Wednesday, July 31, 2019

2019/20 Premiership preview - Celtic

Celtic FC.svg
PREDICTED LEAGUE POSITION: FIRST

LAST SEASON: 1st, 87pts

NOTABLE INS: Christopher Jullien (Toulouse, £6m), Boli Bolingoli-Mbombo (Rapid Vienna, £3m), Hatem Abd Elhamed (Hapoel Be'er Sheva, £1.6m), Lucas Connell (Bolton Wanderers, £250k)

NOTABLE OUTS: Scott Allan (Hibernian), Dedryck Boyata (Hertha Berlin), Marvin Compper (Duisburg), P.J. Crossan (Dumbarton), Mikael Lustig (Gent), Filip Benkovic (Leicester City, end of loan), Oliver Burke (West Bromwich Albion, end of loan), Jeremy Toljan (Borussia Dortmund, end of loan), Timo Weah (Paris St. Germain, end of loan), Dorus De Vries (retired), Cristian Gamboa, Emilio Izaguirre, Youssouf Mulumbu

LAST SEASON'S BEST XI (Departed players crossed out): Bain, Lustig, Ajer, Boyata, Tierney, McGregor, Christie, Forrest, Rogic, Sinclair, Edouard 


So Celtic have got to eight-in-a-row. And how many of those titles have been hotly contested? None. Don't believe any hype about there having been a title race last year. There wasn't. And nor should there have been. Even with Rangers apparently getting their house in order the gap between the the blue and green buttocks of Scottish football is still huge. In fact, it should probably be larger than the nine points that separated the sides over the whole of 2018-19.

There really shouldn't be a contest this time around either. Celtic' wage bill remains double that of their closest rivals and several times that of each of their other domestic rivals. The quality and depth which that buys should be enough for nine-in-a-row even if you, I or Ronny Deila were in charge.

That means expectations should be, correctly, different...and always makes writing a season preview for Celtic a headache. Of course they should be stronger everywhere on the pitch than everyone else in Scotland. Winning the league is the absolute minimum of what they should achieve. A properly successful season requires them to go far in Europe - and I don't mean to the last 32 of the Europa League. They would most likely be hammered several times in the Champions League Group Stages - what do you mean, it's unfair because the other clubs have so much more money than you? - but they need to be there for the prestige and for the cash. Otherwise there's a decent-sized hole in the accounts that ends up being filled by selling a star player.

And Celtic should get there. It may be harder than it was a few seasons ago but they will be a seed in every qualifying round that they play and on paper should be stronger than any opponent they can draw. Another run of Thursday-Sunday gamedays will not be welcomed.

There would be a lot more confidence if Brendan Rodgers was still here though. Celtic's results just about held up after he left, but they were unquestionably less creative and more sluggish under Neil Lennon. His eleven league games did produce a solid 24 points but included draws at home to Aberdeen and Livingston and away at Hibs, as well as late winners against Hearts (twice) and Dundee. Most galling, their sole defeat was at Ibrox where they didn't turn up. Whether the title was in the bag or not, such an appalling performance in the derby rang alarm bells.

So too did the first hour of the Scottish Cup Final, before Odsonne Edouard pulled a finger out. Time will tell whether Peter Lawwell really should have been so excited by the combination of Treble Treble elation, hospitality booze and being in the post-match showers that he offered Lennon the job permanently.

The new manager's first task was to trim the bloated squad Rodgers left behind. With Mikael Lustig essentially done, the only players Lennon would probably have liked to retain were Dedryck Boyata and Filip Benkovic but £6million signing Christopher Jullien looks more than capable for the physical challenge and should settle quickly. With Kristoffer Ajer developing into a hell of a player and Jozo Simunovic available as well, centre-back remains a position of strength (at least in comparison to other Premiership clubs).

At left-back, Boli Bolingoli has clearly been purchased on the assumption that Kieran Tierney's move to Arsenal will happen. A player of Tierney's quality is essentially irreplaceable but the Belgian will have to try. He's incredibly athletic and a threat going forward but far more suspect defensively than his predecessor and is likely to be found out by stronger opposition.

As for right-back, it's still not clear what the strategy is. Hatem Abd Elhamed was touted as a right-back when he arrived from Hapoel Be'er Shiva but he has in fact spent most of his career in central defence. Lennon showed a penchant for three at the back at Hibs and might intend to use James Forrest as a very, very, very high right wing-back. Whether that's the way to get the best out of the flying winger, and whether it would also be a huge vulnerability in continental action, are questions that need answered though.

It'll be interesting to see what midfield combination Lennon settles on. He claimed in April that he intended to build his team around Scott Brown, despite the fact the skipper is 34 and looked increasingly leggy last season. Brown has bounced back before after being written off but I'd be surprised if he was still a regular by the end of his current two year deal. The player that he should be building around is Callum McGregor, who was the best player in the country last year. However one feature of the post-Rodgers era is that he finds it far harder to find space in between the lines.

There is also the case for playing McGregor deeper; many would argue Celtic's best performances last season came when Brown was injured and McGregor had to play in his position. However with Nir Bitton having been rehabilitated after dropping out of favour with Rodgers, that's unlikely.

It's a bit of an embarrassment of riches, to be honest. Also competing for starting places are of course Ryan Christie, who has looked great in the European qualifiers, Olivier Ntcham, Tom Rogic and Scott Sinclair. Sinclair is the only one who looks happy out wide, but in turn he wasn't great last year and Lennon seems keen on Mikey Johnston as the long-term option there.

Rogic seems to have fallen behind Christie in the queue for the number ten position. Ntcham remains an enigma, a star when he feels like it and a plodder when (as is too often) he doesn't. It's no secret he wants away and it's probably in the club's interests to take the money...especially if there is less emphasis on keep-ball than there was in the past.

As for up top, they aren't exactly short either. Odsonne Edouard has all the tools as long as his body holds up. Leigh Griffiths looks refreshed after time out to deal with mental health issues. There's also the lesser spotted Vakoun Issouf Bayo who hasn't been fit since arriving in January.

In conclusion? Even to those who are sceptical about the Lennon appointment, its clear that Celtic have so much quality and depth in the squad that they are still the best team in the country by some way. In Europe however, they almost certainly aren't strong enough to make waves, whoever is in the dugout. Plus ├ža change...


THE SQUAD (players born after 1 January 1998 in italics)
Goalkeepers: Scott Bain, Craig Gordon
Defenders: Hatem Abd Elhamed, Kristoffer Ajer, Boli Bolingoli, Jack Hendry, Christopher Jullien, Calvin Miller, Anthony Ralston, Jozo Simunovic, Kieran Tierney
Midfielders: Daniel Arzani, Nir Bitton, Scott Brown, Lucas Connell, Jonny Hayes, Ewan Henderson, Eboue Kouassi, Callum McGregor, Lewis Morgan, Olivier Ntcham, Tom Rogic, Maryan Shved, Scott Sinclair
Forwards: Jack Aitchison, Vakoun Issouf Bayo, Ryan Christie, Karamoko Dembele, Odsonne Edouard, James Forrest, Leigh Griffiths, Michael Johnston

THE BEST XI?


 

Lawrie Spence has whinged about Scottish football on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007. He has a life outside this blog. Honestly.

