Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Governing Body Exemptions; is the SFA allowing Scottish clubs to abuse the system?

You may or may not recall me having a good whinge back in January about Celtic's move for Ivorian midfielder Eboue Kouassi.  At the time Kouassi was 19 years old, uncapped, had played only a handful of league matches for his Russian club, and was so unknown that most journalists got his first and last names the wrong way around until after he had signed.  And yet he was granted a work permit.

I thought this was pretty iffy.

In order to keep the Home Office happy, non-EU players need a Governing Body Endorsement (GBE) from the SFA, which pretty much guarantees them a work permit.  The criteria for the GBE is supposed to be as follows:
- They must have played in 75% of competitive internationals in the previous two years that they were available for
- Their country must be 70th or higher in the FIFA World Rankings (on average over the previous two years)

If a player doesn't meet either criteria (Kouassi didn't meet the first) clubs have to request a panel to hear an appeal.  The panel has jurisdiction to issue a GBE if they feel the player is "of the highest standard" and "able to contribute significantly to the development of the game at the top level in Scotland".

Now, that's pretty airy-fairy stuff; obviously the standard of a player is completely subjective.  If I were being facetious, I'd query whether any player "of the highest standard" would want to play in Scotland.  As for Kouassi, how anyone could judge a teenager with minimal first team experience to meet either of those criteria is completely beyond me.

Anyhoo, I thought I'd dig a little deeper.  After all, Kouassi isn't the first player for whom the rules seem to have been stretched.  Back in 2008, Koki Mizuno pitched up at Parkhead after Gordon Strachan bigged him up as Shunsuke Nakamura's heir apparent; since Strachan was Celtic boss at the time, he was obviously being completely impartial.  Mizuno started two league games in as many seasons.

If you think that's bad, then check out Nigerian Rabiu Ibrahim.  Who?  Exactly.  He was signed by Neil Lennon in similar circumstances.  Ibrahim made a solitary appearance in the hoops and signed for Kilmarnock a year later, where he couldn't establish himself as a regular.

And Rangers have got GBEs via appeal for three players already in this transfer window, including an uncapped Colombian striker who was playing in Finland last year.

So I actually emailed the SFA asking how many players had received GBEs in recent times, and a chap called Sandy Bryson was kind enough to send me a detailed reply.  The answer was quite disturbing.

Between June 2015 and June 2017, seventeen GBEs were issued - that is, seventeen non-EU players were given permission to play in Scotland.  Thirteen of those were after an appeal hearing.

That's thirteen out of seventeen that didn't meet the criteria.  That's 76%!!!

Not only that, but the four that did meet the criteria included extensions to current GBEs - non-EU players already playing in Scotland who had signed new contracts or changed clubs.

Blimey.  Perhaps this rule isn't fit for purpose?

I replied to Mr Bryson with a request for a list of names of players who had received GBEs, but sadly never got a reply.  And trying to work out who the seventeen are was bloody hard.  I have narrowed it down to eighteen names - and here they are.  If any of the names are wrong, or I've missed any, then please let me know and I'll amend.

Christian Gamboa (Celtic)
Eboue Kouassi (Celtic)
Eiji Kawashima (Dundee United)
Perry Kitchen (Hearts)
Juwon Oshaniwa (Hearts)
Efe Ambrose (Hibs)
Ofir Marciano (Hibs)
Kevin Dzierzawski (Peterhead)
Eduardo Herrera (Rangers)
Alfredo Morelos (Rangers)
Carlos Pena (Rangers)

Nir Bitton (Celtic)
Emilio Izaguirre (Celtic)
Tom Rogic (Celtic)
Jozo Simunovic (Celtic)

Harlain M'Bayo (Aberdeen)
Kolo Toure (Celtic)
Niko Kranjcar (Rangers)

The first eleven seem nailed-on.  The 'probables' include three Celtic players who signed new contracts during that two year period.  Simunovic and Kranjcar are both Croats; whilst Croatia is in the EU, the UK does have a restriction on Croatians working here.  According to press reports at the time, Simunovic needed a work permit.  Kranjcar and Toure spent enough time playing in England that I would have thought they would have achieved citizenship, but it's unclear if they did so.  M'Bayo is an Aberdeen youth player who apparently needed to get through home office red tape to be allowed to play for the club.

As for the four players who didn't require appeals, it's quite possible that three of them were Bitton, Izaguirre and Rogic, all of whom were getting extensions rather than new GBEs.  So does that mean that just one out of thirteen new applications was automatically successful?

Why am I so interested in this?  For a start there are seven Celtic and four Rangers names on the list, which suggests that Scotland's two biggest clubs are taking significant advantage of the system.  The hope is that guys like Kouassi can follow in the footsteps of Victor Wanyama and earn a tidy profit for the club in the long run.  After all, clubs from the likes of Portugal or Scandinavian countries do very well in this respect because they aren't restricted in the same way; no wonder our boys want a piece of action.

Secondly, at a time where everyone's whinging about the lack of opportunities for Scottish youngsters, it is worth noting that these players are another obstacle in the way.

