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hislopsoffsideagain

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Blog Entries posted by hislopsoffsideagain

  1. hislopsoffsideagain
    I don't care what anyone else says, the Championship is the most interesting division in the SPFL. What's that you say? "You're only saying that because the team you support is top of the table"? That's an outrageous allegation that I can neither confirm nor deny at this time.


    We are now nine games, or one quarter, of the way through the season. So here's a breakdown of how the ten clubs are faring, with a grading system shamelessly stolen from the legendary Tell Him He's Pele site of years gone by...




    ARBROATH    A
    If anyone needs reminding, Arbroath are a part-time team. This is their third season at this level but they are not only surviving but thriving. They are outside the promotion playoffs only on goal difference and their only two defeats are to the clubs first and second in the table. I simply cannot overstate how incredible this is. This is the strongest team they've probably ever had, though they will find it hard to replace the outstanding striker Joel Nouble when he inevitably returns to parent club Livingston in January. Nouble has deservedly got the headlines for his terrific play which has also brought out the best in Michael McKenna, who has seven goals already after scoring only six in the league in the previous two seasons combined. More under the radar is Nicky Low, the former Aberdeen prodigy who had been strolling around the Lowland League until last Spring and yet is the closest thing this level has to a quarterback. His range of passing has made the Red Lichties more expansive and his superb set pieces give them yet another type of threat. Add in the traditional Dick Campbell levels of organization and you get a club which put many far better resourced peers to shame.


    AYR UNITED    C-
    Teams are (and correctly so) often pilloried for sacking a manager as early as September. However United got it right by binning David Hopkin after a dreadful start where they took a single point from their opening four matches and Hoppy seemed to blame the supporters for their struggles. Since Jim Duffy took over there's been three victories and a jump into mid-table. There's no question Ayr are now better organised and less likely to cause your eyes to bleed, though Hoppyball set the bar pretty low there. The recent 4-0 thumping by Partick Thistle exposed their limitations though. The biggest concern is the lack of quality and balance in the squad Duffy inherited, which is desperately short on central midfielders. Up front Tomi Adeloye looks like the only potent goal threat. Expect reinforcements in January which will determine whether they can steer clear of a relegation battle.


    DUNFERMLINE ATHLETIC    F
    Bottom of the league and still winless, Dunfermline couldn't even get through the international break without shooting themselves in the foot. Peter Grant's insistence last week that the Pars could still win the Championship (a 500-1 possibility according to the bookies) was relatively small beer compared to the spectacularly ill-thought out statement released by the board the week before which seemed to defend the hapless manager whilst slagging off the supporters at the same time. The draw at the weekend against Kilmarnock was a welcome improvement but is it an aberration or a sign of a corner turned? Whilst the takeover by a German consortium did not have the fans expecting the next Franz Beckenbauer, this squad is supposed to be challenging at the top end rather than propping up the table. It's not unfair to point the finger of blame at the dugout; Grant has brought in roughly a million central defenders, fell out with Dom Thomas shortly after making him captain, took too long to drop calamity keeper Deniz Mehmet and persisted for ages with playing widemen through the middle. It's also worth noting that the team look better without injured marquee signing Graham Dorrans, whose main contribution so far is to get in a slagging match with some supporters after another defeat. It can get better, but it is unlikely to do so until Grant is replaced.


    GREENOCK MORTON    C-
    As if being ninth wasn't concerning enough, the fact that Morton fans consider keeper Jack Hamilton to have been their best player so far this season is probably not a good sign. Gus MacPherson won more matches during the relegation playoffs at the end of last season (three) than he has done in sixteen Championship matches as manager (two). The glass-half full view is that MacPherson is still integrating some intriguing last minute loan signings in defender Oisin McEntee, wide players Jaakko Oksanen and Tom Allan and striker Gavin Reilly. A more realistic take is that this is a young and thin squad; Kyle Jacobs aside, the midfield is very raw while among the forwards only Reilly has a pedigree for scoring regularly at this level. If their hitherto impressive goalie hits a patch of dicey form as he so often has in his career, the Ton could be in for a ton of trouble.


    HAMILTON ACADEMICAL    D
    It's not unusual for newly-relegated sides to struggle to find their feet in the early weeks of the Championship season. They don't usually hit the skids as spectacularly as Accies though. Brian Rice's departure after two matches hasn't helped - not that the fans minded - and any hopes that a win over ICT was the sign they'd turned a corner evaporated in a 6-1 shellacking at home to Partick Thistle. That victory over Inverness is the team's only home triumph since opening day weekend. The truth is that this is a remarkably weak squad given the club spent the previous seven seasons in the top flight. At the back Mihai Popescu looks more like the jobber that won this league with Hearts than the titan who won it with St. Mirren, Shaun Want is yet to find his level and highly-related youngster Jamie Hamilton's progress has stagnated and loanee Luke Matheson looks lost. Lewis Smith and Josh Mullen are bright sparks but otherwise the midfield has struggled, though this might improve when Lewis Spence gets fit and Miko Virtanen is played in his more natural deeper role. And up top the long-term injuries that have limited forwards David Templeton and Andy Winter to one start between them have left them dreadfully blunt with just Andy Ryan and David Moyo to pick from. Still, are they really so weak that they could go down again? Surely not...


    INVERNESS CALEDONIAN THISTLE    A
    ICT are not only top of the table but five points clear, which makes it all the more remarkable that they have blown their opponents away in only one half of football so far - the second forty-five at home to Partick Thistle. Otherwise they've proven adept at grinding out results, often getting in front and seeing out the game with relative comfort and control without really getting out of second gear. It could be argued that there is plenty of room for improvement, but is just as possible that they could regress to the mean. It feels a far cry from the intial poor results and performances in the League Cup under Billy Dodds though; after some rocky defending in those matches the Kirk Broadfoot-marshalled backline has turned into a strength. Mark Ridgers is the sort of reliable keeper that many clubs would die for, and the most important veteran is ex-Ross County midfielder Michael Gardyne who has chipped in with four goals. A more reliable goalscorer would really make this team dangerous - Billy Mckay is threatening to fill this role having finally got a run in the team - and whilst it is debatable if they have the depth to stay at the top all season one would suspect a few quid could be found behind the sofa for reinforcements if they are in the mix come January.


    KILMARNOCK    B-
    Tommy Wright essentially signed a new team following relegation and so it maybe shouldn't be that surprising that Killie are still a work in progress. That said, the club's budget is light years ahead of their peers and so expectations are, and should be, higher than third in the table at this point. Has Wright found his best team yet, or even his best formation? He seemed to start out with a 4-2-3-1 which would bring the best out of Liam Polworth but difficulty in breaking down deep-lying opponents, plus attacking reinforcements, has led back to 4-4-2. With Oli Shaw, Callum Hendry and Scott Robinson available up front they now look far more lethal and yet in recent games against Raith and Dunfermline they've started letting in soft goals at the other end. That should be easily fixable though; the trick for Wright will be to reduce the dependence on Chris Burke - 38 in December - for creativity. Both Blair Alston and Fraser Murray need to step up to the plate. But Kilmarnock remain the odds-on favourites for promotion for good reason.


    PARTICK THISTLE    A-
    120 goals have been scored so far in the Championship. 37 of them - nearly a third - have been either for or against Thistle. They have been as entertaining as that sounds. Veteran targetman Brian Graham and young predator Zak Rudden have twelve league goals between them so far, more than seven of the clubs in this division have managed. Scott Tiffoney has been electric on the wing. At the other end of the park keepers Jamie Sneddon and Harry Stone have both blundered on occasions and the back four look decidedly dodgy and exposed. Ian McCall seems to have made his peace with this and is unwilling to sacrifice attacking edge for defensive stability, at least for now. Certainly Thistle can consider themselves to be challengers at the top end of the table and have the right to believe they can emulate the example of Livingston a few years back and win back-to-back promotions. 


    QUEEN OF THE SOUTH    C
    What are appropriate expectations for the Doonhamers? They may be full-time, but this is a squad built mainly by taking fliers on young players from the lower divisions or from outside Scotland. Some, such as striker Lee Connelly (admittedly on loan in this division at Alloa from Sunderland last season) or central defender Roberto Nditi (signed from Forfar Athletic) have been spectacular successes. But most are either still finding their feet or never will. And of the two signings most likely to be described as 'marquee' Aidan Fitzpatrick can at least claim he is still short of match fitness after joining last month but ex-Hearts starlet Harry Cochrane looks like his confidence is completely shot. It's never a good sign when the manager is still changing formations and deciding on his best XI nearly three months in - Wullie Gibson has played in about half-a-dozen different positions already and whilst QOS are seventh in the table they have lost more matches than anyone else and it feels as if they are heavily dependent on Connolly for goals. If he can't keep it up, they will be in a tough spot.


    RAITH ROVERS    A-
    After Regan Hendry left in the summer and Lewis Vaughan injured his knee again, Rovers were expected to regress. In fact they've barely missed a beat. John McGlynn has stuck with a crisp passing game where the full-backs are encouraged to be extremely adventurous - in the win at Rugby Park Liam Dick scored and Reghan Tumilty set up a late goal with a lung-busting run up the pitch - and wingers Dario Zanatta and Aidan Connolly drive infield. Zanatta looks back to his best after two rotten seasons at Partick and Ayr. In defence Christophe Berra has looked far more comfortable (and far less exposed?) than he did at Hearts last season and has quickly formed a good partnership with Kyle Benedictus, while Jamie MacDonald is still a fine keeper. It's a marker of the progress the club are making that they were able to sign ex-Aberdeen midfielder Ethan Ross last week; when he is up to speed his arrival protects nicely against the impending exit of Dylan Tait in January to Hibs. Raith's obvious weakness is up top where loanees Ethan Varian and Matej Poplatnik put in big shifts but rarely look like scoring. Regardless of that this is a side who are certainly one of the best in this league.


    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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  2. hislopsoffsideagain
    Lyndon Dykes will be missed in Moldova
    Dykes reminds me of the character in the Monty Python 'Upper-Class Twit Of The Year' sketch who "doesn't know when he's beaten, this boy, he doesn't know when he's winning either. He doesn't have any sort of sensory apparatus". I had no doubt at all that the naturalized Ozzie would be unfazed by his penalty miss against Israel, and there was something very Dykes about scoring a goal by essentially karate-kicking the ball. But whilst he remains somewhat limited - some of his movement off the ball is just so random rather than thought-out - he continues to develop as a player and he is yet to hit his ceiling. If only because of his remarkable self-belief he is Scotland's best option up front just now; the hard-working Che Adams is still uncomfortable in front of goal, while Kevin Nisbet just looks like a guy trying too hard because he's not sure he belongs at this level. Unfortunately, Dykes' suspension means Scotland will have to go back to playing a striker up front in Tiraspol next month, rather than some sort of force of nature. It's not ideal.


    Nathan Patterson is our least-bad option at right-back
    Patterson was one of many who struggled in the first forty-five against Israel, but his appearance as a sub in the Faroes proved pivotal as it was his terrific cross that led to the winner. The problem for Clarke is that none of our right-back options are great just now. Stephen O'Donnell is probably the pick for matches against elite opposition because of his adequate (-ish) defensive play but he is always identified by other teams as a non-factor going forward; in Vienna he often had a bus lane to work with on that flank because his final ball was guaranteed to be rubbish. Ryan Fraser is a winger, not a wing-back. Defensively he was frequently out of position in Torshavn though he did become more dangerous going forward as the game progressed. Patterson is the one who not only has the tools to play wing-back but also is the one who has the potential to be a really special player. The rewards for Scotland of playing him, both for the present and the future, outweigh the risks.


    Billy Gilmour needs another playmaker beside him
    Gilmour is ridiculously special. He has also elevated Callum McGregor's game; with the duo in the centre of the park Scotland are better in possession than I've ever seen them. The balance wasn't there with Scott McTominay in midfield though - more on the Manchester United man later - and Gilmour only really took control of the Faroes match after McGregor arrived as a substitute. The thought of Ryan Jack sitting beside - or slightly deeper - than Gilmour is an intriguing one, though the Moldova/Denmark double-header may come too soon for the Rangers midfielder. Jack's defensive work is better than McGregor's and might be a useful option against quality teams without reducing our quality on the ball significantly.


    McTominay's best position for Scotland is at the back (at least right now)
    Ooh, controversial! Not too many folk would argue that McTominay is a better defender than Jack Hendry, but I feel the former's positional lapses are balanced out by the latter's tendency to lose concentration and make silly errors. What McTominay does give the back three is another player who is comfortable bringing the ball out from the back; Hendry has the ability to do so too but his decision-making just isn't as strong. Meanwhile neither McTominay nor Scotland look comfortable when he is in the centre of the park, though I can't quite figure out why. Is he trying to do too much?


    It's a long time since the players and fans had it as good as this
    As Scotland took the ball to the corner flag to waste time at the end of the Israel match, Ryan Christie could be seen extolling the crowd to get louder. That was somewhat optimistic, given Hampden was already at fever pitch. That game had the perfect synergy between the players on the pitch and the supporters in the stands - the latter encouraging the former on with a wall of noise, and the former giving the latter (and Ally McCoist in the commentary box!) sufficient reason to lose their s***.


    Too often in the last two decades it has been the complete opposite, with a support that felt mostly let down and embarrassed and players who often looked devoid of confidence or just like they didn't want to be there. 


    Yes, we needed an injury-time winner to beat Israel, a competent but non-elite opponent, at home. And an 86th minute winner in the Faroes (bear in mind Denmark took 85 minutes to crack them, and by then the Faroes were down to ten men). If these are the 'good times' then that says a lot about what the bad times were. After all, Scotland will probably need to win in Moldova (or at home to the Danes) and then defeat two high-quality opponents in the playoffs to reach the World Cup. That's a hell of an ask. But to be as close as this is such an improvement on what came before.


    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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  3. hislopsoffsideagain
    Are we ever going to have a battle for the league title again?

    A two horse race isn't much more exciting than a one horse race when you don't have a stake in either, but last season some thought Rangers might be able to push Celtic a bit. Not too many expected them p*** all over Celtic's ten-in-a-row dream. Steven Gerrard's side won the title by 25 points. Can Celtic turn that back around. The evidence of their opening European games was not encouraging.
    As for the other ten, we're very much back to a situation where the ceiling is third place. Hibs managed it last season, but Aberdeen are reinventing themselves, Hearts are back in the top flight and St. Johnstone will look to carry the momentum of two cup wins into the new campaign. At the other end of the table, Hamilton's relegation means that for the first time in years we don't have a clear and obvious favourite for the drop (the fact that Accies kept proving everyone wrong is by the by...)


    ABERDEEN (2020/21: 4th; 2019/20: 4th; 2018/19: 4th) Derek McInnes and Stephen Glass have very different ideas of how football should be played. Aberdeen had unquestionably gone stale by the end of McInnes' tenure but Glass has inherited squad with some young talent in Ross McCrorie and Lewis Ferguson and solidified the backbone with the signings of Scott Brown and Declan Gallagher. The Dons often looked toothless up front last year, and they'll be looking to American striker Christian Ramirez to solve that issue.

    CELTIC (2020/21: 2nd; 2019/20: 1st; 2018/19: 1st) How the mighty have fallen. Assuming Odsonne Edouard will be out the door imminently, they still need at least a goalkeeper, two full-backs, a centre-back, a defensive midfielder and a striker. The Champions League exit reduces the budget by a significant amount. Ange Postecoglu has been asked to win a poker game with a two-seven off-suit hand, and he's not even bluffing about it. The business they have done so far looks pretty decent at least, but it could well get worse for Celtic before it gets better. And yes, I know how daft that sounds when their floor is still second place, but that's Scottish football for you.

    DUNDEE (2020/21: 2nd in Championship; 2019/20: 3rd in Championship; 2018/19: 12th) Has James McPake found his feet as a manager, or did Dundee just go on a streak at the end of last season and luck into a playoff with a joke of a Kilmarnock team? We'll find out soon. A lot of their transfer activity has been about improving depth though Ryan Sweeney and Corey Panter will compete for a place in the centre of defence. Charlie Adam will be eyeing this season up as something of a swansong. There are a lot of players here who have previously flattered to deceive at this level though, particularly up front. And can they get something consistent from Jason Cummings?

    DUNDEE UNITED (2020/21: 9th; 2019/20: 1st in Championship; 2018/19: 2nd in Championship)
    United fans are filled with trepidation after a summer which saw them promote Tam Courts from the youth academy to be new head coach and only two new signings so far (one is a backup keeper and the other is 168 year old Charlie Mulgrew). There is going to be a clear emphasis on playing youngsters here, and there are high hopes for defenders Kerr Smith, Flynn Duffy and Kieran Freeman, midfielder Chris Mochrie and forward Logan Chalmers. But it's a risky strategy, though if Courts can get Lawrence Shankland scoring regularly again they should be okay.

    HEART OF MIDLOTHIAN (2020/21: 1st in Championship; 2019/20: 12th; 2018/19: 6th) Hearts somewhat underwhelmed despite cruising the Championship last season, too often playing down to the opposition. The question is whether they can step it up again, and the return of John Souttar and exciting arrival of Beni Baningime should help with that. Liam Boyce is a top class striker and should be amply supplied by Gary Mackay-Steven and Josh Ginnelly. If Souttar and Peter Haring can stay fit then they actually should be in very good nick. And if worse comes to worse they've still got Loic Damour...

    HIBERNIAN (2020/21: 3rd; 2019/20: 7th; 2018/19: 5th) Hibs have only lost Ofir Marciano and Jackson Irvine from the side that finished third last year and with Jake Doyle-Hayes arriving to bolster the midfield there's no reason for expectations to be lower. A bit more consistency from young talents Josh Doig and Ryan Porteous in defence, midfielder Kyle Magennis and new winger Daniel Mackay would make this team rather dangerous. Striker Kevin Nisbet deserved his Euros call up, and the electric Martin Boyle could (should?) be playing for a bigger club than this.

    LIVINGSTON (2020/21: 6th; 2019/20: 5th; 2018/19: 9th) We all know Livi will do things differently from everyone else, and so far that's worked for them. But they won only one of their last fifteen games last season which was alarming. There's been lots of squad turnover although only the loss of Jon Guthrie seems a particular blow and Tom Parkes should replace him in defence. Bruce Anderson looks like a fine signing up top and loan players Adam Lewis and Ben Williamson look like useful midfield additions. Can David Martindale blend this unusual looking squad together though?

    MOTHERWELL (2020/21: 8th; 2019/20: 3rd; 2018/19: 8th) Graham Alexander has not beaten about the bush when it comes to recruitment; eighteen players left this summer and there are nine new signings (and he wants more!). Getting Liam Kelly back in goal is a coup and Callum Slattery should add quality to the midfield. Can one of their four new strikers score consistently though? Well also seem to be completely devoid of wide players. Alexander is clearly a man with a plan, but to the uneducated such as myself it's not totally clear what the plan is...

    RANGERS (2020/21: 1st; 2019/20: 2nd; 2018/19: 2nd) The Champions will essentially go again with the same squad that won the league last year, with midfielder John Lundstram and forward Fashion Sakala adding slightly more depth. There's not much talk of their top players legging it - though that might change if they falter in the Champions League playoffs - and unless motivation is a problem (which seems unlikely) they should walk the league again.

