Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Paul Hartley has left Falkirk in a fankle

It is hard to believe that just over three years ago Falkirk should have won the Scottish Cup.

Having matched top flight Caley Thistle from the off, they took control after Carl Tremarco's sending off and deservedly equalized against the ten men; at that point Inverness were out on their feet and there was only going to be one winner. Then Jamie MacDonald gifted a goal to James Vincent and Caley Thistle nicked the victory and the glory.

It's also hard to believe that the following Spring Falkirk probably should have been promoted to the Premiership - they deservedly beat Hibs (who were about to win the cup themselves) in the playoffs and took a first leg lead to Rugby Park in the finale only to run out of puff against Kilmarnock.

In fact, Falkirk should have been in the playoff final again in 2016/17, but conceded twice in the last fifteen minutes at home to Dundee United when ahead in the tie. You'd have fancied them to have done a better job than United against a dreadful Hamilton Accies side in the final.

Falkirk might have been out of the top tier since 2010, but only once in the next seven seasons did they come lower than third in the Championship - and that was the season where they had their momentous cup run.

How times change.

Fast forward to the end of August 2018, and the club appears to be going through some sort of footballing apocalypse. Paul Hartley became the second manager in the country to be punted this season, and it was no surprise to anyone. Not only are they bottom of the table with three defeats out of three, but the statistics from their loss at home to Queen of the South tell their own story - one of a performance so utterly abject that a manager simply cannot survive it. It was 3-0 going on seven or eight.

Even before that match his jacket was on a shoogly peg given there had also been a League Cup loss at Montrose and only a narrow Challenge Cup win with a first-choice XI against Rangers Colts. The defeat to the Doonhamers only hastened the inevitable.

In past times - and in times as recent as October 2017, when Hartley was appointed, the Falkirk job would have been an attractive one. It is a club with a support base comparable to other Championshp clubs and therefore with plenty of potential to return to the Premiership. There was also a very successful youth academy to boot. In those seven years following relegation Jay Fulton, Stephen Kingsley, Murray Wallace, Conor McGrandles, Botti Biabi, Ryan Blair and Tony Gallacher were all developed and sold on for six (in the case of McGrandles, seven) figure sums.

But that academy was disbanded in December 2017, with the club claiming that despite the sales of so many players in recent years the model was no longer sustainable. Given the past record of success, this was a damning indictment of youth football in this country, but that's another story.

Instead all resources would be concentrated on the first team - and they were. In less than eleven months Hartley signed twenty-five players either on loan or permanently (including fifteen in this transfer window alone), getting rid of most that he inherited. Only seven players still on the books precede him, including two reserve goalkeepers and two players, Alex Harris and Joe McKee, who had been frozen out and who may yet have futures under the new regime.

Hartley turned things around last season thanks to an excellent January in which he procured some excellent loan signings from down south, particularly forwards Alex Jakubiak and Andrew Nelson. Neither remained beyond May, and the strikers signed this window have been poor...as indeed have nearly all the summer newcomers. The English lower league market was aggressively targeted for rough diamonds - a strategy that has worked well for other Scottish clubs in the past - but it has turned up little more than fool's gold on this occasion.

Therefore a change of manager seems unlikely to be sufficient to clear up the mess quickly. An appointment will surely not be made before the transfer window shuts and new rules prevent any loan signings from then until January. The new boss will have to make do with what he has, which at the moment are a load of Hartley signings who do not look up to the task.

Worse, this year's Championship is as competitive as ever. Whilst the sole part-timers Alloa are surely doomed, there are no other teams who are certs to finish in the bottom half; Queen of the South, who humbled the Bairns at the weekend, probably have one of the lowest budgets in the division. The worry is that by the time Falkirk become competitive this season they could already be so far adrift that ninth place and a playoff to avoid relegation is their best hope.

And that's just this season. The damage to the first team will take a long time to repair, the youth academy is gone and the promised land of the Premiership is as far away as it has been since they last graced it. Falkirk's future looks uncertain.

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, August 6, 2018

Takeaways from the Championship's opening day

United in crisis...and we've only just started
If Dundee United were to put a motto on their club crest, I would eschew the traditional latin for something French - 'plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose', perhaps. A new season, plenty of new players - eight were making their first league starts for the club - and yet it felt like nothing had changed since the campaign...nor the previous one. 

United toiled badly and were lucky to scramble their way in front before the break; when they conceded it was no surprise that they collapsed, letting in three in twenty-five minutes. Worse, a significant chunk of their tactical plan was based on physically upsetting their opponents. Faissal El Bakhtaoui was clearly a target, and Christoph Rabitsch was very fortunate that Willie Collum was in an unusually lenient mood when he flattened the forward with a challenge that should have got him a second yellow before half-time.

Whilst we hardly expect tiki-taka, United should be dominating teams with the quality of their play, particularly given they clearly have the highest budget in the league by a decent margin. Given the dreadful League Cup showing, Csaba Laszlo is justifiably feeling the pressure. A few more results and performances like this and his position becomes untenable.

Three's a crowd for County
In Jamie Lindsay, Ross Draper and Iain Vigurs, Ross County have three excellent central midfielders. They also play a 4-4-2 system which makes shoehorning them all in very difficult. With Michael Gardyne suspended against Alloa, it was no surprise to see Vigurs line up on the left of midfield, and no surprise to see him wander inside. But given left-back Sean Kelly offers little threat on the overlap, County were unbalanced, lacked width and the centre of the park had a 'too many cooks' feeling.

Only once Draper had been substituted for winger Davis Keillor-Dunn did County really get a grip on the game, and it was the replacement who set up Marcus Fraser's winner. That gives co-managers Steven Ferguson and Stuart Kettlewell two selection headaches going forward - whether to use Gardyne or Keillor-Dunn on the flanks, and which of their talented trio is going to have to drop to the bench.

Thistle are still suffering their relegation hangover
According to Alan Archibald, Partick Thistle were without two players suspended and another who was ill, which explains why they only had three outfielders on the subs bench at Ayr. But the main problem of course is lack of depth. Thistle seem determined to hang on till the end of the transfer window to try and pick up quality players, but they risk a slow start and playing catchup all season.

In the meantime they look like a side still affected by last season's malaise, which is odd given their lineup contained only five players left over from relegation. In contrast, Ayr still appear buoyed by the elation of promotion, with Lawrence Shankland taking his awesome form up a division. They thoroughly deserved their win, but the question is whether it was a sign that they are better than we thought, or that Thistle are worse.

Falkirk need time to gel
Caley Thistle fans will have got a sense of deja vu from watching the home side here, with the uncertainty and lack of coherence remarkably similar to that of Inverness last year as John Robertson tried to gel a lot of new players together and took time to find his best lineup.

Falkirk had nine players making their league debuts for the club and it showed particularly in the first half as the visitors looked far more comfortable on and off the ball. Paul Hartley can maybe take solace from an improved display in the second period where his side probably did enough to deserve a draw. But the worry will be that they are at real risk of emulating Inverness' nightmare start to last season which wrecked their playoff hopes before the clocks changed. Next week's trip to Firhill will be an acid test for both the Bairns and their opponents.

Morton grateful to Scully
I'm looking forward to seeing the highlights from Cappielow - the only ones not available at the time of writing - mainly because of the exploits of Morton keeper Ryan Scully. Named man of the match, the ex-Partick man made one second half double-save so good that it was lauded on Twitter by Derek Gaston...the keeper who Scully has replaced. Now that's what I call team spirit.

