Monday, July 31, 2017

2017/18 Scottish Premiership preview - Motherwell

Motherwell FC crest.svg

LAST SEASON: 9th, 38pts

NOTABLE INS: Gael Bigirimana (Coventry City), Liam Brown (Queen's Park), Trevor Carson (Hartlepool United), Charles Dunne (Oldham Athletic), Alex Fisher (Inverness Caledonian Thistle), Russell Griffiths (Everton, loan made permanent), Cedric Kipre (Leicester City), George Newell (Bolton Wanderers), Andy Rose (Coventry City), Craig Tanner (Reading)

NOTABLE OUTS: Lionel Ainsworth (Plymouth Argyle), Joe Chalmers (Inverness Caledonian Thistle), Craig Clay (Leyton Orient), David Ferguson (Ayr United), Dylan Mackin (Livingston), Scott McDonald (Dundee United), Craig Moore (Ayr United, loan made permanent), Craig Samson (St. Mirren), Dominic Thomas (Kilmarnock), Zak Jules (Reading, end of loan), Keith Lasley (retired), Lee Lucas, James McFadden, Stephen Pearson

LAST SEASON'S BEST XI (Departed players crossed out): Samson, Tait, Heneghan, McManus, Hammell, Cadden, McHugh, Lasley, Frear, McDonald, Moult

More than once, I have espoused the Terry Butcher Theory of Diddy Team Management.  It runs as follows: recruiting good players is more important to improving a smaller club than being a good tactician or coach.  Butcher, at Motherwell and then at Inverness, signed lots of talented players who did well for him.  But on gameday he was hardly an English Pep Guardiola; he was ultimately found wanting at Hibs when he was stuck for several months with the players he inherited.

Stephen Robinson reminds me of Butcher.  He's not done much so far at Motherwell - or previously at Oldham - to suggest he is a great coach.  What he has done this summer is go wild in the transfer market.  At this moment, he's brought in ten new players.

And yet there is method to this.  For a start, the squad were in terrible need of an overhaul, and Robinson has delivered by shipping fourteen players out of the door.  Mark McGhee stood too long by veteran players who were past their sell-by date; Keith Lasley has retired, James McFadden and Stephen Pearson have moved on, and it looks like Stevie Hammell and Stephen McManus are finally to be supplanted - Charles Dunne looks a good acquisition at left-back, with impressive pace for a 6ft 3in frame, while 20 year old Cedric Kipre has impressed in the centre of defence in the League Cup games.  With Ben Heneghan and Richard Tait retained, and Trevor Carson providing a massive upgrade over Craig Samson between the sticks (to be fair, I'd be a massive upgrade over Samson), 'Well are, er, well set at the back.

The most interesting of the newbies is unquestionably Gael Bigirimana, once a million-pound signing for Newcastle whose career was derailed by injuries and illness.  He will bring flair and creativity to the centre of the pitch, especially with captain Carl McHugh doing the midfield dirty work.  A pairing of Bigirimana and exciting youngster Chris Cadden looks very promising indeed, though Cadden may have to drift in from the right flank rather than start in his favoured central role.  With left winger Elliott Frear poised to break out as well, and youngsters Allan Campbell and Ross MacLean ready to pitch in too, this area is very strong too.

It all looks so rosy until you get to the business end of the pitch.  A year ago, Motherwell were being carried by their attacking trio of Marvin Johnson (sold in August 2016), Scott McDonald and Louis Moult; this area now threatens to hold them back.  McDonald, the one veteran worth keeping, has chosen to leave, while Moult's head may have been turned by interest from Aberdeen.  Between them the duo have scored 49 league goals in the last two seasons.  Replacing them is going to be difficult.

Alex Fisher showed enough in the spring at Inverness to suggest he could do a job, but accommodating such a target man could require a change in style.  He is also a rather similar player to the one other striker of note on the books, Ryan Bowman, who mostly misfired last year.  If Moult is sold, the money needs to go on at least one other forward.

If that happens, or Moult stays, then actually Motherwell are looking pretty swish.  Whilst I'm not convinced Robinson can work miracles with this lot, he can at least get them into the mix for sixth.  Another flirtation with relegation would be unacceptable, and should be unrealistic.

