Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Relegation means austerity

Time will tell whether keeping on Alan Archibald as manager was the right decision by Partick Thistle following their relegation from the Premiership.

However, they were correct to make the decision quickly. The offseason is not all that long, and any procrastination makes it harder to put a coherent squad together in time for the start of the new campaign - even more so if it is then followed by a protracted search for a new boss. Just look at the start Inverness Caley Thistle had to Championship life after fiddling around for a bit (nb - not a reference to the infamous tweet fiasco of last summer, honest!) before sacking Richie Foran.

Thistle can at least get on with preparing for a promotion challenge right away, with the advantage of continuity. Or so you'd think.

Whilst some sort of cull was expected, one could be forgiven for thinking that Theresa May had been parachuted into the Firhill dugout and then mistaken the players for NHS workers. Fourteen were released, to go with the two loanees whose time was up. Of those remaining, three have been transfer-listed and will surely never play for them again. So Thistle start their rebuild with only five outfield players over the age of 21. And one of those is the perenially injured Stuart Bannigan, given until August to prove his fitness.

As an outsider, this seemed quite shocking, though Thistle fans - increasingly suspicious that their team's nightmare season was as much down to player attitude as to lack of confidence or quality - don't seem devastated by any of the departures. But it does mean that Archibald basically has to go out and sign half a team.

This is the cost of relegation from the Scottish Premiership, especially if like at Thistle there is a determination to avoid shedding non-football related jobs at the club. With an externally funded youth academy and good community links the club is otherwise well set; why mortgage the future by overpaying the first team?

Austerity measures have also been implemented in Dingwall, where it transpires that all players had a contract clause activated in the event of relegation where they could either take a pay cut or walk away...with Jason Naismith, a sellable asset this summer, the only one to be spared this. One suspects that this sort of careful planning is one of the reasons why Roy McGregor is as wealthy as he is.

With a number of players driven to accept those terms by a combination of pride, loyalty to new management duo Stuart Kettlewell and Steve Ferguson, and being settled in the Highlands, County look in reasonable shape for an Immediate promotion challenge.

They are certainly in better nick than Thistle are, or relegation predecessors Inverness or Dundee United were when they went down. In their second and third seasons in the Championship respectively, both face further financial squeezes.

On the south side of the Kessock Bridge, Caley Thistle could really have done with using the same solicitors to draw up contracts as their local rivals. Instead, they find themselves in the ignominious position of trying to publicly shame club captain and stalwart Gary Warren into leaving. Warren's crime? To have accepted a contract two years ago which made him one of the highest paid players at the club whilst they were still in the top flight.

That of course isn't Warren's fault; nor is it really his fault that in the two years since he has dramatically declined as a player (and, at 34, is likely to continue declining) and isn't even a first choice centre-back in a team that finished fifth in the Championship last season. But whilst complaining about it to journalists is pretty disrespectful, the bottom line is that removing Warren from the wage bill would free up funds for John Robertson (who, like the current board wasn't around when Warren signed on the bottom line), to sign three players who could make a far greater difference to their chances of going up.

Most depressingly for ICT fans, this feels like a rerun of last summer, when similar tactics were unsuccessfully used to try to force another local legend, David Raven, out the door.

Meanwhile, down Tannadice way Csaba Laszlo has been given licence to mould Dundee United in his own image, though he did little to justify this after succeeding Ray McKinnon. But there have also been a plethora of departures there. Whilst those are justified by the club's underachievements of last season, it also means a big rebuilding job by a manager whose January signings were mostly failures, and in the context of serious losses in the last two sets of accounts.

United's big hope is that a proposed takeover by an American consortium succeeds and a firm financial footing is at last established. If that falls through its hard to see what else United can cut and, with no Andrew Robertson sell-on fee to save the day this summer, nor a training ground to 'sell, people will start throwing the A-word about.

So whilst in most leagues the newly relegated teams would be fancied to bounce back quickly. in this one the more established, stable sides are left licking their lips, robust buffaloes taking the opportunity to trample over the lions whilst they are wounded.

