Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Big Eck's options (part 1)

Now we have our new national team boss, it's time to have a think about what he can call upon for the Nations League and Euro 2020 qualifiers to come. The first part of this series looks at the options Alex McLeish has between the sticks and in the full-back positions both in the present and in the near future.

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Craig Gordon will be 37 by the time of Euro 2020, but still looks like our best option for the next wee while

I don't think any recent picks in goal can be discounted because of age, given that goalies frequently play on well into their late thirties.

Keeper has felt like a relative strength in recent seasons, at least in comparison to the problems our nearest neighbours have had between the sticks. But each of our best three keepers of recent years is the wrong side of 30...and whilst goalies can play for much longer than outfield players the bottom line is Allan McGregor and Craig Gordon will be 38 and 37 respectively by the time of Euro 2020. David Marshall is a bit younger but he's behind McGregor in the pecking order at Hull, where he's had a mare since moving from Cardiff.

Depressingly only four Premiership clubs have a Scot as first choice in goal. And that doesn't include former international squad members Jack Hamilton and Scott Bain who are now backups. Scott Fox has also been in the squad in years gone by but has had a shocker of a season at Ross County. Jon McLaughlin, ahead of Hamilton in the Hearts pecking order, is the obvious talent here who has done well enough to justify a look-in at international level.

Jordan Archer is first choice for Millwall in the Championship and got his first call-up in August 2017. If there is an obvious hope for the not-too-distant future, it is the 24 year old.

Rangers' Liam Kelly and Hamilton's Ryan Fulton have both represented Scotland at multiple age levels but neither are getting first team action anytime soon at their clubs. Kelly's teammate Robbie McCrorie recently got a new contract at Ibrox.

Gordon will be first choice keeper for the foreseeable future.

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Scotland are blessed at left-back. Is Andrew Robertson the best player we have, full stop?

It seems like Lee Wallace wasted (in an international sense at least) his best years playing in the lower divisions.

This is our strongest position by miles, with Andrew Robertson shining at Liverpool and Kieran Tierney flying at Celtic. At just 23 and 20 respectively, their best is hopefully still to come. Stephen Kingsley had forced his way into recent squads but has had an injury-ravaged season at Hull.

There are some solid-ish Scottish left-backs in the Premiership, but the only one who obviously stands out for the future is Kilmarnock's Greg Taylor who scored against Brazil at Toulon last year an

Going abroad seems to have done Barry Douglas a lot of good; having returned to the UK with Wolves, he has been getting plaudits for his performances in the Championship. It's just his bad luck that he has some quite impressive competition for a cap. If things get desperate (they won't) there's always Derby's Craig Forsyth.

There are high hopes for Celtic's Calvin Miller, though his progress may be stalled by the presence of Tierney in front of him. And of course Greg Taylor has been a regular at Kilmarnock for the last two seasons despite being only 20.

How many left-backs can we fit in a team? Robertson, for now, seems the first choice - not least because Tierney has proven already that he can do a good job as a makeshift right-back.  Which segues neatly onto...

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Kieran Tierney did well playing out of position in several World Cup qualifiers, and he may still be our least-bad right-back option
Aye, so we're so weak at this position that Kieran Tierney played there for the last few World Cup qualifiers. Before that Callum Paterson had made the position his own, but whilst he is playing well for Cardiff he is spending most of his time there in a midfield role. Strachan favourite Ikechi Anya and Steven Whittaker have also seen time at right-back in the last year, but both are well past their best. If Big Eck went to three at the back he could try James Forrest in a similar wing-back role to the one he plays at Celtic, but the thought of this gives me the heebie-jeebies.

To be blunt, there aren't any obvious internationals of the future here. Just because Stephen O'Donnell and Jason Naismith are doing a job this season doesn't mean they should be seriously considered for caps.

Donald Love is a former Manchester United academy player who David Moyes spent seven figures on a year and a half back. But he can't even get into a terrible Sunderland side just now.

Anthony Ralston is well thought of at Celtic Park, but injury problems have limited his first team opportunities this season.

I imagine either Tierney will continue playing out of position or Paterson will drop back into this area. For now, there aren't really any viable alternatives.

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, February 14, 2018

Wright and St. Johnstone are at a crossroads

When I wrote a season preview for St. Johnstone back in August, I finished with the following:  "all good things come to an end...but not yet."

Aye, so about that.

The Saintees lie eighth in the Premiership, but they are as close to bottom spot as they are to sixth. Their impressive run of six straight top six finishes is in peril.

