Friday, January 12, 2018

The Championship is worth watching

Compared to the last few seasons, the Scottish Championship isn't getting much love right now. That's probably - okay, definitely - because Rangers, Hearts and Hibs provided rather more glamour (or, rather, bigger potential TV audiences) than the clubs currently occupying Scotland's second tier.

That's a shame, because this season it's been a nostalgic, direct football, Ron Manager jumpers for goalposts beans on toast for tea sort of way..

That's mainly because on any given day any team can beat anyone else. Unless you're Brechin City, that is. Promoted via the League One playoffs despite finishing closer to bottom than second place and with a negative goal difference, Brechin were earmarked at the start of the season as the whipping boys. Still winless after 20 matches and already 13 points from safety, even Theon Greyjoy glanced up at the league table from his torture rack in Game Of Thrones Season 3 and thought "this must be hell for them."

Aside from Brechin, Dumbarton are the only other part-time club in the Championship and probably the only other club not to have any realistic designs on trying to get promoted. But the Sons have survived in this division for five and a half years - an extraordinary achievement given that they basically have to bring in a completely new squad every summer - by taking advantage of those who think they are Brechinesque cannon fodder. After Caley Thistle lost there in September one sympathetic Dundee United fan told me "you don't realize you're in the Championship until you've been bodied by Dumbarton". Basically their role seems to be to induce a bit of humility in the Wannabes and Hasbeens that they play most weeks, like a Liberal Democrat MP before the 2010 coalition.

The other eight have much loftier ambitions. Three have been in the Premiership within the last three seasons. Another three have been in the promotion playoffs in one of the last three seasons. The other two have been in the top flight themselves in the not-too-distant past. So they all think that, if they sign some decent players, have a decent manager and bring through a few decent youngsters, then it might be their year.

The flip-side is that it's very easy for it to all go very wrong very quickly. Just take Falkirk: 2015 Scottish Cup finalists; within 90 minutes at Rugby Park of promotion in 2016; second in the table and another playoff spot last May. Currently they are ninth, well clear of Brechin but three points behind Dumbarton. Survival is now their aim. Whilst you'd fancy them to outdo Dumbarton over the remainder of the campaign (especially now they've signed almost an entirely new team since bringing in Paul Hartley as boss) would you really put your mortgage on it?

St. Mirren were in the Bairns' shoes only this time last year, winning only two games before mid-February and seemingly headed for a second relegation in three years. Having showed no signs at all of turning things around after being hired in October, Jack Ross then did indeed turn things around and dragged them to safety. Now they're top of the table thanks to some very sensible acquisitions of players proven at this level and a string of talented academy players. Whether they would thrive in the Premiership, particularly once Lewis Morgan falls permanently into Celtic's clutches, is a matter for debate - the likes of Craig Samson, Gavin Reilly and Cammy Smith are in the Championship because they weren't good enough for the higher level - but understandably St. Mirren would really rather get promoted first and worry about that later.

And it's not as if having a squad filled with guys who have recent Premiership experience is an enormous boon, as Dundee United and Inverness are discovering. Both face uncertain futures if they remain here beyond May 2018; Caley Thistle already need investment from directors to cover the shortfalls from relegation and further costcutting will follow if they don't go back up at the first attempt. The only possibility of that is via the playoffs, a prospect that at least looks a lot more realistic than it did three months ago as John Robertson has finally put together a side capable of getting results. Mind you, ICT are still only seventh just now, albeit within touching distance of that crucial fourth spot. And they've already achieved the biggest miracle of the season - to the disbelief of United fans - by transforming Coll Donaldson into a competent 'baller.

United are second, but given the investment in several players who could probably do a job for a top flight club it feels like anything other than top spot would be a disappointment. And yet despite punting manager Ray McKinnon in October they haven't looked any more dominant than they did last season. The arrival of a competent coach, Csaba Laszlo, should have been enough to drag them across the line but St. Mirren have proven resilient and won the clash between the sides at the end of December.

