Thursday, December 29, 2016

Talking Points from the Premiership

Inverness are in a mess
With the Highland Derby coming up this weekend, Richie Foran reached for the cliche cannon after this defeat: "if you are a boy, don't get on that bus to Dingwall.  If you are a man then good as we need brave men now".  That's the sort of guff a man under pressure starts spouting.

The stats make grim reading for Inverness Caley Thistle.  Winless in nine games, their worst run in a decade.  One win in thirteen.  The worst defensive record in the Premiership, with one clean sheet all season.  Their lowest points total after twenty games in any of their twenty-three seasons as a club, in any division.

And the problems on the park are much the same as they were in August.  There's no pace in attack.  The lone striker is constantly isolated as no-one gets up to support him quickly enough.  Players are being played out of position (Liam Polworth on the wing?!).  The midfield aren't protecting the defence well enough, and that plus individual errors means soft goals are frequently being conceded, often when the team are on top.

The second half against Motherwell was particularly galling; ICT had dominated the first half, but fell behind to a wind-assisted Craig Clay strike that completely caught out Owain Fon Williams.  Spooked by this, the home side stopped trying to outplay Motherwell and instead resorted to thirty-five minutes of aimless hoofball and long throws.  Let's be clear; wind doesn't stop anyone from passing the ball on the deck.

At what point does the buck stop with the manager?  The change in approach wasn't a deliberate move by Foran, but was a desperate response from players who lack confidence and/or heart at the moment.  The failure of his senior players to show any leadership was deeply depressing, but so too was the manager's inability to change things from the touchline.

For the record, Motherwell were also pretty hopeless.  But they won.  Inverness are in complete freefall.  That four year contract (yes, you read that right) that rookie Foran was given in the summer looks pretty daft right now. LS

Hearts make Kris Boyd eat his words
It wasn't clear what was giving the Hearts fans the most pleasure on Tuesday night - the 4-0 shellacking of Kilmarnock or the opportunity to goad Kris Boyd for his foolish tabloid comments about Ian Cathro.  "You're getting f***** by a laptop", they chanted.

Of course, one swallow does not make a summer; just as Cathro's slow start did not make him the next John McGlynn, so one impressive victory does not make him the next Alex Ferguson.  But Hearts looked impressive, albeit against a Kilmarnock side who were toothless in attack and who offered zero resistance at the back.

Lee Clark bemoaned the lack of quality available to him after the game, and insisted new players will arrive in January.  One can understand his wish for reinforcements - the defence, albeit shorn of experienced heads like Miles Addison and Scott Boyd, were a mess, whilst up front Boyd looked out of shape again and Nathan Tyson has yet to score for the club or look like doing so.

That said, Clark has signed seventeen players permanently or on loan since the end of last season.  His request for more will have raised an eyebrow or two in the Rugby Park boardroom.  Some loanees will leave next month and create a little space, but how many chances should the Englishman be given to completely overhaul this squad? LS

Christie grabs his opportunity
As a Caley Thistle fan who still dreamt that Ryan Christie might return on loan in January, the news that he was outstanding against Ross County was bittersweet.  The 21 year old has been on the fringes of the Celtic squad for much of the season but took full advantage of his rare start, impressing hugely before being replaced on the hour.

Given his display, one wonders if Brendan Rodgers' decision was a tactical one or rather a move to save the player's legs - after all there is a rather bigger game coming up on Saturday.  It would probably still be a surprise if Christie was to start at Ibrox, but Tom Rogic remains a big doubt for that game, potentially leaving a vacancy in that number 10 role.  Christie has certainly staked his claim for it.  And yeah, there's no chance he'll be coming back north next month. LS

Rangers and St. Johnstone show some flexibility
So it turns out that Rangers can play a formation other than 4-3-3; with Lee Wallace injured and no natural left-back available, they surprised everyone in Perth by starting with a back three and with James Tavernier and Barrie McKay as very attack-minded wing backs.  And it worked for the early stages, with McKay's goal as reward for their dominance.

But credit to Tommy Wright for then switching St. Johnstone to a similar system, and to his players for being flexible enough to make the change.  Whilst they only got a foothold back in the game thanks to a horrendous error from Rob Kiernan (who was linked with a £2million move in January by some crazy newspaper), they matched Rangers after that and thoroughly deserved the draw - a result which looks all the more impressive given that Murray Davidson was out and Danny Swanson only fit enough for a late cameo.  St. Johnstone are still unbeaten this season against Rangers, Hearts and Aberdeen. LS

Can Thistle find some consistency at last?
Back-to-back wins have catapulted Partick Thistle up to sixth place, which makes this blogger's preseason prediction that they would finish in that position look slightly less ridiculous now.  That said, they are still closer to bottom spot than they are to fifth, and there's a long way to go.

