Thursday, November 16, 2017

We need a revolution, but Project Brave feels like the wrong one

It's hard to feel optimistic about Project Brave.

Part of that is due to the corny name - even thinking about it makes one cringe inwardly. Part of that is the thought that Malky Mackay is it's figurehead. But most of it is due to the fact that the SFA have done little in recent years that justifies ever giving them the benefit of the doubt.

Still, they've recognised that the failure to produce talented players for our national team is a huge problem, and this is their revolutionary plan to fix that. And sure, revolutions always upset lots of people.

The concern is that the criticisms so far have been pretty reasonable.

To recap, eight clubs are given Elite status, which means extra funding. Another eight have been put in a second tier with a bit less funding, and four more are a tier lower. The elite eight are Celtic, Rangers, Aberdeen, Hearts, Hibs, Hamilton, Motherwell and Kilmarnock. That's just one club north of the Firth of Forth.

As you'd expect from any organization who uses the word 'transparency' often, there's been a fair amount of secrecy about the criteria used. In fact, much of the detail has only come as a result of some clubs publicly explaining why they are not at Elite level.

Dundee United revealed that because there are no adequate indoor training facilities in Tayside, they had no chance (presumably St. Johnstone suffered from the same problem).

St. Mirren would have had to hire five new members of staff - including a head of recruitment, a sports scientist and a performance analyst, which wasn't financially viable.

Partick Thistle, whose youth academy is financially backed by well-known Euromillions winners Chris and Colin Weir, released a beautifully written statement which was a tactful way of saying "we think it's all bollocks". They would have increase their overall outlay on the youth setup to £600,000/year - 20% of their annual budget. As they pointed out, they've been doing pretty well at producing players via their own methods.

Greenock Morton, stuck in the third group, were marked down simply because they've only had an academy for five years - apparently history matters more than actual quality (insert Rangers joke here).

And finally Ross County are appealing against missing out on Elite status despite apparently meeting the criteria; chairman Roy McGregor fired a pre-emptive strike last month by claiming the club's refusal to make primary school-age kids travel 200 miles to the central belt and back on Sundays was being used against them.

Of the eight clubs picked as Elite, five were shoo-ins: the Gruesome Twosome, the two Edinburgh clubs and Aberdeen. The Dons don't even have their own training ground let alone indoor facilities, but being able to access the local University's sports village is apparently good enough. That's despite stories that their kids' teams have to do a tour of local parks to find ones to train on.

The other three have clearly taken a wee bit of a financial risk in order to be deemed Elite. And since Kilmarnock, Hamilton and Motherwell all have a good recent record for developing and playing their own products it is hard to begrudge them. But is there really a need for five of the eight clubs to be within 30 minutes' drive of Hampden Park? The SFA's own annual performance review from earlier this year uses Keiran Freeman, a youngster signed by Southampton last summer, as evidence of the benefit of the Performance School model it is looking for clubs to adopt. Freeman is from Dundee. The next Tayside tyro will have to travel all the way to Edinburgh and back at least to train with an Elite setup.

As for the other five, what has actually changed that will improve the calibre of Scottish player being produced? There's no disagreement that the quality is insufficient, but its the clubs that produce the players, not the SFA. And these five clubs already hoard significant numbers of youngsters. How many so far are going on to be first teamers? Well, counting only players who have been in their academy setups in the last five years - so guys like Andrew Considine and Lewis Stevenson don't count - Aberdeen, Hibs and Rangers have between them just three players who have started Premiership matches this season. Hearts and Celtic can at least boast far more.

The main motivations for youth setups in the past have mostly seemed to be a combination of creating links with the local community and the hope that you'd be lucky enough to find the next superstar. So when in a couple of years Kieran Tierney gets to the point that playing in Scotland is holding him back the transfer fee will pay for many, many years of Celtic's setup. On a smaller scale the £1.5million Hibs got for Jason Cummings more than justified two or three completely stagnant years of production.

