Thursday, March 30, 2017

Should I stay or should I go?

With less than two months to the end of the season, we're getting to the point where contracts are running down; clubs are deciding who they want to keep, and players are deciding if they want to stick around or look for a better offer.

At the top end of the Premiership, Celtic and Rangers have relatively few players who are out of contract this summer. Aberdeen, Hearts and St. Johnstone have done much of their business already.  The other seven clubs will inevitably be slower to make offers, at least until their top flight status is secure.

But here's how I expect things to play out with some of the more prominent names who are currently without deals for next year...


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Efe Ambrose's Celtic career is all over bar the shouting
The one confirmed deal so far - the winger will join another load of Dons - the Milton Keynes variety - at the end of the season after signing a pre-contract

Press reports today suggest the Northern Irishman will turn down a new deal in order to have another crack south of the border.  It's a big blow to Aberdeen.

Ambrose and Commons have two appearances for Celtic between them this season and none since July.  Toure seemed to steady the defensive ship when he arrived but his waning powers have become increasingly exposed and he's been increasingly marginalized in the last few months.  In contrast, Izaguirre saw plenty of action when Kieran Tierney was injured and Brendan Rodgers will probably want to keep him, but the lure of a move back to Honduras or to MLS will probably be too strong.

The Scotland international was in line for a decent move south until he wrecked his knee, but indications are that he will gamble on his previous form being enough to earn him that big deal and he will rebuff any offers from the Jambos to hang around.

Tansey has never been the same since ICT pulled the plug on a move to Aberdeen last winter and he's dismissed any chat of new contracts; I wouldn't blame him if he was still bitter.  The Dons are unlikely to be still interested, but other clubs will surely like his range of passing. (edit - within an hour of this being posted, Tansey had signed a pre-contract with Aberdeen)

A catastrophic signing who has played just twice in the last five months.  If the rumours of a five figure weekly wage are true, then wow.

The full-back has apparently been offered a two year deal but claimed Dingwall was too boring and he can't understand the local accent.

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Ryan Jack is Aberdeen's captain - surely he'll stick around

It's a surprise that this hasn't been sorted yet, given that he's a local boy and club captain; it would be an even bigger surprise if it doesn't happen.  Jack might get offers from elsewhere, but it would be a shock were he to leave.

Less of a slam dunk than Jack as he remains prone to massive fluctuations in form, but the centre-back has been solid recently so expect him to stay at Pittodrie too.

O'Connell has always looked solid enough when given the chance - but never gets a run in the team.  He will surely be given a contract extension if only because it means Celtic can command a fee for him (as they did a few years ago with Jackson Irvine) if he subsequently moves on.

Not that Woods has been all that outstanding, but he's beaten out Norwich loanee Remi Matthews to be Accies' no.1 keeper and so it would be a surprise if they chucked him.

According to newspaper reports, the Northern Irishman will be offered an extension.  Given he's 37 and hasn't impressed since joining in January it seems an odd move by Hearts, but hey ho.

A serviceable defensive midfielder last year, Dicker has looked invigorated by a recent move to central defence.  In a young squad, his experience is also invaluable.

Injury-prone for so long, once Welsh finally got fit he always seemed like the extra defensive midfielder that Alan Archibald really should ditch for an attacker.  But this season he's been great, so much so that he might have other suitors.

Now 37 though still very effective, Miller will surely have to take a paycut to stay at Ibrox, but he still won't get a better offer from elsewhere.  The choice is pretty much to agree to reduced terms or retire.

Curran isn't by any stretch the best forward in the league, but there's a place in any manager's heart for a guy who will run through brick walls if asked.  If he's finally shaken off his concussion problems then County will surely keep him about the place, especially if Liam Boyce is likely to leave.

Not always a regular in Perth, but the former Falkirk defender remains a useful squad player at left-back and centre-back and is expected to get a new deal.

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Sam Nicholson has been linked with Rangers
A regular in the top flight with Inverness and then the Dark Blues for more than six years now, Ross has fallen dramatically out of favour with Paul Hartley after being a first choice last season; the manager might look for an upgrade.

