Friday, December 21, 2018

Looking ahead to January

The January transfer window always seems a bit mental. With it being the last decent chance to bring in new players, we often see managers panic and bring in an entire team of players, the footballing equivalent of throwing a ton of stuff at a wall and hoping some of it will stick. There are also inevitably some unexpected arrivals, and some unexpected departures too. So frankly, predicting what will happen is a mug's game.

But we're going to do it anyway, because, you know. Let's have a look at who each Premiership side might punt, and which areas they need to strengthen in...

Outs? Have the Dons given up on Chris Forrester already? The midfielder has made just a single start for the club after joining for £150,000 in the summer, though he did make his first appearance for more than two months against Dundee in midweek. Derek McInnes will have been gutted that Max Lowe, the loanee who has excelled in recent weeks at left-back, has been recalled by Derby County. However he may well look to end James Wilson's spell at the club early with the Manchester United forward having failed to impress. Oh, and don't forget Greg Tansey who has been out injured but was out of favour anyway.

Ins? A left-back to replace Lowe is a necessity unless the Dons want to play Andrew Considine there for the rest of the year. Central defensive reinforcements may be needed if Michael Devlin can't get over a foot problem. A pacey wide player would add a new dimension. And of course a centre-forward who scores regularly - unless Sam Cosgrove can keep up his recent form.

Outs? The recent injury crisis may mean Brendan Rodgers has to hold on to some players just for the sake of having numbers. But there appears to be no future at the club for Marvin Compper, Cristian Gamboa, Scott Allan or Kundai Benyu. Might they try to cash in on Dedryck Boyata before his contract runs out in the summer?

Ins? Rodgers has intimated he wants to upgrade three or four positions in January. Another option up front is a necessity. Right-back has looked like a weak area all season too.

Outs? This is Jim McIntyre's chance to move on anyone he inherited who he doesn't rate. That group will probably include midfielders Karl Madianga and Elton Ngwatala and forwards Sofien Moussa and Jean-Alassane Mendy. Adil Nabi's contract is up in January and unlikely to be extended, while Andy Boyle's loan also runs out; it's unclear whether he and Ryan Inniss (who could be sent back south early) have done enough to impress the new boss.

Ins? Aside maybe central midfield, the Dark Blues could justifiably seek reinforcements in every position. There is a dire need for new central defenders.

Outs? Summer signings Sam Kelly, Aaron Smith and Kieran Monlouis have barely registered on the radar so far this season so one wonders if they have any future at the club.. It wouldn't be a surprise to Mason Bloomfield's loan terminated early. Jan Mucha is only on a short-term deal but given he is already first choice keeper you'd expect Accies to try and extend his contract.

Ins? Martin Canning has already stated his intention to sign a couple of players. It wouldn't be January if Hamilton didn't sign a Dutchman or Greek who went on to barely play for the first team...

Outs? Danny Amankwaa appears to be completely out of favour after a brief return to the lineup in the Autumn. However, the Jambos will hope to extend the loan contract of Jimmy Dunne, which runs out in January. Expect a number of young players to be loaned out.

Ins? Czech striker David Vanecek will join on after signing a pre-contract in the summer.

Outs? Charis Mavrias' short-term contract will be up. However they will hope to extend Emmerson Hyndman's loan deal.

Ins? Given that Neil Lennon pulled a few rabbits out of the hat this time last year, it wouldn't be a surprise if there were one or two interesting new faces. Gillingham striker Tom Eaves has recently been linked.

Outs? Jack Byrne has already left for Shamrock Rovers. The loans of Bright Enobakhare and Mikael Ndjoli are both up in January but the latter has proven a useful squad player and might be kept on. Ross Millen's short-term deal also runs out.

Ins? Steve Clarke may find it hard to improve on his current best XI and though he has a great track record of convincing decent players to join his project he may feel that any depth concerns can be dealt with by youngsters returning from loan spells.

Outs? Egli Kaja has returned to parent club AFC Wimbledon. Otherwise expect Gary Holt to try and keep the squad he has.

Ins? Could ex-Lion Stefan Scougall come back for a second spell? Otherwise the club will think hard before risking disrupting the current team with newcomers.