But it is worse than that. They haven't won (or led in) any of their last eight home games. They have picked up just 12 points in 17 league matches since September. And last weekend their Scottish Cup run came to an end at Tynecastle.

No shame in that, you might think, but the 3-0 defeat came along with a performance that was anathema to the St. Johnstone of recent years. A side for so long notoriously damned with faint praise as "organized", "hard-working", "difficult to break down" and other similar adjectives now look leaderless, unsure and bereft of confidence and ideas.

Their league position is heavily distorted by their outstanding start to the season that was fuelled by the return on loan of Michael O'Halloran who not only rolled back the years to the performances he produced during his first spell in Perth, but seemed driven on by the desire to prove wrong those who had written him off at Ibrox.

Unfortunately, his form dipped like the value of the pound during a Theresa May Brexit speech, leaving them woefully impotent in attack as the years finally seem to be catching up with veteran striker Steven Maclean and a succession of strike partners/replacements have failed to score more than the odd goal here and there.

It's not like there's much being created either. The summer's big signing, Stefan Scougall, has struggled in an unfamiliar role out wide but so soft is the team's centre that he simply cannot be deployed in his preferred role there.

Worst of all, the defence, once a byword for reliability, has completely cracked. The continued absence through injury of Brian Easton hasn't helped, but his replacement Scott Tanser has struggled while linchpin Steven Anderson appears to have been robbed of all his defensive knowledge by one of those memory-wiping devices from Men In Black. Anderson was relieved of the captaincy earlier in the season, but removing the metaphorical weight of the armband hasn't been made him literally less sluggish.

Manager Tommy Wright's decision to take the responsibility away from Anderson so publicly seemed rather unbecoming, and a contrast to the 'hard but fair' persona that the Northern Irishman has displayed during his time in charge at McDiarmid Park. But Wright has not been himself this season. Whilst he has never been shy of criticizing players when necessary, he has hung the squad out to dry rather often this season.

Whether that is a symptom of the current problems, or a cause of them, is unclear. He has also been known to have the odd moan to the media about a lack of transfer funds, but this campaign Wright has been a picture of petulance at times when it comes to the (lack of) backing he feels he gets from the hierarchy. That said, his transfer dealings of the last few years have not been an overwhelming success, a factor that has certainly contributed to the ongoing decline.

His loud, public complaint about his chairman's refusal to pay for warm weather training during the January break was also surprising. Steve Brown played it down to the press, whilst also sticking to his usual narrative of how the first priority is to balance the books and run a tight ship. That's great when the manager and team are far beyond the sum of their parts, as they were when they finished third in the league in 2012/13 and won the Scottish Cup the following year. But when things are so bad that relegation becomes a genuine worry, then it doesn't wash.

It does feel increasingly like there is a "mutual consent" on the horizon.

St. Johnstone will probably stay up; after all they have more points than four teams, and they have games in hand. But the worry is that this is the start of a decline, one that fans of many other clubs should be wary of.

There has been a power shift in Scottish football over the last few years. Prior to Rangers' liquidation in 2012, the top flight was a two horse race and third place was largely up for grabs. Now of course it is a one horse race, but whilst there is a chasm between Celtic and the chasing pack, Aberdeen (who got their house in order), Hearts (who got their house in order after administration and relegation), Hibs (who got their house in order after relegation) and Rangers (whose house isn't in order but still have remarkable resources at their disposal) are in a tier of their own.

That leaves the rest with one top six spot to fight for. And there is very little between the remaining seven Premiership clubs, and indeed the sides at the top end of the Championship. So through a combination of factors such as injuries, loss of form, poor management, poor recruitment and stalwarts getting too old, a slide down the table can happen surprisingly quickly. Just ask Dundee United and Inverness Caledonian Thistle.  St. Johnstone fans will themselves remember their relegation from the SPL in 2002, just a few years after they were playing Monaco in Europe. They spent seven years toiling in the second tier before they got back.

Conversely, a club that has good luck with injuries, key players in form and a good manager who recruits well - say, Kilmarnock or Motherwell in the current instance - can move from relegation strugglers to a comfortable mid-table slot with ease. And the way that both have bounced so impressively under new management in the last year will not have gone unnoticed by other clubs at that end of the table.

The short-term priority for St. Johnstone is now to make sure they are still in the top flight for 2018/19, and then re-evaluate. Whether Wright, for all his qualities and achievements, is the man to take them into the future remains to be seen, as does whether his relationship with his boss is reparable.