2019/20 Premiership preview - Rangers

Rangers FC.svg
PREDICTED LEAGUE POSITION: SECOND

LAST SEASON: 2nd, 78pts

NOTABLE INS: Filip Helander (Bologna, £3.5m), George Edmundson (Oldham Athletic, £600k), Joe Aribo (Charlton Athletic, £300k), Steven Davis (Southampton, loan made permanent), Jake Hastie (Motherwell), Jordan Jones (Kilmarnock), Greg Stewart (Birmingham City), Sheyi Ojo (Liverpool, loan)

NOTABLE OUTS: Daniel Candeias (Genclerbirligi, £250k), Ryan Hardie (Blackpool), Lee Hodson (Gillingham), Lee Wallace (Queens Park Rangers), Jak Alnwick (Blackpool, loan), Eduardo Herrera (Necaxa, loan), Stephen Kelly (Ayr United, loan), Ross McCrorie (Portsmouth, loan), Jordan Rossiter (Fleetwood Town, loan), Lassana Coulibaly (Angers, end of loan), Ryan Kent (Liverpool, end of loan), Joe Worrall (Nottingham Forest, end of loan), Myles Beerman, Kyle Bradley, Liam Burt, Kyle Lafferty, Gareth McAuley

LAST SEASON'S BEST XI (Departed players crossed out): McGregor, Tavernier, Goldson, Katic, Halliday, Kamara, Jack, Candeias, Arfield, Kent, Morelos


Rangers finished last season only eight points better off than they were under the combined 'direction' of Pedro Caixinha and Graeme Murty. That doesn't sound like much.

However the eye test suggests a marked improvement under Steven Gerrard. For a start, there was a coherent strategy in place. There wasn't much of a Plan B, but even having a good Plan A was a big step forward.

That said, by the middle of March the press pack were beginning to doubt Stevie G's credentials. The positivity generated by beating Celtic at New Year had been obliterated by a number of draws and a cup exit to Aberdeen, Then they ran their rivals damn close at Celtic Park with ten men and that sparked an impressive finish to the campaign that included another derby win...and a dominant one at that.

So in just a few months Gerrard has gone from naughty boy to Messiah again. Some folk have even drunk the Kool-Aid and think Rangers might win the league.

Those people are crazy. The gap between them and Celtic feels bridgeable just now because of the way last season finished and because of the feeling that with Neil Lennon now in charge the Champions might be vulnerable. But in truth the difference in resources remains huge. The Gers are stuck in a Catch 22 situation where they need Champions League money to have a shot at winning the league but can't get Champions League money without winning the league.

The signing of Swedish central defender Filip Helander at least reassures the fans that there is some cash there. Up till then the transfer window had been a distinctly bargain basement affair. One problem is that there are still a plethora of unwanted players on the wage bill; until they can be shifted it's going to be hard to finance new arrivals.

As for Helander, his signing seemed a strange one because centre-back wasn't a huge need, with George Edmundson having been signed as cover for Connor Goldson and Nikola Katic. It will be interesting to see whether Helander has been signed as an upgrade or because Rangers want the option of playing a back three.

Usually though it's been a 4-2-3-1, which became increasingly lopsided last season. There was a massive upturn in the quality of attacking play when Gerrard started deploying Scott Arfield on the right; the Canadian international naturally came into the centre but right-back James Tavernier is so impressive going forward that he doesn't need a winger in front of him. Early indications are that Gerrard has taken advantage of this to tinker a bit, going with a third central midfielder and using Arfield and Sheyi Ojo, on loan from Liverpool, just off the front man. 

The hope is that this allows them to get by without Ryan Kent, who was so impressive in the second half of last season but who looks increasingly unlikely to return for another loan spell. Even if they go back to the old system Ojo can play on either flank and Greg Stewart, Jordan Jones and Jake Hastie have all been added as wide options, which is why Daniel Candeias proved surplus to requirements.

That means the onus is on the full-backs to provide attacking width. That's no problem with Tavernier on the right. Borna Barisic has the capability to fill that role on the other side but wasn't great last season. His crossing ability might give him the nod over Andy Halliday though; Halliday has found a new lease of life after being converted from midfield.

It's likely to be three from four in midfield - or from five if Greg Docherty really has forced his way back into the reckoning. Joe Aribo has looked good after his move from Charlton and is likely to be the most adventurous of the trio. The other two more restrained roles will be filled by a combination of Ryan Jack, Glen Kamara and Steven Davis. Davis was honking when he came back in January but got better as he got fitter; he seems likely to sit deepest, though Kamara can do that too. 

Such is the depth that Graham Dorrans has been frozen out and Ross McCrorie loaned out. McCrorie's temporary move means there is a distinct possibility that the only Academy product to start a league game this season will be...goalkeeper Allan McGregor, who made his debut in 2002 and who spent six years away from Ibrox (and who a certain type of fan will claim isn't a product of 'this Rangers').

And of course we haven't touched on the strikers yet. Should we go on about the five red cards Alfredo Morelos got last season, or the thirty goals the Colombian scored? Even for the most ill-disciplined player so many sendings off looks like an anomaly. The goalscoring however came hand in hand with frequently brilliant centre-forward play. His performance at Pittodrie last season - until he, er, got sent off - was at a level not seen in Scottish football for some time. Even if Morelos spends some time on the suspension list, Jermain Defoe (37 in October) still seems to have enough in the tank to step in from time to time; I wouldn't want to rely on him as a first choice all year long though.

So I'd conclude Rangers are on the up. But they're still not ready to slip the surly bonds of the diddy teams and touch the face of the Champions (unless, of course, Scott Brown pisses off Ryan Kent again). The difficulty for Gerrard may be managing expectations. Finish with more points, win a home derby or two and - most importantly - avoid dropping so many points to teams that should be beaten comfortably - and 2019/20 will be another step in the right direction.



THE SQUAD (players born after 1 January 1998 in italics)
Goalkeepers: Andy Firth, Wes Foderingham, Allan McGregor
Defenders: Borna Barisic, George Edmundson, Jon Flanagan, Connor Goldson, Andy Halliday, Filip Helander, Jordan Houston, Nikola Katic, Matt Polster, James Tavernier, Aidan Wilson
Midfielders: Scott Arfield, Joe Aribo, Jamie Barjonas, Steven Davis, Greg Docherty, Graham Dorrans, Eros Grezda, Jake Hastie, Jason Holt, Ryan Jack, Jordan Jones, Glen Kamara, Josh McPake, Glenn Middleton, Sheyi Ojo
Forwards: Serge Atakayi, Jermain Defoe, Joe Dodoo, Dapo Mebude, Alfredo Morelos, Jamie Murphy, Greg Stewart

THE BEST XI?



 

Lawrie Spence has whinged about Scottish football on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007. He has a life outside this blog. Honestly.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

2019/20 Premiership preview - Livingston

Livingston FC club badge new.png

PREDICTED LEAGUE POSITION: ELEVENTH

LAST SEASON: 9th, 44pts

NOTABLE INS: Marvin Bartley (Hibernian), Robbie Crawford (Ayr United), Nicky Devlin (Walsall), Cece Pepe (Rieti), Ibrahima Savane (Bezieres), Aymen Souda (Dunarea Calarasi), Matija Sarkic (Aston Villa, loan)

NOTABLE OUTS: Liam Kelly (Queens Park Rangers, £50k), Shaun Byrne (Dundee), Nicky Cadden (Greenock Morton), Callum Crane (Edinburgh City), Declan Gallagher (Motherwell), Craig Halkett (Heart of Midlothian), Matthew Knox (Brechin City), Henk Van Schaik (Greenock Morton), Cameron Blues (Greenock Morton, loan), Raffaele De Vita (Partick Thistle, loan), Jack Hamilton (Queen of the South, loan), Dolly Menga (Petro de Luanda, loan), Ciaron Brown (Cardiff City, end of loan), Ryan Hardie (Rangers, end of loan)

LAST SEASON'S BEST XI (Departed players crossed out): Kelly, Lithgow, Halkett, Gallagher, Lawless, Jacobs, Byrne, Pittman, Lamie, Robinson, Hardie


How to write about Livingston's efforts last season without sounding patronizing? On reflection, all I can do is ask you to give me the benefit of the doubt.