    ROSS COUNTY (2020/21: 10th; 2019/20: 10th; 2018/19: 1st in Championship) Having managed to stay up, County gutted the squad (correctly), replaced the manager (harshly?) with Malky Mackay (controversial) and then spent the time they should have spent on recruitment on trying to explain to everyone why the appointment wasn't controversial at all. And then they had a Covid outbreak. Given that they're never short of cash, it's concerning that they've only brought in five new faces to replace the fourteen they chucked, though full-back Jake Vokins is a good pickup on loan. While one would assume Mackay will have them well-drilled, more signings are surely needed.

    ST. JOHNSTONE (2020/21: 5th; 2019/20: 6th; 2018/19: 7th) Make no mistake, they were really, really good in the second half of last season, and most of the cup winning players are back again. If they can hold onto Jason Kerr and Shaun Rooney the defence will remain strong and David Wotherspoon continues to fly under the radar but the midfield could maybe do with another set of young legs alongside the outstanding Ali McCann and having lost Guy Melamed they could do with a reliable goalscorer. They should have enough to have another tilt at the top six though.

    ST. MIRREN (2020/21: 7th; 2019/20: 9th; 2018/19: 11th) Jim Goodwin has quietly done a very good job of making the Buddies just a little bit better each year, partly through excellent recruitment. Curtis Main seems a striker tailormade for the club and who might bring the best out of Eamonn Brophy, while Greg Kiltie may thrive away from Kilmarnock but hopefully won't have to fill the shoes of the much-sought after Jamie McGrath. Scott Tanser should improve a decent defence further and whilst Tony Fitzpatrick's dreams of them winning the Champions League, curing cancer and solving climate change are a bit optimistic, another step a little further up the table is a fair aim.

    And here's the predicted table:
    1. RANGERS
    2. CELTIC 3. HIBERNIAN 4. ABERDEEN 5. HEARTS 6. ST. MIRREN
    7. ST. JOHNSTONE 8. MOTHERWELL 9. DUNDEE UNITED 10. ROSS COUNTY
    11. LIVINGSTON
    12. DUNDEE
    As ever, I expect to be proven very, very wrong...

    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
  4. hislopsoffsideagain
    For the first time since 2014, there isn't a club in this division that could be considered a Scottish football heavyweight - yes, I'd still refer to Dundee United as such, even if they are a bit flabby with bingo wings and move slower than a week in jail. There's also not a club like Dundee or Ross County who have significant financial backing from a benevolent millionaire.


    So in theory at least the Championship is up for grabs. However Kilmarnock - back at this level for the first time since 1993! - have not messed about and deserve to be described as favourites. Supporters or almost every other side can legitimately dream of having at least an outside shot at the top four though. But they can also brick themselves at the possibility that they could get relegated. It's not unusual for a more established club to have a nightmare of a season and finish bottom. Who might that be this time around?


    ARBROATH (2020/21: 7th; 2019/20: 5th; 2018/19: 1st in League One)
    Surely the only part-timers in the division can't survive and thrive at this level forever - though you wouldn't dare say that to Dick Campbell's face. The Red Lichties still have that excellent back four, marshalled by Tam O'Brien, and are better at using the loan market than most. They really need one Livingston loanee, Jon Nouble, to replace the goals that were provided in the second half of last season by another Livingston loanee, Jack Hamilton. If not, lack of firepower will give them a real problem, especially since the talismanic Bobby Linn is nearly 36.


    AYR UNITED (2020/21: 8th; 2019/20: 4th; 2018/19: 4th)
    United didn't really pick up after David Hopkin replaced Mark Kerr in charge and won only two of eleven league games under him. Hopkin has gone back to Morton to try and strengthen the defence, and though neither Markus Fjortoft nor Sean McGinty impressed in Greenock he has lured talented young keeper Aidan McAdams from his former club. They're another team who look dicey up top; with Michael Moffat now 37 they need young striker Marc McKenzie or new signing Tomi Adeloye who has more clubs in his career than he has goals. 


    DUNFERMLINE ATHLETIC (2020/21: 4th; 2019/20: 6th; 2018/19: 7th)
    Dunfermline's new German owners seem happy to rely on more traditional recruitment for the moment and on paper it has worked well for them. The addition of Reece Cole and Graham Dorrans should give them a strong midfield and winger Kai Kennedy is a terrific signing on loan from Rangers. With Nikolay Todorov and Craig Wighton as established goal threats and Dom Thomas creating, they will be very dangerous going forward. The defence will miss Euan Murray but it seems reasonable to expect at least one of new signings Rhys Breen and Ross Graham or Lithuanian international Vytas Gaspuitis to step up. New boss Peter Grant should go from a relegation battle at Alloa last year to a promotion battle this time around.


    GREENOCK MORTON (2020/21: 9th; 2019/20: 7th; 2018/19: 5th)
    Covid has not helped Morton's preparations but with only four new signings it feels like they have a lot of work to do in all areas. At the back Gus MacPherson will need Jack Hamilton to shake off a rotten few years at Dundee, while Alan Lithgow should be an improvement at centre-back. The midfield needs young players like Cameron Blues and Reece Lyon to finally step up, while up front Gary Oliver and Gozie Ugwu work hard but score too few. Robbie Muirhead is the X-factor but shows his ability all too rarely. MacPherson won just one of his twelve league games in charge before the playoffs last season and the jury is out on whether he is yesterday's man.


    HAMILTON ACADEMICAL (2020/21: 12th in Premiership; 2019/20: 11th in Premiership; 2018/19: 10th in Premiership)
    In some ways it seems laudable that Accies stuck by Brian Rice despite relegation, but in plenty of other ways it seems crazy. In Hakeem Odoffin and David Templeton they have two players who would stroll this division...but Odoffin will surely move on and Templeton is perennially injured. Basically Hamilton are looking to cobble together a promotion challenge with a combination of players who proved out of their depth in the top flight and unproven youngsters. Can Rice really convert them from a mindset of battling to avoid relegation every year to taking the initiative against most opponents?


    INVERNESS CALEDONIAN THISTLE (2020/21: 5th; 2019/20: 2nd; 2018/19: 3rd)
    The suggestion from some bookies that ICT are third favourites seems rather optimistic after watching them defend in the League Cup; at the moment they look very much like a side with a rookie manager (Billy Dodds) and an aged centre-back who needs put out to pasture (Kirk Broadfoot). Maybe it'll all gel, maybe Broadfoot will aid the development of young defenders Robbie Deas and Cameron Harper, and maybe fellow veteran signings Michael Gardyne and Billy Mckay will add quality and nous. Or maybe not. If wingers Tom Walsh (back for a second spell), Anthony McDonald and Aaron Doran can stay fit they should be fun to watch, but it's hard to predict how they'll do until Dodds has had a couple of months to show whether he's up to management or not.


    KILMARNOCK (2020/21: 11th in Premiership; 2019/20: 8th in Premiership; 2018/19: 3rd in Premiership)
    Just the sixteen new signings as Tommy Wright overhauled the side that shockingly got relegated. It's essentially a new team with only Brandon Haunstrup, Chris Burke and Rory McKenzie from last year's team likely to start. Jason Naismith, Scott Robinson and Liam Polworth look like particularly great additions, while Euan Murray, Fraser Murray and Dan Armstrong proved last year that they can cut it at this level. If Innes Cameron can fulfil his potential - at the moment he looks like he's going to be given an extended chance to do so up front - then it's their title to lose.


    PARTICK THISTLE (2020/21: 1st in League One; 2019/20: 10th; 2018/19: 6th)
    Ian McCall built a tidy squad to get out of League One and won't be content simply with survival. Brian Graham and Zak Rudden provide a fine combination of experience and youth in attack and Cammy Smith is a terrific addition to the midfield. McCall also signed Ross MacIver and Scott Tiffoney permanently after successful loan spells and if the defence, reinforced by loanee keeper Harry Stone and centre-back Lewis Mayo and permanent addition Kevin Holt, is up to the task then they will be closer to the top than the bottom.


    QUEEN OF THE SOUTH (2020/21: 6th; 2019/20: 9th; 2018/19: 9th)
    Another summer, another big clearout in Dumfries with only a handful of last season's starters remaining. Like last year Allan Johnston has had to take chances on players from the lower divisions and from down south who are largely unproven; the exception is former Hearts starlet Harry Cochrane. The League Cup group was encouraging with lots of goals from newbies Ally Roy (Airdrie) and Ruari Paton (Stranraer) and Portuguese forward Ruben Junior seems to be a nice chap who loves his mum. But their first Stephen Dobbie-less season since 2016 could be a tough one.


    RAITH ROVERS (2020/21: 3rd; 2019/20: 1st in League One; 2018/19: 3rd in League One)
    Rovers played some sexy and successful football last season, but can they keep up the forward momentum after losing outstanding midfielder Regan Hendry? Liam Dick should replace Kieran MacDonald at left back and hopefully Christophe Berra still has some legs left. Keeping Lewis Vaughan fit will make a big difference, as will getting the best out of erratic wingers Dario Zanatta and Aidan Connelly. Rovers are another side who do well in the loan market and they've picked up youngsters Kai Fotheringham and Ethan Varion plus Livingston striker Matej Poplatnik this way; they'll all be expected to make a big impact.


    And here's my predicted league table:


    1. KILMARNOCK


    2. DUNFERMLINE ATHLETIC
    3. PARTICK THISTLE
    4. RAITH ROVERS


    5. HAMILTON ACADEMICAL
    6. INVERNESS CALEDONIAN THISTLE
    7. AYR UNITED
    8. QUEEN OF THE SOUTH


    9. GREENOCK MORTON


    10. ARBROATH


    Arbroath fans won't need to be told twice to take a screenshot of this so they can haunt me with it in May 2022...


    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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  5. hislopsoffsideagain
    Given that League One is still mostly the domain of part-time clubs, any full-time teams should always be considered favourites.

    Partick Thistle lived up to that billing last season, eventually. Falkirk on the other hand collapsed like a house of cards in a hurricane; if missing out on promotion was a catastrophe, slumping to fifth place is, er, something worse than a catastrophe?


    For 2021/22, the Bairns, Airdrie - who have a bit of a hybrid model in their squad - and Queen's Park, who are in a heck of a hurry after throwing off the shackles of amateurism, are the full-timers. But there's also Cove Rangers who are paying pretty impressive part-time wages. And there's a bunch of battle-hardened squads who would like nothing more to 'welcome' these full-time fancy dans to the seaside leagues. Let's see how it all pans out...


    AIRDRIEONIANS (2020/21: 2nd; 2019/20: 3rd; 2018/19: 5th)
    Last season's promotion playoff finalists only retained eight of last year's squad - and highly rated youngster Thomas Robert will probably leave - but they will expect to be near the top again. Rhys McCabe, Adam Frizzell and Dylan Easton will add flair and are among a host of new signings who need to see this as their last chance to prove they can make this their day job. A goalscorer would make a big difference - can Gabby McGill or Salim Kouider-Aissa get into double figures?


    ALLOA ATHLETIC (2020/21: 10th in Championship; 2019/20: 8th in Championship; 2018/19: 8th in Championship)
    It's the end of an era for the Wasps following the end of their three year Championship stay and many mainstays have departed along with manager Peter Grant. Barry Ferguson brings a bit of razzmatazz to the dugout but the jury is still out on his managerial credentials. But on paper this is a pretty strong squad with the addition of Mark Durnan and Fernandy Mendy in defence and Steven Boyd up top, and veterans Andy Graham, Scott Taggart and Alan Trouten have hung around.


    CLYDE (2020/21: 8th; 2019/20: 7th; 2018/19: 2nd in League Two)
    Danny Lennon hasn't been allowed to take a squad of youngsters to a desert island yet, so he'll have to make do with this motley crew, which includes 14 new signings so far. Conrad Balatoni, Morgaro Gomis and Gregory Tade - the latter coming out of retirement - give them an experienced backbone and David Goodwillie has scored 73 goals in 4 seasons which is some strike rate. This is surely time for them to push on towards the top half of the division.


    COVE RANGERS (2020/21: 3rd; 2019/20: 1st in League Two; 2018/19: 1st in Highland League)
    Cove still have aspirations to get to the Championship and Ross County duo Ross Draper and Iain Vigurs are the marquee additions to a group that already contains the illustrious trio of Fraser Fyvie, Mitch Megginson and Rory McAllister. Cove's biggest weakness looked like being squad depth - they struggled to fill their bench in the League Cup games - but Paul Hartley has now brought in Shay Logan and Javan Anderson (son of Russell) to boost the defence


    DUMBARTON (2020/21: 9th; 2019/20: 6th; 2018/19: 6th)
    It was a turbulent summer at the Rock, with manager Jim Duffy leaving and only three of last year's squad remaining. New boss Stevie Farrell has a tough job on his hands rejuvenated a club that only avoided relegation via a playoff in May. Joe McKee should fill the Ross Forbes-shaped hole in midfield, and Gregor Buchanan, Paul Paton and Andy Geggan add experience but it's hard to see where the goals are coming from.


    EAST FIFE (2020/21: 6th; 2019/20: 5th; 2018/19: 7th)
    The Methil side were unlucky to end up on the wrong side of the split as they were still in promotion contention at the time. They've lost keeper Brett Long and talisman Scott Agnew but there's still plenty of quality with Scott Mercer added to the defence, Danny Swanson in midfield and Kevin Smith and Ryan Wallace up front. They'll fancy they can improve on last season.


    FALKIRK (2020/21: 5th; 2019/20: 2nd; 2018/19: 10th in Championship)
    It's promotion or bust for the Bairns under new boss Paul Sheerin, who has a squad filled with players that would not look out of place in the second tier. Brad McKay, Ryan McGuffie and Aidan Nesbitt all look like terrific additions on paper, but we said that about many of the team last season. Callumn Morrison might be the best wide player in this league and Aidan Keena certainly has the quality to score for fun, but will expectations weigh them down again?


    MONTROSE (2020/21: 4th; 2019/20: 4th; 2018/19: 4th)
    Nobody (except maybe their Smokie neighbours?) quite seems to punch above their weight like Stewart Petrie's Montrose do, not least because of a squad that has been settled for a number of years. The loss of striker Russell McLean and loanees Harry Cochrane and Chris Mochrie will make it a bit harder, but getting Blair Lyons back on loan from Partick Thistle is a boost and one of the strongest backlines in the division gives them a good base to work from.


    PETERHEAD (2020/21: 7th; 2019/20: 8th; 2018/19: 1st in League Two)
    It's hard to know what to make of the Blue Toon, who last season were too good to go down and not nearly good enough to go up. Brett Long and Russell McLean will improve them at either end of the pitch but the days of paying big wages are long gone and it looks like they will play the loan system as best they can. Scott Brown and Simon Ferry give them plenty of quality in midfield but they will miss long-term absentee Gary Fraser. Derek Lyle, now 40, will play his twenty-third league season.


    QUEEN'S PARK (2020/21: 1st in League Two; 2019/20: 5th in League Two; 2018/19: 7th in League Two)
    Last year's League Two champs have no interest in just consolidating; the Spiders want to get up the leagues and have supplemented their squad with some decent reinforcements in keeper Calum Ferrie and winger Lewis Moore. Michael Doyle, Lee Kilday, Peter Grant and Tommy Robson form an excellent defence and Bob McHugh and Simon Murray should score plenty at this level. It will be interesting to see how rookie coach Laurie Ellis fares after Ray McKinnon left in the summer.




    And here's my predicted standings:


    1. FALKIRK


    2. AIRDRIEONIANS
    3. QUEEN'S PARK
    4. COVE RANGERS


    5. ALLOA ATHLETIC
    6. EAST FIFE
    7. MONTROSE
    8. CLYDE


    9. PETERHEAD


    10. DUMBARTON


    I await the usual constructive criticism...


    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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  6. hislopsoffsideagain
    In recent seasons Scottish League Two has been dominated by clubs that have been rather flush with cash for this level - Queen's Park last season, and Cove Rangers the year before. At the other end of the table, the addition in 2015 of a relegation playoff has forced smaller sides who have cruised along at this level for aeons to either ship up or ship out; league mainstays East Stirlingshire and Berwick Rangers have languished in the Lowland League after dropping out of the SPFL, while Brechin City - who finished bottom in the shortened 2019-20 season but were reprieved after the playoffs were cancelled - were finally demoted to the Highland League in May after being defeated by Lowland champions Kelty Hearts.


    And looking at the squads, it's easy to imagine Kelty emulating Queen's Park and Cove; they are odds on favourites with the bookies. But reputations count for little in a division filled with plenty of wily veteran players and seasoned managers who take joy in shooting down any divas they come across...


    ALBION ROVERS (2020/21 - 7th; 2019/20 - 9th; 2018/19 - 9th)
    Rovers work to a really tight budget, and Brian Reid was entitled to see seventh place as a successful outcome last season. The next step is to build further on that. Basically signing Stirling Albion's bench (five players!) is probably a sign of the constraints they're working under though and the loss of ten-goal-striker Matty Aitken to Forfar, and young keeper Harry Stone's return to parent club Hearts will not help their cause. This season may be harder, not easier, than last.


    ANNAN ATHLETIC (2020/21 - 8th; 2019/20 - 7th; 2018/19 - 4th)
    It now seems like every summer Peter Murphy has to build a completely new squad. It maybe wasn't quite so bad this year (just the ten signings!) but they have got just a little weaker each of the last couple of campaigns and will certainly be worrying more about relegation than dreaming of promotion. Getting Tommy Goss from Queen of the South will help up front, but as ever many of the new players have come from teams in the north of England and are something of an unknown to ignorant bloggers like myself.


    COWDENBEATH (2020/21 - 9th; 2019/20 - 4th; 2018/19 - 6th)
    The Blue Brazil dropped off badly last season and would have been in a fix but for Brechin's travails. Gary Bollan likes a lot of experience and Bobby Barr, Liam Buchanan and Kyle Hutton will provide shedloads of that. 36 year old Buchanan returns to the club that gave him his debut nineteen years ago and is looking to score a league goal for the twentieth consecutive season. Cowden will need him to roll back the years, because they are considered amongst the favourites to come bottom.


    EDINBURGH CITY (2020/21 - 2nd; 2019/20 - 2nd; 2018/19 - 3rd)
    The Citizens have been the nearly men of the last few seasons, coming up short to opponents who are just slightly better resourced. The appointment of Gary Naysmith towards the end of last season has coincided with a big refresh of the squad that includes the loss of key players such as defenders Liam Henderson (who has joined Arbroath in the Championship) and Conrad Balatoni and striker Blair Henderson. Lewis Toshney will boost the backline if (big if!) he can stay fit. Last season City lacked a consistent goalscorer and they will be reliant on young loan attackers Alex Ferguson and Ryan Shanley to fire them into the top four again.


    ELGIN CITY (2020/21 - 3rd; 2019/20 - 3rd; 2018/19 - 8th)
    Given that geography makes recruitment a bit trickier, Gavin Price has done well to steer Elgin to two top-three finishes in succession. Aside from losing defensive linchpin Stephen Bronsky this squad remains relatively settled. Kane Hester's goals will always make them a threat (assuming his off-field problems get sorted) and the Dingwall brothers, Tony and Russell, provide an excellent midfield spark. They probably need reinforcements if they have designs on breaking into the top two though.


