Thursday, January 25, 2018

Colt teams need to go in the bin

You can see why they chose the word 'Colts' for the under 20's sides. It conjures up an image of a graceful, quick yet powerful young horse capable of all sorts of athletic feats. With this being Scottish football, a cruel person might suggest that 'Donkeys' would be a more realistic description.

Anyway, after two years of Colt teams in the Challenge Cup, we are now faced with the prospect of them being parachuted into Scottish League Two. For clarity, it is a proposal that has been put forward for discussion by Rangers and Celtic, which the clubs would have to vote in favour of.

It's no surprise to those of us - for that, read pretty much everybody with enough brain cells to rub together - who assumed that the whole Challenge Cup idea was simply the thin end of the wedge.  And it must be said that their involvement in said tournament was an unequivocal success, if by 'unequivocal success' you mean lousy results and even lousier crowds. 

And yes, the teams tended to get beaten even by League Two opposition. In 2016-17 five lost at the first attempt and only one made it to the Third Round (where Celtic, after beating two League Two opponents, got scudded by Livingston). So this season they decided to reduce/increase (delete as you feel appropriate) the farce by allowing two overage players to be involved for each Colt team. This meant that 32 year old Steven Smith could play for Kilmarnock under 20s, and 29 year old Billy Mckay scored the decisive goal in Ross County's first round match.

This time even fewer Colts teams went through the first round and this time none of them got to round three.

Despite all this, it is being mooted that Rangers and Celtic should have Colt teams in League Two as part of a two year trial. This appears to be all part of the Project Brave bandwagon.

So why should we want Colt teams?

Elgin City helpfully/naughtily (delete as you wish) published the entire proposal on their website. I've extracted a few snippets, and commented on them below...

The ‘B’ team concept works successfully in many other countries and this paper is designed to challenge the barriers which seem to exist in Scotland to the implementation of ‘B’ teams which are the same ones as they have managed to overcome in many other countries who as a consequence are more successful when developing talent.

Interesting start. Can you give some evidence of how it 'works successfully'? I also love the use of the word 'barriers', which is an effective euphemism for "you small clubs are getting in our way".

Scotland perform exceptionally well at U16, U17 and U19 level. 37% of the players who match Europe’s best at these ages are lost to the 21’s, where success significantly declines, as a result of not playing first team football. The 37% tend to come from Rangers and Celtic and are replaced with lesser potential Scottish talent who are playing 1st team football at a smaller club where they may access the 1st team earlier. Can we maintain the performance of the 16’s, 17’s and 19’s at 21’s by exposing our top potential Scottish talent to 1st team football against men earlier.

You'd expect a professional document to have been written by someone with a basic knowledge of grammar. 'The 37% tend to come from Rangers and Celtic' is not the same as saying they all come from those clubs - it would be straightforward to find the exact statistic so why haven't you done so? Is it because it doesn't support the argument well? 

Also, is this suggesting that players not from Rangers and Celtic are 'lesser potential Scottish talent' (I'm not sure about the grammar there either!)? Can it really be extrapolated that the drop off success at u21 level is purely due to lack of first team football?

‘B’ teams work, this is not a new concept. 84% of the German national ‘A’ squad have played in ‘B’ teams during their development years (86% of their 21’s). 48% of the Spanish national ‘A’ squad have played in ‘B’ teams (84% of their 21’s). In comparable sized countries such as Norway, Holland, etc. it is normal practice and operates with great success. The research has shown it works

Remember that in these countries B teams exist instead of reserve and u20 teams, so yeah, nearly all of them play in B teams because actually there isn't an alternative option. And given their current travails, is comparison with Norway and the Netherlands really wise?

Also, what does 'great success' mean in this context, other than being further evidence that this was written by Borat?

This proposal has the full backing of the SFA Performance Director, Malky Mackay.

Oh good.

Guaranteed purchase of 250 tickets per match @£10 per head by colt teams - £15,000 of guaranteed income per club.

250 tickets at £10 per head is £2500. I don't understand how the sums add up here at all. And most League Two clubs charge more than £10 for a ticket these days, so they're being sold short by this proposal. (Edit: it has been pointed out that if all the Colt teams' games are away from home, everyone will play them at home six times, which explains the sums. How would you feel if six of your club's home games each season were against either Rangers or Celtic Colts?)

