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    Rendall's Rambles 2017 -2019

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    Rendalls Rambles #9

     

    The final two seasons from James in his wonderful nostalgic look at 25 years of Inverness Caledonian Thistle and more, from the first game at East Stirling to the last game at Tannadice in the play off semi-final. It's been some journey and the roller coaster that is following the Caley Jags will continue; for better or for worse.

     

    The Inverness Caledonian Thistle Years #ICT25
    No.24 (Games 1,125 to 1,204)

    Old familiar: After the trauma of the previous season and the agony of the narrow margin which saw us relegated, it was good to see a sensible choice in manager come to fruition. It is said, never go back, and in the case of Craig Brewster it hadn't worked, but Robbo is folklore in Inverness, he was the man who guided us into the top flight all those years ago. Now he was tasked with ripping up the squad and starting over. It was never going to be easy, and the early results were typical of a side who had just come down. I am sure though, as October and November clicked round some of us were remembering the run we put together to get us immediately back up previously!

    It was an inconspicuous start to my viewing season, a turgid 0-0 at Stirling (not the first in recent history) followed by a narrow 2-0 penalty shoot out win, the lowest penalty shoot out win in Scottish history ☺. Having taken Dunfermline apart in the League Cup at East End last season, they got early August league revenge this time around, as we went down 5-1, and we knew it was going to be a long season. Hapless Brechin were thumped 4-0 at the iconic Glebe Park, but the next time we pitched up there in late December they still hadn't won a game and ran us close, however we came from behind to win 3-2. In October a 2-0 win at Tannadice was the catalyst for thinking we were ready to go on a run! Bedding in for a point at Livingston wasn't all bad, they rather disturbingly from an ex-Meadowbank perspective were going well.

    Rendall 24.jpgThe goals dried up, but Robbo was endeavouring to get our defence more solid too, and the leaking of goals also dried up. We were becoming tougher to beat, and another 0-0 with QotS at home was case in point, then a narrow 1-0 win over Dumbarton in early December, the first time we'd met the Sons at home in a league game! Morton nibbled a 1-0 win at Cappielow, although I have a vague recollection this was a dubious penalty?! Post Glebe joy, we toughed out a draw to open the New Year 1-1 with Livi, but it was a real quality game, before losing again in Renfrewshire at the Methadome. More élan was on display as we sweep QotS aside 3-1, but going down at the Bairnabeu by the same score was making this season seem like a game of snakes and ladders, no consistency. The score was tighter but the Pars won 1-0 at Parslandia, a team that would inadvertently come back to bite us a few months later. While the league results were up and down we had found ourselves in the Challenge Cup Final having seen off Northern Ireland's Crusaders amongst others. Dumbarton were in the final too, a first final for 100+ years! They nearly took us all the way, but a late, late goal won us this gong again and sent the Sons back to the Rock with nada! That result did inject impetuous to a late charge for the play offs, and when we played the Sons in mid April the Pars management were hiding amongst the ICT fans running their eye over our form. We won that night 1-0 and four days later we were on our way leading Dunfermline 2-1 until a late equaliser meant that they had the advantage going into the last game, at home to play out bound Dumbarton, and they saw it through, we ended fifth. We'd left it too late, but signs of green shoots were visible in our play. It was encouraging, unlike my solitary peek at Scotland's continued European debacles. St Johnstone having lost out to Armenian debutants Alashkert last term went and did it again, this time with a home loss to Trakai from Lithuania! 

    The most unusual friendly ever, saw Stranraer entertain Twente Enschede on a glorious day down at Stair Park. They got thumped 5-0 but that was never the point, the bandstand outside the ground was a kitchen for the evening, as food, drink, dance and friendships were made, an absolutely brilliant day. Buckie came down to Cowdenbeath in the League Cup, a sample of what might have been had the Moray boys got past East Kilbride at the end of last season. The Fifers won 3-2 but they'd have more Highland battles by the season's end. Brora were also in Fife in the Challenge Cup, they lost 3-0 but it was a cruel scoreline on a brave open performance at Raith, but in January they'd be along the road at Methil beating East Fife 1-0 in the 4th round of the Scottish Cup. Spartans were regularly viewed and CSS, Dalbeattie, Gala and Edinburgh Uni were all beaten home or away as they headed towards a terrific Championship winning season culminating in a 0-0 with East Stirlingshire, which was enough courtesy of Stirling Uni stunning East Kilbride. They also hosted Linfield in the Challenge Cup, coming up just short of a shock. The league below the Lowland, the East of Scotland League was now a step on the ladder to the league football and the inaugural Junior defectors Kelty Hearts were run close by Lothian Thistle Hutchison Vale, but when I saw them play Tweedmouth they won big 11,1! That was part of a weather hampered groundhop, which included a Burntisland home game for the first ever time for me, and a first ever Shipyard goal in a 2-1 loss to Preston Athletic. The final game of the day saw another first, my first ever indoor game at the Oriam, a cracking 2-2 draw between Heriot Watt Uni and Leith Athletic, whose equaliser still ranks amongst the best goals I have ever seen. I continued seeing Spartans on occasion as the title came closer, going down to Innerleithen and Hawick to see them win. I then found myself in Castle Douglas for the first ever South v East play off for promotion. A tight first half led to a four goal Kelty blitz in the second. Threave's trip north was a mere formality the following week, and having nipped up for the second half from Cowdenbeath, it was 6-0 to the Fifers at the break, and remarkably they failed to add to the score in the second. Cove fell short at Central Park where dubious officiating had played with the Cove heads, aiding them losing 3-2 as Dung for a second successive season had survived, just! The domestic season ended with Kelty winning the very old Kings Cup 6-5 on penalties after a 1-1 draw with Preston Athletic at Dalkeith.