THE SQUAD (players born after 1 January 1996 in italics)
Goalkeepers: Trevor Carson, Russell Griffiths
Defenders: Charles Dunne, Stevie Hammell, Ben Heneghan, Cedric Kipre, Adam Livingstone, Stephen McManus, Jack McMillan, Richard Tait, Luke Watt
Midfielders: Gael Bigirimana, Liam Brown, Chris Cadden, Allan Campbell, Elliott Frear, Shea Gordon, Jake Hastie, Ross MacLean, Carl McHugh, Andy Rose, Craig Tanner
Forwards: Jacob Blyth, Ryan Bowman, Alex Fisher, Louis Moult, George Newell


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.

2017/18 Scottish Premiership preview - Rangers

Rangers Football Club Logo

LAST SEASON: 3rd, 67pts

NOTABLE INS: Bruno Alves (Cagliari), Daniel Candeias (Benfica), Fabio Cardoso (Vitoria Setubal), Graham Dorrans (Norwich City), Eduardo Herrera (Punas UNAM), Ryan Jack (Aberdeen), Alfredo Morelos (HJK Helsinki), Carlos Pena (Guadalajara), Dalcio (Benfica, loan)

NOTABLE OUTS: Matt Crooks (Northampton Town), Joe Garner (Ipswich Town), Barrie McKay (Nottingham Forest), Kyle Bradley (Clyde, loan), Andy Halliday (Gabala, loan), Michael O'Halloran (St. Johnstone, loan), Emmerson Hyndman (Bournemouth, end of loan), Jon Toral (Arsenal, end of loan), Clint Hill, Philippe Senderos

LAST SEASON'S BEST XI (Departed players crossed out): Foderingham, Tavernier, Hill, Kiernan, Wallace, Halliday, Hyndman, Windass, McKay, Miller, Garner

For all the #goingfor55 rubbish, no-one with two brain cells to rub together - insert joke about Rangers fans here - expected a title challenge last year.  2016/17 was supposed to be the season when Rangers re-established themselves as Scotland's second strongest team, and put themselves in position to try to knock Celtic off their perch in 2017/18.

It hasn't exactly worked out like that.  A distant third last time around, the club have managed to spend around £10million on new players this summer and yet will start the league season with at least as much uncertainty surrounding the team as there was in May.  Humiliation at the hands of Luxembourger part-timers Progres Niederkorn has caused a lot of damage; for one thing, critical revenue from European football has been cut off; even more crucially, it has left Pedro Caixinha under pressure already.

Caixinha certainly talks the talk, but mediocre performances and questionable tactics have increased the suspicion that the Portuguese coach is less Mourinho Mark Two and more a snake-oil salesman selling bottles labelled as tiki-taka but which actually contain hot air.  Lack of conditioning and lack of time to integrate several new faces are reasonable excuses for the catastrophe on the continent, but don't explain the lack of attacking nous nor the enormous holes in midfield.

And yet Rangers have gone all in on Caixinha.  There have been nine new signings already, seven of whom are either Portuguese or from Latin America and therefore are presumably players demanded by the manager.  Several of last term's core have departed - or forced out, as in the curious case of Barrie Mckay - and Rob Kiernan, Harry Forrester, Joe Dodoo (none of whom were given squad numbers) plus a few more will follow them if they can be convinced to leave.

The newbies should, in theory, be suited to the style that Caixinha wants the team to play.  The lack of a true defensive midfielder or of natural touchline-hugging wingers made it difficult to implement in the Spring, but Ryan Jack and the now-fit Jordan Rossiter solve the first problem and Portuguese duo Daniel Candeias and Dalcio may provide much-needed width.  He has also tackled the dreadful weakness in central defence by bringing in two more countrymen in Fabio Cardoso and supposed marquee signing Bruno Alves.  Alves could be a great signing, as he is incredibly physical whilst still very comfortable in possession.  But he is 36 in November.  At his peak he wouldn't have touched Ibrox with a barge pole.

Up front there is change too, as the club try to reduce their dependence on Kenny Miller's 37 year old legs.  Mexican Eduardo Herrera and Colombian Alfredo Morelos will battle it out to be centre-forward; neither impressed in the Europa League games though Morelos did score for fun in Finland last year.  If neither hit the ground running then there will be a problem.

