just waiting for the right players to become available.  That would be dangerous, as the Bhoys badly need reinforcements for the remaining Champions League qualifiers.  Tempting Moussa Dembele north was impressive - the Frenchman was linked with Spurs in January - but much, much more is required.

For all his talent, Dembele plays in one area where Celtic aren't lacking - up front.  Early signs are that Player of the Year Leigh Griffiths icould be punted out to the flank, where he'll be expected to cut inside and support Dembele.  Good luck with that - Deila tried it in his first few months at Celtic Park, and it didn't work.  Celtic can certainly count on their outstanding full-backs to provide plenty of width, but using Griffiths and another central player (Ryan Christie or Patrick Roberts seem likely candidates) as the 'wide' players in an attacking trident behind Dembele runs the risk of just creating huge volumes of traffic in the middle of the pitch.  A natural wide player who is more effective than either Gary Mackay-Steven or James Forrest would go a long way.

It'll be interesting to see who Rodgers picks in central defence and central midfield as well.  Ideally his first choice centre backs will be Erik Sviatchenko and Jozo Simunovic, but the latter is injured so often that it's unclear if he's anywhere near as good as his seven figure price tag suggested.  Sviatchenko is a great player though, but even he can't compensate for the screw-ups that Efe Ambrose and occasionally Dedryck Boyata come up with.  Kolo Toure showed no signs at Liverpool last season that he is slowing down, but the Ivorian is 35 and no more than a stopgap.

And arguably the biggest problem is in the middle of the pitch, unless Scott Brown proves me wrong and gets back to his lung-busting best.  But the evidence of the last twelve months is that the Scotland captain is slowing down.  If his future is indeed to be spent screening the back four, then a replacement for him is needed, and there's no need for both Brown and Nir Bitton in the team.  The Israeli is brilliant at his best but too often languid; I was surprised the club rejected a £6million bid for him this summer.  As for an 'engine', this is surely a role for Stuart Armstrong, after months being wasted in wide areas by Deila.

The only sure thing in that area of the pitch is Tom Rogic, who shone last year either in a deeper role or playing closer to the attack.  Playing him behind the striker would mean leaving Kris Commons and Stefan Johansen out, but it's debatable whether either have a future under Rodgers anyway.  Rogic has only started one of the first four European games though, with the Callum McGregor keeping him out.  It's hard to see the manager's logic on that one.

So lots of quandaries for the new Celtic boss.  He's in a bit of a Catch 22; he might not be able to recruit as he'd like unless they qualify for the Champions League, but they might not qualify for the Champions League unless he gets in those players now.  And the squad is bloated enough as it is; surely there's a good chance that Ambrose, Commons, Darnell Fisher and Nadir Ciftci, amongst others, won't be here by the end of August.

Still, at domestic level, surely everything's okay.  Rodgers is a much better coach than Deila, and the opposition is unlikely to be significantly stronger than last season.  Sure, Rangers are back, and sure, they've made a few decent signings, and sure, they proved in the Scottish Cup semi-final that they have the attitude, intensity and quality to match Celtic at least in one-off games.  But their current resources are still dwarfed by what's available down Parkhead way.  Anything other than six in a row would be unacceptable, but it's pretty much a cert...right?

THE SQUAD (players born after 1 January 1995 in italics)
Goalkeepers: Logan Bailly, Leonardo Fasan, Craig Gordon
Defenders: Efe Ambrose, Dedryck Boyata, Darnell Fisher, Emilio Izaguirre, Saidy Janko, Mikael Lustig, Eoghan O'Connell, Tony Ralston, Jozo Simunovic, Erik Sviatchenko, Kieran Tierney, Kolo Toure
Midfielders: Kristoffer Ajer, Stuart Armstrong, Nir Bitton, Scott Brown, Kris Commons, Liam Henderson, Stefan Johansen, Gary Mackay-Steven, Callum McGregor, Aidan Nesbitt, Tom Rogic
Forwards: Jack Aitchison, Ryan Christie, Nadir Ciftci, PJ Crossan, Moussa Dembele, James Forrest, Leigh Griffiths, Patrick Roberts


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 - Rangers

Rangers Football Club Logo

LAST SEASON: Championship winners

NOTABLE INS: Joe Dodoo (Leicester City, £250k), Jordan Rossiter (Liverpool, £250k), Matt Crooks (Accrington Stanley, £50k), Josh Windass (Accrington Stanley, £50k), Matt Gilks (Burnley), Joey Barton (Burnley), Clint Hill (Queen's Park Rangers), Lee Hodson (Milton Keynes Dons), Niko Kranjcar (New York Cosmos)

NOTABLE OUTS: Cammy Bell (Dundee United), Nicky Clark (Bury), Luca Gasparotto (Falkirk), Nicky Law (Bradford City), Ryan Hardie (St. Mirren, loan), Tom Walsh (St. Mirren, loan), Dominic Ball (Tottenham Hotspur, end of loan), Billy King (Heart of Midlothian, end of loan), Gedion Zelalem (Arsenal, end of loan), Dean Shiels, David Templeton

LAST SEASON'S BEST XI (Departed players crossed out): Foderingham, Tavernier, Kiernan, Wilson, Wallace, Halliday, Holt, Forrester, McKay, Miller, Waghorn

"Guess who's back, back again?"

