Monday, September 26, 2016

Talking Points from the Premiership

Maddison's moment of glory
Although I was privileged enough to see James Maddison's late free kick , I will admit that I was also keen to relive the moment on television afterwards and couldn't help but be amused at the contrast in the immediate reactions between the hyperbole of the live commentary on Sky Sports by Ian Crocker - "A phenomenal free kick!" - and the understated delivery by Liam McLeod on the Sportscene highlights - "It's not bad!"

It was Maddison's moment; a peach of goal that earned Aberdeen a win over Rangers that, in all honesty, they scarcely deserved.  It was telling that Derek McInnes mentioned in his post-match interview that, during the first half, he was annoyed that "we didn't commit to our pressing"; it was clear that this related to a tactical plan that McInnes had devised for the game - explained succinctly by fellow Narey's Toepoker blogger Stuart Taylor, the idea was for Aberdeen's forwards to press the Rangers central defenders in an attempt to stop them splitting, while also stopping their full backs from getting forward.  

It is perhaps, slightly unfair to attribute this to a lack of commitment by the players - more accurately, it was the Rangers players who fully committed to their own passing game and made an exerted effort to run into spaces and make themselves available for outlet passes; in turn, the Aberdeen pressing game soon began to look more reactive than proactive, their players not quick enough to respond to the movement in front of them.

The home support have grown accustomed to watching a team that dominates possession in the first half without creating any clear goalscoring opportunities, just not normally by the away side.  For all of the play they had in the opposition half, the closest they came to scoring was a shot from Joe Garner that deflected wildly off Shay Logan and forced Joe Lewis to scramble across the face of his goal to divert the ball away for a corner.

For all of the good passing football that Rangers had played in the first half, Aberdeen took barely a minute of the second half to open the scoring with the 'route one' approach - Lewis humped the ball up the park and Adam Rooney managed to head-flick it forward for Jonny Hayes to flash past an almost stationery back four and coolly finish past Wes Foderingham.

Mark Warburton later replaced the largely ineffective Garner and with veteran striker Kenny Miller, and it was the substitute who finally produced a creative spark by playing Lee Wallace in behind the Dons defence; Hayes was tugging his shirt as he ran into the box, Wallace hit the deck and Rangers were duly awarded a penalty that was calmly dispatched by Andy Halliday - a player who, incidentally, exerted more influence in this one game than Joey Barton has (and probably ever will) in his entire Rangers career.

Yet, give Aberdeen credit where it's due, they once again managed to produce a winning goal in the final minutes.  Warburton was clearly aggrieved about the free kick awarded by referee John Beaton; to be honest, the Dandies in my immediate vicinity within the South Stand didn't think it was a free kick either, although it is a risk that defenders take when they attempt to tackle players from behind that if they make contact with the attacker in the process of making contact with the ball they are always taking a chance that a foul will be called against them.  Regardless of the merit of the refereeing decision, the merit of the winning goal that resulted from it was beyond doubt. MI

Dundee are in trouble
Perhaps Paul Hartley can take solace from the fact that, a month ago, Caley Thistle were in crisis.  And look where they are now.

However, the bottom line is that Dundee were very comfortably beaten by an opponent that didn't get out of third gear...and didn't need to.  And Nicky Low's late free-kick made the scoreline look a bit better; had Jake Mulraney not spurned a sitter for the home side, the scoreline would have been a crushing 4-0.  How much pressure would that have put on Hartley?

Sure, Kane Hemmings and Greg Stewart are practically irreplaceable for a team at this level, but that doesn't explain the ongoing defensive woes.  The absence of the suspended Kevin Gomis didn't help, but the way that Lonsana Doumbouya - apparently called 'the big man' by his teammates, who can't pronounce his surname - bullied Darren O'Dea and Julen Etxabeguren was extremely worrying.  The latter gave away a daft penalty which effectively killed the game after less than twenty minutes.  Left-back Kevin Holt gifted Mulraney his gilt-edged chance for a goal, while on the other flank Tom Hateley looked dreadfully out of shape.

Further up the pitch, it remains unclear what Hartley is trying to do.  With Mark O'Hara missing, there was a distinct lack of energy; Paul McGowan tried his best in a more advanced role, but spent most of his time taking the ball sideways.  With Inverness' back four sitting deep there was no space in behind for Faissal El Bakhtaoui, while Michael Duffy kept trying to come in from the left flank, leaving them lacking in width.  And deploying a midfield trio of McGowan, Low and Nick Ross meant that the physical battle in the centre of the park was a canter for the Highlanders.

Even the subs were weird - Rory Loy and Jordi Teijsse were thrown on, giving Dundee three strikers all operating in the same area, and no supply line for them.

So now the Dark Blues are winless since opening day.  Go back to last season, and they have just four league wins since mid-February.  That, along with this woeful performance, go someway to explaining why Hartley is the bookies' favourite to be the first Premiership manager for the chop. LS

It doesn't matter who Celtic play in goal or up front
I could watch that Souleymane Coulibaly goal all day long.  Sadly for Kilmarnock, it just seemed to jolt the champions into action.  After last week's draw at Inverness I predicted that many a team would be on the end of a thumping from Celtic...and Kilmarnock won't be the last.  Killie didn't do themselves any favours by playing two strikers with a combined age of 37 (hence they weren't pressing the opposition much) and Coulibaly, another striker, on the wing.  But the quality of Celtic's attacking play was such that had Lee Clark parked the bus they might have shipped six goals anyway.