The question is whether this wee spurt is sustainable.  Plenty of Thistle players are on form just now; Kris Doolan appears to be on one of his occasional goalscoring streaks; Chris Erskine is playing with his shoulders high and his head up; Ryan Edwards is dominating the midfield with his energy; Adam Barton is strolling games at centre-back; Tomas Cerny's return in goal has lifted confidence hugely.

But consistency has been Thistle's problem ever since they returned to the top flight.  They have Kilmarnock at home next, a very winnable game; a victory would give them significant breathing space at the bottom going into the winter break.  But just how much would you bet on Partick Thistle winning a third consecutive game? LS

Accies just aren't winning enough games
The stats don't look good for Hamilton Accies; defeat at Pittodrie leaves them ten games without a win, and their only victory in sixteen games was actually against Aberdeen at home.  There have of course been a lot of draws, which is why they're still not bottom (albeit on goal difference) but it's not looking good.

Accies do things their own way, of course; working on a tight budget, they remain determined to develop their own talent  four academy products started this game, though three of them are longstanding first team regulars.  The fourth, Scott McMann, has struggled since getting into the team and was sent off late on.

The trouble for Martin Canning is that there is no James McCarthy or James McArthur on the horizon.  Other youngsters like Darren Lyon, Greg Docherty (both injured for this game) and Eamonn Brophy (a used sub) will probably end up making a living in the lower end of the Premiership or the Championship, but will not go further in the game.  Meanwhile, Canning hasn't found a signing to match the likes of Tony Andreu, who shone for his predecessor Alex Neil.

Canning's record as Accies manager is quite staggering - this was his seventy-sixth league match in charge, the equivalent of two seasons, and he has just sixteen wins in that time.  It's a small miracle Accies are still a top flight club; it's also a small miracle that they aren't bottom at the moment.  But this could be the year they finally go down. LS

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, December 19, 2016

Talking Points from the Premiership

Celtic's reserves struggle to step up
Celtic continued their waltz towards title number six in a row with a routine yet nervy win over Dundee at Celtic Park on Saturday.  Leigh Griffiths and Nir Bitton scored the goals that made the difference and it was the third game in a row with a goal from last season's top scorer.

Brendan Rodgers rang the changes and it made for a lack of width for Celtic as Gary Mackay-Steven and Ryan Christie both seemed to want to cut inside, leaving what seemed like four central attacking midfielders.  The absence of first-choice full-backs Kieran Tierney (injured) and Mikael Lustig (benched) was also noticeable.  Christian Gamboa and Emilio Izaguirre both had tough shifts down their respective flanks and couldn't offer the same attacking prowess.  So Celtic toiled as they tried to break down Dundee.

The suspended Scott Brown was also missed; Nir Bitton lacks his bite, but the Israeli's goal, a finish as good as you are likely to see from outside the area, somewhat made up for it.

The best domestic start for any Celtic manager ever continues to roll on although the last three games have been a bit of a slog.  Big matches against Hamilton, Partick Thistle and Ross County and the small matter of a visit to Ibrox are still to come before 2017.  Twelve points out of twelve and the league is over. PF

Aberdeen stutter at the wrong time
Last Tuesday night, Aberdeen lost the opportunity of closing the gap to second placed Rangers when floodlight failure hit Pittodrie Stadium.  This weekend, the Dons once again failed to add to their own league points tally in a match that we may end up reflecting on as the game that lights finally went out on their tenure as the second best side in Scottish Football.

With minutes remaining in the match, Aberdeen had worked hard to overcome an early deficit.  While other strikers in this league earn plaudits for their goalscoring feats, Liam Boyce continues to quietly go about his business for Ross County; his deft poach from Michael Gardyne's cross saw him also slide into first place in the top scorers list, the first man to double figures in the Premiership so far.  However, the Dons managed to rein back the Staggies after a Shay Logan cross flashed across the box for Niall McGinn to convert at the back post.

With ten minutes remaining, a key moment in the match; a desperate lunge by Kenny van der Weg brought down Jonny Hayes and refer Craig Thomson immediately brandished a red card.  With Ross County down to ten men, it appeared as if Aberdeen had been given an opportunity to snatch a victory from the jaws of defeat.  Instead, a late cross into the box was nodded down by Andrew Davies and Ryan Dow reacted first with a looping header for the winner.

So, a valuable win for Ross County, which sees them return to the top six of the season following a variable run of form over the last couple of months.  As for Aberdeen, they now fall seven points behind Rangers and, with a transfer window round the corner that may see the latter strengthen further, the former will struggle to find a way to close that gap in future. MI

Should Partick Thistle write off the Celtic game?
If anything, Partick Thistle will feel they dropped two points at Tynecastle, given their second half dominance after Sean Welsh's equalizer.  However, the draw keeps them bottom of the table as we head into the busy festive period.

And Thistle's is busier than most, because on Tuesday they play at Celtic Park - the fixture which, for the second year running, was scandalously rearranged so the Champions could send their reserves to play in a friendly.  That will be the second of five games in just fifteen days before the winter break.  They then have a trip to Dingwall on Friday night followed by home games against Dundee and Kilmarnock.