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    The Inverness Caledonian Thistle Years #ICT25
    No 25 2018/19 (Games 1205 to 1310)

    So nearly joyous: With the 26th league campaign of the Empire starting out next Saturday, it seems appropriate the curtain comes down on a quarter of a century of memories on Mother Inverness with the final recollection here. Of course it all ended so horribly last May in Arabia, and guess where it all starts on Saturday? Yip back in the sands of Arabia, in a street we will be well familiar with by the end of August as today (Jul28th) we play Arabia's near neighbours, the Dee and again in under 4 weeks! Passport obliteration with Arabia stamps 😁. But one is jumping the gun 🔫, lest we wind back the clock just over a year.

    France hadn't lifted the World Cup yet when we trotted out at home to Cove in the League Cup! The first game of any new season, always a bunting kind of occasion, and against the crack Highland League winners so cruelly denied at Cowdenbeath a few weeks earlier. However, before a ball was kicked the first disappointment of the season? You will notice in the photo below an array of programmes, from the English 6th and 7th tier, the Scottish 5th and 6th tier and even the German 3rd tier, but not one Inverness souvenir of the season 😔.

    Rendall 25.jpgWe have gone digital, and I for one am not happy. It is a cheap cop out, and a tawdry online effort too! The programme might be a diminished notion in the eyes of some, but it is still a highly treasured item for those who love their football. The club should at least offer a printed version at a cost if anyone wishes to have a hard copy, and they should at least attempt to make even the online effort worthy of people looking it up! I see this malaise continues in the north with Peterhead joining the ranks this season. But not to have a feature celebrating the first 25 years in a traditional programme, it's shabby. Rant over! 😀. You'll find me contributing to the Aberdeen programme for the Euro clash with Chikhura and if they progress, Rijecka! They put together a programme together that they can rightly be proud!

    So we saw off Cove 2-0 on a bright mid July day and trotted into Tynecastle with a maximum nine points having thumped Cowdenbeath 5-2, but we got a right doing that day 5-0 against a team we could benchmark ourselves against later in the campaign. The league opener saw us collect all three points from the Bairnabeu, 1-0, and a few weeks later having drawn at home with new boys Alloa and Ayr, Dunfermline were despatched convincingly 3-0 at Parslandia. The squad hadn't altered hugely, the confidence of the near play off late charge last season was still there. But it somehow got bogged down in too many draws and we started to lose touch with those who were collecting three rather than one point. By late November we were still unbeaten, and I hadn't been at an ICT game since late August due to a variety of trips and other sundry debacles, but the club record unbeaten record was close. It seemed to be going up in a puff of smoke, but remarkably the metal of the team was shown, racing back from three down at Palmerston to get a draw, indeed we nearly won it! Alas, an inability to beat QotS and struggles versus Alloa were two reasons we would fall short of challenging for the top spot. In the Scottish Cup at Edinburgh City, the drawing theme continued in a game we seemed comfortable but were ultimately hanging on. 

    By the start of 2019 the unbeaten run was over, but the draws kept coming, 2-2 at the Bairns in a game that really ebbed and flowed, but the second trip to the Pars saw us lose 1-0, followed by a similar score at Arabia, albeit via a dubious penalty. It was all slipping away, enthusiasm started to dampen. When I next pitched up it was Hampden, sandwiched between trips to Italy and Germany. Hearts fans were nervous and unlike the 5-0 drubbing we were in this. Even after falling behind we came at them strong, and had it been a right footed player whom tackled Mulraney it would have been more obvious that ball came of the Hearts players foot and no offside would have denied McCart's exquisite finish. The JT keeper had a magnificent save and from then our fight back petered out as Hearts found a little confidence and ran out 3-0 winners. 

    We made the play offs, a first for the club, and we kept our fine hoodoo over Ayr with a good win down at Somerset Park in the first joust 3-1. It all seemed to be coming together nicely, how marvellous would it have been to end 25 years back at the top table. Alas the officials had other ideas, and Liam Polworth's last contribution to the club was a harsh red in a tight first leg at home to Arabia. However that incident pales into insignificance along side ridiculous penalty award they got just ahead of the break in the second game. It was the straw that broke the camels back, as up until that moment we were in the game. Karma comes in a variety of forms, but Arabia missed ALL the penalties versus St Mirren after two tedious play off final encounters. We will trot out there next Saturday looking for revenge!! 

    However, James is a man of many stadiums and here's an insight into how he spent his non Caley Jags time last season........

