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.

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