Accies' forgotten man.  The Spaniard is out with a cruciate ligament injury and probably won't play again before the summer, so a new deal must be up in the air.

The Cathro revolution could lead to some interesting personnel decisions at Tynecastle, but it would be a shock if Hearts didn't offer something to Nicholson...not least because the winger is still young enough that they'd get compensation if he moved instead.

A few weeks ago I'd have said Meekings was a dead cert to leave.  He's spent six seasons at Inverness and he's entitled to spread his wings a bit and try his luck with a bigger club.  However his season (and the last one) have been blighted by knee problems which might put off suitors; he may have to hang around in the Highlands for a bit longer until his fitness problems are behind him.

The winger has shown flashes of talent in some games and had bugger all impact in others; one suspects he'll stay on if Lee McCulloch becomes manager permanently.

Lasley remains a housewives' favourite, and he'll always be a legend at Fir Park, but the legs are finally beginning to go.  38 in September, is it time to hang up the boots?

McDonald missed out on the chance to return to Australia in January, but that opportunity will surely come up again in the summer.  He nearly left 'Well last year for Hibs before having cold feet, but his s
second spell at Fir Park could be about to end at last.

Despite being 38, Hill has been Rangers' best central defender this season by miles.  The biggest handicap to a contract extension is not his age (remember how David Weir kept going?) but his high wage.

Quinn has spent increasing time on the bench, partly because of mediocre form and partly because of internal goings-on in Dingwall.  His time in the Highlands looks to be up.

Saints remain favourites to keep Swanson, but Hibs have also shown an interest.  It would be a big blow to Tommy Wright if Swanson was to leave Perth for a second time.

Of course, a list of out of contract Premiership players can be found at  Enjoy!

Monday, March 27, 2017

Talking Points from Hampden

Chris Martin deserves his moment of glory...
I was at the Georgia game in 2007 when Craig Beattie, erstwhile of Celtic, shinned in a late winner that kept us in the Euro 2008 qualification race.  Chris Martin is a rather less unlikely hero, but any player booed before he's actually stepped foot on the pitch could be forgiven for either letting their head go down or just thinking "to hell with this."

Instead Martin ignored it, knuckled down and got his reward.  You could see what his goal meant to him.  This is not a guy who wishes he hadn't signed up for international football; he's determined to be a success in a Scotland jersey.  The next time he's about to come on as a sub, I imagine his reception will be rather more positive.

The booing was not classy, and also pretty stupid - when does booing one of your own players ever do any good?  But some of it was definitely based on the frustration that a nil-nil seemed certain, and also on the fact that Martin's previous performances for Scotland have been pretty dreadful.  He is in fact our most on-form striker at this time - eleven goals at club level this season - but most of us don't watch the Championship.

Anyway, he's shut the doubters up.  And I imagine said doubters couldn't be more delighted.

...But Griffiths is the answer up front
Comparisons to Chris Iwelumo were harsh, but Griffiths' volley off the bar does belong in the 'sitter' category.  It was a measure of the man that instead of dwelling on it he hit the post with a far harder chance a minute later.  Helped by getting decent service from his club teammates, Griffiths was a constant danger until Jan Oblak tried some unwelcome chiropractic on the striker with his knee and without his movement Scotland looked rather lost after the break.

It would have been interesting to see how effective Jordan Rhodes might have been had he been brought on, but Strachan will have learned what most of us suspected; that Steven Naismith, as clever and dedicated as he is, is no longer capable of operating as a lone striker.  Griffiths, fitness-permitting, must surely have pencilled himself into the centre-forward role for the forseeable future.

Celtic spine was the right decision
Picking six Celtic players was a sensible move; they play together every week, and they're used to winning.  With such familiarity, it can't be a coincidence that Scotland looked far more assured and certain of what they were doing for the first time in aeons.  Of course it helped that the Bhoys played well - even James Forrest did his job (puts on tin hat), stretching play on the right in the first half and then making some clever moves inside to create space for Kieran Tierney to rampage into after the break.

