Tuesday, July 31, 2018

2018/19 Premiership preview - Hibernian

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LAST SEASON: Fourth, 67pts

NOTABLE INS: Stevie Mallan (Barnsley, £200k), Flo Kamberi (Grasshopper Zurich, loan made permanent), Adam Bogdan (Liverpool, loan)

NOTABLE OUTS: Simon Murray (Bidvest Wits, £150k), Cammy Bell (Partick Thistle), Callum Crane (Livingston), Dylan McGeouch (Sunderland), Scott Allan (Celtic, end of loan), Brandon Barker (Manchester City, end of loan), Jamie Maclaren (SV Darmstadt 98, end of loan), Faycal Rherras (Mechelen, end of loan)

LAST SEASON'S BEST XI (Departed players crossed out): Marciano, Ambrose, Hanlon, McGregor, Stevenson, Boyle, McGeouch, McGinn, Allan, Maclaren, Kamberi

You know, Hibs were pretty good last season. In fact, after the winter break they were really good. As in 'more points than Celtic, Rangers or Aberdeen in that period' good. They lost just two league games in the first half of 2018, a cagey one at Celtic Park and an inevitable one at Tynecastle where they have won just once in sixteen attempts.

That's fairly impressive for a side returning to the top flight after a three year absence. In the end fourth place was the least they deserved.

The question now for Neil Lennon and is team is whether they can do even better.

Of course, the success has not gone unnoticed and inevitably predators have come sniffing around their best players - namely Dylan McGeouch, the outstanding passing metronome who has joined Sunderland, and the all-action John McGinn who at this point seems destined to move to Celtic, with the only uncertainty being the timing.

Losing two players of such quality would be a real blow, though any fee for McGinn would give Lennon leeway to sign replacements - including Scott Allan as part of the deal for McGinn, and maybe Ozzie striker Jamie Maclaren, who did so well up front on loan late last season. And he has already brought Stevie Mallan north from Barnsley to provide some creativity; whilst a different style of player to McGeouch, Mallan may well take over his place in the team.

If Maclaren's partnership with Flo Kamberi - signed permanently this summer for a snip at a supposed £100,000, less than the fee received for Simom Murray - can be renewed then the Hibees will have firepower up front that most of their opponents could only dream of. Until that happens, or another forward is signed, only Oli Shaw or Martin Boyle are options to partner Kamberi. Boyle is far more effective on the right flank, where he was one of the most improved players in the country last year.

The other end of the park might need strengthening too, with Darren McGregor showing his age and Steven Whittaker fading fast. The big hope for this season is that young Ryan Porteous steps up; just nineteen in March, he has impressed considerably when called upon and could be this season's answer to Aberdeen's Scott McKenna.

Porteous and Paul Hanlon would make a satisfactory centre-back pairing; Efe Ambrose tended to look better at right-back last season, if only because any brain farts were less likely to immediately result in concession of a goal. And of course Lewis Stevenson will probably still chug up and down the left at Easter Road long after the apocalypse has destroyed the rest of us.

There's renewed competition between the sticks too with the arrival of Adam Bogdan; the Hungarian's poor Europa League performances may have Lennon hankering for the return of Ofir Marciano from injury though.

So can Hibs push on? There's not likely to be too much between them, their local rivals, Aberdeen and Rangers. But with a few more clever signings, some good fortune on the injury front and a manager who doesn't let his emotions distract from the job in hand, this could be another enjoyable season down Leith way. Even if/when McGinn goes.

