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hislopsoffsideagain

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Blog Entries posted by hislopsoffsideagain

  1. hislopsoffsideagain
    Steve Clarke has till 6 June to name his Euro 2024 squad. We had a go at predicting it all the way back in November; since then UEFA have confirmed that 26 players can be named - just like at the last Euros - and we have lost Lewis Ferguson to an ACL injury. Here's who I think Clarke will pick, with my thoughts. I'm not expecting any 'October surprises' so there's no Harvey Barnes or Tino Livramento here, sadly...




    GOALKEEPERS
    On the plane: Angus Gunn, Craig Gordon, Zander Clark
    Missing out: Liam Kelly


    Notes: Gunn is obviously first choice. In November I thought Kelly was ahead of Gordon in the queue but subsequent selections have suggested it's the other way around. In fact, if anything happens to Gunn I'd imagine the Hearts veteran would get the nod ahead of teammate Clark, even though the latter has started more often at club level this season. Clark looked very uncomfortable in relief of Gunn for a f few games in 2023, which may count against him.




    CENTRAL DEFENDERS
    On the plane: Kieran Tierney, Jack Hendry, Ryan Porteous, Scott McKenna, John Souttar, Liam Cooper
    Missing out: Grant Hanley


    Notes: All being well, I'd expect Tierney, Hendry and either McKenna or Porteous to start against Germany. Cooper goes because Clarke will want another left-footed centre-back to cover for Tierney. Souttar has been consistently good for Rangers this season. Hanley has played only eight minutes of first-team football since March and hasn't stayed consistently fit since his achilles rupture a year ago, which makes it hard to justify picking him even for his leadership and ability in the air.




    FULL-BACKS
    On the plane: Andrew Robertson, Nathan Patterson, Aaron Hickey, Greg Taylor, Ross McCrorie
    Missing out: Anthony Ralston, Josh Doig, Max Johnston


    Notes: Right wing-back is the main area of worry for Clarke and everyone else, as Hickey hasn't played since November because of injury and Patterson recently picked up a significant hamstring injury. Clarke will give both as much time as possible - there's a big drop off from Hickey to Patterson and another big drop to whoever the next man up is - probably McCrorie, whose background was in central defence and central midfield but who has played on the right for Bristol City most of this season. Ralston is only a backup at Celtic but has played well for the national team previously and it wouldn't be a surprise if he was named ahead of McCrorie; certainly if neither Hickey nor Patterson can go he will be in. On the left, Robertson is undisputed first choice; whilst Tierney is the best alternative at the position, Clarke will take Taylor as Robertson's deputy so Tierney can remain in central defence. But there's enough options here that there isn't a place for Doig, who has done well in Italy, or Johnston. 




    CENTRAL MIDFIELDERS
    On the plane: John McGinn, Callum McGregor, Scott McTominay, Billy Gilmour, Ryan Christie, Kenny McLean, Connor Barron
    Missing out: Lewis Ferguson, Elliot Anderson, Ryan Jack, David Turnbull


    Notes: The loss of Ferguson is a blow; he had been so good for Bologna that he might have forced himself into the lineup, or at least would have been an excellent option off the bench. The most likely starters are McGregor and Gilmour deep, with McGinn and McTominay more advanced. Christie has been brilliant in a deeper position for Bournemouth and could be used in any of the midfield roles too. McLean will be along as much for his experience as anything else, and is always a good player to come off the bench late in a match. It sounds like Aberdeen prodigy Barron might take advantage of the extra squad slots, though he's unlikely to get minutes. Sadly, Jack just can't stay fit, which is a pity because he and McGregor have always worked well together in front of the defence, Turnbull fell off the radar even before he joined Cardiff, and no-one is sure if Anderson even wants to play for Scotland after he withdrew from a squad last September.




    ATTACKING MIDFIELDERS
    On the plane: Stuart Armstrong, James Forrest
    Missing out: Ryan Fraser, Danny Armstrong, Ben Doak, Ryan Gauld


    Notes: I've separated these guys from the other midfielders because they are essentially attackers who won't be playing at centre-forward, but Clarke's usual tactics don't involve out-and-out wingers and McGinn and McTominay will probably be the more attack-minded midfielders. These guys will probably come off the bench if/when we are chasing games. S. Armstrong seems likely to get over a late-season injury scare. Forrest wasn't even in my mind in November but he has been absolutely fantastic in recent weeks. There has been talk of Doak getting a nod (like Barron above) but he hasn't played since December. Fraser has been in Clarke's bad books for calling off too easily in the past and hasn't done enough this season to compensate for that. D. Armstrong has been sensational for Kilmarnock this season and could be an option as right wing-back too but it would be a hell of a step up. Gauld continues to impress in the States but the folks back home never seem to notice.




    STRIKERS
    On the plane: Lyndon Dykes, Che Adams, Lawrence Shankland
    Missing out: Jacob Brown, Kevin Nisbet, Ross Stewart, Oli McBurnie, Lewis Morgan


    Notes: The question here is if three strikers is enough, but it's hard to justify any of the others with the exception of Morgan who is scoring goals like mad in the U.S. and would be the sort of in-form wild card option that Clarke should consider. As for the other rejects here, Brown has been injured for months, Nisbet and Stewart are only just back from long-term layoffs, while McBurnie is a favourite of mine who has shown flashes for Sheffield United this season and is outstanding in the air, but is probably more trouble than he is worth. Dykes, Adams and Shankland are all capable of being the front man against Germany, and all capable of contributing off the bench. None, unfortunately, is the world-class forward we desperately lack, but they are unquestionably the best three we have.


    If it were me, I'd find a place for Morgan, as a striker who is in form is always worth having, and possibly Doak - I think the latter has at least a little potential to contribute compared to Barron. 


    Lawrie Spence has whinged about Scottish football on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007. He has a life outside this blog. Honestly.    
    View the full article
  2. hislopsoffsideagain
    Here's part 1, the countdown from 25 to 11.
    And here's the top 10. Who will succeed Anthony Stewart as the 'winner'?


    10. RILEY HARBOTTLE (HIBERNIAN)According to Harbottle, he was so strongly encouraged to join Hibs by then-Forest teammate Scott McKenna that McKenna "seemed more excited about it than I was". I wouldn't take advice from him in the future, Riley. Harbottle joined Hibs on a three year deal for "an undisclosed fee", made one league appearance (a defeat at home to Livingston) and didn't get on the pitch for them again. He joined League Two Colchester on loan in January.





    9. KYOSUKE TAGAWA (HEART OF MIDLOTHIAN)
    If I were feeling generous, I'd say that it may have been difficult for Tagawa to acclimatise following his move from his native Japan, and that his minutes have been limited by Lawrence Shankland's outstanding form. However the fact remains that Hearts paid a fee for him, his only goal was in a League Cup game against Championship opposition and expectations for a twice-capped international should be higher than that. Tagawa has already been linked with an exit this summer.





    8. JOSE CIFUENTES (RANGERS)
    Michael Beale pursued Cifuentes for months, spent £1.2m on him and boasted that he would take Rangers "to the next level". Within five months he was away on loan to Cruzeiro, having chosen a move to Brazil because "I didn't experience the sun for the six months I was with Rangers. It was always cold". The Ecuadorian playmaker just wasn't very good at, erm, making the play - he had just two assists in twenty appearances and missed out on a League Cup medal because he was suspended for a straight red in a league game a few days before. Rangers will hope Cruzeiro take up their option to sign him, given he still has three years on his Ibrox contract.





    7. LUKE JEPHCOTT (ST. JOHNSTONE)
    The Welsh under-21 forward looked like a pretty good signing, just two years removed from scoring 16 goals in League One. That's 16 more than he scored in Scotland. Jephcott made eleven appearances for St. Johnstone but had drifted out of favour even before Craig Levein took charge. Levein's description of the striker as "a luxury" was not unreasonable; he is by all accounts a predator but his link-up play was so poor that his equally mediocre teammates couldn't get up the pitch to create chances for him. Jephcott completed a quarter of his two year contract before moving to Newport County in January...where he still isn't scoring.





    6. NAT PHILLIPS (CELTIC)
    Phillips' last appearance in the Hoops will define his forgettable spell at the club - a 2-1 defeat at Kilmarnock where he scored an own goal and was just a general shambles. This was another loan move that looked decent on paper and proved anything but; Phillips was always talked of highly by Liverpool and was frequently linked with £10m moves to the likes of Burnley and Bournemouth, but you'd be lucky to get ten bob for him on the back of his performances in Scotland. Four starts and as many sub appearances later, he returned south and has had a better second half of the season at Cardiff City.





    5. RHYS WILLIAMS (ABERDEEN)
    Career Premier League starts: seven (for Liverpool!). Career Premiership starts, or sub appearances: zero. The signing of Williams seemed to be a coup at the time, Aberdeen taking advantage of the success Leighton Clarkson had on loan last season to attract another talented youngster from Anfield. And yet Williams didn't play a competitive game for the Dons' first team, though he did appear as part of  a Colts' defence that shipped five against Peterhead in the Challenge Cup, and also by all accounts had a shocker in an Aberdeenshire Shield game against Fraserburgh. He struggled with injury initially and then couldn't crack the starting lineup even with Aberdeen's poor results and hectic schedule. He was rarely even on the bench except on Conference League nights, when Barry Robson was allowed to name half the city as substitutes. Having left Scotland in January, it didn't get any better for Williams, whose subsequent loan at Port Vale lasted just sixteen days because of another injury.





    4. GUSTAF LAGERBIELKE (CELTIC)
    Strange but true: Lagerbielke is a Baron - the eleventh Baron Lagerbielke - and is actually 254th in line to the Swedish throne, putting him closer to the crown than he is to Celtic's starting lineup. Had Cameron Carter-Vickers not picked up a knock, Lagerbielke would have been loaned to Lecce, but Brendan Rodgers insisted on keeping him for defensive cover. Even some moaning to the Italian press couldn't get the Swede the escape he desired. He'll always have that winning goal against Feyenoord in a Champions League dead rubber, but that was in one of just three appearances (all off the bench) that he's made since the end of September. This guy cost £3.5m.





    3. OLI SHAW (MOTHERWELL)
    Shaw's loan spell was so underwhelming that it was no surprise that in January Motherwell sent him back to Barnsley. It was a surprise when, two weeks later, he returned. Rumour has it that Well tried to exercise a clause allowing them to end the loan early if there was an injury, but Shaw wasn't injured enough. And having played for his parent club earlier in the season, Shaw couldn't sign for anyone else and Barnsley didn't want him back. So Shaw is still a Steelman, one who has made eighteen appearances (all but two as a sub) and scored zero goals. Stuart Kettlewell was so confident in him that he has since signed yet another forward, Moses Ebiye. Shaw has played six minutes of first team football since his return, with his main contribution being to miss a sitter that would have beaten Hibs and put the Steelmen in the top six.





    2. PAPE HABIB GUEYE (ABERDEEN)
    If someone other than Rangers and Celtic spends half a million quid on a striker, then he had better be good. Aberdeen splashed that sum on Gueye, who doesn't appear to be the next Han Gillhaus; heck, he's not even going to be the next Robbie Winters (you're showing your age now - Ed). Robson trusted him to start only one match (a Conference League game where he was hooked at half time). In his six other games, all sub appearances, the Dons failed to score a goal with him on the pitch. Gueye was loaned to Norwegian club Kristansund in January, and he scored his first league goal for them last weekend. It remains to be seen if his Aberdeen career will be salvageable under Jimmy Thelin.





    1. SAM LAMMERS (RANGERS)
    Lammers has been a goal machine in recent weeks...for Utrecht, who he joined on loan in January. The Dutchman has claimed his miserable spell and lack of goals at Rangers was down to being played as a number ten rather than as a striker. That doesn't really explain the fact that he had plenty of goalscoring opportunities in games and consistently failed to take them. Two goals in thirty-one games is some return for a £3.5m striker. Rangers can only hope that his Utrecht form cons someone into paying them a decent fee to take him off their hands.


    A worthy victor indeed.




    Lawrie Spence has whinged about Scottish football on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007. He has a life outside this blog. Honestly.View the full article
  3. hislopsoffsideagain
    Ah, it's that time of year again. I don't have much time for blogging these days, but I will always try and make an exception for this.


    The eleven previous 'winners' of our Worst Signing award:
    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)
    2020/21: Shane Duffy (Celtic)
    2021/22: Matty Longstaff (Aberdeen)
    2022/23: Anthony Stewart (Aberdeen)


    Yes, Mark Birighitti should have won last year, not least because if one of those eleven was a keeper then we could have had a proper starting XI of crap.


    So as is tradition, the list is split in two. This is the appetiser, if you like; a countdown of the players I ranked from 11 to 25. The main course is still to come, but folk will at least be able to work out the ten names based on who hasn't been mentioned so far.


    Given they have stunk up the place this season, I am surprised as anyone by the lack of Livingston players. Seems like they just signed an awful lot of 'not very good' rather than 'awful beyond belief' but I'm happy to be corrected on this...


    Enjoy!





    25= OWEN BEVAN (HIBERNIAN), MARCEL LEWIS (DUNDEE)
    Hooray for loan players who never actually play! Bevan's move from Bournemouth to Hibs lasted about 30 seconds before it was cancelled due to aggravation of an existing injury. Lewis, meanwhile, remained at Dundee for the entire first half of the season without playing a single competitive first team game. He did however get a run out in Cammy Kerr's testimonial where after 70 minutes he was replaced (kind of) by Ivano Bonetti...


    24. JILI BUYABU (MOTHERWELL)Signed on loan from Sheffield United on deadline day at the end of the winter window. Played 33 minutes as a sub in the defeat to Morton in the cup. Left 20 days after signing for 'personal reasons'. Maybe one day he can come back, possibly in a coaching role?

    23. APHELELE TETO (LIVINGSTON)Is Teto still a Livingston player? Heck, was he ever a Livingston player? The young South African midfielder was signed even though he was denied a work permit, because it was thought he'd be eligible for one once he'd been called up for the next international U-23 squad. The only problem was that South Africa U-23s haven't played since March 2023 and don't have any fixtures scheduled...in the meantime the club announced a plan for him to go out on loan, which never happened, and by January he had to return to South Africa as his visa had expired. The plot thickens still further, as he has three years left on his contract but Livi claim that his wages are paid by his former club TS Galaxy. No, I have no idea why that would be the case either.


    22. SCOTT HIGH (ROSS COUNTY)
    A former Scotland under-21 international (no, I'd not heard of him either) the 22 year old Huddersfield loanee managed 24 minutes of first team action across two sub appearances for County before returning south in January, meaning that he played more first team minutes for his parent club this season (45 in the English League Cup). High has subsequently moved to Dundalk where he is doing rather better.



    21. DARA COSTELLOE (ST. JOHNSTONE)
    Costelloe has done rather better after he switched loan clubs from St. Johnstone to Dundee in January, but Saints fans are unanimous in their derision for his performances in the first half of the season. Costelloe notched up as many red cards as goals for St. Johnstone. Charlie Adam, who is Burnley's loan manager, insisted in October that Costelloe was "loving it" in Perth; Costelloe later admitted it reached the point that he received 'hate mail' from supporters.



    20. CALLAN ELLIOT (MOTHERWELL)
    The 24 year old New Zealand international signed in January after ten months without a club; Stuart Kettlewell boasted that he could "add a lot to the team". So far that consists of five occasions as an unused substitute. Still, I like the picture there that the club used to announce his arrival, which has massive 'cover of former nineties boyband member's debut single' vibes.



    19. SAM MCCLELLAND (ST. JOHNSTONE)
    McClelland seems to have improved Dundee United's defence since moving there on loan, but it seems unlikely that he has a future at McDiarmid Park. The Northern Irishman was one of a number of Steven MacLean signings who were quickly sidelined by Craig Levein. The Saints were winless in his seven appearances for them and his last Premiership game was at the end of September.



    18. KEVIN VAN VEEN (KILMARNOCK)
    Van Veen's incredible 2022-23 season for Motherwell feels like it was a long time ago now. The veteran Dutch striker had lots of loan suitors in January but chose Kilmarnock where a combination of the excellent form of Kyle Vassell and Marley Watkins and some lacklustre showings off the bench have meant nothing but sub appearances (apart from a single cup start). Maybe he just needs a run of games, but he's not done enough to deserve it. And one suspects Killie are paying a decent proportion of a decent wage. Van Veen also gets marked down for his squad number; '99' is an ice cream with a flake, not a number on a football shirt, and no-one will ever convince me otherwise.



    17. JAY TURNER-COOKE (ST. JOHNSTONE)
    Turner-Cooke's season-long loan from Newcastle was cut short in January after just six appearances, ostensibly because of a hernia. However he'd barely played since Craig Levein became manager and has not been missed. The club's record whilst he was on the pitch? Scored zero, conceded six.