Thirdly, the system up here is so much more lax compared to England.  Efe Ambrose was denied a loan move from Celtic to Blackburn in January because the English FA declined to treat him as a special case.  Yet he was able to sign for Hibs in June because the SFA took a more relaxed view.  And because there's a lack of transparency we don't know who is on the panel, and how impartial they are.

And finally, how many of the names on that list would you describe as "of the highest standard" and "able to contribute significantly to the development of the game at the top level in Scotland"?  Kevin Dzierzawski, now at Peterhead after failing to get a regular game at Queen of the South, is a particular cracker.  But none of these guys are Lionel Messi.  Hell, I'd say only Simunovic and Rogic can realistically aspire to play at a higher level than this.

This is a starting XI you can make from those names.  Not really of the highest standard, is it?

Ach, maybe no-one else cares too much.  Maybe Mexican midfielders and Costa Rican defenders add a bit of glamour.  But as far as I can see its just one more reason why the SFA isn't fit for purpose.

Lawrie Spence has ranted and spouted his ill-informed opinions on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007.  He has a life outside this blog.  Honestly.

Friday, July 7, 2017

It's only July, but Rangers already face a Caixinha conundrum

Progres Niederkorn weren't even Luxembourg's best team. The part timers were fourth in their domestic league last year.

And they only went and knocked Rangers out of the Europa League at the first hurdle.

The worst result ever for a Scottish club in Europe? I suppose Celtic lost in Gibraltar last summer, but Brendan Rodgers' side were convincing winners over two legs. And whilst others have been embarrassed in the past, none have spent several million quid on players in the preceding few weeks.  And none have been knocked out by a team that would probably rival Brechin City for quality.

Rangers' abject humiliation causes them all sorts of problems, just one of which is the lack of any organised matches before the start of the Premiership season. So confident were they of progression through at least two rounds of continental competition that they had eschewed any preseason friendlies.

That at least provides time to assess the situation, and what a situation it is. My first thought after the match was of the "Dead man walking" scene from The Green Mile. Perhaps that's too harsh on Pedro Caixinha, but the credibility of the Portuguese coach has taken an almighty blow here. It's not as if he enjoyed unanimous support from Rangers fans as it it was. Results and performances at the back end of last season were hardly impressive; add in the natural suspicion that most British football supporters seem to have of intelligent, well-spoken foreign coaches who are more interested in tactics than making sure their players are getting stuck in, and you have a manager who has just about zero margin for error between now and the first Old Firm game in September.

But Rangers have invested heavily in Caixinha. Very heavily. When Dave King claimed that this year's season ticket money was going back into the squad, I scoffed - that's what happens at all football clubs! But what King actually meant was that it was going to be spunked on new players - nine new arrivals costing more than £10million in transfer fees and a fair bit extra in wages and signing on fees. That might well have absorbed every last penny obtained from those 40,000-plus season tickets sold. In fact, King subsequently suggested that directors had been providing loans to help finance the shopping spree.  Oh, and don't forget too that the club paid £300,000 in compensation for Caixinha in the first place.

And those nine players - with the exception maybe of Ryan Jack and Graham Dorrans - have Caixinha's fingerprints all over them; a mixture of Portuguese and Latin American players well versed in the style he wants Rangers to play. That in itself was a risky move - it's somewhat cliched to question how these guys might manage on a December afternoon in Dingwall, but not entirely irrelevant - and if Caixinha was punted, what becomes of these expensive signings?

Meanwhile, we know from their previous accounts that Rangers required loans from shareholders just to get through last season, were taking. If King's claims that loans were used to fund the new signings is true, then that is obviously hugely concerning. And King's ongoing dispute with the Takeover Panel will of course mean that external investment is rather difficult to come by. Where will new income come from? Well, it won't be from the Europa League.

Whilst Joey Barton and Joe Garner are no longer on the wage bill, it seems very likely that it is no lower than it was last year, especially with several unwanted faces still stinking up the place. If the likes of Rob Kiernan, Harry Forrester and Michael O'Halloran choose to sit in the stands whilst collecting their large pay packets and gamble on a new manager appreciating them, then that's another significant drain on resources that are surely more meagre than is being publicized.

Oh aye, and there's no evidence as of yet that Rangers have made the necessary leap to overhaul Aberdeen, let alone get significantly closer to Celtic.

So here is the conundrum. Rangers probably can't afford to dismiss Pedro Caixinha. And yet they probably can't afford not to.

Lawrie Spence has ranted and spouted his ill-informed opinions on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007.  He has a life outside this blog.  Honestly.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Twelve teams, twelve questions

Right, I'm sure you're all fed up with me focussing on Caley Thistle's troubles, so let's go back to the Scottish Premiership.  It's still early stages in the summer, but while some clubs have done a fair bit of business others have been relatively quiet.  For each of the twelve clubs I pose a pressing question that needs answered in the weeks ahead...