    The season started for me on the 5th July at the Bairnabeu when East Stirlingshire were hosting Frickley?! And two days later Wick beat Orkney in a thriller up north!! Cove were back at Central Park for a re-match in our LC group, but this was a tame affair, the Fifers prevailing 1-0, before zipping up to Kelty to see Brora beat Clydebank 2-1, as you do! The Spartans entertained Killie in the LC too, losing 3-0 but putting in a brave shift. Hibs were in Europe and this time I saw all the goals as they roared back from 2-0 down to Greek side Asteras Tripolis to win 3-2. They then hosted Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's Molde as he showed his Man United credentials with a 0-0 in Leith 😁

    Kelty Hearts had been promoted to the Lowland League at the first time of asking and hosted Dalbeattie in their first ever game in that league. It ended 2-2, but exactly a year on, the same fixture ended 8-0 yesterday with Nathan Austin getting a brace. My Football Weekends escapades took me beyond Inverness to Golspie to cover the Scottish Cup tie with that other great Cup name Burntisland Shipyard. The Shippy are now semi professional having ditched the amateur status and won here relatively comfortably, 4-1, and I saw them host Bonnyrigg, a side who beat them 14-0 as amateurs last season. The same 4-1 score for the Rose, but it flattered the visitors. The explosion of East Juniors into the East of Scotland League spiced up the entertainment locally from that league. At the lower end of the leagues you have to admire the commitment of the players and back ground staff, as well as programme producers for the sheer effort and love of the game. As money continues to ruin the game at the top end, it is wonderful to enjoy merely a game without all the nonsense! A host of new venues were experienced. Tranent, without Ian Black lost 1-8 to Bonnyrigg, but with him, they would end the season in sweet revenge beating the Rose to win the King's Cup. By season's end Bonnyrigg were floundering, having won the most astonishing conclusion to the East of Scotland League season only to find out days later the SFA had denied them a license. It ruined a potentially significant haul of cups, but they won the league, and eventually commonsense prevailed as they were promoted. I saw the first Lowland fixture yesterday and intent was signalled with a 6-0 thumping of Vale of Leithen. It will be intriguing to see how they go at Berwick on Tuesday, teams who were two leagues apart last season! 

    I was at all three of the one off title deciders in the East of Scotland League with Penicuik narrowly seeing off Broxburn, and then they lost narrowly at Bonnyrigg. The final game at Broxburn had everything! Leading 2-0 and Rose down to ten men, Broxburn were winning the title. At 2-1 Penicuik were Champions, then at 2-2 Rose 🌹 were back on top. In the final seconds as Broxburn looked for the winner, the ten men broke free and scored to win!! 

    I ventured down to Annan to see Fraserburgh beat this joke side Edusports, now moved to Strathclyde Park and called Caledonian Braves, is this some American franchise?!! Brora fell tamely 1-0 at Cowdenbeath in the cup, while the CSS stalled East Kilbride's title charge with a 3-1 win. There are too many to go through the lot, when the dust settled on last term I had been at 105 games! I had never been close to that number previously. 

    Meanwhile, back to the task at hand, the celebration of 25 years of Inverness Caledonian Thistle, and James has the last words on his voyage..........

    What a season that was, what a quarter of a century for ICT too! A Scottish Cup, third in the league, two Challenge Cups, playing in Europe and a host of drama aside. I hope I have caught a flavour of the times here over the last six months. Fingers crossed for a fantastic 26th season, starting soon at Dens!!

    :clapoverhead::twothumbsup::clapoverhead::ictscarf:

    Thanks James for sharing 25 years of the Caley Jags. Here's to more success and the next 25 seasons of our club.

    James' own blog of his worldwide football adventures can be found HERE.

    Enjoy
     

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  • Blog Entries

    • By hislopsoffsideagain in Narey's Toepoker
         0
      PREDICTED LEAGUE POSITION: SEVENTH

      LAST SEASON: 3rd, 67pts

      NOTABLE INS: Mohamed El Makrini (Roda JC), Laurentiu Branescu (Juventus, loan)

      NOTABLE OUTS: Daniel Higgins (Cove Rangers), Jordan Jones (Rangers), Daniel Bachmann (Watford, end of loan), Conor McAleny (Fleetwood Town, end of loan), Liam Millar (Liverpool, end of loan), Youssouf Mulumbu (Celtic, end of loan), Mikael Ndjoli (Bournemouth, end of loan), Aaron Tshibola (Aston Villa, end of loan), Kris Boyd (retired), Scott Boyd (retired), Will Graham

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

      Steve Clarke, man. Sure, Jesus turned water into wine, but could he have guided Kilmarnock to third in the league? Dunno about that. I'm sure I wasn't the only neutral rooting for Killie last season. They weren't always pleasing on the eye but I've not seen a better organized team in Scotland. And whoever Clarke sent out onto the pitch would have jumped in front of a bullet if it meant getting a result. He was so damn magnificent that he was able to frequently (and publicly) criticize the SFA and still get the national team job.

      And so, midway through June, the club appointed Angelo Alessio as Clarke's successor.

      I was instantly on board with the move. Appointing another name from the ranks of Scottish football, a la Allan Johnston, Gary Locke, Lee McCulloch et al would have inevitably meant regression back to where they were before the Clarke era. Taking a punt on Alessio obviously came with risk - his previous management posts were in Italy's lower divisions and he has never worked in Scotland before - but like his predecessor his coaching CV is impressive - he assisted Antonio Conte at Juventus, Chelsea and with Italy's national team. If Killie were to have any hope of kicking on, it would be by pulling off a high risk, high reward move like this.

      Then along came Connah's Quay Nomads. What's that noise that sounds like something going down a drain? Why, that's most of the goodwill and benefit-of-the-doubt the fans had given Alessio being flushed away.

      A (very, very) generous person would point out that the new man has had only a few weeks and made only two additions to a squad that lost a lot of players at the end of last season. Most however would point to the fact that the Welsh side needed a penalty shootout to see off League Two Edinburgh City at home in last year's Challenge Cup. All, I think, are worried that the reason no-one had really heard of Alessio is because he is actually just Gary Locke standing on Lee McCulloch's shoulders, surrounded by a ridiculously large overcoat and putting on an outrageous accent.