Despite blowing a two goal lead, the home side could consider themselves somewhat fortunate to get a point. They had only three shots on goal, two of which went in. Reassuringly for the Doonhamers, it turns out that players other than Stephen Dobbie can score goals.

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.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

2018/19 Premiership preview - Rangers

Rangers Football Club Logo


LAST SEASON: Third, 70pts

NOTABLE INS: Scott Arfield (Burnley), Connor Goldson (Brighton & Hove Albion), Jon Flanagan (Liverpool), Nikola Katic (Slaven Belupo), Allan McGregor (Hull City), Jamie Murphy (Brighton & Hove Albion, loan made permanent), Lassana Coulibaly (Angers, loan), Ovie Ejaria (Liverpool, loan), Ryan Kent (Liverpool, loan), Umar Sadiq (Roma, loan)

NOTABLE OUTS: David Bates (Hamburg), Bruno Alves (Parma), Fabio Cardoso (Santa Clara), Harry Forrester (Tractor Sazi), Liam Kelly (Livingston), Kenny Miller (Livingston, player-manager), Michael O'Halloran (Melbourne City), Jordan Thompson (Blackpool), Joe Dodoo (Blackpool, loan), Ryan Hardie (Livingston, loan), Eduardo Herrera (Santos Laguna, loan), Jason Holt (Fleetwood Town, loan), Carlos Pena (Necaxa, loan), Jason Cummings (Nottingham Forest, end of loan), Dalcio (Benfica, end of loan), Sean Goss (Queen's Park Rangers, end of loan), Russell Martin (Norwich City, end of loan)

LAST SEASON'S BEST XI (Departed players crossed out): Foderingham, Tavernier, Bates, Bruno Alves, John, Jack, Holt, Candeias, Windass, Murphy, Morelos

Off the field, nothing much has changed. Rangers are still a mess. £17million in debt as of this time last year, they admitted in their last accounts that they would need £7million of external funding over the next two years to keep going. Their 'penniless' (his own lawyer's words) chairman keeps finding increasingly spurious excuses to delay his takeover of the club and is facing a Contempt of Court charge as a result. And in the last few days a case has been settled out of court that will require the club to pay about half a million in legal fees to long-term bugbear Mike Ashley.

But on the field, are we finally seeing progress?

Steven Gerrard's start in the Ibrox hotseat has been quietly encouraging. Rangers haven't blown away their Europa League opposition so far, but they've won their two ties and looked solid and well-organized. That in itself is a dramatic improvement from recent years. It's still early days, but so far it is hard to find fault with the rookie manager.

Crucially, he quickly identified the weakest area in the squad - central defence - and set about improving it. Most of the budget has been blown on Connor Goldson and Nikola Katic, but that's no bad thing, though the decision to let David Bates walk looks dreadfully shortsighted. With Jon Flanagan also added, apparently to play left-back, the hope is that the consistent concession of cheap goals that has been characteristic of the last two years will stop.

Gerrard's pragmatism is a good sign; rather than having delusions of playing reckless attacking football straight off the bat he has instead concentrated on the fundamentals and trying to make Rangers difficult to beat. The question is whether, if the entertainment value is initially poor and/or there is a slow start - trips to Aberdeen, Motherwell and Celtic in their first four games is not exactly an easy opening to the league campaign, he will be given time. Ibrox is not exactly renowned for its patience.

There have been additions elsewhere too, of course. Four midfielders have come in, including Ryan Kent and Ovie Ejaria on loan from Liverpool. Lassana Coulibaly, another loanee, is expected to add a physical presence alongside Ryan Jack at the base. Scott Arfield, often a regular in the Premier League with Burnley, should be a good signing if he can be fitted into Gerrard's system, but he isn't quite enough of a winger for a 4-2-3-1 system - unlike Jamie Murphy - and may find it hard to find a place in the centre of midfield with so many options available.

Up front they still look a bit light as well, especially if Josh Windass, a perfectly viable second striker, leaves. Umar Sadiq is a bit of an unknown quantity, whereas we know what we will get from Alfredo Morelos - a lot of hard work, a headache for the opposing centre-backs, and too many missed chances. Morelos has plenty of room to improve (he is only 22 after all) but Gerrard will want to bring in at least one more forward, with Kyle Lafferty recently linked.

There will be plenty of departures yet, either permanently or on loan. Greg Docherty has been deemed not ready for first team action, which is a shame. Wes Foderingham has been frozen out in favour of Allan McGregor, which seems more of a sideways move than an upgrade in goal. Lee Wallace could also be moved on if a suitor can be found, after his fallout with the club at the end of last year.

The bottom line is that Rangers are still a hell of a long way behind Celtic, and therefore a hell of a long way away from where they want to be. The trick is recognizing it, and thinking in terms of gradual improvements instead of desperate attempts at big leaps which end up in a Luxembourger bush. If they trust Gerrard, and he proves worthy of their faith, they should surely climb one step on the podium this year. That might not sound much to their fans, but it would be positive progress for the first time in a long while.

THE SQUAD (players born after 1 January 1997 in italics)
Goalkeepers: Jak Alnwick, Wes Foderingham, Allan McGregor
Defenders: Myles Beerman, Kyle Bradley, Jon Flanagan, Connor Goldson, Lee Hodson, Declan John, Nikola Katic, Ross McCrorie, James Tavernier, Lee Wallace
Midfielders: Scott Arfield, Jamie Barjonas, Liam Burt, Daniel Candeias, Lassana Coulibaly, Greg Docherty, Graham Dorrans, Ovie Ejaria, Andy Halliday, Ryan Jack, Ryan Kent, Glenn Middleton, Jordan Rossiter, Josh Windaass
Forwards: Alfredo Morelos, Jamie Murphy, Umar Sadiq


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 - Motherwell

Motherwell FC crest.svg

LAST SEASON: Seventh, 48pts

NOTABLE INS: Liam Donnelly (Hartlepool United), Mark Gillespie (Walsall), Danny Johnson (Gateshead), Neil McLaughlin (Partick Thistle), Alex Rodriguez (Sepsi Stantu Gheorghe), Aaron Taylor-Sinclair (Plymouth Argyle), Conor Sammon (Heart of Midlothian, loan)

NOTABLE OUTS: Russell Griffiths (AFC Fylde), Cedric Kipre (Wigan Athletic), Deimantas Petravicius (Falkirk), Shea Gordon (Partick Thistle, loan), Jake Hastie (Alloa Athletic, loan), Ross MacLean (Greenock Morton, loan), Neil McLaughlin (Stirling Albion, loan), Tom Aldred (Bury, end of loan), Nadir Ciftci (Celtic, end of loan), Stephen Hendrie (Southend United, end of loan), Ellis Plummer, Luke Watt

LAST SEASON'S BEST XI (Departed players crossed out): Carson, Tait, Aldred, Kipre, Hartley, Dunne, Cadden, McHugh, Campbell, Main, Moult

There is a fair bit of optimism in the air at Fir Park. Fair enough - they're coming off a campaign where they reached two cup semi-finals and finished comfortably in mid-table.

Can they kick on further? The fans certainly think so. Manager Stephen Robinson thinks so too. But it will be hard, not least because however astute the club are run, their budget is not in the same league as Aberdeen or the Edinburgh clubs, let alone the Gruesome Twosome. And like the other six clubs in the division, the first priority always has to be to stay clear of the drop.