THE SQUAD (players born after 1 January 1997 in italics)
Goalkeepers: Adam Bogdan, Ross Laidlaw, Ofir Marciano
Defenders: Efe Ambrose, Andrew Blake, David Gray, Paul Hanlon, Sean Mackie, Darren McGregor, Ryan Porteous, Lewis Stevenson, Steven Whittaker
Midfielders: Marvin Bartley, Martin Boyle, Jamie Gullan, Stevie Mallan, Scott Martin, John McGinn, Fraser Murray, Innes Murray, Vykintas Slivka, Danny Swanson
Forwards: Lewis Allan, Flo Kamberi, Oli Shaw


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

2018/19 Premiership preview - St. Johnstone

StJohnstoneFC crest new.png

LAST SEASON: Eighth, 46pts

NOTABLE INS: Matty Kennedy (Cardiff City), Tony Watt (unattached), Drey Wright (Colchester United), Conor Mitchell (Burnley, loan)

NOTABLE OUTS: Steven Maclean (Heart of Midlothian), Alan Mannus (Shamrock Rovers), Chris Millar (Greenock Morton), Keith Watson (Ross County), Denny Johnstone (Colchester United, end of loan), Matty Willock (Manchester United, end of loan), George Williams (Fulham, end of loan)

LAST SEASON'S BEST XI (Departed players crossed out): Mannus, Foster, Shaughnessy, Kerr, Easton, Wotherspoon, Davidson, Craig, Williams, O'Halloran, MacLean

Last season was the first since 2011 that St. Johnstone hadn't made it into the top six. And it was a slog. A team renowned for their solidity and workrate often looked ragged and bereft of confidence. Manager Tommy Wright, not normally a man to bemoan the cards he has been dealt, never seemed to stop complaining, whether it was about his players, his chairman, his opponents or just about everything else. It reached the point that it seemed more likely than not that the Northern Irishman's successful tenure at McDiarmid Park was coming to an end.

Not so now. To an extent the club were due a campaign like that, with the last remnants of the great side that won the 2014 Scottish Cup ageing or having left. A rebuild of sorts was necessary; having come to terms with this, Wright now sounds energized by the prospect of forming a new squad in his image.

Plenty of experience has been lost this summer - 750 appearances worth in the shape of goalkeeper Alan Mannus, midfielder Chris Millar and striker Steven MacLean. But Millar was the youngest of the trio, at the sprightly age of 35. It's hard to argue that it wasn't time to move on.

Only Mannus is easy enough to replace, as Zander Clark is more than capable between the sticks. The problem with Millar is that he hasn't been a regular for the last two seasons, yet the Perth Saints haven't found anyone who can do that holding midfield job as effectively. The current solution seems to be to use Murray Davidson deeper, but this remains an obvious weakness. Wright himself has said he is still looking for another central midfielder.

Another option might be a switch to a back three but this seems unlikely given that they have strengthened in the wide areas by bringing in Matty Kennedy and Drey Wright. Kennedy is a particularly intriguing signing who never made the breakthrough at Everton or Cardiff but has impressed in loan spells in England's lower divisions. Wright will add a bit of speed on the opposite side.

The knock-on effect will hopefully be to allow Stefan Scougall to play through the centre rather than being stuck out wide. Scougall had an underwhelming first season at the club but is a real talent. Blair Alston could also do a job in that role, and there are plans to deploy David Wotherspoon in this area more often too. It's certainly not unreasonable to expect the manager will find a combination that works.

There should be decent service, then, for whoever fills MacLean's boots up front. David McMillan had an injury-hit start after arriving in January but hopes are high for the Irishman. However, the main focus will be on Tony Watt, who has, to say the least, not hit the heights expected of him when he emerged as a youngster at Celtic. Still only 24, he was out of the game for the first half of 2018 and has made all the right noises about how he can't afford to fail at McDiarmid.

If anyone can connect with Watt and get the best out of him, it is surely Wright. And if he does so, then goals will flow. If not, he'll need to rely on McMillan and the rather erratic Chris Kane to hit the net.

The other big concern is at the back. Traditionally a strength in previous years, the defence were horrendously error-prone last year with Steven Anderson particularly struggling; handing back the captain's armband was supposed to improve his form but that was not really the case. Ricky Foster also had a down year.

Brian Easton's long-term injury has not helped matters at all, though Scott Tanser came on as the season progressed. A bigger problem was having to deploy Joe Shaughnessy on the right when he would be better in the centre. The big positive was the emergence of Jason Kerr who quietly excelled and is still only 21.