It was curious that one of the first questions asked of Brendan Rodgers after a 6-1 win was about his goalkeeper - you'd think the focus would be on the forwards and particularly the battle between Moussa Dembele and Leigh Griffiths for a starting spot.  But instead he was grilled on whether he was happy with Dorus De Vries.  I have some sympathy with the Dutch keeper; his starting position for Coulibaly's goal was okay (Rodgers - "If anything I prefer my goalkeeper to be a little further out of goal), while last week I thought he did well to even get a hand to Billy King's strike for Inverness, but because he got a hand on it people seemed to think he should have kept it out.

Perhaps there's a wee bit of loyalty, from both fans and the media, to his Scottish rival, Craig Gordon.  And I don't believe Gordon is an inferior keeper at all, though he has certainly not had a brilliant 2016.  To an extent, the debate is moot.  Celtic's choice of keeper will not affect their domestic challenge.  Nor will it improve their chances of getting a point in the Champions League.  Ditto their choice of centre-forward.  Regardless, they'll thump everyone in Scotland, and be thumped by everyone in Europe. LS

Thistle play well again...and fail to win again
A point against Motherwell keeps Partick Thistle bottom and will have done little to relieve fears of a relegation battle.  It's been the same story at Firhill all season; a defence that can't keep a clean sheet, and an attack that can't score goals.  Whilst they largely dominated against Motherwell, they did benefit from two huge slices of good fortune - Steven Hammell's blunder that gifted Chris Erskine the opener, and the terrible decision to disallow a Scott McDonald header at the other end when he was well onside.

As Alan Archibald bemoaned after the match, "to win a game, it almost looks like we need two goals...we don't look like keeping a clean sheet".  Unfortunately his central defenders let him down for the umpteenth week in a row, allowing McDonald to drift in unmarked to score a late equalizer.   Unfortunately, whilst Danny Devine and Liam Lindsay are not a Premiership-quality pairing, Archibald has no other centre-back aged over 20 available.  Either he pitches teenager David Syme in, moves Ziggy Gordon inside (leaving him short of a decent right-back with Mustapha Dumbuya out long-term), or muddles on.  None of these options are palatable.

And at the other end, Thistle couldn't get that second goal they needed.  Ade Azeez's decent link-up play can in no way make up for squandering two very decent chances.  He, like the other centre forward in the squad, Kris Doolan, is still without a league goal this season, and neither look likely to break their duck any time soon.  Next up is Rangers away, and then it's Accies at home after the international break.  If the Jags are bottom after that, it's time for a bit of panic. LS

Ross County are difficult to beat again
The uncertainty over the future of Andrew Davies did Ross County a lot of harm at the start of the season.  When he announced his intention to leave, Jim McIntyre immediately moved for Jay McEveley as a replacement; Davies' change of heart left County with three experienced central defenders (Paul Quinn being the other) who expected to play every week.  McIntyre tried to shoehorn them all in by changing to a 3-5-2 which his squad was totally ill-equipped for (too many chiefs, not enough indians, according to writer John A Maxwell); after a shellacking by Dundee on opening day, he went back to a back four with McEveley shunted out to left-back, which was better, but not much.

McEveley's discomfort was exposed by Motherwell a fortnight ago, where he picked up two yellows.  His suspension seems to have coincided with a drastic improvement in County's defending.  Kenny Van Der Weg has come in at left-back; the Dutchman offers nothing going forward, but is a relative rarity in this league in that he is a full-back who can actually defend.  With Davies now back to his best form - he was imperious again at Tynecastle and actually came close to nicking a winner for the Staggies - County are once more difficult to beat.  Their success last season was built on these sort of foundations, and back-to-back clean sheets against Rangers and Hearts bode well going forward...for everyone except McEveley, perhaps. LS

Donati's no prima-donna
To be fair, a Hamilton v St. Johnstone match isn't going to give many folk palpitations.  Scheduling it for Sunday afternoon made it even easier to forget that it was even happening.  Much like for Partick Thistle, Accies did enough to win this but conceded a late equalizer because their defence just isn't solid enough.

With Michael Devlin and Darren Lyon added to the injury list, Martin Canning stuck with the back three that impressed in the second half at Motherwell last week, which required Massimo Donati to step back into defence.  Nine years ago, the Italian under-21 international was scoring for Celtic in the Champions League.  Now he's a makeshift centre back for Hamilton.  The 35 year old is clearly up for the challenge though; he broke his nose at Fir Park but played on.  Then, having been told it can't be reset till next week because of swelling, he decided to play another 90 minutes with it against the Perth Saints.

Not that Donati was particularly great in this match; he looks like a midfielder playing out of position, and his passing from the back was a disappointment.  But it says a lot about his attitude that he is willing to end up looking like Steve Bruce just to help Hamilton out. 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.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Celtic's accounts raise concerns...for Rangers

Maybe Celtic should sue Ronny Deila for lost earnings?  Say, about £10million?

The club has announced a return to profit for 2015/16, £500k in the black compared to a £3.9m loss the previous season.  The caveats?  Firstly, the period encompasses season ticket sales up to the end of June 2016, which increased dramatically following the arrival of Brendan Rodgers and the prospect of two home games against Rangers (edit - Graeme Hutchings on Twitter has pointed out that season ticket sales for 2016/17 will be treated as deferred income).  Secondly, as the club freely admitted, player sales were a significant factor - more than £12m of income, in fact.