      And a couple of weeks later there have been no further additions to the squad. Alessio has said himself he needs at least another centre-back, two wingers and a striker. In truth he probably needs even more than that.

      As we said, 'high risk'. If the ceiling is a repeat of third place (a thought that now seems optimistic to the point of delusional), how low is the floor? Certainly bottom six, though the spine of the team is surely far too strong to prevent disaster. Assuming Kirk Broadfoot has enough left in the tank, a back four of him, Stuart Findlay, Stephen O'Donnell and Greg Taylor is stout and talented. The latter three may have been called up for Scotland by their former boss, but they all earned it on merit rather than favouritism.

      Taylor has flown under the radar a bit because left-back is a real (the only?) position of strength for the country, but he has played more than 100 league games and is still just 21. Findlay made a real breakthrough last season, and O'Donnell is one of the best right-backs in the country. The return of Alex Bruce provides centre-back cover, and Taylor's backup Calum Waters is highly thought of at Rugby Park. But more depth is essential now Scott Boyd has retired.

      Alessio can also hang his hat on central midfield duo Gary Dicker and Alan Power, both of whom blossomed under Clarke. Veteran Dutchman Mo El Makrini is probably more of a squad player. The problem, as the manager has identified, is out wide where 35 year old Chris Burke remains the best option. Dom Thomas found his level on loan at Dumbarton last year and Adam Frizzell's development has stalled. Greg Kiltie is best as a number ten, but needs a manager to give him a run of games to show what he can do. Of the club's youngsters, the powerful Innes Cameron is probably the best bet to succeed. He doesn't turn 19 till August though and it may be a bit too soon for him.

      And if you think the wing options look poor then take a peek at the attackers - or attacker, singular. The only striker on the books currently is Eamonn Brophy. Brophy was a hit under Clarke partly because of his workrate and willingness to do the defensive work. He did lead the club with 12 goals last season, but he can be really streaky and his 'shoot first, think later' policy really needs to be binned if he is to push on. At the moment he has no competition to push him.

      And at the other end of the pitch, Jamie MacDonald faces the possiblity of yet another season where he starts as first choice and finishes on the bench. It's safe to assume Laurentiu Branescu has been signed on loan to play, though he will do well to emulate the efforts of Daniel Bachmann last season.

      So a lot now depends on who Killie procure between now and August. The hope is that Alessio can use his contacts to find some gems, and that the players respond positively to another tactical manager. The fear is that Connah's Quay is a sign of what's to come, and that within a few months the dreaded 'safe pair of hands' will be required to dig them out of a hole.


      THE SQUAD (players born after 1 January 1998 in italics)
      Goalkeepers: Laurentiu Branescu, Jamie MacDonald, Devlin Mackay
      Defenders: Kirk Broadfoot, Alex Bruce, Stuart Findlay, Ross Millen, Stephen O'Donnell, Greg Taylor, Calum Waters, Iain Wilson
      Midfielders: Chris Burke, Innes Cameron, Gary Dicker, Mohamed El Makrini, Adam Frizzell, Greg Kiltie, Rory McKenzie, Alan Power, Dom Thomas
      Forwards: Eamonn Brophy

      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.
      View the full article
    • By hislopsoffsideagain in Narey's Toepoker
         0
      PREDICTED LEAGUE POSITION: TWELFTH

      LAST SEASON: 11th, 32pts

      NOTABLE INS: Tony Andreu (Coventry City), Oan Djorkaeff (Nantes), Ilkay Durmus (Wacker Innsbruck), Sam Foley (Northampton Town), Dean Lyness (Raith Rovers), Sean McLoughlin (Hull City, loan)

      NOTABLE OUTS: Adam Eckersley (Airdrieonians), Mateo Muzek (Sheriff Tiraspol), Laurentiu Corbu (Dinamo Bucharest, end of loan), Anders Dreyer (Brighton & Hove Albion, end of loan), Lee Hodson (Rangers, end of loan), Jordan Holmes (Bournemouth, end of loan), Brad Lyons (Blackburn Rovers, end of loan), Kyle McAllister (Derby County, end of loan), Duckens Nazon (Sint-Truiden, end of loan), Mihai Popescu (Dinamo Bucharest, end of loan), Danny Rogers (Aberdeen, end of loan), Anton Ferdinand, Josh Heaton, Simeon Jackson, Sam Jamieson

      LAST SEASON'S BEST XI (Departed players crossed out): Hladky, Muzek, MacKenzie, Popescu, P. McGinn, S. McGinn, Lyons, Hodson, Magennis, McAllister, Mullen


      Just over a year ago, Jack Ross had guided a talented and entertaining St. Mirren side back to the Premiership. Such was the optimism about the place that when Chief Executive Tony Fitzpatrick claimed the club should be aiming for the top six eyebrows were only slightly raised.

      When Fitzpatrick said the same thing at the end of June it sounded like the ranting of a lunatic.

      Since that promotion, the Buddies have suffered the departure of Ross for Sunderland, 87 nightmare days under Alan Stubbs (who tried to replace the promotion-winning team with a bunch of duffers from down south), and then a proper rollercoaster ride with Oran Kearney in the dugout. The Northern Irishman had to wait ten matches for his first victory and won two of his first twenty-two league games in charge...and yet through a combination of against-the-odds squad unity and even-more-against-the-odds incompetence at Dundee the club managed to finish eleventh and then held their nerve in a penalty shootout against Dundee United to preserve their top flight status.

