Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Twelve teams, twelve questions

Right, I'm sure you're all fed up with me focussing on Caley Thistle's troubles, so let's go back to the Scottish Premiership.  It's still early stages in the summer, but while some clubs have done a fair bit of business others have been relatively quiet.  For each of the twelve clubs I pose a pressing question that needs answered in the weeks ahead...

Aberdeen - what will Derek McInnes do with his big transfer budget?
The Aberdeen manager's decision to turn down Sunderland was an enormous boost to the Dons, though one suspects it may just be a case of delaying the inevitable.  The worry is that last season's second place finish and twin cup final appearances will turn out to be their zenith, especially with Jonny Hayes, Ryan Jack, Niall McGinn and Ash Taylor having departed.  The return on loan of Ryan Christie for another year is a boost, but at the very least they need wingers and another centre-back.  With £1.3million from Celtic for Hayes, plus significant investment in the club from shareholder Dave Cormack, McInnes has a fair bit of cash to play with.  If Aberdeen are to remain the second best team in the country, he'll have to spend it.

Celtic - how far are they from being Champions League-ready?
The Champions have been relatively quiet in the market so far, with only Jonny Hayes coming in; the Irishman is surely seen as a backup rather than a starter though.  Given how far Celtic have come in a single year under Brendan Rodgers, it is possible that the manager believes the players he has have improved sufficiently that they will make a far bigger impact on the European stage this time around.  But it remains uncertain if his centre-backs are good enough to deal with the continent's elite, and a replacement for Patrick Roberts would be nice.  Rodgers has a large budget to spend if he can find the players he wants.  If unrefusable offers come in for Moussa Dembele and/or Kieran Tierney, the loss of either would be a huge blow.

Dundee - can Neil McCann build a top six squad?
The former Sky Sports pundit (eventually) decided to stay at Dens Park permanently, so we'll find out whether all that time on the telly plus three years as a coach at Dunfermline were enough of a grounding for him.  The arrival on loan of Scott Allan seems like a statement of intent, and fellow midfielder Roarie Deacon was apparently quite highly-rated.  But whilst they look strong in the middle of the pitch they still need a partner for Darren O'Dea in defence and a more reliable goalscorer than Faissal El Bakhtaoui or Marcus Haber if they are to get into the top half of the league.

Hamilton - will they be relegation favourites again?
Every season, Accies are favourites for the drop, and every season they prove their doubters (including me) wrong.  But 2016/17 was the closest they've come to returning to the Championship, and they aren't in a position of strength right now.  The defence has been weakened by the exit of keeper Remi Matthews and full-back Giannis Skondras and a long-term injury to captain Michael Devlin  Up front Alex D'Acol has left as well whilst Eamonn Brophy is dithering over a new deal.  At least there are no suitors for Ali Crawford - though that tells you something about the way his form dipped in 2017.  Martin Canning really won't want to rely too much on Massimo Donati (36) and Dougie Imrie (35 in August).  Either he has a lot of signings to make, or he will have to hope the next generation of Academy players are really special.

Hearts - will the summer be enough to get Cathroball working?
Last season's team seemed to find it really difficult to grasp Ian Cathro's ideas...or maybe the players weren't suited to them...or just maybe Cathro's ideas are wrong.  A full preseason of work will tell us once and for all whether the young manager really is a visionary or not.  He hasn't his problems to seek though, with both Arnaud Djoum and Jamie Walker agitating to leave.  With Callum Paterson and Sam Nicholson gone already, the Jambos are already in need of reinforcements.  Whilst the return of Christophe Berra is a massive boost to the defence, it'll count for nothing unless the players in front of him can weave the pretty patterns that their boss wants them to.

Hibs - Where do they stand in comparison with other Premiership sides?
Neil Lennon's claims in April that Hibernian were the second-best team in Scotland really should have provoked more derision than they did.  That said, they will be expected to make the top six at the very least, though that will be harder now that Jason Cummings has gone.  Lennon has to revamp the whole forward line given that Grant Holt and Jason Keatings are away too; new signing Simon Murray will work hard but won't score enough goals.  The backline will be better for having Efe Ambrose as a permanent part of it, though a permanent deal for keeper Ofir Marciano is a priority.  And in midfield they'll be fine if Danny Swanson plays like he did for St Johnstone and John McGinn steps up.