Livi came ninth in the Premiership last season, which is some effort for a club that had been promoted via the playoffs, which was operating on (probably) the lowest budget in the league, and who changed manager twice between winning promotion and the first international break of the next campaign.

How did they do it? When Gary Holt replaced Kenny Miller as manager, he basically undid all the changes Miller tried to make and went back to the formula that worked so well for David Hopkin. No-one was more direct than they were, that isn;t the same thing as aimless punting up the park. Long balls were sent into space for busy forwards to chase, and the midfield, which appeared literally tireless, hoovered up second balls. Free-kicks, corners, long throws - all of them were dangerous as hell. And they were superbly organized defensively.

Okay, so it wasn't exactly hipster football. But nor was it dull. At Almondvale they did over Hearts 5-0 and Dundee 4-0, and beat Rangers too. This was not a team riding their luck. They were safe by Christmas.

They did, however, win just three of their final twenty league matches. Was this a case of easing back once the pressure was off, or regression to the mean? We'll find out soon enough. And if this season was already at risk of becoming the 'difficult second album' regardless, it'll be even tougher without some of the talented tunesmiths that took them to their previous heights.

That solid backline? No more. Their two most talented central defenders, Craig Halkett and Declan Gallagher, have moved on to bigger things (or at least bigger wages) at Hearts and Motherwell respectively. Not only was Halkett a Team of the Year candidate for many (including this writer) but his set-piece threat and ability to ping one in from miles out meant he was, remarkably, Livingston's joint top scorer in the league with seven goals. 

Now Alan Lithgow is the only one left of the back three which took the Lions up two divisions in consecutive years. And, down two excellent central-defenders, it makes sense that Holt has moved to a flat back four for the new season. Ricki Lamie and new signing Nicky Devlin will be the full-backs, while at the moment Lithgow's most likely companion in the middle is Cece Pepe, a Frenchman who last played in Italy's Serie C.

Also away is Liam Kelly, the outstanding young goalkeeper who cracked the Scotland squad last year. It turns out that in order to attract him to sign last summer the club had to agree to a clause that allowed him to leave for a derisory fee after a year. Queens Park Rangers paid it. So Aston Villa loanee Matija Sarkic takes up the gloves.

The midfield picture isn't particularly brighter. One of its perpetual motion engines, Shaun Byrne, has chosen to join Dundee in the Championship. Byrne, Halkett, Gallagher and Kelly were four of Livingston's best five players last season. Thankfully the fifth, Scott Pittman, is still here. Pittman literally covers every blade of grass and without him they really would be in a fix. Keaghan Jacobs will start in a deeper role, alongside veteran Marvin Bartley. Bartley loves a tackle, which means he is a great fit for this team. However he is 33 and so will sit in front of the defence rather than push up to break up play. Holt also brought in Ayr United's Robbie Crawford, who is a bit more technically gifted but runs less than Byrne and tackles less than Bartley.

Oh, and the forward line isn't in great shape either. Ryan Hardie, the other joint top scorer from last season, isn't coming back from Rangers for a third loan spell. Dolly Menga, who tailed off after a bright start, has returned to Angola on loan to boost his international prospects. And Lee Miller is 36 and surely nothing more than a 'bring on for the last five minutes if we're a goal down' option. 

In came Lyndon Dykes (technically signed in January but loaned back to Queen of the South for the rest of last season) and Tunisian Aymen Souda. Dykes works as hard as heck (again, a good fit) and loves a shoulder barge. He does not, however, have a great scoring record even at a lower level. In contrast Souda has looked like a goal threat in the League Cup games when coming in from the flank. He could also play more centrally as a number ten, but Holt is more likely to choose between the flair of Craig Sibbald and the more workmanlike Scott Robinson for that role; the latter is better at the defensive work.

The change of formation allows Steven Lawless to concentrate on being a winger again after he did a passable impersonation of a wing-back last season. It also means that there is potentially a role for Chris Erskine, who looked a bit out of place after signing in January.

I am aware that I'm painting a picture of doom and gloom here. Nevertheless it would be hard for any club to bounce back from losing so many talented players. And their up-and-at-em style no longer surprises anyone, and their form in 2019 so far suggests that they might have been found out to some extent. Livingston's second season back in the top flight may go the way everyone wrongly expected their first to go - not very well at all. On the other hand, no-one thrives quite as much on being written of as Livingston do... 


THE SQUAD (players born after 1 January 1998 in italics)
Goalkeepers: Gary Maley, Matija Sarkic, Ross Stewart
Defenders: Nicky Devlin, Ricki Lamie, Alan Lithgow, Jack McMillan, Hakeem Odoffin, Cece Pepe, Ibrahima Savane
Midfielders: Marvin Bartley, Robbie Crawford, Chris Erskine, Keaghan Jacobs, Steven Lawless, Steve Lawson, Scott Pittman, Scott Robinson, Craig Sibbald, Gregg Wylde
Forwards: Lyndon Dykes, Craig Henderson, Lee Miller, Aymen Souda, Scott Tiffoney

THE BEST XI?




Lawrie Spence has whinged about Scottish football on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007. He has a life outside this blog. Honestly.

2019/20 Premiership preview - Ross County

Ross County F.C. logo.png

PREDICTED LEAGUE POSITION: NINTH

LAST SEASON: Promoted as Championship winners

NOTABLE INS: Josh Black (Queen's Park), Joe Chalmers (Inverness Caledonian Thistle), Lee Erwin (unattached), Ross Laidlaw (Hibernian), Jack Ruddy (Wolverhampton Wanderers), Blair Spittal (Partick Thistle), Nathan Baxter (Chelsea, loan), Simon Power (Norwich City, loan)

NOTABLE OUTS: Jamie Lindsay (Rotherham United, £300k), Russell Dingwall (Elgin City), Scott Fox (Partick Thistle), Greg Morrison (Brora Rangers), Callum Semple (Queen of the South), Declan McManus (Falkirk, loan), Ross Munro (Raith Rovers, loan), Andy Boyle (Preston North End, end of loan), Ross Maciver

LAST SEASON'S BEST XI (Departed players crossed out): Fox, Fraser, Watson, Fontaine, Van Der Weg, Mullin, Draper, Lindsay, Gardyne, Stewart, Mckay



Ross County deserved to win the Scottish Championship last season. They were the best team in the division, and the most consistent.

Is that the same as saying they were terrific? It's hard to say. They knew how to win matches. If you'd asked one of their supporters about their result, they'd have told you they won with a bit to spare. If you'd then asked about the performance, they'd probably have given a shrug.

But that winning habit is a good one to have and often puts newly promoted teams in good stead initially, especially if the players who enjoyed such success have remained. And so is the case in Dingwall where it could be argued that of all the players who left in the summer only Scott Fox and Jamie Lindsay will be missed.