    16. ANDREW DALLAS (KILMARNOCK)
    Kilmarnock are lucky that Kyle Vassell and Marley Watkins have stayed fit as well as in form all season. Dallas came off the bench fifteen times and scored zero goals before returning to parent club Barnsley in January. He spent the second half of the season on loan at Oldham, where he hasn't scored either. Curiously, there is an ongoing EFL investigation into the paperwork (at Barnsley's end) regarding the loan move to Killie.



    15. MARCO TILIO (CELTIC)
    Celtic fancy that they can afford seven figure sums on 'developmental players' - see also Kwon Hyeok-kyu - but they really can't. A £1.5m winger needs to be challenging for first team action from the get-go, but Tilio - whose fee was the highest ever for an A-League player - was so far away from that level that he was loaned back to Melbourne City in the January transfer window. His manager in Oz claimed Tilio "hadn't had much fun at Celtic". I imagine the feeling is mutual. The Australian's two sub appearances may ultimately be his only ones for the club.



    14. CAMERON BORTHWICK-JACKSON (ROSS COUNTY)
    It's less than eight years since a teenage Borthwick-Jackson was starting games for Manchester United in the Premier League. The left-back said he moved on loan to Dingwall from Slask Wroclaw because he "felt wanted" by them; that feeling won't have lasted long, as Borthwick-Jackson's only four starts came in his first four games at the club and he's been stuck on the bench ever since a 5-0 pasting at Motherwell ended Derek Adams' tenure..



    13. MICHAEL NOTTINGHAM (LIVINGSTON)
    Unlike most names on this list, Nottingham has been a first choice for his club this season when fit, but Livi fans are unanimous in their derision for his performances, to the point that I feared a lynching if I didn't put him on this list. The 34 year old was supposed to add experience and leadership to the defence but instead has been one of the factors in their slide towards the Championship.





    12. OR DADIA (ABERDEEN)
    Nine months before signing for Aberdeen, Dadia made his international debut for Israel, meaning that he has played once more for his country than he ever did for the Dons. Dadia rarely made the bench unless it was a Conference League game where each team is allowed a million subs and even when Nicky Devlin wasn't playing he still couldn't get in the team. Terminating his loan in January was a blessing for everyone. And as for that moustache in his signing photo...I can't get the thought of him saying "I have come to fix ze fridge" in a Dutch accent out of my head.






    11. MAIK NAWROCKI (CELTIC)
    Nawrocki avoids the top ten on the grounds that there still seems to be a small chance that his Celtic career can be salvaged. He's also had ongoing issues with a hamstring injury and hasn't completed 90 minutes since August. Nevertheless, one would have expected a £4m centre-back to start more than six league games (at the time of writing) and certainly not to be left out at times in favour of Liam Scales and Stephen Welsh. 

    The top ten will be up in the coming days...


    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
    It's still more than six months until Euro 2024, and the draw hasn't even been made yet. So of course it's far, far too early to think about who will be in Steve Clarke's squad for the finals. But I'm not going to let that stop me. Rather than just list twenty-three names (current info suggests that the squad size will be cut back to what it was before Covid and Euro 2020), I'm going to break things down by position and look at what options there are, as well as who is most likely to be on the plane to Germany.


    GOALKEEPERS
    Certain to be in the squad: Angus Gunn
    Probably going to be in the squad: Liam Kelly, Zander Clark
    Outside chance: Craig Gordon, Robby McCrorie, Ross Laidlaw
    A left-field option: Jason Steele
    Are we stronger than at Euro 2020? Yes, in that Angus Gunn looks more capable and more reliable than David Marshall was at that tournament. 


    Notes: One of the lessons learned from the Georgia-Norway doubleheader - and an awful lot of Zander Clark flapping - is that we really don't have any depth at the position unless Craig Gordon manages to get himself back to the level he was playing at prior to his broken leg. Liam Kelly and Robby McCrorie emit massive "in the squad because there aren't any other Scottish keepers" vibes. Ross Laidlaw was mentioned by John Carver as someone the management team are aware of. Rumour has it that Brighton's Jason Steele has declined a call-up before, and I doubt he'd enter the fray just to back up Gunn.




    CENTRAL DEFENDERS
    Certain to be in the squad: Kieran Tierney, Jack Hendry, Ryan Porteous
    Probably going to be in the squad: Scott McKenna, Grant Hanley, John Souttar
    Outside chance: Liam Cooper, Dominic Hyam, Liam Lindsay, Ross McCrorie
    A left-field option: Liam Morrison
    Are we stronger than at Euro 2020? Probably, if only because the players now look very well versed in playing a back three (the other lesson learned from the Georgia-Norway doubleheader is we don't seem to be strong enough defensively to get away with a back four). 


    Notes: Kieran Tierney remains key because of his quality in possession and his ability to overlap/underlap Andy Robertson, as well as the fact that there is a big drop off to the next best left-footed centre-back, Liam Cooper. Jack Hendry generally seems the best option on the right, also offering good distribution to go with his height, while Ryan Porteous is the current incumbent in the centre position. Scott McKenna is the next man up if any of that first choice trio are absent, though he hasn't been getting gametime at Nottingham Forest recently. John Souttar finished last season really well for Rangers, but has been injured again recently. If fit, he would have a good chance of getting in. Meanwhile Grant Hanley has been out since the spring with an achilles injury but he was a first choice prior to that so if he gets back to fitness and form he'd be expected to make the squad. Dominic Hyam has been injured recently too but is normally a first choice for Blackburn. The uncapped Liam Lindsay is playing regularly and well for Preston, who are flying just now. Ross McCrorie has yet to play for Bristol City because of illness so he's probably well down the pecking order now; however his versatility might work in his favour. And apparently Liam Morrison has shone on loan for Wigan Athletic; the 20 year old Bayern Munich player is probably one for the future though.




    FULL-BACKS
    Certain to be in the squad: Andrew Robertson, Nathan Patterson, Aaron Hickey
    Probably going to be in the squad:
    Outside chance: Greg Taylor, Anthony Ralston, Calvin Ramsay, Josh Doig, Max Johnston
    A left-field option: Tino Livramento
    Are we stronger than at Euro 2020? Yes, because we've significantly upgraded from Stephen O'Donnell on the right. 


    Notes: Captain Andy Robertson will start at left wing-back and Aaron Hickey on the right; Nathan Patterson will back up the latter unless Tino Livramento declares for Scotland, in which case the Newcastle United player would be in a direct battle with Hickey for a start. Hickey and Tierney would both be more than capable stand-ins for Robertson which means Clarke could potentially skimp on the position. Greg Taylor seems more comfortable in a back four - and didn't look comfortable at all in the Georgia and Norway games. Anthony Ralston is probably too far down the queue just now, while Calvin Ramsay's progress has stalled because of injuries; he hasn't even played yet this season. Josh Doig and Max Johnston have both had call-ups recently to the seniors but are unlikely to be in the reckoning for this tournament.




    CENTRAL MIDFIELDERS
    Certain to be in the squad: John McGinn, Callum McGregor, Scott McTominay, Billy Gilmour, Lewis Ferguson
    Probably going to be in the squad: Kenny McLean, Ryan Jack
    Outside chance: Elliot Anderson
    A left-field option: Hayden Hackney
    Are we stronger than at Euro 2020? Yes, not because personnel have changed much but because we've finally found a role that works for Scott McTominay.


    Notes: Clarke will either play four central midfielders, with McTominay and John McGinn pushed further forward of Callum McGregor and probably Billy Gilmour, or just go for the former trio with a more attack-minded player inserted instead. Gilmour is most effective in games where we dominate possession, which may not be plentiful in the finals. Lewis Ferguson has been terrific at club level in more of a number ten role and it wouldn't be hard to imagine Clarke deploying him there if he continues his current trajectory. Ryan Jack missed Euro 2020 because of injury and is a polarising figure, but I'm not sure anyone in the squad is better as a purely defensive midfielder. However it may be hard to fit in both Jack and Kenny McLean because of the numbers game. McLean got a lot of praise for Clarke after the Norway match and the manager particuarly likes his reliability and tactical discipline. It's not clear if Elliot Anderson, who was called up for one squad and then pulled out through injury, still wants to play for us or hang fire in the hope of a future England call; he is a real prospect though and is talented enough to be in the 23 if he wants to be. Hackney has shone for Middlesbrough but, having played for Scotland under-21s, he has appeared in recent England squads at that age level and also seems to have thrown his lot in with the Three Lions for now.




    ATTACKING MIDFIELDERS
    Certain to be in the squad: Stuart Armstrong, Ryan Christie
    Probably going to be in the squad:
    Outside chance: Ryan Fraser, Ben Doak, Siriki Dembele
    A left-field option: Harvey Barnes
    Are we stronger than at Euro 2020? Not sure we're much different, really.


    Notes: The industrious Stuart Armstrong remains a guy who either squeezes into the starting XI or is one of the first options off the bench. Ryan Christie is probably the best player we have for carrying the ball up the pitch though his recent international performances have not been as good as his efforts for Bournemouth. Given that Clarke may not start any of the listed players and doesn't use a system with wingers, it's hard to justify taking any others unless someone hits form or is felt to offer a spark as a substitute. Ben Doak is clearly going to be special but isn't getting enough game time to confirm whether he's ready yet. Ryan Fraser has done well since joining Southampton but Clarke has been suspicious about his commitment in the past. Siriki Dembele has impressed for Birmingham this season but probably not enough to get on the radar yet. But it does sound like Harvey Barnes is tempted to join up, though recent injuries have made sure we couldn't find out if he would have accepted a call for the last few squads. Barnes would be a huge upgrade on what we have, though squeezing him in on the left might require some tactical tweaking.




    STRIKERS
    Certain to be in the squad: Lyndon Dykes, Che Adams
    Probably going to be in the squad: 
    Outside chance: Jacob Brown, Kevin Nisbet, Lawrence Shankland, Ryan Hardie
    A left-field option: Oli McBurnie
    Are we stronger than at Euro 2020? No. It's mostly the same names.


    Notes: An elite forward would elevate this team so much, in the way Robert Lewandowski and Gareth Bale did for Poland and Wales respectively. Instead we have Lyndon Dykes and Che Adams as our best two options. Dykes' industry and attitude are first-rate and he's better at link-up play than Adams, but the latter is a far superior finisher. Neither can be relied on for more than the odd goal though. The other options are quite the motley crew though, and one would think Clarke would pick a third striker based entirely on form in April and May. At the moment Jacob Brown seems to be that option but he struggled against Norway. Lawrence Shankland did score against Georgia as a sub and has more goals than any of the other candidates this season. Kevin Nisbet hasn't really got going since joining Millwall in the summer. Ryan Hardie of Plymouth has six Championship goals and is as good an option as anyone. And then there's Oli McBurnie, out of the picture for nearly three years but playing regularly (when fit) in the Premier League. He'll win lots of headers, but does he offer much else?


    That's 16 certainties and 7 probables, which of course fits nicely with the numbers. But I bet that a lot will change in a few months time. So shall we look at it again then? We shall.


    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
  5. hislopsoffsideagain
    Maybe it was the realisation that Billy Dodds couldn't even beat Raith Rovers that was the end of him.


    For what it's worth, Caley Thistle only lost to a late goal away from home to a club who went top of the Championship as a result of their victory. And by all accounts the visitors put on their best performance of the season and squandered numerous chances of their own. But Inverness had this absolutely mental record against Rovers where in twenty-three years and thirty-four competitive matches their only defeats had come in penalty shootouts. However bad it got, Raith Rovers was at least a guaranteed point. But not any more.




    Of course, if that was the actual reason for Dodds' dismissal on Sunday night then that would raise significant questions about the people running the club. But then choosing to sack him after the Raith defeat - rather than after one of the many worse performances and results in recent months - raises enough questions. As does the fact that he is only three months into a new two year contract that he was given after ICT's Scottish Cup Final defeat to Celtic.


    Oh, and don't forget how the decision on Dodds' future was left all the way until after that match in early June, which was not exactly a show of confidence in the manager and which can hardly have aided preparations for the new season. Or how, despite the club making somewhere between £1million and £1.5million from the aforementioned cup run, the squad actually seems, on paper and in reality, drastically weaker than it was last season.


    That's not to suggest that Dodds is some sort of victim here. The cup exploits distracted neatly from a lacklustre league campaign as Caley Thistle finished sixth, their lowest finish in twenty-three years (though had they won their last match they would have come third). Whilst some of the criticism of his tactics by supporters was over-the-top, the slow-tempo, possession-based style was exposed by teams that pressed high up the pitch - after all the Scottish Championship is often short of quality but rarely short of energy - and was ineffective when chasing games against defensive-minded teams.


    But Dodds' first season in charge ended with a playoff final where, at half-time in the second leg in Perth, Caley Thistle fancied their chances of promotion before a second-half capitulation to St. Johnstone. He was not the next Sir Alex Ferguson, but nor was he the next Richie Foran. Sometimes things just go stale; his tenure of more than two seasons is well above the current average shelflife of an SPFL manager.


    The biggest concerns stretch back to his appointment in the first place. In March 2021 Dodds was brought in as a coach by Neil McCann, who had taken over temporarily after John Robertson stepped out of the dugout for mental health reasons. When it became clear Robertson was 'moving upstairs' to become sporting director, it was McCann's job if he wanted it...but he didn't want it. A few weeks later Dodds was appointed, to the surprise of nobody even though he had never held such a role at a club before. There was certainly nothing in the public domain to suggest the club had conducted an active search for a replacement or even interviewed outside candidates. This left the feeling that Dodds, who already lived locally, was the cheap and easy option. This turn of events felt very reminiscent of Robertson's appointment as Richie Foran's replacement back in 2017.


    It also leads to understandable suspicion amongst the support that Robertson - whose relationship with the fans has taken a hit recently with his media work for the BBC (or to give out man of the match awards at Brora Rangers) when his club are away from home - will simply be parachuted back in to his old job.


    That would be the cheap and easy move again, but then we come to the fear that this is the way the board have to go. The aforementioned cup windfall seems to have been used to save the directors from paying the bills this season; that is not all that unreasonable given the club made a loss of more than £800,000 in 2021-22. There are lots of rumours flying around suggesting that things are even worse than that, though to be fair such tales have done the rounds since relegation from the Premiership in 2017.


    There is no sign of a wealthy benefactor coming over the horizon any time soon, and when one looks at the list of current shareholders the same old names from two decades ago are still there. Directors come and go but there is no sign that newcomers bring about any meaningful change; the most curious one in recent times is Panos Thomas, a retired orthopaedic surgeon whose only notable role in football previously was as the frontman for an attempted takeover of Watford more than a decade ago by the disgraced businessman Laurence Bassini.


    However in his nine months at the club there has been no sign of anything so exciting happening in the Highlands...except for claims in the last set of accounts that the club is heavily involved in a hydro pump scheme and a battery farm plan, as well as being in position to be part of Inverness' upcoming freeport. If these ideas already sound pie-in-the-sky, the fact they are being touted by CEO Scot Gardiner - who is not exactly well loved amongst Dundee and Hearts supporters for his spells in a similar role at each of these clubs - does not lend them significant credibility.


    And in football financial prudence is rarely rewarded. One has to run just to stand still. Amongst their Championship opponents are Dundee United, Dunfermline, Ayr United, Queen's Park and Raith, all of whom have significant backing from their ownership.


    And if Caley Thistle go any further backward it means relegation. That would surely put their full-time status at risk. If the club goes part-time then, given their location, that would in turn surely mean competing for players in the same sort of pool that the likes of Elgin City fish. There would be no realistic way back to even the Championship under those circumstances.


    In October 2016, St. Mirren pulled the plug on Alex Rae after a nightmare start to their Championship campaign and replaced him with Jack Ross. They still nearly went down that year, but it was the wakeup call they needed. In 2017-18 they were promoted and they have been Premiership stalwarts ever since, a small club punching above their weight in a way rather reminiscent of Caley Thistle a decade ago. Maybe - hopefully - this will be Caley Thistle's St. Mirren moment. Those in charge of the club need to make sure it is, or football in the city may never be the same again.


    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
    The Premiership increasingly feels like three separate leagues due to the vast financial disparities...so that's how I'm going to treat it for this season's preview...


    THE OLD FIRM/GLASGOW DERBY (delete as applicable) TIER 
    (Finishing outwith the top two, or even less than ten points ahead of third should result in manager and entire squad being hanged, drawn and quartered)


    CELTIC: they say you should never go back, but for Brendan Rodgers I think an exception can be made. Celtic can be pretty pleased with how they've replaced Ange. The loss of Jota was a surprise and you'd think they will bring in a replacement at some point. Rodgers says they aren't going to spend £15m-plus on any players, but if that's the case - even when you have the Jota cash and the Champions League moolah - then how do you ever realistically expect it to get any better than just sweeping the domestic scene and getting pumped in the Champions League groups? Should still be stronger than Rangers, I think.