But the big clubs have always done their best to hoard the youth talent. Getting them to play the kids and give them the chance and experience they need has always another matter. After all, what First Team Manager is going to risk results and his own neck by playing youngsters and benefitting only a successor several years down the line? After their Euro 2000 disaster, Germany forced Bundesliga clubs to put six homegrown players in their matchday squad every week; only by introducing rules like these, rather than relying on the clubs looking past their own short-term selfishness, will progress be made in that area.

But my biggest bone with Project Brave is that I feel like the whole problem has been approached from the wrong angle. The biggest problems we have as a footballing nation are a lack of facilities and a lack of coaches. The first is not being addressed - clubs are just accessing what is already there - although it seems like coach numbers will be on the rise, albeit only at these Elite clubs. But it costs a fortune to get that qualification.

Given their recent successes Iceland are in vogue, and quite right too. Their achievements stem from building loads of indoor facilities (with government support) and subsidizing coaching qualifications, whilst refusing to allow anyone to coach even a four year old without some sort of UEFA licence. Said four year olds get access to said facilities and said coaches. Even though the vast majority are no more talented than you or I they get high quality coaching and, more importantly, exercise; the whole thing is a significant public health benefit. And as a bonus, fifteen years down the line there are far more international-class footballers per head of population than anywhere else in the world.

Maybe its a pipe dream to think the Scottish Government would have been amenable to such a scheme. But there's nothing to suggest the SFA even thought about it. Project Brave seems to instead do little more than give Elite clubs a badge that gives them even more chance of hoarding the kids who look the most talented, without actually giving them a carrot or a stick to get them to improve their output.

Plus ca change...

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

Monday, November 13, 2017

Dundee: stand by your man, or can McCann?

If there was one obvious lesson to be learned from Inverness Caledonian Thistle's relegation from the Premiership last summer, it was this: showing too much faith in a struggling manager is laudable, but it also often leads to complete disaster.

The ability of the manager/head coach/caretaker kept on as the cheap option because of all the money wasted on a Portuguese bloke (delete as applicable depending on the management structure of the club in question) is of course important at any club, but the smaller the club and their playing budget, the bigger the difference that the quality of the coach makes.

Whether through astute tactical acumen or just having an eye for (and contacts to find) a decent player, it can be - to use Caley Thistle as an example again - the difference between being the third best side in the country to being in the division below.  Richie Foran had neither quality.  His predecessor John Hughes couldn't tell the difference between the next Lionel Messi and the next Lionel Blair, but was outstanding at improving the players he inherited, which is why ICT won the cup.  Before that, Terry Butcher displayed little tactical nous beyond "let's get into 'em" but managed to find and attract several gems to the Highlands and create one of the best half-dozen squads in the country.

Of course, Foran had no experience as a manager and precious little as a coach, and within six months it was clear he was out of his depth.  Neil McCann has been at Dundee for a similar period.  Last weekend's defeat at Hibernian was his eighteenth league game since taking over in May, so that's nearly half a season as a sample.  The stats: four wins, two draws, twelve defeats, eighteen goals scored and thirty-four against, fourteen points out of a possible fifty-four.

Now it must be pointed out that McCann was appointed because the Dark Blues were already spiralling hopelessly out of control.  Paul Hartley's last seven matches in charge were all defeats, which means that rotten league record can be extrapolated to fourteen points from twenty-five games, a figure which would normally be acceptable only if the club had picked up one of its once-a-decade points penalties for administration.  So there was certainly something very wrong to begin with.  But can McCann put it right?

Already this season four Premiership clubs have pulled the trigger and changed manager.  Rangers obviously don't belong in a conversation about sides at the bottom, but Kilmarnock and Ross County certainly do, and Hearts were so bad under Ian Cathro (league record: 5 wins, 4 draws, 13 defeats) that they were heading in that direction sharpish.  Both they and Killie, with Lee McCulloch (league record: 4 wins, 9 draws, 11 defeats), had appointed managerial rookies, and they were correctly dismissed because it had become clear that they were out of their depth.