It's hard to see St. Johnstone sliding further down the table. But it's also hard to see them returning to the top six, if only because they can't get near the resources available to the Premiership's five biggest clubs and so there is likely to be only one spot available for them, Kilmarnock, Motherwell and the rest. Can they do it? Yes. Will they? We'll see.

But at least Tommy Wright should be a bit more chipper and a bit less chippy...

THE SQUAD (players born after 1 January 1997 in italics)
Goalkeepers: Zander Clark, Mark Hurst, Conor Mitchell
Defenders: Steven Anderson, Aaron Comrie, Brian Easton, Richard Foster, Liam Gordon, Jason Kerr, Joe Shaughnessy, Scott Tanser
Midfielders: Blair Alston, Liam Craig, Murray Davidson, Matty Kennedy, Ali McCann, Kyle McClean, John Robertson, Stefan Scougall, David Wotherspoon, Drey Wright
Forwards: Callum Hendry, Greg Hurst, Chris Kane, David McMillan, Tony Watt


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

2018/19 League Two preview

First, a caveat: I am by no means an expert on League Two. I know nothing about what tactics the ten teams are likely to use, nor which unheralded youngsters are going to make a breakthrough. About all I can count on is a good idea of team budgets, a list of the transfer moves made by the clubs, and awareness of which sides appear to be starting the season in crisis.

Thankfully, that should get us a fairly long way.

Let's start with the crisis clubs first. Berwick Rangers sacked their chairman this weekend. They lost all four League Cup group games without scoring a goal. Only a few decent results in the spring saved them from slipping into last season's relegation battle. And only one of their new signings has come from the senior leagues rather than the juniors. That ain't good.

You'd think Albion Rovers, relegated from League One, would be challenging at the top end...but they've had a complete reboot in the summertime. New manager John Brogan has had some success in the past - the nineteen-eighties to be exact. His recent record in junior football is not impressive, but he's gone back to those ranks for most of the seventeen new players they've brought in. And they were rubbish in the League Cup too. Could they be in danger of successive demotions?

After finishing bottom twice in succession Cowdenbeath are more likely than not to struggle again but there are signs that Gary Bollan has instilled improvement. Crucially they've retained Jordyn Sheerin after the striker excelled on loan in the spring and Jason Talbot and Martin Scott add experience. They should steer clear of the drop this time.

As for budgets, it's no secret that Peterhead, led by plumber-by-weekday-goalscorer-by-weekend Rory McAllister, are ahead of the game in this league. Having somehow missed out on promotion last year, Jim McInally is rather fortunate to get another shot at it. They should be deducted points for fielding a player with squad number 99 (Derek Lyle) though.

Clyde may well be their nearest challengers, if Danny Lennon can continue their upward trajectory from the second half of last season. The addition of the experienced John Rankin will do no harm, and a strike force of David Goodwillie and David Hopkin should be feared at this level.

Budget-wise, Queen's Park are at completely the other end of the scale - being amateurs after all - but with the astute Gus MacPherson overseeing operations they should find their feet again after relegation last season. Whilst as always there have been plenty of comings and goings the addition of Josh Peters and Adam Martin up front, Jamie McKernon in midfield and Jordan Hart in goal should do them well and they'll fancy their chances of a playoff spot.

The playoffs will also be the minimum target for Stirling Albion who reached that stage last season and have themselves a decent frontline in Mark Stewart, Peter MacDonald and Neil McLaughlin. If manager Dave Mackay has aspirations to go higher in the game then he really needs to get Stirling out of this tier at his third attempt.

Elgin City have come up just short of the playoffs in recent years but will find the task harder this year after Thomas Reilly left. A series of long-term injuries has weakened a squad that will be heavily dependent on Shane Sutherland for inspiration, though Craig Beattie counts as one of the more intriguing signings of the offseason.

Annan Athletic are another side who were close to the top four last season and they may fancy they can scale that peak this time around. Midfielder David Wilson and winger Chris Johnston will give their forwards enviable ammunition and Ross Fergusson could thrive at this level.