    RANGERS: a lot depends on just how good this new forward line of Danilo, Sam Lammers and Cyriel Dessers is. And a lot depends on whether they can find a consistent partner for Connor Goldson in terms of either form or availability (*cough* John Souttar *cough*). Left-back is also a potential issue with Borna Barisic beginning to regress and Ridvan Yilmaz yet to look like a viable long-term replacement. Jack Butland looks like an upgrade in goal at least. There's too many unknowns here to tip them to win the title but if those front three turn out to be gems then it could be pretty close.


    THE CONSIDERABLY POORER THAN THE GRUESOME TWOSOME AND CONSIDERABLY RICHER THAN THE REST TIER 
    (finishing second should result in a statue for the manager; finishing sixth or lower, or looking at risk of doing so, will result in the sack)


    ABERDEEN: Barry Robson looks like a good coach. The recruitment team give the impression they know what they are doing. Now can Aberdeen crack the final part of the code - managing the fixture congestion that will come with a European run? Hearts couldn't pull that off last season and it's not clear the Dons have the numbers yet...especially if Ylber Ramadani leaves. If he stays or is adequately replaced the Ramadani-Clarkson-Shinnie midfield looks like dynamite. Rhys Williams and Slobodan Rubezic (think that first name tells you where his family's political views lay) should adequately replace Ross McCrorie and Liam Scales at the back. and either Or Dadia or Nicky Devlin will at last give them a competent right-wingback. I'm still not sure what the plan on the left is (Jonny Hayes?) but this a starting XI that should fire them to third spot...if they aren't all knackered or injured by Christmas.


    HEARTS: The dugout situation - seemingly pretending Frankie McAvoy is in charge until they're knocked out of Europe and they can reveal that Steven Naismith was pulling the strings all along - is a bit farcical. If that doesn't extend to the pitch though Hearts should be stronger than last year, especially if the impending signings of Kenneth Vargas and Kayosuke Tagawa give them enough attacking pace to make up for Josh Ginnelly buggering off. A double pivot of Beni Baningime (back at last from long-term injury) and new signing Calum Nieuwenhof should make their midfield stronger, and you've got Cammy Devlin to snap at heels there too. If McAvaismith can get Kye Rowles and Stephen Kingsley back to their best form and Frankie Kent fills in for long term crock Craig Halkett the defence should be formidable too. And Lawrence Shankland is always going to give you a chance.


    HIBERNIAN: Every time you think Hibs might have got it sussed, they do something so utterly Hibsy to embarrass themselves and the nation, such as getting beaten in Andorra. The big story here though should be them paying £700,000 for Dutch striker Dylan Vente, which is the most money they've spent since they signed a dude who is now a member of the Ecuadorian parliament back in 2001. He had better be good. Elie Youan and Martin Boyle should give them crazy pace up top and Dylan Levitt is a good addition in midfield. Heck, they've even got (very necessary) insurance against David Marshall's form falling off a cliff in new keeper JoJo Wallacott. Like the above duo, Hibs have a very good looking first XI, but their bench isn't too shabby either. The question is whether the players - and the manager - can put it together week in, week out, or whether they will just, well, Hibs it up again.


    THE DIDDY TIER
    (Realistic target is sixth, anything higher is a massive success, but first priority has to always be avoiding relegation)


    DUNDEE: No idea what we're going to get here. Newly promoted, with a new manager in Tony Docherty who is a rookie as a boss but who has huge experience as a coach. He's correctly recognised that the squad was nowhere near good enough for the top flight so he's been busy at both ends, bringing in Trevor Carson in goal and Joe Shaughnessy in defence to provide experience, and using loans from down south to bolster numbers (including getting top scorer Zach Robinson back for another year). There are a couple of Mexicans too to add intrigue. The midfield is very young and inexperienced though. If Docherty can mould a solid lineup quickly and get goals from one of his forwards, they should be okay. But if they start slowly I suspect they'll be near the bottom all season.


    KILMARNOCK: Were effective but not exactly pretty last season...except for the many occasions where they weren't effective or pretty. Derek McInnes has sensibly looked to revamp the defence - what's his deal with signing loanee defenders? He used loads last season and he's doing it again - with Robbie Deas ready to make the step up and Stuart Findlay's return to Rugby Park a huge boost. It feels like it'll be another season of grinding out results though; of the forwards only Kyle Vassell looks likely to score semi-regularly and McInnes' effusive praise recently for the likes of Marley Watkins and the "really talented" Liam Donnelly says a lot. We can still dream that David Watson continues to develop as the Prestwick Pirlo and helps add a touch of flair but we'll see.


    LIVINGSTON: Finished last season really poorly and I just wonder if they are beginning a bit of a downward spiral. As ever David Martindale operates in a different way from everyone else and he's entitled to plenty benefit of the doubt but of their new signings only Mikey Devlin and maybe Mo Sangare improve the team. It feels like they will be in a fair bit of bother if/when Joel Nouble leaves as he will be so difficult to replace. Martindale is also stuck with several players (waves at Esmael Goncalves) that he needs rid of to bring in reinforcements. Could this be the year they stop punching above their weight?


    MOTHERWELL: I didn't expect such a resurgence under Stuart Kettlewell, but the Steelmen were terrific in the second half of the season...fuelled by the extraordinary exploits of Kevin Van Veen who is of course now gone. Away too are Max Johnston, Sean Goss and Mikael Mandron, all starters. And now Calum Butcher is out long term. Frankly that defence looks dicey now, though Macedonian Davor Zdravkovski is an intriguing addition to the midfield. Up top, bringing in Theo Bair looks like the weirdest signing of the summer so far but I imagine he's going to be a backup for Jon Obika (good when fit, which isn't often) and fellow new signings Conor Wilkinson and Mika Biereth. I thought the Van Veen money would have allowed Kettlewell to strengthen, but it seems that it's simply paid off the mistakes his predecessors have made. And so there's a risk they may fall behind simply because they seem to be standing still.


    ROSS COUNTY: Having been within seconds of being relegated last season it seems reaasonable to assume they will be closer to the bottom than the top. To be honest I expected Uncle Roy to dip into his childrens' inheritance a bit more this summer to bring the squad up to scratch but whilst Alex Iacovitti is the only stalwart to depart they are dependent on Championship stalwarts Scott Allardice and Kyle Turner (and Jay Henderson, so good on loan at ICT last season) stepping up to the top flight. Their midfield, also encompassing Yan Dhanda and Ross Callachan, should be decent. Up front they have lots of options but just how confident are you in a combination of two of Eamonn Brophy, Simon Murray, Alex Samuel and Jordan White?


    ST JOHNSTONE: Already in panic mode after a hideous League Cup campaign. Steven MacLean - whose media comments are too reminiscent of Richie Foran for my liking - gutted the squad, which ws the right thing to do, but has struggled badly to bring in new players so far. He'd have probably liked to get rid of more players but inherited a load of jobbers and has-beens inexplicably given long-term deals by Callum Davidson. That is likely to be restricting what he can do just now, but whatever he puts out on the pitch has to be better than the lot that got shellacked 4-0 by Stirling Albion. Dimitar Mitov might be a good goalkeeper. Luke Jephcott might be an okay forward. But even if they live up to those expectations it would be a huge surprise if St Johnstone aren't in another relegation battle. They're certainly my favourites to go down at the time of writing.


    ST MIRREN: Were best of this bunch last season and are a reasonable bet to do the same even though the surprisingly decent forward Curtis Main has left and outstanding keeper Trevor Carson has moved on to after some sort of weird fallout with the club. Whether they've replaced Carson adequately with Zach Hemming is another matter, but there are high hopes for attackers Conor McMenamin - the club's most expensive signing for more than 30 years - Mikael Mandron and Stav Nahmani. New centre-back James Bolton seems pretty highly thought of too. And so far they've retained the outstanding Aussie duo of Ryan Strain and Keanu Baccus, as well as all-action midfielder Mark O'Hara.


    So my predicted table:
    1 CELTIC


    2 RANGERS
    3 ABERDEEN
    4 HIBERNIAN
    5 HEARTS
    6 ST MIRREN


    7 DUNDEE
    8 KILMARNOCK
    9 ROSS COUNTY
    10 MOTHERWELL


    11 LIVINGSTON


    12 ST JOHNSTONE


    And Twitter's take:






    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
    God, I hate the Scottish Championship. My club have been stuck in this particular circle of hell since 2017 and I'm desperate for us to get out of it. And the more time that passes the more likely it is that my wish will be granted...but with a move downward rather than up. After all there's always someone worse off than you...and it's Falkirk.


    The usual script for this league is as follows; one club has a decent financial advantage over all the others, and that club gets promoted. The last couple of seasons, said club has completely failed to run away with the league, eventually grinding out just about enough results to take the title on the last day or the week before that. But still, they've managed promotion and that's all that matters.


    So...Dundee United, Hearts, Kilmarnock, Dundee...DUNDEE UNITED? Let's put it bluntly; anything other than a canter back to the Premiership will be an underachievement. Louis Moult and Tony Watt up front. Craig Sibbald and Glenn Middleton (though Goodwin seems unable to get a tune from him) in midfield. Three signings who were amongst the best players in this division last season in Kevin Holt, Liam Grimshaw and Ross Docherty. Declan Gallagher leading the defence. And crucially, anyone but Mark Birighitti in goal. In truth I expect United to grind it out rather than destroy everyone (possibly with a midseason managerial change like when Killie binned Tommy Wright), but they'll definitely go up. Definitely. Won't they?


    As for who else could challenge, I think you could make an argument for many - if not all - the other clubs in the division. I'm going to stick my neck out though and tip DUNFERMLINE ATHLETIC to follow the example of Queen's Park last year and be a newly promoted side challenging at the top. James McPake - to my surprise after his lousy spell as Dundee manager - has put together a really good side that walked League One last year. So far he has focused on keeping them together, and so they should be very well drilled from the off. The defence should be plenty good enough now that Sam Fisher has been brought back, and I love Chris Hamilton at the base of midfield. A year in the third tier has rejuvenated Craig Wighton - who seemed doomed to be yet another case of unfulfilled potential in Scottish football - and it'll be interesting to see how dangerous he is. I also expect the Pars to be active in the loan market in the next few weeks for further reinforcements that will cement them as a top half side.


    There could also be a challenge from the other side of Fife. RAITH ROVERS did a heck of a lot of business early, which has the advantage of getting your new signings lots of time to get up to speed but does mean not having any space left for players that become available late in the window. I do particularly like new keeper Kevin Dabrowski, who certainly won't be a downgrade on the departed Jamie MacDonald. Striker Jack Hamilton has done it at this level before. Josh Mullin still has plenty in the tank (though a 3 year deal for a 31 year old winger seems optimistic) and Euan Murray and Keith Watson will strengthen the defence. As it stands, they certainly have a stronger squad than most.


    The million dollar (or the £200,000) question for AYR UNITED is how they will fare without talismanic striker Dipo Akinyemi after he signed for York City. United will hope veteran wide players Aiden McGeady and Jamie Murphy will provide whoever plays up front with lots of ammunition but Lee Bullen needs either new signing Akeem Rose or youngster Fraser Bryden to step up and score regularly...or to use the Akinyemi cash on another striker. Otherwise Bullen has again made some intriguing signings from the English non-leagues - Olly Pendlebury captained England at under 16 level and is still only 21 - and they will hope they can kick on from last season's third place.


    As for the rest - well, your guess is as good as mine. QUEEN'S PARK seem a good place to start as they came second last year, but it's all change at Lesser Hampden with Owen Coyle having left and being replaced by Dutchman Robin Veldman. I do like the Spiders' focus on bringing in young players let go from the likes of Southampton (defender Will Tizzard, midfielder Jack Turner) and Brighton (midfielder Jack Spong). At the time of writing though they are still short at right-back and are up front are heavily dependent on Ruari Paton making the step up from lighting up League One with Queen of the South. Again, I'd expect plenty more new faces to come here.


    A sensational cup run shouldn't distract from the fact that INVERNESS CALEDONIAN THISTLE had their lowest league finish in more than twenty years and they come into this season having lost their best defender, Robbie Deas, and their best midfielder, Scott Allardice, along with their two loanee wingers Jay Henderson and Daniel Mackay. That cup cash is either being saved for a splurge at the end of the window or is being saved to pay bills - either way, signings like Luis Longstaff and Jake Davidson feel like little more than cheap depth. Charlie Gilmour might be a good addition to midfield, mind. The biggest worry is the hole left by Deas that does not look in any way to be adequately filled yet.


    GREENOCK MORTON somehow got by last season with the smallest squad in the history of the world (in terms of numbers, not height!) and seem determined to do the same again; I presume it's a budget thing? They will be busy in the next few weeks if only because they need another four bodies just to have a full bench (and only have one keeper). Dougie Imrie is as good a coach as anyone in this league and that is crucial given their financial constraints. Continuing to get performances and goals out of forwards Robbie Muirhead and George Oakley is crucial, while Jack Baird and Robbie Crawford are two of the best players in their positions in the Championship. The big concern at the moment is at right-back, in that they don't actually have one.


    AIRDRIE are as intriguing as anyone in this league, given their unusual model where the manager, the assistant manager and one of the coaches are also players. It didn't exactly do them any harm last season, where they were League One's great entertainers, either doing the scudding or being scudded most weeks. Adding Nikolay Todorov and Josh O'Connor to a forward line of Calum Gallagher and Gabby McGill means they should still score plenty of goals, and sticking with the same defence as last season means they should still concede plenty too. So whatever happens, it should be fun.


    There may be less of that at PARTICK THISTLE, who came within seconds of an extraordinary promotion via the playoffs and then shortly after admitted huge costcutting was required at a club where wages might not have been paid but for a cup tie against Rangers. They've lost four of their best players - Kevin Holt, Ross Docherty, Kyle Turner and Scott Tiffoney - and even if the immortal Brian Graham continues to s**thouse his way to 15 goals every season it's tough to see them repeating last season's success. It'll be interesting to see how Kris Doolan fills those gaping holes in his lineup; if he can recruit in the summer as well as he coached and motivated in the spring they'll be okay.


    And the fact I have left ARBROATH to last is surely a clue as to how I think their season is going to pan out. The group that nearly got them promoted in 2021/22 is ageing and dissipating, and finding good part-time replacements is hard going. Last season's recruitment wasn't great and it's not clear that Dick Campbell has done any better this summer. He really needs to do well in the loan market again if this isn't to be the end of the Red Lichties' glorious run at this level. Of course, it would be typical Campbell and typical Arbroath if they didn't make the naysayers eat their words. 


    So the inevitably wrong predicted table looks like this:


    1 DUNDEE UNITED


    2 DUNFERMLINE ATHLETIC
    3 RAITH ROVERS
    4 AYR UNITED


    5 QUEEN'S PARK
    6 GREENOCK MORTON
    7 INVERNESS CALEDONIAN THISTLE
    8 PARTICK THISTLE


    9 AIRDRIE


    10 ARBROATH


    And the Twitter view:




    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
    Whereas in League Two the difference in budget between richest and poorest is pretty minimal, League One has four clubs who are full time - Cove Rangers, Falkirk, Hamilton Accies and Queen of the South - and six clubs who savour bloodying their noses regularly. So while I make no apology for my choice of the top four it is quite easy to see it going spectacularly wrong for each of them.


    Take FALKIRK, for example. It's like the Bairns have been given a special demotivational plaque by Mr Burns. Surely their fifth straight season in League One will be their last? We shall see. John McGlynn brought in Tom Lang and Brad Spencer from his former club Raith Rovers and they should be more than capable, and given they already boast the likes of Coll Donaldson, Stephen McGinn, Callumn Morrison and Gary Oliver there are no excuses. But then we've said that before...

    COVE RANGERS won this division in 2021-22 before stinking up the second half of last season in the Championship. So they've responded by going full-time and giving Paul Hartley - whose record in recruitment at previous clubs was not exactly stellar - the chance to practically sign a new team. Paul McGowan and Connor Scully are probably the best centre midfield pairing in the league and Mitch Megginson can be relied on for goals, but the jury is out on a backline that will mostly be made up of newbies.

    Having been a Premiership side as recently as 2021, HAMILTON ACCIES need to arrest the slide...and they might do so after new ownership was followed by an influx of new blood that leaves them with a far stronger team than the one that got relegated from the Championship last season. They've stuck by manager John Rankin despite the drop, but he'll be expected to get a tune out of the likes of Dylan Tait, Euan Henderson and Kevin O'Hara; signing an entirely new defence is not a bad move either but they may take time to gel. Still, it feels like things can't get any worse (famous last words).