Circumstances at Ross County were rather different; to uninformed outsiders - and there were depressingly many occupying sportsdesks in the central belt - sacking Jim McIntyre just a year and a half after winning the League Cup was scandalous.  Yet County had been honking last season and heavily reliant on Liam Boyce, and despite significant backing McIntyre had brought in lots of players who didn't even remotely look like replacing him.  Much like when they punted Derek Adams a few years earlier, a change had to be made to preserve their Premiership status.

In came Steve Clarke at Rugby Park, and Owen Coyle at the Global Energy Stadium, two coaches with rather excellent pedigree compared to the ones who usually pitch up in the bottom half of the Scottish Premiership.  Both have made very decent first impressions, and have both started getting points on the board.

Dundee had the chance to move for a coach with that experience and calibre at the end of last season, because of course McCann initially declined the opportunity to stay on after seeing the team to survival - which he managed by winning his first two games before the players downed tools for the last two matches, embarrassing defeats to Inverness and Hamilton.  The club made overtures towards St. Mirren's highly-rated Jack Ross that were not welcomed, before McCann had a change of heart and chose not to return to the Sky Sports studio after all.  That initial lack of enthusiasm seemed to bode ill even then.

Still, its not as if he isn't trying.  The dramatic change in playing style shows that.  Last year the plan A was to punt the ball up to Marcus Haber - one could imagine Paul Hartley on the touchline yelling "HIT MARCUS!", Graham Taylor-style - and plan B was, erm, to punt it up to Marcus Haber.  Now there is a conscious effort to build from the back with the goalkeeper rolling it out to the centre-backs when possible.  That goalkeeper, incidentally, is currently Elliot Parish, as longstanding number one and former Scotland squad member Scott Bain has been dropped after a bust-up with the boss.

Falling out with arguably your best player isn't an ideal strategy when confidence is rock bottom.  Neither is passing the ball around at the back.  Inevitably there are blunders which result in cheap goals being given away and heads dropping further.  There is also an element of bad luck.  Dundee's xG conceded from open play is 17.4, well below the real total of 22 goals let in...but that xG is still the worst in the Premiership (thanks to The SPFL Radar for those stats).

At the other end, Haber's recent return to the lineup shows that at least a little pragmatism has been allowed for, as Sofien Moussa, Faissal El Bakhtaoui and AJ Leitch-Smith have all completely failed to be a consistent goalscorer.

There's certainly an overall lack of quality, which is rather concerning given that quantity is not an issue.  No-one, not even Celtic or Rangers, has as many players aged over 21 on their books as Dundee - enough for two starting XIs plus a couple spare, and that's not counting youngsters such as Kerr Waddell, Lewis Spence and Jesse Curran who are very much in the first team picture.  The club's American owners have backed McCann just as they backed Paul Hartley, and not unreasonably they expect at least a top six finish for their bucks.  They missed out on that in each of the last two seasons and will surely do so this time round as well.

Even at this relatively early stage, the name of the game is survival.  There has been surprisingly little chat about the possibility of Dundee being relegated, which is not dissimilar to how things played out at Inverness last year; on paper they seem far too good to go down, but that of course is not how football works.  McCann has also largely dodged criticism so far - possibly protected by his own links within the media?

But they need wins and points pronto.  Sadly for McCann, the upcoming fixture list is not reassuring - a resurgent Kilmarnock at home, then Rangers at home, then Ross County away and Aberdeen at home.  It wouldn't surprise anyone if they didn't win any of those four games...and a failure to do so would surely force the issue on the manager's future.  McCann may be left hoping that they're just keeping his seat warm for him in the Sky Sports studio.

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.

Friday, November 3, 2017

McInnes should run a mile from Rangers

The Caixinha era was extremely costly for Rangers, both literally and metaphorically.