The conclusion?  Celtic run at a loss of about £5m a year if they don't make the Champions League, in which case they have to sell a top player for big money to balance the books.  Last season it was Virgil Van Dijk.  The year before that it was Fraser Forster.   Had they shipped just one more goal in Israel against Hapoel Beer-Sheva, one wonders whether they had anyone left who would command an eight figure transfer fee?

But it couldn't be more clear that the powerbrokers at Parkhead needed to punt Deila and bring in a competent manager.  Because Celtic's presence in the 2016/17 Champions League will be worth in excess of £20m to them, even if they do end up getting thumped 7-0 every fortnight.  That should keep the accountants happy.

We can understand why the prospect of Europe's elite competition becoming a closed shop would cause Peter Lawwell to come out in a sweat.  Without that avenue, drastic downsizing would be required, regardless of the average attendance at Celtic Park.  In fact, the massive reliance on UEFA monies also makes a move to England rather less palatable, given that Celtic would surely have to start in League Two or lower; at least three years of drastically reduced income even if things went swimmingly (which would certainly not be a given).

Whilst it doesn't sound like the safest of business plans, it seems to be about the only one that keeps Celtic at their current level.  Becoming more competitive at continental level would require a level of investment that Dermot Desmond baulks at, while cutting costs (or keeping Deila in charge) would run the risk of missing the Champions League every year, leading to a never-ending cycle of downsizing until, potentially, the club's domestic hegemony could come under threat.

Which allows me to segue ungracefully onto my next point.  Whilst these final results probably make Celtic fans feel a little uneasy, they should make Rangers fans downright nauseous.  While we don't have enough detail yet to know what the gap in staff budget for last season was, it's unlikely to have narrowed too much from 2014/15...where Celtic's staff costs were £33.2m, compared to Rangers' £13.2m.  So at that point Celtic were spending 250% more.  That's not so much a gap as a flipping chasm.  No wonder that there were four clear goals between them a couple of weekends back.

But that's what Rangers have to try to bridge if they are to knock their rivals off their perch.  And until they do so, they won't have access to the Champions League riches that they desire (not unless something crazy happens to the coefficient, like a repeat of 1967!).  The Catch 22, of course, is that they need those riches to be able to go toe-to-toe with Celtic in the first place.

Or, you know, Rangers could find a sugar daddy willing to spend his children's inheritance on the club, but good luck with that...

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, September 19, 2016

Talking points from the Premiership

County increase the pressure on beleaguered Warburton
“I always go back to the money markets.  If you lose a bunch of money you don’t try to win it back the following day. You build slowly.”

Mark Warburton tried to deal with the fall out from the Old Firm game by looking back to his days as a City trader for inspiration.  Maybe he's right that it will take time to recover - after all, even a 10-0 thrashing of Ross County would not have completely placated a fanbase humiliated by the debacle at Celtic Park.  But in the end, despite the manager's assertions that it was his team's best performance of the season, Rangers didn’t even come close to thrashing the Highlanders, although they certainly deserved to win the match.  Not that the support appreciated that, given the round of boos at the final whistle.

Some football matches can only be assessed in the context of the games that preceded it, and this was a prime example.  Sure, Warburton was right that there were positives to be taken.  His side looked so much more energetic (is the absence of Joey Barton a coincidence? Ed), with Josh Windass again a real standout.  A young side playing a high tempo, able to overwhelm middle-to-lower ranked teams, and, if the defence improves - far from a given - capable of dangerous counter­attacking against the better sides - maybe this is all that Rangers can, and should be, realistically aiming for, right now.

Unfortunately for Warburton, that ain't how it works down Ibrox way.  The supporters were told in the summer that they were #goingfor55, so they expect a title challenge, not a stutter at home to the Staggies.  This isn't the stock market - Rangers lost a lot of credibility at Celtic Park, and the manager needs to get that back very, very soon.  The magic hat is hanging on a very shoogly peg, and if there isn't a run of wins on the horizon then Warburton could be returning to the City looking for new employment.  IM

ICT somehow survive an onslaught
As of half-time yesterday afternoon, this piece was going to be a massive rant about how Don Robertson had lost his bottle and cost Caley Thistle any chance of a result (when I did moan on Twitter, a number of Celtic fans reminded me of a Tweet after Meekingsgate where I claimed bad decisions evened themselves out over time!).

Then Celtic were so dominant in the second period that I went away suspecting that, had Erik Sviatchenko been sent off, the ten men would have probably been well on top anyway.  That they didn't win by a cricket score was down to a combination of factors; an incredible performance from ICT keeper Owain Fon Williams; some terrible finishing; and some sort of flipping miracle.  So complaining about the foul on Draper seemed like pushing one's luck.

Both Brendan Rodgers and the Celtic support treated this result with a "well, you can't win every game" reaction - the sort of response you can only make when you're absolutely certain you're going to stroll the league.  And quite right too.  Results like this will be few and far between; a lot of teams are going to get a proper thumping this season.

