Sunday, March 25, 2018

Loving and lamenting Kris Boyd's renaissance

Kris Boyd scored the winning goal at Ibrox last week. That would have generated a marked feeling of deja vu, were it not for the fact that he actually scored it against Rangers.

It's the third time Boyd has scored against his former club this season, following on from a double in a 2-1 win for Kilmarnock at Rugby Park in December. That's as many league goals as he scored in his nightmare second spell at the Gers, in the 2014-15 Championship.

Already the wrong side of 30 at that point, it seemed then that Boyd was finished. And yet nearly three years on he leads the Scottish Premiership scoring charts with fifteen goals this season. He has twenty in all competitions.

And it's not just the goals.

During his first spell at Rangers, between 2006 and 2010, Boyd was the most consistently prolific centre-forward in the country, with 101 league goals in four and a half seasons. Part of a Rangers side who would comfortably dominate all but one of their domestic opponents, he scored for fun.

And yet when Celtic were the opposition, he could often be found on the bench; he managed just a single goal for Rangers in Old Firm derbies. His involvement in the club's run to the 2007-08 UEFA Cup final was minimal - that season he played for a grand total of six minutes - the last six minutes - of their Champions League group stage matches, and started a single game in the UEFA Cup campaign. That was also his only appearance in the tournament until the final, where he came on for the last four minutes in the defeat by Zenit St. Petersburg.

As at club level, so at international level. Boyd scored four goals in Euro 2008 qualifying, against the Faroe Islands, Georgia and Lithuania, all at home. The only other game he started was the return match against the Faroes. For clashes with the three group heavyweights, France, Italy and Ukraine, he was left on the bench.

The consensus was that Boyd was a flat-track bully. When paired with a strike-partner (most commonly Kenny Miller) to do his running, he came alive in the final third, and otherwise lumbered around like one of the extras in Shaun Of The Dead. This was okay when his team dominated possession and could create a plethora of chances for him. However, in situations where Rangers and Scotland might be under the cosh, in need of a striker who would hold the ball up, or chase fifty-fifties into the channels, or harass opposing centre-backs, or at least (I'm thinking of James McFadden here) be capable of conjuring a goal out of almost literally nothing, then Boyd was not your man.

It used to frustrate the hell out of me that he couldn't add that nous to his game - so much so that I actually blogged about it all the way back in 2007. Boyd was not only Scotland's most prolific centre-forward, but he was one of the best finishers in Europe. And yet because he couldn't, or wouldn't, learn how to lead the line effectively on his own, he was a liability in the really big games for both club and country.

Fast forward a decade to February 2018, as Kilmarnock beat Celtic 1-0 at Rugby Park thanks to Youssouf Mulumbu's seventieth minute goal and one of the best organised defensive performances I have seen in the Scottish Premiership this season or any other.

Boyd was actually substituted five minutes before Mulumbu's goal. He had a couple of shots in the game, but that was largely it.  Except it wasn't.

Now 34, Boyd is obviously a little bit slower than he was in his heyday, and it's not unusual for him to fail to complete 90 minutes; in fact he was subbed immediately after his strike at Ibrox last week. But against Celtic he didn't just wander aimlessly, or look bored at the lack of action near him. He didn't chase lost causes against Celtic's back three, but there was no point in doing so as they would just pass around him. What he did do, as trite as it sounds, was to stand in the right place.

When the ball was up around the half-way line, he would position himself to prevent a pass from a defender to one of Celtic's central midfielders, usually Scott Brown. This didn't take up much physical effort, but did require him to be switched on. He was. And on the rare occasions that the ball reached him, he did hold it up for teammates.

Part of this is down to the excellent planning of Killie's manager and miracle-worker-in-chief Steve Clarke. But even last season when Kilmarnock were struggling Boyd still showed a willingness to defend from the front, and to show leadership and fight as an example to his (often young) teammates. Whether through experience or maturity or a combination of both, he has finally added to his game the ability to lead the line on his own.

And, as part of a Kilmarnock side which are the biggest and most pleasant surprise of the Premiership this season, the goals are flowing. His Ibrox strike was a throwback to the old days, a case of him reacting quicker to a rebound than those around him. That yard of pace lost is more than made up for by the ones he has gained in his head.

If Boyd finishes as the Premiership's top scorer he will surely get a nomination for Player Of The Year, something that happened only once in his Rangers prime. And he'll deserve it, even though it seems unlikely he would get the overall award. There has even been talk of a Scotland recall, though the player himself has dismissed the thought.

After all, time waits for no man. Those legs could run out of batteries at any moment, and this may be the last hurrah. But through being in the right environment and having the right attitude, Kris Boyd is enjoying a fine Indian summer. If only I could just sit back and enjoy it, instead of wishing that he had played like this ten years ago.