It's just one of the reasons why the Scottish Championship is one of the most compelling leagues out there - unless you are Ewan Murray of course. And it's also why all but the strongest Premiership clubs need to be wary of taking too many financial risks - relegation can put you in a deep hole very, very quickly.

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, May 20, 2018

Blood, sweat...and tears? Life in the Scottish Championship

By the time his number came up on the fourth official's board, and he trudged off the pitch to be substituted, Lee Miller looked like he had gone twelve rounds with Anthony Joshua. That's what one first half clash of heads - the cuts from which needed repaired twice during the match - and a knee in the face can do for you.

Not that either incident had stopped the veteran striker from continuing to get stuck in, mind. Nearly half of the game's fouls were either by him or on him, as he fought the centre-backs for everything.

If Miller provided the blood, then it was his supporting midfielders who produced the sweat. For the first time in three playoff matches - two against Dundee United and then this one - Scott Pittman finally stopped running...but only because he'd ended up in the back of the net with the ball after firing Livingston into a 2-1 first leg lead. And of course it was the result of a lung-busting late burst into the penalty box that Partick Thistle's midfielders couldn't, or wouldn't, match.

Miller's bruises and Pittman's tirelessness epitomized this Livi performance, and ultimately their season. Whether there is a huge amount of talent in the team is open for debate, but having a group of players who will run through brick walls on demand and who would jump in front of bullets for each other will carry you a long way in the Scottish Championship.

If they can bounce back at Firhill on Sunday, Thistle won't have to learn this in a hurry. But Ross County, relegated from the Premiership last week, will have to if they are to get back up at the first attempt.

They could do a lot worse than follow the recipe that has brought St. Mirren success this season, which is as follows:

1) Appoint a decent manager. This might be the most crucial part of all, as there is little to choose between most of the sides in the division and a manager such as Jack Ross, who can maximize the teams strengths, can make a significant difference. A good eye for a player also helps. Which brings us to...

2) Sign suitable players. Preferably ones who have succeeded at this level before, and therefore know what it takes to do so. I'm talking Gavin Reilly, Ian McShane and Craig Samson here. Fancy dans who love a stepover but hide after the first time they're kicked are not welcome. Neither are has-beens from the top flight who have been overpaid to drop down a level and quickly make it very clear how much they regret doing so *cough Scott McDonald cough*

3) Supplement the squad with good youngsters from the academy. In the Buddies' case, they obviously had a star in Lewis Morgan, but also got significant playing time out of Kyle Magennis and Jack Baird. But their youth teams have also provided the squad with solid depth, though they were relatively lucky with injuries all season.

4) Play the loan system well. With 'emergency' loans no longer allowed next season, the option to pick up a player for a few months inbetween transfer windows - as St. Mirren did with Danny Mullen before signing him - is no longer an option. But they did wonderfully out of getting Hearts' Liam Smith for the season, and also out of loaning Cammy Smith in January 2017 before picking him up permanently at the end of the season.

But even St. Mirren, relegated from the Premiership in 2015, found it a culture shock to begin with - they only avoided demotion to League One on the last day of the 2016/17 season. Anyone who thinks that recently being a Premiership club entitles them to respect, or time on the ball, will get a fright. Nearly all the clubs may be full-time (Alloa will be the exception next season) but this contains the bottom end of the full-timers, with players on wages just high enough to keep them from needing a second job but fully aware that anything other than their best will result in a one way ticket to the seaside leagues and, worse, needing to actually work for a living instead of booting a round object around a park for it.

And the Ross Countys, Dundee Uniteds and Caley Thistles are the big scalps, the games they get up for, the chances to take some prima donnas down a peg or two. "You don't know you're in the Championship till you've been bodied by Dumbarton", one sympathetic Dundee United fan told me early this season as Caley Thistle, back at this level for the first time in 7 years, took so much time to find their feet that they were closer to relegation than promotion for much of the campaign until a crazy run of form in the Spring took them to the brink of a playoff place. They will hope that they have found the right ingredients to challenge next year.

As for United, god knows what is coming next. They staggered to third place with the highest budget in the league by miles, then imploded spectacularly - and predictably - in the first leg of their playoff with Livingston. Unless a potential takeover by a group of Americans works out, another summer of costcutting is at hand...presuming that there is much left to cut now.