In midfield there is at least an embarrassment of options; Jack and/or Rossiter in front of the centre-backs, then one or two of returnees Jason Holt, Niko Kranjcar and Josh Windass (who with his tireless running so often outperforms more technically gifted and higher profile teammates) and summer signings Graham Dorrans and Carlos Pena.  Dorrans is the closest to a sure thing amongst the new guys, and his history as a local boy and supporter of the club may have played a factor in getting him to join.  He might yet be Caixinha's trump card.

And boy does the coach need one.  The first derby with Celtic is on 23 September, the seventh league match; any slip-ups between now and then and he might not even reach it.

The bottom line remains that Rangers are miles and miles and miles behind their rivals.  They also have resources that other Premiership clubs can only dream of.  Like the rest they have no chance of finishing ahead of Celtic, but at the very least they should be closer to them and well ahead of third.  Over the whole season that should tell - whether Caixinha is still there in nine months or not - but then we thought the same last summer too, didn't we?

THE SQUAD (players born after 1 January 1996 in italics)
Goalkeepers: Jak Alnwick, Wes Foderingham
Defenders: Bruno Alves, David Bates, Myles Beerman, Fabio Cardoso, Lee Hodson, Rob Kiernan, James Tavernier, Lee Wallace, Aidan Wilson, Danny Wilson
Midfielders: Jamie Barjonas, Liam Burt, Daniel Candeias, Dalcio, Graham Dorrans, Harry Forrester, Jason Holt, Ryan Jack, Niko Kranjcar, Carlos Pena, Jordan Rossiter, Jordan Thompson, Josh Windass
Forwards: Joe Dodoo, Ryan Hardie, Eduardo Herrera, Kenny Miller, Alfredo Morelos, Martyn Waghorn


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.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

2017-18 Scottish Championship Preview

Of course, I have a personal interest in the Scottish Championship this season, as my own team are in it.  As Rangers, Hibernian and Dundee United have all discovered in recent times, it's a bugger of a league to win.  Whilst there are usually a handful of part-time sides, and often a big budget discrepancy between the full-timers, the bigger fish are treated as a scalp by the minnows.  Underestimate anybody at your peril.

This is the only one of the three lower divisions where a side relegated into it are not favourites to win it.  Relegation was a catastrophe for Inverness Caledonian Thistle, and one they were completely unprepared for.  They've ended up with a new chairman, a new manager (who didn't even apply for the job) and eleven new players.  At the very least the new bunch will take time to gel; the worst case scenario is that they aren't up to the job.  At least Clarence Seedorf's nephew Collin looks good at right back.

So I reckon Dundee United are best placed to win the Championship, though that's not to say they don't have their weaknesses.  But the signing of Scott McDonald is hugely impressive, and he and James Keatings should do well up front.  Billy King and Sam Stanton are other interesting acquisitions who have yet to fulfil their potential.  That said, they've lost Tony Andreu, Simon Murray and Blair Spittal, and Cammy Bell seems set to leave too.  United also badly need to improve on last year's away form if they are to return to the top flight.

Falkirk have been in the playoffs two tears running and a cup final the season before that.  Can they take the next step?  They'll almost certainly be without Craig Sibbald, but the return of Rory Loy up front is a big boost.  With Nathan Austin and Joe McKee starting the season the way they finished the last one, they should be well set, though the defence is a bit weaker after keeper Danny Rogers and left-back Luke Leahy moved on.

In case you haven't got the hint, there are plenty of teams who have designs on the top end of the table.  The first half of last season was a nightmare for St. Mirren, but a dramatic turnaround under Jack Ross kept them up and they could do well if they keep their momentum.  Ross was very busy in the early summer, bringing in a glut of players who either know this league well or who have done well in League One.  They also got Ian McShane from Ross County and crucially tied up Cammy Smith on a permanent deal.  They certainly have the most squad depth; time will tell if there's quality to go with the quantity.

Dunfermline Athletic also finished 2016-17 well, and their offseason recruitment looks to have strengthened them further.  Ex-Raith defender Jean-Yves Mvoto will win any headers that come his way, and Declan McManus is a far better striker than his record last season in Kirkcaldy suggests.  If Dean Shiels still has some legs left he could prove a fine addition too.  With Nicky Clark to score the goals and Kallum Higginbotham to create them, the Pars could have a fine campaign.