Motherwell should be confident of that happening, unless there is some sort of implosion in form and attitude. Whether they can finish higher than last season will probably depend on what sort of goal threat they offer.

Louis Moult's goals were always going to be difficult to replace, and in fact Robinson did quite well to come up with Curtis Main, a battering ram who scored eight times after arriving in January, as well as bullying many a centre-back into submission.

But other players weren't hitting the net sufficiently, to the point that Moult was the top scorer despite playing his last game for the club on 2 December. Ryan Bowman managed to score ten in all competitions but he doesn't look like a good fit alongside Main, given that he is taller but less strong and neither offer much in the way of movement or pace. Bowman has been linked with a move away, whilst Nadir Ciftci showed only brief flashes in a loan spell and is long gone.

In come two new options, Danny Johnson and Conor Sammon. The latter is a surprising arrival on loan and has done precious little in recent years to justify any faith in him. Johnson is a busy player who had a good goalscoring record at Gateshead...but so did Bowman before he moved north. Ultimately, the best option in the squad to partner Main is probably Craig Tanner, but he may not return from a knee injury for several months yet.

Elsewhere there are few question marks. Robinson tended to use a back three for most of the second half of last season which could easily switch to a back four if necessary, though only Elliott Frear is the only natural winger available. The loss of Tom Aldred will be offset by the return from injury of new club captain Peter Hartley, but the loss in recent days of Charles Dunne to injury and then, on the eve of the new campaign, Cedric Kipre to Wigan Athletic suddenly leave gaping holes. Carl McHugh may drop into the backline as a stopgap solution, but the sizeable fee for Kipre needs invested in a replacement pronto.

New boys Liam Donnelly and Aaron Taylor-Sinclair are comfortable both as full-backs and wing-backs, though Donnelly will struggle to dislodge the extremely underrated Richard Tait on the right flank. Taylor-Sinclair always used to look good back in his Partick Thistle days and may provide better balance in a 3-5-2 than Frear.

In the middle of the park there's no shortage of options either. Chris Cadden has steadily continued his upward trajectory and surely won't be around for much longer. Allan Campbell came to prominence last year and the tigrish midfielder, who only turned 20 this summer, should only get better. With Campbell, Liam Grimshaw, McHugh and Andy Rose the Steelmen have, er, no shortage of midfield steel.  (I'm sorry, I'll stop doing this now).

It would be nice to have a creative player in there, mind. Tanner could fill that role when he returns, but with Gael Bigirimana failing to live up to his pedigree from his Newcastle days Robinson will hope Alex Rodriguez Gorrin, a Spanish midfielder long coveted by the boss, proves an astute signing.

All in all, Motherwell look to be in decent nick for the new campaign. Will that be enough to separate that from the teams around them, or to turn them into this season's Kilmarnock? That's surely the target.

THE SQUAD (players born after 1 January 1997 in italics)
Goalkeepers: Trevor Carson, Rohan Ferguson, Mark Gillespie
Defenders: Liam Donnelly, Charles Dunne, Peter Hartley, Adam Livingstone, Barry Maguire, Richard Tait, Aaron Taylor-Sinclair
Midfielders: Gael Bigirimana, Liam Brown, Chris Cadden, Allan Campbell, Elliott Frear, Liam Grimshaw, Carl McHugh, Alex Rodriguez Gorrin, Andy Rose, Craig Tanner, David Turnbull
Forwards: Ryan Bowman, Danny Johnson, Curtis Main, George Newell, Connor Sammon, James Scott


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.

Friday, August 3, 2018

2018/19 Premiership preview - Livingston

Livingston FC club badge new.png

LAST SEASON: Promoted via playoffs

NOTABLE INS: Cameron Blues (Falkirk), Callum Crane (Hibernian), Liam Kelly (Rangers), Ricki Lamie (Greenock Morton), Steven Lawless (Partick Thistle), Kenny Miller (Rangers, player-manager), Steven Saunders (The New Saints), Craig Sibbald (Falkirk), Ross Stewart (St. Mirren), James Brown (Millwall, loan), Ryan Hardie (Rangers, loan), Egli Kaja (Milton Keynes Dons, loan)

NOTABLE OUTS: Gregor Buchanan (Greenock Morton), Jackson Longridge (Dunfermline Athletic), Dylan Mackin (Falkirk), Josh Mullin (Ross County), Steven Boyd (Hamilton Academical, end of loan), Adam Frizzell (Kilmarnock, end of loan), Jordan Thompson (Rangers, end of loan), Neil Alexander (retired)

LAST SEASON'S BEST XI (Departed players crossed out): Alexander, Gallagher, Halkett, Lithgow, Da Vita, Mullin, Byrne, Pittman, Longridge, Miller, Hardie

This writer has always found rooting for Livingston to be rather difficult.

Historically it was due to a close rivalry with Caley Thistle as the two sides raced up the divisions, and the resentment that Livingston tended to be a step ahead.

More recently there has been the distaste left by their administrations in 2004 and 2009, the latter of which resulted in demotion to the fourth tier; the use of a loophole to bring in 'amateur' signings to help avoid relegation in 2005; a points deduction in 2014 for tax breaches; and, currently, the employment of one player who served a jail sentence for fracturing someone's skull with a baseball bat, another who was previously placed on the sex offenders register, and an assistant manager who spent several years in prison for his part in cocaine dealing. As you do.

And yet it was a joy watching Livingston see off Dundee United and Partick Thistle in last season's promotion playoffs. Having only just come up from League One, David Hopkin's side were expected to aim for consolidation rather than further progress...expected by everyone else, that is. They were grossly underestimated by opponents on a weekly basis, even when it became clear they were heading for second spot in the Championship and even in the aforementioned playoffs.

For Livi showed how far excellent organization, work ethic and stamina can take a team. Difficult to break down - not least thanks to an outstanding centre-back trio - they frustrated opponents whilst in turn wearing them down with seemingly tireless running. It's possible that the only time midfielder Scott Pittman stopped moving all season was when he ended up in the back of the net, with the ball, after scoring a crucial goal against Partick Thistle; of course, he had made a lung-busting burst from deep to get into the box to score.

Hopkin deserves a huge amount of credit; in fact he should have been Scotland's manager of the year and surely would have been were the award not announced before those playoff matches. And yet a week later he chose to let his contract run out and leave. Linked with Morton, St. Mirren, Bradford and Carlisle at various points, he curiously remains unemployed.

Time will tell whether his former club sink or swim without him. It took thirty days to appoint a new manager. In that time assistant boss David Martindale seems to have taken control of transfer policy and the new faces that arrived before Kenny Miller did.

Livi fans will not have fond memories of having a player-manager in the top flight - Paul Lambert managed only two league wins in six months in the role in 2005/06. Kenny Miller can hardly do worse, though given that he is now well into his thirty-ninth year and last season there was finally evidence of the inevitable decline in his performances on the pitch, any positive impact surely has to come from the dugout.

In the short-term, he could do worse than rely on his predecessor's strategy. It helps that the triumvirate of Craig Halkett, Declan Gallagher and Alan Lithgow remain - Halkett was outstanding last season and will surely have had offers from bigger clubs. Pittman, the closest thing Scottish football has to a Duracell Bunny, remains also. Out of those who have left only Josh Mullin and the retired Neil Alexander were regulars last season.

But it's reasonable to expect that guts and grit won't be enough on their own for the step up. Opponents at this level will be better and fitter. And relying on team spirit is easy when the results are coming, but less so when you're not winning most weeks.