As United are discovering, the longer a club is stuck in the Championship, the harder it is to escape - like quicksand, or a work do. In 2018/19 they'll be competing with not only Ross County and Inverness but the loser of the Livi-Partick playoff, a potentially resurgent Falkirk and a quietly improving Dunfermline, plus everyone else who fancies taking them down a peg or two. It'll be very, very tough.

And just maybe, after two years, they'll have learnt that it's not for the faint-hearted.

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, May 9, 2018

The eleventh annual Narey's Toepoker Team Of The Year (part 2)

Part 1, with my goalkeeper and defence, can be found here.

As for the rest, I have been hamstrung a bit by my own insistence on including only those who have managed to start half of their club's games this season. So that disqualified Moussa Dembele, Flo Kamberi, Youssouf Mulumbu, Louis Moult, David Bates and Ryan Jack, amongst others, from consideration. I was very close to breaking this rule just so I could fit in Mulumbu - if only for his god-like performance against Celtic at Rugby Park - and either Moult or Kamberi on the grounds that the other centre-forward options were pretty rank.

But thems the rules. So we have only one player from last season's lineup (Kieran Tierney), but we have one player making his second Team Of The Year appearance, one making his third, and one making his fourth.

Oh, and this season's formation is something of a 4-3-2-1/4-3-3. We must have tried every formation over the years except a back three. But that would involve there being three competent central defenders in the league, something which has quite possibly never been the case in the history of this blog.

Anyway, here are your midfield and your forwards...

Honourable mentions: Kenny McLean (Aberdeen), Graeme Shinnie (Aberdeen), Olivier Ntcham (Celtic), Glen Kamara (Dundee), Greg Docherty (Hamilton/Rangers), Gary Dicker (Kilmarnock)

Brown's PFA Player of the Year award might be as much recognition of how long he has endured at the top level as for his performances this season. But whilst he probably wasn't quite as sensational as in 2016/17 he is remarkable, given he will play sixty matches this season at the age of 32. McGeouch and McGinn offered a wonderful carousel of passing this season; the latter's all-action play and willingness to go for goal makes him more obvious to spectators but McGeouch's ability to receive and keep possession is at least as important at Easter Road and won him increasing plaudits as the campaign went on.

Docherty would have been in the team at Christmas after a series of outstanding performances for Accies but he hasn't managed to establish himself at Rangers yet. In contrast, McLean got better after he agreed a switch to Norwich in January which resulted in him being loaned back to Pittodrie till the summer. Kamara stood out at Dundee mainly because of the dross around him but he will surely be sold for a decent fee to a better team this summer. Shinnie was good rather than great, especially because of his yellow card count, but its not his fault Derek McInnes can't find a decent holding midfielder. Dicker's return from long-term injury coincided with Kilmarnock's best run of the season.

Honourable mentions: Ryan Christie (Aberdeen), Callum McGregor (Celtic), David Templeton (Hamilton), Martin Boyle (Hibernian), Jordan Jones (Kilmarnock), Josh Windass (Rangers)

Forrest first (and last) made this list six years ago, but after a comeback season in 2016/17 he elevated his play further this year. Often deployed as a right wing-back with little defensive responsibility, his end product has improved considerably and he has at last found some consistency. Candeias put many of Pedro Caixinha's other signings to shame with his attirude as well as his play, and was a chance-creating machine from the right flank.

This was a breakout season for McGregor, who now may be part of Brendan Rodgers' strongest XI. Windass has improved considerably over the last 12 months and offers a real goal threat from midfield. Christie stood out for Aberdeen despite the feeling that Derek McInnes doesn't know how to use him best. Jones might be the best left winger in the country, whatever Ian McCall says. If Accies stay up, it'll be because of Templeton's goal threat from the flank. And Boyle, who might have considered himself lucky to get a new deal from Hibs a year ago, is now indispensible for them.

Honourable mentions: Kyle Lafferty (Hearts), Alfredo Morelos (Rangers)

Boyd, a Team of the Year pick in 2009, 2010 and 2014, has probably impressed me more at 34 than at any other point in his career. His leadership from the front and intelligent play both with and without the ball have been as important as his Premiership-leading 18 goals.