      At which point nearly all the gazillion short-term signings Kearney had made left...and then, in the last week of June, so did Kearney. Apparently he wanted to commute from Ulster and the club, not unreasonably, thought that was ridiculous.

      All in all, Jim Goodwin is not exactly being given the best chance to succeed in his first management post at a full-time club. When the signing of winger Ilkay Durmus was announced, the boss said "When I done my assessment on the team in my first couple of weeks I felt that we lacked a little bit of pace". He declined to mention that they lacked pretty much everything else, not least numbers. 

      He inherited just 12 players aged over 21, including defender Josh Heaton (the most notorious of Stubbs' duds - he cost £75,000 and played only two games before being released earlier this month), long-term casualty Greg Tansey and striker Cody Cooke who ruptured his ACL in the League Cup. 

      If anyone can pull this off though, it'll be Goodwin. An ultra-competitive and ruthless - to say the least - player who captained the club to the 2013 League Cup, he accomplished a miracle in keeping part-time Alloa in the Championship last season. He was the logical option to replace Kearney.

      But he's got a hell of a task on his hands. 

      Only in goal do they look sorted - Czech Vaclav Hladky made himself a hero with the fans with his shootout heroics in the playoff but he had already been excellent up to that point. There are however only three senior centre-backs. The third of those, Sean McLoughlin, pitched up on loan from Hull City just a day before the start of the new season. He should go straight into the lineup but expectations should be tempered by the fact that he only signed for Hull from the League of Ireland last week. 

      Alongside him will be either Jack Baird, who has never looked comfortable in the top flight, or Gary MacKenzie, who is 34 and missed most of last season with injury. His experience was crucial in the Spring, but the question is whether he was just rusty in the League Cup group games or if he is done.

      There is also no natural left-back, which is extraordinary. Paul McGinn can at least do a job on the other side, but has no natural backup. Hardly ideal. In the short-term talented youngster Ethan Erhahon will drop back from midfield but a better long-term solution is a huge priority.

      Up front, there's Danny Mullen, who scored only four times between the end of August and the end of last season. And, given that Cooke's injured, that's it. Incredible.

      At least there are options in the middle of the park, which have been augmented by the arrival of the experienced Sam Foley and Frenchmen Oan Djorkaeff - Youri's son - and Tony Andreu. Andreu wasn't great on his return to Hamilton last year and the fear is that his days as a goal threat from midfield are gone. Foley and captain Stephen McGinn will surely start, with veteran Ryan Flynn and youngster Cameron MacPherson also options.

      The arrival of Durmus will hopefully provide width that was sorely lacking in the League Cup games. Kyle Magennis will play on the opposite side. He could have a breakout season, but the 20 year old would really benefit from being in a stable team for a change.

      There will undoubtedly be new faces still to come. But it has a feeling of too little, too late about it. It feels like the Buddies are playing catch-up before the Premiership season has even started. Their best hope of survival is that someone else emulates Dundee's sheer awfulness. And that probably isn't going to happen.


      THE SQUAD (players born after 1 January 1998 in italics)
      Goalkeepers: Vaclav Hladky, Dean Lyness
      Defenders: Jack Baird, Gary MacKenzie, Nicholas McAllister, Paul McGinn, Sean McLoughlin
      Midfielders: Tony Andreu, Oan Djorkaeff, Ilkay Durmus, Ethan Erhahon, Ryan Flynn, Sam Foley, James Kellermann, Cameron MacPherson, Kyle Magennis, Stephen McGinn, Greg Tansey
      Forwards: Cameron Breadner, Cody Cooke, Danny Mullen

      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.
      View the full article
    • By hislopsoffsideagain in Narey's Toepoker
         0
      PREDICTED LEAGUE POSITION: EIGHTH

      LAST SEASON: 7th, 52pts

      NOTABLE INS: Wallace Duffy (Celtic), Elliot Parish (Dundee), Max Johnstone (Sunderland), Madis Vihmann (Flora, loan)

      NOTABLE OUTS: Blair Alston (Hamilton Academical), Aaron Comrie (Dunfermline Athletic), Brian Easton (Hamilton Academical), Joe Shaughnessy (Southend United), Tony Watt (CSKA Sofia), Olly Hamilton (Brechin City, loan), John Robertson (Cove Rangers, loan), Cammy Bell (Partick Thistle, end of loan), Sean Goss (Queens Park Rangers, end of loan), Niall Keown (Partick Thistle, end of loan), Mark Hurst

      LAST SEASON'S BEST XI (Departed players crossed out): Clark, Foster, Shaughnessy, Kerr, Tanser, Craig, Davidson, O'Halloran, Kennedy, Wright, Watt


      As the saying goes, "all good things..." Are we reaching that point in Perth?

      Between 2011 and 2017 St Johnstone were fixtures in the top six, with a Scottish Cup triumph thrown in. They came seventh last year, and eighth the season before that. However it seemed like the club were going through a transition period with a lot of older players needing replaced. Unquestionably they deserved that benefit of the doubt. And manager Tommy Wright said all the right things about feeling reinvigorated and, more importantly, looked like he meant them.