Kilmarnock - how good a recruiter is Lee McCulloch?
At the time of writing, Kilmarnock have only seven players aged over 21 under contract; whilst their current crop of youngsters looked increasingly impressive at the end of last season, the club need to make lots of signings simply to make up the numbers.  Lee Clark was widely mocked last summer for signing eleven players on the same day, but it may come to something similar for his replacement.  We shouldn't read anything into the delay in appointing McCulloch as permanent manager - it was simply because he was on holiday - but the lack of activity so far is concerning given the number of players the club have let go in the last few months.  And did his distinguished (until the last few years!) playing career allow him to build up enough contacts to find players...and give him an eye for a good 'un?  We'll find out in the next few weeks.

Motherwell - can they cope without Scott McDonald?
Stephen Robinson has been the busiest of the Premiership managers so far, bringing in six senior players along with youngster Liam Brown as he looks to pull the Steelmen away from the bottom end of the table.  Gael Bigirimana, once signed for seven figures by Newcastle United, is a particularly intriguing signing.  The spree has been triggered by a huge clearout of the squad, but one player the club didn't want to lose was Scott McDonald; the veteran striker looks likely to return to his native Australia.  His partnership with Louis Moult was the best thing about Motherwell in the last two years and he will be terribly difficult to replace.  New boy Alex Fisher finished last season well at Inverness but is a completely different sort of player.  The loss of McDonald's guile may necessitate a big change in tactics.

Partick Thistle - have they peaked?
I'd cheekily predicted Thistle to make the top six in my season previews, and was surprised to be proven right.  Their impressive season was based on an outstanding defensive record, with goalkeeper Tomas Cerny, centre-back Liam Lindsay and defensive midfielder Adam Barton really standing out.  However Lindsay's departure seems inevitable, leaving a big hole to fill.  Whilst no-one else from last year's team is likely to leave, there have been few arrivals - aside from young keeper Jamie Sneddon - one for the future - and erratic winger Blair Spittal it's been quiet at Firhill so far.  Keeping the Jags in the top half will be difficult without further signings, particularly in defence.

Rangers - can they mould all their new signings into a team?
Well, Pedro Caixinha can't claim he isn't being backed.  Rangers have brought in six players already with two more arriving imminently; in total they'll cost around £7million in transfer fees.  Only one, Ryan Jack, is Scottish though.  The others have zero experience in British football.  Whilst asking "could they handle the Scottish winter?" is a bit cliched, it's not entirely unreasonable.  A more pressing matter is whether Caixinha can mould them together into the team he wants, and quickly enough that they can keep pace with Celtic in the early months of the season.  Meanwhile, the squad is now incredibly bloated, and they'll be looking for at least half a dozen of last year's squad will follow Joe Garner out of the door.

Ross County - do they show faith in their youngsters?
Another summer, another star player sold to Burton Albion.  This time it's Liam Boyce who left the Highlands.  The Ulsterman's goals will be missed, but so will his skill and creativity; ultimately last season he was the best creator of chances at the club as well as the best at scoring them.  Irreplaceable?  Maybe.  But the £500,000 transfer fee might help.  It's become standard for benefactor Roy McGregor to fund the signing of a dozen or so journeymen every summer, but County won the Development League last year and their under-20s are well thought of.  Will Jim McIntyre gamble on promoting several of them to his lineup, or will he once again fill the squad with loanees from England and random Dutchmen?

St. Johnstone - business as usual in Perth?
Eventually, St. Johnstone will have a poor season.  Eventually.  Probably.  But they've overachieved for so long that we've ceased to be surprised anymore, and in fact expect it.  So the loss of Danny Swanson won't have fazed anyone at McDiarmid Park, especially after the club signed Stefan Scougall.  Otherwise they are in decent shape again.  The big fear these days is not the loss of a star player, but the loss of manager Tommy Wright; the fact that the Aberdeen job didn't become available will have come as a relief to the Perth Saints.

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, June 20, 2017

Hayes deal demonstrates Celtic's financial dominance

Just over three weeks ago, Jonny Hayes was smashing a left foot volley into the back of the net to give Aberdeen the lead over Celtic in the Scottish Cup Final.

Twenty-one days later, Celtic signed winger Hayes from Aberdeen on a three-year deal for an undisclosed fee, reported to be around £1.3 million. The transfer sees Hayes, arguably the best player in Scotland outside of Celtic for the last two years, move from the team that finished 2nd in last season's Scottish Premiership and runners up in the League & Scottish Cups to the team that won all three domestic trophies.