United's recent catastrophe at Falkirk Stadium, losing 6-1, may turn out to be a blip but with talented midfielders Scott Fraser and Fraser Fyvie potentially out for the season the Arabs have cause for concern that, like a year ago, they may limp into a playoff and come up short again. It's no secret that United's financial situation is not great - the money from Andy Robertson's sell-on clause made a big difference to their budget for 2017/18 - and a third straight season in this division would be a disaster.

Dunfermline are currently third in the table, though only five points separate them from Caley Thistle. Nearly five years since their administration, the Pars have got their house in order under Allan Johnston who got them promoted back to the Championship two summers ago. Their form in the second half of last season and the first quarter of this was that of promotion challengers, but the flip side of having attacking talents such as Joe Cardle, Kallum Higginbotham, Nicky Clark and Declan McManus is that there isn't much spare cash for squad depth. Only in the last few weeks have they managed to start stringing wins together again.

Like Dunfermline, Queen of the South also have a relatively threadbare squad, going for quality rather than quantity - and how! 36 year old Stephen Dobbie is doing his best impression of a Dumfries And Galloway Teddy Sheringham and is arguably the best player in this league, already notching 20 goals to go with the 26 he managed last season. Queens' season depends heavily on keeping him fit, and on trying to augment the least experienced squad in the Championship with good loan players. St. Johnstone pair Jason Kerr and Chris Kane have impressed...but both will return to Perth next week leaving gaping holes that Gary Naysmith has to fill if they are to remain in the top four.

And if they slip, Livingston are next in the wings; whilst they were never likely to be relegation candidates, Livi are doing remarkably well for a newly promoted side which is testament to the good job that David Hopkin (who I still have a soft spot for because he was an absolute demon of an AM RC in Championship Manager 96/97) is doing in charge. Losing striker Danny Mullen to St. Mirren wasn't ideal, mind, but Hopkin has altered the dynamic from last year's gung-ho attacking play to a well-organized setup led by veteran keeper Neil Alexander and an excellent set of central defenders in young Craig Halkett and (whatever you think of his previous off-field issues) Declan Gallagher. Whether they have the attacking talent and experience to see them through to May is uncertain.

And last but not least (sixth, if you look at the table) are Morton, who are probably overachieving given they also have a pretty thin squad that depends on the ageing Gary Harkins for creativity. However, since Chic Young thinks Jim Duffy should be the new Scotland manager (no, really!) maybe a comfortable mid-table spot is the least we should expect, especially since they made the playoffs last year. In Jai Quitongo they have one of the most exciting young talents around, though he hasn't really kicked on this year. If he's half as fun a player as his dad was then he'll do okay, though.

Morton are just one of many sides in this battle who could with a little luck make it into the postseason fixtures and yet would be crippled by a lengthy casualty list. It may be injuries which prove the deciding factor for who finishes in the top four..and even, were St. Mirren to lose any out of Morgan, Cammy Smith and Gavin Reilly, top spot.

But my take-home point is that this league is a highly entertaining and competitive one with pretty much everything but tenth place still very much in the balance. Sadly Sportscene don't care any more since Rangers aren't there...and the BBC didn't even bother doing a live commentary game last week during the Premiership's winter break. But it's a much more level playing field and it has more quality than you think. How things will pan out by mid-May is just about anyone's guess. Viva Le Championship!

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.

Monday, January 1, 2018

An ode to David Raven

In their short history, Caley Thistle have had their share of cult heroes at right-back.. 

As they climbed the divisions, there was Mike Teasdale, a gritty, combative player with long messy hair and occasionally a ponytail that borderlined on offensive. He chipped in with a few goals too, including one beauty in a derby win in Dingwall - the one where Ross County's Alex Bone got shown three red cards.

After that there was Ross Tokely, who looked more like a henchman from a Bond movie than a footballer. Tall, built like a house and blessed not so much with pace than momentum, he defied my own father's certainty that every year ICT were promoted he would be found out at the next level to represent the club in all four divisions. He holds the club's appearances record by absolute miles; it'll probably never be broken.