Additional income from match day walk ups, hospitality, additional sponsor income via increased TV and media coverage, catering, etc.

Given that Rangers and Celtic fans aren't apparently fussed about supporting their Colt teams, I don't see why this would be the case. TV won't even cover the Scottish Championship anymore; why would they pitch up at Montrose v Rangers Colts?

Based on the 33 game proposal each League Two club would have a minimum of 1, maximum of 2 more home games. A minimum of 4 less away games. This would further increase income and reduce costs.

This seems to be suggesting Colt teams play all their matches away - a nice saving in the long run for Rangers and Celtic as they wouldn't have to pay to hire out Forthbank or Cappielow multiple times.

With three less games overall it would allow fewer midweek games, increasing attendance figures and / or reducing the length of the season resulting in reduced length player contracts saving money over the summer. This money and more importantly significantly increased media interest will inject exciting new life into SPFL League Two football.

Except the existence of the promotion and relegation playoffs means contracts have to run till the divisions above and below have finished as well, so no dice there. And again, why will the media suddenly give the tiniest s*** about the Colt teams? 

A pilot, no permanent league structure changes.

So does that mean the whole thing can be expunged and the Colts chucked out after two years if the clubs don't like that? If so, what is the mechanism for this?

Colt teams cannot take promotion or relegation places from League Two teams.

Why can't they be relegated? In the other leagues cited as shining examples, Colt teams can be relegated all the way down the league ladder.

The criteria for staff is very high in order to provide the elite young players with the correct environment equivalent to other countries who successfully produce players and will require clubs to make a significant financial contribution and have these staff available at the same time as their first team play on a Saturday at 3.00pm. This expense along with the need to underwrite 250 tickets for every match @£10 per ticket will restrict the number of clubs participating and ensure that the lower leagues are not flooded with Colt Teams.

Why go to this trouble? Surely the easy option would be to give only the eight clubs with the highest Project Brave status the opportunity to field Colt teams. Or do you want to make it prohibitively expensive for every other club bar Rangers and Celtic?

An opportunity, while the pilot is operating for two years, for discussion to run concurrently on league reconstruction options for season 2020/21 onwards. This would allow the views of the lower league teams to be heard and considered in full.

I think what you meant to say was "an opportunity, while the pilot is operating for two years for discussion to run concurrently on league reconstruction options that get our Colt teams playing at a much higher level."

One other detail worth noting - "The squad would predominantly consist of under 21 players (born on or after 1 January 1998) with the possibility of 2 over age players (not from the 1st team but
actually registered in the squad list to help guide and teach the young players). The overage players would count towards the minimum squad requirement."

So they'll get to play overage players as well. How exactly do they guide and teach young players during a match? Is this not a cynical attempt to use a couple of proven senior players to make the Colt team more competitive, especially in light of their poor results in the Challenge Cup?

Of course, Rangers and Celtic wouldn't be pushing for this if it didn't benefit them. Having Colt teams would of course allow them to develop their youngsters, some of which might augment their first team but more of which would be sold on for profit. It can also be used as bait to lure youngsters from other clubs, and gives them a place to hoard them too.

Apparently representatives of Rangers and Celtic are to meet with League Two clubs to discuss this proposal. If I were one of the League Two sides, I would ask the following questions:

1) What benefit will Colt teams bring to Scottish football and what evidence - that's evidence, not conjecture - is that based on?

2) On what criteria will this pilot be judged a success or a failure? What targets need to be met to prove it is working? Possible examples include the number of players who go on to play for the first team or the number of players who go on to represent their country.

3) If the pilot fails to meet the targets above then will the Colt teams be automatically removed from the SPFL setup?

4) Why can't the Colt teams be relegated to the Lowland League if they prove to be sufficiently weak?

5) What is the long-term vision for the Colt teams? Is the plan for them to be eligible for promotion from season three onwards? If so, where will their ceiling be?

These questions all need answered. If the Challenge Cup was the thin end of the wedge, this two year pilot is pretty much the entire doorstop.