"We need a little controversy, 'cause it feels so empty without me"

So Eminem postulates on the 2002 hit Without Me, lyrics which I reckon would resonate with Rangers fans.  Whether the rest of us agree or not...

Anyway, whether us diddy fans like it or not, the biggest story of the new campaign is that Rangers are back in the top flight of Scottish football (no, this is not the time or place for a 'Sevco' debate).  Personally, I think there's a lot more going on than that, but our football media have no time for anyone other than Glasgow's gruesome twosome and sadly the SPFL seem quite happy to encourage this.  Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.

So let's get a home truth out of the way.  Rangers are not going to win the league this year.  Sorry Bluenoses, but it ain't happening.  Celtic won't be nearly as crap as they were last season, and whilst Mark Warburton has put together a very capable (by Scottish Premiership standards) squad, his budget remains a fraction of the one that their rivals can muster.  One impressive Scottish Cup semi-final performance does not make a summer.

That's why I'm surprised the club have bigged up expectations.  In the short-term it probably boosts season ticket sales, but it means that an iffy result or two in August will put Warburton under unfair pressure early doors.  And whilst the team breezed through the Championship last season and beat Dundee and Kilmarnock in the Scottish Cup too, they will find playing top flight opposition every week to be a tougher proposition.  A more realistic (and achievable) target is to finish above the battle-hardened Aberdeen and Hearts - despite the views of some 'journalists' out there, this is not a given by any stretch.

Last season, the quality going forward largely masked the weaknesses.  And there was plenty of quality; up front, Martyn Waghorn was a flat-track bully with 28 goals, while Kenny Miller enjoyed a wee bit of an Indian summer.  But the veteran turns 37 in December, and it wouldn't be a surprise if he finally lost the spring in his step in the coming months.  Waghorn's support is more likely to come from Barrie McKay - a revelation last season coming in from one flank - and Michael O'Halloran, if he can rediscover his St. Johnstone form.

That front three will scare anybody in Scotland, even more so with Lee Wallace and James Tavernier flying down the flanks.  Rangers' full-backs are excellent going forward, but last season's achilles heel was the lack of cover for them.  Tavernier in particular is not that great a defender, but it wouldn't matter if there was a defensive midfielder screening the centre-backs and stepping wide if needed.  I don't think they'll get away without one this season, which makes it all the more odd that they haven't acquired one.

Joey Barton is certainly box-office, at least by modern Scottish football standards, and adds class to the midfield.  He is an upgrade on the very decent Andy Halliday, but both are playmakers who don't break up play all that well.  I'm looking forward to seeing Jordan Rossiter in the middle of the park too.  The ex-Liverpool trainee has an excellent pedigree and may well be this season's breakout star.

The likes of Matt Crooks, Josh Windass and Joe Dodoo have probably been signed as good value depth, which was badly needed.  Dodoo in particular is a player of decent potential too.  But Barton, Clint Hill and Niko Kranjcar will not have come on cheap wages, yet are in the twilight of their careers.  They might be good for a year, but one can't help feeling that it would be counter-productive in the long term if they take gametime away from the likes of Halliday and Jason Holt.

I'm a bit bemused by Warburton's departure from his generally successful focus on bringing in young players from down south.  The Englishman has achieved enough both at Ibrox and previously at Brentford to suggest that he deserves the benefit of the doubt.  But he will need some patience from the home support; Rangers fans have a deserved reputation for getting frustrated awfully easily when their team isn't playing well, an attitude which can often lead players to retreat into their shells.  If the club keeps their feet on the ground, they should finish a comfortable second, earn a Europa League place, and potentially look forward to a title push a year or two down the line.  Expect too much too quickly, and it could all be a bit of an anticlimax.

THE SQUAD (players born after 1 January 1995 in italics)
Goalkeepers: Wes Foderingham, Matt Gilks
Defenders: Matt Crooks, Clint Hill, Lee Hodson, Rob Kiernan, James Tavernier, Lee Wallace, Danny Wilson
Midfielders: Joey Barton, Liam Burt, Robbie Crawford, Harry Forrester, Andy Halliday, Jason Holt, Niko Kranjcar, Andy Murdoch, Jordan Rossiter, Jordan Thompson, Josh Windass
Forwards: Joe Dodoo, Barrie McKay, Kenny Miller, Michael O'Halloran, Martyn Waghorn


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, August 4, 2016

2016-17 Premiership preview - Partick Thistle

Partick Thistle FC logo.svg

LAST SEASON: 9th, 46pts

NOTABLE INS: Ade Azeez (AFC Wimbledon), David Crawford (Alloa Athletic), Daniel Devine (Inverness Caledonian Thistle), Chris Erskine (Dundee United), Ziggy Gordon (Hamilton Academical), David Syme (Kilmarnock)