Aberdeen - what will Derek McInnes do with his big transfer budget?
The Aberdeen manager's decision to turn down Sunderland was an enormous boost to the Dons, though one suspects it may just be a case of delaying the inevitable.  The worry is that last season's second place finish and twin cup final appearances will turn out to be their zenith, especially with Jonny Hayes, Ryan Jack, Niall McGinn and Ash Taylor having departed.  The return on loan of Ryan Christie for another year is a boost, but at the very least they need wingers and another centre-back.  With £1.3million from Celtic for Hayes, plus significant investment in the club from shareholder Dave Cormack, McInnes has a fair bit of cash to play with.  If Aberdeen are to remain the second best team in the country, he'll have to spend it.

Celtic - how far are they from being Champions League-ready?
The Champions have been relatively quiet in the market so far, with only Jonny Hayes coming in; the Irishman is surely seen as a backup rather than a starter though.  Given how far Celtic have come in a single year under Brendan Rodgers, it is possible that the manager believes the players he has have improved sufficiently that they will make a far bigger impact on the European stage this time around.  But it remains uncertain if his centre-backs are good enough to deal with the continent's elite, and a replacement for Patrick Roberts would be nice.  Rodgers has a large budget to spend if he can find the players he wants.  If unrefusable offers come in for Moussa Dembele and/or Kieran Tierney, the loss of either would be a huge blow.

Dundee - can Neil McCann build a top six squad?
The former Sky Sports pundit (eventually) decided to stay at Dens Park permanently, so we'll find out whether all that time on the telly plus three years as a coach at Dunfermline were enough of a grounding for him.  The arrival on loan of Scott Allan seems like a statement of intent, and fellow midfielder Roarie Deacon was apparently quite highly-rated.  But whilst they look strong in the middle of the pitch they still need a partner for Darren O'Dea in defence and a more reliable goalscorer than Faissal El Bakhtaoui or Marcus Haber if they are to get into the top half of the league.

Hamilton - will they be relegation favourites again?
Every season, Accies are favourites for the drop, and every season they prove their doubters (including me) wrong.  But 2016/17 was the closest they've come to returning to the Championship, and they aren't in a position of strength right now.  The defence has been weakened by the exit of keeper Remi Matthews and full-back Giannis Skondras and a long-term injury to captain Michael Devlin  Up front Alex D'Acol has left as well whilst Eamonn Brophy is dithering over a new deal.  At least there are no suitors for Ali Crawford - though that tells you something about the way his form dipped in 2017.  Martin Canning really won't want to rely too much on Massimo Donati (36) and Dougie Imrie (35 in August).  Either he has a lot of signings to make, or he will have to hope the next generation of Academy players are really special.

Hearts - will the summer be enough to get Cathroball working?
Last season's team seemed to find it really difficult to grasp Ian Cathro's ideas...or maybe the players weren't suited to them...or just maybe Cathro's ideas are wrong.  A full preseason of work will tell us once and for all whether the young manager really is a visionary or not.  He hasn't his problems to seek though, with both Arnaud Djoum and Jamie Walker agitating to leave.  With Callum Paterson and Sam Nicholson gone already, the Jambos are already in need of reinforcements.  Whilst the return of Christophe Berra is a massive boost to the defence, it'll count for nothing unless the players in front of him can weave the pretty patterns that their boss wants them to.

Hibs - Where do they stand in comparison with other Premiership sides?
Neil Lennon's claims in April that Hibernian were the second-best team in Scotland really should have provoked more derision than they did.  That said, they will be expected to make the top six at the very least, though that will be harder now that Jason Cummings has gone.  Lennon has to revamp the whole forward line given that Grant Holt and Jason Keatings are away too; new signing Simon Murray will work hard but won't score enough goals.  The backline will be better for having Efe Ambrose as a permanent part of it, though a permanent deal for keeper Ofir Marciano is a priority.  And in midfield they'll be fine if Danny Swanson plays like he did for St Johnstone and John McGinn steps up.

Kilmarnock - how good a recruiter is Lee McCulloch?
At the time of writing, Kilmarnock have only seven players aged over 21 under contract; whilst their current crop of youngsters looked increasingly impressive at the end of last season, the club need to make lots of signings simply to make up the numbers.  Lee Clark was widely mocked last summer for signing eleven players on the same day, but it may come to something similar for his replacement.  We shouldn't read anything into the delay in appointing McCulloch as permanent manager - it was simply because he was on holiday - but the lack of activity so far is concerning given the number of players the club have let go in the last few months.  And did his distinguished (until the last few years!) playing career allow him to build up enough contacts to find players...and give him an eye for a good 'un?  We'll find out in the next few weeks.

Motherwell - can they cope without Scott McDonald?
Stephen Robinson has been the busiest of the Premiership managers so far, bringing in six senior players along with youngster Liam Brown as he looks to pull the Steelmen away from the bottom end of the table.  Gael Bigirimana, once signed for seven figures by Newcastle United, is a particularly intriguing signing.  The spree has been triggered by a huge clearout of the squad, but one player the club didn't want to lose was Scott McDonald; the veteran striker looks likely to return to his native Australia.  His partnership with Louis Moult was the best thing about Motherwell in the last two years and he will be terribly difficult to replace.  New boy Alex Fisher finished last season well at Inverness but is a completely different sort of player.  The loss of McDonald's guile may necessitate a big change in tactics.