      And yet for the first time since they returned to the top flight in 2009 there is concern at McDiarmid Park. Not a Blackadder "twelve-storey crisis with a magnificent entrance hall, carpeting throughout, 24-hour portage, and an enormous sign on the roof, saying 'This Is a Large Crisis'". But its certainly a wee bit of a crisis.

      St. Johnstone just don't lose League Cup games to the likes of Montrose. Nor do they collapse at home to the likes of Ross County as soon as they concede a goal. Worryingly this is an ongoing trend since January. They won just four of their last eighteen games of 2018-19, and three of those wins were against either St. Mirren or Dundee. At one end of the pitch they struggled to score, and at the other they conceded the sort of cheap, stupid goals that they never let in when they were a top six side.

      Let's deal with the attack - or lack of it - first. Tony Watt got a lot of plaudits at the start of last season - he was Player of the Month for August - but even when he was playing well he wasn't scoring, and his form dropped off a cliff. At the moment the options at centre forward are David McMillan (loaned to Hamilton last season and unwanted by the club), Callum Hendry (young and raw, if we're being generous) and Chris Kane (who finally got a run of games at the end of the season, and proved why he shouldn't get a run of games). That trio and Watt managed just ten league goals between them. The club's top league scorer was Matthew Kennedy, with just six.

      The return of prodigal son Stevie May would have given the place such an enormous lift. The shock last-minute collapse of the transfer threatens to do the exact opposite. There's still time to find a striker, but it is slowly running out and in the meantime the fugue could increase further.

      Even in the successful times Wright often needed the midfield to provide goals and that dependence isn't ending any time soon. Kennedy's superb wing play is cause for optimism at least. Michael O'Halloran looked rusty as heck after returning in January but improved by the split and will hopefully be back to his hard-running best after a full preseason. It's easy to forget Drey Wright was the club's best player early last season until he wrecked his knee, though it may be too much to expect him to return to that form in the near future when he returns imminently from that injury. And Danny Swanson will still provide a spark off the bench, since it turns out his upcoming move to the USA was apparently just a ruse to try and avoid a conviction for assault (!).

      Defensively, the problem at the moment is numbers. Whilst goalkeeper Zander Clark and central defender Jason Kerr are top-rate - and should both go onto better things soon enough - the rest of the backline looks dicey. Richard Foster still looked up to it last season but at 34 they'll do well to get a full season out of him; however new signing Wallace Duffy is young and inexperienced and one for the future rather than the present. Scott Tanser is good going forward but has some shockers defensively. With Brian Easton gone there is no competition for him though.

      As for centre-back, the departure of Joe Shaughnessy has left a big hole. Relying on Liam Gordon or the increasingly decrepid Steven Anderson to fill it looked very risky. Estonian behemoth Madis Vihmann has arrived on loan and will surely be first choice alongside Kerr, but he needs to bed in very quickly. To be honest they could probably do with another defender or two. 

      Not all is necessary well in midfield either. Liam Craig had a bit of an indian summer last year but he will be 33 in December. Murray Davidson's history of injuries makes him a very old 31. Ross Callachan works hard but isn't someone to build the midfield around. However, when Wright tried to introduce a playmaker, Sean Goss, to the team last January it was a spectacular failure. He basically needs to find younger versions of Craig and Davidson. The manager has talked up Kyle McClean and Ali McCann but it would be a surprise if they managed to make the step up.

      So the situation looks grimmer than it has done for sometime. Some folk have even talked of them as relegation candidates, which has been met with a guffaw from most. That's probably still the appropriate reaction, if only because there are still clubs in this division who look rather weaker and rather more of a shambles. At the very least though the concern is that this downward trend is becoming irreversible. And if the season starts badly, panic sets in and a centre-forward can't be procured, who knows what could happen?


      THE SQUAD (players born after 1 January 1998 in italics)
      Goalkeepers: Zander Clark, Max Johnstone, Elliot Parish
      Defenders: Steven Anderson, Wallace Duffy, Richard Foster, Liam Gordon, Jason Kerr, Scott Tanser, Madis Vihmann
      Midfielders: Ross Callachan, Liam Craig, Murray Davidson, Matty Kennedy, Ali McCann, Kyle McClean, Danny Swanson, David Wotherspoon, Drey Wright
      Forwards: Callum Hendry, Chris Kane, David McMillan, Jordan Northcott, Michael O'Halloran


      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.
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    • By hislopsoffsideagain in Narey's Toepoker
         0
      PREDICTED LEAGUE POSITION: THIRD

      LAST SEASON: 4th, 67pts

      NOTABLE INS: Funso Ojo (Scunthorpe United, £125k), Luc Bollan (Dundee United), Craig Bryson (Derby County), Ryan Hedges (Barnsley), Curtis Main (Motherwell), Michael Ruth (Queen's Park), Ash Taylor (Northampton Town), James Wilson (Manchester United, loan made permanent), Jon Gallagher (Atlanta United, loan), Greg Leigh (NAC Breda, loan)

      NOTABLE OUTS: Gary Mackay-Steven (New York City), Mark Reynolds (Dundee United, loan made permanent), Graeme Shinnie (Derby County), Dominic Ball (Rotherham United, end of loan), Tommie Hoban (Watford, end of loan), Max Lowe (Derby County, end of loan), Greg Stewart (Birmingham City, end of loan), Greg Halford

      LAST SEASON'S BEST XI (Departed players crossed out): Lewis, Logan, McKenna, Devlin, Lowe, Mackay-Steven, Shinnie, Ferguson, McGinn, May, Cosgrove



      How big a deal is it that Derek McInnes signed a new contract this summer? After all, it won't stop him leaving if another club offer sufficient compensation. But he could have hedged his bets and let it run down. But six years into his tenure, he has chosen to commit himself to the club going forward. 