The last time I could recall the reigning Scottish Champions buying a player directly from the league runners-up, at least in the immediate aftermath of the previous season, was when David Robertson moved to Rangers from Aberdeen for around £1 million in 1991. (Admittedly, the gap between 1st and 2nd place was much closer then – the Gers won a league deciding match against the Dons in the final game of the season at Ibrox – than the yawning chasm that separated the Celts from the Dons this season.)

In more recent times, following the 2005-06 season, Paul Hartley signed for reigning champions Celtic for over £1.1 million following "significant unrest in the Hearts dressing room" - the Jambos had been runners-up the previous season, although the transfer didn't occur until midway through the following season in January 2007. (Steven Pressley had also joined Celtic the previous December as a free agent, having already parted company with Hearts earlier that month as part of the fallout from the ultimately ill-fated Romanov administration; the other member of the "Riccarton Three", Craig Gordon, would also end up at Celtic, albeit by a far more circuitous route.)

In both of the previous examples, the reigning champions went on the retain their titles while the runners-up fell away from contention. Aberdeen finished sixth in the following 1991-92 season, costing manager Alex Smith his job as he became the first Aberdeen manager ever to be sacked. (Though he certainly wouldn't be the last.) Hearts finished 4th in the following 2007-08 season, although by that time the Romanovs had instigated umpteen managerial changes already regardless of how well the team were actually performing on the pitch.

Of course, it is hardly a prediction of Nostradamus that Celtic will likely retain the Scottish Premiership trophy in 2017-18. If anything, the current Aberdeen side can be distinguished from the previous examples cited above in that any remote hope they may have held of realistically challenging for the title had already passed them by in the previous couple of seasons, when they competed against a markedly inferior Celtic side under Ronny Deila. After Brendan Rodgers was appointed manager following Deila's exit, the improvement in the Celtic side was almost instantaneous. (I say 'almost'; for all of the domestic dominance that would follow, a 1-0 loss to Gibraltar's Lincoln Red Imps wasn't the most auspicious of starts...)

Consider, for example, that on 24 January 2017, Rodgers was already secure enough in his grasp of the title that he was willing to allow one of his own players, Ryan Christie, to join Aberdeen on loan until the end of the season. (Indeed, it was also confirmed this weekend that Ryan will be returning to Pittodrie on a season long deal.) Just a year earlier, on 24 January 2016, Ryan Christie was only one day removed from his Celtic debut, a 3-1 win at home to St Johnstone that restored a 6 point lead over Aberdeen, who had beaten Dundee the day before that. The idea of Celtic loaning Christie to Aberdeen at that time would have surely been unthinkable; today, it isn't even the biggest transfer story involving the two clubs this weekend.

The transfer of Hayes to Celtic simply widens the already yawning chasm which separates the league champions from its competition. This is already a Celtic team that landed the treble last season; of the 18 player matchday squad that completed that season with the 2-1 Scottish Cup Final victory at Hampden only Patrick Roberts, who was on loan from Manchester City, is not available to Rodgers for the coming season. It's not as if the existing group of players will be going anywhere else any time soon, either. The majority of the squad are on long term deals with the club, while Hayes (at 29 years old) will actually be one of the veterans; of the players involved in the Scottish Cup Final, only Scott Brown, Craig Gordon, Mikael Lustig & Dorus De Vries are older than Jonny.

 Indeed, such are the player resources available to Rodgers that he could put together a decent team from the remainder of the first team squad that weren't involved that day; for example, would a starting XI containing Christie, Scott Allan (loaned out to Dundee earlier this week), Kolo Toure, Emilio Izaguirre, Nadir Ciftci, Gary Mackay-Steven, Saidy Janko, Logan Bailly, Kristoffer Ajer, Liam Henderson & Eboue Kouassi still be favoured over any other team in the league? At worst, if Hayes comes in as a like-for-like replacement for Roberts and Celtic go again with the same squad they will be prohibitive favourites for the title for years to come.

 However, the club have made it clear that their priority going forward will be progress in the Champions League; with the qualifying draw on Monday, Rodgers will already be turning its attention to retooling his squad with this in mind. It was already the case, even before Rodgers arrived as manager, that Celtic enjoyed a spending advantage over the rest of the league that was almost laughable in its disparity. However, this is only going to get wider; Celtic's involvement in last season's Champions League group stages contributed to announced profits of around £20 million in the six months leading up to the end of last December. While it is true that, in real terms, other Scottish Premiership clubs may benefit by over £200,000 per club in solidarity payments from UEFA, in terms of league competition this is still resulting in a significant widening of the financial disparity between the clubs when Celtic are benefitting by a factor of about 100.