Stuart Armstrong justifiably got the plaudits for an outstanding debut - and he still has plenty of potential to improve further - but bear in mind that Tierney is a teenager asked to play in an unfamiliar position.  Slightly exposed early on, he got better as the match progressed and easily justified his selection in that role.  More than a few scouts will have been impressed with his versatility and attitude.  And, given our complete dearth of right-backs, Tierney may win an awful lot of caps in that position if Andrew Robertson continues to shine.

Kudos to Strachan
We're not slow to slag Gordon Strachan off when he's messed up, so it's only fair that he gets some kudos.  Whilst the second half performance wasn't great, the number of chances created in the first forty-five was so great that, had they been spread over ninety minutes, we'd have been impressed.  The gameplan was spot on and the loss of Griffiths was understandably difficult to adapt to.

Reading between the lines of his post-match interview, Strachan was clearly aware that his tenure would have been over but for Martin's goal.  "I was calm enough, thinking 'what will be, will be'.  Unlike on many other occasions in the last two years, this was not a night where the manager could have done more.

It's probably secured him in the job until October at least; whilst changing manager could be justified after the England game (and maybe before), it's hard to see a defeat to the Auld Enemy in June doing for him, and we may as well stand by him until the Autumn games that will decide the group.

It's the hope that kills you
We're actually still in this.  Second place is 'only' two points away.  To get that playoff place, we just need to beat Slovakia at home.  And not lose in Slovenia.  And win in Lithuania.  Oh, and beat Malta too (that should be a given, but this is Scotland we're talking about).  Easy as that.  Yeah.

Goodness me, I should know better by now...

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

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Talking Points from the Premiership

Caixinha's cushty start
Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

A comfortable 4-0 home win is as much as can be expected for a new manager in his first game. Even Graeme Murty managed to put six past this shower, although getting a hat-trick out of Joe Garner might be evidence that he was some kind of managerial savant.

 Pedro Caixinha made one change from the team that started the Old Firm game last weekend but it takes more than a few days of training for a manager to impose his own philosophy and style on to the team. Rangers set out to attack to Accies from the start, but that’s a no-brainer of a tactic when playing such a poor team at home. The international break has come at the perfect time for Caixinha, allowing him some quality training time with the players and it will be interesting to see how they approach the game against Motherwell on April 1st. The short term goal will be to try and overhaul the eight point gap to Aberdeen, a target that will be very difficult but not impossible. Caixinha will have done an excellent job if he gets this group of players into a position where they are able to capitalise if Aberdeen do end up dropping points unexpectedly.

 As for Hamilton, since their very creditable win against Aberdeen they have lost their next three games by an aggregate score of 14-0. They will have got some small comfort from Alex Schalk’s late equaliser in the Highland Derby which means that they are only bottom on goal difference, but Martin Canning will have to somehow pick his players up introduce some defensive solidity if the are to survive what promises to be an incredibly low quality relegation battle. IM

Aberdeen attackers impress again
It may be interesting to note (...well, interesting to me at least...) that when Niall McGinn's quality cross from the left was headed home by Shay Logan, it meant that he joined teammates Adam Rooney and Jonny Hayes on the same aggregated number of goals plus assists (15 in totalin Scottish Premiership play up to that point.  It demonstrates not only how influential each man is to the Aberdeen cause, but also how evenly spread their contributions have been across the front three positions this season.

Of course, Hayes would later move himself clear of his compadres in the second half, but this would not be courtesy of an assist from a teammate but rather an abominable attempt at a back pass by Anastasios Avlontis. Tasos was one of the players brought in by Ian Cathro last January; perhaps Director of Football Craig Levein- a former centre back himself - will be passing his manager a future note to beware of Greeks bearing gifts.