Partick Thistle - have they peaked?
I'd cheekily predicted Thistle to make the top six in my season previews, and was surprised to be proven right.  Their impressive season was based on an outstanding defensive record, with goalkeeper Tomas Cerny, centre-back Liam Lindsay and defensive midfielder Adam Barton really standing out.  However Lindsay's departure seems inevitable, leaving a big hole to fill.  Whilst no-one else from last year's team is likely to leave, there have been few arrivals - aside from young keeper Jamie Sneddon - one for the future - and erratic winger Blair Spittal it's been quiet at Firhill so far.  Keeping the Jags in the top half will be difficult without further signings, particularly in defence.

Rangers - can they mould all their new signings into a team?
Well, Pedro Caixinha can't claim he isn't being backed.  Rangers have brought in six players already with two more arriving imminently; in total they'll cost around £7million in transfer fees.  Only one, Ryan Jack, is Scottish though.  The others have zero experience in British football.  Whilst asking "could they handle the Scottish winter?" is a bit cliched, it's not entirely unreasonable.  A more pressing matter is whether Caixinha can mould them together into the team he wants, and quickly enough that they can keep pace with Celtic in the early months of the season.  Meanwhile, the squad is now incredibly bloated, and they'll be looking for at least half a dozen of last year's squad will follow Joe Garner out of the door.

Ross County - do they show faith in their youngsters?
Another summer, another star player sold to Burton Albion.  This time it's Liam Boyce who left the Highlands.  The Ulsterman's goals will be missed, but so will his skill and creativity; ultimately last season he was the best creator of chances at the club as well as the best at scoring them.  Irreplaceable?  Maybe.  But the £500,000 transfer fee might help.  It's become standard for benefactor Roy McGregor to fund the signing of a dozen or so journeymen every summer, but County won the Development League last year and their under-20s are well thought of.  Will Jim McIntyre gamble on promoting several of them to his lineup, or will he once again fill the squad with loanees from England and random Dutchmen?

St. Johnstone - business as usual in Perth?
Eventually, St. Johnstone will have a poor season.  Eventually.  Probably.  But they've overachieved for so long that we've ceased to be surprised anymore, and in fact expect it.  So the loss of Danny Swanson won't have fazed anyone at McDiarmid Park, especially after the club signed Stefan Scougall.  Otherwise they are in decent shape again.  The big fear these days is not the loss of a star player, but the loss of manager Tommy Wright; the fact that the Aberdeen job didn't become available will have come as a relief to the Perth Saints.

Lawrie Spence has ranted and spouted his ill-informed opinions on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007.  He has a life outside this blog.  Honestly.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Hayes deal demonstrates Celtic's financial dominance

Just over three weeks ago, Jonny Hayes was smashing a left foot volley into the back of the net to give Aberdeen the lead over Celtic in the Scottish Cup Final.

Twenty-one days later, Celtic signed winger Hayes from Aberdeen on a three-year deal for an undisclosed fee, reported to be around £1.3 million. The transfer sees Hayes, arguably the best player in Scotland outside of Celtic for the last two years, move from the team that finished 2nd in last season's Scottish Premiership and runners up in the League & Scottish Cups to the team that won all three domestic trophies.

The last time I could recall the reigning Scottish Champions buying a player directly from the league runners-up, at least in the immediate aftermath of the previous season, was when David Robertson moved to Rangers from Aberdeen for around £1 million in 1991. (Admittedly, the gap between 1st and 2nd place was much closer then – the Gers won a league deciding match against the Dons in the final game of the season at Ibrox – than the yawning chasm that separated the Celts from the Dons this season.)

In more recent times, following the 2005-06 season, Paul Hartley signed for reigning champions Celtic for over £1.1 million following "significant unrest in the Hearts dressing room" - the Jambos had been runners-up the previous season, although the transfer didn't occur until midway through the following season in January 2007. (Steven Pressley had also joined Celtic the previous December as a free agent, having already parted company with Hearts earlier that month as part of the fallout from the ultimately ill-fated Romanov administration; the other member of the "Riccarton Three", Craig Gordon, would also end up at Celtic, albeit by a far more circuitous route.)

In both of the previous examples, the reigning champions went on the retain their titles while the runners-up fell away from contention. Aberdeen finished sixth in the following 1991-92 season, costing manager Alex Smith his job as he became the first Aberdeen manager ever to be sacked. (Though he certainly wouldn't be the last.) Hearts finished 4th in the following 2007-08 season, although by that time the Romanovs had instigated umpteen managerial changes already regardless of how well the team were actually performing on the pitch.

Of course, it is hardly a prediction of Nostradamus that Celtic will likely retain the Scottish Premiership trophy in 2017-18. If anything, the current Aberdeen side can be distinguished from the previous examples cited above in that any remote hope they may have held of realistically challenging for the title had already passed them by in the previous couple of seasons, when they competed against a markedly inferior Celtic side under Ronny Deila. After Brendan Rodgers was appointed manager following Deila's exit, the improvement in the Celtic side was almost instantaneous. (I say 'almost'; for all of the domestic dominance that would follow, a 1-0 loss to Gibraltar's Lincoln Red Imps wasn't the most auspicious of starts...)