    QUEEN OF THE SOUTH showed some signs of life after Marvin Bartley became manager and they look to have recruited wisely - particularly getting keeper Murray Johnson and central defender Kyle McClelland on loan from Hibs. Dumfries is the latest stop for Efe Ambrose, who is heading inexorably towards a career climax in 2026 where he becomes a cult hero for an Angus club by scoring a crucial goal with a bullet header in a relegation playoff that saves his club's SPFL status before walking off into the sunset (niche Marvin Andrews reference there). If Bartley can coax Lee Connelly and Gavin Reilly back to their best then they will be dangerous.

    Of the part-time clubs, ALLOA ATHLETIC look the strongest, not least because they made the promotion playoffs last season. Brian Rice is an astute coach and continues to get plenty out of veterans Andy Graham (40 in September!) and Conor Sammon (37 in November). Sammon and Luke Donnelly give them a potent threat up top. They have had to replace most of last season's starting backline though and they had a pretty lousy League Cup campaign, so a regression is not that unlikely.

    EDINBURGH CITY looked like playoff candidates for most of the season but hit the skids, winning only three of their last sixteen games. Now they've lost all four League Cup group games too. John Robertson and Steven Warnock, arguably their two greatest attacking threats, have moved on, and while a summer takeover by a fan-led consortium has been blamed for Alan Maybury's failure to reinforce much, the bottom line is it is hard to give them the benefit of the doubt right now. Still, the combined creativity of Danny Handling and Innes Murray makes them worth a watch.

    It's mental that MONTROSE are in their sixth straight season at this level, and frankly its all down to the awesome management of Stewart Petrie. Last year felt like a step backward though, with a feeling that they had hit their ceiling and Petrie was finding it hard to refresh a settled squad that had done so well for so long. And that feeling has caused them to splash out - with a transfer fee and everything! - to sign League Two goal machine Kane Hester to give them a spark. How far can he and the evergreen Rory MacAllister fire them? We'll see.

    By the far the biggest turnover has been at KELTY HEARTS, where Michael Tidser replaced John Potter at the end of last season and set about basically gutting the entire squad; only eight players plus the player-boss himself remain. I'm always wary about how long it takes a team to gel and a lot of the newbies are guys who have blown hot-and-cold at this level in the past. The dream is that Tiwi Daramola, who scored an insane number of goals for Bo'ness Athletic last season, can do it at this level; four in four League Cup games is a good start.

    And lastly we come on to the promoted teams, both of whom have largely stuck with the group that got them up. STIRLING ALBION looked like a League One team last season and only needed to tinker; getting Dale Hilson in up front to partner Dale Carrick looks like an astute move. A couple of decent loan signings could make Darren Young's side very competitive very quickly in a division where former League Two champions have a recent history of back-to-back promotions.

    It's likely to be a lot harder for ANNAN ATHLETIC. Peter Murphy's side have punched above their weight for years but going up via the playoffs was astonishing. They have a close-knit bunch and crucially, a talented striker in Tommy Goss. But it's a sign of where they are at that they lost one of their starting defenders, Cammy Williamson, to Stranraer. It's hard to look at them and fancy them for anything other than a long campaign.

    So here's my inevitably wrong predicted table:

    1 FALKIRK

    2 HAMILTON ACADEMICAL
    3 QUEEN OF THE SOUTH
    4 STIRLING ALBION

    5 COVE RANGERS
    6 ALLOA ATHLETIC
    7 MONTROSE
    8 EDINBURGH CITY

    9 KELTY HEARTS

    10 ANNAN ATHLETIC


    And the Twitter view:



    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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  9. hislopsoffsideagain
    With no moneybags team in League Two right now it's decidedly harder to predict who is going to win it. Last season I suggested Forfar Athletic, who ended up looking like relegation candidates until they changed manager. Having a good (or terrible) boss, or being the team with the striker that scores twenty goals are the sort of factors that can have an exponential effect at this level.


    And so we segue rather clumsily straight onto ELGIN CITY, who nearly finished bottom last season and have made Ross Draper player-manager after he oversaw the last few matches of the previous campaign. And they have lost their 'striker that scores twenty goals', Kane Hester. More than ever their relative remoteness geographically makes bringing in players tough; so far they have made three loan signings and their only permanent newcomer is from the Highland League. I was right about Albion Rovers coming tenth last season and I feel pretty confident about condemning Elgin this time around.


    If someone is going to 'outdo' Elgin in the stinker stakes it might be CLYDE, relegated from League One via the playoffs last season but who appear more likely to be in danger of back-to-back relegations than yo-yoing back to League One. They are another side with a rookie in the dugout - Brian McLean - and they will have a heavy dependence on Martin Rennie for goals and they will need veteran midfielders Stuart Carswell and Ross Forbes to wind the clock back a fair bit. Sticking by the same backline that got them relegated last season also seems like a bold move, Cotton.


    Of course PETERHEAD were even worse than Clyde last season but they pivoted to their (also inexperienced) co-player managers Jordan Brown and Ryan Strachan sooner and have signed forward Kieran Shanks permanently from Arbroath; he showed enough in a loan spell last season to suggest he might do very well for them. Scott Ross and Joe McKee add experience to the backline and midfield and guys like Andy McCarthy and Conor O'Keefe should shine at this level. Whether this is enough to get them into the promotion fight is another matter.


    As the side newly promoted from the fifth tier (after only just overcoming Albion Rovers) THE SPARTANS should probably be more likely to finish in the bottom half but in truth they are a bit of an unknown to those of us who only looked ever at the Lowland League table to see if the B teams were struggling. They'll obviously be no mugs, and they've augmented last year's team with SPFL experience in Ayrton Sonkur, James Craigen and Danny Denholm. And they have Blair Henderson up front, who could well end up being League Two's top scorer, so I'd be surprised if they didn't establish themselves in the big leagues.


    BONNYRIGG ROSE ATHLETIC only clinched survival on the last day of 2022/23, but Robbie Horn's side looked more comfortable and astute as they gained more experience in their first SPFL season. Whether they have improved the squad much - beyond goalkeeper Paddy Martin - is another matter. As with so many of their peers, the form of the first choice number nine - Kieran McGachie in the Rosey Posey's case - could well be worth several positions in the table.


    STRANRAER were only marginally better than Bonnyrigg Rose, pulling away from danger after putting Scott Agnew in the dugout for the last few games. Agnew was an intelligent creative player and there is optimism that this will translate to his team. Ben Armour and Tam Orr should provide a goal threat, while they did well to poach full-back Cammy Williamson from promoted Annan. But how good - or not - their campaign is probably depends on how competent the manager is.


    Ditto DUMBARTON, whose boss Stevie Farrell has had two full seasons in charge; the first resulted in relegation from League One and the second saw a massive lead blown to Stirling in the title race. Most of their other concerns are off the pitch: filing their accounts late recently is a wee bit of a red flag, whilst the decision to share their pitch again (this time with Broomhill instead of Rangers B) has gone down like a lead balloon. The flip side is that this is a very good squad. Goalkeeper Brett Long, a backline with Aron Lynas, Mark Durnan, Sean Crighton and Carlo Pignatiello, Ryan Blair and Ross MacLean in midfield and Ryan Wallace up front should give them more than enough quality to win the title. Perhaps it is theirs to lose, but it's easy to see how they'll lose it. Again.


    FORFAR ATHLETIC arguably have the manager with the most impressive CV in the division, but only because Ray MacKinnon's move to coach under Duncan Ferguson at Forest Green fell through when Ferguson got the sack. MacKinnon came back with his tail between his legs and continued his rebuild of a side that were relegation candidates till he arrived in November. The permanent signings of Dundee United trio Adam Hutchinson, Finn Robson and Darren Watson, all of whom were on loan here last season, look good but Forfar seem desperately short up front with only Josh Skelly, plucked from Broughty Athletic, a recognised centre forward. If they can recruit well in that area in the next few weeks they should be there or thereabouts.


    STENHOUSEMUIR look rather more settled these days than when Stephen Swift was wheeler-dealing like a poundshop Harry Redknapp; just the nine signings so far this summer with keeper Darren Jamieson, defenders Gregor Buchanan and Ross Meechan and midfielder Jordan Kirkpatrick looking like the standouts. Stenny's obvious weakness right now is numbers, but one can imagine this squad being augmented by a few loanees in the coming weeks and Gary Naysmith leading them in a promotion challenge.


    Generally though the bookies seem to fancy EAST FIFE to do the business. Greig MacDonald seemed an unusual choice as coach last season but generally did well; it helps that they got Nathan Austin back to add to what was already a pretty overpowered front line. Brian Easton adds experience in defence (though he didn't half look past it at Hamilton last year) and with the experience of Allan Fleming and Stewart Murdoch among others they look pretty well set to compete at the top.
     
    So here's my predicted table, though my caveat would be that I think the top four are all potential title challengers, Elgin look hot favourites for the drop and you could probably put the other five clubs in any order you like.


    1 EAST FIFE


    2 DUMBARTON
    3 FORFAR ATHLETIC
    4 STENHOUSEMUIR


    5 PETERHEAD
    6 STRANRAER
    7 THE SPARTANS
    8 BONNYRIGG ROSE ATHLETIC
    9 CLYDE


    10 ELGIN CITY


    Remember to bookmark this and use it against me in the coming months.


    PS Here's the Twitterati view...




    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
    I said I'd get it done 'eventually', didn't I?


    CENTRAL MIDFIELDERS: CALLUM MCGREGOR (CELTIC), REO HATATE (CELTIC)
    Honourable mentions: Leighton Clarkson (Aberdeen), Ylber Ramadani (Aberdeen), Cammy Devlin (Heart of Midlothian), Ryan Jack (Rangers), Keanu Baccus (St. Mirren), Mark O'Hara (St. Mirren)


    I desperately wanted to not flood the team with Celtic players. And reader, I failed miserably. Trying to shoehorn anyone in ahead of McGregor and Hatate here would have made me a laughing stock.


    There were some decent options elsewhere mind; Ramadani proved a superb signing for Aberdeen, who will move heaven and earth to try and get Clarkson permanently this summer. I love the way that Devlin snaps at opponents' heels like a rabid dog. For all his critics, Jack simply makes Rangers better when he is on the pitch. St. Mirren's success heavily depended on O'Hara's goals from midfield, but in the first half of the season Baccus was superb.


    ATTACKING MIDFIELDERS: JOTA (CELTIC), MALIK TILLMAN (RANGERS)
    Honourable mentions: Elie Youan (Hibernian), Daniel Armstrong (Kilmarnock), Joel Nouble (Livingston), Yan Dhanda (Ross County)


    Now this was the hardest part. Normally I'd have two 'wingers' but I felt obliged to widen the description to give me more options here because Jota was the only out-and-out wide player who I felt justified a place in the XI. So this allows me to include Tillman as well, though Todd Cantwell would have been ahead of him if he met my qualification criteria.


    Who else? Armstrong was Kilmarnock's best player by far this season. Youan was gloriously erratic in front of goal but his pace makes him a lot of fun. Nouble spent a lot of time out wide this year, so I'll thrown him in here. Dhanda looked a lot classier than the players surrounding him at County.
    STRIKERS: KYOGO FURUHASHI (CELTIC), KEVIN VAN VEEN (MOTHERWELL)
    Honourable mentions: Lawrence Shankland (Heart of Midlothian), Duk (Aberdeen), Kevin Nisbet (Hibernian), Curtis Main (St. Mirren)


    Kyogo is an obvious pick, but who to partner him? I just can't get over Van Veen's extraordinary run at the end of the season and so that gives him the nod by a whisker over the outstanding Shankland. 


    Unless I'm forgetting someone (and I probably am), Duk is the best Aberdeen striker since Scott Booth. Nisbet has come back from his serious knee injury stronger than ever and it'll be interesting to see how well he does at Millwall. I actually had Main on my worst signings list for last season, but St. Mirren have played to his strengths and he has repaid them and then some. It's a terrible shame for them that he has better offers for next season.


    And that's it for another year. Depressingly, this is the first time I think there have been six players from one team - and also there's a record nine players who play for a cheek of the Glasgow a***. More evidence of the enormous gap between them and the rest, I suppose.


    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
    I've done this every year for sixteen years, and to be honest it's never felt more like a chore. When you don't have any skin in the game - that's six years Caley Thistle have been stuck in the Championship - it becomes even harder to be motivated by watching Celtic and Rangers pump everybody. It's also more difficult than ever to pick players from other clubs for this XI, because I'm very close to crossing the 'taking the p***' line' by doing so. Still, I've tried my best.


    For historical record, the previous fifteen lineups:


    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)

    2020/21: Benjamin Siegrist (Dundee United), James Tavernier (Rangers), Conor Goldson (Rangers), Jason Kerr (St. Johnstone), Borna Barisic (Rangers), Steven Davis (Rangers), Ali McCann (St. Johnstone), Ryan Kent (Rangers), David Turnbull (Celtic), Martin Boyle (Hibernian), Odsonne Edouard (Celtic)

    2021/22: Craig Gordon (Hearts), James Tavernier (Rangers), Cameron Carter-Vickers (Celtic), Ryan Edwards (Dundee United), Stephen Kingsley (Hearts), Callum McGregor (Celtic), Joe Aribo (Rangers), Regan Charles-Cook (Ross County), Barrie McKay (Hearts), Jota (Celtic), Alfredo Morelos (Rangers)

    Onto this year's vintage. As per tradition, we'll start with the goalkeeper and back four. It's always a back four...


    GOALKEEPER: TREVOR CARSON (ST. MIRREN)
    Honourable mentions: Joe Hart (Celtic), Zander Clark (Heart of Midlothian)
    Carson's previous four seasons? Three as Motherwell's backup keeper and one as Dundee United's backup keeper (before moving to Morecambe on loan). So yeah, I think we were all a bit surprised that the Northern Irish veteran has suddenly become amazing. Unquestionably the 35 year old has had the best season of his career.


    Yes, Hart is surely the best goalkeeper in Scotland but its hard to judge the quality of a player who faces about one shot on target every three months. Clark's move to Hearts looked strange to me - was being number two to Craig Gordon for a year or two that good a career move? - but Gordon's injury has given him an opportunity that he has grabbed with both hands.


    RIGHT-BACK: JAMES TAVERNIER (RANGERS)
    Honourable mentions: Nicky Devlin (Livingston), Ryan Strain (St. Mirren)
    That's just the six straight years that the Rangers captain has been in my Team of the Year, though this season it's as much down to a lack of competition as anything else. Still, sixteen league goals is a heck of a return and whilst Rangers have a few problems to deal with this summer he isn't one of them.


    Devlin's consistency for Livingston has earned him a summer move to Aberdeen. Strain has had an excellent first season in Scotland, not least because of his skill with a dead ball. I'm still insisting that players have to have played at least 19 league games to qualify for this, so that rules out both Alistair Johnston and Max Johnston. Don't @ me...


    LEFT-BACK: GREG TAYLOR (CELTIC)
    Honourable mentions: Borna Barisic (Rangers), Alex Cochrane (Heart of Midlothian)
    Taylor has just been so consistent. His development under Ange has been far beyond what I expected and he held off the challenge of new signing Alexandro Bernabei with ease.


    Barisic is probably beginning to decline but is still better than most left-backs in this league, which isn't saying much. Cochrane was superb in the first half of the season but his form has dipped along with his teammates in 2023.


    CENTRE-BACKS: CAMERON CARTER-VICKERS (CELTIC), CONOR GOLDSON (RANGERS)
    Honourable mentions: Carl Starfelt (Celtic), Jack Fitzwater (Livingston), Kye Rowles (Heart of Midlothian), Ryan Porteous (Hibernian)
    Carter-Vickers is far too good for this poxy league and Celtic will be hoping it takes him a few more seasons to realise that. It's remarkable just how much CCV and Goldson are missed when they're not there; the drop off to the backups at Rangers and Celtic is steep indeed.


    If I'd been feeling more reckless I'd have picked Porteous on the back of his performances before he signed for Watford in January. Rowles was amazing before the World Cup but mediocre after. Starfelt was solid except when CCV wasn't alongside him (coincidence?). Fitzwater is the next Livi player who will go on to better things this summer. Oh, and Mattie Pollock just didn't play enough matches for consideration, but he was very good for Aberdeen.




    The midfield and attack will appear at some point. Eventually.


    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
    Top ten time! Here's the countdown from 25 to 11, if you missed it.

    10. JOHN SOUTTAR (RANGERS)
    There are three certainties in life: death, taxes and John Souttar getting injured. Inevitably Soapy got crocked on his Rangers debut and was missing for eight months; giving him an Old Firm game at Celtic Park for his first start felt like a disaster waiting to happen and so it proved with the centre-back gifting a goal with a dreadful backpass. Rangers need a reliable partner for Connor Goldson; Souttar is unlikely to be that player.



