hislopsoffsideagain

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  1. It's the hope that kills you. Any Scotland fan knows that all too well. And yet, and yet. For the first ten minutes last night, Scotland ripped into Russia. The sheer energy and will took the visitors - and the Hampden crowd - by surprise. The full-backs flew down the flanks; Callum McGregor demanded the ball at each stroke; John McGinn snapped at every Russian heel; Scott McTominay bestrode the midfield like a colossus. Steve Clarke's lineup and plan were absolutely perfect for the occasion. And then John McGinn scored. Goals change games. I'm not sure I've ever seen one change a game like this though. They buoy spirits, lift the crowd, inspire the scorers on. Instead Scotland instantly metamorphosed from a feral beast into a frightened hedgehog, unnerved even by the slightest passing breeze and rustle of leaves. This was not as a result of quality play by the opposition, nor pressure from the stands, nor tactical caution from the dugout. Having created a springboard to win the match, the players collectively baulked at actually jumping on it. The captain summed it up perfectly afterward. "It was as if it scared us". Andrew Robertson was hardly exempt from criticism himself. When cool, experienced heads were required, the captain was stuck in Liverpool mode. Every time the ball came his way he put his head down and charged up the pitch with it, even when every moment pleaded for someone in dark blue to put their foot on the ball, stop and take a deep calming breath. At one point he tried a backheel by the corner flag - his own corner flag. They were all at it though. Charlie Mulgrew, 33 years old and with over 40 caps to his name, could be excused for being bullied by Artem Dzyuba, whose physique had more in common with the twenty-two at Murrayfield than the penalty box at Hampden. There was no reason however for him to treat the ball like a hot potato, acting as if Dzyuba was constantly breathing down his neck even when he was twenty yards away catching his breath. Punt after punt after punt after punt. With the midfield struggling to get even into the same postcode as Oli McBurnie it was no surprise that the ball kept coming back. And what of the midfield that contains so much talent and started as if they intended to prove it? The quartet playing in front of McTominay looked like rabbits stuck in Lada headlights. James Forrest and Ryan Fraser dropped deeper and deeper, negating their use as an attacking outlet without offering any actual protection to their full-backs. McGregor and McGinn looked stuck in No Man's Land, neither pressing their opponents nor dropping in beside McTominay, who had now gone from proverbial Colossus to actual Colossus, a tall, leaden-footed statue watching as people swarmed around him. With the exception of David Marshall, whose outstanding efforts in preventing a shellacking will probably be forgotten, and Stephen O'Donnell, who just had a good old-fashioned mare, this felt very different from, say, a debacle like Kazakhstan where tactics were poor and players looked uncertain and unwilling from the off. Here the plan was great and was initially executed well, which tells us that the manager knew what he was doing and the players had the ability and nous to pull it off. Their subsequent reaction is perhaps more terrifying than if they had just played like horses**t. As Robertson said, they were scared. I grew up watching players like Colin Hendry, Kevin Gallacher, James McFadden and many others who seemed galvanized by wearing the Scotland shirt in the way we all believed we would be if, as in our dreams, we ever played for the national team. Now the wearers of said shirt appear burdened with the weight of twenty-one years of failure on it. Even in such a favourable situation, with a home crowd behind them and the reassurance of knowing that their strategy was working, the players simply could not deal with the pressure of being ahead against an opponent considered to be superior to them. How on earth do you fix that? All the clever management and tactics and quality in the world will only take you so far if in moments like that you simply can't help thinking "we're going to screw this up because we're Scotland". The only thing I'm certain of is that you don't fix it by playing Belgium three days later. The caveat: even if last night had gone well, the onus was still very much on preparing for those Euro 2020 playoffs. Those are the games that count now. Everything else is about building towards those. And there remains no doubt in my mind that if anyone can pull this off, its Steve Clarke. The fear is that even Clarke can't manage it. What if all those years of failure simply infect the Scotland National Team to such an extent that there's no shaking it? Or, to put it bluntly, what if there is actually no hope? 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