A very odd person on Twitter complained that Morelos, scorer of 14 league goals this season, should have been top of the Worst Signings list! Well, tough. I like the Colombian's ability to trouble two centre-backs on his own, and his constant running. And unlike some I think the 21 year old will become more refined - and a more composed finisher - with time. As for Lafferty, he's not been the third best striker in the league this season by a long shot. But he probably is the third best out of those who have played enough games to qualify for this list...not that that is saying much.

So here is your lineup for the 2017/18 season. If you disagree, please feel free to leave your constructive criticism in the comments section or on Twitter...

(Yes, I know Candeias is a right winger. So sue me!)

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, May 4, 2018

The eleventh annual Narey's Toepoker Team Of The Year (part 1)

Eleventh? Blimey.

Here are the previous ten, for your amusement. Yes, I know, there are some real shockers in there...

2007/08: Allan McGregor (Rangers), Alan Hutton (Rangers), Carlos Cuellar (Rangers), Lee Wilkie (Dundee United), Lee Naylor (Celtic), Barry Robson (Celtic), Stephen Hughes (Motherwell), Barry Ferguson (Rangers), Aiden McGeady (Celtic), Scott McDonald (Celtic), Steven Fletcher (Hibernian)

2008/09: Lukasz Zaluska (Dundee United), Andreas Hinkel (Celtic), Gary Caldwell (Celtic), Lee Wilkie (Dundee United), Sasa Papac (Rangers), Scott Brown (Celtic), Bruno Aguiar (Hearts), Pedro Mendes (Rangers), Andrew Driver (Hearts), Scott McDonald (Celtic), Kris Boyd (Rangers)

2009/10: John Ruddy (Motherwell), Steven Whittaker (Rangers), David Weir (Rangers), Andy Webster (Dundee United), Sasa Papac (Rangers), Steven Davis (Rangers), Morgaro Gomis (Dundee United), James McArthur (Hamilton), Anthony Stokes (Hibernian), Kris Boyd (Rangers), David Goodwillie (Dundee United)

2010/11: Marian Kello (Hearts), Steven Whittaker (Rangers), Daniel Majstorovic (Celtic), Michael Duberry (St. Johnstone), Emilio Izaguirre (Celtic), Steven Naismith (Rangers), Beram Kayal (Celtic), Alexei Eremenko (Kilmarnock), David Templeton (Hearts), Nikica Jelavic (Rangers), David Goodwillie (Dundee 

2011/12: Cammy Bell (Kilmarnock), Adam Matthews (Celtic), Carlos Bocanegra (Rangers), Charlie Mulgrew (Celtic), Paul Dixon (Dundee United), James Forrest (Celtic), Victor Wanyama (Celtic), Ian Black (Hearts), Dean Shiels (Kilmarnock), Jon Daly (Dundee United), Gary Hooper (Celtic)

2012/13: Fraser Forster (Celtic), Mihael Kovacevic (Ross County), Gary Warren (Inverness CT), Mark Reynolds (Aberdeen), Stevie Hammell (Motherwell), Victor Wanyama (Celtic), Nicky Law (Motherwell), Murray Davidson (St. Johnstone), Leigh Griffiths (Hibernian), Michael Higdon (Motherwell), Billy Mckay (Inverness CT) 

2013/14: Jamie MacDonald (Hearts), Dave Mackay (St. Johnstone), Virgil Van Dijk (Celtic), Mark Reynolds (Aberdeen), Andrew Robertson (Dundee United), Scott Brown (Celtic), Stuart Armstrong (Dundee United), Peter Pawlett (Aberdeen), Kris Commons (Celtic), Kris Boyd (Kilmarnock), Stevie May (St. Johnstone)

2014/15: Craig Gordon (Celtic), Shay Logan (Aberdeen), Virgil Van Dijk (Celtic), Jason Denayer (Celtic), Graeme Shinnie (Inverness CT), Ryan Jack (Aberdeen), Greg Tansey (Inverness CT), Greg Stewart (Dundee), Stefan Johansen (Celtic), Gary Mackay-Steven (Dundee United/Celtic), Adam Rooney (Aberdeen)