    9. DEJI SOTONA (KILMARNOCK)
    Even Killie fans may not recognise the name; the Irish striker joined on loan from Nice, made a couple of sub appearances and was never seen again. It was all rather reminiscent of the sort of player Lee Clark signed for the club back in the day. Sotona is now turning out for Burnley's under 23s.





    8. MOMODOU BOJANG (HIBERNIAN)
    I wouldn't believe there was a football club called Rainbow FC had Hibs not signed Bojang on loan from them. The Gambian forward was a low-risk, high-reward signing but was clearly out of his depth and ending his loan spell early in January was best for everyone.





    7. PHILLIP CANCAR (LIVINGSTON)
    Australian Cancar actually started for Livi on opening day against Rangers, only to be hauled off after a torrid 34 minutes before he got an inevitable second yellow card. He made a couple of sub appearances after that before disappearing off the radar from September onward. In January he returned permanently to Oz, six months into a two year deal with an optional third year.





    6. JOSH MORRIS (MOTHERWELL)
    One of Graham Alexander's last signings, it's not clear whether it's injury that has kept him out of action since the autumn or whether he is just unwanted at Motherwell. Regardless, HE clearly wasn't rated by Stevie Hammell and isn't being missed by Stuart Kettlewell; Morris only registered on Scottish football's radar for somehow not getting sent off after poleaxing Celtic's Carl Starfelt back in October.





    5. MARK BIRIGHITTI (DUNDEE UNITED)
    Birighitti forced his way out of Central Coast Mariners to "chase my dreams", which invites the obvious question "In Dundee?!". He has improved in the last month or so...not that this would be hard, given the extraordinary number of individual errors he has made over the course of the season, whether it be flapping at crosses or parrying shots straight to strikers or most infamously being slide-tackled by Stevie May for a St. Johnstone winner. But with United having loaned away backup Carljohan Eriksson and having only the equally hapless (at least in his one appearance in Dingwall) Jack Newman as competition, the Australian is still between the sticks. And don't forget that United actually paid money to sign him...





    4. RABBI MATONDO (RANGERS)
    Four years ago Matondo was so highly rated that Schalke paid £11m to sign him from Manchester City. Rangers paid just a fraction of that to sign him last summer but he hasn't even looked worth that. An injury in the new year hasn't helped but the Welsh international has struggled to justify anything more than a succession of late appearances off the bench. The most damning thing one can say is that Scott Wright is usually preferred to him.



    3. JAYDEN RICHARDSON (ABERDEEN)
    On paper, the young Nottingham Forest right-back looked like a good signing with plenty of potential and the Dons paid £300,000 for him. Unfortunately he was following in the footsteps of Calvin Ramsey, but even if expectations had been low Richardson would have failed miserably to meet them. By the autumn Jim Goodwin was already playing centre-backs and midfielders (Matty Kennedy!) ahead of Richardson on the right side of the defence and he's made one start and one substitutes appearance since November. He is under contract for another two years, by the way.





    2. HARRY MCKIRDY (HIBERNIAN)
    If you're going to insist on a pink mohican then you really need to be pretty special. McKirdy...isn't. It didn't help that within two months of moving north he was suggesting on social media that he wished he hadn't. And then having kept his head down for months and got himself back into the first team picture at last he mouthed off on Instagram last week about being stuck on the subs bench. He still hasn't scored a single goal for Hibs (he managed two for Swindon in August before moving north).





    1. ANTHONY STEWART (ABERDEEN)
    Making a new signing club captain straightaway is a bold move. Partly because of this - and partly because of his dreadful performances and the dreadful performances of his fellow defenders - Stewart became synonymous with Aberdeen's struggles under Jim Goodwin. It doesn't help his cause that Barry Robson's first act on replacing Goodwin was to punt Stewart out on loan to MK Dons and since then Aberdeen have been pretty much rock solid at the back. What really did for Stewart though was the League Cup Semi Final; beforehand he did a crazy press conference where he discussed how he thought Antonio Colak was better than Alfredo Morelos, and then in the match itself he got himself sent off right at the end of normal time with a lunatic hack on Fashion Sakala. The Dons had no hope of getting through extra time a man down and there was no way back for him; within two and a half weeks both boss and skipper were out. Still, he has a year on his contract left to come back too...


    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
    So I don't have the time to blog much these days. But this series has been going on since 2012/13 and I'm worried that the world will end if I stop. Also, people tend to enjoy it; there's something so very Scottish Football about fans complaining that their team's duffer isn't at the top of my list.


    The ten previous winners, by the way:
    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)
    2020/21: Shane Duffy (Celtic)
    2021/22: Matty Longstaff (Aberdeen)
    I feel like I really should shoehorn a goalkeeper into top spot this season, so I have a proper starting XI of calamities (one with an awful lot of forwards, mind).


    Let's start the countdown from 25 to 11...




    25= DILAN MARKANDAY & PATRIK MYSLOVIC (ABERDEEN)
    My final list had 26 names so I'll include these two January arrivals together. Markanday was signed on January deadline day by the Dons, but lord knows why. The lad has at the time of writing played just seven minutes of football for the club and probably has splinters in his backside from sitting on the bench. The winger was considered quite the prospect at Spurs and then Blackburn, but his loan from the Rovers has proven to be a waste of his and everyone's time.  The Dons have an option to make Myslovic's loan signing permanent but since the Slovakian has only managed a handful of sub appearances since arriving in January it seems unlikely they will do so. I can neither confirm or deny any rumours that there may be a few more Aberdeen players on this list...



    24. ROLANDO AARONS (MOTHERWELL)
    Played 53 minutes of football over three sub appearances. Got injured. Went home. That about sums up Aarons' second spell at Motherwell, which was a shame because I remember a few flashes from him when he first pitched up at Fir Park in 2020.






    23. JAIR TAVARES (HIBERNIAN)
    Hibs keep bigging up Jair's attitude in training and performances for the reserve team, which has a feeling of 'damning with faint praise' about it. To be honest, I think we all expected rather bigger things from a Portugal U19 international signed from Benfica who has been limited to only a handful of brief cameos off the bench since August. Either he's far more a 'one for the future' than we assumed (they did give him a contract till 2026) or it just isn't happening.



    22. JORDY HIWULA (ROSS COUNTY)
    When Hiwula was signed by County, there were plenty of Doncaster fans on social media suggesting that they were glad to see the back of a striker who had scored just once for them and whose workrate had often disappointed. That sounded like sour grapes after Hiwula scored three goals in the League Cup group stages...but he has hit the net just once since then. The January arrivals of Eamonn Brophy and Simon Murray have pretty much bumped him out of first team contention. 



    21. SCOTT BITSINDOU (LIVINGSTON)
    A typical low risk, obscure Livingston signing, Congolese midfielder Bitsindou was signed from the Belgian second tier. He was trusted with just one minute of league action for Livi before being loaned to Arbroath in September though, and given he's 27 next month it's safe to say it wasn't for his development. He has had his good and bad moments in the Championship (the latter mostly when deputising in central defence) but injuries have limited his action in the last few months.



    20. TOYOSI OLUSANYA (ST. MIRREN)
    After a few League Cup outings, injury restricted Olusanya to just one substitute appearance for St. Mirren - in January - where he was himself substituted after eleven minutes. Shortly after that he was loaned to Arbroath where he has managed a solitary goal so far. One suspects he may not see out the second year of his two year deal in Paisley.



    19. OLLY CRANKSHAW (MOTHERWELL)
    "Olly is exactly the profile of player we need at the minute" enthused Stevie Hammell after signing him in January. "He will excite fans with his style of play". Crankshaw, who had an unimpactful loan spell at Dundee a few years back, has not exactly lived up to Hammell's expectations and has been out of the team since Stuart Kettlewell took over. Maybe he has been injured, but if he has been he is not important enough for anyone to say so.



    18. CALLUM ROBERTS (ABERDEEN)
    Roberts cost Aberdeen £100,000 and has so far managed all of four sub appearances due to ongoing problems with a hamstring injury. He still has two years on his current deal so I suppose he might be salvageable?



    17. GRAHAM CAREY (ST. JOHNSTONE)
    St Johnstone fans on Twitter made a compelling case for the veteran midfielder's inclusion: "started ok but the last 4 months have been a bit of a nightmare"; "his high point of the season was losing rock, paper, scissors"; "Carey has been really poor, but also Callum Davidson's obsession with trying to find a way to fit him into the team has kind of doubled down on it too". So I'll take their word for it.



    16. OLIVER ABILDGAARD (CELTIC)
    A rare miss for Celtic's recruitment team. The Dane's loan from Rubin Kazan was supposed to be for the whole season but was cut short in January due to lack of gametime. Abildgaard made nine sub appearances and zero impact; he is now at Verona in Italy where he counts ex-Hibs man Josh Doig as a teammate.



    15. JAKE EASTWOOD (ROSS COUNTY)
    Gets ranked higher because he's been on this list before - two years ago after a nightmare loan at Kilmarnock where his infamous solitary league appearance saw him gift a goal to Hibs and then go off injured at half-time. That's one more league appearance than he managed in Dingwall where he became the latest goalie to completely fail to displace Ross Laidlaw from the starting lineup. The loan deal was cut short in January. Still technically Sheffield United's player despite having gone out on about a billion loans so far in his career.



    14. SHAYDEN MORRIS (ABERDEEN)
    Another long term contract (four years!) and another long-term injury. Morris has made a single start for Aberdeen and has barely played since October (and not at all in 2023 so far) because of a major hamstring issue. Maybe he'll be like a new signing next season. Or maybe it'll be like he never existed...



    13. ARNAUD DJOUM (DUNDEE UNITED)
    There's a fine line between 'experienced' and 'past it' and the evidence is that Djoum has crossed it. Liam Fox will argue that he brought in the 33 year old partly for his influence and attitude, but what United needed was an enforcer in midfield; sadly the Cameroonian is a shadow of the player who strutted about the middle of the park for Hearts a few years back.



    12. AIDEN MCGEADY (HIBERNIAN)
    Now McGeady did start looking the part in the New Year having recovered from an ankle injury that sidelined him until the World Cup break. But then he wrecked his hamstring in February and is done for the season. Given he'll have been on a decent wage, the veteran has simply not been decent value. And going to watch Celtic B one weekend instead of his current club wasn't a good look.



    11. ESMAEL GONCALVES (LIVINGSTON)
    Sadly the Goncalves of 2023 is nowhere near the Goncalves of 2013 who inspired St. Mirren to League Cup glory. The Guinea-Bissau forward was in fact exactly what we all suspected of a guy who has spent the last few years playing in Uzbekistan, Iran and Bangladesh. He managed more red cards (one) than goals (zero) for Livi and pitched up at Raith Rovers on loan in February where he at least managed a debut goal against Motherwell in the cup.


    The top ten will be up some time in the next few days/weeks...


    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
    At one end of the scale, Scottish football finances are in rude health. Celtic and Rangers both reached the promised land of the Champions League group stages this season, which means megabucks. Whilst Rangers have had some interesting spending habits over much of the last decade, this along with the sale of Calvin Bassey will surely leave them no longer dependent on the riches of Douglas Park.


    But 2023 could be a very difficult year for a number of Scottish football clubs. The main reason for this is the rising cost of, well, everything. Day-to-day running of a club has never been more expensive. Ditto travelling. And whilst attendances have been remarkably robust up till now the cost of living crisis is taking its toll on millions and tickets to the fitba will prove an unnecessary luxury for plenty.


    The main focus of concern is the Scottish Championship. There are no particular warning sirens going off at any top flight clubs right now - and after the Setanta debacle, the Rangers liquidation and the end of Romanov at Hearts we all have a pretty good idea of when the midden is heading for the windmill. At Aberdeen, Hearts, Hibs and Dundee United - in terms of support, the next four biggest clubs in the country - it helps to have decent financial backing. All but the Jambos have a rich owner; Hearts have a seven figure sum of 'donations' coming into the club every year related to fan ownership, as well as wealthy individuals.


    Hearts will be a particularly interesting case to watch going forward. Their participation in the European Conference League - which is guaranteed for the Cup winner/third placed team in the league (if the cup is won by either of the top two) - earned them millions. Their two wins in the group stage alone made them nearly half the prize money that they got for coming third in the Premiership last season. Whilst it is still breadcrumbs compared to the vast riches the Old Firm bring in, it gives them a significant financial boost in comparison with the rest of the domestic opposition. If Robbie Neilson's side can pull off another 'best of the rest' this season - as looks quite likely at the time of writing, then it is conceivable they could find themselves much stronger than the rest of the pack, though still a million billion miles behind the Old Firm.


    As for the rest, one assumes they will be just fine...as long as they stay in the Premiership, or at least get out of the second tier at the first attempt. Kilmarnock spent a lot of money to escape, and I suspect there would have been a huge austerity drive at Rugby Park had they not managed promotion.


    One area where there has been impressive progress has been in recruitment strategy. Scottish clubs are exempt from the same stringent work permit criteria that restricts English clubs from bringing in non-UK players, and many have taken significant advantage. Ange Postecoglu's knowledge of Japan has allowed him to bring such rough diamonds as Reo Hatate, Daizan Maeda and Kyogo Furuhashi to Celtic on the cheap, with more on the way in this transfer window. Other clubs have done well out of Australian players, with Hearts, Dundee United and St. Mirren all boasting players that went to the World Cup with the Socceroos. In general these signings have proven to be unmitigated successes, and almost certainly will have been far cheaper than British equivalents. They also tend to be young and so have potential resale value, as Hearts and St. Mirren will likely find with Kye Rowles and Keanu Baccus respectively.


    I can't help suspecting that eventually some chairmen in the English Football League will cry foul and pressure the Home Office to close this particular loophole, but until then Scottish clubs are going to make hay.


    As I stated earlier, it's clubs further down the ladder that I'm more worried about.


    Part-time teams, less so. Whilst they will also be hit by the same increase in costs as everyone else, they should find it easier to manage because their playing budgets are lower and can be lowered further if necessary (albeit with an effect on the quality on the pitch). Full-time clubs have a wage floor; there is a level of income that a full-time player must receive in order for it to be viable for them to stay full-time. With the cost of living crisis that floor is going to get higher and it is going to become very difficult for some clubs to deal with that without becoming part-time.


    Deloitte's recent description of four unnamed Championship clubs as "showing signs of financial distress" is pretty vague to say the least. However I would note that Dundee, Queen's Park and Ayr United have wealthy owners and are safe unless they pull the plug. Cove Rangers also have plenty of funding whilst fellow part-timers Arbroath are in rude health after last season's successes. As for the other five...well, I would worry about them. Hamilton and Raith Rovers have admitted they can't continue running the way they are, Morton already have the tiniest squad you can get away with (though fan ownership seems to be going pretty smoothly) and there are plenty of rumours in the Highlands that all is not rosy at Inverness Caledonian Thistle. Goodness knows where Partick Thistle are at after all the ownership shenanigans there, though I'd like to think they are less likely to be heading for a Help Ma Boab situation. If there is going to be a catastrophe somewhere in 2023 it will be in this division.


    Hopefully (fingers crossed) there won't be.


