Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Caley Thistle are going down

You wouldn't know it from reading the papers, or listening to journalists on t'wireless.  "They won the cup two years ago", they think.  "They've got players who are far too good to be relegated", they think.  "Their team spirit will shine through", they think.  "Eventually, the results will come", they think.  Heck, "they beat Rangers a few weeks ago", they think.

No-one seems to have twigged yet that Caley Thistle are going to be relegated from the Scottish Premiership.

On paper, they hardly look doomed.  The Highlanders haven't been cut loose at the bottom like Dundee United last season; they are only three points worse off than Ross County in ninth spot.  And this is a team with seasoned pros like Ross Draper, Gary Warren and Greg Tansey in it.  Their goalkeeper went to the Euros with Wales.  They got their talismanic centre-forward Billy Mckay back on loan at the end of January.

And yet this team has managed one win in eighteen league games since the end of October.  At this stage of the season, the table does not lie.

Caley Thistle are going down.

What John Hughes left behind
It would be a stretch to say that John Hughes left a total mess behind in Inverness.  The manager who took the club to Scottish Cup glory less than two years ago had correctly surmised that getting anywhere near repeating that feat, and the third place finish they managed in 2014/15, would be nigh-on impossible.  Yogi was fortunate enough to inherit a remarkably talented squad, and skilled enough to coach it up further.  

However, the meagre resources at his disposal meant that replacing the inevitable departures would have been difficult enough even had he been a skilled recruiter...which he is not.  Out of eleven signings in that final year, only Miles Storey - allegedly found by the club chairman rather than the manager - was an unqualified success.  The less said about Dani Lopez, Liam Hughes, Ryan Williams, Andrea Mutombo and others, the better.

Hughes' exit was not unexpected.  Nor was the decision to replace him with Richie Foran, who made his final appearance as a player on the last day of last season.  On the face of it, he was the cheap, easy internal option: he was one of the highest-paid players at the club, so he came off that particular wage bill.  And his decision to retain Hughes' assistant Brian Rice saved the club from having to pay off another member of staff.  But the Irishman had used his previous two injury-plagued years to earn his coaching badges, to get stuck in on the training ground, to learn.  He was groomed for this job, even if his turn came round a little quicker than expected.

That was the idea, anyway.

Foran's appointment was early enough that he had all summer to get the team ready, and to compensate for the departure of Storey plus some other first team players.  And the early games in the League Cup group stage (albeit against lower division opposition) were encouraging.  The team seemed to be combining the best bits of Yogi-ball (the possession and keeping the ball on the deck) whilst attacking with more pace and purpose.  A 7-0 demolition of League Two Arbroath, in which new striker Scott Boden scored a hat-trick seemed to, er, 'bode' well.

Then the opening league games came along.  And Inverness lost the first three, including a thumping at Tynecastle and a derby defeat which should have been much heavier than 2-3.  In the midst of that was another dreadful result, at Alloa in the last sixteen of the League Cup.  In each of the matches, the team looked outmuscled and outfought.  Ever since then, Caley Thistle have been playing catch up, both in terms of points and in their tactics, and have always looked one step behind.

More recruitment problems
The chairman has not let Foran down; he's been able to sign twelve players since becoming boss.  Only Billy Mckay has clearly improved the team, though Jamie McCart, on loan from Celtic, has shown plenty of promise.

Mckay was the fifth forward Foran has signed - the less said about Boden, Henri Anier and Dean Ebbe the better, though the ungainly Lonsana Doumbouya scored six goals before leaving for Austria in January.

McCart is one of four defenders brought in.  Kevin McNaughton was the highest profile, but the veteran ruptured his achilles in August.  Brad Mckay has had plenty of opportunities but after a bright start has regressed to the level he showed previously with Hearts and St. Johnstone.  The jury remains out on Louis Laing, formerly of Motherwell.

And, to provide creativity, Foran procured Larnell Cole, Billy King and Jake Mulraney.  All have shown occasional flashes of talent.  None of them have managed to sustain it for even a whole 90 minutes, let alone a run of games.

Unlucky with injuries and let down by senior players...
Foran has not been blessed with the luck of the Irish.  To lose a player as important as central defender Josh Meekings for much of the season is unfortunate.  Add in McNaughton's travails, and the ongoing knee problems afflicting Aaron Doran, plus an ever-revolving cast of injured players heading onto the treatment table for a few weeks at a time, and one can perhaps partially forgive the lack of any rhythm and consistency.

Worse, those remaining from the heady days of that Hampden triumph chose a rather bad time to collectively lose form.  David Raven, Ross Draper, Greg Tansey, Gary Warren...these are the players any manager would rely on to provide experience and backbone.  All four have had rotten seasons.  In Tansey and Draper's cases, some of that is down to their manager's failure to utilise them properly (more of that later).  Raven is now 32 and has simply gone from being a 'seven out of ten every week' player to a 'six out of ten' one.

Warren's dip is the most frightening.  One Ross County fan I talked to compared it to the way Grant Munro went from being a decent Premiership centre-back to a Highland League player in a single summer.  He just suddenly got old; he became even slower in action, and appeared slow in thought as well.  Foran has spent all season waiting for the defender to get over his slump.  Maybe he never will?

A collective malaise seems to have swept over almost all the senior players.  In goal, Owain Fon Williams has been hampered by back problems which have eroded his confidence badly.  Iain Vigurs has had a nightmare season and become the fans' whipping boy.  Only left-back Carl Tremarco, the club's Player of the Year by miles, and the returning Billy Mckay have done themselves justice.