And the club themselves have made it clear that, whilst their playing budget will treble this season they are not going to break the bank to increase their slim chances of survival. Miller will have to do what he can with what he has inherited, augmented by the signings made before he arrived plus whatever he can find himself.

For a start he needs to improve on his striking options unless he really is betting big on himself. Getting Ryan Hardie back on loan from Rangers for a third time is a huge boost and it will be intriguing to see how effective he is in the top flight, but until he recovers from a foot injury the manager only really has himself and namesake Lee as options - with a combined age of 73 between the duo. The latter will win a lot of headers and put himself about it but is only really useful as a late sub.

The midfield will not be short of sweat with the aforementioned Pittman and Keaghan Jacobs, but quality? Raffaele Da Vita is out injured long-term, so they desperately need Craig Sibbald to finally step up and fulfil the awesome potential he showed at Falkirk as a teenager. They have also brought in widemen Egli Kaja (on loan) and Steven Lawless. If they can create the chances and Hardie can put them in, they have hope.

That is, of course, as long as the defence continue to combine well and new keeper Liam Kelly can fill Neil Alexander's gloves. Kelly has lots of caps at age levels for Scotland, but he also has no league experience above League One. It's a big opportunity for him and a big risk for Livi.

Ultimately the plan is clear. Staying up would be fantastic but it isn't worth putting the club at risk; better to think of the future and make sure that in the event of relegation they are strong enough to bounce straight back up again and have a better shot at survival next time.

And that's just as well because they are relegation favourites and surely the weakest side to come up since Dundee were belatedly promoted in 2012 without getting any time to prepare.

But fans can look to Hamilton Accies for hope - a club who keep staying up against the odds, who also have a plastic pitch (Livi installed one this summer) and who, on paper, also look pretty weak this season. Accies have proved everyone wrong for years. Can Livi follow their lead?

THE SQUAD (players born after 1 January 1997 in italics)
Goalkeepers: Liam Kelly, Gary Maley, Ross Stewart
Defenders: James Brown, Callum Crane, Declan Gallagher, Craig Halkett, Ricki Lamie, Alan Lithgow, Jack McMillan, Steven Saunders
Midfielders: Cameron Blues, Shaun Byrne, Nicky Cadden, Raffaele De Vita, Keaghan Jacobs, Egli Kaja, Steven Lawless, Jack Ogilvie, Scott Pittman, Scott Robinson, Craig Sibbald
Forwards: Jack Hamilton, Ryan Hardie, Matthew Knox, Kenny Miller, Lee Miller, Kyle Sampson


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 - Aberdeen

Crest of Aberdeen F.C.


LAST SEASON: Second, 73pts

NOTABLE INS: Tomas Cerny (Partick Thistle), Lewis Ferguson (Hamilton Academical), Chris Forrester (Peterborough United), Stephen Gleeson (Ipswich Town), Dominic Ball (Rotherham United, loan), Tommie Hoban (Watford, loan)

NOTABLE OUTS: Kari Arnason (Vikingur), Daniel Harvie (Ayr United), Anthony O'Connor (Bradford City), Adam Rooney (Salford City), Danny Rogers (St. Mirren, loan), Ryan Christie (Celtic, end of loan), Chidi Nwakali (Manchester City, end of loan), Greg Stewart (Birmingham City, end of loan), Freddie Woodman (Newcastle United, end of loan), Nicky Maynard

LAST SEASON'S BEST XI (Departed players crossed out): Lewis, Logan, McKenna, O'Connor, Considine, Shinnie, McLean, McGinn, Christie, Mackay-Steven, May

You'd have been forgiven for thinking at times that last season was a poor one for Aberdeen.

Sure, they were not as cohesive in attack as in the 2016/17 campaign, scoring far fewer goals. They failed to make a cup final after managing two in the previous campaign. And - until the final game of the season at Celtic Park - they continued to disappoint in matches against the two big Glasgow sides.

But they actually finished second in the table - for the fourth time in a row. Their final points total was only three lower than in 2016/17. For the most part, the Dons still got the results.

However, there remains a much bigger gap to Celtic than the nine point margin last year suggests. And in turn there is very little to separate Aberdeen from the clubs that finished just below them. Rangers seem to have improved, and if Hibs continue their trajectory from the end of last season then they will do better too.

Can Aberdeen avoid being knocked off the podium?

On the one hand, it looks like they might finally (famous last words) have sorted out their chronic problem at centre-half. Scott McKenna has emerged as a fine player who is likely to go on to be the club's most expensive ever sale. They now also have Michael Devlin, who looks fully recovered from the knee injury that kept him out for the whole of last season, and Watford loanee Tommie Hoban who should be a massive upgrade on the departed Kari Arnason and Anthony O'Connor.

Hoban can also play at left-back, where the club still have Andrew Considine as a solid, unspectacular option. Shay Logan was disappointing last year by his high standards but there's no reason why he can't bounce back. And with Joe Lewis in goal too, Aberdeen should be very difficult to beat.

The problem is very much at the other end of the pitch. The side of 2016/17 could boast Jonny Hayes, Kenny McLean, Ryan Christie, Niall McGinn and, in the first half of that season, James Maddison as creative options. Now only McGinn is left, and he has struggled to get near the form he showed before his brief move to Korea. McLean has signed for Norwich; Christie has returned to parent club Celtic.

McInnes has brought in three new midfielders, plus Dominic Ball on loan again as a more defensive option. It was interesting that against Burnley the manager preferred to partner Graeme Shinnie with ex-Hamilton teen Lewis Ferguson rather than Irish playmaker Stephen Gleeson or attacking threat Chris Forrester. Ferguson might be considered one for the future, but they really need Gleeson and Forrester to succeed in the present if they are to compensate for the loss of McLean and Christie.

The creative burden therefore is likely to fall on McGinn and the entertaining-but-erratic-as-ever Gary Mackay-Steven. If Scott Wright pushes on after a season of stagnation then that would help; otherwise another flair player would be most welcome to prevent the club relying solely on direct balls to Sam Cosgrove or Stevie May.

And if McInnes has to go forward with only those two strikers to choose from he won't be happy either. May was a huge letdown last year and there are now concerns that he'll never bounce back to his old St. Johnstone form. Cosgrove is certainly a hard worker but he is still young and should really be considered as a project. It's no surprise they keep being linked with Louis Moult and other attackers, and one would imagine the crazy fee received for third-choice Adam Rooney will go towards a new signing in this area.

And to cap it all this could well be the thinnest squad in the Premiership at the time of writing, considering that Mark Reynolds is out long term and Greg Tansey has been frozen out. A handful of injuries and they would have a problem early doors.

Ultimately the defensive reinforcements are all very well but the weakness in attack is a huge concern. No question the club will make more transfer moves between now and the end of August but until we see who has come in - and whether they flourish - it's hard to see Aberdeen holding onto that second spot yet again.

THE SQUAD (players born after 1 January 1997 in italics)
Goalkeepers: Tomas Cerny, Joe Lewis
Defenders: Dominic Ball, Andrew Considine, Michael Devlin, Tommie Hoban, Shay Logan, Scott McKenna, Mark Reynolds
Midfielders: Dean Campbell, Lewis Ferguson, Chris Forrester, Stephen Gleeson, Gary Mackay-Steven, Frank Ross, Graeme Shinnie, Greg Tansey
Forwards: Sam Cosgrove, Stevie May, Niall McGinn, Connor McLennan, Scott Wright


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 Championship preview

Ah, The Championship. Treated with scorn by fans of clubs in the league above, and also by many fans of clubs in it. No-one really wants to be in this division; they all have aspirations to be higher up the ladder.