The visitors showed no signs of physical or psychological fatigue from their catastrophe at the Camp Nou; whilst Inverness - helped by a screamer from Billy King that levelled things up in the first half - pretty much matched them in the opening 45, the second half was a relentless onslaught.  The patterns of passing and the variety of chances created were extremely impressive; had I been a neutral, it would have been great to watch.  Through the gaps between my fingers, not so.  The speed of movement and speed of thought is so far above that of any other Scottish team...and well last year's Ronny Deila vintage too.

Kieran Tierney was particularly outstanding.  The left-back set up a goal for Tom Rogic with some brilliant footwork to bamboozle Liam Polworth, and later he would hit the bar as well as force one of Fon Williams' many saves.  Whilst he wasn't really tested in a defensive sense, his attacking play was far superior to most wingers in Scottish football.  And remember, the boy is only nineteen.  LS

McInnes sees off his critics, for now
This weekend journalist Graham Spiers questioned whether Derek McInnes would be able to maintain momentum at Aberdeen, citing their visit to Dens Park as looking "ominous".  The criticism hasn't been reserved to mainstream media, either; deep into the second half of this contest, with the match petering out to yet another draw for both sides, calls were also coming from social media for the manager to make changes and show that he actually wants three points.  

Derek duly made a double substitution; off went Adam Rooney and Niall McGinn - both of whom had admittedly quiet afternoons - and on came summer intakes Jayden Stockley and Wes Burns.  Both substitutes obliged their boss; Stockley stuck his bonce on the end of a Jonny Hayes cross from the right to put the Dons ahead, then Burns burned into the box before being bundled over by Julen Etxabeguren to receive a fortunate decision from referee Steven McLean for a penalty kick, which Kenny McLean was just as lucky to score, after smashing his shot off the underside of the crossbar.

Prior to that, Dons fans were at least treated to another classy display from Derek's most recent loan acquisition, James Maddison.  Billed as a brilliant player with superb technique on the ball, he didn't disappoint - punctuating a man of the match performance with a great strike from just outside the box to draw the Dons level in the first half; albeit, Scott Bain must have been disappointed not to have kept it out.  That the visitors had to draw level in the first place was due to an even better goal from the Dees; Paul McGowan threaded a through ball to Nick Ross, whose deft flick set up a Kevin Holt line drive to open the scoring.

In the end, a deserved away win (and a first in the league since March) provides the Dons with revived momentum heading into a difficult double header at Pittodrie; a League Cup Quarter Final with St Johnstone on Thursday evening, followed by the visit of Rangers on Sunday afternoon.  Even as early as mid-September, the results from these two fixtures will go a long way to establishing what further progress McInnes can make this season. MI

Hamilton need to sign some proper full-backs
Louis Moult, Motherwell's four goal hero against Accies, has scored seven times in his last two hours on a football pitch.  That's a hell of a strike rate, and one he won't be matching for long; the Englishman is a bit of a streaky striker, who hadn't scored in his last seven games of last season and who last season had several barren periods interrupted by brief goal gluts.

In addition, he won't play against many defences worse than this. Each of his three open play goals - a hat-trick in the opening 21 minutes - were well taken but all were handed to him on a plate.  Accies right-back Grant Gillespie will have nightmares about the way Moult kept coming inside from his starting position on the left flank; Gillespie was left for dead as the forward raced onto Ryan Bowman's flick for the opener, and was easily beaten in the air for the second.

Gillespie looked like a fish out of water, and that's because he was - he's so much more comfortable in the centre of midfield.  So too Darren Lyon on the other flank, who was skinned for the second and third goals and gave away a dreadful penalty early in the second half before being hooked.

Changing formation at 3-0 makes one think 'barn door, horse, bolted', but remarkably Martin Canning's move to a back three nearly dragged his side back into it, with the outstanding Ali Crawford getting one back and then hitting the post shortly after.  And after Crawford's second goal dragged the score back to 4-2, Craig Samson's goal was peppered.  The best plan when you have no natural full-backs appears to be not to play with any.

Canning has recently said he hopes to bring in someone who plays in that position, and hinted that he'd narrowly missed out on some targets on deadline day.  He sure as heck can't go on playing Gillespie and Lyon in those roles for the rest of the season. LS

Killie's strikers are the key to their survival
If Killie stay up, it will be because of their strikers.  Kris Boyd somehow wriggled away from three Partick Thistle defenders to score his third league goal of the season; Souleymane Coulibaly later headed home to match his strike partner's total for the campaign.  Six goals between them in six league games; if they were to get close to keeping that up for the remaining thirty-two matches then they won't go down.

Easier said than done, of course.  And if they do go down, it'll because of the problems at the other end.  Lee Clark still doesn't know his best back four - he's used seven different players in defence already this season in the league and still has three summer signings to try in that area.  Both Thistle's goals were poor ones to concede.

That said, Kilmarnock still might be better off than their opponents.  Partick's centre half duo of Danny Devine and Liam Lindsay continue to struggle, while keeper Tomas Cerny is indeed out long-term with a foot injury.  At the other end of the park, it was another barren day for Kris Doolan.  Lindsay's late equalizer makes him the team's joint top scorer in the Premiership.  Thistle are fragile at the back and impotent up front, which is a dreadful situation to be in. LS

Clark justifies his manager's faith
Zander Clark's return to the starting lineup last week was more down to luck than anything else.  Tommy Wright's decision to keep faith with veteran Alan Mannus at the start of the season had been largely justified by the Ulsterman's performances, but a sickness bug allowed Clark to get back in to the side and the 24 year old vindicated the decision to stick with him against Hearts with a sensational performance.  One stop from Jamie Walker was particularly stunning, but at times he seemed to be repelling the Jambos single-handedly.