Those three games are of utmost importance to Thistle's hopes of avoiding the drop.  In contrast, their infamous record against Celtic is well known; no wins in their last thirty meetings since January 1994, and nineteen consecutive defeats.  With the hopes of getting anything from this one slim-to-zero, should Alan Archibald rest his first team to keep them fresh for the critical clashes to come?  It must be tempting, though a shellacking could wreck club morale regardless of who starts. LS

Little for ICT to be happy about despite a draw
An away point is always a decent result in this league (unless you're one of the Gruesome Twosome), but it was about the only positive Caley Thistle could take away from Rugby Park.  They'd be bottom of the league but for Gary Warren's late equalizer, and could be there on Christmas Day unless they take something from Ibrox next week.

There was again precious little to reassure Inverness supporters that the rest of the season won't be a fight against the drop.  Injury problems seemed to have eased, but such was the strangeness of Richie Foran's lineup that this author queried whether the seven on the bench might have beaten the eleven in the starting lineup in a match.

Foran clearly wanted to stop the bleeding, but the worst defence in the league still managed to concede despite five defenders starting the game.  And as a consequence the team's attacking threat was further blunted, especially with no natural wide players in the team.  Add in a knee injury to the team's only likely goalscorer, Lonsana Doumbouya, and the future does not look bright.

This author has been on the brink of writing a 'Foran Out' blog for a few weeks now.  Given that ICT have now gone seven games without a win, it may come relatively soon.  However, there are some bookies offering 10-1 on them going down, which I'd say are pretty generous odds.  LS

St. Johnstone struggle at home again
It has been a weird old season for St. Johnstone so far - one where they are unbeaten in five games against Aberdeen, Hearts and Rangers and could have won all five, yet where four of their five league defeats have come to Inverness, Kilmarnock, Partick and Ross County.  Consistently inconsistent and all that.

Most curious is the complete desertion of their home form.  The Perth Saints have a deserved reputation for being difficult to beat, and no more so at McDiarmid Park.  Until now.  They've won three out of nine league games in Perth, and the latter three of the aforementioned losses have come on their home turf.  At least they managed to salvage a point against Motherwell, but it was another poor result from their perspective.

Next up are Rangers at home.  Perhaps, given the nature of the opponent and the size of the travelling support, Tommy Wright can, and should, convince his players to treat it like an away game? LS

Waghorn's return to form a welcome boost for Rangers
After two morale boosting wins at Ibrox against Aberdeen and Hearts, Rangers knew that a lot of that good work would have been undone had they slipped up at New Douglas Park on Friday night. Given some of the performances they've put in away from home, that was always a distinct possibility.

 The surprise in the starting lineup was Martyn Waghorn’s return to the team, and boy has he been missed. Not that a team who spends £1.8m on a striker should miss a Geordie with hamstrings made of paper, but having a natural goalscorer makes all the difference in these types of games. Rangers took their chances and looked home and hosed until Andy Halliday had a brain fart at right back.

 This could turn out to be a pivotal weekend in the race for second with the other contenders dropping points. Aberdeen look horribly inconsistent just now and Hearts’ new manager is bound to take some time to find his feet. If Waghorn can show the kind of form that he showed in the Championship then what is already a nice 7 point cushion could quickly become unassailable.

The most disappointing part of the game was the quiet performance of Ali Crawford. He’s been great to watch this season and will surely go on to bigger and better things. A game on live TV under the lights would have been the perfect opportunity to show off his talents, but credit to Rangers for keeping him under wraps. IM

Paul Fisher (PF) is our Celtic correspondent, and spent a number of years helping with Celtic Live.  He is actually a professional journalist.

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.

Friday, December 16, 2016

What will happen in January?

The Premiership may shut up shop for most of January, but plenty of managers will be running up big bills on their mobile phones.  It's the last chance for clubs to strengthen, either by bringing in that proven goalscorer, or that solid defender, or both.  Many players will also be keeping an ear to the ground; some will be hoping that dream move might come to fruition, whilst others will be hoping their agent can arrange for them to get away from whichever club has stuck them on the bench or in the stand.  Hamilton Accies will sign some random foreigners who will make a handful of appearances and then disappear, and Kilmarnock will probably loan an entire XI of players in the hope that a few might actually be competent.

So what does Narey's Toepoker think will happen next month?

Four Premiership players are only under contract until sometime in the January window.  The only one set to be kept on is Hamilton Accies' Lennard Sowah, who was signed in October and has made himself a regular in defence when fit.  His teammate Richard 'Shaka' Roy (where on earth does that nickname come from?) will surely be away though; the Trinidadian striker has played just 21 minutes for the first team and hasn't been seen since a missed sitter against Kilmarnock in mid-August.

Thorsten Stuckmann was signed by Partick Thistle because of an injury crisis and will be offski if Ryan Scully has recovered from a dislocated shoulder in time to back up Tomas Cerny.  And Motherwell's Lee Lucas has rarely been fit enough to make a contribution.