  2. At the time of writing we're ten days away from Deadline Day - in Scotland it's midnight on Monday 2 September. Plenty is going to happen between now and then. For a start, the window has been closed for English Premier League and Championship clubs for more than a fortnight and so there are players who (in the Fraser Forster style) need to get out if they are to play at all between now and new year. That should mean some decent pickings on loan or permanently for Premiership sides. The flip side is that after a week Monday anyone at an SPFL club who hasn't moved yet will be essentially stuck till January. And it seems like everyone has players they want to punt. Here's a few... STEVIE MAY, STEPHEN GLEESON (ABERDEEN) The last-gasp collapse of May's triumphant return to St. Johnstone has probably done significant short-term damage to both parties. There was talk of Dundee being interested but they signed Kane Hemmings instead. Now May appears to be unwanted everywhere, not just at Pittodrie. Gleeson's situation has been complicated by injuries over the summer but he only started eight games last year and is now further down the pecking order. (Candidates for loan moves: Miko Virtanen, Bruce Anderson) SCOTT SINCLAIR, JACK HENDRY, EBOUE KOUASSI (CELTIC) If it's true that Neil Lennon wants to add a few more players yet then this list could be longer. The Sinclair situation has been badly botched; the club activated a contract extension in the summer but left it so long to decide they wanted shot of him that he can't join an English Premier League or Championship club. Unless he wants to go to League One or abroad he may be stuck till January. Hendry will probably go on loan with a number of Premiership clubs apparently interested in rejuvenating his career. Remember when Celtic argued Kouassi deserved a work permit as he was an 'exceptional talent'? He's made 12 starts in two and a half years and hasn't played since he recovered from an ACL injury sustained in October 2018. (Candidates for loan moves: Calvin Miller, Anthony Ralston, Ewan Henderson, Jack Aitchison) STEVEN BOYD (HAMILTON ACCIES) Boyd signed a new contract just days before Martin Canning was punted and has disappeared off the radar since. If he has been injured it hasn't been publicized (this is Accies we're talking about so don't completely rule out that possibility) but it feels like a long time since he scored a derby-winning screamer against Motherwell last August. (Candidates for loan moves: George Stanger, Shaun Want) ZDENEK ZLAMAL, OLLY LEE (HEARTS) Zlamal's now infamous poleaxing of a teammate against Ross County seems to have been the last straw for Craig Levein, who quickly signed Joel Pereira to take over between the sticks. Lee has been made available since the end of last season but hasn't found a new club; it's a shame for a guy who did pretty well when he first joined the club and strange given how many other Jambos (looking at you, Oliver Bozanic!) are still in Levein's good books. (Candidates for loan moves: Jamie Brandon, Bobby Burns, Harry Cochrane, Anthony McDonald, Rory Currie, Euan Henderson, Aidan Keena, Dario Zanatta) OLI SHAW (HIBS) To be fair, Shaw is more likely to move on loan than permanently; Hibs are weighing up the need for a backup to Christian Doidge and Flo Kamberi with the fact that Shaw requires games in order to develop. St. Johnstone have been linked with him and that would look like a good move. (Candidates for loan moves: Jamie Gullan, Innes Murray) NONE (KILMARNOCK) Killie need to get players in before Angelo Alessio can think of moving some on. (Candidates for loan moves: Devlin Mackay, Iain Wilson, Dom Thomas) GREGG WYLDE (LIVINGSTON) Having made just three appearances since signing in January, Wylde has been apparently sent to train with the youth team. (Candidates for loan moves: Craig Henderson) CRAIG TANNER (MOTHERWELL) Tanner is another one who looks set to go out on loan, providing he agrees to extend his short-term contract past the end of the month. 