Greenock Morton surprised many by making the playoffs last season and briefly looking like thy could mount a title challenge, but they faded away dreadfully and their League Cup form is a wee bit worrying.  They don't lack attacking quality - fitting Gary Oliver, Jai Quitongo and new boys Bob McHugh and Robbie Thomson into the team will be a challenge - but Jamie Lindsay and Aidan Nesbitt will be madly missed.  The defence is stretched after Thomas O'Ware picked up a bad injury, and in truth repeating last year's success will be a tall order.

Queen of the South were hugely dependent on veteran striker Stephen Dobbie last time out, and it's likely to be more of the same.  They do look like the weakest of the full-time teams.  John Rankin and Derek Lyle also add plenty of experience, and defender Shaun Rooney is a good signing; however the defence looks fragile and if anything happens to Dobbie then goals will be at a premium.

League One winners Livingston will fancy their chances of at least consolidating Championship status, though a top half finish may be too big an ask.  The loss of striker Liam Buchanan to Raith was a shame but they still have plenty of firepower with Danny Mullen, newbie Dylan Mackin and loanee Nikolay Todorov.  The return of Neil Alexander in goal, sixteen years after he left the club, is a fine story.  And hopefully this will be the year that highly feted youngster Matthew Knox kicks on.

There are two part-time sides this season, and they are certainly the favourites to finish in the bottom two places.  Brechin City were a distant third in League One last season but surprised everyone by going up via the playoffs.  However they look dreadfully weak - 42 year old manager Darren Dods had to name himself as a sub for their League Cup games - and it will be a shock if they don't go straight back down.  But a few of their younger players such as full-back Ryan McGeever and midfielder Liam Watt may take the opportunity to impress.

In contrast, Dumbarton have made a habit of surviving in this division against the odds for many years now.  Every summer sees a clearout of players, but they do a wonderful job of replacing them with veterans who are happy to take good part-time wages.  This year's crop are no different - Andy Dowie, Mark Stewart, Scott Gallacher, Dougie Hill and others will be very familiar to spectators.  But they've also lost major cogs from last year - Sam Stanton and Lewis Vaughan returned to their parent clubs, while top scorer Robbie Thomson signed for Morton.  This year may be one too far for them.

So this is how I reckon it'll finish:






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.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

2017-18 Scottish League One preview

If League Two seems to contain the same teams, year after year, League One is the opposite.  Stranraer are the longest serving side in this division, entering their sixth straight season; only they and Airdrie have been here for more than two years.

Generally most of the clubs are part-time, with a handful of full-time sides who fancy themselves as belonging at a higher level...which is a big risk to take given the paltry income and attendances in this tier.  And the part-timers are no mugs.

But it is a catastrophe that Raith Rovers are in League One, and it will be an even bigger disaster if they don't return to the Championship at the first attempt.  Barry Smith was poached from East Fife to steady the ship, and they've stayed full time and therefore held on to much of their squad.  The addition of Liam Buchanan from Livingston and Greig Spence from Alloa should guarantee goals.  It will be exciting to see how much damage young Liam Vaughan, who belongs at a much higher level, can do.

The other side demoted to League One, Ayr United, were part-time this season but have taken the gamble to go full-time.  Expectations will therefore be high.  However, they lost a number of good players who either declined to drop down with them (Conrad Balatoni, Farid El Alagui, Gary Harkins, Nicky Devlin), or who didn't want to go full-time (Greg Fleming, Paul Cairney, Darryl Meggatt).  They've brought in plenty of experience though in the likes of Chris Higgins, Andy Geggan and the returning prodigal son, Michael Moffat.

Ayr should look to the third and final full-time club, Airdrieonians, as a cautionary tale; they failed to go up last season and the summer has been one of turmoil with the chairman withdrawing his financial backing and Head Coach Mark Wilson resigning; he still hasn't been permanently replaced.  The squad is mostly the same - many of them were on two year contracts - but with a struggle ahead to pay bills expect any sellable assets (striker Andy Ryan in particular) to be flogged.  They finished fourth last season, but the off-field problems may drag them down the table.

Alloa Athletic were the best part-timers in the division last season, finishing a comfortable second but blowing it in the playoffs.  Staying near the top will depend on Jim Goodwin's first summer of recruitment; he lost crucial cogs Jordan Kirkpatrick, Calum Waters and Greg Spence but incomers Gary Fleming and Craig Malcolm should form a formidable strike partnership.  They will fancy their chances of a top half finish.