And even then Fox was not all that outstanding a goalkeeper - at least, not as outstanding as he thought he was when he claimed in 2015 that he was joining County to improve his international prospects. But he certainly has a better pedigree than Ross Laidlaw, one of life's substitute keepers, who has been signed from Hibs. Young Chelsea loanee Nathan Baxter was expected to be first choice but he needs a shoulder operation and won't play until November so the club has brought in the inexperienced Jack Ruddy from Wolves to compete with Laidlaw. Not ideal.

Lindsay was an outstanding midfielder though, bringing a rare combination of energy and ability to proceedings. Ex-Inverness player Joe Chalmers will replace Lindsay's running and is better on the ball than he's given credit for, and he's got his mojo back after being converted from left-back following a nightmare spell at Motherwell. Whether he can cope at Premiership level remains to be seen though.

Ross Draper should do fine, and if County will either pair him with Chalmers, or if they go with three in the middle of the park, use the duo to do the ballwinning and running for playmaker Iain Vigurs. Vigurs is great at dictating play but his defensive weaknesses were frequently exploited the last time he was in the top flight. It will be a surprise if we see much of 36 year old Don Cowie who is surely heading for a player-coach role with heavy emphasis on the 'coach', while Lewis Spence has disappeared from the picture somewhat.

Out wide, they look well set. Josh Mullin was a real stand out in the Championship with plenty of goals and assists from the right flank. On the opposite side is Michael Gardyne who despite being 33 shows no signs of taking a step backwards...yet. As insurance though County have signed young Irishman Simon Power on loan from Norwich City and first impressions are that his exceptional pace could cause havoc. Another new boy, Blair Spittal, will compete with Mullin after joining from Partick Thistle, but he's not an upgrade. You may remember Davis Keillor-Dunn, who showed some flashes a couple of years ago? He's been frozen out amid rumours of attitude problems. 

In fact, the Spittal signing somewhat sums up County's business so far - a new player who doesn't look like an improvement on what the club had last season. Expect further additions before the end of August though - as shown with Declan McManus the club are not concerned about moving on players who signed new deals only a few months earlier.

Until then the defence and attack will be the same as last year. Billy Mckay should initally lead the front line after scoring 20 goals last year. Once Lee Erwin is fit, he may partner or supplant the Ulsterman; after a year in Iran and then on the sidelines, it's hard to know what state the former Motherwell talent is in. Alternatively, Brian Graham or Ross Stewart can each provide an aerial threat. Graham has more experience but Stewart is more mobile.

The backline was good enough for the second tier but there are question marks over all of them this season. Captain Marcus Fraser was excellent last year but has previously seemed too lightweight to be a good Premiership centre back and not good enough going forward to be a Premiership right-back. However the hope is that he's improved enough to become the latter. Keith Watson also comes off a good campaign but was previously only good enough to be a backup at St. Johnstone. However converting him to central defence may be the making of him.

Watson's likely companion in the middle is Liam Fontaine, now 33 and coming off a number of serious injuries. He's now slower than a week in Dingwall and it remains to be seen if his vast experience compensates for that. The backups are the green Tom Grivosti, who they have high hopes for, and Callum Morris, who they probably don't. And neither Sean Kelly nor Kenny Van Der Weg are particularly palatable options at left-back, though if forced to plump for one you'd choose the Dutchman, who loves a tackle. The management team seem to prefer Kelly though for his superior play in possession.

And what of the duo in the dugout, a sight we rarely see in football? The bottom line is that Stuart Kettlewell and Steven Ferguson have done what was expected of them so far. This season will be the acid test of what their capabilities are.

After all, the momentum County carry from last season could carry them really quite far into the new season but at some point the lack of overall quality will probably catch up with them. That said, they will still fancy that they're strong enough to avoid being dragged into the mix at the bottom of the table.

And if they do have a rocky start and end up in a relegation fight? Expect owner Roy MacGregor to bust out that cheque book in January. He treasures this club, and saw their relegation in 2018 as a failure on his part. He'll be damned if it happens again on his watch. And as long as he doesn't appoint Owen Coyle, it surely won't.


THE SQUAD (players born after 1 January 1998 in italics)
Goalkeepers: Nathan Baxter, Ross Laidlaw, Jack Ruddy
Defenders: Liam Fontaine, Marcus Fraser, Tom Grivosti, Sean Kelly, Tom Kelly, Callum Morris, Kenny Van Der Weg, Keith Watson
Midfielders: Dan Armstrong, Josh Black, Joe Chalmers, Don Cowie, Ross Draper, Mark Gallagher, Michael Gardyne, Davis Keillor-Dunn, Josh Mullin, Jack Murray, Harry Paton, Simon Power, Lewis Spence, Blair Spittal, Iain Vigurs
Forwards: Lee Erwin, Brian Graham, Billy Mckay, Ross Stewart, James Wallace

THE BEST XI?




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 29, 2019

2019/20 Premiership preview - Hibernian

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PREDICTED LEAGUE POSITION: Fourth

LAST SEASON: 5th, 54pts

NOTABLE INS: Christian Doidge (Forest Green Rovers, £250k), Scott Allan (Celtic), Steven Bradley (Queen's Park), Adam Jackson (Barnsley), Tom James (Yeovil Town), Joe Newell (Rotherham United), Josh Vela (Bolton Wanderers), Chris Maxwell (Preston North End, loan)

NOTABLE OUTS: Lewis Allan (Raith Rovers), Marvin Bartley (Livingston), Ross Laidlaw (Ross County), Mark Milligan (Southend United), Thomas Agyepong (Manchester City, end of loan), Adam Bogdan (Liverpool, end of loan), Ryan Gauld (Sporting Lisbon, end of loan), Darnell Johnson (Leicester City, end of loan), Marc McNulty (Reading, end of loan), Stephane Omeonga (Genoa, end of loan), Gael Bigirimana, Andrew Blake, Miquel Nelom, Jonathan Spector

LAST SEASON'S BEST XI (Departed players crossed out): Marciano, Ambrose, Hanlon, Porteous, Stevenson, Milligan, Mallan, Omeonga, Boyle, Horgan, McNulty


Neil Lennon might have guided Hibs to fourth place just over a year ago, but by the time he left at the end of January it had all gone pear-shaped. The circumstances of his departure were bizarre to say the least but his exit was justified in terms of results; at that point Hibs were only eighth.

Under Paul Heckingbottom they then went unbeaten in the league until after the split, where they lost the last three games of the campaign. Only Celtic and Rangers managed more points in that fifteen match period. So far, so very good for the Englishman. He showed he could get the best out of the squad he inherited.

Now he needs to show that he can recruit.There have been a lot of departures this summer and while the list was mainly made up of depth pieces it also included impressive loanees Stephane Omeonga and Marc McNulty. Both have joined new clubs.

And so Heckingbottom has got biz-zay. McNulty;s replacement up front, Welshman Christian Doidge, commanded a £250,000 fee. At this level, that's a decent amount of money and therefore expectations of Doidge, whose goalscoring record at English League Two level was good and who would have signed permanently for Bolton in January had the Championship side not hit financial trouble, should be high.

