Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Dundee United can't afford to get this appointment wrong

This week Dundee United are going to sack manager Ray McKinnon.  (In fact, I understand they already have done, but it's Tuesday morning and there's still no official word from the club.)  A home defeat to struggling Inverness leaves United fourth in the Championship, five points behind leaders St. Mirren.  Had they won, they would be just two points off top spot.

Under McKinnon, United narrowly missed out on promotion last season via the playoffs, going down 1-0 on aggregate to Hamilton Accies.  Despite a few rocky results this season, you'd still have heavily fancied them to at least stay in the top four and get another crack at the playoffs this time around.

But that isn't sufficient.  One season outwith the Premiership was far too much.  For a club, and support, of this size being outside the top flight is unacceptable; worse, the club's financial situation means that staying in the second tier for a third straight year could have horrendous consequences; things would already be dire but for £800,000 received as part of ex-player Andrew Robertson's move to Liverpool.

Robertson was of course part of a United side that reached the Scottish Cup Final in 2014.  Not a single member of that matchday eighteen - that included Stuart Armstrong, Nadir Ciftci, Gary Mackay-Steven, Ryan Gauld and John Souttar amongst others - is still at Tannadice.  In fact, only Sean Dillon remained two years after the event.  Seven months later United defeated Celtic at Tannadice to go second in the league at Christmas, just four points off the top.  With Ronny Deila toiling at Parkhead, some crazy people even wondered if United were a dark horse for the title.

Just sixteen months after that, they were relegated.  And things haven't got any better - unless you count the Challenge Cup; United won that at their first attempt, which is more than Hearts, Hibs and Rangers managed.  So I suppose there's that.

McKinnon seemed a sensible appointment at the time, a manager who had overachieved with Raith Rovers at Championship level and with Brechin City before that, and a former United player to boot.  And given the mess he inherited, a little leeway was given in the early stages.  After all, it took Rangers two years to get out of this very competitive and under-rated division (look, that's the excuse I'm using for Caley Thistle's struggles, and I'm sticking to it) and Hibs three.  But United only came third in the table, before winning two playoff games.  They then went down to a Hamilton side who were surely the most dreadful team not to be relegated from the Premiership.

And the quality of reinforcement brought in during the summer meant that there were no excuses left.  Scott McDonald turned down a new deal at Motherwell to join up; James Keatings has won promotion from the Championship with three different clubs; along with Keatings, Fraser Fyvie went up with Hibs last season; Paul McMullan and Sam Stanton impressed on loan spells with Dunfermline and Dumbarton respectively; Paul Quinn and Tam Scobbie added top flight experience to the back line.

Yet it all felt cobbled together.  McDonald and Keatings have six league goals between them but don't look like a partnership - in fact winger McMullan looked more effective up front than either of them when pressed into the role during an early season injury crisis.  The midfield lacks solidity, with Jordie Briels struggling as a holding midfielder and Willo Flood a shadow of the player he was in his first Tannadice spell now his legs are going.  And in defence there is only one out-and-out full-back, youngster Jamie Robson.  Sure, Scobbie, Lewis Toshney and Stewart Murdoch can all play there if necessary, but none of them offer any sort of attacking threat.

If chairman Stephen Thompson was looking for a sure sign that McKinnon was out of his depth, it came in the middle of the second half on Saturday.  Two down at home, and with two forwards on the bench, he moved Mark Durnan up front.  That's Mark Durnan, the central defender.  The ridiculousness was not lost on the supporters, and was exacerbated by the contrast with his direct opponent, ICT centre-back Coll Donaldson.  Donaldson was the epitomy of United's struggles over the last two years, a youngster who was supposed to be a great talent-in-waiting and who was paid as such, only to flop spectacularly.  Let go in August, Donaldson has moved up the A9 and looks rejuvenated by his move to the Highlands.  He breezed through the match, looking far more relaxed, composed and able than his former teammates.

So McKinnon had to go.  And United need to replace him with someone who can guarantee promotion, if such a thing is possible.  It's no surprise to see Jim McIntyre in the frame, a former United player who won the Championship in charge of Dunfermline.  John Hughes has also been mentioned - Thompson is known to be an admirer, and unsuccessfully tried to recruit him to replace Jackie McNamara (talk about a Sliding Doors moment for United and Caley Thistle).  But Hughes would take time to implement his passing style, time that United probably don't have.