Outs? Andy Rose will join Vancouver Whitecaps once the window opens. Forward George Newell's development seems to have stalled and it would be no surprise to see him leave, at least on loan. Connor Sammon's spell at the club has gone as well as most predicted, but it may be that Hearts refuse to take him back early!

Ins? Unless Trevor Carson's return is well before the end of the season they may look for an experienced keeper to compete with Mark Gillespie. The Steelmen would probably also prefer not to need to play Richard Tait out of position at left-back if they could avoid it.

Outs? Umar Sadiq's exit was hardly a surprise. But Ovie Ejaria had started 23 games this season before he returned to Liverpool. Though his performances had dropped off, it leaves Rangers short in that area. Further departures will surely only be the result of unrefusable (is that a word?) offers for the likes of James Tavernier or Alfredo Morelos.

Ins? Steven Gerrard has already made it clear he wants several new faces in this window, though Dominic Solanke and Kieran Dowell seem optimistic targets. Steven Davis has been linked with a return to Ibrox having captained Rangers prior to liquidation.

Outs? Stefan Scougall has been told to find a new club after failing to live up to expectations in his 18 months at the club. Greg Hurst can go too. Tristan Nydam has confirmed he will return to parent club Ipswich, while young midfielders Kyle McClean and Ali McCann will be loaned out.

Ins? Whilst Saints have managed much better than expected after losing Drey Wright for the season, they could do with finding a pacy wide player to take over his role in the side. Tommy Wright might also look for another striker to take the pressure off Tony Watt.

Outs? This will be Oran Kearney's chance to clear house and get rid of a bunch of has-beens and never-weres signed by Alan Stubbs. Matty Willock is already gone, and expect Josh Heaton, Alfie Jones, Cole Kpekawa and Cody Cooke to be moved on if possible. Goalkeeper Dean Lyness and midfielder Adam Hammill are both out of contract next month, though the club will be desperate to keep the latter.

Ins? Expect the Buddies to be very active; frankly, it's hard to think of an area of the park they wouldn't consider strengthening.

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.

Monday, December 17, 2018

In defence of Liam Polworth

In the Spring of 2015, I was lucky enough to be on a city break in Barcelona right on time to take in the second leg of Barca's Champions League Quarter Final against Paris St. Germain. You may well remember the home side's opening goal; facing his own goal, midway inside his own half, Andres Iniesta took a pass into feet with a PSG player steaming in to close him down. The crowd collectively took a deep breath, only for Iniesta to spin 180 degrees and leave his opponent for dead. The 80,000 cheers that greeted the audacious skill were followed quickly by two louder ones as Iniesta then danced past two flailing tackles and over the halfway line. With everyone already on their feet, he then played Neymar clean through with the perfect pass, and the Brazilian went round the keeper to score. The actual celebrations for the goal were relatively short, the subsequent chants of "INIESTA! INIESTA!" that went round the ground went on far longer.

You may think it is a little bit of a stretch to segue from one of the greatest players of the last decade to Caley Thistle midfielder Liam Polworth, but bear with me. Against Dundee United on Saturday, Polworth played in Tom Walsh to open the scoring. It was an exquisite through ball into the inside-right channel, and was in fact identical to goals set up and scored by the same players in each of Caley Thistle's previous two games. In the second half there was a moment where Polworth was trapped by United's Billy King against his own corner flag, only to outrageously nutmeg him before galloping up the pitch.

That's not to say Polworth was especially outstanding in the match. He was as guilty as many teammates of giving the ball away cheaply, though his forwards too rarely got into space to receive the ball from him. But nor was he one of the poorest players. And what always makes him stand out in this Inverness side is that he always looks to get on the ball, though this may be a reflection on his teammates' timidity as much as anything.

And that makes the crowd's reaction to him all the more curious and, frankly, nauseating.

For what it's worth, Polworth's bit of skill near his own corner flag brought barely a murmur from the home support. But they did attract their attention, though, was a shanked cross. Polworth himself showed frustration at his error. However, he was quickly drawn to the loud catcalls and booing coming from the main stand. With as much subtlety as a brick, he turned towards them and shouted something which I suspect probably was a bit less polite than "sorry about that, I'll do better next time".