The question is whether Ali Crawford and Callum Paterson leave during January or hang around till the summer.  Paterson is attracting loads of interest from down south; if a rumoured £500,000 bid from Derby County comes through then surely Hearts will cash in on their best player as he is out of contract in the summer.

Crawford will be the next chick to fly from the Hamilton nest, and though he is tied up till 2018 it probably wouldn't take a huge bid to sign him.  However, Accies will be relegated if he leaves, so they may plead him to hang around till the end of the season.

Souleymane Coulibaly's scoring rate has slowed down in recent weeks, but he's been hot for Kilmarnock, scoring all sorts of goals and plenty of them.  He's another player who could be the subject of a January bid.

Miles Storey's move to Aberdeen has been a disaster so far, with the attacker unable to force his way into the starting lineup and rarely seen, even as a sub, in his favoured centre-forward role.  With plenty of forward options already available, Derek McInnes might let him move elsewhere.  Whilst you'd imagine some English clubs would fancy him, I would be amazed if Caley Thistle, where he impressed last year on loan, didn't pick up the phone.

Celtic's fixture congestion will ease after New Year so there won't be much need for squad rotation; expect a few youngsters to go out on loan, with Eoghan O'Connell, Liam Henderson and Ryan Christie obvious choices.  All would improve any other Premiership club, while Hibs might try to loan Henderson for a second time.  But Brendan Rodgers might prefer them to be blooded south of the border.

James Penrice might be an left-field choice for this list, but the teenage left-back, 18 in December, stood out in a couple of appearances for Partick Thistle at the end of last season.  He's nowhere near their first team picture just now but would do a great job in the Championship.

Whether Rangers really do need to reduce their wage bill imminently or not, it's clear that Philippe Senderos is a waste of space.  The question is whether he can be moved on, or whether the Swiss defender will insist on sitting around picking up huge wads of cash whilst contributing little.

Teammate Martyn Waghorn has gone from star striker to bit-part player and there must be a chance that he returns to England, particularly if someone was to offer a fee for him.

Hearts' left-back Juwon Oshaniwa would love to even be 'bit-part'; unless Ian Cathro takes an unlikely liking to the erratic Nigerian, he has no future at Tynecastle.  Another player with no future is Dundee's Dutch striker Jordi Teijsse, who is well down the pecking order despite his team's goalscoring problems, having failed to make the step up from amateur football in his homeland.  Teijsse has also admitted to homesickness.

Motherwell have blooded a lot of young players this season; maybe more seasoned pros Kieran Kennedy and Jacob Blyth would have seen action had they not got injured at the wrong time, but Kennedy has never really been in McGhee's good books and Blyth has been anonymous since he arrived in the summer.

Kilmarnock signed a gazillion players in the summer and afterward - more of that in a minute - and several of them were loanees.  George Green has already returned south, though the club failed to announce it publicly (we won't hold our breath given they still haven't let us know that Michael N'goo has left Rugby Park).

A few other loan players' deals expire during this window.  Will Boyle has been a regular in defence in recent weeks, mainly because Jonathan Burn is injured; with Scott Boyd and Miles Addison on the books, surely only one of the youngsters needs kept on.  Luke Hendrie is first choice right back so is likely to stay.  In contrast, midfielder Charlee Adams has only been a sub in recent weeks, while striker Flo Bojaj got a surprise start against Celtic but has rarely done much else.

Mark McGhee revealed at Motherwell's AGM that Luka Belic probably would never kick a ball for the club due to injuries and poor form.  He apparently criticized West Ham for thinking a player of his quality would walk into a Scottish Premiership team...which makes one wonder if McGhee had even scouted Belic before signing him!

Aberdeen will surely try to keep James Maddison for the rest of the season, while Caley Thistle have indicated that they would like to extend Larnell Cole's stay in the Highlands.

Oh, and there's David Bates at Rangers.  Who, I hear you say?  Bates is a Raith Rovers youngster who Rangers loaned in August to beef up their development squad depth.  He's actually been on the bench for a couple of senior games, but he'll be off back to Kirkcaldy.

Brendan Rodgers' squad is more bloated than the average middle-aged Scotsman, and there are certainly a few players with no future at Celtic Park.  Kris Commons, for a start.  The 33 year old was an excellent servant for Neil Lennon and, initially, Ronny Deila, but he hasn't played a competitive game since April.  Unsurprisingly, he's been linked with a reunion with his old boss at Hibs.

Nadir Ciftci made the odd sub appearance earlier this season, but Rodgers has quickly realised he's nowhere near good enough for Celtic.  Rumours of a return to Dundee United are probably lazy journalism, but if he wants to kickstart his career he needs to get away from Parkhead.

Long-forgotten reserve keeper Logan Bailly is set to return to Belgium and sign for Gent.