That just leaves Edinburgh City, yet to flourish in senior football but who were further from the drop than their ninth place last year suggested. They have continued to invest heavily in their squad; Conrad Balatoni and Danny Handling should be playing at a far higher level than this. The question is whether James McDonaugh can mould them into a side that can gatecrash the top half of the table.

Speaking of tables, this is how I think it'll end up:





Of course, if I were you I'd take this all with a pinch of salt...

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, July 30, 2018

2018/19 Premiership preview - St. Mirren

St Mirren FC logo.svg

LAST SEASON: Championship winners

NOTABLE INS: Cody Cooke (Truro City), Josh Heaton (Darlington), Jim Kellerman (Aldershot Town), Jeff King (Bolton Wanderers), Cole Kpekawa (Colchester United), Paul McGinn (Partick Thistle), Hayden Coulson (Middlesbrough, loan), Danny Rogers (Aberdeen, loan), Matty Willock (Manchester United, loan)

NOTABLE OUTS: Harry Davis (Grimsby Town), Stelios Demetriou (Ross County), Darryl Duffy (Airdrieonians, loan made permanent), Nathan Flanagan (Raith Rovers), Myles Hippolyte (Dunfermline Athletic), Andrew McDonald (Stranraer), Gavin Reilly (Bristol Rovers), Ross M. Stewart (Livingston), Josh Todd (Queen of the South, loan made permanent), Darren Whyte (Forfar Athletic, loan made permanent), Mark Hill (Celtic, end of loan), Lewis Morgan (Celtic, end of loan), Liam Smith (Heart of Midlothian, end of loan), Massimo Donati (retired), Jamie Langfield (retired), John Sutton (retired), Gary Irvine, Conor O'Keefe

LAST SEASON'S BEST XI (Departed players crossed out): Samson, L. Smith, Baird, Davis, Eckersley, McGinn, McShane, Magennis, C. Smith, Morgan, Reilly

At the end of the 2016/17 season, St. Mirren needed a win on the final day of the season to avoid dropping into League One. A year on, they won the Championship by twelve points. That's some turnaround.

And they were deserved champions. They had an outstanding manager in Jack Ross, the division's best player in Lewis Morgan, and plenty of experience and nous throughout the squad. They won games in every way you can think of, sometimes playing silky football, sometimes going direct, and sometimes, to be frank, by getting physical and grinding out results.

Confidence was so high that the club's Chief Executive, Tony Fitzpatrick, even talked of targeting the top six, whilst comparing Ross to one Sir Alex Ferguson (who of course managed St. Mirren back in the day).

Now morale is not what it once was, to say the least.

Morgan's move to Celtic was signed and sealed back in January, with the Bhoys simply loaning him back for the rest of the season. So life without him was expected and planned for. Not so the exit of Ross, who became Sunderland manager at the end of May. Undoubtedly one of the finest young Scottish coaches around, his shoes will be extremely hard to fill.

Enter Alan Stubbs, best remembered for winning the Scottish Cup with Hibs. That achievement tends to mask the fact he failed twice to get them promoted from the Championship before bombing at Rotherham United. Still, it seemed like a decent enough appointment and it may well prove to be so.

However the League Cup group games were cause for concern, at least until a 6-0 drubbing of Dumbarton in the last one. Before then was a credible draw with Kilmarnock, followed by far less credible draws with The Spartans (after being 2-0 down at home to the Lowland Leaguers) and Queen's Park.

The blanks fired at Rugby Park and Hampden Park reinforced suspicions that the forward line badly needs beefed up. In Morgan and Gavin Reilly, who stalled so long over a new contract that it was withdrawn, forty goals worth has been lost. Whilst Reilly probably isn't a striker capable of scoring regularly in the Premiership, Danny Mullen and Ross Stewart (the striker, not the goalkeeper of the same name who, to the relief of commentators everywhere, has signed for Livingston) certainly aren't. Stubbs' only signing in this area so far is Cody Cooke from English non-league.