Doidge joins Flo Kamberi and Oli Shaw as options up front. The lack of numbers there hints that the manager may look to play one up front more often than not. Kamberi spent a lot of time out on the flank in the second half of last season but whilst he was more than willing it isn't his best position and there are surely better options to start there. His goal return last season was disappointing and too often it seems like lack of confidence is holding back the Swiss forward's considerable talent. Shaw is a great prospect and has been attracting interest from down south, but it seems like he is third in the queue here.

One reason Kamberi can go back to the centre (or the bench) is the return from injury of Martin Boyle. The flying winger shone for a year and a half before hurting his knee with Australia in January. With Daryl Horgan impressing under Heckingbottom and the arrival of another wideman in Joe Newell there should be no difficulty in creating chances. And that's before acknowledging the return of prodigal son Scott Allan for a third spell at the Easter Road. He and Stevie Mallan should provide an excellent goal threat from midfield.

The obvious gap in the early League Cup games was the lack of a natural holding midfielder. Mark Milligan did well last year but was moved on, presumably because he will be 34 next month. Fan favourite Marvin Bartley was well past his best too. Against Stirling and Alloa teenager Josh Campbell was deployed in front of the back four but Josh Vela, brought in from Bolton Wanderers, will surely fill this role going forward. Vela was very highly thought of in Lancashire and could be a really good signing.

He can also play right-back effectively as well, though there is not a shortage of options in defence. Left-back Tom James and centre-back Adam Jackson have been added to the mix, though they'll do well to shift stalwarts Lewis Stevenson and Paul Hanlon, as well as outstanding youngster Ryan Porteous (just back from a long-term injury as well) from the starting lineup. Veterans Darren McGregor, David Gray and Steven Whittaker are all here too. Whittaker looked done last year but the 35 year old impressed the management team in preseason and has forced his way back into the reckoning.

Whoever starts at the back will protect Israeli Ofir Marciano, who blossomed in the first half of 2019 and has become one of the league's outstanding shotstoppers. That didn't stop Heckingbottom signing experienced goalie Chris Maxwell to compete with him, but Marciano should be first choice going forward.

All in all, it's hard not to be positive about the Hibees' upcoming campaign. They look well set in most positions as long as the injury bug doesn't bite so hard. If anything, the biggest concern right now is that a panicking English Championship club steals Heckingbottom early in the season. Certainly another top six finish is the absolute least that should be expected; if Doidge, Kamberi or A.N. Other hits a hot streak then they will be dangerous opponents for anyone anywhere. They look certain to be top sixers, and might even fancy their chances of pushing for third.

THE SQUAD (players born after 1 January 1998 in italics)
Goalkeepers: Ofir Marciano, Chris Maxwell
Defenders: Josh Campbell, David Gray, Paul Hanlon, Adam Jackson, Tom James, Sean Mackie, Darren McGregor, Ryan Porteous, Lewis Stevenson, Steven Whittaker
Midfielders: Scott Allan, Martin Boyle, Steven Bradley, Jamie Gullan, Daryl Horgan, Stevie Mallan, Fraser Murray, Innes Murray, Joe Newell, Vykintas Slivka, Josh Newell
Forwards: Christian Doidge, Flo Kamberi, Oli Shaw

THE BEST XI?

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.

2019/20 Premiership preview - Motherwell

Motherwell FC crest.svg
PREDICTED LEAGUE POSITION: SIXTH

LAST SEASON: Eighth, 51pts

NOTABLE INS: Jake Carroll (Cambridge United), Declan Gallagher (Livingston), Jermaine Hylton (Solihull Moors), Christian Ilic (TSV Hartberg), Christopher Long (Blackpool), Christy Manzinga (RSC Chatelet-Fanciennes), Liam Polworth (Inverness Caledonian Thistle), Sherwin Seedorf (Wolverhampton Wanderers), Casper Sloth (Silkeborg), Devante Cole (Wigan Athletic, loan)

NOTABLE OUTS: Chris Cadden (Columbus Crew), Shea Gordon (Partick Thistle, loan made permanent), Jake Hastie (Rangers), Danny Johnson (Dundee), Curtis Main (Aberdeen), Carl McHugh (ATK), Neil McLaughlin (Edusport Academy), Alex Rodriguez Gorrin (Oxford United), Rohan Ferguson (Linfield, loan), Tom Aldred (Bury, end of loan), Gboly Ariyibi (Nottingham Forest, end of loan), Ross McCormack (Aston Villa, end of loan), Connor Sammon (Heart of Midlothian, end of loan), Liam Brown, Elliott Frear, Christian Mbulu, George Newell, Aaron Taylor-Sinclair

LAST SEASON'S BEST XI (Departed players crossed out): Gillespie, Grimshaw, Aldred, Dunne, Tait, Campbell, Rodriguez Gorrin, Turnbull, Ariyibi, Hastie, Main



When Motherwell's management team signed new contracts this summer, there was much joy amongst the support.

They might not have felt the same as recently as the end of 2018; the direct and physical - often overly so - play that had taken them to two cup finals the previous season had more than run its course both in terms of its watchability and its results. On Boxing Day, the Steelmen were ninth, only just above the bottom three.

Over the winter break, they transformed from an ugly caterpillar into a beautiful butterfly. Not only did 'Well start winning, but they did so with panache. No longer did burly targetmen like Curtis Main and Ryan Bowman define the team; now the focus was on fearless youngsters like David Turnbull and Jake Hastie getting the ball down and doing thrilling things with it.

Sadly Hastie has gone after his contract expired, and Turnbull would have been away too but for a knee injury picked up in his Celtic medical. Motherwell have lost out on £3million as a result, but only temporarily. They will at least get a few more months of their wonderful young midfielder who should return for the second half of the season.

In the meantime, his absence may not be as damaging as you think. True, they've lost regular starters in Hastie, Chris Cadden (who was injured for most of last season), Alex Rodriguez Gorrin and loanees Tom Aldred and Gboly Ariyibi. But Robinson has never been shy of wheeling and dealing and has brought in ten new players.

So in defence Declan Gallagher, so solid for Livingston last season, should fill the Aldred gap. Either Peter Hartley or Charles Dunne, who can also play left-back, will partner him. This is probably the weak spot in the side though and if Robinson was to sign one more player it probably would be a central defender.

There's no such problem at full-back though. Richard Tait is of course more than capable on either side, Liam Grimshaw was converted into a fine right-back last season, and newbie Jake Carroll can compete with Liam Donnelly, back from long-term injury, for the left-back role. In goal, Mark Gillespie took advantage of Trevor Carson's prolonged absence with an arm DVT to make himself first choice keeper. The stats suggest he's a big upgrade over the Northern Irish international.

There's no shortage of midfield options either even if Turnbull isn't considered. Allan Campbell is a tackling machine, and he'll probably be joined in the middle by Casper Sloth, who might have lost his way in recent years but is still only 27 and has eight caps for Denmark. I say 'probably' because Donnelly played like a boss in that role in the League Cup games and might keep him out of the team.

A more attacking option is former Inverness assist machine Liam Polworth who should thrive now he's surrounded with better players; the forwards can expect many a defence-splitting through ball from him. Craig Tanner, who hasn't played since March 2018 because of his own injuries, will back up Polworth in that role.

Out wide the loss of Ariyibi and Hastie has been compensated for by picking up Jermaine Hylton and Sherwin Seedorf from down south and Croatian winger Christian Ilic, who can also play as a left-back. Another new face, Devante Cole, can also play wide but is more suited to being a striker.