    FORFAR ATHLETIC (2020/21 - 10th in League One; 2019/20 - 9th in League One; 2018/19 - 2nd in League One)
    Forfar have really slumped since they reached the League One promotion playoffs just over two years ago, and will look at Brechin's decline with trepidation. The hope is that the permanent appointment as manager of Gary Irvine can turn things around and they've certainly rebuilt the squad. There are high hopes for a strike pairing of PJ Crossan and Matty Aitken, while ex-Killie and Dundee United midfielder Craig Slater should stroll it if he can stay fit. Dundee loanees Sam Fisher and Luke Strachan will also be assets and they are entitled to target a quick return to League One.


    KELTY HEARTS (2020/21 - 1st in Lowland League; 2019/20 - 1st in Lowland League; 2018/19 - 3rd in Lowland League)
    Kelty do not plan to be in the fourth tier for long - a squad that already contained the quality of midfielders Michael Tidser and Thomas Reilly and forwards Kallum Higginbotham and Nathan Austin has been supplemented with ex-Dundee centre-back Jordon Forster, former Rangers youngster Jamie Barjonas and evergreen winger Joe Cardle. Rookie coach Kevin Thomson will be aiming for back-to-back promotions, which would be some progress for a club that finished fourteenth in the Junior East Super League seven seasons ago.


    STENHOUSEMUIR (2020/21 - 6th; 2019/20 - 8th; 2018/19 - 9th in League One)
    Stenny have really underwhelmed the last two seasons and punted boss Davie Irons when it became clear they'd finish in the bottom half again. New manager Stephen Swift comes from the Lowland League and has signed a SPFL-high twenty players already, holding onto only three from last year's squad. Undoubtedly there's some quality there - defender Sean Crichton, midfielder Ross Forbes and striker Robert Thomson give them a very high quality backbone. But how long will it take them to gel? A slow start wouldn't be a surprise but would hamper any playoff aspirations.


    STIRLING ALBION (2020/21 - 5th; 2019/20 - 6th; 2018/19 - 5th)
    Making the playoffs only once in six seasons at this level is a gross underachievement for Stirling, who stuck with boss Kevin Rutkiewicz despite missing the top four yet again. Andy Ryan's return to full-time football is a blow, with Dale Carrick his replacement up top. Midfielders Ray Grant and Rabin Omar weren't good enough for the Championship but should impress at this level, but it would be a stretch to claim they are stronger than in 2020/21.


    STRANRAER (2020/21 - 4th; 2019/20 - 10th in League One; 2018/19 - 8th in League One)
    It was a turbulent offseason in the South-West with manager Stevie Farrell leaving for Dumbarton and then a massive public fallout amongst the board. Ex-Hearts midfielder and Derek Adams-bodyslammer Jamie Hamill is the new man in the dugout, which means they'll likely miss his influence on the pitch. The loss of exciting young forward Ruari Paton to Queen of the South leaves them still looking for a credible goal threat and this is quite a young squad that may be up against it to repeat last season's playoff finish.




    So here's my prediction for how they'll rank:


    1. KELTY HEARTS


    2. FORFAR ATHLETIC
    3. EDINBURGH CITY
    4. STENHOUSEMUIR


    5. ELGIN CITY
    6. STIRLING ALBION
    7. STRANRAER
    8. ALBION ROVERS
    9. ANNAN ATHLETIC


    10. COWDENBEATH


    As always, I look forward to being proven spectacularly wrong!


    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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  7. hislopsoffsideagain
    We waited twenty-three years for this, and what did we get? An endless barrage of mediocre nausea-related puns regarding the name of the Czech goalscorer.


    What we didn't get was the epic, all-action, never-say-die, no-one-lives-forever performance from the home side that we were looking for and, frankly, expecting. Heck, no-one even got booked.


    Don't forget that Scotland were the home side here. Opportunities to play at a major tournament are like hen's teeth for us; to do it on our own turf is a chance that had to be grasped with both hands, not least against our only group opponent that didn't reach a 2018 World Cup Semi-Final. If this had been a 2-0 defeat at home to the Czech Republic in qualifying, in this manner, the postmortem would have been pretty grim. There should be little sympathy or patience just because "at least we qualified".


    Okay, it came down to fine margins and sure, Scotland were grossly short-changed on this front. We could probably afford to lose Kieran Tierney less than any other player in the squad. The Czech goalkeeper had a fine match. Jack Hendry hit the bar when the score was 1-0. One simply cannot allow for an extraordinary moment like Patrik Schick's second goal and perhaps it is unreasonable to expect such a strike to be anything other than a knockout blow.


    But on a day that demanded a carpe diem spirit, Steve Clarke set Scotland up in such a way that this match was only ever going to come down to fine margins. The starting lineup looked quite adventurous with Stuart Armstrong, Ryan Christie and John McGinn all there to ostensibly provide support to Lyndon Dykes but the reality was anything but. Somehow we managed to lack an attacking threat because we played too many attack-minded players.


    With Tierney injured and Scott McTominay back in midfield none of the Scottish back three were either comfortable enough in possession or confident enough to step out with the ball. Carpe diem? We couldn't even manage carpe pila. With no Ryan Jack, Kenny McLean, Callum McGregor or Billy Gilmour on the pitch and McTominay closed down whenever he came deep, the only out ball was a long punt forward.


    This worked marginally better when Dykes was joined by Che Adams in the second half, but even then the play was depressingly archaic: either hit it at Dykes and hope he can flick it on, or get it wide and ping it in the box. That's 'get it wide left', obviously, because for the vast majority of the match only Andy Robertson looked capable of making anything happen...and the Czechs were well aware of this, which is why they offered us the chance to pass to Stephen O'Donnell as much as possible.


    No-one can doubt the Motherwell defender's effort, his contribution to team camaraderie and his impeccable home baking but at this level he is a Standard Grade maths student being asked to give a calculus lecture at St. Andrews. In the second minute he took a pass on the right touchline, looked up and let the ball run under his foot with no-one near him. He ruined one promising attack by inexplicably getting in Christie's way after the Celtic player had managed to beat two defenders. His crosses never beat the first man, he gave away possession time and again and ultimately he was the one who was so, so slow to get out and close down the two-on-one the Czechs created to cross for the opener.


    That said, Grant Hanley has one job. ONE JOB. TO WIN HEADERS.


    Perhaps the most depressing aspect was how little influence John McGinn had on the match. Most of Scotland's finest play under Clarke has involved the talismanic midfielder doing damage in the final third. Here, whilst he seemed to be playing ahead of Armstrong, he was neutered. It says it all that his sole highlight moment, a 360 degree spin out of trouble that left an opponent dazed and confused on the turf, took place twenty-five yards from his own goal...and that when he then looked for a teammate to pass to, there were none.


    As a close friend texted after the final whistle, "most disappointing of all, Clarke was crap". Scotland's cerebral, savvy, streetwise coach was supposed to be the great equalizer that compensated for the lack of quality in some areas of the team. When we look back on this game for years to come, people will think of that fifty-yard strike, but many will not forget that Scotland's team selection hamstrung them from the start.


    So, what does Clarke do now? Unfortunately, the only answer I can think of is 'pray'. All the optimism has been sucked out of the Tartan Army now and replaced by an overwhelming feeling of dread in the pits of our stomachs; that's not Schickness at the Czech result, it's the very real fear that if we play like  that at Wembley on Friday we are going to be humiliated.




    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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  8. hislopsoffsideagain
    The keeper and back four can be found here.
    Here's the midfield and attack. This season I've gone for a 4-2-3-1.

    CENTRAL MIDFIELD: STEVEN DAVIS (RANGERS), ALI MCCANN (ST. JOHNSTONE) Honourable mentions: Lewis Ferguson (Aberdeen), Hakeem Odoffin (Hamilton Academical), Joe Newell (Hibernian), Allan Campbell (Motherwell)
    When Davis returned to Ibrox in 2019 he looked woefully unfit and I don't think I was the only one who thought his legs were gone; now 36, he looks as sprightly as ever and was a deserving winner of the Football Writer's Player Of The Year award. Remarkably the Ulsterman was previously named in my Team Of The Year eleven years ago. I went for an all-Northern Irish pair here by picking McCann, who has been a major part of St. Johnstone's sensational season. That's two years running that I've plumped for him.
    It was a bit of a toss-up for that second spot though, with Odoffin (despite Accies' dreadful campaign) having had a season to delight the statisticians and the hipsters at the base of Hamilton's midfield while Newell has been terrific since being moved in off the wing. It's also worth flagging up Ferguson - who was a rare shining light in a dour year for Aberdeen - and Campbell, who was again a tenacious whirling dervish for Motherwell and who looks to be heading for a big move this summer.


    ATTACKING MIDFIELD: RYAN KENT (RANGERS), DAVID TURNBULL (CELTIC), MARTIN BOYLE (HIBERNIAN) Honourable mentions: Mohamed Elyounoussi (Celtic), Ross Callachan (Hamilton Academical), Chris Burke (Kilmarnock), Joe Aribo (Rangers), David Wotherspoon (St. Johnstone), Jamie McGrath (St. Mirren)
    Kent was as good this season as he was in his first campaign for Rangers, and that was pretty damn good. Someone will bid serious money for him this summer, but the Champions will not I imagine be inclined to sell. Turnbull had to be ultra-patient but when he got his chance he took it with a series of great performances even as his teammates flattered to deceive. Boyle's sheer pace always makes him a threat but having managed to avoid serious injury for a couple of years he was consistently excellent.
    McGrath is unlucky not to make this team, even if ten of his seventeen goals were penalties. He was superb for St. Mirren and has a lot of suitors. Elyounoussi shone for Celtic when he could be bothered, but that wasn't often enough. Callachan got into double figures for Hamilton after being moved into a more advanced midfield role. Even at 37, Burke was Kilmarnock's big (only?) creative threat and lord knows where they'd be without him. Aribo was more consistent this season than previously and is a better player than some give him credit for. Wotherspoon might have had the best season of his career after being moved more centrally.

    STRIKER: ODSONNE EDOUARD (CELTIC) Honourable mentions: Kevin Nisbet (Hibernian), Kemar Roofe (Rangers)
    Like many of his teammates, Edouard had a down year. And he still scored eighteen in the league. I still believe he will shine with a bigger club in a bigger league.
    Nisbet's goals came in fits and starts but he more than justified the fee Hibs paid for him, the seven figure bids in January and his call-up to Scotland's Euros squad. Roofe was Rangers' top scorer in the league this season even though most of his work came from the right flank; is it possible he is a better option up top than Alfredo Morelos 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
  9. hislopsoffsideagain
    Okay, since it's only two days till Steve Clarke announces his Euro 2021 squad, maybe it isn't too early for me to speculate anymore? So here's who I think - not necessarily who the boss thinks - will be the twenty-six players who will wear the Scotland shirt at a major tournament for the first time since France '98.


    It'll be interesting to see who benefits from the decision to increase the squad size from twenty-three, given that the three fortunate so-and-so's are virtually certain not to play. Do you just pick the next three men up? Reward the loyalty of longstanding squad members? Bring along talented youngsters for experience? Concentrate on players who will help with training and/or squad morale?


    We'll find out soon enough. Here's who I'd pick though. And I'm the sort of person who definitely wishes Ally McCoist had come along to the 1998 World Cup...




    GOALKEEPERS: DAVID MARSHALL, CRAIG GORDON, JON MCLAUGHLIN
    Missing out: Liam Kelly, Scott Bain


    Kelly has played very well in recent months for Motherwell, but I don't see him displacing McLaughlin who is established as the third choice keeper (a role which at major tournaments often seems to mainly involve cheerleading). The more interesting question is whether Marshall or Gordon will be in goal for the opening game.


    FULL-BACKS: ANDREW ROBERTSON, KIERAN TIERNEY, STEPHEN O'DONNELL, NATHAN PATTERSON
    Missing out: Greg Taylor, Liam Palmer


    Taylor is a Clarke favourite going back to Kilmarnock days but it's hard to see a situation in which he plays - if Robertson gets hurt then Tierney will surely be moved over from left centre-back. Therefore I'd leave the Celtic defender behind. O'Donnell is surely still the first choice on the right but remains the weakest link in the starting XI. Not only is Patterson worthy of consideration as a star of the future who might benefit from the experience but - notwithstanding the fact he's played so few games for Rangers - he is frankly already a better player than O'Donnell and thrusting him straight into the lineup would be a brave decision, not a reckless one. However, no-one would be surprised if the manager plumped for solid squad member Palmer instead.




    CENTRE-BACKS: GRANT HANLEY, SCOTT MCKENNA, LIAM COOPER, JACK HENDRY, ANDREW CONSIDINE
    Missing out: Declan Gallagher


    The formula for the back three very much appears to be *A left-footed player*-*A big bruiser who wins all the headers*-*A technically-gifted player who can bring the ball out from the back*. Tierney is the undisputed first choice for the left sided position, and Hanley now looks like the clear frontrunner for the middle role. If Scott McTominay might have to be shoehorned into the injury-hit midfield which would mean a starting slot for Hendry. Cooper is the obvious left-footed backup, and McKenna will push Hanley hard. Given Gallagher is another 'wins all the headers' player, I'm not sure there's a good reason to take him as well; you could say the same about Considine who would just be another left foot, but the Aberdeen veteran is clearly good for morale and could justify inclusion based only on that.




    MIDFIELDERS: SCOTT MCTOMINAY, CALLUM MCGREGOR, JOHN MCGINN, JOHN FLECK, DAVID TURNBULL, BILLY GILMOUR
    Injured: Ryan Jack, Kenny McLean


    Jack would have started against the Czechs if fit; in his absence, there's a good chance McLean would have started against the Czechs if fit. So FFS. It'll be hard for Clarke to avoid moving McTominay into the anchor role now, with McGregor and McGinn the other likely starters. The loss of Jack and McLean does surely mean a spot opens up for Turnbull who has certainly earned it with his play for Celtic; he would be an interesting option off the bench with his driving forward runs and set-piece quality. Fleck offers plenty of experience as a 'six' or an 'eight'. And I'd love it if space was found for Gilmour who is such an exciting prospect; he'd be another youngster along for the ride rather than a likely contributor.




    ATTACKING MIDFIELDERS/WINGERS: STUART ARMSTRONG, RYAN CHRISTIE, RYAN FRASER, JAMES FORREST
    Missing out: Ryan Gauld, Johnny Russell, Lewis Morgan


    These four should be a shoo-in if fit; you could make arguments for any of them to start and I'd expect all to contribute. Gauld has by all accounts shone this season but he's still stuck on the outside looking in. Russell has been so enthusiastic for years about travelling from the US to join the squad but he's fallen out of the picture because of Covid restrictions and it's hard to see him getting back in at the expense of someone else. Morgan is another one who suffers for not being available for international duty for several months.




    STRIKERS: CHE ADAMS, LYNDON DYKES, LEIGH GRIFFITHS, KEVIN NISBET
    Injured: Oli McBurnie
    Missing out: Oli Burke, Callum Paterson, Lawrence Shankland


    After Adams and Dykes it's very much down to personal preference. McBurnie's broken foot probably makes the decision easier for Clarke as for all the Sheffield United man's physical gifts he has played like a donkey all season. I'd take Griffiths - who else would you rather came on for the last 15 minutes when we're chasing a goal? - but I'd understand if Clarke disagreed. Nisbet gets the nod for me because he's been in decent scoring form recently compared to Shankland. There's less need for a utility player like Paterson when the squad is so huge. I was surprisingly tempted to include Burke simply because he offers something different, but like McBurnie he's just been so poor for so long.


    I'm going to say that I'm supremely confident about 21 of these guys - Patterson, Considine, Gilmour, Griffiths and Nisbet are 'on the bubble' for me. I look forward to finding out that I was spectacularly wrong...




    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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  10. hislopsoffsideagain
    Aye, it's that time again. Fourteen years we've been doing this, and frankly I'm worried the universe will end if I shirk my duties.


    No surprise that there's a lot of representation from the blue cheek of the Glasgow arse this year.


    For posterity, here's the previous thirteen editions:


    2007/08: Allan McGregor (Rangers), Alan Hutton (Rangers), Carlos Cuellar (Rangers), Lee Wilkie (Dundee United), Lee Naylor (Celtic), Barry Robson (Celtic), Stephen Hughes (Motherwell), Barry Ferguson (Rangers), Aiden McGeady (Celtic), Scott McDonald (Celtic), Steven Fletcher (Hibernian)


    2008/09: Lukasz Zaluska (Dundee United), Andreas Hinkel (Celtic), Gary Caldwell (Celtic), Lee Wilkie (Dundee United), Sasa Papac (Rangers), Scott Brown (Celtic), Bruno Aguiar (Hearts), Pedro Mendes (Rangers), Andrew Driver (Hearts), Scott McDonald (Celtic), Kris Boyd (Rangers)


    2009/10: John Ruddy (Motherwell), Steven Whittaker (Rangers), David Weir (Rangers), Andy Webster (Dundee United), Sasa Papac (Rangers), Steven Davis (Rangers), Morgaro Gomis (Dundee United), James McArthur (Hamilton), Anthony Stokes (Hibernian), Kris Boyd (Rangers), David Goodwillie (Dundee United)


    2010/11: Marian Kello (Hearts), Steven Whittaker (Rangers), Daniel Majstorovic (Celtic), Michael Duberry (St. Johnstone), Emilio Izaguirre (Celtic), Steven Naismith (Rangers), Beram Kayal (Celtic), Alexei Eremenko (Kilmarnock), David Templeton (Hearts), Nikica Jelavic (Rangers), David Goodwillie (Dundee United)

    2011/12: Cammy Bell (Kilmarnock), Adam Matthews (Celtic), Carlos Bocanegra (Rangers), Charlie Mulgrew (Celtic), Paul Dixon (Dundee United), James Forrest (Celtic), Victor Wanyama (Celtic), Ian Black (Hearts), Dean Shiels (Kilmarnock), Jon Daly (Dundee United), Gary Hooper (Celtic)


    2012/13: Fraser Forster (Celtic), Mihael Kovacevic (Ross County), Gary Warren (Inverness CT), Mark Reynolds (Aberdeen), Stevie Hammell (Motherwell), Victor Wanyama (Celtic), Nicky Law (Motherwell), Murray Davidson (St. Johnstone), Leigh Griffiths (Hibernian), Michael Higdon (Motherwell), Billy Mckay (Inverness CT) 

    2013/14: Jamie MacDonald (Hearts), Dave Mackay (St. Johnstone), Virgil Van Dijk (Celtic), Mark Reynolds (Aberdeen), Andrew Robertson (Dundee United), Scott Brown (Celtic), Stuart Armstrong (Dundee United), Peter Pawlett (Aberdeen), Kris Commons (Celtic), Kris Boyd (Kilmarnock), Stevie May (St. Johnstone)


    2014/15: Craig Gordon (Celtic), Shay Logan (Aberdeen), Virgil Van Dijk (Celtic), Jason Denayer (Celtic), Graeme Shinnie (Inverness CT), Ryan Jack (Aberdeen), Greg Tansey (Inverness CT), Greg Stewart (Dundee), Stefan Johansen (Celtic), Gary Mackay-Steven (Dundee United/Celtic), Adam Rooney (Aberdeen)


    2015/16: Jamie MacDonald (Kilmarnock), Callum Paterson (Hearts), Igor Rossi (Hearts), Andrew Davies (Ross County), Graeme Shinnie (Aberdeen), Nir Bitton (Celtic), Jackson Irvine (Ross County), Jonny Hayes (Aberdeen), Kenny McLean (Aberdeen), Marvin Johnson (Motherwell), Leigh Griffiths (Celtic)


    2016/17: Joe Lewis (Aberdeen), Callum Paterson (Hearts), Jozo Simunovic (Celtic), Joe Shaughnessy (St. Johnstone), Kieran Tierney (Celtic), Jonny Hayes (Aberdeen), Stuart Armstrong (Celtic), Adam Barton (Partick Thistle), Scott Sinclair (Celtic), Moussa Dembele (Celtic), Liam Boyce (Ross County)

    2017/18: Jon McLaughlin (Hearts), James Tavernier (Rangers), Scott McKenna (Aberdeen), Christophe Berra (Hearts), Kieran Tierney (Celtic), Scott Brown (Celtic), Dylan McGeouch (Hibernian), John McGinn (Hibernian), James Forrest (Celtic), Daniel Candeias (Rangers), Kris Boyd (Kilmarnock)

    2018/19: Allan McGregor (Rangers), James Tavernier (Rangers), Kristoffer Ajer (Celtic), Craig Halkett (Livingston), Kieran Tierney (Celtic), Callum McGregor (Celtic), David Turnbull (Motherwell), James Forrest (Celtic), Ryan Christie (Celtic), Ryan Kent (Rangers), Alfredo Morelos (Rangers)

    2019/20: Mark Gillespie (Motherwell), James Tavernier (Rangers), Kristoffer Ajer (Celtic), Jon Guthrie (Livingston), Borna Barisic (Rangers), James Forrest (Celtic), Callum McGregor (Celtic), Ali McCann (St. Johnstone), Niall McGinn (Aberdeen), Odsonne Edouard (Celtic), Alfredo Morelos (Rangers)



    So here's the goalkeeper and defence for 2020/21...