Efe Ambrose is out of contract in the summer, but had a trial with Wolves last month and Celtic will surely let him go for nothing if an offer comes.  Dedryck Boyata has played the odd game recently, but is fourth-choice centre-back and I wonder if he might look for a move too.

This deserves its own section, because Jamie Cobain, Dapo Kayode, Joshua Webb and Martin Smith all signed one year deals in the summer (or, in Kayode's case, September) but between them they've made four league starts - all by Smith.  Cobain and Webb haven't played since the League Cup group stage, and Kayode hasn't played at all . Might some or all of them exit Rugby Park?

Callum McFadzean is worth a mention too; the Scotland under-21 international signed a three year contract in July, but has only played one minute of first team action since August.  Injuries have played a part, but he wasn't a regular even when fit.

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, December 13, 2016

Talking Points from the Premiership

Rangers are looking more and more like the best of the rest
There are certainly a few folk out there - Stephen Craigen will definitely be one - who will have celebrated Hearts' defeat at Ibrox as justification for their narrow-minded view of Ian Cathro's if the Jambos should normally be expected to register a convincing away win at Ibrox.  It will be a long time yet before we can tell if Cathro is a success or a failure.

This result was of far more importance to the home side.  Rangers continue to look pretty lacklustre at times, yet they've now won four of their last five (the aberration being a loss at Tynecastle); more importantly, in the three way battle for second place, they've opened up a gap of four points over Aberdeen and five over Hearts.

Barrie McKay's claims that his side hadn't given up on the title were, of course, crowd-pleasing tosh; the gap to Celtic will only grow from here.  But whilst they aren't doing it with a lot of style, Rangers are well on their way to nabbing the second place that should have been their target at the start of the season. LS

Niall McGinn's struggles continue
Aberdeen are still above Hearts in the table, but another couple of points dropped means they fall further behind in the race for second spot.  The Dons are paying for failing to win matches against the better teams in the league - only six points from six games against the other teams in the top 5; St. Johnstone actually have a better record in that respect and would be right up there but for being so fallible against weaker sides.

In a desperate attempt to inject some life into his attack, Derek McInnes made a double change at half-time, which included hooking Niall McGinn.  The Northern Irishman had come off the bench to score in midweek against Kilmarnock, raising hope that his recent funk might be over.  Not so.  He was turgid here, as he has been for much of the season.

Is it a case of fatigue, given that McGinn went to Euro 2016 in the summer and was playing in Aberdeen's European games in July?  Or is it something deeper?  It's a problem that needs solved, because his spark, both in goals and assists, is badly missed.  And if McGinn doesn't perk up soon, McInnes may be tempted to let his contract, which expires in the summer, run out. LS

Dundee's strikers are not giving value for money
There's already a feeling amongst the bottom seven that every point is a prisoner, so perhaps Dundee and Ross County both went away reasonably satisfied with their draw at Dens.  County at least found the net...but Liam Boyce's effort was disallowed, preventing the Ulsterman from adding to his nine league goals so far in the campaign.

How Dundee would love a striker as prolific.  In contrast, their top scorer in all competitions remains Kane Hemmings...who left the club in July.  They are the lowest scorers in the Premiership with just fourteen so far, and three of those came on opening day in Dingwall.  Whilst the recent move to a back three has made them far more solid, their attacking verve has not improved at all.

Paul Hartley started lanky Canadian Marcus Haber up front in this one, for the sixth straight game.  Haber has just one goal so far, putting him level with Faissal El Bakhtaoui.  Rory Loy has three in the league, but two of those were penalties.  What's worse is the overall cost of these players.  I'm not sure about Haber, who came from Crewe Alexandra, but El Bakhtaoui was pursued by several clubs last summer and will certainly be on a decent wage by bottom six standards.  And as for Loy, good sources told me when he left Falkirk eighteen months ago that Dundee had offered him a wage greater than two grand per week, which if true is dreadful value for money.

And that's before we get to Uruk-Hai lookalike Yordi Teijsse, who has drifted out of first team contention.  Sure, Hemmings and Greg Stewart were always going to be hard to replace, but Hartley's current crop of forwards should be scoring far more often than this. LS

Griffiths forces his way back into first team reckoning
Going by the first half-hour at Firhill, one might have feared that weeks on the substitute's bench had drained Leigh Griffiths of his mojo.  He scuffed one early opportunity straight at Tomas Cerny, then dragged a shot so far wide that he tried to cover up his embarrassment by claiming for a non-existent deflection and feigning shock that Craig Thomson failed to award the corner.  Finally, he raced through one-on-one only for Cerny, just outside his penalty area, to nick the ball off his toe without having to go to ground.  A lack of conviction, perhaps.

Not so.  A fine cross from Griffiths set up Stuart Armstrong for the opener, and he had an assist in Armstrong's second too - though it was just a short pass from a free kick.  But by then he was back to his usual self, going on to twist Adam Barton inside out before scoring with aplomb.