Clark's record in league games is quite remarkable; eight wins out of eight, and only four goals conceded (one of which was a penalty).  His manager touted him for a Scotland call-up, but the reason why Clark hasn't been mentioned before is undoubtedly his lack of game time; this effort should establish him between the sticks for the Saints for a long time to come.  And he deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as his opposite number Jack Hamilton (who has recently been in Gordon Strachan's plans) and Scott Bain of Dundee.  But I suspect all three will need to test themselves at a higher level than this if they are to start racking up caps.  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.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Talking Points from the Premiership

Celtic exposed every problem Rangers have
So much for #goingfor55!

Let's be clear - Celtic were huge favourites for the title even before this game.  But they might as well have presented the trophy at full time after they annihilated Rangers without really having to put their back into it.  Celtic have now played the other three teams expected to finish in the top four, and only Hearts have proven even slightly awkward.

The Gibraltar blip aside, Brendan Rodgers has quickly shown up the mediocrity of the Deila era, a task that was made much easier on Saturday by having Mousa Dembélé (kudos for manually adding in the accents - Ed).  The Frenchman almost stole the spotlight from his own hat-trick with the most sublime pass you’ll see all season to set up a goal for Scott Sinclair.

Mark Warburton said after the game that there wasn't a gulf between the sides.  However, we all know that he was only saying that for the cameras because he obviously has two eyes and at least as many brain cells.  At no point in this game did Rangers look like troubling the hosts, who dramatically exposed the Ibrox side's problems with their recruitment and coaching for all to see.

Presumably Clint Hill and Philippe Senderos were signed to add experience to a young team and to fix the chronic inability to defend set-pieces, but Hill was an unused sub here, which meant his reputation avoided the same damage as that of many of his teammates.  As for Senderos, Scottish football fans will still snigger about his ignominous debut for years to come.  As for the set-pieces, the abysmal defending at Celtic's opener, where four Gers were left marking five Celtic players, leaves one wondering what work is actually done on the training field.

Further up the pitch, so far Joey Barton and Niko Krancjar have been an unmitigated (and presumably expensive) disaster.  The former was anonymous once again on Saturday, which to be fair put his performance a few levels above that of the Croat, who remains short of fitness and work ethic and already looks like an insalvageable dud.  The performance of Josh Windass, in his first league start, shamed them both; Andy Halliday, Jordan Rossiter and Jason Holt all have cause to believe they should be picked in midfield ahead of the far-from-dyanmic duo.

And, as we point out every week (or so it seems), the lack of a proper defensive midfielder leaves Rangers vulnerable every week.  Whether that is Warburton's folly, or a sign that someone else is making recruitment decisions down Govan way, is an interesting discussion but one for another time.  The bottom line is that last April's Scottish Cup semi­-final victory gave Rangers and their fans a false sense of how close they were to Celtic.  There's not so much a gulf between them as an entire ocean. IM 

Hearts benefit from their strong bench
I find it rather curious that Celtic fans on my Twitter timeline often mock the lack of a 'title challenge' from other Premiership clubs.  Given that even Rangers have a wage bill less than half of that of their rivals, any sort of challenge from the other clubs is unrealistic.  Ultimately it's a race for second place for the rest.

And Hearts currently look best placed to win that award.  Whilst they've clicked into top gear only intermittently so far this season - they spurned lots of chances against Accies and were behind with 21 minutes left - they have more points on the board than Rangers and Aberdeen, their two most likely rivals for the runners-up spot.  Part of the reason for that is their strength in depth.  Most of their bench at the weekend would be starting every week for the majority of clubs in this league.

And when they were toiling on Saturday Robbie Neilson could bring on Sam Nicholson, Bjorn Johnsen and Robbie Muirhead; the former was outstanding when he came on, and his wide play combined with Jamie Walker moving more centrally turned the game in the home side's favour.  It's difficult to play both Nicholson and Walker from the start, but it's the sort of selection headache that managers quite like having.

A bigger quandary is up front; neither Tony Watt nor Connor Sammon have hit top form yet.  With Johnsen and Muirhead waiting in the wings Neilson could change things, but what Hearts really need to mount a 'title challenge' is a striker who scores every week. LS

The best and worst of Iain Vigurs
One of the regular complaints levelled at Sportscene is the scant highlights often offered for matches.  In this case, though, the only highlight shown from the first half of this match - namely, Liam Polworth hitting the crossbar - was an entirely accurate account of all that was noteworthy from a woeful first 45 minutes at Pittodrie that generated a grand total of nil efforts on goal for the home side. 

Thank goodness that we got an early goal in the second half to spark the game into life.  Niall McGinn nicked the ball off the toes of Iain Vigurs, then Ross Draper's challenge on Wes Burns, only managed to slide the ball back into McGinn's path; the Ulsterman cut inside and fired a low shot nto the far corner.  An incensed Gary Warren got booked for a volley of verbal abuse towards the referee for failing to award a free kick to Caley Thistle earlier in the play.  I didn't see much in it, although I'm sure the editor may wish to proffer an alternative view point...(damn right - Ed)

The Dons took control after that - a solo effort from Burns beat everyone up to and including the outside of the goal post, then Adam Rooney was denied by Owain Fon Williams, and then debutant James Maddison forced an even better save from the goalie - but once again this season, Aberdeen failed to convert their superiority into further goals.