As for midfield, Morgan leaves a huge hole, though his exit will mean that Cammy Smith will get the plaudits he deserves after a year of being criminally overshadowed by the starlet. There are high hopes that Kyle Magennis, not yet 20 but with more than fifty first team appearances to his name, is the next Academy graduate destined for better things. Stephen McGinn and Ryan Flynn offer plenty of experience, while Matty Willock did well enough on loan at St. Johnstone last season that Tommy Wright wanted him back there. Winger Jeff King is also an intriguing signing.

Last season it often felt like the quality of the midfield covered any deficiencies in the backline, and given that outstanding right-back Liam Smith returned to parent club Hearts and Harry Davis, arguably the club's best defender under contract, moved back to England in the summer, it's no surprise that there has been a lot of movement in that area. So in come three new faces - left-backs Hayden Coulson and Cole Kpekawa and centre-back Josh Heaton - and one newish one, given that Paul McGinn returns after five years away.

Three of this quartet will probably start along with Jack Baird in defence, though the lack of an obvious replacement for Morgan on the left may force Stubbs to use a back three with wing-backs. Expect further signings in this area. There may yet be a new first choice keeper too, with Danny Rogers brought in loan from Aberdeen to compete with and possibly supplant veteran Craig Samson.

With so much change both on and off the pitch, a charge for the top half seems extremely optimistic. But for any newly promoted side, survival should always be the first, and main, priority. St. Mirren should have enough quality to pull that off. And that should give them a crucial foothold to push on in years to come.

THE SQUAD (players born after 1 January 1997 in italics)
Goalkeepers: Danny Rogers, Craig Samson
Defenders: Jack Baird, Hayden Coulson, Adam Eckersley, Josh Heaton, Cole Kpekawa, Gary MacKenzie, Paul McGinn
Midfielders: Ethan Erhahon, Ryan Flynn, Jim Kellerman, Jeff King, Jordan Kirkpatrick, Cameron MacPherson, Kyle Magennis, Stephen McGinn, Ian McShane, Cammy Smith, Matty Willock
Forwards: Cody Cooke, Danny Mullen, Ross Stewart


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.

2018/19 Premiership preview - Kilmarnock


LAST SEASON: Fifth, 59pts

NOTABLE INS: Stuart Findlay (Newcastle United, loan made permanent), Ross Millen (Queen's Park), Mikael Ndjoli (AFC Bournemouth, loan)

NOTABLE OUTS: Leo Fasan (Falkirk), Jasko Keranovic (West Bromwich Albion, end of loan), Aaron Simpson (Wolverhampton Wanderers, end of loan), Aaron Tshibola (Aston Villa, end of loan), Gordon Greer, Dean Hawkshaw, Youssouf Mulumbu, Alex Samizadeh, Steven Smith, Brad Spencer

LAST SEASON'S BEST XI (Departed players crossed out): MacDonald, O'Donnell, Broadfoot, Findlay, Taylor, Dicker, Power, Mulumbu, Brophy, Jones, K. Boyd

When Lee McCulloch was removed as manager last season, Kilmarnock were bottom of the table and winless in their first eight league games. They had also been beaten in the League Cup Group Stage by Ayr and then thumped 5-0 by Celtic reserves in the last sixteen.

After Steve Clarke took over in October 2017 they picked up 53 points. For comparison, that's the same as Rangers managed. Hibs scored 51 in that timeframe, while Aberdeen got 50. In a table comprising those twenty-nine matches, Killie were only six points behind Celtic.

So how on earth do you follow that up?

It'll certainly be tough. Well into the second half of last season teams were still guilty of underestimating Killie and paid for it frequently. That's unlikely to be the case again.

Kris Boyd was Scotland's top goalscorer last season. Given he is 35 this month, that's unlikely to be the case again...though write him off at your peril.

And last term they had Youssouf Mulumbu bossing the midfield. That's unlikely to be the case again; whilst Mulumbu doesn't have a new club yet he'll not be short of quality suitors after being arguably the best player in Scotland outside Parkhead in 2017/18.