NOTABLE OUTS: Frederic Frans (Lierse), Paul Gallacher (Heart of Midlothian), Gary Miller (Plymouth Argyle), Aiden Nesbitt (Celtic, end of loan), Jordan Leyden, Danny Seaborne

LAST SEASON'S BEST XI (Departed players crossed out): Cerny, Dumbuya, Lindsay, Seaborne, Booth, Bannigan, Osman, Edwards, Amoo, Lawless, Doolan

It's a bit of a shame that the only time that Partick Thistle registered in the minds of most outsiders this summer was when they raised a stink about the SPFL fixtures.  For what it's worth, I had some sympathy with them; I too had assumed the league would go back to the old system where each team played two home games against one buttock of the Old Firm arse, and one against the other.

Having just a solitary Firhill visit from both Rangers and Celtic will leave Thistle more than £100,000 out of pocket, which is a double blow when you consider that teams like Inverness (who Partick will feel they should be competing with) are better off by the same figure.  When annual wage bills are around £1.2 million, a £200,000 swing is very significant.

But Thistle haven't been behaving like a club forced to drastically cut their cloth.  In the spring, it became clear that their three best out-of-contract talents - Abdul Osman, Steven Lawless and Stuart Bannigan - were all heavily coveted.  Remarkably, all have chosen to remain at Firhill.  Bannigan's re-commitment to the cause came partly because any hopes of finding a new club this summer were ruined by a knee injury, but Alan Archibald won't care.

Holding onto all three was unexpected and a huge boost.  In fact, out of the players who left, only Danny Seaborne's departure was a shame.  The bearded Englishman was the team's best central defender last season.  But Archibald has been given sufficient resources to try and strengthen the squad.  The aim this year is clearly not to be anywhere near the bottom two; even last season, Thistle came close to being dragged into the fray after the split.

The most impressive signing by some way is Ziggy Gordon, Hamilton's very capable right-back, who was expected to move much further up in the world than this.  His one year contract suggests that the player fancies he can put himself back in the shop window with another good campaign; that's fine by Archibald, who desperately needed a new right-back after the excellent Mustapha Dumbuya ruptured his achilles tendon.

It was also mildly surprising that he was able to tempt Daniel Devine down from Inverness.  The Ulsterman was a regular last season in the Highlands, though often erratic, but turned down a new deal there to move to the central belt.  With Seaborne and Frederic Frans gone, Devine will be expected to slot straight in.  It's an area which still concerns Jags fans though, as Liam Lindsay certainly has potential but is also accident-prone (how many young defenders aren't?) and ex-Killie youngster David Syme is one for the future.  A rugged, broken-nosed centre back with a bit of beef and a lot of experience would be very welcome.

The midfield will be in excellent shape once Bannigan returns, especially if Chris Erskine makes hay in his third spell at the club; a Thistle top seems to have the same effect on him as a Scotland one had on James McFadden.  With Ryan Edwards and David Amoo finishing last season strongly, Archibald is not short on options.  Perhaps at last he can move on from the hard-working but limited Sean Welsh and chance on playing a third attacking midfielder most weeks, rather than the more defensive minded triumvirate of Welsh, Osman and Bannigan which stifles opponents but offers little going forward.

The key to success though will, as ever, be up front.  Kris Doolan is coming off a career year, the first time he has hit double figures in the top flight and the first player to do so in their three seasons back at this level.  Can he do so again?  Whilst an intelligent player, he's often streaky in front of goal and it would be no surprise if he went two or three months without hitting the net.  Archibald appears to have lost faith in Mathias Pogba, who got a new contract only after triggering an appearance clause in his old one; given that the Paul's much less talented brother scored only twice last year, that's understandable.

New arrival Ade Azeez might shake things up a bit; he has pace to burn, but is also six feet tall and sufficiently built.  The question is whether he is any good; he spent the last two seasons as a perennial sub at AFC Wimbledon.  If he just becomes the latest in a list of Thistle forwards to fail to supplant Doolan, it'll be hard to make top six.

But a top half finish is surely the aim.  It'll not be easy, but on paper at least they look stronger than they have done in years, possibly decades.  You might think me loopy (hey, you probably think that already) but I think they can do it.

And hey, if they don't, they've still got Kingsley.  It's all good.

THE SQUAD (players born after 1 January 1995 in italics)
Goalkeepers: Tomas Cerny, David Crawford, Ryan Scully
Defenders: Callum Booth, Daniel Devine, Mustapha Dumbuya, Ziggy Gordon, Liam Lindsay, Matthew McInally, James Penrice, David Syme
Midfielders: David Amoo, Stuart Bannigan, Ryan Edwards, Christie Elliott, Chris Erskine, Gary Fraser, Steven Lawless, Declan McDaid, Abdul Osman, Sean Welsh, David Wilson
Forwards: Ade Azeez, Kris Doolan, Neil McLaughlin, Kevin Nisbet, Mathias Pogba


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.