    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
    To be honest, these days the Premiership preview is a slog to write. That's partly because my own team aren't in it, partly because I don't have the time to do pieces on individual clubs anymore and partly because for my entire football life it has been either a one horse or two horse race. And a race like that isn't interesting unless you're backing one of the two horses, So I'm happy to accept that this is a bit thin and fully expect to be quickly proved wrong on most of it before the clocks go back.
    The prediction I'm most confident of? That the gap between second and third - which was 28 points last season - will not come down to below 20 points. With Celtic rolling in the Champions League money and Rangers with a chance to do the same, that chasm is not closing.
    I suppose I'd better make a title prediction. Celtic have pretty much kept the band together, while Rangers lost Calvin Bassey and Joe Aribo. Whilst Giovanni Van Bronckhorst has signed some intriguing players, I'm going to go with the tried and tested and fancy another Championship for Ange Postecoglu. But neither team will drop points often.
    It is far more fun to discuss the clubs who are in crisis. The obvious place to start is at St. Johnstone, who were 45 minutes away from the drop before finding their mojo against Inverness, but they have now lost Zander Clark, Jamie McCart, Shaun Rooney and Callum Hendry and replaced them with guys who aren't that far away from Masters football. There is a fine line between 'experienced' and 'washed-up'. The biggest concern is that you wouldn't bet on any of their forwards getting near double figures for goals.
    Motherwell might have qualified for Europe but they stank the place out in the second half of last season and have a squad (and tactics, perhaps?) that desperately lack flair. Paul McGinn has been added to a backline that looks okay on paper but has been allergic to a clean sheet in 2022, and aside from the able but erratic Kevin Van Veen it's hard to see much attacking threat. The defeat to Sligo Rovers has justifiably enduced panic in the support and Graham Alexander is feeling under pressure. He certainly needs some new bodies through the door to save his bacon.
    I'm also not feeling great about St. Mirren where Stephen Robinson struggled to make a positive impact after arriving in February. League Cup defeats to both Arbroath and Airdrie don't bode well either. The Buddies will also miss Connor Ronan badly after he returned to Wolves, and he has far bigger suitors for the coming campaign. That said, they have signed seven new players, including Robinson's former Motherwell stalwarts Mark O'Hara and Declan Gallagher who previously played their best under his management. If Australians Ryan Strain and Keanu Baccus are hits then that would be an enormous boost, and Jonah Ayunga has hinted he might have the eye for goal that the club's other forwards lack. It could go either way though.
    As a newly promoted side Kilmarnock are probably obliged to be in this conversation but I'd expect Derek McInnes to make them tough to beat and to grind out enough results to be comfortably safe. Keeping goalie Zach Hemming for another year will help, but sooner or later time will catch up with talisman Kyle Lafferty. If it is sooner, Killie really need Oli Shaw to step up.
    The best of the diddy teams? It's easy enough to make an argument for Hearts again as Lawrence Shankland's signing cancels out the end of Ellis Simms' loan but they will miss John Souttar and I don't know that they have the depth to balance their domestic action with the guaranteed European games. 
    That might open the door for Aberdeen who have been refreshingly aggressive at spending the cash generated by the sales of Calvin Ramsey and Lewis Ferguson. Jim Goodwin certainly has a plan, but it seems pretty high risk, high reward as it depends on a lot of new faces settling quickly and gelling quickly.
    Dundee United's manager's job appears to be afflicted by the same curse as the Defence Against The Dark Arts, but they've found another decent incumbent in Jack Ross and are another club showing some imagination in their recruitment, bringing in Australians Mark Birighitti and Aziz Behich. The former should adequately replace Benjamin Siegrist in goal. Steven Fletcher returns to Scotland 13 years after leaving Hibs and should still have plenty to give even at 35. Most remarkably they convinced Dylan Levitt to sign permanently from Manchester United after a superb loan spell. Whoever is in the dugout, United seem to have a plan.
    That's rather more than can be said for Hibernian, who are surely too good for a relegation fight (though this is Hibs we're talking about, so anything can happen) but new boss Lee Johnson hasn't endeared himself to the fans or anyone else with a dreadful League Cup campaign and then his incredible claims that they were set up to fail by the authorities. Poor Rocky Bushiri, a player that the club supposedly didn't want to sign permanently but had to after playing him in too many meaningless games at the end of last season, and who then was played against Morton when he was suspended. On the plus side David Marshall is a definite upgrade in goal and they got a big fee for Josh Doig but it's hard to see what the club's strategy is right now. The man in charge of recruitment is the owner's son though so it's bound to be fine in the end.
    And that leaves us with clubs that look too strong and too well organized to go down whilst also not quite having the resources to push for third. Livingston continue to punch above their weight thanks to the skills of David Martindale and their creative recruitment that this summer has rustled up ex-Hearts and St. Mirren forward Esmael Goncalves among others. Martindale finally ran out of patience with accident-prone keeper Max Stryjek and has forked out a decent fee - the most they have spent in about twenty years - on goalie Shamal George. Crucially they have in Bruce Anderson a striker who scores more frequently than most in this league. One or two good loan signings would turn them into bona fide top six contenders.
    And lastly Ross County got better and better as 2021/22 progressed, suggesting that whatever your thoughts on him as a person there is no question that Malky Mackay is a top coach. Last year they were dependent on a lot of loan signings who have moved on, along with the superb Regan Charles-Cook. But their relationship with Southampton has allowed them to bring in the exciting young winger Kazeem Olaigbe, while striker Jordy Hiwula has settled in quickly. They've also gone to Canada to get midfielder Victor Loturi and William Akio and improved the defence with the experienced duo of Callum Johnson and Ben Purrington and goalkeeper Jake Eastwood. They should justifiably believe they can make the top half again.
    So here's my predicted table. Should I allow for my suspicion that Hibs, St. Mirren, Motherwell and St. Johnstone will all change managers before Christmas? I suppose it might not change my predictions much...

    1. CELTIC
    2. RANGERS3. HEARTS4. ABERDEEN5. DUNDEE UNITED6. ROSS COUNTY
    7. LIVINGSTON8. HIBERNIAN9. KILMARNOCK10. ST. MIRREN
    11. MOTHERWELL
    12. ST. JOHNSTONE

    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
    Here we go then. The Scottish Championship is my bread and butter, by which I mean that I make the same blunders as in all the other previews but with much more confidence. Allegations that I predicted Arbroath to finish bottom last season and Dunfermline to make the playoffs (no,not those playoffs) are absolutely outrageous and completely true.


    In recent times this division has tended to be dominated by a single club who clearly have more cash to throw at the squad. Out of the last eight champions, only St. Mirren didn't have cash to burn (or to throw at Charlie Adam and Jason Cummings, which is essentially the same thing).


    Whilst Dundee are the wealthiest team in the division this time around, thanks to their generous yet hapless American owners, the lack of reinforcement so far this summer suggests that there will be no poundshop galacticos coming to Dens Park - sorry, Leigh - which may not be a bad thing. The squad that was relegated is probably strong enough to win the title anyway, especially if striker Alex Jakubiak can finally stay fit for more than five minutes. A little more depth would be helpful and there are question marks over all three goalkeepers but most crucially they have brought in a manager, Gary Bowyer, whose CV screams 'competent'. And that in itself is enough to make them clear favourites.


    I am always wary of cursing Inverness Caledonian Thistle with any positivity that might encourage the universe to crush me or them in revenge. But ICT were 45 Perth minutes away from promotion in May - now let's never speak of that second half again, please - and whilst they lost Kirk Broadfoot (who was heading for the knacker's yard anyway) and quality loan players Reece McAlear and Logan Chalmers they have kept the rest of the squad together. George Oakley should be a competent striker at this level and I'm excited by Daniel Mackay's return on loan. They should be there or thereabouts, particularly if Oakley, Billy Mckay or Austin Samuels proves a consistent source of goals.


    Should Arbroath be in the conversation too? After all, only two of their best XI at the end of last season - Chris Hamilton and Jack Hamilton - are away. And their League Cup performances suggest there's no hangover from last season. That said it is always asking a lot of a part-time side to sustain such a high level for so long, and some sort of drop-off seems inevitable. But should Dick Campbell procure some super-talented loan signings, as he often has done in the past, they could cause havoc once again. Last season proved we should never be fooled into underestimating them; they have several players - Tam O'Brien, Ricky Little and Nicky Low are the ones that stand out to me - who could play for a full-time team if they wished but instead choose to supplant their day jobs with a generous part-time football income.


    The last of the promotion playoff sides from last year, Partick Thistle have fairly overhauled their squad with ten new signings and many departures. Ian McCall is determined to relieve the goalscoring burden on veteran Brian Graham, bringing in forwards Danny Mullen, Anton Dowds and Tony Weston. They'll need Weston and midfielder Cole McKinnon to contribute far more than last season's Rangers loanee Juan Alegria did. Bringing back Steven Lawless looks smart too. If there's a question mark it's over the defence; Jack McMillan is a good signing but if Harry Milne can't make the step up from Cove then there's not a lot of alternatives, especially as Kevin Holt's future seems to be at centre-back. I suspect McCall isn't finished wheeling and dealing yet.


    Aside from winning the Challenge Cup, Raith Rovers had a pretty dreadful first half of 2022 and the time was probably right to part ways with John McGlynn. Ian Murray is the new boss but his few signings so far have been from League One (Scott Brown, Dylan Easton) or Scunthorpe (Ross Millen). Options are a bit limited just now; Tom Lang, Ross Matthews, Brad Spencer and Lewis Vaughan all miss the start of the season with injury, whilst He Who Must Not Be Named is still technically on the books but will never play for the club. Starting the season with Christophe Berra as the only fit senior centre-back no senior centre-backs after Christophe Berra suddenly retired this week, and with Jamie Gullan as the only fit senior striker, is not a good situation. Can Murray hold out until the treatment room clears or does he have to hit the market? It feels like a transitional year for them.


    Rovers aren't the only club short of numbers; Dougie Imrie's first team lines for the League Cup had all of one sub due to injuries and suspensions and he made it clear that he wasn't expecting to get any more funds for his Greenock Morton squad. Morton improved dramatically under Imrie in the second half of last season but were unable to convince keeper Jack Hamilton or forwards Gary Oliver and Gozie Ugwu to sign new deals. Lewis Strapp did decide to stay on and Darragh O'Connor and Jack Baird will replace departed loanees Oisin McEntee and Jason Brandon but there is going to be a huge emphasis on youth and on temporary transfers - if goalie Brian Schwake (who was excellent for FC Edinburgh last season in League Two) and striker Jaze Kabia struggle then so will they.


    There's also plenty of room for additions to the Cove Rangers dressing room. The squad hasn't been strengthened much following promotion with only teenage Aberdeen defender Evan Towler coming in on loan and English non-league attacker Gerry McDonagh joining permanently. Manager Paul Hartley left for Hartlepool and replacement Jim McIntyre looks like he has work to do to get the team ready for the step up. We'll soon find out if veterans Mark Reynolds, Shay Logan and Iain Vigurs still have the legs for this level and whether Mitch Megginson and Fraser Fyvie can light up the Championship like they did the lower divisions. Expect lots of newcomers in the next few weeks and only then can we properly gauge Cove's prospects.


    Queen's Park actually finished three places below Cove in League One last season before coming up through the playoffs, yet it could be argued that the Spiders' trajectory is the one pointing upwards. Bringing in Owen Coyle was a sign of their ambition and they have been ruthless in moving on all but the best players from the promotion-winning squad. The arrivals of Josh McPake (on loan) and Dom Thomas should make them dangerous going forward, though they may need Simon Murray to rewind the clock a few years if they are to score enough goals. If this young squad clicks, their first campaign at this level in 39 years could be an exciting one.


    Trying to assess the prospects of Hamilton Academical is even harder. Accies had a tumultuous offseason to say the least, taking several weeks to sort out the binning of boss Stuart Taylor and losing a fair bit of preparation time in the process. The good news: replacement John Rankin gives the impression of being an intelligent coach. The not so good news: the club's own former (as of this week) CEO predicted "the hardest season we've had in the 20 years we've been here". The only new faces are Michael Doyle (let go by Queen's Park) and young midfielder Jonny Ngandu. If Andy Winter continues his development then they might be okay up front but a lack of depth here and a lack of quality elsewhere - aside from the impressive Steve Lawson - is hugely concerning. It's not unusual for Accies to depend on youngsters, but aside from Winter it's not clear there are any other academy products ready for this level.

    It's not been a great summer for Ayr United either. Having avoided a relegation playoff by the skin of their teeth, they also lost star striker Tomi Adeloye, with outstanding loan players Kerr McInroy and James Maxwell also away. However there was an expectation that a full preseason under Lee Bullen, coupled with the manager's impressive contacts down south, would result in new signings and an improvement of the current squad. Defensively they should be better after bringing in Frankie Musonda, Alex Kirk and David Bangala.  However their League Cup campaign was a disaster. Forwards Sam Ashford and Dipo Akinyemi haven't clicked yet and aside from Andy Murdoch there are concerns about the midfield. Bullen still has a lot of work to do if he is to keep United away from another relegation battle.
    So here's the inevitably wrong predicted table:

    1. DUNDEE


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


    5. QUEEN'S PARK
    6. RAITH ROVERS
    7. COVE RANGERS
    8. GREENOCK MORTON


    9. AYR UNITED


    10. HAMILTON ACADEMICAL


    I'm pretty comfortable with my top four. I have absolutely no idea how to rank the other six. I worry that Accies are dysfunctional, Ayr are just not very good and Morton are broke, so they are my bottom three. But Cove seem unsure whether to spend what is required to take them to the next level, Queen's Park have a 'boom/bust' feel to them and it'll be tough to evaluate where Raith Rovers are at until the window is closed.


    And here's what the universe thought when I asked their opinion:






    Let's see how it pans out...


    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
    As someone with a wicked sense of humour and a deep love of schadenfreude, League One will doubtless bring me lots of joy every season as long as my own team aren't stuck in it. It's a beautiful combination of full-time clubs who feel the seaside leagues are beneath them - and whose players too often play as if they feel the same - and part-time sides who range from battle-hardened, dangerous units to a complete omnishambles (sometimes both in the same season) with everything in between.


    It seems fair to begin with Falkirk, who seem to have Mr Burns' 'You're Stuck Here Forever' demotivational plaque and are onto their gazillionth manager since they crashed down here just over three years ago. The thing is, this time said supremo is John McGlynn, whose wonderful achievements at Raith Rovers included getting them out of this hellhole. It's hard to believe he can't at least make this motley crew the sum of their parts, which in itself would probably be enough to win the division. It just seems mad that players like Coll Donaldson, Paul Watson, Stephen McGinn, Kai Kennedy, Callumn Morrison, Aidan Nesbitt and Gary Oliver are here instead of in the Championship. The trouble will come if they feel the same way, particularly after a scudding or two.


    Dunfermline Athletic are the other big fish in this particular rockpool after a catastrophic relegation. They too have a new manager in James McPake, who I didn't rate at all at Dundee. He has so far mostly stuck with the bunch that went down, either believing he can bring them back to form or because they're all on contracts the club can't get shot of. Again, there are lots of names that on past history belong in the second tier; Aaron Comrie, Graham Dorrans, Chris Hamilton, Kevin O'Hara, Craig Wighton, Nikolay Todorov. You'd think they'll be challengers, but the last time they were relegated to League One we thought the same, and they were stuck for three years until they got the right man in the dugout. Time will tell if they've managed that already.


    Also coming down from the Championship are Queen of the South who didn't really improve much after Wullie Gibson took over from Allan Johnston. Perhaps Gibson deserves a Mulligan now that the veteran player-boss has a chance to mould his own squad. Improving the defence with Stuart Morrison, Ciaran McKenna and David McKay is a good start; bringing back Iain Wilson, Gavin Reilly and Connor Murray was also impressive; but the icing on the cake is the retention of striker Lee Connelly. They are giving this a good go, not least because it's hard to see them being able to remain full-time if they're stuck down here for multiple seasons.


    The last of the full-time (-ish in this case, as they have a bit of a hybrid scheme going on) clubs, Airdrie have had a tumultuous summer with manager Ian Murray leaving for Kirkcaldy and taking star attacker Dylan Easton with him. At the time of writing the club have a tiny squad which includes player-boss Rhys McCabe (only 31 years old!) and his assistant, centre-back Calum Fordyce (age 30!). It's hard to see them repeating last year's second place finish unless McCabe is the next Alex Neil and he gets to sign a platoon of new players by the end of August.


    Of the part-timers, Montrose have been the most consistently impressive in the division in recent years with a string of promotion playoff appearances on the back of a remarkably settled squad and a miracle-worker coach (Stewart Petrie) who doesn't want to give up a lucrative day job to manage at a full-time side. That said, the Gable Endies have brought in minimal reinforcements whilst also losing both Cammy Ballantynes (yes, there were two). There's still plenty of quality though which should stop them slipping too far back.


    They might be usurped by the upstarts from Kelty Hearts though. Kelty breezed through League Two at the first attempt and have aspirations to emulate Cove Rangers. They should be competitive at this level from the word go with a decent sized budget that has allowed them to field the likes of Jamie Barjonas, Michael Tidser, Joe Cardle and Nathan Austin among others. Kevin Thomson's decision to leave in the summer wasn't ideal but they have high hopes for replacement boss John Potter. Can they immediately challenge at the right end?


    Alloa Athletic also fancy they can get in the promotion playoffs, having improved immeasurably after replacing Barry Ferguson with Brian Rice in the dugout. They'll be relying more on Rice's acumen and improving the squad they've got than on making lots of signings but an attack with Ross MacIver and Connor Sammon should score plenty and immortal defender Andy Graham is still there along with other longstanding players such as Scott Taggart, Kevin Cawley and Jon Robertson. It'll be weird without Alan Trouten though.


    As for those perhaps more worried about the drop, FC Edinburgh are obvious candidates given they came fourth in League Two last season before fighting their way through the playoffs. They were much more impressive after Alan Maybury took charge in the spring and have strengthened with the signings of veteran Liam Fontaine and full-back Kieran MacDonald (a regular with Raith and Hamilton the last few seasons) as well as signing Innes Murray permanently. Whether that'll be sufficient to enable them to make the step up is another matter. And the less said about the godawful name change the better...


    There's not a lot of optimism to be found at Clyde who of course no longer have He Who Must Not Be Named scoring shedloads and masking their deficiencies, and who are now playing at New Douglas Park after getting ejected from Cumbernauld. There's been a clearout - including a number of players who declined new deals - and Danny Lennon somehow has to mould a new team without being able to take them to an island for five years first. Holding onto keeper Neil Parry, midfielder Barry Cuddihy and forward Ross Cunningham helps but it could be a tough first campaign as Hamilton's tenants.