    GOALKEEPER: BENJAMIN SIEGRIST (DUNDEE UNITED)
    Honourable mentions: Allan McGregor (Rangers), Zander Clark (St. Johnstone)


    At least until he broke his wrist a few weeks back, no keeper in the Premiership had made more saves than Siegrist, which tells you that he has had a cracking season and also that Dundee United's backline has not. If United sell him this summer, they could get a very decent fee for the Swiss keeper. 
    McGregor is now 39 but shows no signs of slowing down and will play on at Ibrox for at least another year; he remains the best Scottish keeper around. Clark came to prominence with his big performances in the cup for St. Johnstone but had a perfectly solid season even before that.




    RIGHT-BACK: JAMES TAVERNIER (RANGERS)
    Honourable mentions: Marcus Fraser (St. Mirren), Shaun Rooney (St. Johnstone)


    Tavernier becomes the second player after Kris Boyd to make my Team Of The Year four times, and the first to do so in four straight seasons. Remarkably at the time of writing he is still Rangers' top scorer in all competitions with eighteen goals, but he has also rarely been pulled up for his defensive play this season and frankly would be a worthy winner of Player Of The Year.


    I've previously decried Fraser as not being athletic enough to be a right-back at this level but he proved me completely wrong this season with the best campaign of his career as Jim Goodwin got the best out of him in Paisley. Rooney had a rocky start after making the step up from Inverness but has been electric since the turn of the year; he has all the physical tools and his football IQ gets better and better with every game.




    LEFT-BACK: BORNA BARISIC (RANGERS)
    Honourable mentions: Josh Doig (Hibernian), Julien Serrano (Livingston)


    Barisic has been terrific for two years now; that left foot is like a wand. It would be no surprise if Rangers have to fight off suitors offering big money for the Croat this summer.


    Otherwise the left-back position was not one of strength in the Premiership this season. Doig is clearly the next man up after winning the Young Player Of The Year award and is still only 19 so his potential is really exciting. After that you can take your pick, but I always enjoyed what I saw of the Spaniard Serrano who has done well after making the loan switch - and culture change! - from Monaco to Livingston.




    CENTRE-BACKS: CONOR GOLDSON (RANGERS), JASON KERR (ST. JOHNSTONE)
    Honourable mentions: Filip Helander (Rangers), Paul Hanlon (Hibernian), Conor McCarthy (St. Mirren), Kristoffer Ajer (Celtic)


    Did Goldson put a foot wrong all year? Not only was he almost impregnable defensively but his passing out from the back is terrific too. Crazily, he has played more than 160 games for Rangers in three seasons...even though one of those was shortened due to Covid. Kerr has been right at the top of his game this season and at 24 the time has surely come for the centre-back to move to a bigger club.


    I could have easily justified putting Helander in if I had wanted to, Rangers have never lost a league game in which he has played. Hanlon is playing as well as at any other point in his career and was rewarded with his first Scotland cap in October. McCarthy had a really good year for the Buddies and is still young enough that he could go really far. Ajer in contrast had a down season but that doesn't mean he doesn't still stroll through most of this matches, and it's not his fault he's spent much of the year trying to cover for Shane Duffy and Stephen Welsh...


    The rest of the team will be up later in the week...


    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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  11. hislopsoffsideagain
    The initial countdown from 25 to 11 can be found here.  
    This is the ninth time we've done this. The eight previous 'winners':
    2012/13: Rory Boulding (Kilmarnock)
    2013/14: Stephane Bahoken (St. Mirren)
    2014/15: Jim Fenlon (Ross County)
    2015/16: Rodney Sneijder (Dundee United)
    2016/17: Joey Barton (Rangers)
    2017/18: Eduardo Herrera (Rangers)
    2018/19: Umar Sadiq (Rangers)
    2019/20: Madis Vihmann (St. Johnstone)


    You'll note that we've never previously named a Celtic player at the top of this list. It won't surprise anyone that this is about to change...


    10. MICHAEL O'CONNOR (ROSS COUNTY)

    County took a flier on talented but troubled Irish striker O'Connor, whose gambling problems had scuppered big moves previously. He signed a two year deal in September and lasted less than three months, making a single sub appearance in the League Cup. What was particularly curious was the club's statement regarding his exit, where they stated he had "resigned". I mean, since when has a player resigned? This raises more questions than answers...



    9. DREY WRIGHT (HIBERNIAN)

    When I put out feelers on Twitter for potential candidates for this list, about a million (approximately) Hibs fans named Wright, signed from St. Johnstone last summer where he had impressed on the wing. Perhaps Jack Ross' tendency to use wing-backs rather than wingers has limited Wright's opportunities, but he's played just a single minute of league football in the last three months as he has become increasingly distanced from first team opportunities.



    8. JORDAN WHITE (MOTHERWELL)

    White has markedly improved since joining Ross County in January...which wouldn't be hard. Many (including myself) were dubious as to whether he could make the step up from the Championship, and by the end of August he had gone from ineffective starter to being an impact sub who made no impact. He failed to score or assist in any matches for the Steelmen and discounting the first half of his first start, they went onto score only one goal - a late consolation in a 5-1 defeat - with him on the pitch. In Dingwall he has at least come up with a winning goal against Celtic.



    7. REGAN CHARLES-COOK (ROSS COUNTY)

    Wideman Charles-Cook was seen as an exciting acquisition from Gillingham, and clearly he has something in his locker as both Stuart Kettlewell and John Hughes have given him more opportunities than other wingers in the County squad. But he's managed zero goals and zero assists in the league and the website WhoScored.com rates him as the worst outfield player in the Premiership this season. Many County fans are bemused that Jermaine Hylton in particular has had far fewer chances to impress.



    6. JAKE HASTIE (MOTHERWELL)

    That golden four months at the end of the 2018/19 season seem long ago now. Motherwell got £350,000 in compensation from Rangers for him that summer and got the player back - on loan - a year later. Still only 22, Hastie looks a shadow of the starlet he once was, starting just four games and carving out a role only as an unused sub. He still has two years left on his Ibrox deal, but it's clear he is in danger of not fulfilling his potential.



    5. COLLIN QUANER (ST MIRREN)

    It's only three seasons since Quaner was playing regularly in the Premier League with Huddersfield Town, and his arrival at St. Mirren looked like a potential coup. But the German forward had been without a club for six months before joining the Buddies in January and was subbed off with an injury on his debut only 20 minutes after coming on. He managed two more appearances, winning a very, very, very, very etc. soft penalty against Ross County before a fruitless start at Ibrox, and then got injured again with Jim Goodwin confirming that his season - and probably his career in Paisley - are over. 



    4. AARON CHAPMAN (MOTHERWELL)

    Motherwell signed Chapman as "experienced cover and competition for Trevor Carson" - their words. Well had so much confidence in him that when Carson got hurt they went out and signed another keeper, Jordan Archer. When Archer left at the end of December and Carson got injured yet again Chapman had to start a derby at Hamilton where in a 3-0 defeat he frankly looked like an outfielder playing in goal. He had actually started three other league games prior to that where he looked confident, but that Accies match will be all that Motherwell fans remember of him.



    3. ANTHONY STOKES (LIVINGSTON)

    This one can be filed under 'farce'. The veteran forward joined Livi in August, only to leave within a few weeks because he couldn't cope with training on astroturf. You'd think that would be the sort of thing you'd check out before you signed the player? He never played a game for the club. Since then, Stokes has been charged with headbutting a man, put on an anti-domestic abuse course and been accused of stalking his ex-partner, so perhaps Livingston dodged a bullet here.



    2. VASILIS BARKAS (CELTIC)

    Is Barkas salvageable? That'll be one of the big early questions for Celtic's new permanent manager, but recent reports suggest he will probably leave this summer. It's true that it can sometimes take foreign keepers a bit of time to adjust to British football, but for £4.5m Neil Lennon was entitled to expect the Greek to get the hang of it much quickly. Instead by December he was ditched for the Scottish Cup Final in favour of Conor Hazard (!), and every time he was recalled he seemed to quickly blot his copybook. Lennon hardly helped, seemingly scapegoating him when results are bad; after one disappointing performance he told the press of the need to build Barkas' confidence up with a run of more straightforward matches...and promptly dropped him for the next game, at home to Hamilton. It has been a complete and utter disaster for club and player.



    1. SHANE DUFFY (CELTIC)

    Until he came north, Shane Duffy was not a bad footballer - you don't play a hundred Premier League games and win forty caps for Ireland by being crap. But he was an old-fashioned big, strong, no-nonsense centre-back with not much pace, which made him an abysmal fit for a Celtic team that plays a high line and passes the ball out from the back. After he scored in his first two games one journalist quipped that Duffy might end up with a superior goal difference on his own to the teams he played against; as it stands that record is currently minus-30. His confidence is shot and his stock has fallen so far that he has been replaced by Stephen Welsh for the last couple of months as he awaits the end of his nightmare loan spell. He has cost Celtic more than £3m in loan fees and wages.


    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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  12. hislopsoffsideagain
    We already tried this in January, but it seems reasonable to update it after the recent international break. Not that there are many changes - the number of 'certainties' has gone up from twelve to sixteen, mind - but the emergence of Che Adams was the big talking point.


    It will be interesting to see what strategy Clarke uses when putting together his twenty-three man squad. Many international coaches have in the past just picked two players for every position, but a more progressive plan would be to call up versatile players in order to free up squad positions for players - particularly attackers - that could offer different sorts of threats. Most likely the manager will stick with the core that has got him this far. The only outfield squad members not to even get off the bench in those three matches were Declan Gallagher, Andrew Considine and Greg Taylor.


    So here's how I see the current state of play...


    GOALKEEPERS
    CERTAINTIES: David Marshall, Craig Gordon
    PROBABLES: Jon McLaughlin
    MAYBES:
    LONG SHOTS: Liam Kelly, Scott Bain


    Given there's little reason for Clarke to ditch McLaughlin as the third choice keeper - there isn't an exciting youth project to take along for the ride instead - I could have put him as a certainty as well, but where would be the fun in that? Marshall could be blamed for goals in both the Austria and Israel games and he seems to have lost his place in the Derby County team in the last few weeks, and so his position in the starting lineup is very much under threat from Gordon. It is depressing to think that Scotland's best goalkeeper is actually 39 year old Allan McGregor, who retired from international football two years ago.


    FULL- BACKS
    CERTAINTIES: Andrew Robertson, Kieran Tierney, Stephen O'Donnell
    PROBABLES: Liam Palmer
    MAYBES: Greg Taylor
    LONG SHOTS: Paul McGinn


    Aaron Hickey would have been an intriguing wild card option had he not wrecked his shoulder recently. Tierney is listed here but if Robertson is fit he will start as a left-sided centre-back; that could lead Clarke to pick Taylor as 'backup left-back' but personally I think that would be overkill. Right-wing back continues to be an area of weakness. Ryan Fraser started there against the Faroes but using him in that role against quality opposition would be more cavalier than we would expect from Clarke. Would James Forrest, who has played that role more often at club level, be an alternative? More likely the boss sticks with his beloved O'Donnell who rarely impresses but also rarely lets Scotland down. Palmer is likely to come along as the backup, though could be a casualty in order to fit in a more versatile player like Callum Paterson.


    CENTRE-BACKS
    CERTAINTIES: Grant Hanley, Scott McTominay
    PROBABLES: Scott McKenna, Liam Cooper, Jack Hendry
    MAYBES: Declan Gallagher
    LONG SHOTS: Andrew Considine, Paul Hanlon, Ryan Porteous


    This is the position I've reshuffled most since the last time I did this exercise. Gallagher has dropped all the way from 'certainty' to 'maybe'. He hasn't started a club game since the end of January and that's come at the worst possible time for his international aspirations. Clarke seems to like a powerful guy who's good in the air in the centre of his back three and Grant Hanley looks very much like the first choice in that role right now, with McKenna probably the second. Is it really necessary to take Gallagher as well? Tierney and Liam Cooper would sort out the left-sided role, which would leave team mascot-extraordinaire Considine on the sideline. Given he started two of the recent qualifiers, one would have to assume Hendry is very much in the equation, though he'd be a sub if McTominay plays in defence rather than midfield.


    MIDFIELDERS
    CERTAINTIES: John McGinn, Callum McGregor, Ryan Jack, Kenny McLean
    PROBABLES: John Fleck
    MAYBES: David Turnbull
    LONG SHOTS: Billy Gilmour


    Jack dropped out of the recent games because of injury, and Scotland seemed to particularly miss him against Israel. I would still expect him to start alongside McGregor and McGinn in midfield for the opening Euros game. McLean played well against the Faroes. Fleck's club form has improved considerably over the last few months and he is the closest we have to a direct replacement for McGregor. Turnbull is unlucky that this area is a relative strength for Scotland but a strong finish to the campaign could yet swing things in his favour.


    ATTACKING MIDFIELDERS/WINGERS
    CERTAINTIES: Stuart Armstrong, Ryan Christie, Ryan Fraser
    PROBABLES: James Forrest
    MAYBES:
    LONG SHOTS: Ryan Gauld


    If Forrest can get in half a dozen matches for Celtic between now and the end of the season then he's too good to leave out. The other three are sure picks, though it's still not clear how to get the best out of Armstrong in the current system. For all the plaudits Gauld is getting for his performances in Portugal, he's still not getting picked for his country.


    FORWARDS
    CERTAINTIES: Che Adams, Lyndon Dykes
    PROBABLES: Oli McBurnie
    MAYBES: Kevin Nisbet, Leigh Griffiths
    LONG SHOTS: Oli Burke, Callum Paterson, Lawrence Shankland


    Adams quickly showed that he is by some distance our most talented forward. Dykes is still the target man of choice, but he was better at doing the defensive work than providing a goal threat in the recent qualifiers. Clarke continues to show faith in McBurnie, but the Sheffield United man is utterly bereft of confidence. If I were the manager I would be thinking about which forwards I would want to have on my bench if I needed a goal late in the game; for that reason alone I think Griffiths should be picked but Nisbet seems to be ahead of him in the queue. Burke, Paterson and Shankland have work to do after missing out on the last squad.




    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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  13. hislopsoffsideagain
    It's always fun being a critic, and even more so when it comes to Scottish football. In previous years the criticism of these articles has generally been along the lines of "you didn't rank our s*** player high enough". Except for the season I included St. Johnstone's David McMillan...but who was proven right then, I ask you?


    So this is the ninth year we've ranked the duds signed by Scottish Premiership clubs. Rory Boulding, Stephane Bahoken, Jim Fenlon, Rodney Sneijder, Joey Barton, Eduardo Herrera, Umar Sadiq, Madis Vihmann...who will be this year's 'winner'?


    Well, you won't find out today because the top ten will be published at a later date. But here's the countdown from 25 to 11 to whet your appetite...



    25. EDDIE NOLAN (MOTHERWELL)

    Does this player actually exist? The 32 year old defender joined Motherwell on loan on the last day of the winter window, but has never actually played a game or even sat on the bench. Maybe he's injured. Or maybe he took one look at Lanarkshire and scarpered back south; Motherwell's squad is currently so huge that it's possible no-one's noticed he's gone.



    24. MOHAMED MAOUCHE (ROSS COUNTY)
    Does this player actually exist, part two? John Hughes bigged him up when he signed in January as someone who would add flair to the midfield. But Maouche, who had been out of football for six months prior to joining County, was delayed in joining the squad by quarantine rules, then he was given leave for 'personal reasons', but by early February he was apparently ready to roll. We're still waiting. He hasn't even been a sub.



    23. DJIBRIL DIANI (LIVINGSTON)
    Does this player actually exist, part three? Actually, here the answer is yes; Diani agreed a loan move from Grasshopper Zurich at the start of February but it took nearly two months to sort out a work permit for the French midfielder. So we may actually see him in action after the split.



    22. SCOTT FOX (MOTHERWELL)
    Four different goalkeepers have started matches for Motherwell this season. That number does not include veteran Fox, who wrecked his knee in preseason training and who has been missing for the entire campaign. He probably should be ranked higher on this list just for having his signing announced with a photo of him in some sort of denim bodywarmer/hoodie combo.



    21. ISAAC OLAOFE (ST. JOHNSTONE)
    Callum Davidson brought two players in on loan from former club Millwall. Danny McNamara was a huge success. Isaac Olaofe was not. The forward went back to London in early October having made two substitute appearances; Saints had managed only four goals in their opening ten matches by that point, but Olaofe still couldn't get a look in.



    20. ISAK THORVALDSSON (ST. MIRREN)
    If you think Olaofe's stay in Perth was brief, it was nothing on Thorvaldsson's spell at St. Mirren which lasted just thirty-eight days and two cameos off the bench. Manager Jim Goodwin suggested afterward that homesickness was a big factor, and that Paisley was "a hell of a long way away" from his parent club Norwich. Maybe it just felt like that...



    19. TUNDE OWOLABI (HAMILTON ACCIES)
    Owolabi can probably be classed as a low-risk signing, but he did score 35 goals for FC United of Manchester last season. That's 35 more than he scored for Accies, for whom he started only twice - one of which was a League Cup humiliation at Annan - before being released at the start of February. He is now at Irish club Finn Harps.