Cue Vigurs, who redeemed himself for his earlier sloth in allowing McGinn to dispossess him and put his team behind to score a beautiful curler into the top corner with a lefty lob wedge that Phil Mickleson would have been proud of.  While I am not exactly a fan of watching players scoring goals against my own team, it was genuinely pleasing (at least in retrospect) to watch Vigurs showing what he is capable of.  

An alumni of the 'Dortmund of the North' (Stonehaven Youth for the uninitiated) whose own youth career came via Aberdeen, a year ago Vigurs played on trial for Highland League Inverurie Loco Works before Caley Thistle agreed to bring him back to their club for a second stint.  A player who has always had the ability to succeed at this level, there have always been question marks about Vigurs' attitude, But this was his fifth goal of the season in all competitions already.  If he can carry on scoring goals like this then perhaps ICT fans truly can 'Dare to Vigurs'? MI

Is there life after Marvin Johnson?
With flying winger Marvin Johnson sold on transfer deadline day, it was always going to be interesting to see how Mark McGhee compensated for the loss of such pace and power in his attack.  With potential replacement Luka Belic unavailable, he chose instead to switch to a 4-4-2 with Scott McDonald partnering new signing Ryan Bowman up front.  Surprisingly, Chris Cadden got a lot of joy playing on the right flank despite being more comfortable in a central role, but with converted full-back Joe Chalmers on the opposite side Motherwell offered very little threat on the left.

In fact, 'Well looked less dangerous when Cadden had to move into the middle, with Lionel Ainsworth going wide after replacing the injured Keith Lasley; neither Cadden nor Craig Clay offer the same positional discipline as the veteran.  However, they did still nick a point through Louis Moult's penalty.  It's early days for Bowman, but there was little from him on his debut to suggest he can usurp McDonald or Moult as a first choice forward.

It's hard to know whether McGhee will try and get back to a 4-3-3 shape.  Unless Belic turns out to be a star, his current squad might be better suited to 4-4-2.  Regardless, they are not the same threat in attack without the outstanding Johnson. LS

Cerny injury is the last thing Partick Thistle need
Granted, the fixture computer hasn't been kind to Partick Thistle so far - after an opening day win they've had to play Aberdeen, Hearts and now St. Johnstone in succession (and would have had Celtic too but for that game being postponed).  But being bottom of the table is never good, and there was plenty to worry about after this defeat.  Going forward they were largely toothless, with Ade Azeez and Kris Doolan - both goalless in the league so far - struggling to form a partnership.  At the back, the centre-back pairing of Liam Lindsay and Danny Devine looked hesistant and uncomfortable throughout.

And because of that, now they have a goalkeeping issue.  Tomas Cerny went off with a foot injury, picked up when coming for a ball his defenders should have probably dealt with.  Worryingly, it's the same problem that ruled the Czech out of the last 6 weeks of last season, and which required an operation over the summer.  Thistle may now have Ryan Scully in goal for the foreseeable future, which is a massive drop-off; Cerny was quietly one of the Premiership's best keepers last season, while Scully is erratic at best.

Contrast that with the keeper situation in Perth; Alan Mannus wasn't fully fit after a virus, but Tommy Wright was able to start Zander Clark instead.  Clark has impressed enough previously to make an argument for a regular start, and is certainly one of the best backups around.  How Alan Archibald wishes he could call on him as a replacement for his injured Number One. LS

Gomis hack deserves longer ban
I probably should be focusing more on Souleymane Coulibaly's outrageous bicycle kick and the subsequent outrageous celebration.  The technique was just wonderful; I'm not sure I've ever seen so much power generated by such a strike, nor the ball kept so low.  Dundee keeper Scott Bain could only watch and shake his head.  Unless there's a public vote (so Rangers and Celtic fans can fix it), this will be Goal of the Season.

However, the game took a nasty turn late on, with an outrageous (in the negative sense of the word) challenge by home defender Kevin Gomis on Kilmarnock's Charlee Adams resulting in a red card for the former and a stretcher for the latter.  One hopes Adams is okay; it looked like the sort of collision that can put a player out for a long time.

Gomis will receive a two match ban for his recklessness.  Kilmarnock's Greg Taylor is serving a similar suspension for his hack on Joey Barton a fortnight ago.  That's the same sentence that Jamie Walker of Hearts got for simulation.  I know we don't like diving, but explain to me why it's as serious an offence as putting another player's health at risk? 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, September 7, 2016

Classic Old Firm games!

In the lead up to the Celtic-Rangers game this weekend, the BBC have picked some so-called 'classic Old Firm' encounters and put highlights on their website.

I dispute their description strongly.  If you want 'classic' Old Firm games, I suggest the ones below.  Enjoy the nostalgia, guys!

10 May 1980
The 1980 Scottish Cup Final seems like a fine place to start.  For what it's worth, it was apparently a rubbish game, won in extra time by a single goal from Celtic's George McCluskey (until now I'd never heard of him).

The scenes after the final whistle were described by Archie MacPherson as "like a scene out of Apocalypse Now" (except presumably with an odour of Buckfast rather than a smell of napalm).  Celtic fans managed to scale a 10 foot high fence which had been erected specifically to stop fans getting onto the pitch, and some ran to the Rangers end to goad their rivals.  Soon there was a running battle on the pitch, with the fence only coming in handy as a source of weapons, with iron bars and pieces of wood being wielded and thrown.