The big worry is that everything has just gone rotten.  Hibernian's relegation in 2014 was the culmination of years of stagnation where everyone walking through Easter Road's front door seemed inflicted with the opposite of the Midas Touch.  It didn't matter how good a player (or coach) you were, you would become guff if you joined Hibs.  Especially if you were a goalkeeper.  Only a radical overhaul of the club, along with a spell in the Championship, cleansed them of this curse.

United aren't big enough or stable enough off the pitch to have the time for that, though the fans would welcome Thompson's exit.  But given the struggles of their bigger names, one worries that, if Leo Messi pitched up in tangerine, after a month fans would be muttering "this guy's not exactly Ralphy Milne, is he?"

But if they are to have any hope at all in the short-term, they need to get this appointment right.

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

Thursday, October 19, 2017

An out of contract XI

We're beginning to see a few new contracts being ironed out, particularly with up and coming youngsters. With pre-contracts signable from January, expect more action in the coming months. Here, for your amusement is a starting XI with one out of contract player from each Premiership club (bar one, of course). Each of the eleven players is one who I think is reasonably likely, for one reason or another, to move on at the end of the current campaign. See what you think...

GOALKEEPER: Scott Bain (Dundee)
Coming up for 26, it seems likely that this will be Bain's fourth and final season at Dens Park; he's been coy about his future, which is surely a sign that he's considering his options. If he's to get himself back in the Scotland squad, he probably needs to move to either a bigger Scottish club or to England.

Other Dundee players out of contract: Jesse Curran, Julen Etxabeguren, Kostadin Gadzhalov, Kevin Holt, Nicky Low, Paul McGowan, Josh Meekings, Mark O'Hara, Elliot Parish, Lewis Spence

RIGHT BACK: Marcus Fraser (Ross County)
Fraser has been a bit of a conundrum for County - a very decent defender who is not quite athletic enough to be the type of right-back they want, nor quite physical enough to be the type of centre-back they want. Deploying him alongside strongman Andrew Davies sounds good in theory but hasn't worked in practice. Fraser signed a one year deal last year to keep his options open; unless Owen Coyle can get the best out of him he might be on his way.

Other Ross County players out of contract: Craig Curran, Russell Dingwall, Dylan Dykes, Michael Gardyne, Davis Keillor-Dunn, Blair Malcolm, Aaron McCarey, Christopher Routis, Alex Schalk, Reghan Tumilty, Kenny Van Der Weg

CENTRE BACK: Liam Fontaine (Hibernian)
When fit, Fontaine seems to be in the team most weeks for Hibs, but an ankle injury has sidelined him until around Christmas and he's probably down the pecking order now Paul Hanlon is fully fit again. 32 in January, Neil Lennon probably sees him as a squad player in the long-run - whether that is enough to satisfy the player or not remains to be seen.

Other Hibernian players out of contract: Lewis Allan, Andrew Blake, Callum Crane, Dylan McGeouch, Innes Murray, Sam Stanton

CENTRE BACK: Danny Wilson (Rangers)
Injuries haven't helped, but Wilson is now firmly a backup at Ibrox. 26 in December, it feels like aeons since Liverpool paid £2million for him...perhaps because it is. Thought to be one of the higher earners at the club, he's not good enough value for money right now to hang on to.

Other Rangers players out of contract: Jamie Barjonas, David Bates, Myles Beerman, Kyle Bradley, Liam Burt, Ryan Hardie, Niko Kranjcar, Kenny Miller, Jordan Thompson

LEFT BACK: Callum Booth (Partick Thistle)
Booth really broke through last season, only to injure his knee in August. Thistle can't get him back quickly enough given their current woes. If Booth gets back to last year's form, he might fancy his chances of a move to a bigger club. If - god forbid - Thistle go down, he'll definitely justify an offer from another Premiership side.