Friday, January 12, 2018

The Championship is worth watching

Compared to the last few seasons, the Scottish Championship isn't getting much love right now. That's probably - okay, definitely - because Rangers, Hearts and Hibs provided rather more glamour (or, rather, bigger potential TV audiences) than the clubs currently occupying Scotland's second tier.

That's a shame, because this season it's been a nostalgic, direct football, Ron Manager jumpers for goalposts beans on toast for tea sort of way..

That's mainly because on any given day any team can beat anyone else. Unless you're Brechin City, that is. Promoted via the League One playoffs despite finishing closer to bottom than second place and with a negative goal difference, Brechin were earmarked at the start of the season as the whipping boys. Still winless after 20 matches and already 13 points from safety, even Theon Greyjoy glanced up at the league table from his torture rack in Game Of Thrones Season 3 and thought "this must be hell for them."

Aside from Brechin, Dumbarton are the only other part-time club in the Championship and probably the only other club not to have any realistic designs on trying to get promoted. But the Sons have survived in this division for five and a half years - an extraordinary achievement given that they basically have to bring in a completely new squad every summer - by taking advantage of those who think they are Brechinesque cannon fodder. After Caley Thistle lost there in September one sympathetic Dundee United fan told me "you don't realize you're in the Championship until you've been bodied by Dumbarton". Basically their role seems to be to induce a bit of humility in the Wannabes and Hasbeens that they play most weeks, like a Liberal Democrat MP before the 2010 coalition.

The other eight have much loftier ambitions. Three have been in the Premiership within the last three seasons. Another three have been in the promotion playoffs in one of the last three seasons. The other two have been in the top flight themselves in the not-too-distant past. So they all think that, if they sign some decent players, have a decent manager and bring through a few decent youngsters, then it might be their year.

The flip-side is that it's very easy for it to all go very wrong very quickly. Just take Falkirk: 2015 Scottish Cup finalists; within 90 minutes at Rugby Park of promotion in 2016; second in the table and another playoff spot last May. Currently they are ninth, well clear of Brechin but three points behind Dumbarton. Survival is now their aim. Whilst you'd fancy them to outdo Dumbarton over the remainder of the campaign (especially now they've signed almost an entirely new team since bringing in Paul Hartley as boss) would you really put your mortgage on it?

St. Mirren were in the Bairns' shoes only this time last year, winning only two games before mid-February and seemingly headed for a second relegation in three years. Having showed no signs at all of turning things around after being hired in October, Jack Ross then did indeed turn things around and dragged them to safety. Now they're top of the table thanks to some very sensible acquisitions of players proven at this level and a string of talented academy players. Whether they would thrive in the Premiership, particularly once Lewis Morgan falls permanently into Celtic's clutches, is a matter for debate - the likes of Craig Samson, Gavin Reilly and Cammy Smith are in the Championship because they weren't good enough for the higher level - but understandably St. Mirren would really rather get promoted first and worry about that later.

And it's not as if having a squad filled with guys who have recent Premiership experience is an enormous boon, as Dundee United and Inverness are discovering. Both face uncertain futures if they remain here beyond May 2018; Caley Thistle already need investment from directors to cover the shortfalls from relegation and further costcutting will follow if they don't go back up at the first attempt. The only possibility of that is via the playoffs, a prospect that at least looks a lot more realistic than it did three months ago as John Robertson has finally put together a side capable of getting results. Mind you, ICT are still only seventh just now, albeit within touching distance of that crucial fourth spot. And they've already achieved the biggest miracle of the season - to the disbelief of United fans - by transforming Coll Donaldson into a competent 'baller.

United are second, but given the investment in several players who could probably do a job for a top flight club it feels like anything other than top spot would be a disappointment. And yet despite punting manager Ray McKinnon in October they haven't looked any more dominant than they did last season. The arrival of a competent coach, Csaba Laszlo, should have been enough to drag them across the line but St. Mirren have proven resilient and won the clash between the sides at the end of December.

United's recent catastrophe at Falkirk Stadium, losing 6-1, may turn out to be a blip but with talented midfielders Scott Fraser and Fraser Fyvie potentially out for the season the Arabs have cause for concern that, like a year ago, they may limp into a playoff and come up short again. It's no secret that United's financial situation is not great - the money from Andy Robertson's sell-on clause made a big difference to their budget for 2017/18 - and a third straight season in this division would be a disaster.