...but most of the problems are of Foran's own making
So far this reads like an attempt to sympathise with Foran, to absolve him of blame.  That's about to change.  For plenty of the manager's problems are of his own doing.  Some flaws have been glaring from the beginning.  Others have become dreadfully obvious as the campaign has progressed.

The most blatant is his lack of tactical acumen.  Sometimes, such as in the defeat to Aberdeen I dissected for The Terrace in November, injuries have limited what he can do and it hasn't been hard for the opposition to expose the team's frailties.  Most of the time, he has no such excuse.  Derek McInnes had twigged that attacking the space left by the rampaging Tremarco with a striker would cause havoc.  On Hogmanay, Ross County did the exact same thing by deploying Liam Boyce in that area.  Even after the Aberdeen game, Foran had done nothing to identify and compensate for this weakness.

Moreover, on both occasions, and many others, the opposition had recognised that Tremarco was the sole 'out-ball' for Caley Thistle; cut off the supply to him on the left and they would punt the ball aimlessly forward.  This has been a characteristic of the dreadful run of the last five months.

Admittedly, Foran has tried to solve this, but with little joy.  He tried using a big striker, Lonsana Doumbouya, only for his teammates to resort to thumping it long even when they didn't need to.  He tried playing Vigurs in a deeper role alongside Tansey to improve retention of the ball, but this backfired spectacularly - Vigurs' lack of familiarity with that position, plus his lack of defensive awareness, made it harder to win possession in the first place and stifled Tansey's creativity, as well as costing many a goal.

More recently, bringing back Billy Mckay added some class to the attack, but the players still keep peppering him with high balls.  Draper keeps being pushed up the park to provide a target for these, on the assumption that he can hold up the ball because he is big.  He can't.  He is useful at breaking up play when it is in front of him, and not at all skilled in holding it up with his back to goal.  

And yet Foran has been using him like this for most of the season.  Bizarrely, the team's two best performances, home wins over Dundee and Rangers, have both come when Draper has played in his preferred defensive midfield role, with Liam Polworth providing energy and Tansey free to playmake as he does so well.  And yet the manager has reverted back to the previous tactics within a matter of a few games each time, even though they haven't worked at all.  

No tactics, no confidence
Vigurs has at times seemed undroppable; ditto Warren, who missed the Rangers win because of suspension.  Louis Laing and Jamie McCart had done okay in the veteran's absence, but in order to shoehorn him back into the team Foran first switched to three-at-the-back and then, this weekend, used Laing as a defensive midfielder.  In that match against Kilmarnock, Foran played no fewer than five starters out of position - Raven at left-back, Brad Mckay at right-back, Laing in midfield, Larnell Cole on the wing, and Draper in that advanced role.

The draw with Killie was a microcosm for Caley Thistle's problems all season long. The lineup made no sense against an opponent who plays with two wingers and two forwards every week.  This reinforces my own personal belief, which has grown over the course of the season, that Foran does little or no homework on the opposition.

He at least recognised the big problem Inverness had in the first half - admittedly, it was blatantly obvious - that Brad Mckay couldn't cope with Killie winger Jordan Jones.  And yet his solution was so simplistic it was embarrassing; switch around the full-backs.  Of course, Jones was instantly instructed to follow Mckay across and roast him on the opposite flank instead.  Thankfully the beleagured defender was subbed at half-time before more damage was done, but it was excruciating to watch Foran be outwitted so easily.

The plan of attack was simply to punt the ball at Draper and Mckay and hope it stuck (of course, it didn't).  Thankfully the latter expertly curled in a loose ball to offset Kris Boyd's early opener and earn a point.  Mckay only got one more chance all afternoon, and nearly scored that too.

As one would expect from a team which has won just once in nearly half a season's worth of league games, there is a massive confidence issue.  Players are not looking for the ball; when it arrives it is treated like a hot potato.  The frustration of some has become terribly evident.  Tansey spent most of the game watching the ball being thumped over his head and probably thinking of his upcoming move to Pittodrie.  Draper's anger at his deployment was palpable.

And Foran, at last, has started behaving like a man who has realized the mess he is in.  He cut an agitated figure on the touchline, appealing everything loudly (and quite abusively) and constantly fidgeting and muttering oaths after every mistake by his team. These actions show he cares; unfortunately, they do not really influence the course of a match.

Is all hope lost?
In truth, Caley Thistle are fortunate that their struggles have occurred during this remarkable season where every club in the bottom six is pretty rotten.  Normally a side with so few points would have been long cut adrift; the fact that ninth place is only one win away has disguised just how grim the situation is.

Worse, recent performances are not those of a team fighting for their lives; they are those of one that either is already relegated, or one that can't cope with the pressure of such a dogfight.  I mean, one win in eighteen!

The frame of this piece has been in my mind for months.  It was nearly written at new year, after defeat in Dingwall left ICT bottom over the winter break.  Then a dreadful midweek loss to Hamilton at the end of January almost led to its resurrection...only for the players to then come back from a two goal deficit to draw with Dundee a few days later - a result, like the subsequent win over Rangers, which gave most of us some false hope that a corner had been turned.  As a Caley Thistle fan I would love to be proved wrong, but the bottom line is that the team are playing like they're already relegated, not fighting for their lives.

As tempting as it is to demand Foran's head, I also draw the line at that.  I am a blogger, not an expert.  Therefore it is absolutely not appropriate for me to call for a man with a young family to lose his livelihood.  I would still love to see him make a success of this, and save us from Championship football next season.

I'll leave it up to the rest of you to decide on the likelihood of that happening.

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.

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