The Scotland striker can be forgiven for being a wee bit rusty; it was only his second Celtic start since the end of August.  But given that Moussa Dembele has actually scored only once in his last seven games, Brendan Rodgers might be tempted to restore Griffiths to the frontline on a regular basis. LS

Ali Crawford is ready to leave Accies
Ali Crawford will not be at Hamilton Accies by the end of the coming summer; Martin Canning has pretty much said so himself.  Crawford has finally found some consistency this season and has thrived in an Accies system which is focused on getting him as much of the ball as possible.  Not only is he scoring good goals - though his free kick against Inverness should really have been saved (Owain Fon Williams had a back problem, but his positioning in these situations is often suspect anyway) - he is scoring plenty of them; that was his seventh of the campaign.

The worry for Canning is that someone swoops sooner.  Crawford is hardly on the same level as the likes of James McCarthy or James McArthur were, so a much smaller fee would prise him from New Douglas Park.   Even £250,000 might be enough, and is a fee which might tempt the likes of Aberdeen, Rangers or Hearts as well as a plethora of English clubs.

But if Crawford goes in January, then Accies will go down.  It's as simple as that.  So expect them to hold out as long as possible and try to get a few more months out of their most talented player.  LS

Plenty of youth, not a lot of quality
It's fair to say that the 'highlights' from Fir Park were rather padded out; this was not a classic affair at all.  What to take away from such a dour encounter?

About the only striking feature was the youth on the pitch.  Killie have been known for playing kids since the days of Kenny Shiels.  Here, academy graduates Greg Taylor and Rory McKenzie started, with Dean Hawkshaw coming on as a sub.  There were three more who were also on the bench, and don't forget that Greg Kiltie, the best of their young guns, is injured.

This season Motherwell have also turned to younger blood, though given their budget cuts it's more out of necessity than ideology.  Craig Cadden and Jack McMillan would have started this if available, but Ross MacLean kept his place after an impressive performance against Celtic, with David Ferguson also in the team and 17 year old Jake Hastie coming on in the second half.

Is this a good thing for Scottish football?  We always talk about wanting young players to get action, but recent history suggests few, if any, of these boys will play at a higher level than this.  Hopefully I'll be proven wrong though. LS

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, December 8, 2016

Will Brendan Rodgers get bored?

That defeat to Lincoln Red Imps seems a long time ago now.

Let's face it, Brendan Rodgers is at Celtic Park because his managerial stock was not at all high after a pretty rotten year or so at the end of his tenure at Liverpool.  And after a hapless debut defeat to a bunch of part-timers, it was at an all-time low.

Admittedly, the only way was up after that Gibraltar humiliation, and following two mediocre seasons under Ronny Deila's leadership.  But the leap that Celtic have taken so far this season has been greater than most Celtic fans would have dreamed of.  And the credit for that should go entirely to Brendan Rodgers.

As we approach the end of 2016, Rodgers is unbeaten against all domestic opponents, the only mild aberration being a draw in Inverness where Celtic were denied multiple times by a combination of the woodwork and a superhuman goalkeeper before conceding a last-gasp equalizer against the run of play.  They won the League Cup, beating the second-best team in the country (sorry, Rangers fans!) by a convincing margin.  They lead the league by eight points, and have three games in hand on their nearest chasers.  And they have won both Old Firm derbies so far, the first by a score of 5-1.  If this were a music compilation, it would be named Now That's What I Call Dominance.

Whilst Celtic fans are of course used to winning - the club are aiming for a sixth consecutive title - it's been a while since they've won with such style.   This is their best start to a league season since 2003/04, and that Celtic side boasted the likes of Henrik Larsson, John Hartson, Chris Sutton, Neil Lennon and Bobo Balde.  The budget is tighter nowadays, but the quality of the football is higher than it has been for a long time.

Whilst Rodgers has made some useful signings - this summer Moussa Dembele will command the highest transfer fee ever received for a Celtic player, while Scott Sinclair has found his mojo again - more importantly he has had a positive impact on several players he inherited from Deila.  James Forrest, Stuart Armstrong and Jozo Simunovic are particular beneficiaries of his coaching.

Rodgers might also have been heavily criticized at times when Liverpool manager for unusual tactics, but his use of a lopsided back four - with Kieran Tierney or Emilio Izaguirre bombing forward on the left whilst Mikel Lustig tends to tuck in from the right to support the centre-backs - has been enormously successful against Scottish opponents.  Whilst there is still a bit of defensive frailty, the attacking prowess is such that they can bet on themselves to outscore the opposition if Motherwell discovered last weekend.

Such is their overwhelming superiority that, barring a major off-day or some Josh Meekings-esque ill fortune in one of their Scottish Cup ties, Celtic are surely going to win the treble this season.

So it's really going rather well.  In fact, how much better can it get?

The only room for improvement is in Europe, where Rodgers took Celtic to the Champions League Group Stage for the first time in three seasons, but failed to win a game in a very difficult group.  The three points they obtained over six matches against Barcelona, Manchester City and Borussia Moenchengladbach was three more than I thought they would manage.  But at no point did they even look like finishing third in that group, let alone make the last sixteen.