Dunfermline are currently third in the table, though only five points separate them from Caley Thistle. Nearly five years since their administration, the Pars have got their house in order under Allan Johnston who got them promoted back to the Championship two summers ago. Their form in the second half of last season and the first quarter of this was that of promotion challengers, but the flip side of having attacking talents such as Joe Cardle, Kallum Higginbotham, Nicky Clark and Declan McManus is that there isn't much spare cash for squad depth. Only in the last few weeks have they managed to start stringing wins together again.

Like Dunfermline, Queen of the South also have a relatively threadbare squad, going for quality rather than quantity - and how! 36 year old Stephen Dobbie is doing his best impression of a Dumfries And Galloway Teddy Sheringham and is arguably the best player in this league, already notching 20 goals to go with the 26 he managed last season. Queens' season depends heavily on keeping him fit, and on trying to augment the least experienced squad in the Championship with good loan players. St. Johnstone pair Jason Kerr and Chris Kane have impressed...but both will return to Perth next week leaving gaping holes that Gary Naysmith has to fill if they are to remain in the top four.

And if they slip, Livingston are next in the wings; whilst they were never likely to be relegation candidates, Livi are doing remarkably well for a newly promoted side which is testament to the good job that David Hopkin (who I still have a soft spot for because he was an absolute demon of an AM RC in Championship Manager 96/97) is doing in charge. Losing striker Danny Mullen to St. Mirren wasn't ideal, mind, but Hopkin has altered the dynamic from last year's gung-ho attacking play to a well-organized setup led by veteran keeper Neil Alexander and an excellent set of central defenders in young Craig Halkett and (whatever you think of his previous off-field issues) Declan Gallagher. Whether they have the attacking talent and experience to see them through to May is uncertain.

And last but not least (sixth, if you look at the table) are Morton, who are probably overachieving given they also have a pretty thin squad that depends on the ageing Gary Harkins for creativity. However, since Chic Young thinks Jim Duffy should be the new Scotland manager (no, really!) maybe a comfortable mid-table spot is the least we should expect, especially since they made the playoffs last year. In Jai Quitongo they have one of the most exciting young talents around, though he hasn't really kicked on this year. If he's half as fun a player as his dad was then he'll do okay, though.

Morton are just one of many sides in this battle who could with a little luck make it into the postseason fixtures and yet would be crippled by a lengthy casualty list. It may be injuries which prove the deciding factor for who finishes in the top four..and even, were St. Mirren to lose any out of Morgan, Cammy Smith and Gavin Reilly, top spot.

But my take-home point is that this league is a highly entertaining and competitive one with pretty much everything but tenth place still very much in the balance. Sadly Sportscene don't care any more since Rangers aren't there...and the BBC didn't even bother doing a live commentary game last week during the Premiership's winter break. But it's a much more level playing field and it has more quality than you think. How things will pan out by mid-May is just about anyone's guess. Viva Le Championship!

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, January 1, 2018

An ode to David Raven

In their short history, Caley Thistle have had their share of cult heroes at right-back.. 

As they climbed the divisions, there was Mike Teasdale, a gritty, combative player with long messy hair and occasionally a ponytail that borderlined on offensive. He chipped in with a few goals too, including one beauty in a derby win in Dingwall - the one where Ross County's Alex Bone got shown three red cards.

After that there was Ross Tokely, who looked more like a henchman from a Bond movie than a footballer. Tall, built like a house and blessed not so much with pace than momentum, he defied my own father's certainty that every year ICT were promoted he would be found out at the next level to represent the club in all four divisions. He holds the club's appearances record by absolute miles; it'll probably never be broken.

And then there was David Raven.

When Terry Butcher was in charge of Inverness, he had a knack for finding gems in the lower leagues of England - Gary Warren, Josh Meekings, Dean Brill, Marley Watkins, Greg Tansey, Ross Draper and Billy Mckay to name a few. Raven arrived in the summer of '12 from Tranmere Rovers, but his background was different. I thought I recognised the name from somewhere, and I was right: he had been in Pro Evolution Soccer 4! For Raven actually had a pedigree -  he had been in Liverpool's academy and made a handful of first team appearances for them, as well as representing England at several youth levels.