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

Friday, February 2, 2018

Are Ross County doomed?

Admittedly, Ross County have been in this sort of trouble before.

Only a strong finish to the season and St. Mirren's remarkable incompetence saved them from the drop in 2015. The year before that, Derek Adams had brought about a gazillion (give or take a few) of January signings - Jordan Slew and Yann Songo'o spring to mind - to turn them around.

Usually at the first sign of catastrophe the club's owner and Sugar Daddy-in-chief Roy MacGregor busts out the cheque book to sign whoever it takes to salvage their top flight status. Such is his overwhelming love for the club that MacGregor would undoubtedly see relegation to the Championship as a personal failure.

He would be wrong to do so; he has yet again funded a posse of new additions - seven in the January window in fact, including former Liverpool striker David N'Gog and (on loan) Aberdeen midfielder Greg Tansey. Many central-belt journalists have continued to bemoan the dismissal of manager Jim McIntyre in September, based on little more than the belief that anyone who wins the League Cup with such a provincial club should get a job for life, but it was the right decision by a chairman who does not have an itchy trigger finger. County had been guff for a year, and were looking even more so after the sale last summer of Liam Boyce.

Moreover, appointing Owen Coyle as McIntyre's replacement looked like a coup at the time, similar to Steve Clarke's arrival at Kilmarnock. Coyle's successes at Burnley are still memorable though they were several years ago; perhaps his poor record in more recent posts at Wigan, Houston Dynamo and Blackburn Rovers should have sounded alarm bells, but hindsight is a wonderful thing. And within weeks players were extolling his training to the press; "it was like Barcelona", Chris Eagles, the veteran winger signed by Coyle for the third time in his career, claimed on his arrival in November.

Unfortunately, on the pitch it has been more farce-a-lona than Barcelona.

Eighteen league and one cup game into Coyle's reign, County have managed three wins - all in his first six matches - and last won on 4th November, thirteen games ago. His league record of thirteen points in eighteen matches is dismal. They are six points adrift at the bottom of the Premiership, and the teams immediately above them all have at least one game in hand.

For comparison, Staggies will remember how dire Caley Thistle were last season, as they were relegated from the top flight. Well, ICT were actually two points better off at this stage last year. That's how dreadful the situation is.

That's not to say it isn't salvageable. But County will surely need to at least double their current points total in the remaining thirteen games just to get to eleventh spot and a playoff to survive. Their best hope is that one of the sides above collapses; Hamilton would seem the best bet, though they have past form for proving doomsayers wrong.

But recent viewing has been grim. It's quite clear that Coyle wants his players to pass their way out of trouble, a marked change from the direct style that was employed by his predecessor. The trouble is that very few of the squad he inherited have the quality to do so. The others are, as would be expected, shorn of confidence.

In pretty much every match there is an individual error that results in a goal conceded, whether it be a goalkeeping blunder like Aaron McCarey and his limp wrists against Rangers, or Scott Fox's attempt to dribble round Kenny McLean three days later (what do you do when neither of your keepers can be trusted?) or Harry Souttar bulleting a header into his own net at Fir Park, or Andrew Davies' short backpass at Firhill. These are the sort of disasters that plagued Inverness last season and Dundee United the year before that.

Add in the fact that the Global Energy Stadium pitch, whilst in much better nick than a few years ago, is hardly a bowling green and one wonders whether Coyle is being stubborn and foolish by sticking to his principles in this situation. He will be praying that Greg Tansey hits the ground running when he returns from injury, but whilst the Englishman is an excellent passer and can dictate a game he needs his side to dominate possession and attackers in front of him who can stretch play and find space.

Tansey's former Inverness teammate Billy Mckay has proven himself more than capable of the latter in the past but has done nothing during his spell in Dingwall to justify a sustained run in the team. Given there is still a lack of pace in wide areas - it was bizarre that this wasn't addressed in January - the best hope is that N'Gog hasn't lost a step. If once fully fit he proves to be anywhere near the player that Coyle once signed for Bolton for £4million, then the situation looks rather more rosy.

Otherwise, there is a dreadful feel here not so much of round pegs being put in square holes, but of a jigsaw puzzle being constructed with a mixture of pieces from different boxes. Unless there are signs of life soon, County's five year stay in the Premiership will end, and Coyle will be back where he started his managerial career, in Scotland's second tier...if he lasts that long, of course...

(with thanks to John A Maxwell for his input)

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.