Consider, for example, that on 24 January 2017, Rodgers was already secure enough in his grasp of the title that he was willing to allow one of his own players, Ryan Christie, to join Aberdeen on loan until the end of the season. (Indeed, it was also confirmed this weekend that Ryan will be returning to Pittodrie on a season long deal.) Just a year earlier, on 24 January 2016, Ryan Christie was only one day removed from his Celtic debut, a 3-1 win at home to St Johnstone that restored a 6 point lead over Aberdeen, who had beaten Dundee the day before that. The idea of Celtic loaning Christie to Aberdeen at that time would have surely been unthinkable; today, it isn't even the biggest transfer story involving the two clubs this weekend.

The transfer of Hayes to Celtic simply widens the already yawning chasm which separates the league champions from its competition. This is already a Celtic team that landed the treble last season; of the 18 player matchday squad that completed that season with the 2-1 Scottish Cup Final victory at Hampden only Patrick Roberts, who was on loan from Manchester City, is not available to Rodgers for the coming season. It's not as if the existing group of players will be going anywhere else any time soon, either. The majority of the squad are on long term deals with the club, while Hayes (at 29 years old) will actually be one of the veterans; of the players involved in the Scottish Cup Final, only Scott Brown, Craig Gordon, Mikael Lustig & Dorus De Vries are older than Jonny.

 Indeed, such are the player resources available to Rodgers that he could put together a decent team from the remainder of the first team squad that weren't involved that day; for example, would a starting XI containing Christie, Scott Allan (loaned out to Dundee earlier this week), Kolo Toure, Emilio Izaguirre, Nadir Ciftci, Gary Mackay-Steven, Saidy Janko, Logan Bailly, Kristoffer Ajer, Liam Henderson & Eboue Kouassi still be favoured over any other team in the league? At worst, if Hayes comes in as a like-for-like replacement for Roberts and Celtic go again with the same squad they will be prohibitive favourites for the title for years to come.

 However, the club have made it clear that their priority going forward will be progress in the Champions League; with the qualifying draw on Monday, Rodgers will already be turning its attention to retooling his squad with this in mind. It was already the case, even before Rodgers arrived as manager, that Celtic enjoyed a spending advantage over the rest of the league that was almost laughable in its disparity. However, this is only going to get wider; Celtic's involvement in last season's Champions League group stages contributed to announced profits of around £20 million in the six months leading up to the end of last December. While it is true that, in real terms, other Scottish Premiership clubs may benefit by over £200,000 per club in solidarity payments from UEFA, in terms of league competition this is still resulting in a significant widening of the financial disparity between the clubs when Celtic are benefitting by a factor of about 100.

 Rodgers had already spent around £12.5 million in transfers last season to acquire the likes of Scott Sinclair, Moussa Dembele and Christian Gamboa, plus Messrs De Vries, Toure & Kouassi. One suspects that the addition of Hayes is just the beginning of an even more significant spend in this summer's transfer window.

So while Celtic continue to chase the glamour and riches of Champions League qualification, what does this mean for our domestic football going forward. The reality is that Celtic no longer have any domestic rival – or, at least, any opponent that has a realistic chance of usurping them in the league – and while it is unrealistic to expect any team to win every domestic cup competition, given the vagaries of any given matchday, they will nonetheless be favoured for every trophy they compete for in Scotland for the foreseeable future. Brendan Rodgers has already extended his original contact with Celtic to 2021, which would be long enough for him to preside over the eventual accomplishment of 'Ten In A Row' that Hoops fans go on about ad infinitum. The reality, however, may prove to be that even that achievement may be selling the club short.

Martin Ingram (MI) is our Aberdeen Correspondent.  Legend has it that he is the tallest man in the Red Army, and he has the greatest beard that Lawrie has ever seen.  He writes regularly for Aberdeen fanzine The Red Final.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Robbo returns

Image result for john robertson inverness
John Robertson (right) with assistant Donald Park in 2003, during his first spell at Inverness
So, twelve and a half years after he left, John Robertson returns to Inverness Caledonian Thistle, the site of his greatest managerial successes.

Correction: John Robertson returns to the site of his only managerial successes; after leaving the Highlanders in December 2004, the former Scotland striker didn't exactly go on to better things.  If he was unlucky in his dream job at Hearts (where Vladimir Romanov came in and wanted his own coach) and Ross County (where he left after four months after being told to make big budget cuts) there seem to be few excuses for his tenures at Livingston and East Fife.  His sixteen month spell in Methil ended five years ago, and is his only managerial post in a decade.

He has still been active in Scottish football, working as a coach with Hearts' under-17 squad and doing plenty of media work, but the fact that he hasn't managed in so long is obviously a worry.

Of course it was Robertson who guided ICT to the top flight for the very first time back in 2004; the club badly need him to repeat the trick.  The Scottish Championship is a hell of a competitive league even without the likes of Hearts, Hibs and Rangers.  To win promotion they will have to fend off not just Dundee United but streetwise sides like Falkirk and Morton as well as a resurgent St. Mirren.