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, March 6, 2018

Not on the brink, but Dundee's situation isn't great...or unique

'Dundee on the brink'. The Daily Record's headline was over the top to say the least. I'll leave it up to yourselves to decide whether Dundee's decision to ban the newspaper from their matches is as well.

It is not however over the top to say that the club's accounts for last season, released on Friday, do not make for pleasant reading - losses of £350,000 for that season which, with turnover remaining stable, were blamed on player wages. This is on top of losses of £530,000 for 2015/16. The Dark Blues have so far have been subsidized by the club's main shareholder to a tune of more than £1million.

That's pretty grim.

What was also disappointing was the now seemingly obligatory club statement that goes along with most football club accounts, invariably designed to either spin bad news or to apportion blame. This one included the revelation that the club is expected to make losses "until a new TV deal generates more money" and that the size of the "core home support" needs to rise by about 1,000 - about 29% - just to get the club into a breakeven position.

As was pointed out by the wags at The Terrace, relying on a new TV deal to generate significant income is not the most sound business plan. As for increasing the core support, good luck with that.

The accounts for the current campaign will not be any better, with the club set to miss the top six again and possessing one of the most bloated squads around, but luckily the club are not really in any danger as long as these American chaps are willing to bankroll the situation.

They certainly aren't going to make a killing from owning Dundee FC. The bottom line is that, whilst Scottish football has moved on a long, long way from the crazy spending that twice led to the dark days of administration at Dens Park and to similar events at Motherwell, Livingston and others, the best way to make a small fortune out of a Scottish football club is to start off with a bigger fortune.

In terms of financial might, the clubs in the SPFL can now just about be separated into four tiers. At the top are of course Celtic with their Champions League money - though even they needed to sell players to cover losses during the Deila years and probably will so again if they miss out on the Group Stage in future seasons.

There is a chasm between them and the next group, which consists of Rangers, Aberdeen, Hearts and Hibs. That's not to say that four clubs are being managed particularly prudently. After all, Rangers are far more reliant on their directors for funding than Dundee are, and Hearts are only a few years past their own administration.

But because of the size of their supports and some fairly wealthy backers they can punch at a much higher weight than the likes of Dundee, who are in the next bunch with all the other Premiership clubs and the full-time ones in the Championship.

The other seven Premiership sides are not spooning it in. Kilmarnock's accounts last year showed a marked improvement simply because of the seven-figure sale of striker Souleymane Coulibaly. Motherwell's accounts for the previous two years have shown losses and advised that future costcutting was required. Hamilton Accies run on a smaller budget than any other top flight club, yet the loss of up to a million quid to fraudsters gives them a right problem.

One fears for them, and for any of the other clubs, if they are relegated. There is not a lot of cash going around the second tier, as Inverness Caledonian Thistle and Dundee United are discovering. United have sold their training ground to a director this week because they need the cash for working capital. Goodness knows where they would be right now but for the sell-on clause they agreed with Hull during Andrew Robertson's transfer, and goodness knows where they will be next season if, as is very possible, they are stuck in the Championship for a third straight year.

Caley Thistle's situation is not clear, but this is a club who struggled to make much money either when they won the Scottish Cup or during the year that they sold Ryan Christie to Celtic. Whilst a significant number of high earners left after relegation, and they managed to get around £100,000 for Ross Draper, they still have a number of ageing players on expensive contracts.

The bottom line is that even diehard fans like this writer haven't a clue what is going on with the board and new investment. Meanwhile, there has been a long Challenge Cup run which has actually so far caused the club to lose money, and a succession of home games lost either to that cup run or to the weather. Quietly, £450,000 worth of loans from earlier in the season have been converted into equity, yet there are still worries about cash flow.

They aren't the only ones struggling because of the conditions. Dunfermline have admitted they are feeling the pinch of five weeks without a home match. Back in December Livingston admitted to they would have had difficulty paying wages had they not finally got a game ahead at Almondvale.

As for my final tier, which comprises the remaining SPFL clubs, existence is not straightforward either; for example, Stranraer culled their squad of some of their best players during the January window so they could get by.

Sadly, it seems this is the way of things just now, and if Dundee's comments are anything to go by the situation will not change in the near future. Unless there is significant financial support, all but those big five clubs are a single short difficult period away from being 'on the brink'. Only Ross County, who not only have a sugar daddy but one who actually looks after the club with a degree of common sense as well as love, are largely immune.

As for supporters of the rest, maybe it just has to be acknowledged that in this current age of lousy TV deals, high ticket prices and mediocre gates, they are lucky they have clubs to support at all.

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.