He certainly didn't look like a pedigree, more a cross-breed between a philosopher from Ancient Greece and a Tour De France cyclist. Still just 27 at the time, Raven's almost total baldness and a lithe figure that from a distance looked positively skeletal made him look so much older and frailer. And when he, like many of his teammates, started the 2012-13 season slowly there was a fear that we had signed a dud. That couldn't have been further from the truth.

Raven wasn't the biggest, or the quickest, or the strongest, or the most skilful. But he was reliable - a rare attribute that managers must crave, particularly in their defenders. Mistakes were rare. It was unusual for him to be caught out of position. Whilst like any full-back he could look vulnerable against a talented winger he could be left on an island against them and still win his share of duels. And whilst his attacking prowess was nothing compared to that of Graeme Shinnie on the opposite flank his timing for forays forward and his delivery from wide areas was very underrated. He was a seven-out-of-ten-every-game player.

That in itself does not make one a cult hero. Scoring the winner in a Scottish Cup semi-final against Celtic certainly helps, though. He was certainly not a frequent goalscorer, managing only five in five and a half years; this writer hasn't witnessed any of them first hand. His first for the club came in gloriously appropriate fashion at Ross County, where he literally slide-tackled the ball into the net from a yard. The second was a year later at Hampden.

Celtic fans will of course remember that game for the infamous Meekings handball. Down to ten men themselves, a John Guidetti free-kick had levelled things up in extra-time at 2-2. Given their experience of big occasions, they'd have been overwhelming favourites in a shootout. It says something about the way Caley Thistle played under John Hughes that season that in the 117th minute one full-back (Shinnie) got to the byline and fizzed the ball across for the other to tap-in from six yards out. Actually, that makes it sound easier than it was. The angle was narrow, and Raven had to adjust his stride in order to make proper contact with the ball - easy enough maybe for a seasoned striker, but for a right-back near the end of extra time?

Raven would subsequently claim that he had a premonition that day that he would score. It was as important a goal as the one by James Vincent that won the final itself. Without it Caley Thistle probably wouldn't have won that semi-final...though a calf injury would keep him out of the final. He at least got to take centre-stage in the celebrations in Inverness the next day, taking his guitar up on stage to play Oasis' Stand By Me to a crowd of supporters. Raven's musical prowess was already well-known - at a Christmas do he had once serenaded fans at a grand piano, taking request after request after request.

His absence from the Falkirk game was kept secret from the press right until the teamsheets were released, and understandably so; with Shinnie moved over to the right to replace him, and Carl Tremarco coming into the side and having a nervous nightmare that culminated in a red card, he was dreadfully missed. To be honest, he always was missed when he wasn't there. That's why the way he dropped dramatically out of favour the next season came as such a shock. In 2015/16 Hughes often left Raven on the bench and played Josh Meekings at right-back, a plan that simultaneously weakened the team in that position and central defence as well. When it became clear that Hughes wouldn't be offering Raven a new deal, the fans revolted by naming him their Player Of The Year at the final game of the season even though he'd started less than half of the matches. Handed a microphone in front of the support, he looked embarrassed; later he would insist that he bore no grudge towards Hughes and understood that it was a business decision.

But of course Yogi left and Raven was offered a new contract after all which at the time was rumoured to have been funded by a board member. Injuries held him back last season - he wasn't one of the reasons why ICT were relegated - and then he suffered the ignominy of another manager, John Robertson, trying to get rid of him this year. Raven didn't budge - and then found himself back in the team every week after his replacement, Collin Seedorf, got injured. And once more he has been the seven-out-of-ten-every-game least until his red card against Morton last week.

But Raven's contract is up in January and the match against Livingston on the 2nd will be his one-hundred and eighty-sixth and last for the club- if he can get his place back in the side. He was belatedly offered new terms on a reduced wage but declined them, apparently more out of pragmatism rather than pride. His ambition is to get into coaching, and there won't be many opportunities in this part of the world for that. With his oldest child due to start school in 2018, better to get settled down south again.

I'm not the only one who will lament his departure. He might not be the most talented footballer in the world - or even the most talented one at his club. But you could do an awful lot worse than have a team of David Ravens. Thank you, goodbye and good luck.

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.