 Rodgers had already spent around £12.5 million in transfers last season to acquire the likes of Scott Sinclair, Moussa Dembele and Christian Gamboa, plus Messrs De Vries, Toure & Kouassi. One suspects that the addition of Hayes is just the beginning of an even more significant spend in this summer's transfer window.

So while Celtic continue to chase the glamour and riches of Champions League qualification, what does this mean for our domestic football going forward. The reality is that Celtic no longer have any domestic rival – or, at least, any opponent that has a realistic chance of usurping them in the league – and while it is unrealistic to expect any team to win every domestic cup competition, given the vagaries of any given matchday, they will nonetheless be favoured for every trophy they compete for in Scotland for the foreseeable future. Brendan Rodgers has already extended his original contact with Celtic to 2021, which would be long enough for him to preside over the eventual accomplishment of 'Ten In A Row' that Hoops fans go on about ad infinitum. The reality, however, may prove to be that even that achievement may be selling the club short.

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.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Robbo returns

Image result for john robertson inverness
John Robertson (right) with assistant Donald Park in 2003, during his first spell at Inverness
So, twelve and a half years after he left, John Robertson returns to Inverness Caledonian Thistle, the site of his greatest managerial successes.

Correction: John Robertson returns to the site of his only managerial successes; after leaving the Highlanders in December 2004, the former Scotland striker didn't exactly go on to better things.  If he was unlucky in his dream job at Hearts (where Vladimir Romanov came in and wanted his own coach) and Ross County (where he left after four months after being told to make big budget cuts) there seem to be few excuses for his tenures at Livingston and East Fife.  His sixteen month spell in Methil ended five years ago, and is his only managerial post in a decade.

He has still been active in Scottish football, working as a coach with Hearts' under-17 squad and doing plenty of media work, but the fact that he hasn't managed in so long is obviously a worry.

Of course it was Robertson who guided ICT to the top flight for the very first time back in 2004; the club badly need him to repeat the trick.  The Scottish Championship is a hell of a competitive league even without the likes of Hearts, Hibs and Rangers.  To win promotion they will have to fend off not just Dundee United but streetwise sides like Falkirk and Morton as well as a resurgent St. Mirren.

And frankly the club are in disarray, with a dreadful lack of leadership both on and off the field.  The board's failure to act and remove Richie Foran several months ago has resulted in relegation and a shortfall of about half a million pounds; following the end of the season the chairman, Kenny Cameron, quit.  Foran remained in post for another nine days whilst a new chairman and directors got sorted out and was apparently making decisions on releasing and retaining players a few days prior to his departure.

Another sixteen days have elapsed before Robertson's unveiling, which comes three and a half weeks after the final league match of 2016-17; whilst Caley Thistle have been procrastinating, their peers have been wheeling and dealing to strengthen for the new season.  The Betfred Cup starts in just a month's time.  With only two goalkeepers and ten outfield players under contract, there's an awful lot of catching up to do.

The fans' patience, worn thin by a year of horrendous results and turgid football and stretched further by the lack of communication from the club during this turbulent period, finally snapped after season ticket details were announced - on the same day Foran was punted, no less.  Prices were frozen, despite relegation and despite the fact that there will be one fewer home game in 2017-18.  (For comparison, after relegation in 2009 prices were cut by £100 across the board)

Even the most loyal supporters baulked at this, with many threatening not to renew until new chairman Willie Finlayson backtracked furiously yesterday, offering a 10% reduction on prices and a host of perks for season ticket holders.  It was a welcome move, but whether that, and the Robbo appointment, are enough to limit the significant damage done remains to be seen.

The hope is that Robertson thrives once more in this environment.  Ex-players such as Bobby Mann and Michael Fraser have spoken very highly of him as a coach and manager.  Moreover, he should have a pretty decent contacts book and hopefully be able to find us a few decent players.  At this level recruitment is probably a more important for a manager than tactical aptitude, so fingers crossed there.

However, the first impression is that the appointment is uninspiring.  The names linked with the post - Robbo (an ex-manager), Paul Sheerin (an ex-player), Maurice Malpas (an ex-assistant manager) - suggest a complete lack of imagination and lack of a proper application process.  Was there really no interest in the role outwith Scotland?  Or is it the case that the club only have contact details for former employees?

My own gut feeling remains that 2017-18 will be a hard season for Caley Thistle.  Things are going to get worse before they get better.  And that's nobody's fault but their own.

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.