It would have been unrealistic to expect the Portuguese to turn the mediocre and unbalanced squad he inherited from the third best team in Scotland to title challengers in the seven and a half months he spent in charge.  But, given the amount of money spent signing the players he wanted in the summer, it is a catastrophe that they have not made any recognisable progress towards the level of Aberdeen, let alone Celtic.  Roughly £8million was paid out on the likes of Carlos Pena, Eduardo Herrera, Fabio Cardoso and others, and that isn't including signing on fees and wages.  Rangers also paid Caixinha's previous club, Al-Gharafa, £300,000 to procure him, and £500,000 to pay him off.  His successor will now inherit a squad built in Pedro's image with a number of players for whom "could they do it at Kilmarnock on a wet Tuesday night?" is less a borderline-racist cliche and more a genuine question.

If those in charge at Ibrox have any sense at all, they will do all they can to ensure that said successor is the man that has made Aberdeen so superior.  And Derek McInnes ticks the boxes: a successful, proven manager at this level, and he qualifies as a 'Rangers Man', the quality that Barry Ferguson has deemed so important to this appointment (possibly because poor Bazza wants a job there rather badly).  Admittedly, McInnes played only 53 games in four and a half years, and no-one remembers any of them except the times Dick Advocaat played him as a holding midfielder against PSV Eindhoven in the Champions League - with great success - and in the next game against Valencia - with great failure.  But he pulled on the blue strip, and left the club on relatively good terms, so, yeah, Rangers Man.

And one can imagine McInnes being tempted.  Domestically, it feels like the only way is down for the Dons.  They've hit a glass ceiling that's about 30 points thick and there's no way they'll break through to Celtic.  He accomplished a minor miracle to overcome the loss of several important players this summer, but will have to face the same dilemma at the end of the season - Kenny McLean has already indicated his intention to leave - and probably every other year after that.  His stock can't really go any higher whilst he remains in the North-East.

And of course Rangers should have great potential with their enormous support and funding that dwarves Aberdeen's,  The right manager, with sufficient resources and adequate time, could in a few years turn them into title challengers again.

But whilst McInnes is certainly the right manager, the other two conditions do not look likely to be met.  For a start, telling the supporters that it'll take two or three seasons before they can at least give Celtic a half-decent challenge would go down like a Union Jack ban at the Loudon.  Ibrox has always become very toxic very quickly when there's no success on the immediate horizon.  Unless the new boss can turn water into wine - or, even more impressively, Fabio Cardoso into a competent defender - the required overnight turnaround will be impossible.

And as for resources...well, Deek took one look at Sunderland in the summer and said "naw".  One the basketcase scale, Sunderland are Bomber Brown (who, incidentally, got appointed to Rangers' scouting team this week; one hopes his reports are more eloquent than his speeches).  But on that scale, the Gers are probably Terry Hurlock.

As mentioned above, they bet the house on Caixinha.  Chairman Dave King wasn't kidding when he claimed that the season ticket money was being spent on new signings - it's quite possible that it all was.  And now what?  That's the main income stream for the entire season blown already.

The club's annual accounts are due imminently; in fact last year's were published by the end of October so these are a bit later than expected.  Is that reason for concern?  Well, its no secret the club were managing with soft loans from directors more than a year ago.  In those accounts they also felt the need to boast that the player wage bill for 2016/17 was projected to be £10.3million.  The current figure is unlikely to be any lower and in fact is likely to be higher.

Meanwhile no banks will touch them with a barge pole and their chairman is currently the first person to ever be taken to court by the Takeover Panel...where, in an attempt to get out of being forced to bid to buy the whole club (a bid worth 'only' £12million) his lawyer actually described him as being "penniless".

Aberdeen would demand at least £1million in compo for McInnes - which is what they would have got from Sunderland, and that was before he signed a new contract - which may or may not be tricky to raise.

McInnes showed with Sunderland that he's not for being set up to fail.  Taking over at Ibrox would surely be a similar scenario.

It wouldn't be at all surprising if the board are praying for Graeme Murty to be a success - and he should be given he has back-to-back home games against Partick Thistle and Hamilton coming up before the international break.  Whilst he clearly isn't a long-term solution, he'd be cheap, and could buy the powers-that-be sufficient time to come up with a better option for when he inevitably fails.

But if they do come calling for McInnes, he should run away.  Very quickly.

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.