Now, a common criticism of Polworth in these parts is that he has 'lousy body language'. Of course, that is entirely objective. When an on-form or well-liked player gets frustrated at the mistakes of himself or others, it's because he cares, because he wants to win, because others aren't as switched on as he is. When an off-form or unfavoured player does so, it's because he's a whinger with lousy body language. Of course, if said player doesn't react at all, it's because he doesn't care. Isn't it great how you can prove that the player you don't like has the wrong attitude, whatever his actions are?

And it gets extrapolated. Social media and online forums are filled with complaints that Polworth doesn't get back into position, or goes missing, for no apparent reason other than that these traits would fit the ongoing narrative. I have urged other fans to actually watch him, not where the ball is, for 5 minutes at a time; then they would see a player constantly on the move both when Caley Thistle have the ball and when they don't, a guy who does a really impressive shift compared to some of his teammates. But they don't - either because the rest of the match is too distracting or, more likely because it's far easier and more reassuring to have a convenient scapegoat to blame for the fugue that has enveloped the club in the last couple of years.

Polworth got the same criticisms last season, a campaign which finished with him credited a whopping 25 assists, 15 of which were in the league. When the SPFL Twitter account declared that statistic, it was met with scepticism because the number was more than double that of the next best. Whatever you think of 'assist' as a stat, the bottom line is you must be a pretty decent player to set up that many goals.

And yet the consensus view then was much the same as it is now. After all, it's only four months since he was 'punished' with abusive chants about his family from the home end during a clash with Ayr United - all because he missed a penalty. Some so-called fans were banned as a result, but depressingly it seems the respite for the player was only temporary.

In the final moments of the Dundee United match, Polworth was announced as the sponsors' Man Of The Match. It was a slightly bemusing decision, given that Walsh and Mark Ridgers had clearly been Caley Thistle's best two players, but usually an odd MOTM pick is met with shrugged shoulders and a collective "you what?" In this case, it was met with more boos.

For what it's worth, the same fans who largely ignored Polworth's corner flag nutmeg, berated his lousy cross and booed the decision to make him MOTM reserved much of their applause and acclaim during the game for midfielders slide-tackling the ball out of play, or defenders heading the ball really hard. It is a peculiar thing, perhaps a British thing. That sort of stuff doesn't get a cheer at the Camp Nou. A nutmeg by your own corner flag might, though.

Ultimately, Polworth will have to leave Inverness to get the acclaim he deserves, and he will; his contract is up at the end of the season and it is common knowledge that it won't be renewed unless he takes a pay cut. One suspects he won't have to go as far as Spain to find someone who appreciates him though, as most coaches and scouts are surely more insightful than the football neanderthals that populate Tulloch Caledonian Stadium. As for said neanderthals, their views on his attitude and body language probably say a lot more about them than it does about him.

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.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Thoughts on the Israel game

Ladies and gentleman, the James Forrest Show
Few players are more frustrating to watch than nippy wingers who are playing badly. Conversely, few excite quite as much as nippy wingers who are in top form and oozing confidence. Step forward James Forrest, who has now scored five goals in two Scotland games - and 11 in 11 games for club and country. There was more than just the hat-trick to savour; his decision-making, so often erratic at best, was perfect again and again as he weaved in and out of traffic and left more than one Israeli with twisted blood. But his calm, emphatic finishing, like in Tirana, was the sort of stuff you associate with world-class centre-forwards. Even if this turns out to be temporary form rather than permanent class, it was exhilarating and the Tartan Army won't forget it for a while.

We can't play like this in every game
Whether it was the pressure of hanging onto a single goal lead, or the fact that Israel were throwing everything forward, the players looked knackered in the latter stages. That wasn't a huge surprise given that in both this week's matches Scotland pressed high up the pitch. Stuart Armstrong and Ryan Christie were both substituted mainly because they were gassed; the former in particular ran himself into the ground and the introduction of the energetic Graeme Shinnie was a sensible move in the circumstances. Obviously though a different style will have to be adopted when the opposition is stronger and more technically able than this; the trouble is that in friendlies against better teams a more passive approach has resulted in Scotland being ripped to shreds. That's something for big Eck to ponder going forward, but he has bought himself several months to find a solution to that.