But what would it take to go further?  The gap between Celtic and the the continent's top clubs is akin to that between Celtic and other Scottish Premiership sides, only in reverse.  Barcelona's annual turnover is about ten times higher.  Whilst this year's progress will bring in upwards of £20million, that's still just a few drops in the ocean at this level.  And whilst a more favourable draw in next year's Group Stage would make third place, and a subsequent Europa League run, a realistic aim, Celtic will still need to play three qualifying ties just to get there.  A place in the last sixteen?  Even with reinforcements, they'd need Tony Watt and a hell of a lot of luck to manage that.

Improving on this impressive first season is going to take a lot of doing.  In fact, getting Celtic to where they want to be - up with the European elite - borders on impossible, akin to trying to reach the stratosphere with little more than a bicycle and some homemade wings.

In contrast, the prospect of any domestic challenge is distant at best.  Aberdeen and Hearts simply don't have the resources; Rangers are still a financial basket-case.  We've all had Championship Manager saves that we've stopped playing because we got bored of winning all the time - might this happen to Rodgers in real life?  The prospect of comfortably beating Partick Thistle three times a year can only motivate one for so long.

That's not to say Rodgers' head will be turned all that easily.  After all, he is a Northern Irishman who supported Celtic in his youth, and that sort of loyalty can go a long way.  But he is also ambitious.  And come this summer, his stock will be high again.  I bet there will be a few English Premier League clubs looking for a new manager, and Rodgers' name will be on shortlists.

So the biggest single risk to Celtic's resurgence is that Rodgers decides to deal with his unfinished business in England.  Of course, if he leaves they might manage to replace him with another excellent coach.  But they might also end up with another Deila...

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, December 5, 2016

The fall and fall of St Mirren

Samson, Van Zanten, McAusland, Goodwin, Dummett, Teale, McGowan, Newton, McGinn, Thompson, Goncalves.

I'm not aware of any Buddies fan giving their children those eleven middle names, but just three and a half years ago that team won the Scottish League Cup, beating Hearts 3-2.

None of those eleven are at the club now. Nor are any of the five substitutes on the bench that day.

If St. Mirren are to visit Hampden again anytime soon, it will probably be for an away game at Queen's Park.  For they lie bottom of the Scottish Championship with just four points from their opening fourteen games, already nine points adrift of the side above them.  All the points have come from draws.

It's quite a plunge.  And even more so considering that the club have never dropped below Scotland's second tier in their history.

The increasingly difficult task of keeping them in the Championship now falls to Jack Ross, appointed manager on 4th October.  Ross is well thought of in the Scottish game, something of a journeyman player - including two seasons at St. Mirren in his twilight years - who was also the inaugural chairman of PFA Scotland.  He was also a coach at Hearts for a spell, leaving shortly before his first managerial post at Alloa.

He couldn't keep Alloa up - to be fair, when he arrived last December the part-timers were also bottom of this league and had only a few more points than the Buddies have now.  But a smart start to the Wasps' League One campaign convinced St. Mirren that he was the man to save them.

In cup competitions, he's done alright - his first match was a shock Challenge Cup win at Easter Road, and the club are in the semi-finals of that tournament.  But in the league, they've played six matches under Ross' management...and lost all six.  The last point was at home to Falkirk on 1st October.  They played Falkirk again at the weekend and led 1-0 at half-time, but went to pieces after young defender Jack Baird got a straight red just before the break and went down 3-1.

Add in the embarrassment of having to postpone a cup tie with Spartans because the undersoil heating was on the blink, and the revelation that the club have resorted to advertising on LinkedIn for players, and it's hard to see how things could get worse.

The most recent league win?  On 16th April against Greenock Morton, some 231 days before that Falkirk match.  Tomorrow they travel to Dumfries, to face a Queen of the South side also in nightmare form but who are under a new manager of their own, Gary Naysmith.  Ross' hopes of a new manager bounce seem to be long gone.

The start of St. Mirren's rapid decline was almost certainly when the club chose to let Danny Lennon, the League Cup winning manager, go at the end of the 2013-14 season.  At the time, it looked like an understandable decision; only a late run of form had pulled them clear of the first relegation playoff between Premiership and Championship sides, but in his four years in Paisley St. Mirren never finished eighth once and eleventh three times.  His nine lives seemed used up, and there was appetite for change.  After all, why shouldn't the Paisley side be able to compete with the likes of Motherwell, Inverness and St. Johnstone?  Cheerio Danny, thanks for the memories.

Unfortunately, chairman Stewart Gilmour's idea of 'change' was rather different from everyone else's.  And so instead of a fresh new face, the fans got a familiar, well-lined one - Lennon's assistant Tommy Craig.  The appointment was a disaster.