Often in football, you have to run to stand still, and if you stand still you go backwards. Given there aren't many newcomers at Rugby Park so far - only Ross Millen, a lower leaguer given the chance to impress mainly because his dad is on the Kilmarnock staff,  and young Bournemouth loanee Mikael Ndjoli, plus the permanent return of Stuart Findlay - the fear is that Killie could be overtaken by clubs who have been busier.

But crucially they still have Clarke. For all the excellence of Boyd and Mulumbu, no-one was more responsible for the club's unexpected success than the manager. One needs to watch them play for only a few minutes to see that this is an extraordinarily well-coached bunch.

And therefore it is quite possible that Kilmarnock will kick on because the remaining players will continue to improve. Young talents like left-back Greg Taylor, midfielder Greg Kiltie and forward Eamonn Brophy still look like they have potential to unlock. A back four of Taylor, Findlay, veteran Kirk Broadfoot and new Scotland cap Stephen O'Donnell looks very solid, and even in Mulumbu's absence a midfield with Alan Power and Gary Dicker in it isn't going to lose any physical battles.

Jordan Jones is another one who appears to be getting better and better, with the winger increasingly adding a quality end-product to go with his dribbling skills and his hard work. It seems only a matter of time until the Ulsterman moves on to better things; the longer he stays around the better for Killie's prospects as he would be very difficult to replace. At least if Boyd runs out of legs there is Lee Erwin who can potentially step up. There's no-one in the squad who could replace Jones.

The biggest fear of all, of course, is that Clarke is enticed away. For now, he looks revitalized, a man who has fallen back in love with the game after returning north, and happy to keep rolling with the good times and continue to build his reputation back up. Sooner or later though he and Kilmarnock will hit their ceiling; one suspects it's unlikely he'll still be here until even that point arrives.

But Kilmarnock fans are realistic about that. They'll enjoy this while it lasts. No-one really believes that they could actually finish second in the league, but a repeat of 2017/18's fifth spot is certainly achievable. And whilst Clarke is at the helm, they'll continue to punch above their weight like no-one else in the Premiership.

THE SQUAD (players born after 1 January 1997 in italics)
Goalkeepers: Jamie MacDonald, Devlin Mackay
Defenders: Scott Boyd, Kirk Broadfoot, Stuart Findlay, Daniel Higgins, Ross Millen, Stephen O'Donnell, Greg Taylor, Calum Waters, Iain Wilson
Midfielders: Chris Burke, Innes Cameron, Gary Dicker, Adam Frizzell, Jordan Jones, Greg Kiltie, Rory McKenzie, Alan Power, Dom Thomas
Forwards: Kris Boyd, Eamonn Brophy, Lee Erwin, William Graham, Mikael Ndjoli


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

Monday, July 2, 2018

The Challenge Cup now does more harm than good

Twenty-eight years on, it's hard to believe that the Challenge Cup was initially intended to be a one-off competition, held in 1990 to celebrate the Scottish Football League's centenary. But it was hugely popular - the final between Dundee and Ayr United drew a capacity crowd to Fir Park - and it also provided lower league clubs with extra matches and therefore extra revenue. So on it went.

With top flight clubs ineligible, here was a bona fide shot at glory for Scotland's smaller sides. For Stenhousemuir (champions in 1995), Stranraer (1996) and Alloa (1999), winning the tournament is arguably their greatest ever achievement. When Caley Thistle triumphed in 2003 it felt like a watershed for them; they went on to win promotion to the SPL at the end of that campaign.

Had Dumbarton won this year, it would have been the best thing that has happened to them since the end of the nineteenth century...and given the support they got at the final, you could tell. Given that less than three years had passed since Inverness had won the Scottish Cup, this writer felt more embarrassed than delighted at this Challenge Cup win; it feels like this competition should be for those sides who have no chance of ever winning the biggest knockout tournaments this country has to offer.

Should be...but no longer. For those smaller clubs, the Challenge Cup is now more a hindrance than an opportunity.

For a start, there is now very little financial incentive for the clubs participating in it. That has always been an issue - in 1998-99 it was cancelled because no title sponsor was found - but this year Caley Thistle only avoided making a loss on their participation because they reached the final. It didn't help that two of their earlier games were moved to stupid o'clock kickoffs for Gaelic telly, but even then attendances are so low that there is a struggle to cover the costs of the match.