Relief for the SFA
The SFA can now confidently throw their weight behind McLeish for the Euro 2020 qualifiers, which is just as well because having to dismiss him would have reflected as badly on the Hampden suits as it would have on the manager. The hope obviously is that this week has been some sort of turning point, and we now have some momentum to take forward (and an insurance policy as well in the form of the Nations League playoffs). The fear is that the efforts of Forrest and his teammates have masked the problems at the SFA for a little bit longer.

Connotations for Euro 2020
Not only did Scotland win their group, but they actually ended up ranked as the top team in League C - that thumping win over Albania helped them finish ahead of Norway on goal difference. So if it turns out that they need this fallback to try and qualify for Euro 2020, they'll have to win a home semi-final in March 2020 - against Finland, as it stands - and then another game after that - against Norway or Serbia, as it stands - to make it. Let's hope it doesn't come to that though: one of the other bonuses of winning the group is that Scotland go into pot 3 for the qualifiers draw instead of pot 4.

That said, Germany are in pot 2. If we get them, I think we can just start focussing on those March 2020 playoffs straight away...

More needs to be done to encourage fans
21000 is a dreadful attendance for such an important game. But until Saturday night there was very little reason for supporters to attend other than a sense of duty. And sadly there were plenty of reports of difficulties in buying and collecting tickets on the day. £25 a ticket for a midweek match against a middle-of-the-road opponent is foolish as well. The powers that be need to decide what national team matches are meant to achieve - is the top priority just to make as much money as possible, by milking loyal Tartan Army members for all they're worth to make money? Or should the focus be on filling Hampden at all costs, thus providing a better atmosphere and more support to the team as well as promoting them to as many fans (particularly children) as possible? Given that topping the group means another €750,000 in prize money, I do hope Ian Maxwell might be more generous in the future.

But a little success does no harm. It might only be one group in the third tier of the Nations League, but Scotland have actually won something, and the post-match lap of honour was justified in the circumstances not only to make the players feel good but the supporters as well. Maybe, just maybe, this could be the start of something special.

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.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Thoughts from Tirana

Fraser was the spark
Ryan Fraser started the match like a man with something to prove - and maybe he did, given that injuries have prevented him from repeating his outstanding Bournemouth performances for the national team. Within seconds of kickoff he had nicked the ball and raced into the box; whilst that didn't lead to anything it was a taste of things to come. In addition to a fine goal he set up the fourth for James Forrest and was not so much a winger as a blur of energy throughout. And his enthusiasm, along with the quality of his play, set the tone for his teammates.

The players care
There remains a healthy dose of scepticism about many of the calloffs that have plagued the squad for this game. But those who played in Tirana very much gave the impression that they were playing for the manager and the shirt. Even when the match was over as a contest the midfield and forwards continued to press high up the pitch, not least because they could sniff a chance to fill their boots. Subs Matt Phillips and Johnny Russell continued the theme when they came on for the latter stages. After such a disjointed and lethargic effort in Israel this was very welcome.

Is this Callum McGregor's best position?
Last night I couldn't help remembering how Andrea Pirlo started his career as an attacking midfielder whose technique and ability didn't really come to the fore until he dropped into a more deeper role. Obviously Callum McGregor isn't in the same league as the great Italian, but it was striking how comfortable he looked sitting at the base of the midfield, taking the ball off his centre-backs and spraying it all over the park. Obviously he won't play many international opponents as accomodating as ten-man Albania, but in light of his outstanding showings in that position for Celtic recently is it possible that this could turn out to be his strongest position?  Regardless, you can't buy the level of versatility and reliability that he offers.

The case for the defence
I'd rather not play stronger opposition with that back four - particularly since Neil Warnock deleted the file marked 'how to play at right-back' from Callum Paterson's database when he converted him to a forward - but if you've prevented the home side managing a shot on target, you can certainly claim to have had a good game. Scott McKenna doesn't seem to do nerves anyway - he's what you'd get if Skynet designed central defenders instead of Terminators - and whilst David Bates always looks on edge he never actually looked under pressure. I'd rather we didn't play anyone good with those two in front of Allan MacGregor in the near future, but I'd like to think I'd be up for it in two or three years. Surely it's not too much to ask that two of McKenna, Bates and John Souttar can go on to be international class?