    But the most dire situation is in the Blue Toon; Peterhead were so short of numbers for the League Cup games that they drafted in players from the local non-leagues (I'd never even heard of Banchory St. Ternan or Rattray XI) to make up numbers. Geography is a big issue, and they cannot compete with Cove Rangers for the best local part-time players. If there is hope, it is in the return of Ryan Dow to the club and the permanent signing of impressive loanee Danny Strachan. But Jim McInally may not have faced a bigger challenge in his decade at Balmoor than keeping them up this season.


    So here's the inevitably wrong predicted table...


    1. FALKIRK


    2. DUNFERMLINE ATHLETIC
    3. QUEEN OF THE SOUTH
    4. KELTY HEARTS


    5. ALLOA ATHLETIC
    6. MONTROSE
    7. AIRDRIEONIANS
    8. FC EDINBURGH


    9. CLYDE


    10. PETERHEAD


    And the Twitter takes on the season ahead:






    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
    Those of you who have read my previews before (all three of you) will know that I put a large onus on budget as a factor in how well clubs will do.
    And with good reason. After all, last season League Two had Kelty Hearts; the season before that there was Queen's Park, who won the title by 16 points in a campaign only 22 games long; in 2019-20 Cove Rangers were 13 points clear when the final quarter was written off. 
    And for 2022-23 we have, well, nobody who really stands out. Which should mean a wide-open title race.
    There are maybe three teams I'm confident will not be in with a shout (famous last words...). The first is newly promoted Bonnyrigg Rose Athletic who simply do not have the resources that the likes of Kelty and Cove boasted when they came up and who so far have made only modest additions to the squad that got them up in the first place. Sweet stories like that of striker Kieran McGachie, who played for the club when they were still in the Junior ranks, only take you so far. But they'll be hoping the nous of veteran striker Kevin Smith (signed from East Fife) will help establish them in the SPFL. And let's face it, the champions of tier 5 are generally at least mid-table League Two standard.
    The next to be written off are Albion Rovers, partly because it's no secret that their wage bill is essentially buttons. Manager Brian Reid has moaned that everyone dismisses them as relegation candidates out of ignorance, but really it's because Rovers have finished in the bottom half of League Two four years in a row. Reid has attracted Ayrton Sonkur from Stranraer and Kyle Fleming from Annan, and most crucially he convinced midfielder Charlie Reilly to stay another season. But three players decamped to Dumbarton, including skipper Aron Lynas, and the loss of Kyle Doherty and Declan Byrne leaves them pretty lightweight up top.
    And then there's Elgin City whose recruitment seems more limited by geography than ever. Their most southern signing of the summer came from Jeanfield Swifts and the exits of Euan Spark and Conor O'Keefe leave them rather short of depth. Expect a number of loan signings before the end of August, and expect further dependence on striker Kane Hester to fire them out of trouble. Elgin chose to stand by boss Gavin Price by bringing in Jim Weir as his assistant in a relationship that has a very Evans-Houllier feel, and one suspects a similar endgame.
    What about the top end? Obviously the clubs relegated from League One come to mind. Dumbarton stood by boss Steve Farrell despite a second consecutive relegation from that division (he took Stranraer down the year before) and gave him licence to bring in ten new players, with an onus on experience in League One or Two. Keeper Brett Long, defender Aron Lynas, midfielder Ally Love and forward Ryan Wallace should add nicely to the backbone provided by Gregor Buchanan and Ryan McGeever at the back and Joe McKee and Stuart Carswell in the middle of the park.
    East Fife also took the chance to rip it up and start again; Stevie Crawford has signed a mixture of experience (goalkeeper Allan Fleming and forward Alan Trouten) and youth (defenders Sam Denham and Lucas Williamson and forward Ryan Schiavone) but has also lost most of the better players he inherited midway through last season. The midfield looks particularly underwhelming and the Methil side are likely to be very active in the market in weeks to come.
    Annan Athletic are the apparent exception to my beloved budget rule. They were narrowly denied promotion in the playoff final by Edinburgh City and enter their fifteenth season as a league side...and as a fourth tier side. Manager Peter Murphy is very much this division's "why on earth is he not managing at a higher level?" candidate as he seems to lose his best players every summer and yet still manage to cobble together a competitive team despite one of the smallest budgets. Owen Moxon, who has got his big move to Carlisle United, will be their biggest loss by some way this time around while former Leeds youth Josh Galloway is probably the most intriguing of a typically unexciting bunch of new faces who will probably go on to do perfectly well, just like their predecessors. Their outstanding League Cup campaign suggest they should be thereabouts again.
    One place above Annan in the table last season, Forfar Athletic lost in the playoff semis to the borderers but will fancy they can build on that. Forfar used the loan system well last year and expect them to do the same in weeks to come; in the meantime Roberto Nditi, Tomas Brindley and James Keatings (if he stays fit) look like great additions. The midfield quartet of Kyle Hutton, Craig Slater, Craig Thomson and Callum Moore might be the strongest in the league. They will surely be in the mix again.
    Stenhousemuir have also been super-busy wheeling and dealing. Stephen Swift brought in an entire squad last year and has ditched the players that didn't work out to make space for another ten signings. They got better as the season went on and will look to carry that momentum. 35 year old Craig Bryson is League Two's marquee signing this window but keeper Conor Brennan and defender Daniel Higgins should also strengthen them. There are high hopes that ex-Stranraer frontman Matt Yates and lower league goal machine Will Sewell can provide plenty of firepower.
    As for Stranraer, they underwhelmed under Jamie Hamill last time out and to be honest they haven't done much to suggest they're on the up. Bringing Scott MacLean back north might provide a creative spark but a number of key players including the aforementioned Sonkur and Yates plus Sean Burns have moved on. They also have very little up top other than 38 year old Darryl Duffy.
    And finally there's Stirling Albion, who probably underachieved under Kevin Rutkiewicz even if he suggested otherwise on his departure. Darren Young knows this level well and went back to former club East Fife for a trio of players including winger Danny Denholm. Robert Thomson is a good solid striker and loanee Harrison Clark should be better than this level. Stirling certainly have ambitions to finish above mid-table.
    And therefore my predicted table is:
    1. FORFAR ATHLETIC
    2. ANNAN ATHLETIC3. DUMBARTON4. STENHOUSEMUIR
    5. STIRLING ALBION6. BONNYRIGG ROSE ATHLETIC7. EAST FIFE8. STRANRAER9. ELGIN CITY
    10. ALBION ROVERS
    Fans of the bottom trio might want to screenshot this so they can use it against me in nine months time...
    Here, for interest, are what the Twitterati think...



    Let's see who's right, me or the folk who clearly know this division a whole lot better!


    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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  19. hislopsoffsideagain
    The keeper and back four can be found here.


    We're going 4-2-3-1 this year, as for some reason none of the strikers in this league could hit Adam Rooney levels of goalscoring, let along Michael Higdon levels. On the other hand, the midfield could get a bit over-run and there may be more wingers than there are wings. Still, it's my site and my rules, so there.


    CENTRAL MIDFIELD: CALLUM MCGREGOR (CELTIC), JOE ARIBO (RANGERS)
    Honourable mentions: Lewis Ferguson (Aberdeen), David Turnbull (Celtic), Tom Rogic (Celtic), Jason Holt (Livingston)


    McGregor fits into Ange's system like a glove and is back to the high levels he hit in Brendan Rodgers' time. Is Aribo too attacking for this position in my XI? Maybe, but there's no question he should be in it. I wouldn't be surprised if Premier League clubs come calling this summer.


    Maybe Ferguson only stood out for Aberdeen because his competence was out of keeping with the shambles unfolding around him this season. Turnbull was great until an injury mid-season and is the player best placed to take advantage of the imminent exit of Rogic; the Australian leaves Scottish football having had possibly the best and certainly the most consistent campaign of his career. Holt was super-efficient in Livi's midfield.




    ATTACKING MIDFIELD: REGAN CHARLES-COOK (ROSS COUNTY), BARRIE MCKAY (HEART OF MIDLOTHIAN), JOTA (CELTIC)
    Honourable mentions: Connor Ronan (St. Mirren), Martin Boyle (Hibernian), Alan Forrest (Livingston), Liel Abada (Celtic), Ryan Kent (Rangers), Greg Kiltie (St. Mirren)


    As I said, too many wingers. But Charles-Cook (who some idiot who shall remain nameless put in his top ten worst signings of last season) was the top scorer in the Premiership this season, McKay would have been an assist machine had anyone finished off the gazillion chances he created, and Jota will be a bargain if Celtic make his loan move permanent for about £6m.


    Ronan stood out for St. Mirren because he scored so many Goal Of The Season contenders, but his all-round play was excellent too. Boyle was clearly Hibernian's MVP given how they fell off a cliff following his January departure. Forrest came to life after the winter break and is heading for a decent move when his contract expires. Abada isn't even 21 yet but still hit double figures. Kent wasn't as impressive as last season but even when he's putting in half-assed performances he's still better than most. I have a big soft spot for Kiltie and he delivered when he finally got a run in the team.




    CENTRE FORWARD: ALFREDO MORELOS (RANGERS)
    Honourable mentions: Kyogo Furuhashi (Celtic), Tony Watt (Motherwell/Dundee United)


    No, Morelos wasn't as good as he has been in the past. But he was still effective and was showing signs of his best before injury ended his campaign. Kyogo's extraordinary start to his Celtic career was abruptly halted by injuries as well; imagine the damage he could do if available for more than half the games. Watt gets on this list for his performances for Motherwell before January where he scored nine goals, rather than a meh-second half of the season at Dundee United.


    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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  20. hislopsoffsideagain
    So when I first did one of these, Gordon Brown was Prime Minister, I had a hairline that was still within communicating distance of my forehead and Allan McGregor was playing for Rangers. What? Oh. 
    Anyway, this is the fifteenth annual Team Of The Year. Here's the previous fourteen. I regret nothing. Except Daniel Majstorovic, but that goes without saying.


    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)
    2020/21: Benjamin Siegrist (Dundee United), James Tavernier (Rangers), Conor Goldson (Rangers), Jason Kerr (St. Johnstone), Borna Barisic (Rangers), Steven Davis (Rangers), Ali McCann (St. Johnstone), Ryan Kent (Rangers), David Turnbull (Celtic), Martin Boyle (Hibernian), Odsonne Edouard (Celtic)

    As is traditional, we start with the goalkeeper and the back four. It's always been a back four. Maybe one day we'll try three at the back, but not today...


    GOALKEEPER: CRAIG GORDON (HEART OF MIDLOTHIAN)
    Honourable mentions: Jak Alnwick (St. Mirren), Joe Hart (Celtic)


    An easy pick to start off with. Gordon is approaching his fortieth birthday, yet may be playing the greatest football of his career. Were he ten years younger he'd command the same transfer fee that Hearts received from Sunderland for him many moons ago. Just like last season in the Championship he was personally responsible for a decent number of the points Hearts picked up.


    Alnwick looks likely to leave St. Mirren this summer after two seasons where he has very much enhanced his reputation. Hart, to the disappointment of many of us who were hoping for entertaining bloopers, has been extremely reliable and is enjoying something of an Indian Summer in Scotland.




    RIGHT-BACK: JAMES TAVERNIER (RANGERS)
    Honourable mentions: Josip Juranovic (Celtic), Calvin Ramsey (Aberdeen)


    Tavernier is the first player ever to be in my Team Of The Year five times, thanks to another season with lots of goals, lots of assists and defending that is better than he is given credit for. And that's without factoring in his Europa League heroics.


    Juranovic has proven a fine addition for Celtic, slotting into the inverted full-back system that Ange Postecoglu has introduced and proving an excellent deputy on the left flank too. Add me to the list of people who has drunk the Ramsey kool-aid; the youngster looks set for a huge move to Liverpool this summer and is an extraordinary talent.




    LEFT-BACK: STEPHEN KINGSLEY (HEART OF MIDLOTHIAN)
    Honourable mentions: Scott Tanser (St. Mirren), Greg Taylor (Celtic)
    Last year I wondered why on earth Kingsley was slumming it in the Championship, and this season I'm wondering why on earth he's slumming it in the Premiership. He defends like a centre-back, attacks like a midfielder and has a mean free-kick in his arsenal.


    Other than the Hearts man, there was a bit of a dearth of options here. Tanser was quietly effective for St. Mirren, with his excellent delivery providing a decent creative threat for them. Taylor always seems on paper to be one of the least talented in the Celtic lineup yet keeps churning out solid performances.




    CENTRE-BACKS: CAMERON CARTER-VICKERS (CELTIC), RYAN EDWARDS (DUNDEE UNITED)
    Honourable mentions: Carl Starfelt (Celtic), Craig Halkett (Heart of Midlothian), John Souttar (Heart of Midlothian), Connor Goldson (Rangers)


    Carter-Vickers can head a ball further than I can kick it; in that respect he reminds me of the wonderful Michael Duberry who used to play for St. Johnstone. But CCV's pace and calm in possession make him a real standout at this level and he was the best CB in this league by far. I've plumped for another behemoth beside him in Edwards, who was solid defensively for United and offers a goal threat on set-pieces too.


    Starfelt (who came on leaps and bounds after a rough start in Scotland), and the Hearts duo of Halkett and Souttar would have been worthy of making the final cut too. It's a joy to see the latter fit again and long may his achilles tendons hold up. Goldson was the brunt of some unfair criticism this season at times; whilst he wasn't quite as outstanding as last season he was still very very good.


    The midfield and the attack will be up later this week...if I can be bothered...


    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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  21. hislopsoffsideagain
    The players ranked 25 to 11 can be found here.


    Before we move on, there has to be an honourable mention for Caleb Chukwuemeka, whose exploits for Livingston had escaped me before I published the first part of this double-bill. Chukwuemeka, on loan from Aston Villa, suffered the ignominy of being subbed just seven minutes after coming off the bench against Aberdeen with David Martindale criticising his work-rate. That was less than a month after arriving; the forward has made a couple of appearances off the bench since but has disappeared in recent weeks, suggesting Martindale's opinion of him hasn't improved. So he probably should have been in the top 25 somewhere...


    Anyway, on to the top ten!



    10 ALEX SAMUEL (ROSS COUNTY)
    Striker Samuel claimed on arrival in Dingwall that he hoped to use his move to Ross County to force his way into the Wales squad. Given he hasn't started a league game since October and has played more minutes in the cup (sixty) than in the league (fourteen) since then, I'd say he's probably not on Robert Page's radar right now. Samuel may well have had injury problems but County do tend to be Pyongyang-esque in their levels of secrecy (the joke about Dingwall is far too obvious and has therefore been removed - Ed.) so it's not clear whether that is the case, or that he is just out of the picture.


    9 BEN WOODBURN (HEARTS)
    Woodburn isn't on this list because he's been a waste of space; he's on it because he was playing in the Premier League at age 17 and has eleven caps for Wales, so expectations were appropriately very high. But he's been in and out of the team - mostly out since Ellis Simms arrived in January - and has managed just three goals and a single assist. Whoscored.com rates him about the same as James Brown and Eamonn Brophy for this season, which is not a good look.



    8 JACK GURR (ABERDEEN)
    What can you say about Gurr, other than to feign horror and shock that a guy who was a fringe player for Atlanta United's reserves would turn out to be out of his depth in the Scottish Premiership? Thankfully Stephen Glass realised this quickly so that he didn't take precious minutes away from the talented youngster Calvin Ramsay. He returned to the USA in January, and Dons fans will never speak of him again.


    7 JAMES MCCARTHY (CELTIC)
    Following on from Shane Duffy, it now appears to be enshrined in law that every season Celtic must acquire a Premier League player who was a boyhood fan of the club. I'm pretty sure Ange had nothing to do with this signing, given his attempts to strengthen the midfield area in January. McCarthy is an okay option off the bench for Celtic and he's largely managed to stay fit for the first time in a number of years...probably because he's only started six games all season. The trouble is that he's on decent money that's out of proportion with the gametime he's getting, and that a player with such an injury history was given a four year contract at the age of 30. Still, he's better than Ismaila Soro.


    6 JAY EMMANUEL-THOMAS (ABERDEEN) To be honest I was already prejudiced against Emmanuel-Thomas after he put 'JET' on his jersey at Livingston last season. The Dons thought they were getting a jet, but instead they got a Sopwith Camel (it was pointed out to me on Twitter that Sopwith Camels were relatively successful in WW1, but I thought it was a more polite comparison than calling him a Fokker). Emmanuel-Thomas managed one goal for Aberdeen; Bruce Anderson, who went to Livingston from Pittodrie last summer, scored nine. Most damningly, Jim Goodwin publicly called him out on his fitness, which improved so much that the player had his two year contract terminated before it was halfway through.