2015/16: Jamie MacDonald (Kilmarnock), Callum Paterson (Hearts), Igor Rossi (Hearts), Andrew Davies (Ross County), Graeme Shinnie (Aberdeen), Nir Bitton (Celtic), Jackson Irvine (Ross County), Jonny Hayes (Aberdeen), Kenny McLean (Aberdeen), Marvin Johnson (Motherwell), Leigh Griffiths (Celtic)

2016/17: Joe Lewis (Aberdeen), Callum Paterson (Hearts), Jozo Simunovic (Celtic), Joe Shaughnessy (St. Johnstone), Kieran Tierney (Celtic), Jonny Hayes (Aberdeen), Stuart Armstrong (Celtic), Adam Barton (Partick Thistle), Scott Sinclair (Celtic), Moussa Dembele (Celtic), Liam Boyce (Ross County)

So here's this season's crop. The one criteria worth noting - a player must have played in at least half of this club's Premiership games this season to qualify - so no Jon Aurtenetxe, Youssouf Mulumbu or Louis Moult.

And this is all my own work, so by all means send me your constructive criticism on Twitter.


Honourable mentions: Craig Gordon (Celtic), Trevor Carson (Motherwell)

There are two reasons why Hearts are in the top six, and McLaughlin is one of them. He's been such an upgrade between the sticks for the Jambos - and just as well, given that he's been pretty busy. His year in Scotland is set to earn him a lucrative contract at an English Championship side that Hearts just won't be able to match.

Gordon's quality is most apparent when he's not available, particularly when Dorus De Vries was in goal for Celtic instead. He was reliable as ever. Carson impressed sufficiently at Fir Park that he forced his way into the Northern Ireland setup and is attracting interest from down south too.

Honourable mentions: Stephen O'Donnell (Kilmarnock), Jason Naismith (Ross County)

Tavernier may not be the greatest defender in the world, but he more than makes up for it with the threat he offers going forward; at the time of writing he has scored seven league goals and is the joint Premiership leader for assists. And he's not such a bad defender as is made out. And if Rangers bothered playing a competent defensive midfielder who could cover for him it wouldn't matter anyway.

O'Donnell has been terrific for Kilmarnock and has become more dangerous in an attacking sense as the season has progressed. Naismith has been Ross County's best player by miles, and will surely be snapped up by a top division club if his side are relegated.

Honourable mentions: Greg Taylor (Kilmarnock), Declan John (Rangers)

A no-brainer, this. Tierney maybe hasn't been quite as amazing as last season but his continued excellence, at the age of just 20, is astonishing. Assuming he continues this trajectory, he will become the most expensive Scottish player ever when he chooses to play at a higher level.

But there weren't many other deserving candidates. Taylor has been much more consistent than you would expect from one so young and also has a bright future ahead of him. John probably isn't as good as the perenially injured (and now suspended) Lee Wallace, but he has been solid enough for Rangers and certainly hasn't been one of their weakest links.

Honourable mentions: Kristoffer Ajer (Celtic), Jack Hendry (Dundee/Celtic), Paul Hanlon (Hibernian), Cedric Kipre (Motherwell)

You know how I mentioned there were two reasons for Hearts being in the top six? Aye, so Berra is the other. In fact, the Scotland international has been so impressive that he really should have made the Player Of The Year shortlist. A duo of Berra and McKenna would certainly win every header going; the Aberdeen youngster is phenomenal in the air, though I worry I'm getting carried away by the hype and my desperate hope that Scotland has some half decent centre-backs out there. Time will tell.

Kipre was very close to being included, having instantly looked the part after joining Motherwell and earning not one but two new contracts over the course of the campaign. Hendry was such a revelation at Dundee that he earned a seven figure move to Celtic in January. With strength to complement his comfort in possession, Ajer has the tools to go far. Hibs' Hanlon meanwhile had arguably the best season of his career, as he enters his testimonial year.

Midfield and attack to come in the next few days...

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.