Let's not get carried away
Albania were cack, and they played with ten men for three quarters of the game, and the referee awarded us an outrageous penalty. And if we don't beat Israel on Tuesday then it's all for nothing really. But a result and performance as good - and as enjoyable - as that doesn't come around too often for the Scotland national team and even if we shouldn't savour it too much we should give credit where it is due to the players and the manager.

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.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Thoughts from The Championship - 10/11/18

AJ under pressure at Dunfermline?
So many of Dunfermline's home games this season have ended with the sound of booing, so Allan Johnston may be immune to it now. But a derby defeat to Falkirk was the lowest ebb of the Pars' season so far, one in which they've managed just one win and two goals in seven league matches at East End Park. No wonder the fans are revolting (no, not in that sense).

This one might have turned out differently had Andy Ryan not missed the mother of all sitters for the home side in the first half, and what can any manager do when all his forwards seem to have suffered a collective slump in form? However, the bottom line is that Dunfermline have promotion playoff aspirations. And too often at East End Park the script has been familiar - plenty of possession but a lack of end product, a few decent chances spurned, and a sucker punch at the other end.

Whether the board feel the same way as the fans is unclear. After all, this is only the club's third year back in the second tier after AJ got them out of their League One nightmare. And in such a competitive league, it could be a lot worse - just look at Falkirk or Partick Thistle. He may not be on borrowed time yet, but with the support at least he has used up all previous goodwill.

Ross County and Dundee United are the two best teams in this league
In years to come, Dundee United fans may thank their lucky stars that Ross County thumped them 5-1 last month and brought about the end of Csaba Laszlo. The transformation under Robbie Neilson has been stark and United have four wins and a draw under his leadership, including something of a statement win in Dingwall.

That's not to say they overwhelmingly deserved the victory - far from it, in fact. But having scrambled their way in front through Paul Watson the visitors defended without panic and refused to buckle under pressure, an outcome that would have been unthinkable a short time ago.

There seems little question that United will compete strongly for that automatic promotion slot. But on the evidence of this encounter so will Ross County.  When the two sides play each other here again on 6 April 2019, it could well be something of a title decider.

Not for the first time, Mark Ridgers rescues ICT
Mark Ridgers deserves most of the plaudits for ending Caley Thistle's crazy run of seven consecutive draws; the goalkeeper's penalty save from Blair Spittal meant that Tom Walsh's goal proved decisive. It was Ridgers' second save from the spot this season, with the first coming against the same opponents in Inverness. This comes just a week after a wonder save from Billy Mckay in the Highland derby.

It was Ridgers' seventh league clean sheet of the season and his fourteenth in the twenty-four league games ICT have been unbeaten. Whilst his backline aren't too shabby either, Ridgers has been outstanding for the whole of 2018 - not bad going for a journeyman goalie who, at 28, is at his tenth club. An Inverness native, it seems that he has found that there is no place like home.

Do Alloa stick or twist in January?
As the only part-timers in this league, weren't Alloa supposed to finish bottom by some way? Clearly they didn't get the memo as they now find themselves out of the bottom two after winning at Cappielow. Far from being punchbags or even simply being overpowered by stronger opponents, they show no signs of being out of their depth at all. It is increasingly conceivable that they could survive.

That said, the sides below them - Falkirk and Partick Thistle - are certain to bring in significant reinforcements in January to save their season. Should Alloa try to do the same? Can they afford to (or not to)? And, if some of their best players keep performing like this - Iain Flannigan is the obvious standout - will they be able to keep them, or will full-time clubs sweep in?

Ach, one gets the feeling that Jim Goodwin and co aren't going to concern themselves with those sort of worries. They#re just going to enjoy this while it lasts.