    5 EETU VERTAINEN (ST. JOHNSTONE) How Callum Davidson complained about the work permit delays that left Vertainen waiting several weeks before being able to play for St. Johnstone. How Davidson bigged up the Finnish striker as having bags of potential and loads of ability. How Davidson insisted for the next two months that Vertainen wasn't ready for more than the occasional cameo off the bench for a team struggling for goals. And how quickly Davidson turned on him, subbing him at half-time in his first start, and again a few weeks later as the scapegoat for a goal by Rangers scored after Vertainen gave away possession cheaply. At the time of writing that's his last appearance for the Perth Saints, as he is currently on loan at Linfield where he scored four in one game last month, but hasn't scored any other goals before or since.



    4 LEIGH GRIFFITHS (DUNDEE) Oh, Leigh. His return to Dundee on loan was clearly high-risk, high-reward; in the end it was all risk and no reward. He managed just a single goal from open play - though a free-kick goal at Pittodrie was insanely good - and was quickly restricted to the subs bench; to be honest he was lucky to be available at all after he was arrested for kicking a firework into the crowd during a cup game, but the SFA held off banning him until the end of the police investigation (and we're still waiting). Celtic activated an option in his contract to release him in January and Griffiths went on to become the marquee signing who would definitely fire Falkirk to promotion from League One...or not...


    3 JAMES SCOTT (HIBERNIAN) It feels like a long time since Hull City paid Motherwell £1.5m for Scott, but it's actually been just over two years. It looks like injuries have wrecked the 22 year old either physically or mentally, but he's been a shadow of the young starlet he was. Jack Ross dropped him due to his poor fitness and publicly called him "selfish" and "lazy". Shaun Maloney showed more faith in him, but the lack of impact during his sub appearances was such that Scott was actually booed when introduced late in a win over Ross County. And then in recent weeks, with the forward line decimated by injuries, Scott has finally got a run in the starting lineup. Number of goals scored? Zero. Number of Hibs fans who want him to make his loan move a permanent one? Probably about the same.


    2 MAX BIAMOU (DUNDEE UNITED)
    Biamou made more than thirty appearances in the English Championship for Coventry last season, so he looked like a pretty solid signing for United in October 2021. He made three sub appearances as he built up his fitness... and then in late November he injured his foot. And he hasn't played since. With Tony Watt brought in during January Biamou and United agreed he should leave...but then he injured his thigh just before the window ended, scuppering any move. So the Frenchman will finish his United career having played 55 minutes of first team football and having got pressure sores from spending so much time on the treatment table.


    1 MATTY LONGSTAFF (ABERDEEN)
    Longstaff spent the second half of the season at Mansfield Town where by most accounts he was the outstanding player in League Two during that period. He spent the first half at Pittodrie, complainingn afterward that Scottish football was "long ball" and "more of a fight, there's probably not as much quality there as there is in the Premier League". That last bit is obviously true, but the rest? Given how honking Longstaff - considered a potential star in the making ever since a Premier League goal against Manchester United in 2019 - was for the Dons I think we can store this away as powerful evidence that the Scottish Premiership is a higher standard than the English fourth tier. Stephen Glass' statement that "Matty would've liked more game time, clearly we would've liked better performances" had a mic drop feel to it. On the bench by October and out of the matchday squad by November, Longstaff left Aberdeen with three starts, five appearances in total and one Worst Signing Of The Season award.

    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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  22. hislopsoffsideagain
    Ten years I've been doing this. Man, there have been some duffers. Here, for the record, are the nine 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)
    2020/21: Shane Duffy (Celtic)


    Here we go for year 10, with the countdown from 25 to 11.



    24= LIAM SHAW (CELTIC) 24= OSAZE URGHOGHIDE (CELTIC)
    The duo joined Celtic from Sheffield Wednesday, both costing compensation of around £300,000. With about forty Championship appearances between them, the young pair clearly have potential but they were signed before Ange Postecoglu pitched up. Both were trusted with a single start for the club - in a Europa League dead rubber - and both were loaned out in January. Shaw can't get into Motherwell's starting XI, but Urhoghide is at least playing regularly in Belgium. Neither have a future at Celtic.



    23 MICH'EL PARKER (MOTHERWELL)

    This writer had actually heard of Parker before he pitched up at Motherwell, having won the National League South in Football Manager 2020 with him at centre-back. The youngster, who'd remarkably been on the books of Arsenal, Liverpool and West Ham at various times, was probably a low-cost, low-risk signing but he made the bench for three League Cup games in July and then was never seen in a matchday squad again. After his contract expired in January he signed for Linfield but can't get a game for them either.


    22 COREY PANTER (DUNDEE)
    Given Dundee couldn't defend worth a damn, it says something that Panter still couldn't get a game. His only league start was on Boxing Day, though he played - and scored - in both the League Cup and for their Colts side in the Challenge Cup. Luton recalled him in January due to lack of game time. 



    21 YOSUKE IDEGUCHI (CELTIC)
    Ideguchi looks worse because Ange Postecoglu's other Japanese signings have been so outstanding, but £850,000 is a lot of money for a benchwarmer. He has had some injuries but even when fit he seems to be well down the midfield pecking order - even behind James McCarthy! - and there's no sign of that changing soon. His previous foray into British football at Leeds United was a flop and so far his time in Glasgow hasn't been much better.



    20 CURTIS MAIN (ST. MIRREN)
    St. Mirren surely knew what they were getting from Main's previous spells at Motherwell and Aberdeen - a strong, willing runner up front who will press centre-backs all day...and who doesn't score many goals. Main seemed to prove the doubters wrong by hitting the net in his first two matches for the Buddies in the League Cup, but has managed one goal in the 29 games since then and finds himself behind New Zealander rookie Alex Greive in the pecking order now.



    19 ALEX ROBERTSON (ROSS COUNTY)
    Ross County fans were entitled to have reasonably high expectations for this loan signing for Manchester City, who is an England under-18 international; The Guardian even profiled him as one of the most exciting 60 prospects in the world in the 2020 edition of their 'next generation' series! For whatever reason, it didn't work out in Dingwall. One start and five sub appearances later, Robertson returned south.


    18 NIALL MCGINN (DUNDEE)
    It turns out that 77 is McGinn's squad number, not his age. Unfortunately the once lethal forward is rather past his best, which makes it strange that Dundee would offer him an 18 month deal and expect him to create or score the goals that would keep them up. At the time of writing his last league goal was in March 2020.


    17 TIM AKINOLA (DUNDEE UNITED) The midfielder was signed on loan from Arsenal in January, was subbed at half-time in his only appearance and then picked up an injury that caused his loan to be terminated early. That went well.



    16 HARRY PANAYIOTOU (LIVINGSTON)
    Livingston do like signing an interesting-sounding striker from the English lower leagues. Panayiotou - a St. Kitts international via his mother, who was born in England and has a Greek Cypriot father, making him (I think) eligible for four national teams - certainly sounds interesting. Unfortunately his 12 goals for Aldershot the previous year seem to have been an outlier. He made five sub appearances for Livi and was let go in January, 6 months into a two-year deal with the option of a third, and returned to his old club, where he claimed that things hadn't worked out in Scotland because the environment at Livingston was 'toxic', which seems harsh; I know those roundabouts get frustrating after a while, but still...


    15 THEO BAIR (ST. JOHNSTONE)
    Sure, maybe Bair will come good; Callum Davidson has made a big song and dance about how he just needs time to acclimatize, as he did with Guy Melamed (with some justification) and Eetu Vertainen (less so). As of now, he is a Canadian international striker who cost a significant fee for a club of St. Johnstone's size and who has so far failed to start a game or score a goal.


    14 JAY CHAPMAN (DUNDEE) James McPake didn't half big up Chapman, a Canadian international with plenty of MLS experience at Toronto and Inter Miami, as a real coup of a signing in January. The midfielder has so far played 35 minutes of first team action over two substitute appearances and has vanished from the bench in recent weeks. He might be injured, but if he is no-one is saying so.



    13 NATHAN WOOD (HIBERNIAN)
    Summed up pretty much perfectly by journalist Craig Fowler:



    Wood went back to parent club Middlesbrough before the end of November.



    12 AMAD DIALLO (RANGERS)
    Manchester United paid around £20m for Diallo two years ago, so one would expect him to have rather more impact in a diddy league like ours...and when he scored just five minutes into his debut in Dingwall it looked like Rangers had found a gem. So much for that. The Ivorian was hooked at half-time four days later in the 3-0 thumping by Celtic and he hasn't been trusted for anything other than cameos off the bench since. One suspects Diallo, still only 19, will probably still go on to better things than the vast majority of his Ibrox contemporaries but this is has been a waste of a half season for him and probably of a loan fee by Rangers.


    11 JAHMAL HECTOR-INGRAM (ST. JOHNSTONE) St. Johnstone went on a striker binge at the end of the January window, with former Derby forward Hector-Ingram one of the many brought in. And after sitting on the bench a handful of times he seems to have disappeared into thin air.

    The top ten will come soon, I promise...

    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
    I did it for the first 9 games, so the law dictates that I have to do it again: here's a look at the second quarter of the Championship season.








    ARBROATH    A+
    First, a caveat: whilst Arbroath are indeed part-time, this is not a bunch of guys playing for expenses money and a post-game booze up. Dick Campbell's squad contains plenty of players who could - should - be at full-time clubs but who probably make more money from the combination of football and a day job than plenty of full-time players at this level. Not only that, but they get Campbell's expert tuition. Arbroath are unquestionably the best coached and best drilled team defensively in this division, but on top of that they have quality in every area. They have lost just once since opening day, and despite missing playmaker Nicky Low for most of the last two months they actually scored more points in the second quarter of the season than in the first. Whilst it may indeed be a sad indictment of some of the wealthier clubs in the Championship, Arbroath are top of the table on merit. Can they stay there? Joel Nouble's return to parent club Livingston will make things a lot harder. But Campbell has already said he has replacements lined up. Logic says they will run out of steam eventually, especially if Covid leads to postponements and a fixture backlog. But it would be foolish to bet against them doing the impossible and winning the league,


    AYR UNITED    F
    The first quarter report was focussed on the dismissal of David Hopkin; remarkably, the second quarter one comes a few days after Ayr punted Hopkin's replacement, Jim Duffy, after 104 days in charge (including as caretaker). United picked up seven points in Duffy's three games as interim manager and only seven more in the eleven games since. The fact they are still as high as eighth is more a reflection on the struggles of the sides around them. Expect Ayr to be extremely busy in January with new Chief Executive Graeme Mathie (recently of Hibs) and the new boss - Marvin Bartley and Darren O'Dea have been linked - working to get some balance and quality into a squad which lacks both. The defence particularly needs improvement, as their 31 goals conceded is the joint-highest in the Championship and they haven't had a clean sheet in three months. The trouble is they have approximately a billion defenders on the books and it won't be easy to move on the duds. Ayr are in a relegation battle; the appointment they make here will probably decide whether they stay up or not.


    DUNFERMLINE ATHLETIC    C-
    Peter Grant's dismissal came as no surprise, but we're only three league games (the win in Inverness was under Greg Shields, though Yogi did turn up for the half-time team talk) into John Hughes' tenure, so it's hard to know what strides the Pars have made so far. They certainly look more potent going forward, with Lewis McCann providing the spark and goals that more seasoned - and better-paid - strikers Craig Wighton, Nikolay Todorov and Kevin O'Hara were struggling to produce. Graeme Dorrans seems the sort of midfielder tailor-made for Yogiball. However Dom Thomas could be missing for another couple of months after knee surgery, leaving them without their best wide player. I'd imagine Hughes will want to make some moves in the window but this is a pretty big squad - 23 players have started league games - and he may not have much room to maneouvre there. Dunfermline's next two games are at home to the division's top two teams, which should give a better idea of where they stand.


    GREENOCK MORTON    F
    The dismissal of Gus MacPherson on 4 December wasn't overly a surprise; he won only three of twenty-four league matches in charge. MacPherson seemed to gamble that his group of loan signings from the end of the summer window would click and lift the team, but while Oisin McEntee has done well and Jaako Oksanen shown flashes, Gavin Reilly is yet to score a league goal, Tom Allan has offered little and Jimmy Knowles offered little before getting injured. Otherwise the squad is dreadfully weak, especially as veteran central defender Alan Lithgow has really struggled. Dougie Imrie now takes over a team that are bottom of the Championship, with only one league win since 7 August (over a managerless Dunfermline side) and who haven't been victorious in the league at Cappielow since 20 March. No wonder MacPherson's replacement Dougie Imrie looked like a hostage in the photos announcing his appointment.


    HAMILTON ACADEMICAL    B-
    A cup humiliation at Auchinleck Talbot seems to have finally stirred some sort of life in Accies, whose improvement in recent weeks culminated in a come-from-behind win in Inverness which was born less out of quality and more out of guts. That will give heart to Stuart Taylor, who seemed to be struggling to find his way with the squad he inherited in August from Brian Rice. A promotion playoff spot is surely already out of reach but mid-table seems a likely bet and that in itself is a relief. Having Scott Martin and Andy Winter back from long-term injury can only help now, though David Templeton was sadly forced into retirement. That might free up a wage for new signings up front, though David Moyo has come into form. Otherwise the primary aim of the rest of the campaign may be to develop young talents like Lewis Smith, Reegan Mimnaugh, Marley Redfern and Winter, and given the alternative the fans will probably be cool with that.


    INVERNESS CALEDONIAN THISTLE    C
    ICT have by no means an outstanding squad by Championship standards but if they miss out on promotion this season they may well have only themselves to blame. Behind Arbroath only on goal difference, the early pacesetters have shot themselves in the foot with defeats on home turf to the Red Lichties, Dunfermline and Accies - the latter two after scoring first. Sometimes Inverness can see a game out (eg Killie at home, a 1-0 win), sometimes they let opponents back into it (QOS away, a 2-1 win) and very rarely do they keep their foot on the gas (Morton away, a 6-1 win). In truth, they've not looked nearly as potent going forward since the apparent disappearance from existence of Michael Gardyne (everyone knows why...). Whilst Billy Mckay's renaissance is welcome, Billy Dodds needs to get in another winger or rejuvenate either the stale Tom Walsh or aging Aaron Doran if a title challenge is to continue.


    KILMARNOCK    D
    We're used to managers getting fired after a bad result, but after an abandoned match? Rumour has it that the board discovered that the fog didn't make the team any less difficult to watch. Anyway, Tommy Wright - a manager known for pragmatism and who was brought in to keep them up - couldn't set up a team to play on the front foot. Tactically Kilmarnock didn't seem to have a philosophy; some players such as Blair Alston and Liam Polworth seemed to be brought in for a 4-2-3-1 but then so many strikers arrived that a 4-4-2 was almost obligatory even though none of them seemed to have complimentary traits. The bottom line is that Killie took just four points from eight matches against the other teams in the top half of the table and and lost 1-0 four times in a row in the league before Wright's exit. If the new man can at least decide on how on earth he wants the team to play, that would be a start. For all their travails, they are only five points off top with a game in hand and remain bookies' favourites to go up.


    PARTICK THISTLE    B
    A 4-0 win at Ayr aside, the goals dried up a bit - the side who were the division's leading scorers in the first quarter promptly had three consecutive goalless draws - but the points keep coming along nicely for Thistle, for the most part. Wins at Rugby Park and at home to Raith Rovers prove why they are in the playoff places, and a home defeat to Arbroath explains why they aren't at the top of the table. The improvement in defence looks sustainable though and there's reason to think Brian Graham and Zak Rudden will return to form up front. Thistle have been linked with signing James Maxwell (on loan at Ayr from Rangers) and a couple more additions should set them up nicely for the second half of the campaign.


    QUEEN OF THE SOUTH    C
    On paper one might argue that the Doonhamers have the weakest and thinnest squad in the whole league, but they have made themselves hard to beat (only two of their league defeats were by more than one goal) and have managed to nick enough points - especially against the teams around them - to be out of the bottom two at least at the time of writing. Lee Connelly's penchant for the spectacular helps, and Innes Cameron does have goals in him. One worries QOS will fall behind if the other sides at the bottom go on signing sprees next month - do they have the resources to do so themselves?


    RAITH ROVERS    B-
    This author has mused more than once that Raith might be the Championship's best side on their day, when Aidan Connelly and Dario Zanatta are raiding in from the flanks, Brad Spencer is running the midfield, Liam Dick and Reghan Tumilty are flying on the overlap and Christophe Berra is strolling at the back. Ethan Ross took them up another gear, and Sam Stanton's imminent arrival will cover for the departure of Dylan Tait to Hibs. But how they could do with a reliable centre-forward; Ethan Varian and Matej Poplatnik are willing but goalshy. That could be the difference between them going up and staying in the second tier. Can John McGlynn rustle up a potent striker? 




    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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  24. 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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  25. 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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