However he may not find many opportunities there unless Motherwell play two up top. It's more likely they'll go for one though. Reputation says Christopher Long should be the favourite given his experience down south but local product James Scott, who doesn't turn 19 for another few weeks, seems to be getting better by the week. If more of an orthodox target man is needed, they can turn to Belgian Christy Manzinga, signed after an audacious overhead kick goal in a friendly.

And while it might only be the League Cup Group Stages, early signs are encouraging that Robinson is gelling this bunch together. They won all four games, scoring thirteen goals without reply. It might only have been Queen of the South, Morton, Dumbarton and Annan but that was more impressive than most of their peers.

So what's the target? It's got to be top six. And they're more than capable of managing it. Hopefully they should give us some fun whilst they're at it.


THE SQUAD (players born after 1 January 1998 in italics)
Goalkeepers: Trevor Carson, Mark Gillespie
Defenders: Jake Carroll, David Devine, Liam Donnelly, Charles Dunne, Declan Gallagher, Liam Grimshaw, Peter Hartley, Adam Livingstone, Barry Maguire, Richard Tait
Midfielders: Allan Campbell, Dean Cornelius, Jermaine Hylton, Christian Ilic, Liam Polworth, Sherwin Seedorf, Casper Sloth, Craig Tanner, David Turnbull
Forwards: Devante Cole, Christopher Long, Christy Manzinga, James Scott, Jamie Semple



THEIR BEST XI?



Lawrie Spence has whinged about Scottish football on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007. He has a life outside this blog. Honestly.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

2019/20 Scottish Championship preview

It's fashionable to slag off the Scottish Championship because of its lack of quality, but in recent times the gap between the bottom of the Premiership and the best sides in the second tier hasn't been big. The problem is that during the season the clubs that are - or should be - at the top of the division have, either due to overconfidence or lack of confidence, developed a habit of playing down to the opposition.

And that's what makes it so intriguing. This is the sixth consecutive season that at least one of Rangers, Hearts, Hibs and Dundee United - generally considered amongst the largest half-dozen clubs in the country - have been stuck in this league, and only the Jambos got out at the first attempt.

So quality? Not much, though more than its detractors would believe. Competitive as hell? Damn right. And now we have Dundee derbies added to the mix.

Let's get the lowdown on the ten clubs fighting for promotion to the promised land or to avoid demotion to the seaside leagues...


ALLOA ATHLETIC
Jim Goodwin pulled off a miracle by keeping the part-timers up last season; to lose him was a terrible shame, but to lose him mid-summer was a disaster. Peter Grant now has the task of doing it all again but with, as it stands, a weaker squad. Goodwin played the loan market magnificently and Grant needs to do the same if the Wasps are to avoid the drop again. It's probably an even tougher task than last time around


ARBROATH
Dick Campbell is the face of lower league Scottish football - both metaphorically and literally - but this is the first time since 2007 he's managed at this level. And it's the first time the Red Lichties have flown this high in sixteen years. Budget constraints mean Campbell is largely stuck with the squad that won League One. There's lots of experience here and they'll be a tough nut to crack but as with any part-time side they'll find it hard to keep up with full-time opponents over a whole season.


AYR UNITED
Ayr's fourth place finish was down to their lightning start; they won just 5 of their last 24 games last season. And now Lawrence Shankland has gone. So have stalwart defenders Liam Smith and Michael Rose. Thankfully Ross Doohan has returned in goal for another season but the other holes will be hard to fill. Ian McCall has been active in the loan market, bringing in Rangers' Stephen Kelly and Aberdeen's Frank Ross to boost the midfield, but he'll need veteran forwards Kris Doolan and Michael Moffat to roll back the years if United are to get anywhere near the playoffs again.


DUNDEE
Rookie manager plus high expectations plus a huge squad revamp often equals disaster, but James McPake talks the talk and the signings of Jordon Forster in defence, Shaun Byrne and Jamie Ness in midfield and Danny Johnson up front are impressive. If the team gels together quickly and avoids a slow start then they should challenge at the top but the pressure is likely to grow quickly if early results aren't good (and if they are better at the other end of Tannadice Street).


DUNDEE UNITED
For Arabs, the new season is the equivalent of Father Jack sobering up and shouting "don't tell me I'm still on this fecking island?!". Surely their fourth campaign at this level will be their last, now they've added the firepower of Lawrence Shankland to an attack that already includes Osman Sow and Nicky Clark? And they have Cammy Smith, Peter Pawlett, Adam King and Paul McMullan for creativity. Yet, if any team can possibly screw this up, its United...


DUNFERMLINE ATHLETIC
The Pars have changed tack considerably, cutting their budget and putting the emphasis on signing "young, hungry players" and, er, Paul Paton. Their hope is that they can find some gems in Scotland's lower divisions and in English under-23 sides that can push them towards promotion and earn the club lucrative transfer fees. It's a bit risky though. Reassuringly there's still plenty of experience at the back, and former Raith striker Kevin Nisbet has looked sharp up front in the League Cup games.


GREENOCK MORTON
It's been all change at Cappielow on and off the pitch with David Hopkin replacing Jonatan Johansson as manager and only a handful of first teamers retained. John Sutton coming out of retirement was a curious one and makes one wonder what the budget is like; a decent chunk of it is likely to have gone on Aidan Nesbitt and Robbie Muirhead, two youngsters who so far have failed to realize their potential. It will be a tough ask for Hopkin to repeat the success he had at Livingston.


INVERNESS CALEDONIAN THISTLE
Caley Thistle will struggle to replace assist machine Liam Polworth; the addition of James Keatings suggests a move to a more orthodox 4-4-2 this season. In Aaron Doran and Tom Walsh they have a tremendous duo of wide players and the onus is on them to provide the chances. Coll Donaldson and Jamie McCart might be the best centre-back duo in the Championship but they need a reliable goalscorer if they are to get promoted.


PARTICK THISTLE
The signs at the end of last season were reassuring that Gary Caldwell is on the right track, and there's been talk of new investment at the club which may lead to the squad being augmented further. Tam O'Ware's return from injury boosts the backline and getting midfielder Shea Gordon back permanently might be one of the best moves anyone's made this summer. Another side whose challenge depends on finding a consistent source of goals - we'll see if 39 year old Kenny Miller still has enough in the tank.


QUEEN OF THE SOUTH
Allan Johnston was parachuted in to save them from relegation and did so. Now he has to put a team together on possibly the smallest full-time budget in Scotland. He's done well to get defender Callum Semple back and to win the race to sign highly-rated keeper Robby McCrorie on loan. At the time of writing they are hideously short in midfield though and they will lean more heavily than ever on 36 year old talisman Stephen Dobbie to carry them.


And here's how I think the table will end up:

1. DUNDEE UNITED

2. DUNDEE
3. INVERNESS CALEDONIAN THISTLE
4. PARTICK THISTLE

5. DUNFERMLINE ATHLETIC
6. GREENOCK MORTON
7. AYR UNITED
8. QUEEN OF THE SOUTH

9. ARBROATH

10. ALLOA ATHLETIC


But I still expect United fans will claim I hate them anyway...;-)

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.

Saturday, July 27, 2019

2019/20 Scottish League One preview

In League One, we inevitably find a handful of full-time teams who really shouldn't be down here, and a bunch of battle-hardened part-time clubs who look forward to knocking them off their f****** perch.