The Premiership fixtures now go on hiatus for the latest international break.  Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland - nations that qualified for the last major international tournament and are currently well placed for a run at the next one - have welcomed Messrs McGinn, Rooney and Hayes into their latest national squads.  Scotland, by contrast - a nation that hasn't qualified for a major tournament since the turn of the century and has virtually no chance of ending that barren run in this campaign - have decided they can do without other regular performers in the Aberdeen team such as Kenny McLean, Ryan Jack and Graeme Shinnie.  Plus ├ža change... MI

A manager under pressure
There was a manager under severe pressure at the Highland Derby, but not the one you'd expect.  In the home dugout, Richie Foran watched his side's rotten run extended to a single league win in eighteen games since October after Alex Schalk's late but deserved equalizer.  That's a run which would have got many a boss the boot, but the Irishman remains relatively untouchable.  There hasn't even been an iota of speculation regarding his future - this may be partly because Inverness don't sack managers willy-nilly, and may be because most Scottish football journalists can't really believe that a Caley Thistle squad who won the Cup less than two years ago could actually go down.

Well, they could.  Even though they moved off bottom spot on goal difference, there remains little evidence of a corner being turned.

However, it was his counterpart Jim McIntyre, who is apparently beginning to feel the heat.  Ross County are only a year removed from winning the League Cup, but there's no question they are underachieving this season with an operating budget that is a fair bit higher than that of St. Johnstone or Partick Thistle.  They've won just once since beating Inverness at home on Hogmanay and would be bottom themselves but for their two victories over their nearest rivals earlier in the campaign.  Whilst it might be stretching it to say that Schalk saved his manager's job, he's on a bit of a shoogly peg.  It is a minor miracle that Foran isn't yet. LS

Celtic look knackered
It's maybe not surprising that Celtic are beginning to look jaded.  It's been a long season that started in July and could finish with as many as 59 matches played, and the league is all over bar the shouting; the only thing left to motivate them for the run-in is the symbolism of going unbeaten.

But Dundee have shown the way for the champions-elect's opponents for the rest of the season - basically that you can't necessarily outplay Brendan Rodgers' side but you can probably outrun them now.  And the way that Scott Sinclair and Moussa Dembele toiled was striking; had Jozo Simunovic not benefitted from a lucky deflection for the opener it's not that easy to see where a goal was coming from.

Perhaps the international break will prove revitalizing.  Or perhaps Rodgers could do with rotating in some fresh legs a bit more, as for the first time this season Celtic actually look beatable domestically. LS

Why can't Partick Thistle see out games?
There are certainly reasons to be positive down Firhill way.  Thistle remain sixth; they're unbeaten in five league matches; only the top three have conceded fewer goals, and they've conceded twice in the same match just once since 9th December.  And yet they have exactly the same number of points as they had at this stage last season.

If only matches were 80 minutes long.  Seven times this season they've dropped points because of goals conceded in the final ten...including in the last two games.  Had they won both of those they'd be just two points behind Hearts.

This one was even harder to take because of a terrible blunder by Tomas Cerny; the normally outstanding Czech keeper let a tame effort from Connor Sammon go straight through him, a blunder that any Sunday League keeper would be horrified by.  It's uncharacteristic of Cerny, but not of Partick - too often there is a lapse of concentration, or a panicky mistake.  It is the difference at the moment between them being nailed on for top six, and being not quite safe from a relegation battle yet. LS

Sneaky Steven McLean
There wasn't anything especially new to report from Fir Park.  St. Johnstone did what they do so well away from home - absorb pressure whilst conceding relatively few chances, and counter-attacking effectively.  Motherwell, as ever, were let down by piss-poor defending.

So instead a wee mention for referee Craig Aitken, whose name is new to me.  Not that his performance was anything out of the ordinary, but he deserves credit for at least being clued up a bit.  Saints striker Steven MacLean, savvy as ever, spent the last five minutes of the match trying desperately to get booked - as it would mean he'd be suspended for a game at Hamilton which he wouldn't play in anyway, what with his knee problems on astro.  Foul after foul after foul...yet Aitken didn't fall for it.  What would you have a ref do in the circumstances? 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.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

It will be impossible for Caixinha to succeed at Rangers

Well, Pedro Caixinha is an interesting name, and not just because it has an 'x' in it.  I look forward to the sophisticated tongues of Sportsound's motley crew of Proper Football Men trying to pronounce it.