Archie went on to compare it to Passchendaele, which seems just a little bit hyperbolic since there were not 600,000 casualties and the Hampden pitch was probably in better nick than No Man's Land.  However this riot is primarily responsible for the alcohol ban at Scottish football grounds which remains in force till this day.

17 October 1987
Three red cards and four charges of breach of the peace.  Oh, and Rangers came from two down to draw.  The 'fun' started after little more than a quarter of an hour when Frank McAvennie and Chris Woods had a punch up and both were sent off.  I love how the ref (who looks like a midget next to the players) takes an age to send them both off individually.  With no goalkeeper on the bench in those heady days, Graham Roberts went in between the sticks.  To be fair, from the highlights you could be fooled into thinking he was actually a goalie, and his unsuccessful attempt to stop Andy Walker's opener was fairly convincing.

It wasn't a great day at the office for Terry Butcher - booked for his part in the McAvennie-Woods fracas, he then lobbed his own keeper for Celtic's second goal and then inexplicably had a go at Celtic goalkeeper Allen McKnight (until now I'd never heard of him either) off the ball and was sent off.  But despite being a man short and having an imposter between the sticks, Ally McCoist and Richard Gough struck to earn a point.

As for the aftermath, Woods, Butcher, McAvennie and Roberts were all charged with breach of the peace and went on trial in April 1988.  The latter two got off on a 'not proven' verdict, while Woods and Butcher were fined £500 and £250 respectively.  Oh, and 62 supporters were arrested after the game.

17 March 1991
This is actually one of the first matches I remember ever watching live - a Scottish Cup Quarter Final which got just a wee bit out of hand.  One can't help but be a little impressed by the thuggery.  Even at age 7 I could tell that Terry Hurlock was a lunatic, and he saw red after elbowing Tommy Coyne in the face.  Mark Walters was sent off for flattening Coyne later on - finally hacking him properly at about the fourth attempt.  And Mark Hateley became the third Ger to head for an early bath after a tackle on Anton Rogan that was so late that it almost took place in April.  Remarkably, it was Celtic who had a player sent off first - Peter Grant's second yellow was for encroachment, which makes him a pansy by the standards of this game.  Their scorers in a 2-0 St. Patrick's Day victory?  Gerry Creaney and Dariusz Wdowczyk.  I'm sure I had a sticker of the latter in a Panini album.

2 May 1999
The Hugh Dallas game.  It's no surprise that the atmosphere was even more heated than usual, given that Rangers had the chance to clinch the title at Celtic Park.  The whistler stayed remarkably dignified in the face of it all, despite taking a coin to the head not long before half-time.  Four Celtic fans invaded the pitch at various times to try to confront him, and that evening someone lobbed a brick through his window.  Ever the diplomats, Celtic later hired a psychologist to write a report on Dallas' performance!

Dallas sent off three players - Celtic's Stephane Mahe and Vidar Riseth, and Rangers' Rod Wallace.  Mahe's second yellow, for dissent, was possibly disputable but there could be no argument about the other dismissals.  He also correctly awarded Rangers a penalty just seconds after restarting play following his injury.  The visitors, inspired by a Neil McCann double (sandwiching Jorg Albertz's successful spotkick), won the league with an emphatic win.

14 November 1996
It's only fair that one game on my list is there for positive reasons.  And here they are: a great goal and wonderful performance as a lone striker by Brian Laudrup; chance after chance after chance as both teams threw everything into attack; Gazza's missed penalty; Pierre Van Hooijdonk's missed penalty; a fox running onto the pitch; Tom Boyd denying Jorg Albertz with a stunning last ditch tackle not once but twice; that Van Vossen miss.  This Thursday night clash was on the very first evening after we got satellite TV, and sits in my mind as one of the most thrilling games I've ever seen.  Quality (not counting Alec Cleland), spirit and a distinct lack of nastiness.  Why can't these games normally be like that?

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, September 5, 2016

Talking points from Malta

Strachan got the result he needed
I wrote before the game that Gordon Strachan needed a convincing win in order to give him a bit of breathing space, and I'd say he got it.  There are plenty of foibles - not least that we didn't look comfortable before the worst penalty decision in the history of the world ever went in our favour, and that between Malta's goal and half-time the players looked paralyzed by the dread of the newspaper headlines that would await them.  But 5-1 looks good, and we deserved it in the end.  That should inject a wee bit of hope and optimism into the Tartan Army, and give them more reason to turn out in big numbers and loud voice for another must-win game next, at home to Lithuania.

If only we'd had Snodgrass in the Euro qualifiers
It's impossible not to feel good for Robert Snodgrass, who had established himself as a Scotland regular before the horrendous knee injury that ruled him out of the entire Euro 2016 qualifying campaign.  Technically gifted, yet also powerful - he missed a glorious chance with a header in the first half - he's a huge asset in attack.  His workrate can't be criticized either; not too many folk would have hopefully sprinted 50 yards up the pitch late on in case there was a rebound on the go, but he did so and was rewarded with his hat-trick.  We are a much, much better team with him in it, and it also raises a wee 'what if' regarding how we might have done against Poland, Ireland et al had he not wrecked his knee.  That trident of attacking midfielders looks pretty slick; Matt Ritchie was a standout, and Oliver Burke will have lots of better days than this.