Other Partick Thistle players out of contract: Stuart Bannigan, Daniel Devine, Mustapha Dumbuya, Ross Fleming, Mark Lamont, Steven Lawless, Paul McGinn, Neil McLaughlin, Kevin Nisbet, Milan Nitriansky, Abdul Osman, James Penrice, Ryan Scully

CENTRAL MIDFIELD: Gary Dicker (Kilmarnock)
Now they have a decent coach, maybe Killie will be organized enough to cope with Dicker's longstanding stomach injury. Up till now his absence has been glaring, both in terms of leadership qualities and ability to break up the play and protect the back four. His future is in flux until he gets back to fitness and we find out if Steve Clarke fancies him.

Other Kilmarnock players out of contract: Kris Boyd, Scott Boyd, Chris Burke, Gordon Greer, Dean Hawkshaw, Greg Kiltie, Jamie MacDonald, Rory McKenzie, Alex Samizadeh, Steven Smith, Brad Spencer

CENTRAL MIDFIELD: Kenny McLean (Aberdeen)
McLean is apparently coveted by Rangers, which isn't surprising. Changes to the Dons' tactics this season have perhaps reduced his influence a little but he remains a real talent at this level. Can Aberdeen pin him down to a new deal, or will he leave in search of new challenges (and a bigger pay packet) in Glasgow or elsewhere?

Other Aberdeen players out of contract: Kari Arnason, Daniel Harvie, Nicky Maynard, Connor McLennan, Anthony O'Connor, Danny Rogers, Frank Ross, Craig Storie

CENTRAL MIDFIELD: Liam Henderson (Celtic)
Might Henderson move as soon as January? His progress at Celtic seems have stalled considerably over the last year and a half, which is a shame given how well other youngsters have done under Brendan Rodgers. Still only 21, there is real potential and talent here and hopefully it can be realised...but it'll have to be away from Celtic Park.

Other Celtic players out of contract: Dorus De Vries, Jamie Lindsay, Jamie McCart, Joe Thomson

ATTACKING MIDFIELD: Jamie Walker (Hearts)
Walker's head was seemingly turned by Rangers' advances in the summer transfer window, along with disillusionment at his role under Ian Cathro. His focus seems to have returned since Craig Levein returned to the dugout. Unplayable on his day, the question remains whether he is consistent enough to star at a higher level, or whether he would be too much of a luxury?

Other Hearts players out of contract: Angus Beith, Jamie Brandon, Prince Buaben, Euan Henderson, Aaron Hughes, Jon McLaughlin, Callumn Morrison, Viktor Noring, Krystian Nowak

ATTACKING MIDFIELD: Ali Crawford (Hamilton Accies)
It seems like we've been expecting Crawford to ascend to the next level for about three years...and it still ain't happened. At 26, surely the time has come for him to try his luck elsewhere, because he isn't getting any better at Hamilton.

Other Hamilton Accies players out of contract: Rakish Bingham, Michael Devlin, Grant Gillespie, Alex Gogic, Dougie Imrie, Darren Jamieson, Louis Longridge, Darren Lyon, Jordan McGregor, Danny Redmond, Georgios Sarris, Ioannis Skondras, David Templeton, Xavier Tomas, Shaun Want

STRIKER: Louis MOULT (Motherwell)
It would be a shock if Moult remained at Fir Park beyond next summer; he was clearly receptive to Aberdeen's summer overtures even if his current employers weren't. Reassuringly for 'Well, he has got his head down and continued doing what he does best - scoring goals. That attitude will further endear him to the long list of likely suitors.

Other Motherwell players out of contract: Ryan Bowman, Liam Brown, Charles Dunne, Shea Gordon, Russell Griffiths, Liam Grimshaw, Stevie Hammell, Adam Livingstone, Louis Moult, Deimantas Petravicius, Andy Rose, Luke Watt

Oh, and there's St. Johnstone.  But none of their out of contract players quite fitted into this as well as the eleven I selected. 

The list, for what it's worth: Blair Alston, Steven Anderson, Graham Cummins, Murray Davidson, Ally Gilchrist, Callum Hendry, Greg Hurst, Alan Mannus, Kyle McClean, Steven MacLean, Chris Millar, Paul Paton, Scott Tanser, Craig Thomson, Keith Watson.

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.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Strachan: stay or punt?