And often they succeed, as shown last year when Arbroath won the division. It was another part-time side, Forfar, who came second. But it would be a huge shock if a full time side *cough* Falkirk *cough* didn't win it this time.

And the trouble with being part-time is that squads are often pretty small which means lack of options if injuries mount up or players lose confidence, and things can go wrong very quickly.

Here's the runners and riders...

AIRDRIEONIANS
Airdrie have returned to a mostly full-time setup for this season; the last time they did this they ran into all sorts of problems but this time round they have a steadier ship. Ian Murray has basically revamped the entire squad but on paper it certainly looks strong enough to challenge at the right end. Calum Gallagher and Ally Roy should provide plenty of goals.


CLYDE
Cumbernauld's finest are back at this level for the first time in nine years and their best hope of staying here is of course David Goodwillie. Danny Lennon is an accomplished manager at this level and has looked to improve supply to his star man by signing Chris Johnston and Darren Smith. They'll fancy their chances of making the step up.


DUMBARTON
Looked to be in a bit of a crisis early in the summer due to uncertainty about budget and whether Jim Duffy was staying. This seems settled now but has left them playing catchup, never a good thing. However Duffy has a great reputation for developing young players and has also grabbed a gem or two; Joe McKee should stroll this league.


EAST FIFE
Collapsed at the end of last season when seemingly certain to make the playoffs. Their League Cup form has been good though so hopefully that was just a blip. Crucially they've retained impressive striker Anton Dowds and brought back Chris Duggan to partner him. You could imagine them getting into the top four...and you could imagine them getting into the bottom four too.


FALKIRK
It's embarrassing they're down in this league and they look determined to steamroll it. Cammy Bell, Michael Tidser, Denny Johnstone, Connor Sammon, Declan McManus...just some of the players who have signed for the Bairns this season. Anything other than top spot by a country mile would seem an a massive letdown.


FORFAR ATHLETIC
Came on leaps and bounds under Jim Weir last season but repeating second place will be tough with Dylan Easton and Thomas Reilly having followed the money to Kelty Hearts and John Baird having retired to Australia. Ross Forbes, Jordan Kirkpatrick and Andy Jackson look like great signings though and they are still one of the division's better teams.


MONTROSE
Stewart Petrie should get far more credit for turning these perennial losers into League Two winners and then the fourth best team in League One. It'll be hard to make it stick as other sides try and improve, but attracting Kerr Waddell and Cammy Ballantyne to the club shows just how far they've come. Again, underestimate them at your peril.


PETERHEAD
Back up after a two year absence and they're always dangerous because of Rory McAllister's goals. They did well to attract the highly thought of Aidan Smith, Scott Hooper and Gary Fraser in the summer. Having made the League One promotion playoffs earlier in Jim McInally' long reign they will have aspirations to do so again.


RAITH ROVERS
Somehow failed to win this division last year or the year before despite having the biggest budget...and this season will be tougher because of Falkirk's presence. Their League Cup form has been poor too. John McGlynn has tried to refresh the squad and look out for striker Lewis Allan and midfielder Regan Hendry to impress.


STRANRAER
They've done remarkably well to stay afloat despite gradual costcutting in the last few years but it gets harder each time. Grant Gallagher, Ryan Thomson and Scott Robertson return to the club after periods away but they'll need Mark Stewart to roll back the years and score plenty if they are to stay up again.


So this is my prediction of how it'll finish:

1. FALKIRK

2. RAITH ROVERS
3. AIRDRIEONIANS
4. FORFAR ATHLETIC

5. DUMBARTON
6. MONTROSE
7. EAST FIFE
8. PETERHEAD

9. CLYDE

10. STRANRAER


Lawrie Spence has whinged about Scottish football on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007. He has a life outside this blog. Honestly.

Friday, July 26, 2019

2019/20 Scottish League Two preview

The addition of a relegation playoff has changed the dynamic of Scotland's fourth tier dramatically. No longer can a club coast along, safe in the knowledge that being the SPFL's bottom club is the worst that can happen. As the hapless Berwick Rangers found to their cost, there are well-funded, hungry teams looking to get out of the regional leagues. Stagnate at your peril.

At the other end, last season was ultimately one for the 'haves' - those who could afford impressive part-time wages to players who probably should be playing for one of the smaller full-time teams. It was Peterhead and Clyde who got promoted in the end. It'll be interesting to see if 2019-20 is a season for a club that are well-organized (think Montrose in 2017-18) or for one that splashes a bit of cash. Let's look at the ten clubs...


ALBION ROVERS
Coatbridge's finest looked doomed for the drop until the Spring but came to life in the run-in. Kevin Harper has retained as many of the players that saved them as he could and the aim this season is to get back towards mid-table. It might be a long way to go though, given they finished 16 points adrift of eighth last time out.


ANNAN ATHLETIC
Annan arguably punched above their weight by getting into the promotion playoffs last season. It'll be much harder to do so this time around as manager Peter Murphy has lost the majority of his first XI to League One and Two clubs that can offer more money. He needs to find some gems amongst the new signings he has made if they are to avoid sliding down the table.


BRECHIN CITY
After back-to-back relegations, Barry Smith has gutted the squad. There are certainly newcomers who arguably belong at a higher level, such as Chris McLaughlin, Luke Watt and Ross McCord, but the question is whether Smith can gel them together quickly enough. Anything other than a promotion challenge would be a disappointment.


COVE RANGERS
How quickly will the newcomers find their feet? They've essentially kept together the squad that won the Highland League and the reinforcements they have made, especially ex-Killie defender Daniel Higgins, are more than good enough for this level. They certainly won't fear anyone, and shouldn't worry about the drop. Could they even push for back-to-back promotions?


COWDENBEATH
After consecutive relegation playoff escapes the Blue Brazil consolidated somewhat under Gary Bollan, a boss who knows what it takes at this level even if it isn't always aesthetically pleasing. They've lost their veteran spine of David McGurn, Jason Talbot and Mark Fotheringham and star player Gary Fraser though.


EDINBURGH CITY
The citizens faded badly at the end of last season after challenging for the title for months. They've done well to attract a number of talents by offering decent wages for part-timers. Striker Blair Henderson needs to prove last season's goal glut wasn't a one-off. On paper they have a squad that can win the league, as long as they don't have another attack of the wobbles.


ELGIN CITY
Their situation looks a lot rosier now Shane Sutherland has returned for a third spell - their form fell off a cliff after he left in January. Their summer business looks decent but they'll need to play the loan market well again if they are to get back into the top half...or even to avoid getting dragged into a relegation battle.


QUEEN'S PARK
The great amateurs have realized that in the current era luring decent players for expenses only is becoming too hard - especially when in a year's time they'll no longer be able to offer the lure of playing at the national stadium. For now though, it's a team of decent Junior League players and young cast-offs. Will it be sufficient to get by?


STENHOUSEMUIR
In Mark McGuigan, Stenny can boast a striker who will score for fun in League Two - which makes a massive difference at this level. There has been a big squad turnover following relegation - part of which is down to Colin McMenamin wanting to shape the squad to his taste - but moulding them together may take a while.


STIRLING ALBION
The Binos improved massively after Kevin Rutkiewicz took over midseason and will fancy they can push on this time around. This is another club who have chopped and changed significantly over the summer but crucially there's plenty of players here who know what League Two is about. A decent loan signing or two could push them over the top.


And here's how I predict it'll go...