Chris Martin is not the answer up front
In the first half, we'd have been better off having the Coldplay singer up front.  The hold-up play - presumably the reason he was in the team - was particularly poor.  Martin's tap-in partially redeemed him, but then he had to go and spoil it all by doing something stupid like missing a sitter and inexplicably winning a penalty in the process.  Whilst Strachan isn't exactly blessed with strikers (and the one on form, Leigh Griffiths, was unavailable), picking Martin, who hadn't scored in his last 14 club games going back to April, over Steven Fletcher (whose recent form is no better but who is a superior player) was puzzling.

Central defence remains a glaring weakness
I wonder if Grant Hanley ever regrets time-travelling forward from the Stone Age to try and solve Scotland's central defensive crisis?  Scotland's only away clean sheet in Euro qualifying was in Gibraltar, and our issues at the back are clearly no near resolution.  Hanley was fortunate to get away with some very physical play at times, whilst Russell Martin was badly at fault for Alfred Effiong's goal.  The fact that lone striker Effiong, who has never played outside the Maltese league, was such a nuisance does not bode well for the challenges to come.  In addition, their lack of comfort in possession, always playing short passes sideways or to Darren Fletcher and Barry Bannan, slowed down build-up play too much.  That said, I'm not sure there are better options at the moment than Hanley and Martin.  That's a depressing thought.

Malta are crap
Malta were certainly game after they scored, but their plan was very much to defend deep and keep the damage to a minimum.  It was critical we won this, because I don't see anyone else dropping points when they visit.

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.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

The Road to Russia - here we go again

I started this blog in the Autumn of 2007, partly because I needed something to do on weekdays (working as a junior doctor in A&E meant a lot of weekends and a lot of nights) and partly because of the hope generated by the Euro 2008 qualifying campaign.  Under Walter Smith and Alex McLeish, we came within a whisker of getting out of a group which contained both 2006 World Cup finalists, plus a quarter-finalist.  We beat France home and away.  And even the agonising defeat to Italy that knocked us out was gloriously heroic.  The future looked bright.

Since then, we've had Burley, then Levein, then Strachan.  Failure, failure and failure.

If we don't get to Russia, it'll be the fifth consecutive World Cup we've missed out on.  There are now Scots old enough to vote and to drink beer who have never seen us play in a major tournament.

When we were at this stage two years back, there was more than a little optimism.  Sure, we had drawn a nightmare Euro 2016 qualifying group, but the expansion of the tournament meant that even a third place would get us a playoff.  And the malaise of the Craig Levein era had been lifted by some great performances in the early months of Gordon Strachan's reign.

But that's been sucked away.  Of course we didn't even manage to get to the Euros.  And this particular failure wasn't especially glorious.  A dreadful away defeat to Georgia finished us off, but in truth we rarely played well across the ten matches.  The draw away to Poland, maybe?  Even then, we couldn't hold on to a 2-1 lead late on...and the same fate befell us in the return game.  The Irish, in contrast, scored late goals galore and came up with a remarkable four points out of six against Germany.  That spirit, that ability to keep going right to the end, seemed to elude us.  That's a big worry.

Strachan comes into this campaign in a similar position to Levein four years past.  The fans and the media are hugely sceptical of his ability to take the team forward, and it now feels like he's only one lousy result away from the axe...though the SFA's recent history suggests they'd let him muddle on for a few games afterwards before finally punting him.

It doesn't help his cause that qualification - the goal we all crave - is going to be extraordinarily difficult.  Second place in the group probably gets us a playoff.  Assuming England take the automatic spot that comes with winning it, we're likely to have to fight with Slovakia and Slovenia.  Memorably, Tam McManus told BBC Sportsound on Thursday that Slovakia "looked rubbish in the Euros", somewhat missing the point that they had at least got there.  Slovenia will be no mugs, having missed out on the Euros in a playoff.  Lithuania, also in our group, are exactly the sort of lower ranking country who we lose to at least once to.

The final side are Malta, our first opponents.  Malta, who are ranked 176th in the world (their lowest ever), who have won a single qualifier out of the last 49, and haven't won a competitive game at home in a decade.  Maybe there are no easy games in international football, and the Maltese were at least stuffy in the Euro qualifiers, losing just 1-0 in Italy.  But they certainly don't come much easier than this.

So this is must-win territory, not just because dropping points would be humiliating but because it would pretty much kill us off after a single match.

In fact, the opening trio of games will make-or-break us.  In October, we have Lithuania at home, then Slovakia away, before Wembley in November.  A 100% record from the opening two games is a must; a positive result of any sort in Bratislava then keeps us very much in it and makes anything from England a bonus.  Anything less than six points by the end of October probably leaves Strachan as a dead duck.  Seven or more, and he's bouncing into 2017 with momentum ahead of Slovenia at home in March and the return game against the Auld Enemy in June.

But it all has to start with a win on Sunday night, preferably a comfortable one.  Craig Brown's Scotland rarely hammered minnows away from home, but they usually won by a couple of goals and never looked in any danger.  A result and performance like that would be very welcome, because it would prove that the boss isn't a write-off yet.  And boy, could wee Gordon use a bit of breathing space and just a little benefit of the doubt.

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.