Stranraer have similar designs despite flirting with relegation at times last season.  They improved markedly under Stephen Farrell and finished the campaign strongly; they'll look to repeat their playoff appearances from the previous two seasons.  Jamie Hamill and Grant Anderson should prove class additions at this level, and Danny Stoney and Ryan Wallace should replace the goals of departing duo Craig Malcolm and Mark McGuigan.

It's hard to know how East Fife will do under new boss Darren Young; they seemed to punch above their weight last season by flirting with a playoff spot.  There are some quality signings, such as Ben Gordon and Craig Watson, but they lost duo Ross Brown and Scott Robinson to Livingston.  This writer has a beef with them for having a player (Paul Willis) who has the squad number 77.  In League One?!  Come on!

Young pitched up at Methil after a relatively successful time at Albion Rovers which came to an abrupt end at the end of last season.  He's been replaced by rookie Brian Kerr, but the time taken to appoint him came at a cost as other clubs stole away the best players the Coatbridge side had to offer.  Kerr has worked hard to catch up, and the acquisitions of Jason Marr and Alan Trouten are good business, but they'll need junior goal machine Joao Victoria to finally prove he can score regularly in the senior ranks.

The proud amateurs of Queen's Park are always hard to gauge, and as ever they did most of their transfer work in the juniors.  But as you would expect they are a tough nut to crack under Gus MacPherson and only narrowly missed a playoff spot last time out.  With Ryan McGeever and Dario Zanatta the only players of note lost in the offseason, they will do fine as long as a few of their ten new signings hit the ground running.  Chris Duff comes in from Kirkintilloch Rob Roy with a fine reputation for trickery.

Of the two newly promoted teams, Arbroath are undoubtedly in better shape and their manager Dick Campbell knows this division like the back of his hand.  They look stronger than when they won League Two, with Gavin Swankie (for that rare thing at this level, a transfer fee!), Thomas O'Brien and Danny Denholm brought in from rivals Forfar, and experienced keeper David Hutton added too.  Most intriguingly they won the race for Cove Rangers star Blair Yule, who was wanted by some full-time clubs.

In contrast, Forfar Athletic do not look very well prepared for the step up, with rumours of discord in their camp fueled by the acrimonious exit of Swankie.  The loss of three first team regulars to their neighbours does not bode well.  Promising striker Josh Peters has stepped up to the full-time ranks with Livingston, though Dylan Easton will be a very able replacement if he has overcome the injuries that blighted last year with Clyde.  Mark Millar and Simon Mensing will add experience and Marc McCallum should be one of the division's best keepers, but it will be hard for them.

So this is how I think it'll finish:






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.

Friday, July 28, 2017

2017-18 Scottish League Two preview

Ah, the fourth tier of Scotland's professional ranks, a division that seemed to contain the same clubs year after year, without the resources to move up the leagues nor apparently the ambition to do so.  Then the relegation playoff was brought in; whilst the first three seasons have claimed only one victim, it has forced the others to buck up their ideas sharply to avoid being replaced by more upwardly mobile clubs.

Last season was highly competitive, with winners Arbroath managing only 66 points and bottom club Cowdenbeath (who preserved their league status by beating East Kilbride on penalties) 35 points, a respectable total for tenth spot.  Expect more of the same.

It seems a bit lazy to tip the sides relegated into this division as favourites to go back up, but Peterhead are able to pay much higher salaries to part-timers than most of the clubs in League One, let alone League Two.  Amongst their new arrivals are veterans David McCracken and Wullie Gibson, while Greg Fleming - who should be the best goalie in the division - and Paul Cairney pitch up after refusing to go full-time with Ayr United.  Oh, and they still have goal machine Rory McAllister, who should traumatize defences at this level.

The other demoted side, Stenhousemuir, are a different kettle of fish - they operated on the smallest budget in League One and did well to stay their for as long as they did.  Manager Brown Ferguson has brought in pretty much a whole new team - 13 players at the time of writing - including plenty who could do a job at a higher level such as Martin Scott, the Dunlop brothers Michael and Ross, Mark Ferry, Mark McGuigan and Jamie Longworth.  They will certainly be expected to be at the top end of the table though.