But as I've written previously, it deserves more respect than it gets. Quality players and quality football can be found here. And no prisoners are taken; anyone who fancies themselves as too good for this level tends to be humbled pretty swiftly. As one Dundee United fan put it to me last year, "You don't know you're in this league till you've been bodied by Dumbarton".

Dumbarton aren't here any more, but here are this season's ten runners and riders:

Alloa Athletic
The only part-time team, they came up via the playoffs despite finishing a distant third in League One last season. Surely they can't be as bad as Brechin were last year, but while they will win a few games there's virtually no chance of them surviving.

Ayr United
They were promoted back to the Championship after a year out on the back of some extraordinary goalscoring by Lawrence Shankland. If as expected he leaves by the end of the transfer window, they will find it very hard as they've largely stuck with the squad that took them up. However, they can take heart from Livingston's feats last year and will be stiff opponents.

Dundee United
Csaba Laszlo has already had the vote of confidence and we've not even started the league campaign. The Hungarian has signed another twelve players already this summer and in theory guys like Adam Barton, Frederic Frans, Craig Curran, Nicky Clark and Callum Booth should stroll this league. But there is a real worry that there will be a repeat of last year, with a team that struggles to gel and a manager who gets his jotters early doors.

Dunfermline Athletic
The Pars thoroughly deserved their playoff place last season and finished the campaign well. The loss of strikers Nicky Clark and Declan McManus and defensive linchpin Callum Morris was a huge blow, but confidence has been restored by the return of Faissal El Bakhtaoui, which will probably double the number of long range shots in the division this year. Joe Thomson and James Vincent (if consistently fit) should give them a formidable engine room and they'll believe they can pick up where they left off.

The great unknowns - Paul Hartley has signed fifteen players so far, most of them youngsters from the English lower leagues. It's a bold strategy Cotton, let's see if it pays off. Marcus Haber, loaned from Dundee, looks like the best capture to me. They could genuinely finish anywhere between first (if they've signed a bunch of starlets) and ninth place (if they're all diddies).

Greenock Morton
Morton will hope they have got the Raith Rovers Ray MacKinnon in the dugout, rather than the Dundee United Ray MacKinnon. The squad has been overhauled, with several first teamers leaving; disappointingly promising youngsters Jai Quitongo and Scott Tiffoney have declined new deals too. Jim McAlister and Chris Millar return for their second spells at the club, bringing a combined age of 68 to the centre of midfield. They need another returnee, Denny Johnstone to get amongst the goals if they are to challenge.

Inverness CT
Caley Thistle produced some remarkable form in the spring and came remarkably close to the playoffs considering their nightmare start. They've lost only one first choice player this summer - but Iain Vigurs was arguably the most vital cog of all. Coll Donaldson and Liam Polworth are too of the most underrated players in the Championship, and if Nathan Austin can continue to score regularly then they will fancy their chances.

Partick Thistle
Thistle stuck with Alan Archibald after relegation but gutted the squad; expect further signings this month but right now they don't have enough players to fill the subs bench. That puts them at high risk of a slow start that could wreck their whole season. However Kris Doolan and Miles Storey should score plenty and that may well compensate for their weaknesses.

Queen of the South
The Doonhamers have been too reliant on Stephen Dobbie for too long and there's increasing worry that the rest of the squad isn't strong enough to keep up with the veteran striker. They've used the loan market well in the past and will need to do so again as they look short of quality and depth.

Ross County
In contrast to Thistle, County held on to much of their first team squad following relegation and therefore look really strong for a bounceback campaign. Guys like Ross Draper, Billy Mckay and Marcus Fraser should really stroll it in the second tier. There's also depth that every other club will be jealous of. The only concern is the inexperienced managerial duo of Stuart Kettlewell and Steven Ferguson, but unless they stink the place out County look best placed to win this year's Championship.

So this is how I reckon it'll finish:






(Puts on tin hat, awaits incoming)

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.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

2018/19 Premiership preview - Hearts

Heart of Midlothian FC logo.svg

LAST SEASON: Sixth, 49pts

NOTABLE INS: Oliver Bozanic (Melbourne City), Bobby Burns (Glenavon), Colin Doyle (Bradford City), Ryan Edwards (Partick Thistle), Ben Garuccio (Adelaide United), Peter Haring (SV Ried), Uche Ikpeazu (Cambridge United), Olly Lee (Luton Town), Steven Maclean (St. Johnstone), Jake Mulraney (Inverness Caledonian Thistle), Kevin Silva (Rutger Scarlet Knights), Zdenek Zlamal (FC Zlin), Steven Naismith (Norwich City, loan)

NOTABLE OUTS: Angus Beith (Inverness Caledonian Thistle), Jack Hamilton (Dundee), Jon McLaughlin (Sunderland), Ally Roy (Derry City), Rory Currie (East Fife, loan), Euan Henderson (Montrose, loan), Andy Irving (Falkirk, loan), Lewis Moore (Forfar Athletic, loan), Conor Sammon (Motherwell, loan), Joaquim Adao (Sion, end of loan), David Milinkovic (Foggia, end of loan), Demetri Mitchell (Manchester United, end of loan), Connor Randall (Liverpool, end of loan), Prince Buaben

LAST SEASON'S BEST XI (Departed players crossed out): McLaughlin, M. Smith, Berra, Souttar, Mitchell, Cowie, Adao, Djoum, Milinkovic, Lafferty, Naismith

This year's Hearts preview can't go any worse than last year's. Within 48 hours of me publishing it Ian Cathro was sacked, making the whole thing utterly irrelevant. Fingers crossed nothing happens to Craig Levein in the next couple of days.

That's the same Levein, of course, who as Director of Football was tasked to find the best available person to replace Cathro and ultimately appointed himself. You can't say he's short of self-belief.

But a lot of last season was spent largely undoing his predecessor's mistakes. Too many players were either not good enough or only suited to Cathro's system. Only now can it be said that the evidence of that disastrous spell has been largely wiped away.

Which in turn means Levein has no excuses if Hearts don't improve, particularly on their travels. At Tynecastle they looked comfortable, confident, capable of beating anyone. Away from home they were timid, unambitious and apparently concerned only with keeping the score down...an approach which seemed to be encouraged by the dugout.

But this year's Jambos should be of a completely different vintage, not least because a remarkable twelve new players have been signed, along with a further loan deal for Steven Naismith. And they've been signed with a particular plan - 3-5-2 - in mind.

Which made it all the more concerning that the early League Cup games were a struggle; in all three the original formation had to be ditched at some point for one that would be more effective. Only in the final match, a 5-0 thumping of Inverness, could positive signs be found.

Of course, one inevitable issue that arises from so many newcomers is that finding the strongest XI can take time. With centre-back Peter Haring and forward Naismith both spending time playing in midfield, it's fair to say Levein has been experimenting. He could do with finding the right blend ASAP.

Amongst the few certainties is that Zdenek Zlamal is the new goalkeeper, though it will be a tall order to emulate the outstanding Jon McLaughlin. His centre-backs will be John Souttar, Christophe Berra and probably Haring, while 38 year old Aaron Hughes is back for one more season and will provide depth. With Berra showing no signs of slowing down and Souttar continuing to gradually improve, this should provide an excellent backbone.