    18. JAKE EASTWOOD (KILMARNOCK)
    Goalkeeper Eastwood signed on loan from Sheffield United, and started on opening day against Hibs. Five minutes into his league debut he had a rush of blood to the head and raced out of his box, gifting Martin Boyle a goal in the process. At half-time he was subbed with a thigh injury. He never played again, returning south in January. That forty-five minute long Killie career will go down in infamy. 



    17. MARC MCNULTY (DUNDEE UNITED)
    United fans are actually largely sympathetic towards McNulty, given Micky Mellon's tactical system means his forwards seem to spend bugger all time in the box. But just two years on from winning two international caps, McNulty has managed all of two goals this season - and one of those was a consolation goal at Ibrox. That's a dreadful return.





    16. RYAN EDMONDSON (ABERDEEN)
    Edmondson did score twice in one game against Hamilton, but those were his only goals for Aberdeen. Having been signed on loan after Sam Cosgrove got injured, Edmondson himself got crocked quickly and on returning to fitness discovered Derek McInnes had recruited Marley Watkins. Ultimately he became an impact sub making minimal impact. After going back to Leeds he went on loan to Northampton Town where he's played regularly but only scored once.



    15. JUSTIN JOHNSON (HAMILTON ACCIES)
    Dutch winger Johnson made a handful of appearances for Dundee United five or so years ago, and returned to Scotland after a couple of seasons in the Cypriot Second Division. Now, I know the Scottish Premiership isn't an elite league, but I'd like to think it's a few steps - perhaps an entire flight of stairs - above the Cypriot Second Division. Johnson made seven appearances for Accies, and they never scored a goal whilst he was on the pitch. He left at the end of January and signed for Morton; given he's managed only a couple of sub appearances there (they haven't scored during those either) perhaps the Championship is a bit better than that Cypriot league too?



    14. LARS LOKOTSCH (LIVINGSTON)
    Livingston's approach to strikers this season is similar to mine when playing Football Manager - always looking for a better one and willing to discard even the most recent signings for a guy whose rating is a fraction of a star greater. Lokotsch was plucked from the German fourth tier on a two year deal with an option of a third. He did start a couple of league games but was quickly sidelined as the club brought in upgrades. Lokotsch was loaned to Raith Rovers within a few months, where he mostly sat on the bench, before returning to Germany in January.



    13. NATHAN SHERON (ST. MIRREN)
    The most damning thing one can say about Sheron was that by the autumn he struggled to make the Buddies' bench even when they were naming kids on it. His last appearance for the club was in mid-October; before then he had been a regular in the starting XI but as soon as he was dropped results started to improve. St. Mirren's win percentage in seven league games with him - zero. Their win percentage in league games without him - 38%. If Jim Goodwin had dropped Sheron sooner, they'd have probably made the top six with a bit to spare. Sheron returned to parent club Fleetwood in January, but he's been so inconsquential there that no-one's even updated his Wikipedia bio to say he's gone back.



    12. DIEGO LAXALT (CELTIC)
    At least Laxalt is on loan, which means he will return to Milan this summer and Celtic fans will not have to endure him further. Laxalt was signed to play wing-back, only for Neil Lennon to ditch 3-5-2 within days and leave the Uruguayan playing as a more orthodox left-back, where his defensive frailties were frequently exposed. And I can't look at him, with his ultra-thick spectacles and braided hair, without thinking of his resemblance to Lisa Loeb of early nineties hit 'Stay (I Missed You) fame.



    11. ALBIAN AJETI (CELTIC)

    Celtic weren't short of strikers when they paid a whopping £5m for Ajeti, and after a reasonable start he unsurprisingly became a multi-million pound backup for Odsonne Edouard. If he was brought in to be the Frenchman's successor, the plan has certainly hit the skids. He's scored once since the end of September and John Kennedy even left him out of the matchday squad for the most recent game against Rangers. 


    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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  14. hislopsoffsideagain
    Legend has it that Harold MacMillan, Prime Minister in the late nineteen-fifties, was once asked what is most likely to blow a government off course and replied "events, dear boy, events!"


    As in politics, so in life. And so in football, at least in Inverness. Make no mistake: Caley Thistle, their players and those who run the club have significant responsibility for their current plight too, but it has taken a perfect storm of factors, many of which are out of anyone's control, to leave them where they are - in extreme danger of plummeting into League One.


    At first, it looked like lockdown might be a boon for the Highlanders.


    ICT were second in the Championship when play stopped in March 2020, albeit miles adrift of Dundee United. Whilst holding onto that second spot was hardly a given in a very close division there were grounds to expect a top four finish and another shot at the promotion playoffs. But when the season was called early talk turned to 'reconstruction' and the possibility of expanding the Premiership to fourteen clubs and keeping Hearts in the top tier. Inverness would have been the beneficiaries of the need for an even number of participants.


    So how do you get from there to freefall in such a short space of time?


    Last summer was always going to require a rebuild - Shaun Rooney, Carl Tremarco, Charlie Trafford, Tom Walsh and Jordan White left, following Coll Donaldson and Jamie McCart last January - and recruitment was going to be tough anyway given the club's tight finances. Add in the money lost because of Covid, and travel restrictions - try selling the prospect of not seeing friends and family for months to potential new signings - and in hindsight John Robertson did remarkably well to tempt Robbie Deas, Scott Allardice and Wallace Duffy north. It also explains why the team are rather more reliant on Shane Sutherland (who returned to full-time football after years at Elgin and Peterhead) and Daniel Devine (whose partner is from Aviemore) than a club with promotion aspirations should be.


    The coup de grace was the arrival on loan of winger Kai Kennedy from Rangers. Kennedy had good and bad days - as all young wide players do - but he particularly shone in a 3-0 win in Dumfries live on TV on a Friday night. By January, he was gone; the reason - homesickness - a stark example of the difficulties that people face in these trying times. In a division where the majority of clubs have four or more loan players boosting squad depth, Caley Thistle are unique in currently having none.


    But in that victory away to Queen of the South and another at home to Raith Rovers the week before, ICT were impressive and dominant, looking every inch like a side who would be in the promotion playoff mix. Since then they have won just one of twelve matches.


    Kennedy's departure was supposed to be compensated for by the arrival of former Hearts youth Anthony McDonald but he picked up an injury before even playing a game and had surgery last week. A thin squad - even more so because Kevin McHattie, Lewis Toshney and Aaron Doran were frequently in the treatment room - has been stretched further after a run of postponements has left them with a hectic two-games-a-week schedule for February and March. Those matches were supposed to produce momentum for a surge up the table but the opposite has been true, with tired players low on confidence struggling against fresher, buoyed opposition. Nine midweek matches have been played this season in all competitions, the opposition (Cowdenbeath, Raith, Dunfermline, Morton twice, Arbroath, Alloa, Queen of the South and Dundee) hardly overwhelming. Inverness have not won any of them. They are in action on the next two Tuesdays.


    Then there's the problems in the dugout, with the double blow of first losing assistant manager Scott Kellacher to serious illness and then the need for manager Robertson to take compassionate leave following a bereavement with no return date timetabled. Only a fortnight in, all but the first twenty minutes of interim replacement Neil McCann's tenure has been horrendous, with a promising draw with Hearts followed up by limp defeat at Dundee, a rather undeserved draw at bottom-of-the-table Alloa and then another loss at home to Morton (who had been winless in ten!).


    McCann has come into a rough situation, but as many feared he has insisted on using the blueprint that didn't work especially well for him when he was in charge at Dens Park. Playing out from the back is a risky strategy with elite players. With Championship players on Championship pitches it becomes especially dicey. To insist on it in driving wind and rain, as was the case in the Morton match, is insane. There are already worrying parallels to be drawn with John Hughes' infamous spell in charge of Raith a few years back where his insistence on a similar style with a struggling side led to disaster.


    There is an awful lot for the supporters to be frustrated with - and that's before we even get to the lousy online streams they've had to pay for this season, including the national embarrassment of the Pixellot camera system which couldn't tell the difference between a football and a linesman's head. It is hard to make watching Caley Thistle more painful just now is having to view it through Pixellot just about manages to do so.


    The last two seasons have seen two full-time clubs - Falkirk and Partick Thistle - suffer an almighty collapse and drop into League One. Don't bet against Caley Thistle following them there.


    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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  15. hislopsoffsideagain
    We have only a couple of months of the season left, and by my count there are - at the time of writing - 141 Premiership players whose contracts are up in the summer. With Covid having impacted finances there are going to be some big budgetary decisions at some clubs to come. And there are many well-known names - often club stalwarts - who may be at risk of the axe. Here's my take on who will stay and who will go...(as ever, I look forward to being proven completely and utterly wrong) 


    ABERDEEN
    Out of contract (9): Bruce Anderson, Michael Devlin, Tommie Hoban, Greig Leigh, Shay Logan, Niall McGinn, Ethan Ross, Ash Taylor, Miko Virtanen
    Loans ending (4): Callum Hendry, Fraser Hornby, Florian Kamberi, Gary Woods
    There are some significant decisions ahead for Derek McInnes. Are long-time club servants McGinn and Logan (both mostly substitutes this season) finished at this level? Are injury-prone defenders Devlin, Hoban and Leigh worth persisting with? Both Hoban and Taylor have played plenty this season. Ross and Virtanen have recently been recalled from loan spells to sit on the bench, while Anderson seems unlikely to get a new deal given that he has been loaned out to Hamilton.
    It's certainly possible that some or all of the Dons' loan signings could extend their stay; Woods would be a good veteran backup for Joe Lewis, while Hendry, Hornby and Kamberi all have the chance to impress.


    CELTIC
    Out of contract (3): Scott Brown, Karamoko Dembele, Armstrong Okoflex
    Loans ending (4): Shane Duffy, Mohamed Elyounoussi, Jonjoe Kenny, Diego Laxalt
    Brown will be 36 in the summer and it's hard to see a scenario in which he's a regular contributor next season. If his leadership will be badly missed, it's because Celtic have totally failed to prepare for a future without him. But the player himself has claimed he has been told "it is completely and utterly up to myself  whether I want to stay"...isn't that a decision that needs to be made by an incoming DoF and Head Coach?
    Dembele and Okoflex were once considered wonderkids and their failure to fulfil their potential so far does not reflect well on anyone.
    The supporters would probably like to forget as soon as possible that Duffy and Laxalt ever played for them. Surely Elyounoussi will not remain for a third year on loan at a club where he is in and out of the team. And surely Kenny, only a year removed from impressing in the Bundesliga, will set his sights higher than staying at Celtic for the long term.
    I imagine most Celtic fans will look at the list of names above and think to themselves "I wish this list was longer"...


    DUNDEE UNITED
    Out of contract (2): Peter Pawlett, Dillon Powers
    Loans ending (2): Luke Bolton, Marc McNulty
    United have remarkably few players not under contract beyond the summer, so there's not much to say here. Neither Pawlett nor Powers has impressed enough to earn a new deal. McNulty has been a disappointment during his loan spell, while Bolton has been in and out of the side.


    HAMILTON ACCIES
    Out of contract (9): Brian Easton, Kyle Gourlay, Aaron Martin, Reegan Mimnaugh, Kyle Munro, Hakeem Odoffin, Marios Ogkmpoe, George Stanger, Nathan Thomas
    Loans ending (2): Bruce Anderson, Lee Hodson
    Obviously Hamilton's actions will heavily depend on whether they stay up, but regardless they will struggle to hold onto Odoffin, who has been so impressive in recent months in midfield. Ogkmpoe continues to be a first choice up front and one assumes there will be a new deal for him if he wants it. Easton has largely stayed fit this season and would certainly be a sentimental choice for a new contract. Martin has been a first choice since signing. Munro and Mimnaugh are on the fringes of the starting lineup and are more likely to be extended than fellow youngster Stanger. Gourlay would probably be a cheap backup keeper. Thomas has rarely played due to injuries.
    Regarding the loan players, Hodson may fancy finally putting down some roots after a string of loan moves. Anderson has found a better fit here than at Aberdeen and I bet Brian Rice would love to keep him.


    HIBERNIAN
    Out of contract (5): Kevin Dabrowski, Jackson Irvine, Matt Macey, Ofir Marciano, Stephen McGinn
    Loans ending:
    Three of these players are the club's three goalkeepers. Marciano has been offered a new deal but is wanted by clubs in his native Israel. Macey has played understudy to since arriving in January, while Dabrowski impressed on loan at Dumbarton earlier in the season but its unclear if Hibs consider him to be a potential number one going forward.
    As for the outfielders, Irvine may fancy he could get better wages if he returned south, while McGinn was signed only as a depth piece and its hard to see him making many first team appearances going forward.


    KILMARNOCK
    Out of contract (25): Tomas Brindley, Kirk Broadfoot, Chris Burke, Innes Cameron, Kyle Connell, Diaguely Dabo, Euan Deveney, Gary Dicker, Clevid Dikamona, Nicke Kabamba, Greg Kiltie, Kyle Lafferty, Ross Millen, Youssouf Mulumbu, George Oakley, Mitch Pinnock, Josh Rennie, Danny Rogers, Craig Ross, Keir Russell, Ally Taylor, Aaron Tshibola, Steven Warnock, Calum Waters, Danny Whitehall
    Loans ending (4): Colin Doyle, Zech Medley, Brandon Pierrick, Zeno Rossi
    This Killie list is bloated by the number of youngsters who made first team appearances in the League Cup due to a Covid outbreak - it also means that it's possible I'm wrong about their contract status.
    Looking at the more established players, it will be interesting to see how Tommy Wright feels about veterans like Broadfoot, Burke, Dicker and Mulumbu. Lafferty may see this short-term contract as putting himself in the shop window, but his arrival has limited minutes for Kabamba, Oakley and Whitehall. It would be a surprise if first choice keeper Rogers left. Tshibola has been reliable enough too, while the jury is out on Dabo, Alex Dyer's last signing. Dikamona has been a disappointment and may not be as cheap to resign as fellow defenders Millen and Waters, though whether the latter two are up to standard is another matter. Kiltie has shown flashes but might benefit from a change of scenery. Pinnock hasn't really shown any flashes at all.
    One suspects that if Brindley, Cameron, Connell and Taylor haven't broken into the lineup by now they probably never will.
    It's unlikely any of the loan players remain after May. Doyle was a convenient backup keeper while Medley, Rossi and Pierrick are clearly here with a view to development.


    LIVINGSTON
    Out of contract (14): Efe Ambrose, Raffaele De Vita, Nicky Devlin, Jay Emmanuel-Thomas, Jon Guthrie, Steve Lawson, Alan Lithgow, Gary Maley, Josh Mullen, Carlo Pignatiello, Scott Robinson, Ross Stewart, Aaron Taylor-Sinclair, Scott Tiffoney
    Loans ending (3): Djibril Diani, Robby McCrorie, Julien Serrano
    It's safe to assume Livi will want to hold onto Devlin, Guthrie, Mullen and Robinson, all of whom have been significant contributors this season. Ambrose's age may work against him a bit, while Lawson has looked good when playing but hasn't played that much. Lithgow's future may be up in the air due to long-term injury, while De Vita and Stewart have been out on loan this season and shouldn't be expected back. Emmanuel-Thomas, Taylor-Sinclair and Tiffoney have failed to establish themselves and are likely to go too. If Maley gets a new deal, this year it probably won't be put to an internet vote...
    Serrano has made himself the first choice left-back and you could see a permanent deal being worked out there. McCrorie hasn't had a great season though while Diani hasn't played yet and so is a complete unknown.


    MOTHERWELL
    Out of contract (18): Allan Campbell, Aaron Chapman, Robbie Crawford, Devante Cole, Dean Cornelius, David Devine, Charles Dunne, Sam Foley, Scott Fox, Declan Gallagher, Christopher Long, Ross Maciver, Bevis Mugabi, Stephen O'Donnell, Liam Polworth, Harry Robinson, Sherwin Seedorf, Jamie Semple
    Loans ending (6): Jake Hastie, Liam Kelly, Tyler Magloire, Eddie Nolan, Jordan Roberts, Harry Smith
    This is a long list, so - assuming Well don't go down - there's certainly going to be an opportunity for Graham Alexander to revamp this squad if he so wishes. It would seem unlikely that Campbell, Gallagher or O'Donnell will remain; Gallagher has supposedly triggered an extension in his contract but the club have been coy about that and he has a lot of suitors. Meanwhile don't expect to see Chapman, Foley, Robinson or Seedorf retained, and long-term absentees Fox and Dunne will find it hard to justify new deals. Alexander will probably want to keep first team regulars Cole, Crawford and Mugabi, but Polworth is out of favour just now and Long only came back to the club last summer after not finding a better offer elsewhere.
    Goalkeeper Kelly and centre-back Magloire have impressed on loan so far, while Roberts has already shown more than he did for Hearts. They're more likely to stay for the long-term than Hastie (who has been a non-factor), Smith (who has been mostly injured) and Nolan (who may not even exist).


    RANGERS
    Out of contract (9):  Leon Balogun, Jamie Barjonas, Steven Davis, Jermain Defoe, Daniel Finlayson, Andy Firth, Allan McGregor, Dapo Mebude, Greg Stewart
    Loans ending (1): Bongani Zungu


    It's already safe to say that there will be no new deal for 38 year old Defoe, now fourth choice striker despite being on £30,000/week, but 36 year old Davis is still highly thought of and Steven Gerrard wants him to stay. Stewart will be away, and Barjonas, Finlayson and Mebude will need to try their luck elsewhere after failing to make the step up from the academy. Firth is probably an inexpensive third choice keeper.
    The main questions are whether 39 year old McGregor hangs up his gloves, whether Balogun has done enough as a useful backup to justify a new deal and whether the recent Covid embarrassment scuppers Zungu's chances of signing permanently.


    ROSS COUNTY
    Out of contract (20): Tony Andreu, Josh Black, Ross Draper, Michael Gardyne, Jermaine Hylton, Ross Laidlaw, Mohamed Maouche, Billy Mckay, Callum Morris, Ross Munro, Jason Naismith, Connor Randall, Blair Spittal, Jordan Tillson, Carl Tremarco, Iain Vigurs, Keith Watson, Jordan White, Ben Williamson, Matthew Wright
    Loans ending (4): Joe Hilton, Leo Hjelde, Stephen Kelly, Charlie Lakin
    The future of a lot of these players will be dependent on what division County play in next year, not least because John Hughes is unlikely to stay on if they go down. The club tend to look after players who have had long tenures, so Gardyne and Vigurs may be kept on with a view to joining the coaching staff further down the line. Also likely to stay regardless are first choice keeper Laidlaw and striker White, who previously spent two years in the Highlands with Inverness. Likely to leave are Draper - whose injury history will make it hard to justify retaining him.- Tremarco, who is well past his best, and Maouche who hasn't even played for the club due to a mixture of injury and personal issues. As for the rest, only Naismith is likely to have Premiership suitors.
    None of the loanees are likely to stay, with the parent clubs of all four likely to see this as a step in their development.