      It's a huge boost to the club because the Dons' squad appears to be going through something of a rebuild. It feels like a long time since the 2017 Scottish Cup Final, where an Aberdeen side containing Graeme Shinnie, Ryan Jack, Jonny Hayes and Kenny McLean went toe-to-toe with Brendan Rodgers' Invincibles. Club captain and Duracell bunny Shinnie became the last of that quartet to depart at the end of last season. Gary Mackay-Steven has decided to take his chances in the USA. Max Lowe has proven an all-to-brief answer to the club's longstanding question at left-back - if anything, Clive, he was too good, so Derby County wanted him back.

      After slipping to fourth last season, following four straight second place finishes, could it be that Aberdeen cracked their heads off the glass ceiling and are on their way down again? It seems McInnes thinks not. With the new stadium at Kingsford due to open in 2021, and the decision to become a PLC to attract further investment, perhaps he has reason to believe that the Dons are going places.

      In the meantime, he still has the third biggest wage budget in the country to work with, a budget that has allowed him to entice Craig Bryson back north and to keep James Wilson. The latter will have taken a massive wage cut from the thirty grand a week he was making at Manchester United but will still surely be on a decent wad. The thing is, he was an overwhelming disappointment during his loan spell last season, managing just four goals and often looking disinterested. Retaining him looks like a considerable leap of faith by McInnes, especially since Sam Cosgrove has proven himself a consistent goalscorer and a very capable loan striker.


      He has also ventured back into the left-back loan market and come up with former Manchester City youngster Greg Leigh, while out wide a lot he has taken three throws of the dice at replacing Mackay-Steven; Scott Wright returns from a loan at Dundee where he showed flashes, while Welsh international winger Ryan Hedges has arrived from Barnsley and most curiously Jon Gallagher, an Irishman playing in the USA, has arrived on loan. Gallagher looks raw as heck but has pace to burn. Signs from the European games are that two of these three will do fine interchanging with Niall McGinn as part of the '3' in a 4-2-3-1.

      At the other end they look pretty set. Joe Lewis seems to have decided to spend the rest of his career in the North-East after signing a new contract. Shay Logan was a bit below his usual high standards last season but remains one of the better right-backs in the country. It's only a matter of time till Scott McKenna goes on to bigger things but until then they have excellent quality and quantity at centre-back, especially if Michael Devlin can stay fit. Otherwise Ash Taylor has returned after two years back in England and Andrew Considine is reliable enough. 

      The loss of Shinnie is a blow but rather than try and find a like-for-like replacement. McInnes instead landed Funso Ojo, who is more of a typical holding player. This may be no bad thing as the large spaces between Aberdeen's defence and midfield have been an obvious weakness for years. And Lewis Ferguson looks more than ready to take on Shinnie's mantle. The ex-Accie doesn't turn 20 till August but the £240,000 fee the tribunal set for him last summer looks like robbery. There's also Bryson who will be on a decent wage but who may actually find it tough to break into this side.

      Ferguson isn't the only youngster who the Dons have high hopes for. Connor McLennan looked great on the flanks when given his chance last season, while Bruce Anderson showed signs that he could be a capable striker. Anderson will have to wait his turn though behind Cosgrove, Wilson and new signing Curtis Main and may go out on loan again. Stevie May, meanwhile, will be on his way.

      Time will tell if the Dons are weaker than they were last season but third place looks like a very achievable target. Frustratingly for the support, the gap to Rangers looks insurmountable, whereas the difference between the Dons and the likes of the Edinburgh clubs - and of course Kilmarnock if their new boss picks up where the old one left off - is not that great at all. McInnes' remit for now is surely to make them the third best club in the country for the next couple of years...and then hope the Kingsford move can spark something special.


      THE SQUAD (players born after 1 January 1998 in italics)
      Goalkeepers: Tomas Cerny, Joe Lewis, Danny Rogers
      Defenders: Luc Bollan, Andrew Considine, Michael Devlin, Jon Gallagher, Greg Leigh, Shay Logan, Scott McKenna, Ash Taylor
      Midfielders: Craig Bryson, Dean Campbell, Lewis Ferguson, Stephen Gleeson, Ryan Hedges, Funso Ojo, Ethan Ross, Miko Virtanen
      Forwards: Bruce Anderson, Sam Cosgrove, Curtis Main, Stevie May, Niall McGinn, Connor McLennan, Michael Ruth, James Wilson, Scott Wright

      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.
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    • By hislopsoffsideagain in Narey's Toepoker
         0
      PREDICTED LEAGUE POSITION: FIFTH

      LAST SEASON: 6th, 51pts

      NOTABLE INS: Craig Halkett (Livingston), Steven Naismith (Norwich City, loan made permanent), Jamie Walker (Wigan Athletic), Conor Washington (Sheffield United)

      NOTABLE OUTS: Arnaud Djoum (Al-Raed), Ryan Edwards (Burton Albion), Marcus Godinho (FSV Zwickau), Conor Sammon (Falkirk), David Vanecek (Puskas Akademia), Daniel Baur (Bonnyrigg Rose Athletic, loan), Alex Petkov (Clyde, loan), Demi Mitchell (Manchester United, end of loan), Conor Shaughnessy (Leeds United, end of loan), Aaron Hughes (retired), Maluary Martin

      LAST SEASON'S BEST XI (Departed players crossed out): Zlamal, M.Smith, Souttar, Berra, Mitchell, Clare, Djoum, Haring, Mulraney, Naismith, Ikpeazu


      It's easy to forget that at the end of October 2018 Hearts were top of the league. They had twenty-six points, four more than Celtic (who had a game in hand). That was one more point than they scored in the remaining twenty-seven league games. They won only twice after the first day of February.