Michael Smith, too often shoehorned into a midfield position he was ill-fitted for last year, should hopefully return to his natural right wing-back spot. It seems like youngster Calumn Morrison, previously seen as an attacker, is now being groomed to back up Smith.  On the other side, Australian Ben Garuccio looks like a good find, not least because of his dead ball prowess. Northern Irish starlet Bobby Burns is another decent option on that side of the park.

If Naismith's future is indeed in midfield, then there are plenty of options for the two positions alongside him. Fingers crossed Harry Cochrane and Anthony MacDonald get more first team action as they look like wonderful prospects. New boy Olly Lee looks like he'll be a first choice though, and there's the all-action Ryan Edwards, formerly of Partick Thistle, looking for a game too. Add in another Ozzie, Oliver Bozanic, and the imminent return from injury of Arnaud Djoum and there's certainly plenty of competition for places.

Note we haven't even mentioned the likes of Don Cowie, Ross Callachan, Danny Amankwaa or Malaury Martin so far; those four seem unlikely to play in the maroon again.

Up front, the situation will be more clearly once Kyle Lafferty's future is decided. The Northern Irishman did score an impressive 19 goals last year but, facetious as it sounds, did absolutely hee-haw else. His link-up play was rotten, his workrate erratic and too often he shot when he should have passed. But still, those goals.

If he was to leave for Rangers though, that would mean Levein could move forward with a combo of veteran Steven Maclean - the antithesis of Lafferty when it comes to link-up play - and the very impressive-looking Uche Ikpeazu, an absolute battering ram of a striker who terrorized League Cup opponents and looks like he could do the same in the league. And there's always Naismith.

Surely there's a decent team here amongst all these players. The trick will be finding it, and quickly. If they can, then Hearts will be much, much closer to the likes of Aberdeen, Hibs and even Rangers...maybe even in amongst them.

THE SQUAD (players born after 1 January 1997 in italics)
Goalkeepers: Colin Doyle, Kevin Silva, Zdenek Zlamal
Defenders: Daniel Baur, Christophe Berra, Jamie Brandon, Bobby Burns, Ben Garuccio, Marcus Godinho, Chris Hamilton, Peter Haring, Aaron Hughes, Cammy LoganLiam Smith, Michael Smith, John Souttar
Midfielders: Danny Amankwaa, Oliver Bozanic, Ross Callachan, Harry CochraneDon Cowie, Arnaud Djoum, Ryan Edwards, Olly Lee, Anthony MacDonald, Malaury Martin, Jake Mulraney, Alex PetkovConnor SmithDario Zanatta
Forwards: Uche Ikpeazu, Aidan KeenaKyle Lafferty, Steven MacLean, Leeroy Makovora, Calumn Morrison, Steven Naismith


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 - Hamilton Accies

Hamilton Academical FC logo.svg

LAST SEASON: Tenth, 33pts

NOTABLE INS: Ziggy Gordon (Pogon Siedlce), Sam Kelly (Grimsby Town), Aaron McGowan (Morecambe), Alex Penny (Peterborough United), Aaron Smith (Nottingham Forest), Lennard Sowah (Cracovia), Tom Taiwo (Falkirk), Mason Bloomfield (Norwich City, loan), Adam Philips (Norwich City, loan)

NOTABLE OUTS: Ali Crawford (Doncaster Rovers), Lewis Ferguson (Aberdeen), Darren Jamieson (Arbroath), Danny Redmond (The New Saints), David Templeton (Burton Albion), Kenny Van Der Weg (KSV Roeselare), Charlie Scott (Manchester United, end of loan), Antonio Rojano, Georgios Sarris, Xavier Tomas

LAST SEASON'S BEST XI (Departed players crossed out): Woods, Tomas, Gogic, Sarris, Imrie, Docherty, MacKinnon, Van Der Weg, Crawford, Templeton, Bingham

This will be Hamilton Accies' fifth consecutive season in the Premiership - their longest run in the top flight since the Second World War.

Surprised? You aren't the only one. Every season Accies are tipped for the drop; every year they somehow survive despite being dreadful for large chunks of the season, and too often playing pretty dreadful football...which is not helped by a home pitch where the ball too often resembled the marble in Screwball Scramble (the pitch, by the way, has been replaced this summer).

Weak, relatively disliked, apparently doomed yet always somehow managing to avoid disaster mainly thanks to the incompetence of the opposition; Hamilton are without doubt the Theresa May of Scottish football.

Last season could be seen as an improvement in that they came tenth and avoided a repeat of their 2016/17 playoff against Dundee United, but on the other hand they did so only on goal difference and their total of thirty-three points was two fewer than the previous time around. That does not seem to bode well. Nor does a record of just three wins and ten points from seventeen league games in 2018, followed by defeat to League Two Annan in their opening League Cup group game. Their last away league win was at Ibrox in November 2017.

During Martin Canning's three and a half year tenure it has been easy to quote statistics like those above, with the implication that other clubs have changed manager for a lot less. And yet he is still here, and so are Hamilton.

But surely (and yes, we've said this before) this coming campaign will be the toughest yet. Gone are the two most talented players on last season's roster, David Templeton and the oft-injured Ali Crawford. The team had struggled enough after losing driving force Greg Docherty in January; moving on without the trickiness of Templeton is a scary prospect.

Bringing in replacements is not easy given the club are still getting over being defrauded of a seven figure sum last year - god knows what the consequences of relegation might have been - and it is the wrong time for the much-heralded youth setup to hit a sticky patch. The best of the recent crop, Lewis Ferguson, legged it to Aberdeen this summer; Hamilton's suggestions that the compensation fee should be close to the amount stolen from them in 2017 are somewhat optimistic.

There are seven new faces, and two returning ones - Ziggy Gordon, older and wiser after spells at Partick Thistle and in Poland, and Lennard Sowah who spent a few months here in 2016. If both are still at the same level they were before they left, they will be significant upgrades in the full-back positions, problem areas pretty much since they moved on the first time around.

Tom Taiwo will also be familiar to fans after spending several years up north playing for Hibs and then Falkirk; the fact that he wasn't a regular for a mid-table Championship side at the end of last season suggests he is seen as backup for midfield pitbull Darian MacKinnon, who at nearly 33 remains a master of the dark arts but not one of subtlety (or Panenka penalties).

The other newbies are unknown quantities to those of us who don't follow English lower league or reserve football closely, but Canning's record for finding gems in the bargain basement does not lend itself to encouragement. Aaron McGowan has the best (least-bad?) pedigree with plenty of League Two experience at right-back and could push Gordon into a more central role. Left-sided midfielder Sam Kelly is only a couple of years removed from playing for Port Vale in League One.

As for the others, central defender Alex Penny will see plenty of action early on with Alex Gogic out long-term, while they desperately need Aaron Smith to provide the creative spark they will otherwise sorely lack now Templeton and Crawford have gone.

What Accies really need to be confident of survival though is a striker who will score regularly. Rakish Bingham's purple patch at the start of last season proved to be an aberration and he scored twice after mid-September. Sure he'll run through brick walls but that just isn't enough. The bottom line is that Marios Ogkmpoe - or Ogboe, if you prefer that spelling - hasn't done enough to make anyone care about working out which way his name should actually be spelt. And Antonio Rojano, who the club spent months trying to get a work permit for, has been punted after less than a year. The only other options are Norwich loanee Mason Bloomfield and former English non-league hitman Mickel Miller. None of these guys are going to get into double-figures.