    ST. JOHNSTONE
    Out of contract (15): Callum Booth, Craig Bryson, Craig Conway, Liam Craig, Murray Davidson, Charlie Gilmour, Olly Hamilton, Chris Kane, Stevie May, Guy Melamed, Jordan Northcott, Michael O'Halloran, Elliot Parish, John Robertson, Scott Tanser
    Loans ending (2): James Brown, Glenn Middleton
    Callum Davidson has to decide whether his four veteran midfielders - Bryson (34), Conway (36 in May), Craig (34) and Murray Davidson (33) - are worth extensions. Up front, there are also decisions to be made on Kane and Melamed, who have played well for the last few months, and May and O'Halloran, who have not. You'd imagine one or both left-backs, Booth and Tanser, will be kept on, while Parish is a satisfactory backup keeper. Winter signing Gilmour hasn't had a chance to impress yet while academy products Hamilton, Northcott and Robertson are not really in first team contention.
    Neither of the loan players have forced their way into the first XI so far and there's no sign that either of them have been brought in with a view to remaining long term.


    ST. MIRREN
    Out of contract (12): Cameron Breadner, Dylan Connelly, Jake Doyle-Hayes, Ilkay Durmus, Ryan Flynn, Marcus Fraser, Lewis Jamieson, Nicholas McAllister, Junior Morias, Jonathan Obika, Collin Quaner, Peter Urminsky
    Loans ending (2): Daniel Finlayson, Brandon Mason
    The Buddies will make Eamonn Brophy's loan move permanent in the summer. Jim Goodwin's priority will be retaining Fraser, who has had the best season of his career, and Doyle-Hayes. Connelly and Durmus have also seen plenty of action this season and Obika remains a fan favourite. 
    In contrast, Morias, who is out on loan, will surely be away and Urminsky has failed to rise beyond third choice keeper. Quaner has barely played since arriving in February and so is hard to assess. Finlayson hasn't played at all since joining on loan from Rangers last autumn and Mason has only featured intermittently so don't expect them to stay on.


    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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  16. hislopsoffsideagain
    Right, the Neil Lennon era is finally over. The lame duck of the last several months has quacked its last. It would seem a bit cruel for someone to recount how it came to this, to rub salt into the wound...

    So now the question is: where do Celtic go from here?


    They are a distant second to Rangers, eighteen points adrift. They have no manager, no Director of Football and the new Chief Executive does not start until the summer. They have several key players likely to leave at the end of the season, and so much deadwood in the squad that you could build an ark out of it (the mediocre left-backs went in two-by-two, hurrah, hurrah...). Whilst they will be in the Champions League qualifiers, the path to the group stage potentially includes matches against French, Portuguese or Russian opponents. And don't forget Covid and its effect on finances; the club lost £6m between June and December alone.


    But as Einstein once said, "in the midst of every crisis lies great opportunity". Can Celtic turn this into a moment where they reinvent themselves and drag themselves back towards not only the domestic title but also European success? Basically, is this going to be a John Barnes/Kenny Dalglish disaster, or a Martin O'Neill miracle?


    Here's what needs to be done. It's a hell of a job. In short (much to the chagrin of the supporters), they need to copy what their greatest rivals have done in the last year or two...


    THE NEW MANAGER
    I prepare to be proved wrong - I never expected Brendan Rodgers to come to Scotland - but it could be very difficult for the club to attract a name with high pedigree. One issue is that Brexit means that managers from outside the UK will need work permits, which could prove quite tricky and prevent the club snaring the 21st century equivalent of Wim Jansen. Of foreign coaches mentioned in dispatches, Rafa Benitez is surely unrealistic, whilst Roberto Martinez's exploits with Belgium would surely leave him fancying he could do better. Eddie Howe makes more sense but there may be jobs closer to home (Crystal Palace? Newcastle?) that could come up in the near future. In contrast, Steve Clarke may see this as a step up but he surely wouldn't leave Scotland until they were knocked out of the Euros and would therefore only have a few weeks in the job before the new season.


    In short, this search could be long and laborious. One hopes that the club, already having realized Lennon was a busted flush, have already started it.


    RECRUITMENT
    It's plain for all to see that standards have dropped dramatically since Lennon replaced Brendan Rodgers. There have been unkind (and probably accurate) suggestions that signing policy was being run as much by Peter Lawwell as by the coaching staff. Regardless, Celtic do not have a philosophy in place for how the first team is going to play and how to build the squad around that. Lennon did insist last summer on moving to a 3-5-2 and recruiting with a view to that, but those tactics made little sense given the players he had available - shoehorning James Forrest into a wing-back role and leaving little room for Mo Elyounoussi, Tom Rogic and Ryan Christie - and the quality of opposition; three centre-backs and a defensive midfielder against Hamilton Accies?


    Meanwhile the youth academy continues to offer only crumbs. Mikey Johnston is perenially injured, while the jury is out on whether Stephen Welsh can be the next Stephen McManus or the next Stephen Crainey. Kids who were hyped up a few years ago such as Karamoko Dembele, Armstrong Oko-flex and Cameron Harper are set to leave having failed to make the grade, with poor development and a lack of a realistic pathway to the first team among the reasons for this.


    Celtic seem to have been in the market for a Director Of Football for sometime now, and finding one who will mesh well with the new manager/head coach is critical. Perhaps the best strategy would be to appoint the DoF first? Bouncing around from one strategy to another is not an efficient or cost-effective strategy in modern football and doing so (Lennon to Deila to Rodgers to Lennon) is one of the reasons they have ended up in this mess. Celtic can aspire to get back in the Champions League in the next year or two, but the process of turning them into a club that can get there on a regular basis again will take much, much longer.


    THE SQUAD
    It's probably best to look at this by position group, but damn it's going to be a big job for the new boss to sort this out.


    GOALKEEPER
    This mainly depends on whether Vasilis Barkas is salvageable. It's safe to say that for £4.5m Celtic expected a rather safer pair of hands. Scott Bain is an acceptable backup but nothing more, whilst Conor Hazard went from cup final starter to persona non grata in the space of a few weeks; it's not even clear whether he has signed a new contract or not. Barkas wouldn't be the first goalie who has a difficult first season and makes a huge leap in his second, but if not then Celtic will be back in the goalie market again.


    DEFENCE
    Kristoffer Ajer will probably leave as he only has one year left on his contract; his stagnation under Lennon may well cost the club several million pounds. Shane Duffy and Diego Laxalt have been loan duds; Jonjoe Kenny is a far better player but convincing the right-back to make his move from Everton permanent may not be easy. Anthony Ralston is under contract for another year but clearly has no future here. And neither do Boli Bolingoli, Jack Hendry or Lee O'Connor, who are all out on loan currently.


    So that leaves Christopher Jullien, Greg Taylor and Stephen Welsh. And Jullien may not even be fit for the start of next season. Eek. I suppose you could also count Nir Bitton as a defender, though as far as I can see Lennon was the only person who did.


    MIDFIELD
    Scott Brown will be thirty-six in June and it's clearly time to put him out to pasture/melt him down for glue (delete as applicable depending on how you feel about him). Tom Rogic is likely to take up an offer from an Asian club, and it's hard to see Mo Elyounoussi returning for a third season on loan or Olivier Ntcham coming back from his temporary move to Marseille. The good news is that Ismaila Soro, Callum McGregor and David Turnbull can probably provide a pretty balanced central midfield, but there's a real need for depth here. Scott Robertson is that rarest of things - an Academy product who the club have high hopes for. A new manager might light a fire under youngster Ewan Henderson too?


    ATTACK
    I think its safe to assume Odsonne Edouard will be offski with only a year to go on his current deal, and the smart money is on Ryan Christie looking for a new challenge as well. Celtic will not be short of numbers up front, but they might be short on quality. There's Albian Ajeti, who has scored a few goals but who really should have made more of an impact given his £5m transfer fee; Patryk Klimala, a £3.5m dud; the erratic Leigh Griffiths; and the forgotten Vakoun Bayo. Out wide there's another failure in Marian Shved (whose arrival actually predates Lennon), plus Mikey 'Mr Glass' Johnston and James Forrest, who is close to a return from a long injury layoff.


    There will presumably be cash to spend, especially if there are outgoings; Edouard in particular should fetch a huge fee. But whoever takes this job has a heck of a job on their hands. And unlike Brendan Rodgers a few years ago, he has a proper opponent on the other side of Glasgow who could make life very, very difficult for them.


    Celtic simply cannot afford to get this wrong.




    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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  17. hislopsoffsideagain
    Back in the olden days, when everything was in black and white - or maybe it just felt like that in Aberdeen at the start of the 2000s - I was a regular visitor at Pittodrie. One season under Ebbe Skovdahl the Dons finished fourth in the league; later on under Jimmy Calderwood they came fourth three times and third once. Other league finishes in the early years of the twenty-first century include eighth, eleventh, ninth, ninth, ninth, eighth. And of course there was Skovdahl's first campaign, where they were spared relegation only because Falkirk's ground was at risk of falling down at any moment.


    Leon Mike, Laurent D'Jaffo, Leigh Hinds, David Zdrilic, Lubomir Blaha, Dyron Daal, David Bus, Jerel Ifill...doubtless Aberdeen fans will remember plenty more duffers from that era, but these were names that jogged this particular memory, and not in a nice way. It does no harm to remember that things could, and have been, a heck of a lot worse.


    However, that does not necessarily mean that Derek McInnes should get a free pass.


    Times have changed during the seven years that Deek has managed the Dons. Expectations are higher, and should be. Part of that is down to his own success - four consecutive second places (which would have been five but for a missed foul on the keeper in the final match of the 2013-14 season) - but also investment in the club is rather higher than it was in the dog days of Skovdahl, Steve Paterson and even Craig Brown. The club have the third highest wage bill in Scotland, and by that measure alone coming fourth in each of the last two seasons behind Steve Clarke's Kilmarnock and Stephen Robinson's Motherwell respectively is an underachievement. And there has been just one trophy, a League Cup.


    There is a school of thought that after a few years under the same manager football clubs often become stale, and that is the perfect adjective for how things feel in the North-East. Arguably the peak was the 2016-17 season where they reached both cup finals and went toe-to-toe with Celtic's invincibles in the Scottish Cup Final. Four years later, six of the fourteen who played that day are still at the club, but only keeper Joe Lewis (who has not had a great season by his standards) is really anywhere near that level any more. Shay Logan is rarely trusted now, Andrew Considine's Scotland cap feelgood story shouldn't distract from the fact that he is past his best, and Jonny Hayes, Ash Taylor and Niall McGinn - each of whom left and then came back - appear to be very much on the decline. 


    Rebuilding the team has not gone to plan. In three and a half years, one could argue the only unequivocally successful signings have been Gary Mackay-Steven (now long gone), Lewis Ferguson, Ross McCrorie and Sam Cosgrove (sold for good money last week). The list of duds is rather longer: Michael Devlin and Ronald Hernandez in defence, Greg Tansey, Chris Forrester, Stephen Gleeson, Craig Bryson, Funso Ojo and Dylan McGeouch in midfield as McInnes used up significant resources trying to replicate the Jack-Shinnie-McLean trio in the centre of the park; Curtis Main and James Wilson up front.


    Worse, the club's youth system has not exactly come up trumps, with the exception of Scott McKenna. Scott Wright only shone in fits and bursts, while we're still waiting for Connor McLennan to put it all together and beginning to wonder if Bruce Anderson ever will.


    It's not just personnel that are the problem. Aberdeen's philosophy has not evolved at all since McInnes first arrived. This is especially noticeable when they are out of possession, with a focus on man-to-man marking all over the pitch and immediate pressing of the ball when it is lost. This previously worked well when the overall quality of the team was higher and when they played so much of the game in the opposition half, but now most opponents have them worked out. Teams who are good enough in possession to beat that initial press find space between the lines, and players who are clever enough to switch position (especially coming off the wing) can easily cause havoc with the shape of the team.


    In attack there continues to be a focus on getting it wide and sticking it in the box, which is simply not the most effective way of scoring goals in the modern game. Neither the wide players nor the forwards have been consistently dangerous for months now; Cosgrove had scored only twice from open play in twenty-seven matches before his departure, while Main is a player who can only be effective in nineteen-eighties hoofball. To make matters worse the one impressive forward, Marley Watkins, got injured during his loan spell and returned south. Their leading assist providers, Hayes and Ryan Hedges, are averaging one assist every eight league games. Hedges is now out for the season.


    The deadline day wheeler-dealing in strikers felt very un-McInnes, a throw of the dice from a manager who generally seems risk-averse. Given everything else, such unorthodoxy is probably not a bad thing. The odds of one or more of Fraser Hornby, Callum Hendry and Florian Kamberi proving their worth are probably decent, but it feels like an act of desperation than a cunning plan. If it turns out as a double six, revitalizes the place and drags the Dons back into third place with some momentum, then maybe, just maybe, there is still a future at Aberdeen for the current boss. But it does feel like too little to late, like change is inevitable.


    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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  18. hislopsoffsideagain
    It is ten months since Covid forced Scottish football into lockdown. After all this time we still have no fans at matches, all divisions from League One downwards have been stopped until at least the end of January and the Scottish Cup has been halted. How depressing.


    And that is of course because of the even more miserable fact that Covid is still out there. Vaccination will hopefully provide a light at the end of the tunnel. But for Scottish football clubs that light cannot be reached quickly enough, and there is always the underlying fear that it will turn out that the end of said tunnel is on fire.


    It is reassuring that so far none of the 42 SPFL clubs have hit the wall, and that none appear to be in imminent danger of doing so. Government grants of £500,000 to each Championship club, £150,000 to each League One club and £100,000 to each League Two club, coupled with the philanthropy of James Anderson, have been a real boon.


    Meanwhile Premiership clubs can access a reasonably generous loan scheme from the government. This week Kilmarnock were the first team to confirm they'll be taking up this opportunity, admitting they expect a seven figure loss for this season. That's a huge sum of money for a club of their size and there's no reason to believe other similar-sized top flight clubs - with the exception of Motherwell, who sold David Turnbull to Celtic for megabucks - aren't in the same boat, even despite taking advantage of the furlough scheme during the spring and summer.


    But that government support should mean they can weather the storm till the end of the season...as long as the season ends.


    The big fear now for Premiership - and other SPFL - clubs has to be that Covid forces things to a halt again. That would mean missing out on several million pounds of TV money from Sky Sports and would therefore reduce the size of the prize money pot drastically. 


    And while the top flight has managed (with a few notable exceptions) to keep going since August, the bottom line is that Covid restrictions were a lot more relaxed then than they are now. The halting of the lower divisions seems based on the not unreasonable logic that sending mostly part-time players, who may be exposed to Covid as part of their day jobs, all around the country is not especially wise; in order to continue, Championship clubs have had to start their own testing regimens. At a cost of £18,000 per month, I wonder whether a few of those teams might be quite happy to stop too; instead of paying players to play in front of no fans, they'd be able to go back to furloughing and save money.


    One potential consequence of that though would be one which is also staring League One and League Two in the face: not being able to complete this season either. Whilst calling the leagues by points-per-game was pretty acceptable after playing so much of the 2019/20 season, the clubs outside the Premiership are not even halfway into a truncated twenty-seven match 2020/21 campaign. Clyde of League One and Cowdenbeath and Albion Rovers of League Two have only played eight games. Can promotion and relegation be decided if clubs can only play each other twice - or worse, if they can't even manage that? I imagine that scenario gives Ann Budge at Tynecastle sleepless nights.


    League One and Two clubs have apparently sent a plan to the SPFL for restarting in the next few weeks. My cynicism is somewhat heightened by the fact that virtually no details of the plan are in the public eye aside from a commitment to testing. Given the cost of the protocols that the bigger clubs follow would surely be prohibitive (and I'm sure the Scottish Government would not look kindly on large chunks of public money being frittered away on tests) I suspect the plan advocates use of the cheaper lateral flow tests...which by any medical standard are a pretty lousy test. I would be surprised if such a scheme garnered support.


    For too often it is forgotten that the welfare of football, and of the clubs, is of minor importance compared to that of society in general. For all Neil Doncaster's claims that Scottish football is too important to the economy, it was last estimated to be worth £214m a year (0.12% of GDP) and support 5700 FTE jobs; for comparison, Debenhams employed 11,000 people in Scotland alone before it's recent crisis. It could be argued - and I bet it will be by folk who aren't interested in the sport - that the government have been very generous in their support, especially given much of the value of the game and many of the jobs it supports will be focussed very much on two big Glasgow teams...and I don't mean Partick Thistle and Queen's Park.


    So it is quite possible that until restrictions are eased considerably, which may be several months away, that the lower leagues will remain in stasis. Heck, if there is another outbreak at a Premiership or Championship club in the near future, despite all their protocols, one might imagine the pressure to halt those divisions becoming too great.


    Ditto if there is another scandal anywhere near the level of Dubaigate. And it did not go unnoticed that in amongst a rant that will rank up there with the Jim MacLean punch and Billy Brown's Bin Places, Dun Hings as one of the most infamous Scottish football interviews of all time, Neil Lennon decided to take aim at St Johnstone and Hamilton Accies, whom he suggested had not provided Covid-friendly facilities for Celtic when they had visited.


    Both clubs have strongly denied this - St Johnstone's assertion that they gave Celtic four dressing rooms suggests that Lennon's comments were mostly a combination of whataboutery and vindictiveness - but then Derek McInnes poured a bit more fuel onto this dumpster fire by saying "there are a couple of grounds where the concerns are clear right from the outset and you are a bit nervous about that next Covid test."


    This is not helpful to anyone. From a public health viewpoint, if clubs had concerns they should have been raised immediately and not alluded to weeks later when any damage will have been done. For the powers that be, this innuendo just gives politicians more ammunition if they do decide to force a stoppage.


    For all Lennon's ravings about a 'political' agenda, I'd say it could be argued that the government have been pretty good to Scottish football during all of this. Now the question is whether our game can be careful enough, clever enough and, I daresay, lucky enough to get out the other end of this frightful era.


    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
  19. hislopsoffsideagain
    It would be absolutely typical if having qualified for Euro 2020, with two games in Glasgow, Scotland weren't allowed to play in front of fans...or worse, that the tournament gets wiped out due to the ongoing pandemic.


    Still, here's hoping.


    There's still five months to go, but that hasn't stopped me taking a look at the candidates to make the final twenty-three man squad. I've broken it down by position and taken a look at who is already (injury permitting) certain to be in that twenty-three and the other players trying to fight for their place in history.


    I actually did something similar last May, mostly as a laugh as I never seriously believed we would pull it off. Players who have disappeared off my radar since then include Charlie Mulgrew (nearly 35 and playing for Fleetwood Town in League One), Stuart Findlay (good but not that good for Kilmarnock since Steve Clarke left), Steven Naismith (34 and on the decline) and Johnny Russell (unable currently to be called up for travel reasons).


    So here's where I think things stand right now...


    GOALKEEPERS
    CERTAINTIES: David Marshall
    PROBABLES: Craig Gordon, Jon McLaughlin
    MAYBES:
    LONG SHOTS: Robby McCrorie, Liam Kelly, Scott Bain, Craig MacGillivray


    Marshall is not only Scotland's number one, he'll also never have to buy a drink in this country again after his heroics in Serbia. Whilst the third choice keeper pretty much never plays, it seems unlikely that Clarke will give that slot to a future prospect...even more so given Robby McCrorie can't even get a game at Livingston just now. So Gordon and McLaughlin are very likely to be the other two keepers, with the likes of Bain, Kelly and MacGillivray likely to be the next-man-up if one of the veteran trio gets injured.