      That's not a small sample size. It's certainly large enough to put a manager in trouble. Craig Levein's saving grace was a run to the Scottish Cup Final...though he was fortunate to avoid Premiership opposition until the showpiece itself. Then the Jambos surprised many by giving Celtic a proper fight before succumbing 2-1. Was that a blip, or a sign of what Hearts are truly capable of?

      The late autumn collapse coincided with a spate of injuries that left the team often looking leaderless. Christophe Berra and Steven Naismith may be past their best but their experience was crucial. When both went down, no-one filled the gap. The loss of John Souttar and Uche Ikpeazu for long periods was also crucial. But that excuse doesn't wash for their torrid League Cup performances, where the Jambos toiled against Stenhousemuir and East Fife and supporters started to make their exasperation clear.

      It's not like Levein had a small squad. He filled gaps not with the talented youngsters that have been knocking on the first team's door but with other signings. Too many of these didn't look up to it. Perhaps the manager has learned his lesson, letting several players go this summer and adding only three. Expect left-back Aaron Hickey - who impressed after his unexpected Hampden start - midfielder Harry Cochrane and skilful wideman Anthony McDonald to see a lot more action this year.

      Naismith is back to guide them; his permanent move was delayed till the start of August because he would have forfeited a month's salary at his former club if he signed with someone else sooner than that. His nous and leadership are critical. He also seems to bring the best out of Ikpeazu, who at his best is astonishingly strong, as good with his back to goal as anyone in this league since Chris Sutton and with a decent turn of pace too. His form in July was honking though and even at his best he did only score eight goals last time out. Hearts need him to make double figures this campaign and damage plenty of opposing defenders in the process.

      There's still canny veteran Steven Maclean, and one of the new boys is Northern Irish international striker Conor Washington, a busy player who has spent most of the last four years coming off English Championship benches. That's decent depth, so much so that another decent young player, Aidan Keena, will surely be loaned out again.

      Crucially, the club also brought back Jamie Walker. Often Levein was criticized for playing hoofball, which was harsh mainly because it wasn't that Hearts always looked to go long, just that too often they only looked dangerous when they did so. Expect Walker's presence to alter that. The midfielder is expert at finding space between the lines, a skill that the squad lacked as a whole last season. Having him and Naismith playing off Ikpeazu should in theory work really well.

      Central midfield is more of an issue with Arnaud Djoum having moved on and Peter Haring struggling with a chronic pelvic injury. The attack-minded Sean Clare has played in a deeper role in the League Cup games but doesn't do the defensive side well enough . In addition to Cochrane, Andy Irving is another young player fighting for a place in the team, while amongst the older players Olly Lee has been told he can go and Oliver Bozanic failed to impress last season. If there is to be another new signing, it'll be in this area.

      There has already been one in the centre of defence where Craig Halkett, who shone for Livingston last season, will hopefully inherit Berra's mantle; the skipper too often runs out of legs in the second half these days and a partnership of Halkett and Souttar is likely going forward. Berra could always be deployed in a back three; Levein has plenty of options available in wide areas if he wishes to to play with wing-backs or a back four. 

      Hickey, still only 17, will compete with another teenager, Bobby Burns, and newcomer Aidy White for the left-back slot. Flying winger Jake Mulraney was one of the few squad members to enhance his reputation after Christmas and could also be used as a wing-back. Fellow widemen Dario Zanatta and Anthony McDonald impressed in Championship loans last season and could make the step up. Michael Smith could be right-back, right wing-back, on the right of a back three or a solid defensive midfielder. Callumn Morrison played right wing-back for much of last season too. The question is whether this is a case of quantity over quality, and whether Levein - and the Hearts fans - have enough patience to stick with the youths.

      The ingredients appear to be there though. And it shouldn't take a gourmet chef to cook up something decent. Too often last year Hearts served up mediocre fare. If they can't make the step up to haut cuisine then Levein will be back under pressure very quickly.


      THE SQUAD (players born after 1 January 1998 in italics)
      Goalkeepers: Colin Doyle, Kevin Silva, Zdenek Zlamal
      Defenders: Christophe Berra, Jamie Brandon, Bobby Burns, Clevid Dikamona, Ben Garuccio, Craig Halkett, Chris Hamilton, Aaron Hickey, Cammy Logan, Michael Smith, John Souttar, Aidy White
      Midfielders: Oliver Bozanic, Sean Clare, Harry Cochrane, Peter Haring, Andy Irving, Olly Lee, Anthony McDonald, Lewis Moore, Callumn Morrison, Jake Mulraney, Connor Smith, Jamie Walker, Craig Wighton, Dario Zanatta
      Forwards: Rory Currie, Ewan Henderson, Uche Ikpeazu, Aidan Keena, Steven Maclean, Leeroy Makovora, Steven Naismith, Connor Washington

      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.
      View the full article