Connor Murray shows up Frizzell's failings
Kudos to Connor Murray for coming off the bench at Ayr to grab a late equalizer for Queen of the South. The winger's opportunities have been few and far between but the club obviously see something in him, given that he'll be 22 in March but they've still kept him around. But a penny for the thoughts of Adam Frizzell, left sitting on the bench yet again. The little Kilmarnock loanee would seem on paper to be a better option as an impact sub and yet he's played only 85 minutes of football, all as a replacement, since moving south temporarily. That's pretty unimpressive for a guy who had 24 Premiership starts to his name when still a teenager. Frizzell also had a lousy (and injury-hit, to be fair) loan spell at Livingston last season but it looks increasingly like the 20 year old, previously considered such a prospect at Rugby Park, is stagnating.

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.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Thoughts from the Championship - 22/10/18

Falkirk at least have an excuse to change goalkeeper
Sending out new signing Prince Buaben with his name spelt 'BURBAN' on the back of his shirt really doesn't help dispel the general feeling of incompetence surrounding Falkirk at the moment. But in the hostile Cappielow atmosphere, stoked by Morton's feelings of betrayal towards Ray McKinnon, the Bairns gave as good as they got in the first half; whilst Gary Oliver hit the post for the hosts, Zak Rudden - who looks like a real prospect - should have scored for Falkirk.

Sadly it all went wrong in the second period. Too often this season Leo Fasan has cost his team goals (not that he's the only one) but the keeper had a terrible moment of madness as Michael Tidser raced through on goal. Had he charged out he might have got to the ball first, but instead he hesitated and then found himself outwith his penalty area as Tidser got control of the ball. The seasoned midfielder did the clever thing by taking it round the goalie, who brought him down and earned an inevitable red card. It was curious that McKinnon claimed afterwards that experienced ref John Beaton had called it a handball - it clearly was a foul, but not a handball, and Fasan certainly didn't help himself by looking as guilty as a puppy sitting next to a pile of poo. After that it was a siege until Bob McHugh finally nicked a deserved winner for the home side.

Fasan's upcoming suspension should mean that David Mitchell, who made some decent saves in relief, should finally get his chance to stake a claim. It will be interesting to see if there is a sharp drop in the number of cheap goals conceded as a result.

Billy Mckay is firing on all cylinders
Josh Mullin justifiably got the plaudits for a terrific - and ultimately decisive - solo goal in Dingwall. It was Mullin's sixth goal since moving north in the summer and if the wideman has any regrets about leaving high-flying Livingston it isn't showing.

Mullin's exploits did somewhat overshadow those of County's other goalscorer. Billy Mckay's opener was a lovely snapshot half-volley into the top corner, the instinctive finish of an on-form striker. And that is what Mckay is. He has scored five in his last three games now and looks increasingly like the forward who used to score for fun in Inverness...and his teammates now seem capable of creating chances for him to feast on. If the Northern Irishman is indeed back to his best, he will score a hatful this season and get his team promoted in the process.

You can't miss Lyndon Dykes
It's hard to miss Lyndon Dykes at the best of times now that the Australian has turned himself into a peroxide blonde, but the Queen of the South man drew attention for plenty of other reasons at East End Park. Best known as a forward, Dykes has increasingly been used in central midfield this season and the combination of size, strength and speed that he offers in that area is quite scary - even more so as he gets more familiar with the position.

On a day where the Doonhamers sat in and frustrated the Pars for long periods, Dykes did a great job breaking up more so than to set up the visitors' smash-and-grab winner for Josh Todd by winning the ball back with a shoulder-barge on Malaury Martin which was simply filthy. It would be easy to be overshadowed by Stephen Dobbie but in both looks and actions Dykes is very hard to miss.

Partick Thistle need to find goals from somewhere
The figure in the dugout may have changed, but it was the same old story for Partick Thistle on their travels - a fifth consecutive league defeat away from Firhill that leaves them third from bottom and just two points better off than their conquerors Alloa. Thistle have scored three times in those games - but all were consolation goals in defeats at Dundee United and Inverness. In fact it's one win in seven in all competitions and the lack of confidence was plain to see at the Recreation Ground.

A goal threat would help a bit. Thistle's forwards have a total of one league goal between them this season and Miles Storey, who has started all ten of their league games, remains barren. The introduction at last of Souleymane Coulibaly, who made his debut on Saturday as a sub, brings some hope; admittedly, the Ivorian looked really rusty but with Storey looking like a lost cause and Kris Doolan possibly a fading force Thistle need him to get up to speed quickly if they are to salvage their season.