Craig had a reputation as a good number two, but his brief experience as a club manager, a rotten spell in Belgium, should have scared off the Buddies board.  His recruitment was absolutely dreadful and seemed based around a cosy relationship with Manchester City, who loaned such luminaries as Ellis Plummer and Adam Drury; for good measure the club also signed James Marwood, the son of City's chief executive.

Moreover, his decision to rely heavily on talismanic veteran Steven Thompson backfired spectacularly after 'Thommohawk' got injured, but the failure to bring in adequate backup for a 36 year old was foolish to the extreme.  Craig didn't do himself any favours by holding up a piece of paper at the club AGM which he claimed had a list of strikers that he had tried to sign...and then refusing to let anybody look at said piece of paper.

He lasted nineteen games, before a cup replay pumping at Inverness finished him off.  St. Mirren had won just three of those matches, and by the time of his exit in December 2014, St. Mirren were embroiled in a relegation battle.  They were only still alive and kicking because, remarkably, Motherwell and Ross County were equally useless.

Both those clubs changed managers sooner and reinforced impressively in January.  St. Mirren?  They made another veteran player, Gary Teale, caretaker...for two months, including the transfer window.  In those two months they picked up seven points out of twenty-seven...and appointed Teale for the rest of the season anyway.

Would a more experienced boss have saved them?  By mid-April, when a home thumping by County had all but guaranteed relegation, Stewart Gilmour was asking himself the same question  But it was too late.  Demotion was confirmed with three games left; St. Mirren won just nine league matches all season.  They had signed 14 players that season; none are at the club now and only one - perenially injured Alan Gow- stuck around for a year in the Championship.

And not just any Championship; if the Buddies were to bounce back, they would have to do it despite opposition from Rangers and Hibernian amongst others.  The budget was cut, which was surely a logical reason for appointing Ian Murray as Teale's replacement.  Murray had been expected to move up in the world at some point; he was one of the most highly-rated young managers in the country, who had kept part-time Dumbarton in the division for three consecutive seasons on a shoestring budget.  It appeared that, at last, they had put someone decent in the dugout.

So much for that.  Murray lasted twenty matches - one more than Tommy Craig did -  and resigned almost a year to the day after Craig had been sacked.  The final straw was a defeat at his old club Dumbarton.  He experienced victory five times as St. Mirren manager, and three of those wins were in the Challenge Cup.  St. Mirren were bottom of the table.

"He was hamstrung by his budget", recounts Dave MacFarlane, St. Mirren fan and editor of Born Offside, "But the step up from part-time football seemed too much for him.  He never seemed to know his best eleven and his signings were rank rotten."

Indeed they were.  Murray signed eleven players, including experienced veterans Keith Watson, Andy Webster and Jamie Langfield.  He also brought in Scott Agnew from his old club and a bunch of loanees.  On paper, they certainly wouldn't match Rangers or Hibs, but to be behind part-time opposition was something else altogether.  Only three Murray signings remain - Webster, Langfield and Calum Gallagher.  None are currently first-choice players.

Still, at least they avoided the drop, as former Rangers and Dundee midfielder Alex Rae was parachuted in to steady the ship.  Rae was given licence to bring in more experience, and the likes of
 defender Gary Irvine, midfielder Rocco Quinn and forward David Clarkson helped steer them to a relatively respectable sixth in the table.  There was light at the end of the tunnel...but that was because the tunnel was on fire.

Rae made big changes in the summer, bringing in seven new faces, including John Sutton who returned to the club nine years after the end of his first spell.  Gary Mackenzie, a former Scotland squad centre-back, was added too, as were Rangers loanees Tom Walsh and Ryan Hardie who had impressed at Championship clubs the previous year.  Whilst it would be probably too much to expect them to match Hibs or Dundee United over a full campaign, a playoff place seemed a reasonable bet.

But Rae recruited a bizarrely unbalanced squad.  Aside from Quinn, his midfield options were all youths.  There was a complete dearth of wide players.  And whilst he had a plethora of striking options - Sutton, Clarkson, Gallagher, Hardie and Lawrence Shankland - he was incapable of finding a combination that worked, and there was never enough time to allow a partnership to gel.  There was rumours very early this season that he had 'lost the dressing room', whatever that means.  But his exit made him the fourth St. Mirren manager in succession to last less than nine months.

So onto Ross, who wasn't first choice; finally the club showed ambition and aimed high, only to be rebuffed by Billy Davies and John Hughes.

In complete contrast to events on the pitch, fans are relatively satisfied with where things are heading off the field.  In July, a takeover deal was finalised which made former director Gordon Scott club chairman and paved the way for the club to ultimately be owned by the supporters.  Given that Scott's predecessor, Stewart Gilmour, had been looking to sell for some time and had somewhat tightened the pursestrings, it was a welcome move.

But the long drawn-out wait for action hasn't done anyone any favours, with the budget understandably limited and the air of uncertainty unsettling.

There may yet be positive progress for St Mirren, but they are likely to go backwards before they can go forwards.