'Well are impressed with his recovery from the knee injury that has kept him out for more than a year and want to get him first team football somewhere for the rest of 2019. (Candidates for loan moves: Adam Livingstone, Barry Maguire, Jamie Semple) GRAHAM DORRANS, EROS GREZDA, JASON HOLT, JOE DODOO, JAMIE MURPHY (RANGERS) That's some list. Holt (who has been linked with St. Johnstone) and Dodoo have been persona non grata for about two years already. At 32, Dorrans is finding it difficult to find a suitor that will match the wages Pedro Caixinha gave him. Grezda has been a complete bust and a waste of £2million. Murphy has recovered from his long-term knee injury but the club have said they want to loan him out (which at Rangers often seems to mean that they don't want you anymore). (Candidates for loan moves: Jordan Houston, Aidan Wilson, Jamie Barjonas, Jake Hastie) DAN ARMSTRONG, DAVIS KEILLOR-DUNN (ROSS COUNTY) Armstrong broke his jaw at the end of June but it's hard to see him breaking into the County side when he is back to full fitness. Keillor-Dunn has already been told to find a new club amid rumours of an attitude issue. (Candidates for loan moves: Harry Paton) DAVID MCMILLAN (ST. JOHNSTONE) It's tempting to also include Steven Anderson - who is past it at this level - and Ross Callachan - who seems to be in Tommy Wright's bad books - on this list. McMillan is a cert though, in that the club have been trying to move him on for the best part of the year; a mediocre loan spell at Hamilton hasn't encouraged any takers. (Candidates for loan moves: Jordan Northcott) JIM KELLERMANN (ST. MIRREN) Buddies fans have probably forgotten Kellermann is still in Paisley. But he can't get in the team even when they're struggling to fill the bench. (Candidates for loan moves: Sam Jamieson, Cameron Breadner) And as a bonus... ANDREW DAVIES, CRAIG CURRAN, FRASER AIRD (THE CHAMPIONSHIP) Worth mentioning this trio as a bonus. Davies has never played for Dundee, having got injured immediately after signing in January. He apparently wants to go back to England. So does Curran allegedly, though you'd assume the Dark Blues want shot of him anyway. Aird seems to have rubbed Robbie Neilson up the wrong way quite spectacularly and wasn't even given a squad number. He's still at Tannadice though...for now. 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
  3. Hope the commentary sounded okay for those who were listening in. Thought the first half was great entertainment. Arbroath had no interest in sitting deep and pushed players forward when they could with Linn the obvious threat on the left. He had a shot over the bar with his left foot and a right footed one saved comfortably by Ridgers early. Meanwhile Keatings kept popping up in the space in front of their centre backs and was the creator of almost everything good for us. Doran got in behind twice, but the first time he struggled to get the ball out of his feet and shot tamely and the second time he took too long and allowed Jamieson to block. Keatings then had an audacious overhead kick which looked terrific from my vantage point but was probably an easier save than it looked. So since we were on top, of course Arbroath went and scored. Ridgers flapped at a cross, the ball fell to Linn and instead of racing out to block his shot our players all tried to form a wall on the goalline. So Linn did the sensible thing and just leathered it. Having seen the footage at half-time I think Ridgers should still have saved it. He got a hand on it but was beaten by the power. Crucially we got level just before half-time. Unsurprisingly it was Keatings who played the killer pass (Polworth-esque!) and this time Doran finished the one-on-one. Half-time probably came at the wrong time for us as we looked like kicking on. After the break we started slowly; whilst Doran had another half chance so did Arbroath with one that somehow got flicked away from goal at the front post. The decision to bring Storey on for White kinda made sense as Arbroath were playing a super-high line but White's linkup play had been decent. And with Arbroath now tiring they dropped so deep that their central midfielders were on top of their centre-backs...and therefore denying Keatings any space to orchestrate in. That said when Storey went wide we didn't look any more threatening. Whilst the visitors were now leggy and sitting deep they defended pretty comfortably...until Storey cut in from the left and had a speculative shot that looked like a comfortable save at the near post, only for it to end up in the far corner via Jamieson's hands. It was an absolute gift. I'd love to hear what Dick Campbell said when that happened! Over the 90, we deserved the three points but anyone expecting a comfortable win will have been disappointed. As mentioned above I thought Keatings was terrific. Walsh had the beating of the full-back all day long and our central defenders were excellent in and out of possession. That was as good as I've seen Rooney defensively too, he was well disciplined and dealt with Linn very well. The obvious problem is in central midfield. Vincent's energy proved crucial in the later stages but Carson looks like he's still getting used to playing at this level. His decision-making wasn't great and he was too hesitant. We miss Welsh's confidence on the ball so much. A midfield duo of Welsh and Tansey (hey, I can dream!) would make us an altogether different proposition. Three points are three points. We only won five home league games last year so it's not to be sneezed at.