So Accies are in a pretty bad state. They have to be if Dougie Imrie, 35 on the eve of the season, is still considered a first choice. And yet this is the first time in five years that this blogger isn't tipping them to finish bottom - because, again, it seems likely that somebody else will suck even more. But what they really need is for two teams to stink the place out, because surviving a relegation playoff might be a heck of an ask.

THE SQUAD (players born after 1 January 1997 in italics)
Goalkeepers: Ryan Fulton, Gary Woods
Defenders: Alex Gogic, Ziggy Gordon, Aaron McGowan, Scott McMann, Alex Penny, Lennard Sowah, George Stanger, Shaun Want
Midfielders: Ross Cunningham, Ronan Hughes, Dougie Imrie, Ross Jenkins, Sam Kelly, Darren Lyon, Darian MacKinnon, Adam Phillips, Aaron Smith, Tom Taiwo
Forwards: Rakish Bingham, Mason Bloomfield, Steven Boyd, Mickel Miller, Marios Ogkmpoe, Ryan Tierney


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.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

2018/19 Premiership preview - Celtic

Celtic crest


LAST SEASON: First, 82pts

NOTABLE INS: Scott Bain (Dundee, loan made permanent), Odsonne Edouard (Paris St. Germain, loan made permanent)

NOTABLE OUTS: Stuart Armstrong (Southampton), Nadir Ciftci (Genclerbirligi), Jamie Lindsay (Ross County, loan made permanent), Jamie McCart (Inverness Caledonian Thistle), Erik Sviatchenko (Midtjylland, loan made permanent), Joe Thomson (Dunfermline Athletic), Charly Musonda (Chelsea, end of loan), Patrick Roberts (Manchester City, end of loan)

LAST SEASON'S BEST XI (Departed players crossed out): Gordon, Lustig, Simunovic, Ajer, Tierney, Forrest, Ntcham, Brown, McGregor, Rogic, Dembele

I know I say this every year, but I'm going to say it again anyway. Writing a season preview for Celtic is really, really hard.

The problem is that, it is difficult to suggest a single player at another Premiership club who would improve Celtic's starting lineup. When one club has the best eleven players in the country - and most of the next eleven too - you can't really compare them to the other clubs in the league.

Therefore any discussion of strengths and weaknesses only really refers to their challenge on the continent. And after two domestic trebles in a row, the only duck Brendan Rodgers has left to knock down is progress in the Champions League.

And that's hardly a given. Next up are AEK Athens, then they have to beat another opponent of a similar standard to that. That's actually quite tough. But failure would put a bit of a dark cloud over the season before it has even started.

That's because such is their dominance at home that anything other than yet another treble would be considered a disappointment. Is that fair? It is, if nothing else, the consequence of having a wage bill more than double that of any other Scottish clubs, and of the unprecedented success Rodgers has brought.

That's not to say there aren't grounds for improvement. It was always going to be a very long shot to repeat the 2016/17 invincible season, but they did drop points in more than a third of their league games last season. The gap between them and Aberdeen in second fell from thirty points to just nine. That's not to say there was a title race at any point, but given goal difference fell from +81 to +48 they certainly weren't overwhelming opponents in quite the same way.

There has been very little transfer activity so far, with the only new signings being permanent deals for Odsonne Edouard and Scott Bain after successful loan spells. And whilst Stuart Armstrong and Erik Sviatchenko have left, there's still a fair bit of dead wood to clear. Meanwhile, expect the English Premier League transfer window closure on August 9th to be a catalyst for some purchases of players from down south, especially if Champions League football can be offered as a carrot.

The obvious area for improvement is central defence. Kristoffer Ajer has the potential to go far, but it must be remembered that he is only 20. For all his good performances at the World Cup, Dedryck Boyata has been too unreliable, while Jozo Simunovic was erratic last year and Mikael Lustig, often deployed as a centre-back who shuffles out to cover the right side, is clearly past his best. Celtic's weaknesses in the heart of the backline have been exposed too frequently against elite continental opponents and this area simply has to be tightened if they are to have the slightest chance of making the knockout stages.

Elsewhere, the situation is more rosy. Up front, you're doing all right if Leigh Griffiths is your third-choice striker, though there's increasing fear that Moussa Dembele's hamstrings are becoming a chronic issue. Thankfully Edouard has stepped up to the plate and that £9million transfer fee currently looks like a decent bit of business.

Olivier Ntcham's ability to dominate games from midfield made Armstrong superfluous, and the intelligence of Callum McGregor and Tom Rogic causes problems for any defence. And don't forget the dramatic progress of James Forrest as a wingback-cum-winger who at last has started delivering a good end product regularly. Ideally Scott Sinclair would return to his form of the year before last so that there's as big a threat on the opposite side, but Celtic did fine with Kieran Tierney rampaging up and down the left which allowed another midfielder such as McGregor to tuck in.

Oh, and then there's Scott Brown. The captain showed no signs of slowing down last year, which is just as well as he played fifty-six games for the club, more than any other player. Given he turned 33 in June there will surely be a need to start giving him a bit more of a break. The trouble is that there is no obvious like-for-like replacement. Nir Bitton does the defensive stuff well but that's about it, and seems out of favour. Eboue Kouassi has done nothing yet to justify a £3million transfer fee or the work permit he got for supposedly being an exceptional talent. If the skipper was to get injured, then Celtic might have a real problem even against domestic opposition.

But as I've said, May will bring eight-in-a-row.

THE SQUAD (players born after 1 January 1997 in italics)
Goalkeepers: Scott Bain, Dorus De Vries, Craig Gordon
Defenders: Kristoffer Ajer, Dedryck Boyata, Marvin Compper, Cristian Gamboa, Jack Hendry, Mikael Lustig, Calvin MillerAnthony Ralston, Jozo Simunovic, Kieran Tierney
Midfielders: Scott Allan, Kundai Benyu, Nir Bitton, Scott Brown, Jonny Hayes, Ewan Henderson, Eboue Kouassi, Callum McGregor, Lewis MorganOlivier Ntcham, Tom Rogic, Scott Sinclair
Forwards: Jack Aitchison, Ryan Christie, PJ CrossanMoussa Dembele, Odsonne Edouard, James Forrest, Leigh Griffiths, Michael Johnston


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 - Dundee


LAST SEASON: Ninth, 39pts

NOTABLE INS: Jack Hamilton (Heart of Midlothian), Karl Madianga (unattached), Jean Alassane Mendy (Lokeren), Elton Ngwatala (Kidderminster Harriers), Nathan Ralph (Woking)

NOTABLE OUTS: Scott Bain (Celtic, loan made permanent), Kostadin Gadzhalov (Botev Vratsa), Kevin Holt (Pafos), Nicky Low (Derry City, loan made permanent), Jeremy Malherbe (Panionios), Mark O'Hara (Peterborough United), Randy Wolters (NEC Nijmegen), Faissal El Bakhtaoui (Dunfermline Athletic, loan), Calum Ferrie (Stirling Albion, loan), Marcus Haber (Falkirk, loan), James Vincent (Dunfermline Athletic, loan), Kerr Waddell (Greenock Morton, loan), A-Jay Leitch-Smith (Shrewsbury Town, end of loan), Simon Murray (Hibernian, end of loan), Jon Aurtenetxe, Julen Etxabeguren, Jordan Piggott

LAST SEASON'S BEST XI (Departed players crossed out): Bain, Kerr, Caulker, Hendry, Aurtenetxe, Deacon, Kamara, McGowan, O'Hara, Leitch-Smith, Murray

Compared to a lot of managers out there, Neil McCann is quite fortunate. Dundee budgeted for a top six finish - again - and came up short - again.  Not only that, but they finished only one place and two points better off than in 2016/17, and were again dependent on some post-split victories to keep their heads above water. McCann has won five post-split matches as a manager (out of nine), compared to only eight (out of thirty) other league matches.