And frankly the club are in disarray, with a dreadful lack of leadership both on and off the field.  The board's failure to act and remove Richie Foran several months ago has resulted in relegation and a shortfall of about half a million pounds; following the end of the season the chairman, Kenny Cameron, quit.  Foran remained in post for another nine days whilst a new chairman and directors got sorted out and was apparently making decisions on releasing and retaining players a few days prior to his departure.

Another sixteen days have elapsed before Robertson's unveiling, which comes three and a half weeks after the final league match of 2016-17; whilst Caley Thistle have been procrastinating, their peers have been wheeling and dealing to strengthen for the new season.  The Betfred Cup starts in just a month's time.  With only two goalkeepers and ten outfield players under contract, there's an awful lot of catching up to do.

The fans' patience, worn thin by a year of horrendous results and turgid football and stretched further by the lack of communication from the club during this turbulent period, finally snapped after season ticket details were announced - on the same day Foran was punted, no less.  Prices were frozen, despite relegation and despite the fact that there will be one fewer home game in 2017-18.  (For comparison, after relegation in 2009 prices were cut by £100 across the board)

Even the most loyal supporters baulked at this, with many threatening not to renew until new chairman Willie Finlayson backtracked furiously yesterday, offering a 10% reduction on prices and a host of perks for season ticket holders.  It was a welcome move, but whether that, and the Robbo appointment, are enough to limit the significant damage done remains to be seen.

The hope is that Robertson thrives once more in this environment.  Ex-players such as Bobby Mann and Michael Fraser have spoken very highly of him as a coach and manager.  Moreover, he should have a pretty decent contacts book and hopefully be able to find us a few decent players.  At this level recruitment is probably a more important for a manager than tactical aptitude, so fingers crossed there.

However, the first impression is that the appointment is uninspiring.  The names linked with the post - Robbo (an ex-manager), Paul Sheerin (an ex-player), Maurice Malpas (an ex-assistant manager) - suggest a complete lack of imagination and lack of a proper application process.  Was there really no interest in the role outwith Scotland?  Or is it the case that the club only have contact details for former employees?

My own gut feeling remains that 2017-18 will be a hard season for Caley Thistle.  Things are going to get worse before they get better.  And that's nobody's fault but their own.

Lawrie Spence has ranted and spouted his ill-informed opinions on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007.  He has a life outside this blog.  Honestly.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Horse, door, bolted: Richie Foran leaves ICT

Richie Foran
Richie Foran looking down...which is where Caley Thistle had been heading for a looooonnnggg time

Often, when a football manager loses his job, there's not a lot of sympathy for him.  Inevitably, the reasons for his dismissal - usually a string of rotten results and performances - have left the fans fed up and baying for blood.  Ultimately, the relationship between boss and club is so damaged that one imagines the conversation with the chairman to be akin to that of Milhouse's Dad getting fired from the Cracker Factory - "So that's it after 20 years?  So long, good luck?"  "I don't recall saying 'good luck'."

Richie Foran's dismissal doesn't feel like that.  There were no organised protests or banners against him.  There was little even in terms of frustrated abuse from the stands.  That's because he was considered to be a Caley Thistle Man.  He had played for the club for seven and a half seasons, many of which were spent as club captain.  He had married a local woman.  Hell, he'd even managed to get himself arrested on Inverness High Street.  It was only a matter of time until he ditched his Irish brogue and instead starting dropping his 't's whilst greeting opposing managers with "how's yersel, like?"

The bottom line is that everyone associated with the club wanted him to succeed, and there was increasing sorrow as it became clear that he wouldn't.  That's not to say that the support disagree with the decision to remove him - a full season in charge of the club had produced an overwhelming body of evidence that he simply wasn't up to the job.  But it's not something to celebrate.

Why Foran had to go
Our tactics were a shambles
Ditching the attacking, aesthetically-pleasing football he initially promised in favour of hoof-ball made a modicum of sense when 6ft 5in Lonsana Doumbouya was up front, but giving him no support whatsoever made it pointless.  And continuing to punt long balls when 5ft 8in Billy Mckay was the target was crazy.  Ross Draper and Liam Polworth spent weeks on end being played out of position until their confidence was destroyed.  When used in their favoured roles, they thrived...only to be moved again the following week.

We never scouted opponents
The team was never set up with the opposition in mind.  In derbies, we never pressed high up the pitch, even though Ross County's defenders are always uncomfortable in possession.  Meanwhile, after the split, Kilmarnock's Jordan Jones terrorized Brad Mckay at Rugby Park; a few weeks earlier, he'd done the same at Caledonian Stadium to the point that Mckay had to be subbed at half-time.  But Foran seemed to have completely forgotten.

In contrast, we never seemed to suss out what opponents had planned for us
Aberdeen destroyed us in November by using Adam Rooney on the right and asking him to drift inside; six weeks later, Ross County did the same with Liam Boyce, and we had done nothing to counteract for that dreadful weakness.  Meanwhile, every week it seemed that we conceded a goal because Iain Vigurs failed to track a runner from midfield, and nothing was done about that either.