    FULL-BACKS
    CERTAINTIES: Andrew Robertson, Kieran Tierney
    PROBABLES: Stephen O'Donnell, Liam Palmer
    MAYBES: Greg Taylor
    LONG SHOTS: Paul McGinn, Ryan Fredericks, Aaron Hickey


    I've listed Tierney here as a full-back even though he is most likely to be used on the left side of a back three. Obviously he would provide backup for Robertson and possibly even on the right side as an emergency. Greg Taylor is a Clarke favourite but he's not getting much gametime at Celtic just now. Hickey, who is playing plenty in Serie A, would probably be just as good an option at left-back if Clarke felt he needed another one in the squad. 


    Right-back remains an issue; neither O'Donnell nor Palmer have let Scotland down when called upon but neither can hold a candle to whoever is lining up at left-back. However unless Ryan Fredericks of West Ham changes his mind - apparently he's turned down Clarke before - the duo are our least bad options in the position. McGinn would seem to be the emergency option.


    CENTRE-BACKS
    CERTAINTIES: Declan Gallagher, Scott McTominay
    PROBABLES: Scott McKenna, Liam Cooper
    MAYBES: Andrew Considine, Grant Hanley
    LONG SHOTS: Paul Hanlon, Ryan Porteous, Steven Caulker


    I've put McTominay in this category rather than in midfield as he's likely to stay in the back three for a while yet. Gallagher has excelled in recent international appearances and it's hard to see him getting displaced from the starting XI. If anyone can do so it is probably McKenna, who lost his place in the starting lineup when injured but has done pretty well since moving to England in the Autumn. Cooper and Considine both offer left-footed options; the latter has done better in an international shirt but the former has greater pedigree at club level.


    Hanley has come back into the reckoning with some fine performances for Norwich this season. Whilst Porteous is clearly one for the future, it's hard to see the 21 year old or his veteran Hibs teammate Hanlon leapfrogging enough names to make the final squad.


    Thrown in here as a wild card option is Caulker, who has turned his career around in Turkey and has made no secret of his wish to represent Scotland.


    MIDFIELDERS
    CERTAINTIES: John McGinn, Callum MacGregor, Ryan Jack
    PROBABLES: Kenny McLean
    MAYBES: John Fleck
    LONG SHOTS: Billy Gilmour, David Turnbull, Ross McCrorie


    The Jack-McGinn-McGregor trio offers excellent balance in midfield and with McTominay needed in defence it's hard to see anyone breaking them up. McLean has done well in the anchor role in the past though and came off the bench against Israel and Serbia.


    Fleck seems like a like-for-like backup for MacGregor but he has had a tough season so far at club level and that could leave him on the edge, especially if Turnbull continues his fine recent form. It feels like Gilmour is on the verge of becoming a regular at Chelsea; if he does so in the next few months he'll be impossible to ignore. McCrorie was called up for the last international but he is probably the longest of long shots. 


    ATTACKING MIDFIELDERS/WINGERS
    CERTAINTIES: Stuart Armstrong, Ryan Christie, Ryan Fraser
    PROBABLES: James Forrest
    MAYBES:
    LONG SHOTS: Mikey Johnston


    If Forrest gets back to full fitness he'll surely be in the squad, but he hasn't played since September. A relative dearth of wingers means that Johnston, who is possibly even more injury-prone than Forrest, could be a surprise beneficiary if his Celtic teammate is injured.


    Meanwhile there's no way Armstrong, Christie and Fraser won't be named...unless Fraser gets hurt again. The latter two would compete for the second striker role. Armstrong is unfortunate that Clarke's formation doesn't really suit him, but his versatility is enormously helpful and he's just playing too well to leave out.


    FORWARDS
    CERTAINTIES: Lyndon Dykes
    PROBABLES: Oli McBurnie, Leigh Griffiths
    MAYBES: Oli Burke, Lawrence Shankland, Callum Paterson
    LONG SHOTS: Che Adams, Kevin Nisbet, Steven Fletcher


    Dykes just fits the system so well that it's hard to believe anyone can displace him from the lineup. The best bet would be Griffiths, if the Celtic striker can return to the form of three years ago. McBurnie continues to be a divisive figure to say the least but he has all the tools; it's just that he hasn't done it for Scotland (yet, I hope). Given the other options he's still a good bet to be a backup.


    Paterson is intriguing because of his ability to play at right-back and in midfield which in an international tournament may prove useful. Shankland has the advantage of having his foot through the door but Nisbet's better goalscoring record this season can't be ignored. Burke offers something of an X-factor but his lack of end product remains infuriating.


    Fletcher has never quite closed the door on his international career and while the veteran has been wary of adding to the wear-and-tear on his body, the chance to play in the Euros might be too juicy to ignore. Adams has so far declined Scotland's overtures, but he might be tempted to change his mind for the same reason.




    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
  20. hislopsoffsideagain
    To be honest, I was ready to just pack it in.
    When Luka Jovic's header flew into the net, it felt like one heartbreak, one Glorious Failure too many. I just could not do it anymore.
    As Jovic celebrated, my mind was already racing ahead. The heads would be gone. We'd get creamed in extra time. If somehow we didn't, we'd screw up the penalties. I just couldn't be having with the agony of supporting Scotland any more. My wife is Northern Irish - perhaps I could just bring up my boys to support them instead, and they might get the joy of qualifying for something occasionally? Heck, I've got a mate from Gibraltar - they might lose all the time but I bet they don't care about it.
    You'd like to think that had we lost I would have got over the misery and been ready to do it all again for the 2022 World Cup qualifiers. Thankfully, we'll never know...


    For the first 89 minutes in Belgrade Scotland produced their best team performance in over a decade. It was clear from the early stages that Steve Clarke had got his tactics spot on and from front to back the starting eleven were tremendous. 
    At one end of the pitch Lyndon Dykes, the Australian who was playing for Queen Of The South eighteen months ago and who looks more like one of the 'pre-cogs' from Minority Report than a centre forward, gave a marvellous throwback performance of shoulder barges, deft flick-ons and runs into the channels that will still have the Serb defenders looking over their shoulders this morning.
    At the other end a back three consisting of Kieran Tierney (a natural left-back), Declan Gallagher (of Motherwell) and Scott McTominay (a natural midfielder) looked every bit the equal of the great Boyd-Calderwood-Hendry trinity of the mid-nineties. Any pre-match doubts I had about Gallagher's merits have well and truly evaporated; it was nice of him to let Aleksandar Mitrovic out of his pocket for long enough to take a penalty in the shootout.
    Between defence and attack there was Callum McGregor, so often underwhelming at international level but here playing more like the Celtic version from the last few years than the one of the last few months, demanding the ball at every opportunity and directing play,. Ahead of him was the whirling dervish that is John McGinn, covering every blade of grass, bouncing off opponents with that magnificent arse of his.
    And the rest were great too. At half-time some moron suggested Scotland would benefit more from having a natural striker on the pitch than Ryan Christie.





    The fact we played so well - so much better than the Serbs - made it worse. It's glorious failure if you're the plucky underdogs that have been unluckily thwarted, not when you're the better team by miles. 
    Even in despair I couldn't bring myself to turn off the TV. Loyalty? Masochism? A tiny grain of hope? Make up your own mind as to the reason. The extra time purgatory was only exacerbated by Clarke's substitutions which were made with the intention of protecting our lead and beefing us up on defending set pieces (that went well...) but left the team dreadfully unbalanced and unthreatening. Oli McBurnie, who had replaced the spent Dykes, was utterly awful, the ball bouncing off him repeatedly as if his whole body was just one big shin. Another sub, Callum Paterson, started up front and ended up going out to the right flank, which suddenly looked more vulnerable than when only Stephen O'Donnell had been protecting it.
    Yet with Scotland against the ropes with wobbly knees and eyes out of focus, Serbia failed to land the knockout blow. Only once was David Marshall seriously threatened, the veteran keeper pulling off a wonderful fingertip save from Nemanja Gudelj. At the interval in extra-time not only captain Andy Robertson but also McGregor, Marshall and Ryan Jack could be seen trying to lift their comrades. Scotland had bent, but they were not broken.
    But penalties would surely be our undoing, right? In Christie, McGinn and Dykes we had substituted three potential takers. For every Scotland player who stepped forward and grabbed the ball, I convinced myself it was their destiny to miss. Leigh Griffiths was brought on as a sub just to take a penalty, which seemed to make him a hostage to fortune. McGregor's performance, his best ever in a Scotland shirt, seemed too good to be true. McTominay was the man who should have been marking Jovic for the goal and who seemed to be setting himself up to be the goat of the game. McBurnie, so often a disappointment, had the pressure of knowing that if he missed he would be derided forever. And was it not too much to ask for Kenny McLean, hero against Israel, to reprise his role of iceman once more?
    Yet they all held firm. Griffiths' penalty was the diciest of the lot but still went in off the goalkeeper's hand. McGregor dispatched his expertly. McTominay smashed it into the bottom corner like a man who had completely forgotten his role in the equalizer. McBurnie sent the goalkeeper the wrong way. McLean surely deserves a promotion from Mayor of Norwich to Duke of Edinburgh.
    And then there was Marshall. Whenever he is mentioned I still mentally picture the 19 year old teenager who in 2004 single-handedly repelled Barcelona at the Camp Nou for Celtic. His subsequent career, though very decent, has never hit such heights again. Until now, sixteen years on. I never thought for a second that Aleksandar Mitrovic, an accomplished penalty taker, would miss. And yet he was the one who cracked. It wasn't a dreadful penalty but Marshall moved as if he had springs on his feet to make a terrific save to his left.
    Of course, then there was that awful split-second where Marshall had to look to the referee, to confirm VAR wouldn't spoil this golden moment. But as the goalie said afterward, what's another four or five seconds when you've had to wait 22 years?


    While all that was happening, I had somehow gone from pacing the living room anxiously to being on my knees, fists clenched, arms in the air, biting my lip partly to stop me from screaming out and waking my wife and small children and partly to stop me from crying. I was 14 the last time we qualified for something. It has been a hell of a long time. I am going to savour this all the way until June. Erect a statue of Steve Clarke, build another one of David Marshall, give Andy Robertson a knighthood. As far as I'm concerned, it's the least they deserve.
    Something changed last night. You could already feel it in the build up that this country, from the younger generation who have never seen us at a tournament and think of the national team as one big joke, to the older, increasingly weary, cynical and apathetic Tartan Army veterans, were just about ready to let the national team back into their hearts. Man, we had to suffer for it. But this extraordinary, terrible, beautiful suffering has always been what supporting Scotland is about. Right now those 22 years all seem worth it. At last, Scotland are glorious without the failure.
    We are back.


    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
  21. hislopsoffsideagain
    To be honest, I was ready to just pack it in.
    When Luka Jovic's header flew into the net, it felt like one heartbreak, one Glorious Failure too many. I just could not do it anymore.
    As Jovic celebrated, my mind was already racing ahead. The heads would be gone. We'd get creamed in extra time. If somehow we didn't, we'd screw up the penalties. I just couldn't be having with the agony of supporting Scotland any more. My wife is Northern Irish - perhaps I could just bring up my boys to support them instead, and they might get the joy of qualifying for something occasionally? Heck, I've got a mate from Gibraltar - they might lose all the time but I bet they don't care about it.
    You'd like to think that had we lost I would have got over the misery and been ready to do it all again for the 2022 World Cup qualifiers. Thankfully, we'll never know...


    For the first 89 minutes in Belgrade Scotland produced their best team performance in over a decade. It was clear from the early stages that Steve Clarke had got his tactics spot on and from front to back the starting eleven were tremendous. 
    At one end of the pitch Lyndon Dykes, the Australian who was playing for Queen Of The South eighteen months ago and who looks more like one of the 'pre-cogs' from Minority Report than a centre forward, gave a marvellous throwback performance of shoulder barges, deft flick-ons and runs into the channels that will still have the Serb defenders looking over their shoulders this morning.
    At the other end a back three consisting of Kieran Tierney (a natural left-back), Declan Gallagher (of Motherwell) and Scott McTominay (a natural midfielder) looked every bit the equal of the great Boyd-Calderwood-Hendry trinity of the mid-nineties. Any pre-match doubts I had about Gallagher's merits have well and truly evaporated; it was nice of him to let Aleksandar Mitrovic out of his pocket for long enough to take a penalty in the shootout.
    Between defence and attack there was Callum McGregor, so often underwhelming at international level but here playing more like the Celtic version from the last few years than the one of the last few months, demanding the ball at every opportunity and directing play,. Ahead of him was the whirling dervish that is John McGinn, covering every blade of grass, bouncing off opponents with that magnificent arse of his.
    And the rest were great too. At half-time some moron suggested Scotland would benefit more from having a natural striker on the pitch than Ryan Christie.





    The fact we played so well - so much better than the Serbs - made it worse. It's glorious failure if you're the plucky underdogs that have been unluckily thwarted, not when you're the better team by miles. 
    Even in despair I couldn't bring myself to turn off the TV. Loyalty? Masochism? A tiny grain of hope? Make up your own mind as to the reason. The extra time purgatory was only exacerbated by Clarke's substitutions which were made with the intention of protecting our lead and beefing us up on defending set pieces (that went well...) but left the team dreadfully unbalanced and unthreatening. Oli McBurnie, who had replaced the spent Dykes, was utterly awful, the ball bouncing off him repeatedly as if his whole body was just one big shin. Another sub, Callum Paterson, started up front and ended up going out to the right flank, which suddenly looked more vulnerable than when only Stephen O'Donnell had been protecting it.
    Yet with Scotland against the ropes with wobbly knees and eyes out of focus, Serbia failed to land the knockout blow. Only once was David Marshall seriously threatened, the veteran keeper pulling off a wonderful fingertip save from Nemanja Gudelj. At the interval in extra-time not only captain Andy Robertson but also McGregor, Marshall and Ryan Jack could be seen trying to lift their comrades. Scotland had bent, but they were not broken.
    But penalties would surely be our undoing, right? In Christie, McGinn and Dykes we had substituted three potential takers. For every Scotland player who stepped forward and grabbed the ball, I convinced myself it was their destiny to miss. Leigh Griffiths was brought on as a sub just to take a penalty, which seemed to make him a hostage to fortune. McGregor's performance, his best ever in a Scotland shirt, seemed too good to be true. McTominay was the man who should have been marking Jovic for the goal and who seemed to be setting himself up to be the goat of the game. McBurnie, so often a disappointment, had the pressure of knowing that if he missed he would be derided forever. And was it not too much to ask for Kenny McLean, hero against Israel, to reprise his role of iceman once more?
    Yet they all held firm. Griffiths' penalty was the diciest of the lot but still went in off the goalkeeper's hand. McGregor dispatched his expertly. McTominay smashed it into the bottom corner like a man who had completely forgotten his role in the equalizer. McBurnie sent the goalkeeper the wrong way. McLean surely deserves a promotion from Mayor of Norwich to Duke of Edinburgh.
    And then there was Marshall. Whenever he is mentioned I still mentally picture the 19 year old teenager who in 2004 single-handedly repelled Barcelona at the Camp Nou for Celtic. His subsequent career, though very decent, has never hit such heights again. Until now, sixteen years on. I never thought for a second that Aleksandar Mitrovic, an accomplished penalty taker, would miss. And yet he was the one who cracked. It wasn't a dreadful penalty but Marshall moved as if he had springs on his feet to make a terrific save to his left.
    Of course, then there was that awful split-second where Marshall had to look to the referee, to confirm VAR wouldn't spoil this golden moment. But as the goalie said afterward, what's another four or five seconds when you've had to wait 22 years?


    While all that was happening, I had somehow gone from pacing the living room anxiously to being on my knees, fists clenched, arms in the air, biting my lip partly to stop me from screaming out and waking my wife and small children and partly to stop me from crying. I was 14 the last time we qualified for something. It has been a hell of a long time. I am going to savour this all the way until June. Erect a statue of Steve Clarke, build another one of David Marshall, give Andy Robertson a knighthood. As far as I'm concerned, it's the least they deserve.
    Something changed last night. You could already feel it in the build up that this country, from the younger generation who have never seen us at a tournament and think of the national team as one big joke, to the older, increasingly weary, cynical and apathetic Tartan Army veterans, were just about ready to let the national team back into their hearts. Man, we had to suffer for it. But this extraordinary, terrible, beautiful suffering has always been what supporting Scotland is about. Right now those 22 years all seem worth it. At last, Scotland are glorious without the failure.
    We are back.


    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
  22. hislopsoffsideagain
    The last time Celtic lost three consecutive home matches, Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister, Kylie Minogue was at number one with 'Tears On My Pillow' (no, I've never heard of it either) and Rangers were on their way to Two In A Row.


    Admittedly in the subsequent thirty years there won't have been many times when Celtic played back-to-back-to-back games at Celtic Park against teams of the quality of Rangers, Milan and, um, Sparta Prague, but still.


    How has it come to this?


    Yes, Rangers have improved. We're yet to find out whether yet another post-New Year slump will derail their title push, but it would obviously be foolish for Celtic fans to pin their hopes on that. Steven Gerrard's side are playing with confidence and no little skill. It's worth remembering at this point that, for all the spending down Govan way, Rangers' budget is still way behind Celtic's. For them to be so superior at this point is quite startling...and the way they are going about it is also exposing Celtic's problems for all to see.


    The bottom line is that Rangers have a plan, and Gerrard's squad has been built with it in mind. In contrast, if Celtic's grand strategy for 2020-21 was all about the switch to three-at-the-back, it made no sense to this blogger. Playing three central defenders in the Premiership against teams who sit back and soaked up pressure just unnecessarily robs the team of an attacking or creative player...even more so given Lennon's insistence on deploying Scott Brown at the base of midfield as well.  In Mohamed Elyounoussi, James Forrest and Mikey Johnston they have three wide players who don't obviously fit into that system, though the injuries to the latter two have made this less of an issue than it might have been. Ditto the more natural number tens like Ryan Christie and Tom Rogic.


    The Shane Duffy factor has been thoroughly dissected elsewhere, but the bottom line is that this is not a player that fits what Celtic need in central defence - either in a back three or a back four - in the slightest. Duffy is not a bad player, but his weaknesses are woefully exposed and his qualities are rarely on show in this situation. It is a failure of recruitment. 


    And it isn't the first one. Celtic have signed three left-backs in fifteen months. Greg Taylor and Boli Bolingoli cost £3million each and whilst Kieran Tierney's shoes were always going to be impossible to fill the bottom line is neither player can hold a torch to Rangers' Borna Barisic. Nor were they especially well suited to playing as a wing-back; ironically, as soon as Lennon signed a player tailor-made for the left wing-back role - Diego Laxalt - he reverted back to a back four which currently makes Laxalt look very uncomfortable.