And then there was David Raven.

When Terry Butcher was in charge of Inverness, he had a knack for finding gems in the lower leagues of England - Gary Warren, Josh Meekings, Dean Brill, Marley Watkins, Greg Tansey, Ross Draper and Billy Mckay to name a few. Raven arrived in the summer of '12 from Tranmere Rovers, but his background was different. I thought I recognised the name from somewhere, and I was right: he had been in Pro Evolution Soccer 4! For Raven actually had a pedigree -  he had been in Liverpool's academy and made a handful of first team appearances for them, as well as representing England at several youth levels.

He certainly didn't look like a pedigree, more a cross-breed between a philosopher from Ancient Greece and a Tour De France cyclist. Still just 27 at the time, Raven's almost total baldness and a lithe figure that from a distance looked positively skeletal made him look so much older and frailer. And when he, like many of his teammates, started the 2012-13 season slowly there was a fear that we had signed a dud. That couldn't have been further from the truth.

Raven wasn't the biggest, or the quickest, or the strongest, or the most skilful. But he was reliable - a rare attribute that managers must crave, particularly in their defenders. Mistakes were rare. It was unusual for him to be caught out of position. Whilst like any full-back he could look vulnerable against a talented winger he could be left on an island against them and still win his share of duels. And whilst his attacking prowess was nothing compared to that of Graeme Shinnie on the opposite flank his timing for forays forward and his delivery from wide areas was very underrated. He was a seven-out-of-ten-every-game player.

That in itself does not make one a cult hero. Scoring the winner in a Scottish Cup semi-final against Celtic certainly helps, though. He was certainly not a frequent goalscorer, managing only five in five and a half years; this writer hasn't witnessed any of them first hand. His first for the club came in gloriously appropriate fashion at Ross County, where he literally slide-tackled the ball into the net from a yard. The second was a year later at Hampden.

Celtic fans will of course remember that game for the infamous Meekings handball. Down to ten men themselves, a John Guidetti free-kick had levelled things up in extra-time at 2-2. Given their experience of big occasions, they'd have been overwhelming favourites in a shootout. It says something about the way Caley Thistle played under John Hughes that season that in the 117th minute one full-back (Shinnie) got to the byline and fizzed the ball across for the other to tap-in from six yards out. Actually, that makes it sound easier than it was. The angle was narrow, and Raven had to adjust his stride in order to make proper contact with the ball - easy enough maybe for a seasoned striker, but for a right-back near the end of extra time?

Raven would subsequently claim that he had a premonition that day that he would score. It was as important a goal as the one by James Vincent that won the final itself. Without it Caley Thistle probably wouldn't have won that semi-final...though a calf injury would keep him out of the final. He at least got to take centre-stage in the celebrations in Inverness the next day, taking his guitar up on stage to play Oasis' Stand By Me to a crowd of supporters. Raven's musical prowess was already well-known - at a Christmas do he had once serenaded fans at a grand piano, taking request after request after request.

His absence from the Falkirk game was kept secret from the press right until the teamsheets were released, and understandably so; with Shinnie moved over to the right to replace him, and Carl Tremarco coming into the side and having a nervous nightmare that culminated in a red card, he was dreadfully missed. To be honest, he always was missed when he wasn't there. That's why the way he dropped dramatically out of favour the next season came as such a shock. In 2015/16 Hughes often left Raven on the bench and played Josh Meekings at right-back, a plan that simultaneously weakened the team in that position and central defence as well. When it became clear that Hughes wouldn't be offering Raven a new deal, the fans revolted by naming him their Player Of The Year at the final game of the season even though he'd started less than half of the matches. Handed a microphone in front of the support, he looked embarrassed; later he would insist that he bore no grudge towards Hughes and understood that it was a business decision.

But of course Yogi left and Raven was offered a new contract after all which at the time was rumoured to have been funded by a board member. Injuries held him back last season - he wasn't one of the reasons why ICT were relegated - and then he suffered the ignominy of another manager, John Robertson, trying to get rid of him this year. Raven didn't budge - and then found himself back in the team every week after his replacement, Collin Seedorf, got injured. And once more he has been the seven-out-of-ten-every-game least until his red card against Morton last week.