But the team best placed to challenge Peterhead may well be Clyde, who have undergone considerable surgery since their freefall last season that almost got them relegated.  They've made plenty of signings, but the most important is new manager Jim Chapman, poached from Annan.  He too has constructed a whole new squad, containing many faces from his old team.  Crucially, they have convinced David Goodwillie to hang around; whilst his employment is undoubtedly controversial, there's no question that he is the most talented player in this league by a country mile.  Stuck in this division since 2010, this is their best opportunity to go up in a long while.

Annan Athletic, third last year, may head in the opposite direction of their former manager's new club.  The loss of Chapman delayed their summer activity significantly and reduced the time his replacement Peter Murphy has had to put together a team.  There are a few gems there, such as ex-Hearts and Partick attacker Ryan Stevenson - if he can be convinced to hang around - and a quintet of Queen of the South castoffs.  But the loss of top scorers David McKenna (to the juniors) and Max Wright (to Clyde) are a blow.

Last season's other playoff side, Montrose, finished last season incredibly strongly and have come on leaps and bounds under Stewart Petrie's leadership.  But they don't have a lot of cash and the momentum might be hard to sustain.  The arrival of Dundee United's Sean Dillon as player-coach is intriguing and they have given ex-Cowdenbeath defender Dean Brett a way back into senior football after his gambling issues.  Whether that will be enough to sustain another playoff push is another matter, though a few loanees from Tannadice and Pittodrie might help.

Elgin City should have been in those playoffs but collapsed in the run-in after losing striker Shane Sutherland to a serious knee injury.  He won't be back for a few months yet, so they really need Calum Ferguson, signed from Albion Rovers, to provide goals.  Jon-Paul McGovern, fresh from being Clyde's co-caretaker manager at the end of last season, has come north too.  However the loss of stalwarts Craig Gunn, Archie MacPhee, Daniel Moore and Mark Nicolson to the Highland League will be hard to account for.

There's more reason for positivity at Stirling Albion, where Cuptie Mackay found his feet after a tricky start as manager and will be looking to push on.  The apparently ageless Peter MacDonald should still be good for goals, but crucially they have held on to most of last season's team which should be an advantage in the early weeks.  And Mackay's contacts from his playing days should produce a few decent loan players.

Edinburgh City, whose first season at this level went far better than most expected, are a bit of an enigma.  The signing of former sex offender Craig Thomson has certainly polarised opinion, and time will tell if it will be to their benefit.  But he has been the best player in the juniors for a number of years.  The club benefit from a good relationship with Hibs which has led to the arrival on loan of young talents Lewis Allan and Sean Mackie, while ex-Brechin defender Gareth Rodger was an excellent acquisition.  Craig Beattie is still here too, though Derek Riordan has left.  And sadly for all fans of lower league football, big Joe Mbu has hung up his boots.

Cowdenbeath avoided the trap door by the skin of their teeth last season, thanks to a new manager bounce from Gary Locke; his shock exit well into pre-season is a blow (no, really!).  With little time to act, it was no surprise the club appointed assistant Billy Brown to replace him, but those who remember Brown's "bin places, dun hings" spell at East Fife will be filled with trepidation.  Locke had done some decent business, tying up permanent deals for former loanees Robbie Buchanan and David Syme (who just a year ago was signed by Partick Thistle) but a number of senior players left.  It's a team that lacks experience - keeper David McGurn aside - and with questionable leadership.

The other team who may be dicing with the drop are Berwick Rangers, who struggled to eighth spot last season.  Manager John Coughlin has made no secret of the financial constraints they are operating under.  Half of their eight newbies are loan signings. though it will be interesting to see how Rangers youth Robbie McCrorie fairs in goal.  Berwick had the worst defence in League Two last season and will have to improve that if they are to survive, let alone thrive.

So this is how I think it'll finish:





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, July 18, 2017

Governing Body Exemptions; is the SFA allowing Scottish clubs to abuse the system?

You may or may not recall me having a good whinge back in January about Celtic's move for Ivorian midfielder Eboue Kouassi.  At the time Kouassi was 19 years old, uncapped, had played only a handful of league matches for his Russian club, and was so unknown that most journalists got his first and last names the wrong way around until after he had signed.  And yet he was granted a work permit.

I thought this was pretty iffy.