    Meanwhile, the list of players currently out on loan and with no future at the club includes Bolingoli, Vakoun Issouf Bayo, Jack Hendry and Maryan Shved. It's not clear who is leading transfer policy at Celtic, but it does seem that folk are not all on the same page.


    As for the coach himself, it is increasingly tempting to wonder whether Lennon's first spell at Celtic Park was really all that. After all, his three league titles came when the closest opposition were a Rangers side on the brink of liquidation, Motherwell and Motherwell respectively; to be frank Celtic would have won those leagues with you, or me, or even Ronny Deila in charge. In continental competition, take away Tony Watt's goal against Barcelona - bear in mind that Celtic, with 11% possession, rather rode their luck that day - and results were not impressive; they finished rock bottom of their Champions League group in 2013-14 after nearly losing in the qualifiers to Shakhtar Karagandy, while they missed out on both the Champions League and Europa League groups in 2010-11 and only got into the Europa League groups the following year after Sion were disqualified.


    His return in early 2019 as a stopgap made a fair bit of sense given Brendan Rodgers' sudden departure, but in truth the team's form for the rest of that season was hardly all that and they huffed and puffed their way past a pretty putrid Hearts side in the Scottish Cup Final. It was not a performance that justified offering Lennon the job permanently after the match, but it was the romantic option and perhaps the easy one too. It was probably cheaper also in terms of wages, but it could be argued that the European qualifying failures of this season and last have made appointing him very expensive indeed for the club.


    The fact is that since Rodgers left Celtic have largely coasted, as if they feel they are untouchable. In fact, 'stagnated' may be a more appropriate term. On the pitch, there is very little sign of tactical imagination. The formation may have changed recently but in the final third the strategy seems the same; to rely for moments of individual brilliance to unlock defences. It's worth noting that both they and Rangers have endured their star player and talismanic striker suffering a collapse in form this season. Rangers have barely missed a beat despite Alfredo Morelos' struggles; Celtic simply do not look the same without a potent Odsonne Edouard.


    Edouard isn't the only one out of sorts. After the Sparta game, Lennon didn't hold back. He accused the players of being 'lazy' of 'lack of application', 'lack of hunger' and suggested they weren't working hard enough in training and that there was a need for a 'culture change'. The obvious elephant in the room there is the question of who is responsible for working them in training. After all there is precious little evidence during matches that they have worked on anything particularly intricate tactically. Heck, back in August Kieran Devlin at The Athletic reported that a number of players employed their own fitness coaches because they were unsatisfied at what the club was offering.


    There's still time to turn this around - two-thirds of the season in fact. And the Celtic squad has more than enough quality to do so. But it is fair to say we have reached the point where you'd be surprised if Neil Lennon was still in charge by the end of the season. And it's also fair to note that if you're going to change manager, an international break - like the one coming up next week - would seem like the least painful time to do it. Do they take the plunge and sack a manager for the first time since Tony Mowbray? The fate of their Ten In A Row dream may well depend on what decision they make.


    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
  23. hislopsoffsideagain
    The last time Celtic lost three consecutive home matches, Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister, Kylie Minogue was at number one with 'Tears On My Pillow' (no, I've never heard of it either) and Rangers were on their way to Two In A Row.


    Admittedly in the subsequent thirty years there won't have been many times when Celtic played back-to-back-to-back games at Celtic Park against teams of the quality of Rangers, Milan and, um, Sparta Prague, but still.


    How has it come to this?


    Yes, Rangers have improved. We're yet to find out whether yet another post-New Year slump will derail their title push, but it would obviously be foolish for Celtic fans to pin their hopes on that. Steven Gerrard's side are playing with confidence and no little skill. It's worth remembering at this point that, for all the spending down Govan way, Rangers' budget is still way behind Celtic's. For them to be so superior at this point is quite startling...and the way they are going about it is also exposing Celtic's problems for all to see.


    The bottom line is that Rangers have a plan, and Gerrard's squad has been built with it in mind. In contrast, if Celtic's grand strategy for 2020-21 was all about the switch to three-at-the-back, it made no sense to this blogger. Playing three central defenders in the Premiership against teams who sit back and soaked up pressure just unnecessarily robs the team of an attacking or creative player...even more so given Lennon's insistence on deploying Scott Brown at the base of midfield as well.  In Mohamed Elyounoussi, James Forrest and Mikey Johnston they have three wide players who don't obviously fit into that system, though the injuries to the latter two have made this less of an issue than it might have been. Ditto the more natural number tens like Ryan Christie and Tom Rogic.


    The Shane Duffy factor has been thoroughly dissected elsewhere, but the bottom line is that this is not a player that fits what Celtic need in central defence - either in a back three or a back four - in the slightest. Duffy is not a bad player, but his weaknesses are woefully exposed and his qualities are rarely on show in this situation. It is a failure of recruitment. 


    And it isn't the first one. Celtic have signed three left-backs in fifteen months. Greg Taylor and Boli Bolingoli cost £3million each and whilst Kieran Tierney's shoes were always going to be impossible to fill the bottom line is neither player can hold a torch to Rangers' Borna Barisic. Nor were they especially well suited to playing as a wing-back; ironically, as soon as Lennon signed a player tailor-made for the left wing-back role - Diego Laxalt - he reverted back to a back four which currently makes Laxalt look very uncomfortable.


    Meanwhile, the list of players currently out on loan and with no future at the club includes Bolingoli, Vakoun Issouf Bayo, Jack Hendry and Maryan Shved. It's not clear who is leading transfer policy at Celtic, but it does seem that folk are not all on the same page.


    As for the coach himself, it is increasingly tempting to wonder whether Lennon's first spell at Celtic Park was really all that. After all, his three league titles came when the closest opposition were a Rangers side on the brink of liquidation, Motherwell and Motherwell respectively; to be frank Celtic would have won those leagues with you, or me, or even Ronny Deila in charge. In continental competition, take away Tony Watt's goal against Barcelona - bear in mind that Celtic, with 11% possession, rather rode their luck that day - and results were not impressive; they finished rock bottom of their Champions League group in 2013-14 after nearly losing in the qualifiers to Shakhtar Karagandy, while they missed out on both the Champions League and Europa League groups in 2010-11 and only got into the Europa League groups the following year after Sion were disqualified.


    His return in early 2019 as a stopgap made a fair bit of sense given Brendan Rodgers' sudden departure, but in truth the team's form for the rest of that season was hardly all that and they huffed and puffed their way past a pretty putrid Hearts side in the Scottish Cup Final. It was not a performance that justified offering Lennon the job permanently after the match, but it was the romantic option and perhaps the easy one too. It was probably cheaper also in terms of wages, but it could be argued that the European qualifying failures of this season and last have made appointing him very expensive indeed for the club.


    The fact is that since Rodgers left Celtic have largely coasted, as if they feel they are untouchable. In fact, 'stagnated' may be a more appropriate term. On the pitch, there is very little sign of tactical imagination. The formation may have changed recently but in the final third the strategy seems the same; to rely for moments of individual brilliance to unlock defences. It's worth noting that both they and Rangers have endured their star player and talismanic striker suffering a collapse in form this season. Rangers have barely missed a beat despite Alfredo Morelos' struggles; Celtic simply do not look the same without a potent Odsonne Edouard.


    Edouard isn't the only one out of sorts. After the Sparta game, Lennon didn't hold back. He accused the players of being 'lazy' of 'lack of application', 'lack of hunger' and suggested they weren't working hard enough in training and that there was a need for a 'culture change'. The obvious elephant in the room there is the question of who is responsible for working them in training. After all there is precious little evidence during matches that they have worked on anything particularly intricate tactically. Heck, back in August Kieran Devlin at The Athletic reported that a number of players employed their own fitness coaches because they were unsatisfied at what the club was offering.


    There's still time to turn this around - two-thirds of the season in fact. And the Celtic squad has more than enough quality to do so. But it is fair to say we have reached the point where you'd be surprised if Neil Lennon was still in charge by the end of the season. And it's also fair to note that if you're going to change manager, an international break - like the one coming up next week - would seem like the least painful time to do it. Do they take the plunge and sack a manager for the first time since Tony Mowbray? The fate of their Ten In A Row dream may well depend on what decision they make.


    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
  24. hislopsoffsideagain
    I did kinda already look at the Championship sides a month ago.


    What's changed? Not a lot.


    Hearts should stroll this. Even if their entire starting XI were ruled out with Covid the next eleven players up would still be stronger than everyone else. There has been a worrying hint of the same trait that dogged Robbie Neilson's Dundee United team last season - doing just enough to win and not a lot else, rather than blowing away opponents - but if that's the most negative thing I can come up with then you can tell they must be good. Craig Gordon at the back, Stephen Kingsley, Craig Halkett and Michael Smith in the defence, Peter Haring and Jamie Walker in the midfield, Liam Boyce up front; no-one else should even be in the same postcode by May.


    Simply going by budget, Dundee should be the best of the rest. Too often last season they looked limited by the tactics (or lack of) used by rookie manager James McPake. Either he has to improve, or new signings like marquee man Charlie Adam and the 150,000 (give or take a few) forwards they've brought in need to overcome his deficiencies. I got slaughtered on Twitter for claiming that the club had no obvious recruitment plan, but the fact remains that a team intent on playing a back three has only three centre-backs on the books, and whilst Adam, Graham Dorrans and Paul McGowan will make pretty passing patterns when they have the ball, who is going to do the running?


    As for the rest, I think it's anyone's guess. Inverness Caledonian Thistle were second when play stopped in March but they've lost lots of first choice players and now have a completely different back four from the one that they could deploy as recently as December. Players like Robbie Deas and Wallace Duffy are the sort of talented youngster and reclamation projects respectively that have done well under John Robertson in recent years, but for a team whose defence was a strength in recent years they don't half look vulnerable there now. At the other end it's not clear who will get the goals, or even who will start up top: Nikolay Todorov as the replacement for fellow target-man Jordan White, or pacey Miles Storey in a complete change of style? They'll hope on loan Rangers winger Kai Kennedy can be a wild card. This team could finish top three again, but there could also be a 'Peter Houston at Falkirk' sort of collapse.


    If ICT are weakened, so you could argue that most of the other full-time clubs are in the same situation. Dunfermline Athletic's new German investors haven't found them any players from the continent yet, but their finance is probably why things look a lot better than when they butchered the playing staff in May. Kevin Nisbet will be irreplaceable but Stevie Crawford has done his best to plug the gap with Ross County's Declan McManus and Kevin O'Hara who was super for Alloa last year. Tying up winger Dom Thomas on a permanent deal was a great move too. All in all, they've probably managed to come up with a squad close to the level of last year's, which is no mean feat in the circumstances.


    Ayr United's strategy has been to try and amass as much talent in their starting eleven at the possible expense of depth, So whilst newbies such as Patrick Reading and Jack Baird in defence, Joe Chalmers and Michael Miller in midfield, Tom Walsh and Dario Zanatta out wide and Bruce Anderson up front look like terrific signings there isn't a huge amount on the bench especially now Craig Moore is out long term.  If everyone else stays fit I think they could do really well; if the injury bug bites they could be in a hell of a lot of trouble.


    Greenock Morton are very bullish about manager David Hopkin's ability to build a team, and they will need him to live up to that billing. They lost their most dangerous creator, Nicky Cadden, and too many players - Aiden Nesbitt, Robbie Muirhead, Craig McGuffie and Gary Oliver spring to mind - have yet to live up to their potential. This could however be the perfect place for loanee Josh McPake to kick on and watch out for left-back Lewis Strapp developing into one of this division's best players this season.


    If I was to pick a dark horse though it would be Raith Rovers. Newly promoted sides tend to have few problems making the step up and it's not long since Livingston managed back-to-back promotions. The additions that John McGlynn has made have been astute and focussed at the side's weaknesses. Manny Duku already looks impressive up front and if Lewis Vaughan can stay fit they should be really dangerous up top. Regan Hendry should establish himself as one of this level's pre-eminent midfield players and having the experienced Jamie MacDonald between the sticks will do them no harm too. I certainly don't see them in a relegation battle.


    Queen of the South, in contrast...their early League Cup results were far better than I anticipated but the fact remains that but a handful of players remain from last season, Stephen Dobbie will be 38 in December and they really will rely on Wullie Gibson, who is 36 and hasn't played at this level for five years, to contribute. On the positive side Joe McKee deserves one more crack at full-time footie and Aidan Fitzpatrick is an exciting loan signing from Norwich. But QOS were on the slide back in March and will need yet more Dobbie miracles to avoid a dogfight at the bottom.


    I've left the part-timers to last for good reason, and that's not because I think they'll be bottom. Arbroath in particular are an intriguing prospect. Dick Campbell has kept together his solid backbone and once more augmented it with loan players - what on earth is Miko Virtanen doing playing at this level for another season? If one of their strikers can score regularly - probably either Luke Donnelly or Michael Ruth - then they could spring many a surprise.


    As for Alloa Athletic, I'm tired of getting slagged off by @AlloaStats at the end of every season for having predicted they'll go down. The news that Iain Flannigan had retired might have tempted me to do so again - hey, even a stopped clock is right twice a day - but incredibly they managed to replace him with Stefan Scougall. If Edin Lynch can fill the CB slot vacated by Robbie Deas, they'll do fine.


    So here's my inevitably wrong predicted table:


    1. HEART OF MIDLOTHIAN


    2. DUNDEE
    3. AYR UNITED
    4. RAITH ROVERS


    5. DUNFERMLINE ATHLETIC
    6. INVERNESS CALEDONIAN THISTLE
    7. ARBROATH
    8. GREENOCK MORTON


    9. ALLOA ATHLETIC


    10. QUEEN OF THE SOUTH


    Feel free to bookmark this to use against me in May (I'm sure @AlloaStats will...)


    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
  25. hislopsoffsideagain
    I did kinda already look at the Championship sides a month ago.


    What's changed? Not a lot.


    Hearts should stroll this. Even if their entire starting XI were ruled out with Covid the next eleven players up would still be stronger than everyone else. There has been a worrying hint of the same trait that dogged Robbie Neilson's Dundee United team last season - doing just enough to win and not a lot else, rather than blowing away opponents - but if that's the most negative thing I can come up with then you can tell they must be good. Craig Gordon at the back, Stephen Kingsley, Craig Halkett and Michael Smith in the defence, Peter Haring and Jamie Walker in the midfield, Liam Boyce up front; no-one else should even be in the same postcode by May.


    Simply going by budget, Dundee should be the best of the rest. Too often last season they looked limited by the tactics (or lack of) used by rookie manager James McPake. Either he has to improve, or new signings like marquee man Charlie Adam and the 150,000 (give or take a few) forwards they've brought in need to overcome his deficiencies. I got slaughtered on Twitter for claiming that the club had no obvious recruitment plan, but the fact remains that a team intent on playing a back three has only three centre-backs on the books, and whilst Adam, Graham Dorrans and Paul McGowan will make pretty passing patterns when they have the ball, who is going to do the running?


    As for the rest, I think it's anyone's guess. Inverness Caledonian Thistle were second when play stopped in March but they've lost lots of first choice players and now have a completely different back four from the one that they could deploy as recently as December. Players like Robbie Deas and Wallace Duffy are the sort of talented youngster and reclamation projects respectively that have done well under John Robertson in recent years, but for a team whose defence was a strength in recent years they don't half look vulnerable there now. At the other end it's not clear who will get the goals, or even who will start up top: Nikolay Todorov as the replacement for fellow target-man Jordan White, or pacey Miles Storey in a complete change of style? They'll hope on loan Rangers winger Kai Kennedy can be a wild card. This team could finish top three again, but there could also be a 'Peter Houston at Falkirk' sort of collapse.


    If ICT are weakened, so you could argue that most of the other full-time clubs are in the same situation. Dunfermline Athletic's new German investors haven't found them any players from the continent yet, but their finance is probably why things look a lot better than when they butchered the playing staff in May. Kevin Nisbet will be irreplaceable but Stevie Crawford has done his best to plug the gap with Ross County's Declan McManus and Kevin O'Hara who was super for Alloa last year. Tying up winger Dom Thomas on a permanent deal was a great move too. All in all, they've probably managed to come up with a squad close to the level of last year's, which is no mean feat in the circumstances.


    Ayr United's strategy has been to try and amass as much talent in their starting eleven at the possible expense of depth, So whilst newbies such as Patrick Reading and Jack Baird in defence, Joe Chalmers and Michael Miller in midfield, Tom Walsh and Dario Zanatta out wide and Bruce Anderson up front look like terrific signings there isn't a huge amount on the bench especially now Craig Moore is out long term.  If everyone else stays fit I think they could do really well; if the injury bug bites they could be in a hell of a lot of trouble.


    Greenock Morton are very bullish about manager David Hopkin's ability to build a team, and they will need him to live up to that billing. They lost their most dangerous creator, Nicky Cadden, and too many players - Aiden Nesbitt, Robbie Muirhead, Craig McGuffie and Gary Oliver spring to mind - have yet to live up to their potential. This could however be the perfect place for loanee Josh McPake to kick on and watch out for left-back Lewis Strapp developing into one of this division's best players this season.


    If I was to pick a dark horse though it would be Raith Rovers. Newly promoted sides tend to have few problems making the step up and it's not long since Livingston managed back-to-back promotions. The additions that John McGlynn has made have been astute and focussed at the side's weaknesses. Manny Duku already looks impressive up front and if Lewis Vaughan can stay fit they should be really dangerous up top. Regan Hendry should establish himself as one of this level's pre-eminent midfield players and having the experienced Jamie MacDonald between the sticks will do them no harm too. I certainly don't see them in a relegation battle.


    Queen of the South, in contrast...their early League Cup results were far better than I anticipated but the fact remains that but a handful of players remain from last season, Stephen Dobbie will be 38 in December and they really will rely on Wullie Gibson, who is 36 and hasn't played at this level for five years, to contribute. On the positive side Joe McKee deserves one more crack at full-time footie and Aidan Fitzpatrick is an exciting loan signing from Norwich. But QOS were on the slide back in March and will need yet more Dobbie miracles to avoid a dogfight at the bottom.


    I've left the part-timers to last for good reason, and that's not because I think they'll be bottom. Arbroath in particular are an intriguing prospect. Dick Campbell has kept together his solid backbone and once more augmented it with loan players - what on earth is Miko Virtanen doing playing at this level for another season? If one of their strikers can score regularly - probably either Luke Donnelly or Michael Ruth - then they could spring many a surprise.


    As for Alloa Athletic, I'm tired of getting slagged off by @AlloaStats at the end of every season for having predicted they'll go down. The news that Iain Flannigan had retired might have tempted me to do so again - hey, even a stopped clock is right twice a day - but incredibly they managed to replace him with Stefan Scougall. If Edin Lynch can fill the CB slot vacated by Robbie Deas, they'll do fine.


    So here's my inevitably wrong predicted table:


    1. HEART OF MIDLOTHIAN


    2. DUNDEE
    3. AYR UNITED
    4. RAITH ROVERS


    5. DUNFERMLINE ATHLETIC
    6. INVERNESS CALEDONIAN THISTLE
    7. ARBROATH
    8. GREENOCK MORTON


    9. ALLOA ATHLETIC


    10. QUEEN OF THE SOUTH


    Feel free to bookmark this to use against me in May (I'm sure @AlloaStats will...)


    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
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