1. EDINBURGH CITY

2. STENHOUSEMUIR
3. STIRLING ALBION
4. BRECHIN CITY

5. COVE RANGERS
6. ELGIN CITY
7. COWDENBEATH
8. ANNAN ATHLETIC
9. ALBION ROVERS

10. QUEEN'S PARK


As ever, I expect time will prove that I don't know what I'm talking about!


Lawrie Spence has whinged about Scottish football on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007. He has a life outside this blog. Honestly.


Postscript - here's some of the feedback...

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

The summer transfer window - a question for every Championship club

Alloa Athletic: what will life after Goodwin be like?
Jim Goodwin's successor will join the Wasps at an awkward time, in that the club have signed up a load of players that Goodwin wanted; in fact the squad now is about the same size as it was last season before it was augmented with savvy loan signings. The new Alloa boss will need to decide whether he can pull off the same trick with temporary transfers or convince the chairman to find the money for a few more new faces, as well as ponder what to do with the ones he has inherited. It doesn't help that Goodwin will be such a hard act to follow - avoiding relegation once was a miracle, but to do it twice would be...er....what's even more unlikely than a miracle?


Arbroath: can the League One winners make the step up?
Dick Campbell actually admitted to the BBC that he will have to dip into the loan market to strengthen his team further, though out of necessity he has stuck with the guys that won promotion. There simply isn't anyone out there who will play for part-time wages and who is better than the Red Lichties already have. The trouble is that what they already have - as you'd expect - are players who are either in the twilight of their careers or who couldn't cut it at full-time clubs. Campbell is a master at making his team stronger than the sum of their parts, but after two promotions with Arbroath this could be a step too far.


Ayr United - how will they cope with losing so many key players?
Everyone knows about Lawrence Shankland's exit, but Ayr have also lost defenders Michael Rose and Liam Smith this summer, while goalkeeper Ross Doohan has returned to parent club Celtic. That quartet were United's four best players last season, and first choice midfielders Robbie Crawford and Declan McDaid have left too. That's a lot of holes to fill, and many of those who are still at the club are, diplomatically speaking, getting on a bit. Mark Kerr (37), Michael Moffat (35), Steven Bell (34) and Andy Geggan (32) are joined by Kris Doolan, a savvy and clever forward who nevertheless is now 32 and scored only six goals last season. Can he really replace the freescoring Shankland?


Dundee - can James McPake gel a new team together quickly enough?
This blogger wasn't overly impressed with Dundee's early business this window, but he has been appeased by the impressive signings of Jordon Forster and Shaun Byrne. Nevertheless the squad turnover has been huge - only seven senior players remain from the squad that was relegated in May - and integrating the new players will take time. Bear in mind both Partick Thistle and Caley Thistle decimated their squads after relegation and had shocking starts to their first seasons back in the Championship. The risk of this happening at Dens seems high with a rookie manager and some dodgy results in July and August could heap the pressure on McPake...especially if their city rivals get off to a flier.


Dundee United - have they any space for further new signings?
The SPFL club with the most players over 21 under contract are Rangers. The club with the second most are Dundee United, despite the fact that Robbie Neilson punted pretty everyone whose contract was up. Amongst those still on the payroll at Tannadice are Adam Barton, Fraser Aird, Christoph Rabitsch, Yannick Loemba, Frederic Frans and Sam Wardrop. Expect all seven, plus possibly Callum Booth and Sam Stanton, to be away by the end of August, but how much will it cost to pay off their contracts? And how much leeway do United have to bring in more new players until they go? Thankfully Neilson did decent business in January and the signings he has made are in areas of weakness, with new full-backs (Adrian Sporle and Liam Smith) and a replacement for Pavol Safranko (Lawrence Shankland) signed up. This is a squad that can, and should, win this league.


Dunfermline - is their new strategy going to work?
"The playing budget, our most significant cost, will need to be reduced significantly. Our focus will be on investing in young, hungry players who are on an upward trajectory in their career, looking to develop those players as future assets which we can then realise to mutual advantage." So stated Dunfermline's board in May. Has any club ever wanted players that aren't 'hungry', by the way? Stevie Crawford retained just seven senior players and has scoured Scotland's lower divisions and English under 23 sides for youngsters...and Paul Paton. With luck, they'll find some gems who can fire them to promotion and earn them a few bucks in transfer fees. But as Falkirk - and Paul Paton - will attest to, when this sort of plan goes wrong, it goes very wrong.


Greenock Morton - are we reading too much into the Sutton move?
It's been all change at Cappielow this summer with a new manager and only half a dozen senior players retained. Unsurprisingly, David Hopkin has been busy, making eight signings so far. He appears to be staking a lot on Aidan Nesbitt - underwhelming at Dundee United last season - and Robbie Muirhead - a complete non-factor at Dunfermline - fulfilling some of their potential. And while Nicky Cadden and Kyle Jacobs will boost the midfield, the other signings are from League One and the English non-leagues; are they rough diamonds, or are they just cheap? The worry that it is the latter has been exacerbated by the fanfare over John Sutton re-registering as a player. 35 year old Sutton hung up his boots a year ago and to be honest looked past it well before then. Is this just a prudent move to make sure he's an option in an emergency? Or is it a sign that Morton's budget is really tight?


Inverness CT - how will they replace Liam Polworth?
Whatever Caley Thistle supporters thought of Polworth, the bottom line is that he was an assist machine both from open play and set pieces. Now he's gone to Motherwell they'll have to find a new source of goalscoring chances. Pre-season signs are that John Robertson is moving towards a 4-4-2 with James Keatings as a second striker. Inverness do have two excellent wide players in Aaron Doran and Tom Walsh, and the burden of supplying Keatings and Jordan White is likely to fall on them. The flipside is that it will be harder to dominate the midfield area and get possession further ip the pitch in the first place.


Partick Thistle - are there enough goals in this side?
The surprise return of Scott Fox to Firhill, and the return from injury of Tam O'Ware should give Thistle a good defensive foundation to build upon. At the other end, it's a different matter. The club's top three league scorers - Blair Spittal, Kris Doolan and Scott McDonald - have all left, and they were hardly goal machines. If Aidan Fitzpatrick moves to Norwich as expected then there will be no-one left who scored more than two league goals last season. At the moment Caldwell's options are Lewis Mansell, who did enough on loan from Blackburn last season to earn a permanent deal but who is very raw, and 39 year old Kenny Miller. Has Miller got enough left in the tank? We'll see. It wouldn't be a surprise if the Fitzpatrick money is used to strengthen the attack further, and last month they were linked with a loan move for Rangers' Zak Rudden, who would be an excellent addition.


Queen of the South - will Allan Johnston have to perform some magic?
Lack of money is a bit of a theme here, isn't it? Johnston saved the Doonhamers from the drop after being parachuted in for the playoff games, but only six players remain from last season's squad (thankfully, one of them is Stephen Dobbie). Some will have been surplus to requirements but Jordan Marshall, Kyle Jacobs, Josh Todd and Michael Doyle got better offers from other full-time clubs. Johnston has brought in five players so far, four of whom are in their second spell at the club - getting back Callum Semple looks like a real coup - but reports of sixteen trialists been used in a friendly match suggest he's still scratching around. And at the time of writing, less than a fortnight before the League Cup games start, he has a grand total of zero midfield players. Not an ideal situation.


Lawrie Spence has whinged about Scottish football on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007. He has a life outside this blog. Honestly.