  4. I'm delighted to confirm that the club will be providing live audio commentary of Saturday's game. For those who can't attend, a link to a Periscope feed will go up on the club's Twitter shortly before kickoff, probably just after 1450. This seemed to work okay when we tried it towards the end of last season so hopefully it'll go fine again. For those who complained I was too loud when Coll Donaldson scored against Ayr in the playoffs, I can't promise that won't happen again
  5. Expect Arbroath to play 4-4-2 so our 4-2-3-1 should match up favourably against that. Looks like McKay, Rooney, Curry and Welsh are going to miss this. Carson has really struggled at RB from what I've seen. I remember Tremarco had to play one game last year (against Ayr I think) at RB and I wouldn't be surprised if we move him there. McHattie presumably would then go to LB though I feel like if Harper is as good as Robbo thinks he is then he should get a shot. The key here is going to be finding the best CM duo out of Trafford, Carson, Vincent and McHattie. Trafford has really gone off the boil but he is the most natural defensive midfielder of the lot and his physicality will be important as Arbroath are not short on that. I'd have Vincent over Carson at the moment. I'd go with the same attacking quartet that started at Tannadice rather than pitch Storey in.
  6. 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
  7. 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
  8. This is surprising and interesting in equal measure. Scott Burns is an excellent source so I assume its true. In his first spell with us I was a big fan. He was certainly streaky in front of goal but his workrate was outstanding and he has pace to burn. He was an excellent fit for Yogi's team because of his ability and willingness to get in behind and chase the ball into channels. He's had a dreadful time of it since though. At Aberdeen he struggled to get gametime and when he did play it always seemed to be out wide where his impact was limited. That seemed to drain his confidence and he didn't get it back at Partick Thistle, where they also seemed to stick him on the flank most of the time. His performance for Thistle against us last September summed it up - he tried unbelievably hard but every touch was too heavy, every decision was the wrong one and to cap it all he missed a penalty! I'm convinced there's a player there though. I wonder how Robbo intends to use him? If it's as a wide player I think he'll struggle. In theory a little-and-large front two with White or Todorov could work I suppose. Robbo seems to like a big centre forward though so I'm not sure we'll see him as a lone frontman.
  9. 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. View the full article
  10. 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. View the full article
  11. 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
  12. PREDICTED LEAGUE POSITION: TENTH LAST SEASON: 10th, 33pts NOTABLE INS: Blair Alston (St. Johnstone), Will Collar (Brighton & Hove Albion), Brian Easton (St. Johnstone), Markus Fjortoft (Southern United), Owain Fon Williams (Inverness Caledonian Thistle), Kyle Gourlay (Dundee), Johnny Hunt (Stevenage), Ciaran McKenna (Falkirk), David Moyo (St. Albans City), Korede Adedoyin (Everton, loan) NOTABLE OUTS: Ziggy Gordon (Central Coast Mariners), James Keatings (Inverness Caledonian Thistle), Gary Woods (Oldham Athletic), Tony Andreu (Coventry City, end of loan), David McMillan (St. Johnstone, end of loan), Dougie Imrie (retired), Tom Taiwo (retired), Matthew Kilgallon, Jacob Marsden, Alex Penny, Lennard Sowah, Delphin Tshiembe LAST SEASON'S BEST XI (Departed players crossed out): Woods, Gordon, Kilgallon, Gogic, McGowan, Martin, MacKinnon, Andreu, Imrie, Miller, Oakley This is the sixth straight season I've had to write a Hamilton Accies season preview. In the first four I predicted they'd come bottom, and last year I had them finishing eleventh. I wasn't alone in my thinking. And each time Accies have collectively given the finger to the likes of me by staying up. How they've done it is hard to say. Their points totals in recent years have been dreadful - 35,33 and 33 in the last three campaigns. They never seem to score enough goals nor keep enough out. They're the MC Escher of football teams. It's impossible and yet here they are. And over time my feelings towards them have moved from considerable annoyance at their unambitious and unpalatable style of play to increasing (albeit grudging) respect at the fact that whilst clubs like Dundee United, Dundee, Partick Thistle, Inverness and others languish outside the top flight, Hamilton have avoided that fate. The question now is whether things take a different direction with a new man in the hotseat. Well, I say 'new' but Brian Rice has been Head Coach since January. It was probably true that the only way was up at that point, but Rice guided Accies clear of relegation. He actually managed only four wins and four draws in sixteen games, so it tells you something about the state they were in that this was a marked improvement on the final days of Martin Canning. But despite the change of boss it's been a pretty typical Accies summer. Their budget remains a fraction of even the mid-table Premiership sides so the signings have been the usual motley crew of Premiership castoffs, Championship wannabes, kids released