Recruitment was awful
Foran was clearly backed by the board, as he was allowed to sign twelve players.  Only Billy Mckay and Jamie McCart improved the team.  Louis Laing and Henri Anier were brought in with no obvious strategy; clearly they were simply players with Premiership experience who Foran had heard of.  Foran said at the start of January that he badly needed a midfielder who could break up play...and then went and signed a load of strikers instead.

Man-management was even worse
Foran frequently hung the players out to dry in post-match interviews, often criticizing their lack of fight and character.  He ostracized striker Alex Fisher was three months for the alleged crime of chatting to a club down south about a pre-contract; when Fisher was finally restored to the team out of sheer desperacy, he scored six in the last six games and finished as top scorer.  Foran's claim about "bad apples" in the dressing room after relegation was inexplicable, especially as it became clear from the clues he dropped that he was referring to youngsters Larnell Cole and Jake Mulraney.  Both were signed by Foran, both were frequently played by him, and the manager had actually chosen to extend Cole's loan spell in January rather than let him go.  And any manager who can't cope with a couple of petulant kids in his squad certainly can't be trusted to cope with a bunch of veterans.

Why he should have gone earlier
To an extent, Foran's reputation blinded both the club and the fans to the truth; that he needed replaced earlier.  Of course hindsight is a wonderful thing, but there is no doubt in my mind that, had we made that change, we would have stayed up.  There were at least three occasions earlier in the campaign where such a move should have taken place:

At the start of the winter break
We were bottom already, with two points from nine games.  We had been outfought and out-thought on Hogmanay by Ross County.  After that match, Foran himself admitted that he wasn't good enough.  We should have taken him at his word.

Defeat to Hamilton at the end of January
Losing 3-0 at New Douglas Park was an abomination, particularly as the goals all came because we were a shambles defensively.  Foran actually had a wee Sliding Doors moment a few days later; we were 2-0 down at half-time at home to Dundee, and had the Dark Blues turned the screw in the second half I think it would have been the end for him.  However ICT battled back for a 2-2 draw, which gave the false impression that the players were fighting for him.

Defeat to St. Johnstone shortly before the split
Whilst we were unlucky to be behind at half-time, the team capitulated in incredible fashion in the final quarter of an hour.  Larnell Cole got sent off for dissent, with captain Gary Warren earning the same fate after the final whistle.  St. Johnstone literally walked through their disjointed opponents to score two late goals, and could have had two more in injury-time too.  The poor attitude and discipline displayed just how dysfunctional the club had become.

Looking forward with trepidation
The Great Catastrophe of 2016/17, which has resulted in relegation to the Championship less than two years after we played a Europa League qualifier - from Bucharest to Brechin in two years, as some have put it -  ultimately left the new board with little choice.  Had Foran been retained, we would simply have ended up getting rid of him in the autumn after a nightmare start to next season caused by poor recruitment - who would have wanted to play for this lot, under that gaffer? - and a continuation of the malaise afflicting the squad.

So what now?

Well, the misery may be a long way away from ending.  If some think going to Dumbarton and Dumfries instead of Ibrox and Celtic Park is bad enough, then consider that it might be a good while till Inverness are back facing Scotland's biggest and best clubs.  The Championship is a hell of a competitive league; Dundee United, Hibs and Rangers have recently discovered just how bloody difficult it is to get out of it, while St. Mirren very nearly left it by the wrong end.

And of course relegation means less money, which means fewer resources, which means big changes.

So work needs to start ASAP on getting things ready for 2017/18.  Here are some pointers:

Make the new appointment quickly
The League Cup starts in mid-July, after all.  The sooner a new boss is brought in, the sooner he can decide on which out of contract players he wants to keep (probably only Fisher, really) and the sooner he can get on with getting a squad together.

What should they look for?  This writer is less interested in coaching ability and more keen on recruitment.  Terry Butcher was hardly a tactical mastermind; his success in the Highlands came from his contacts and his ability to find good players in the English lower leagues.  I'd prefer an experienced hand with that sort of wherewithall to the next Ian Cathro...though not a returning Butcher, who has burned his bridges with the club.  I have no names in mind, though the ones being mentioned by the press - Maurice Malpas, Paul Sheerin, Paul Hartley - do not fill me with much confidence.

Overhaul the coaching setup
One particular anomaly is the presence of Brian Rice, who was John Hughes' assistant but who chose to remain after Yogi left.  I believe he has a contract for another year yet, but it's clear there was no obvious relationship between Rice and Foran.  It hasn't helped matters a jot.  The belated return to the club of Maurice Malpas in a coaching capacity (at the board's behest) will have done no harm but he wasn't really a Foran man either.  A new boss needs to be able to bring in who he wants.

As depressing as it sounds, there is a case for ditching the youth teams, which have produced all of four first team regulars (Graeme Shinnie, Nick Ross, Ryan Christie and Liam Polworth) this century.  Every year we release a load of kids who go on to play in the Highland League.  It surely isn't financially sensible.

Squad changes
The players who are under contract for next season would actually form a pretty decent backbone to work with:

If Aaron Doran can get back to fitness, that midfield looks very decent.  The back four would manage in the Championship, though I think Gary Warren and David Raven are fading and Brad Mckay will have found his level.