But they're standing by their man rather than canning McCann (apologies to Suzi Quatro there). So the former Sky Sports pundit gets another shot at constructing a team in his own image. Dundee fans worry that, on last season's evidence, his image is 'pass the ball sideways a lot until someone makes a stupid mistake that costs us a goal'.

And it is definitely his team now. He might only have been in charge since May 2017, but there are only five players left who played for the previous manager - Cammy Kerr, Darren O'Dea, Jesse Curran, Paul McGowan and Craig Wighton.

With James Vincent and Faissal El-Bakhtaoui punted out on loan for the final year of their contract, fifteen players have effectively been shown the door this summer. But at the time of writing only five new faces had arrived, though they addressed positions of need. Quality over quantity? Time will tell.

The most pressing issues were in goal, at left-back and up front. Keeper Jack Hamilton has arrived from Hearts looking to relaunch his career after going from Scotland squad member to Tynecastle benchwarmer last summer. He should be better than the mediocre Elliott Parish, though whether he can quite banish memories of Scott Bain - or at least the positive memories from a few years back - is another matter.

Nathan Ralph, who has arrived from Woking, is the latest incumbent at left-back after McCann lost patience with Jon Aurtenetxe's lack of bite and Kevin Holt's lack of defensive awareness. Ralph has spent the last three years kicking around the National League so this could be a bit of a step-up. The rest of the defence should be okay, given McCann has Genseric Kusunga, Josh Meekings and Steven Caulker to choose from at centre-back - along with club captain O'Dea, though he was benched last season - and Kerr will do a job at right-back.

Up top, they need Senegalese forward Jean Alassane Mendy to hit the ground running given that Sofien Moussa is the only senior striker left over from last year. For all his hustle and bustle, Moussa didn't score a league goal from open play till April. Surely McCann will want to bring in another striker before the end of the transfer window.

At least midfield looks like a relative strength, given that Glen Kamara somehow wasn't poached by a bigger club, and Paul McGowan somehow avoided a prison sentence. Another new boy from the National League, Elton Ngwatala, will fill the attacking midfield role vacated by the hot-and-cold Mark O'Hara. It is crucial that Roarie Deacon and Craig Wighton can stay fit for a significant length of time; both widemen look dangerous when available but have spent too much time on the sidelines. In their absence, McCann lacks options on the flanks.

If Dundee have indeed budgeted for top six once again, one would suggest that this squad is not value for money. McCann and his cheerleaders will claim that, with another summer to get accustomed to how he wants them to play, the Dark Blues will be far better this season. Count this writer among the sceptics. It would be a shock if Dundee went down - not least because of the lack of quality amongst others in this league - but if they are in a fight at the bottom yet again McCann will surely get his jotters.

THE SQUAD (players born after 1 January 1997 in italics)
Goalkeepers: Jack Hamilton, Elliott Parish
Defenders: Steven Caulker, Dan Jefferies, Cammy Kerr, Genseric Kusunga, Josh Meekings, Darren O'Dea, Nathan Ralph
Midfielders: Jesse Curran, Roarie Deacon, Glen Kamara, Jack Lambert, Karl Madianga, Paul McGowan, Elton Ngwatala, Lewis Spence, Craig Wighton
Forwards: Matty Henvey, Jean Alassane Mendy, Sofien Moussa, Cedwyn Scott


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 One preview

Increasingly, the Championship/League One divide is getting very close to being full-time/part-time. A full-time club will only stay in this division for a short period of time, because either they'll get promoted or they'll have to go part-time.

But being full-time of course comes with advantages in budget and status. And therefore the one full-time team, Raith Rovers, should probably romp this league. It was bad enough that Raith missed out on the League One title on the final day of last season; going out in the playoffs was a disaster. Barry Smith can't afford to fail a second time, and has brought in several players who belong at Championship level including Grant Gillespie, Nat Wedderburn and Kevin Nisbet. And they still have Liam Buchanan and Lewis Vaughan. Surely they can't screw up again?

Arguably the most interesting thing about this season's League One derby is the twenty-four Angus derbies that we have to look forward to. This is the first time in twenty-four years that Arbroath, Brechin, Forfar and Montrose have been in the same league. Having been to the odd Arbroath-Montrose derby in the past I can happily testify that these are proper local derbies. And importantly they bring in decent crowds which should be enormously beneficial for these clubs.

I do feel an opportunity has been missed to form some sort of Angus Cup, a league-within-a-league, to be awarded to the side that has the best record in league derbies this season. After all, it's not like any of these clubs have much chance of trophies at the best of times.

Of those four, one would expect Montrose to struggle the most given they've just come up from League Two (for the first time in more than twenty years!). But Stewart Petrie has retained nearly all the squad that won promotion, including young striker Martin Rennie. The loss of talismanic forward Chris Templeman, now retired, will be hard to compensate for and they may need further reinforcement if they are to stay up.

In contrast, Brechin City would usually be expected to be in the promotion hunt given they were a Championship club last year. But Darren Dods' side set new records for uselessness in the second tier and haven't won a league game since May 2017. Most of their better players have left, and those remaining can't even remember what winning feels like, so it would be no surprise if they took time to find their feet again.

Forfar Athletic should be on the up though, having improved considerably after appointing Jim Weir as boss mid-season. Gary Fraser is an outstanding signing at this level, while Thomas Reilly and veteran John Baird should score goals. They are a dark horse for a playoff push.

Arbroath made the playoffs last year and showed with their League Cup win over Ross County that they will be a tough opponent again this year. Few managers have as much experience at this level as Dick Campbell and they will hope to challenge again, especially with Jason Thomson and Lewis Toshney to strengthen the defence.

Airdrieonians have fianlly found some stability after a turbulent year or two off the park which has seen them return to part-time status. Stevie Findlay did enough last season to get the Head Coach gig permanently, and they've had a big clearout and rebuild. There's a good chance they will do better than the full-timers that wore the shirt last year.

In fact, the best bet to push Raith may be Dumbarton following their return to League One after five years in the Championship. They continue to have a bigger budget than most part-time clubs and the likes of Ross Forbes, Rory Loy and Michael Paton really should stroll it.

It's much harder to predict the fortunes of Stranraer, who seemed to be in real money problems around the turn of the year and got rid of many high earners in January, yet still came quite close to the playoffs. They should be on a more solid footing this time around, especially if they are clever at working the loan market again.

East Fife also feel like a bit of an unknown quantity, having largely tread water under Darren Young and they have lost a number of their best players including Chris Duggan and Kieran Miller to division rivals. That said, most of their new signings have been around the block and should have enough quality and nous to keep them out of danger,

Not so Stenhousemuir, obviously the favourites to go down because they came up via the playoffs. Brown Ferguson does an excellent job with only peanuts for a wage bill but establishing them in the third tier will be hard even with Jesus Garcia Tena marshalling the defence.

So here's my predicted table:






Let's see if that prediction turns out to be just a little bit wrong, or completely and utterly wrong.

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.