But it's mainly interesting because it has, to excuse the pun, come out of the blue.  The Portuguese coach is not a well-known figure in these parts, given that he did very little of note in his playing career, his previous successes as a head coach were mainly in Mexico, and that he has spent the last fifteen months managing a club in Qatar.  His resume also isn't what one would expect from a prospective Rangers boss, in that it doesn't contain 'proper Rangers man' in it.

However it is a surprise that he's been given an easier ride by the media than Ian Cathro got when he joined Hearts.  No, actually, what's that word that's the exact opposite of surprise?  Caixinha could have shown up with three laptops, an iPad and a ZX Spectrum under his arm and the headlines would still have been overwhelmingly positive.  That of course is how Scottish football journalists do things.

That's not to say it's a bad appointment; after all his countrymen Jose Mourinho and Andre Villas-Boas also had no playing career of note, and also focused on coaching from a young age.  They've done alright.  And I understand that Caixinha's achievements in Central America were pretty impressive - reaching the final of the CONCACAF Champions League, for example.

But there are still question marks over the move.  The first is why a whole month passed following Mark Warburton's 'resignation' (the inverted commas will remain until his tribunal is sorted out).  Leaving Graeme Murty in charge of the first team for that long has been hugely damaging - perhaps irreparably so - to the club's chances of finishing second in the table this season.  Under his management, they lost at Dundee for the first time since dinosaurs walked the earth, and were then defeated by a Caley Thistle side which would be improved by deploying five wheelie-bins as their goalkeeper and defence.

Another is the mooted appointment of a Director of Football, which seems on the face of it to be a good idea - and one that should have been implemented in 2012 - but which is still to happen.  Surely the DoF should be appointed before the coach?  Now Rangers need to find a DoF who is happy to work with Caixinha and who shares his philosophy; given the Portuguese's career path it is unlikely the appointee will have ever met him before now.

Still, with Rangers third in the league, eight points adrift of Aberdeen, that should temper expectations...right?

Or maybe not. "We are talking about European trophies", he said at his unveiling.  That's awfully bullish.  Of course it's what the supporters want to hear - according to fans group Club 1872, the Chief Executive Stewart Robertson himself said ""Being second isn't good enough...Rangers is all about winning" - but it is pie in the sky.  They are no likelier to win such a competition than they are to eradicate sectarian singing from Ibrox for more than a few weeks at a time.

Hell, winning the Scottish Premiership is grossly unrealistic in the short-term, unless Celtic lose Brendan Rodgers and decided to replace him with Mark McGhee.  The gulf between the sides, both on and off the pitch, is as vast as ever.  Even if Moussa Dembele is sold this summer - for a fee that will probably be higher than Rangers' annual turnover - that cash will be reinvested in the squad to aid another pop at Champions League qualification...which in turn would put another £20million-plus in the coffers.

Meanwhile in Govan the last set of accounts revealed that extra cash would be needed just to get through 2016-17 in one piece.  They also admitted that the players' wage bill for the current campaign is upwards of £10million, which is horrendous value for the quality on show.  Every area of the team except goalkeeper needs overhauled: the only central defender they can rely on, Clint Hill, is 39 later this year; the only striker they can rely on, Kenny Miller, is 37; there are no natural wide players bar Barrie Mckay; there is no proper defensive midfield player; the most impressive midfielder, Emmerson Hyndman, is only on loan.

Only Hill, Miller, Philippe Senderos (and of course the long departed Joey Barton) are out of contract and can be removed from the payroll easily.  And bringing in quality reinforcements will be expensive - Celtic's staff costs last season were 250% higher, and you get what you pay for.  But given the aforementioned fiscal issues, there's no reason at all why there will be more money on the table for Caixinha than there was for Warburton, especially if the latter is successful in his case for unfair dismissal.  And no, there won't be £6million coming in for Mckay; they'd be lucky to get even half of that from a prospective buyer.