So that's another qualifying campaign done and dusted.  And another Scottish failure.  That makes it twenty years since, at the age of 14, I watched us get gubbed by Morocco in our last major tournament appearance.

And so that means another post-mortem.  And that starts, inevitably, with the question of what do with our manager.

The only reason this needs to be done quickly is that the current incumbent's contract is up at the end of next month.  Euro 2020 qualifying doesn't actually begin until March 2019; before that we have the confusing and convoluted UEFA Nations League which will be critical to our Euro 2020 qualification/just a bunch of glorified friendlies (delete as applicable).  So if the SFA and Gordon Strachan do part ways, the decision to appoint a replacement could be put off for the best part of a year...especially as friendly matches tend to harm our FIFA Ranking and future seedings rather than benefit us.

Amongst the support, there seems to be an overwhelming feeling that it is time to move on.  After all, Strachan has managed for two full qualifying campaigns, the first Scotland manager since Craig Brown to do so.  In both we have come up short.  I would suggest that failing to make Euro 2016 was a bigger crime than missing out on the 2018 World Cup, but it is failure nonetheless.

My own feelings on the matter are far less strong than they were a year ago, or even two years ago.  I wanted Strachan's head on a plate after we finished fourth in our Euros group, and felt even stronger about it after our lousy World Cup start.  At the end of 2016, we had won only 3 out of our previous 10 qualifiers, and those victories were against Gibraltar (twice) and Malta.  That run included defeat in Georgia and a lucky home draw with Lithuania.

The turnaround in this calendar year has actually been remarkable.  After starting with four points from as many games, ultimately Scotland needed five wins and a draw from the remaining six matches to finish second...and they came up agonisingly short.  Those six games included excellent home performances against Slovenia and Slovakia - even though the decisive goals came late - and a very impressive win in Lithuania.  Under ordinary circumstances an away point in Ljubljana would be considered decent too.  And whilst we weren't great for 85 minutes against England at Hampden, we still could and should have won.

So whereas we finished the Euro qualifiers on a bad run, we conclude the World Cup qualifiers as an in-form team.  But how much credit Strachan should get for that is certainly open to debate.  There was a drastic change in philosophy from the Slovenia game onwards, moving from a slow, possession style to a strategy of, basically, "fill the team with Celtic players and hope their ability and mentality rub off on the others".  A tad harsh?  Maybe, but concentrating on getting the most out of Leigh Griffiths was crucial to Scotland's upturn; Strachan's decision to resist starting him for so long seemed foolish to the extreme at the time and is even more so with hindsight.  As Evan MacFarlane wrote for The Terrace, "we'd have failed earlier if Brendan Rodgers hadn't shown up at Celtic and properly coached half our national team".

Any lingering goodwill further evaporated with those ridiculous 'genetics' comments after the Slovenia game.  Even taking into account that Strachan was clearly tired and emotional - in the literal sense, not the Private Eye one - it deserved the mockery it got.  Scotland are not 'too wee' in that manner or any other.  It was a time for humility, for admitting that we'd been lousy in the second half and asking for another chance to take the team forward.  Instead his flippancy raises concerns that he genuinely thinks he can't make this team any better than they are.

If that is the case, then he has to go.  Sure, Scotland have terrible weaknesses at centre-back and out wide which are difficult to compensate for.  But if Iceland can qualify for a World Cup then we certainly can. 

If he is to be replaced, then I would urge the SFA to take their time.  Even if the Nations League is to be taken seriously, Scotland do not have another competitive game till September 2018.  Use the November international break either for a training camp or to give the players a wee break.  Instead of headhunting, draw out the application process for a month or two and see what interest there is from these isles and elsewhere.  The current available candidates of note - David Moyes, Paul Lambert etc - are not very likely to find employment in the near future anyway, so they'll still be available in the New Year.  Alternatively, go to the other extreme and offer Michael O'Neill that huge pot of money that was generated by fleecing the Tartan Army with £60 tickets.

And most of all, for the love of God don't appoint Malky Mackay.  It's embarrassing enough that the SFA felt he was worthy of such a prestigious role as Performance Director.  Making him the national team's figurehead would be a disgrace.

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.