Laszlo might actually have left Dundee United in decent shape
Csaba Laszlo will not be mourned in the slightest by supporters of Dundee United, but his legacy may prove a bit less toxic than expected. The Hungarian probably wouldn't have got the best out of them, but his last two signings have made a real difference to the Terrors at both ends of the pitch. Rachid Bouhenna has looked solid at centre-back and will only improve with more game time, while Pavol Safranko has impressed up front, keeping Nicky Clark and Craig Curran out of the team. His aerial prowess showed up again with a bullet header to score against Caley Thistle and he did a great job of leading the line alone again - which in turn allows United to play a bunch of creative midfielders who can provide him with ammunition.

The Slovakian may be the best thing Laszlo ever did for United, though it will be Robbie Neilson who reaps the benefits.

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, October 16, 2018

The stats suggest the Premiership title is up for grabs

For those of us bored to tears by Celtic's seven consecutive and pretty much unchallenged titles, and who grew up during the era of Rangers' nineties nine in a row, the current Scottish Premiership table makes for good reading.

League Table

Scottish Premiership

8St Johnstone8-118
11St Mirren8-134

Hearts lost at Ibrox last time out but they're still top, and with Hibernian just behind them. The SPFL are going to have a real headache after the split this season, as they work out when to schedule the Edinburgh derby title decider.

I jest, I jest. There are thirty league games left. That's plenty of time for a return to the status quo. It's just a blip.

Or is it?

Steve Clarke celebrated a year as Kilmarnock manager this week. Remembering they were bottom of the league when he took over in October 2017 - and had won their first league game of the season only two days before,  under caretaker management - I went and looked at his stats for those 12 months in charge.

You've got to say that's pretty impressive. For comparison, his three predecessors (Lee McCulloch, Lee Clark and Gary Locke) won 21 league games between them...out of 99. Clarke is the first Kilmarnock manager with a win percentage above 45% since Willie Waddell, who led them to their only title in 1964-65.

Then for interest, I thought I would compare Clarke's record between October 2017 and now with other clubs.

That's over a 37 game period, so not quite a full league season's worth. But that is quite a big sample size. And in that sample, Killie have more points than everyone except Celtic...and, er, Hibs.

Hibs? Yeah.

Because it turns out Hibs have been terrific too. For a whole year - in 2018 they have lost only three league games, away at Celtic, Hearts and Livingston. Despite losing John McGinn in August they've kept going and their 6-0 annihilation of Hamilton Accies was frighteningly good.

A league table for the whole of 2018 so far would look like this:

Hibernian 49
Kilmarnock 49 (played 1 game extra)
Celtic 47
Rangers 44
Aberdeen 42
Hearts 38

Heck, Hibs have scored fifty league goals than anyone else - only Rangers (fifty-two) have more - and have the joint best goal difference (with Celtic, +25).

That isn't a blip, not at all. That's sustained success.

And you know, it's actually Hearts who are top of the league.

Of course, as I stated earlier, there's plenty of time for things to reset to the default. Celtic have such an advantage both in quality and depth and over a whole season that tends to shine through. And in resource terms, Aberdeen, Hearts, Hibs and Kilmarnock aren't even fighting at the same weight as Rangers, let alone their neighbours.

But the conditions for a diddy team title challenge have not been this favourable for a long, long time. Both Celtic and Rangers have to battle on multiple fronts because of their Europa League progress. Aside from international weeks, neither have a free midweek until just before Christmas. With Rangers still a bit short on numbers and Brendan Rodgers seeming to lack trust in his backup players, there's a real chance of fatigue setting in.

And whilst their wage bills are dwarved by those at the other end of the M8, both Edinburgh clubs have put together teams that are far closer in quality to Celtic's for a long, long time. Sure, part of that is down to Celtic stagnating a bit, but most of it is due to the excellent work down by Hearts and Hibs.

So whilst it is understandable that Celtic are still massive odds-on favourites - 1/4 with most bookies - to win the title, since when has there even been a 20% chance that they wouldn't do so?

Miracles do happen. And, even better, perhaps a miracle is no longer needed for there to be a proper title battle in Scotland.

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.