In order to keep the Home Office happy, non-EU players need a Governing Body Endorsement (GBE) from the SFA, which pretty much guarantees them a work permit.  The criteria for the GBE is supposed to be as follows:
- They must have played in 75% of competitive internationals in the previous two years that they were available for
- Their country must be 70th or higher in the FIFA World Rankings (on average over the previous two years)

If a player doesn't meet either criteria (Kouassi didn't meet the first) clubs have to request a panel to hear an appeal.  The panel has jurisdiction to issue a GBE if they feel the player is "of the highest standard" and "able to contribute significantly to the development of the game at the top level in Scotland".

Now, that's pretty airy-fairy stuff; obviously the standard of a player is completely subjective.  If I were being facetious, I'd query whether any player "of the highest standard" would want to play in Scotland.  As for Kouassi, how anyone could judge a teenager with minimal first team experience to meet either of those criteria is completely beyond me.

Anyhoo, I thought I'd dig a little deeper.  After all, Kouassi isn't the first player for whom the rules seem to have been stretched.  Back in 2008, Koki Mizuno pitched up at Parkhead after Gordon Strachan bigged him up as Shunsuke Nakamura's heir apparent; since Strachan was Celtic boss at the time, he was obviously being completely impartial.  Mizuno started two league games in as many seasons.

If you think that's bad, then check out Nigerian Rabiu Ibrahim.  Who?  Exactly.  He was signed by Neil Lennon in similar circumstances.  Ibrahim made a solitary appearance in the hoops and signed for Kilmarnock a year later, where he couldn't establish himself as a regular.

And Rangers have got GBEs via appeal for three players already in this transfer window, including an uncapped Colombian striker who was playing in Finland last year.

So I actually emailed the SFA asking how many players had received GBEs in recent times, and a chap called Sandy Bryson was kind enough to send me a detailed reply.  The answer was quite disturbing.

Between June 2015 and June 2017, seventeen GBEs were issued - that is, seventeen non-EU players were given permission to play in Scotland.  Thirteen of those were after an appeal hearing.

That's thirteen out of seventeen that didn't meet the criteria.  That's 76%!!!

Not only that, but the four that did meet the criteria included extensions to current GBEs - non-EU players already playing in Scotland who had signed new contracts or changed clubs.

Blimey.  Perhaps this rule isn't fit for purpose?

I replied to Mr Bryson with a request for a list of names of players who had received GBEs, but sadly never got a reply.  And trying to work out who the seventeen are was bloody hard.  I have narrowed it down to eighteen names - and here they are.  If any of the names are wrong, or I've missed any, then please let me know and I'll amend.

Christian Gamboa (Celtic)
Eboue Kouassi (Celtic)
Eiji Kawashima (Dundee United)
Perry Kitchen (Hearts)
Juwon Oshaniwa (Hearts)
Efe Ambrose (Hibs)
Ofir Marciano (Hibs)
Kevin Dzierzawski (Peterhead)
Eduardo Herrera (Rangers)
Alfredo Morelos (Rangers)
Carlos Pena (Rangers)

Nir Bitton (Celtic)
Emilio Izaguirre (Celtic)
Tom Rogic (Celtic)
Jozo Simunovic (Celtic)

Harlain M'Bayo (Aberdeen)
Kolo Toure (Celtic)
Niko Kranjcar (Rangers)

The first eleven seem nailed-on.  The 'probables' include three Celtic players who signed new contracts during that two year period.  Simunovic and Kranjcar are both Croats; whilst Croatia is in the EU, the UK does have a restriction on Croatians working here.  According to press reports at the time, Simunovic needed a work permit.  Kranjcar and Toure spent enough time playing in England that I would have thought they would have achieved citizenship, but it's unclear if they did so.  M'Bayo is an Aberdeen youth player who apparently needed to get through home office red tape to be allowed to play for the club.

As for the four players who didn't require appeals, it's quite possible that three of them were Bitton, Izaguirre and Rogic, all of whom were getting extensions rather than new GBEs.  So does that mean that just one out of thirteen new applications was automatically successful?

Why am I so interested in this?  For a start there are seven Celtic and four Rangers names on the list, which suggests that Scotland's two biggest clubs are taking significant advantage of the system.  The hope is that guys like Kouassi can follow in the footsteps of Victor Wanyama and earn a tidy profit for the club in the long run.  After all, clubs from the likes of Portugal or Scandinavian countries do very well in this respect because they aren't restricted in the same way; no wonder our boys want a piece of action.

Secondly, at a time where everyone's whinging about the lack of opportunities for Scottish youngsters, it is worth noting that these players are another obstacle in the way.