from English under 23 sides and the odd unknown from non-league. The hope is that Rice will do a superior job of moulding them together. As assistant boss at Falkirk, Hibs and Caley Thistle he was highly respected as a training ground coach. Mind you, the way some of the new boys have been talking you'd think he's the Scottish Guardiola. Certainly though it's reasonable to expect that Accies will be better organized than they were at any time in the Canning era. Do they have enough quality though? They haven't lost all that much, at least. Ziggy Gordon was a regular in defence but hadn't hit the heights expected of him and he is replaceable. Goalkeeper Gary Woods had quietly excelled but Rice might have found a gem in Owain Fon Williams, largely frozen out for two years at Caley Thistle because of his wages. The Welshman struggled when ICT were relegated before that but played that whole year with a back problem and is a far better keeper than many realize. In front of him it looks like it'll be a back three, though it may be hard to find a competent combination. Alex Gogic missed most of last season after a knee injury but if he's back to 100% he should be a capable performer; however he also looked like the best (or least-bad) option in defensive midfield in the League Cup games. Brian Easton is also not long back from an extended layoff and seems more likely to be used on the left side of that three rather than as a left-back. Ciaran McKenna flashed some potential at Falkirk last season but is really raw after spending his formative years in the USA. Markus Fjortoft is a typical Hamilton 'take a flyer on a guy who won't cost us much if he isn't up to it' move. And Shaun Want has shown nothing to suggest he's going to hack it as a Premiership player in the short- or long-term. In theory, the standard at wing-back is a lot higher. Aaron McGowan certainly came onto a game in the second half of last season. Frustratingly Scott McMann still hasn't lived up to the billing he was given as a youngster by Alex Neil all those years ago. Now 23, he really needs to become consistent. The more experienced Johnny Hunt will not have moved up from Stevenage just to be a backup. In midfield it seems certain there will be a place for Darian MacKinnon, though the captain, 34 in October, does appear to be slowing down a little. The other two positions may be up for grabs. Will Collar, signed from Brighton, should fill the most defensive role though he's not been sighted so far. Blair Alston was let go by St. Johnstone because he influenced games only sporadically, so Rice needs to get the best out of him if Accies are to create chances. But if Rice is willing to give youth a try he can call on Ross Cunningham, Lewis Smith, Reegan Mimnaugh and Ronan Hughes in this area. Cunningham was particularly impressive in July, scoring four League Cup goals; three were penalties but it is encouraging that the 21 year old took on such responsibility. Smith is more attack-minded and could be deployed in the number ten role if Rice opted for one up top in some games. There's also Scott Martin who was something of a marquee signing by Canning's standards last summer but who seems out of favour. There is however a dearth of natural wingers in the squad which will leave Rice short of a plan B if things aren't going well. Steven Boyd, Mickel Miller and new signing David Moyo can all play wide if necessary but they would prefer to be through the middle. Miller was great in the first half of last season but is a rare case of a player regressing under Rice; however he was given a new deal in the summer so it seems reasonable to assume the boss has faith in him. Up front though he's likely to go with two of Marios Ogkmpoe, George Oakley and Steve Davies. Ogkmpoe is the battering ram, Davies is the best natural finisher but doesn't do enough to link play, and Oakley is reasonably strong, reasonably quick and okay in front of goal but doesn't really do anything especially well. If one was to break through this season, I'd pick Ogkmpoe - the Greek did well to come back from an ACL injury in the spring and has looked sharp in the League Cup. He looks like he has a point to prove and could reward Hamilton's faith in him. The target as always is survival but this might be the first time that the odds of that are in their favour. First, the coaching has improved. Second, there are other teams in the division who look unsettled and lost at the moment. Hamilton and their fans would probably prefer that they were written off again, but there's a chance that this could be a less stressful campaign than the last few. THE SQUAD (players born after 1 January 1998 in italics) Goalkeepers: Owain Fon Williams, Ryan Fulton, Kyle Gourlay Defenders: Brian Easton, Markus Fjortoft, Alex Gogic, Johnny Hunt, Aaron McGowan, Ciaran McKenna, Scott McMann, George Stanger, Shaun Want Midfielders: Blair Alston, Will Collar, Ross Cunningham, Ronan Hughes, Darian MacKinnon, Scot Martin, Reegan Mimnaugh, Lewis Smith Forwards: Korede Adedoyin, Steven Boyd, Steve Davies, Mickel Miller, David Moyo, George Oakley, Marios Ogkmpoe 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
  13. 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 ça 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. View the full article
  14. 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. View the full article