That issue was far from unique, and given that the clubs are getting guaranteed home games - and bigger crowds - from the League Cup group stages, there's less of a pressing need for extra matches anyway. Such is the potential for fixture congestion further down the line that Dundee United have already said they'll field a youth team, which is what they did last year.

Meanwhile, the players themselves are so disillusioned that, according to Arbroath midfielder Danny Denholm, it is referred to as 'the Jobbies Cup'.

It's easy to accept that there might be a need for change, but as per usual the powers that be have found spectacular ways of making the situation worse.

The first of these was to introduce 'Colt' teams - the under 20s sides of Premiership clubs - to the competition. Allegedly this was to increase interest, but it turns out that even the fanbases of Rangers and Celtic can't be arsed to go and watch youth players who they know will never get past hoards of foreigners to make the first team anyway, particularly if they are getting gubbed by League Two opposition.

On their first attempt, only seven of the twelve Colt teams got through the first round and only one as far as the third. None even made the last sixteen. So the rules were changed to beef them up a bit; two over-age players were allowed to play as well, allegedly to provide experience. The outcome? Even worse. Only six won their first game (one of which was against another Colt team as they were no longer separated in the draw) whilst none won their second.

So now the age limit for the 2018-19 competition is being bumped up to 21 in an attempt to make them more competitive.

Any idiot can see where this is going, especially on the back of the ridiculous document Rangers and Celtic got a twelve year old to write and send around League Two clubs last season that tried to impossibly spin the idea of Colt teams entering the SPFL pyramid at their level. If Colt teams do well in the Challenge Cup, it suggests they might not get turned over most weeks by savvy semi-pros in the seaside leagues and boosts the argument for their inclusion in said leagues.

The age limit is inevitably going to be increased again and again and again until it ultimately reaches "whatever age Kenny Miller is at this moment in time" and then the day will come when an international centre-forward scores the winning goal for a Colt team in the final and the league says "we told you how great Colt teams were! Now let them in League Two!"

And when that happens, it'll be at the expense of the league status of some current clubs. So, you could surmise, the Challenge Cup is actually putting those clubs at risk of dropping out of the SPFL altogether.

The SPFL's other 'cunning plan' (that phrase should sound like Baldrick's voice in your head) was of course to allow teams from the other home nations to take part. The explanation was that this would increase interest in the competition - though why Linfield fans would care about games against Scottish part-timers, and vice versa, is unclear to me. The conspiracy theory is that it is being used as a precedent for future cross-border competitions that might involve Scotland's bigger clubs.

Whether that is true or not, the biggest accomplishment of this has been to massage our egos by proving that the best that Northern Ireland and Wales have to offer is still below the standard of the Scottish Championship; the less said about the Irish league the better given that Sligo Rovers got punted out of last year's event by footballing behemoths Elgin City.

At least The New Saints got as far as the semis before they suffered the quintessential Scottish lower league experience, which is being bodied by Dumbarton.

This year the ridiculousness is turned up to eleven as Sutton United and Boreham Wood have been invited in. Who, you ask? (I imagine they'll be saying the same about whoever they are drawn against). These are the two highest finishing English non-league clubs that didn't get promoted last year. Given that most of us know so little about that level of football that we thought their league was still called the Conference, they're a bit of an unknown quantity.

What we do know, however, is that if they're good enough to just miss the playoffs, then they will have their eyes on the holy grail of promotion to the English Football League proper. Which means they have rather bigger fish to fry. And with forty-six league games (!) plus the FA Cup and the FA trophy - Boreham Wood played fifty-six matches last season - it's hard to see them taking this seriously.

And why should they, when no-one else is? A competition which should exist simply to give small Scottish clubs the chance to actually win something has now been hijacked and wrecked for the ends of clubs who didn't even compete in it. Either return it to its old ways or chuck the whole thing, for it is now one great big waste of time.

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.