Aside from that eleven, only backup keeper Ryan Esson is also under contract.  I wouldn't be surprised to see Scott Boden negotiate his exit, but I hope the others don't have relegation release clauses.

As for the out of contract players, Josh Meekings will surely move on.  As for the others, only Alex Fisher is really worth keeping.

Signings will depend partly on finance, and that might limit our options: in the First Division-winning campaign of 2009/10, we only used 18 players over the age of 21, and a few of them barely featured.  The top priority is to try and convince Billy Mckay to remain in Inverness; with a half-decent team behind him, he could run riot in the second tier.  However, that's probably not realistic.  A decision has to be made on whether to gamble heavily on winning promotion at the first attempt; failing would cause considerable damage but every season spent in the second tier will make it harder to go back up.

It will be an intriguing summer in Inverness, and the decisions made during it will have a huge bearing on the club's fate for years to come.  Let's hope they don't get them wrong...

Lawrie Spence has ranted and spouted his ill-informed opinions on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007.  He has a life outside this blog.  Honestly.

Friday, May 12, 2017

The tenth annual Narey's Toepoker Team of the Year (part 2)

Right, so here's your midfield and attack.  The other half of the team can be found here.

We've gone 4-4-f******-2 this year - read on to find out why...

Honourable mentions: Scott Brown (Celtic), Kenny McLean (Aberdeen), Jamie Walker (Hearts), Ali Crawford (Hamilton Accies)

This was the hardest choice by miles - basically it was two out of Armstrong, Brown, McLean and Barton.  I love Armstrong's all-action style (and his hair), so he's in.  His progress this season has been exciting and there's still more to come from him.  I thought Brown was finished last year but he's proven everyone wrong by returning to somewhere approaching his best, while McLean has been terrific since Derek McInnes started playing a midfield trio with Ryan Jack and Graeme Shinnie doing the donkey work so the ex-St. Mirren man can concentrate on playmaking.

Barton is the hipster's choice (he's a Partick Thistle player, so of course he is!) but he's been one of the signings of the season, either in central defence or sitting just in front of the centre-backs.  Would Thistle's defensive record be as good without him?  No.  Would Liam Lindsay be getting so many plaudits without Barton beside/in front of him?  No.  So Barton it is.

Besides, I already have plenty of Celtic players in this year's team.  Their fans won't be offended if I leave Brown out, right?  (Goes away to find tin hat).

Oh, and as for the other honourable mentions, both Crawford and Walker were terrific before the winter break and pretty anonymous afterward.  Walker never looked comfortable in Ian Cathro's system - whatever it is - and Hearts need to get the best out of him if they are to move in the right direction.  Crawford seems to only ever star for half of every season, which is just about enough to make him a huge asset for Accies but not enough to entice a bigger club.

Honourable mentions: Don Cowie (Hearts), Danny Swanson (St. Johnstone), James Forrest (Celtic), Niall McGinn (Aberdeen)

It's hard to argue with this dynamic duo.  Sinclair won Player of the Year, after all.  He actually seemed to disappear from games for long periods - as wingers are wont to do, I suppose - but whenever he got involved he tended to make a huge impact.  21 league goals from the wing is some tally.  It's a sign that he belongs at a far higher level than this, I suppose.

Hayes remains one of my favourite footballers.  He has everything you want from your winger - pace, the ability to beat a man, an end product and even a few goals - but it's his discipline and workrate that really make him stand out.  Ever since he came to Scotland in 2009 he's got a bit better year on year; the guy's attitude must make him a dream to coach.

As for the others, I suspect Cowie is another 'dream to coach', and looked like the only Hearts player who had a clue what Ian Cathro wanted.  Why he isn't club captain I have no idea.  Forrest and Swanson both tailed off a fair bit in 2017 after starting the season like greased lightning.  McGinn was the opposite, starting slowly before hitting form in the new year.

Honourable mentions: Steven Maclean (St. Johnstone), Kenny Miller (Rangers), Adam Rooney (Aberdeen), Marcus Haber (Dundee)

This is why we're going 4-4-2 this year - to fit both these boys in.  I think Celtic will get an offer they can't refuse for Dembele this summer, which will probably be greater than Rangers' annual turnover. He must be the best value signing the club have made since a Mr H. Larsson rocked up.  Boyce's exploits have been overshadowed slightly by his club's disappointing season; his goal drought in the spring came when he was moved into a deeper role and the onus was put on him to create chances rather than score them.  To still score 20 league goals (his teammates have managed just 22 between them) in those circumstances is quite sensational.

I'd have loved to shoehorn Maclean in.  The wily veteran is as good a lone striker as anyone in this league.  Miller continues to defy biology with his refusal to slow down and accept that he is getting old, but Rangers really can't afford to depend on him so much next year.  Rooney continues to lead the line effectively for Aberdeen.  Haber deserves a mention simply because his arrival transformed Dundee's season, and their record without him is just terrible.

So here's the team in all its glory:

(It took bloody ages to do the kit graphics by the way, so be nice!)

And, for the tenth year, that's your lot.  I'm looking forward to more of your 'constructive' criticism...

Lawrie Spence has ranted and spouted his ill-informed opinions on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007.  He has a life outside this blog.  Honestly.