Thirdly, the system up here is so much more lax compared to England.  Efe Ambrose was denied a loan move from Celtic to Blackburn in January because the English FA declined to treat him as a special case.  Yet he was able to sign for Hibs in June because the SFA took a more relaxed view.  And because there's a lack of transparency we don't know who is on the panel, and how impartial they are.

And finally, how many of the names on that list would you describe as "of the highest standard" and "able to contribute significantly to the development of the game at the top level in Scotland"?  Kevin Dzierzawski, now at Peterhead after failing to get a regular game at Queen of the South, is a particular cracker.  But none of these guys are Lionel Messi.  Hell, I'd say only Simunovic and Rogic can realistically aspire to play at a higher level than this.

This is a starting XI you can make from those names.  Not really of the highest standard, is it?

Ach, maybe no-one else cares too much.  Maybe Mexican midfielders and Costa Rican defenders add a bit of glamour.  But as far as I can see its just one more reason why the SFA isn't fit for purpose.

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.

Friday, July 7, 2017

It's only July, but Rangers already face a Caixinha conundrum

Progres Niederkorn weren't even Luxembourg's best team. The part timers were fourth in their domestic league last year.

And they only went and knocked Rangers out of the Europa League at the first hurdle.

The worst result ever for a Scottish club in Europe? I suppose Celtic lost in Gibraltar last summer, but Brendan Rodgers' side were convincing winners over two legs. And whilst others have been embarrassed in the past, none have spent several million quid on players in the preceding few weeks.  And none have been knocked out by a team that would probably rival Brechin City for quality.

Rangers' abject humiliation causes them all sorts of problems, just one of which is the lack of any organised matches before the start of the Premiership season. So confident were they of progression through at least two rounds of continental competition that they had eschewed any preseason friendlies.

That at least provides time to assess the situation, and what a situation it is. My first thought after the match was of the "Dead man walking" scene from The Green Mile. Perhaps that's too harsh on Pedro Caixinha, but the credibility of the Portuguese coach has taken an almighty blow here. It's not as if he enjoyed unanimous support from Rangers fans as it it was. Results and performances at the back end of last season were hardly impressive; add in the natural suspicion that most British football supporters seem to have of intelligent, well-spoken foreign coaches who are more interested in tactics than making sure their players are getting stuck in, and you have a manager who has just about zero margin for error between now and the first Old Firm game in September.

But Rangers have invested heavily in Caixinha. Very heavily. When Dave King claimed that this year's season ticket money was going back into the squad, I scoffed - that's what happens at all football clubs! But what King actually meant was that it was going to be spunked on new players - nine new arrivals costing more than £10million in transfer fees and a fair bit extra in wages and signing on fees. That might well have absorbed every last penny obtained from those 40,000-plus season tickets sold. In fact, King subsequently suggested that directors had been providing loans to help finance the shopping spree.  Oh, and don't forget too that the club paid £300,000 in compensation for Caixinha in the first place.

And those nine players - with the exception maybe of Ryan Jack and Graham Dorrans - have Caixinha's fingerprints all over them; a mixture of Portuguese and Latin American players well versed in the style he wants Rangers to play. That in itself was a risky move - it's somewhat cliched to question how these guys might manage on a December afternoon in Dingwall, but not entirely irrelevant - and if Caixinha was punted, what becomes of these expensive signings?

Meanwhile, we know from their previous accounts that Rangers required loans from shareholders just to get through last season, were taking. If King's claims that loans were used to fund the new signings is true, then that is obviously hugely concerning. And King's ongoing dispute with the Takeover Panel will of course mean that external investment is rather difficult to come by. Where will new income come from? Well, it won't be from the Europa League.

Whilst Joey Barton and Joe Garner are no longer on the wage bill, it seems very likely that it is no lower than it was last year, especially with several unwanted faces still stinking up the place. If the likes of Rob Kiernan, Harry Forrester and Michael O'Halloran choose to sit in the stands whilst collecting their large pay packets and gamble on a new manager appreciating them, then that's another significant drain on resources that are surely more meagre than is being publicized.

Oh aye, and there's no evidence as of yet that Rangers have made the necessary leap to overhaul Aberdeen, let alone get significantly closer to Celtic.

So here is the conundrum. Rangers probably can't afford to dismiss Pedro Caixinha. And yet they probably can't afford not to.

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.