There is also the new spectre of Dave King's investigation by the Takeover Appeal Board, who have demanded that the and club chairman make a takeover bid for the club; that would cost £14million just for the shares.  Given the South Africa-based businessman's general reluctance to splash the dough to the extent he claimed he would a few years ago, it seems unlikely he would be willing - or able? - to come up with the cash.  Even if he is forced to make a bid, the whole process will be expensive.

While the gap to Celtic can hardly get any bigger, it will in the circumstances be a huge success if Caixinha manages just to make it significantly smaller on his watch.  But l suppose realism rarely sells season tickets.

Sadly, Caixinha will surely be left regretting his crazy comments in the long run.  One suspects that his inevitable failure to live up to them will be used as ammunition against him when his new employers decide the time has come to try to get him to 'resign' too...

Saturday, March 4, 2017

The Dundee Divide

Image result for dens park tannadice
One city, two clubs - but it's Dundee who are on the up, while United are in the doldrums

There might only be 200 yards between Dens Park and Tannadice, but increasingly Dundee's two clubs are streets apart.

Both announced significant losses in their 2015-16 annual accounts this week.  Dundee, who finished eighth in the Premiership last season, were £500,000 in the red.  Dundee United's, meanwhile, were positively eye-watering; they were down £1.5million in a season where they were relegated.

For Dundee, there seems to be plenty of reason for optimism.  Their American owners, John Nelms and Tim Keys, had budgeted for a repeat of 2014-15's top six finish and their deficit could be largely attributed to the drop in prize money from finishing lower in the table and the increasing cost of maintaining Dens Park, a stadium which looks like a flashback to the 1980s.  So the owners have only gone and bought a significant amount of land over at the Camperdown Park area of the city, with the aim of building a new stadium there.

On the pitch, Paul Hartley's side have recovered from a poor start to the campaign to haul themselves up into a comfortable mid-table position, with almost enough points on the board now to stop worrying about relegation.  And even if they miss out on sixth again, the early season sales of Kane Hemmings and Greg Stewart will make the next balance sheet look rather better.

What the duo see in the club isn't exactly clear to this blogger.  There is no realistic prospect of Dundee challenging for regular honours in Scottish football; how they expect to make a profit in the long run is not clear at all.  But with Nelms and his family settled in the City of Discovery, they appear to be around for the duration - music to the ears of fans who have endured administration in both 2003 and 2010.  It's incredible how much has changed since the latter - the same year that United won the cup, their neighbours were staring into the abyss.

Now it's United who are suffering.  It became apparent a year ago that their business plan was to run at a loss, offset by the sale of talented players...which was fine until the family jewels were all gone and there was no-one decent left to sell.  That £1.5million loss is despite seven figures being raked in for the transfers of Nadir Ciftci, Ryan McGowan and John Souttar - that's how much of a basket-case they are.

Their income had already dropped significantly as a result of their poor league position and the knock-on effect on attendances.  This season they are of course in the Championship, denting revenues even further.  Chairman Stephen Thompson has said, over the course of 2016-17, £1.5 million in cuts were being made to operating costs, but that surely will still leave them running at a loss for this campaign too.

To make matters worse, a return to the Premiership is hardly a given.  Under Ray McKinnon, United lie second in the table, seven points adrift of leaders Hibs but only two points better off than Falkirk and Morton who both operate on shoestring budgets in comparison.  Whilst a place in the promotion playoffs seems assured, their current run of just one win in eight league games doesn't bode well.  There has been precious little to suggest the current squad would beat Premiership opposition in that playoff.

And if United don't go up this season?  One shudders to think.  At the very least there would be more cuts, though rumours of future administration appear malicious.  But the longer it takes United to return to the promised land, the harder it will be.  There's no sign of a knight in shining armour coming to rescue them.

That's probably because he's already across the road at Dens.