But Raven's contract is up in January and the match against Livingston on the 2nd will be his one-hundred and eighty-sixth and last for the club- if he can get his place back in the side. He was belatedly offered new terms on a reduced wage but declined them, apparently more out of pragmatism rather than pride. His ambition is to get into coaching, and there won't be many opportunities in this part of the world for that. With his oldest child due to start school in 2018, better to get settled down south again.

I'm not the only one who will lament his departure. He might not be the most talented footballer in the world - or even the most talented one at his club. But you could do an awful lot worse than have a team of David Ravens. Thank you, goodbye and good luck.

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, December 20, 2017

Looking ahead to the January window

Trying to predict what will happen in the January window is a bit of a mugs game - there will be left-field signings, loan moves from England, players we've never heard of up here. About the only certainty is that Rangers will be linked with big money moves for players (or for their own - £6m for Barrie McKay!!!) which come to nothing.

But still, let's look ahead anyway...

WHAT DO THEY NEED? Derek McInnes wants to 'freshen up' the squad, according to his chairman, and apparently will be given money to do so. Despite the emergence of Scott McKenna and the improved play of Kari Arnason, I bet a commanding centre-back would be welcomed. They could also do with a sitting midfield player, having not properly replaced Ryan Jack.

POSSIBLE DEPARTURES? Aberdeen actually have just about the smallest squad in the Premiership so there's unlikely to be many exits. Perhaps Nicky Maynard, third in the centre-forward queue, will be allowed to return south. Craig Storie has been out of the first team picture after injuries and might benefit from a loan move.

WHAT DO THEY NEED? Centre-back is an obvious weakness, and 32 year old German Marvin Compper is set to arrive from RB Leipzig for £1m. Time will tell if he upgrades the position sufficiently to allow a Europa League run. There has been talk of other signings, but they are more likely to be youngsters brought in with the future in mind. Lewis Morgan, set to arrive from St Mirren and immediately return to Paisley on loan, is one example.

POSSIBLE DEPARTURES? Erik Sviatchenko is out of favour and seems certain to depart, possibly for the English Championship. Given the potential for fixture congestion in the spring, Brendan Rodgers will be loathe to let too many others leave, but several of the youngsters would surely benefit from loan spells and Liam Henderson, out of contract in the summer, surely has no future at Parkhead.

WHAT DO THEY NEED? Another keeper to compete with or provide cover for Elliot Parish. The squad is already bloated but more quality in midfield and attack would be extremely welcome...especially in the shape of a proven goalscorer.

POSSIBLE DEPARTURES? Neil McCann is likely to try and shift as much dead wood as possible. Danny Williams was let go last month'. Scott Bain, who has been binned after a row with McCann, has been linked to Hearts. Randy Wolters has also apparently fallen out with the manager. It's not clear if Jon Aurtenetxe's contract or AJ Leitch-Smith's loan will be extended past January. Other candidates to be 'mutually consented' include Julen Etxabeguren, Kostadin Gadzhalov, Nicky Low and James Vincent.

WHAT DO THEY NEED? Martin Canning doesn't have a great January window record (Kemy Agustien! Oumar Diaby!). He'll be surely up for bringing in anyone who can improve his defence or midfield.

POSSIBLE DEPARTURES? Botti Biabi's loan from Swansea ends during the window and it seems unlikely to be extended. Steven Boyd has already been loaned to Livingston.

WHAT DO THEY NEED? Gabriel Somi of Ostersunds seems set to be the next proposed solution to the never-ending problem at left-back. Though Jon McLaughlin has been solid enough in goal, Hearts have been linked with Dundee's Scott Bain. Craig Levein has suggested he wants more new faces, but that would depend on getting players out.

POSSIBLE DEPARTURES? Viktor Noring and Malaury Martin clearly have no future at Tynecastle. Perenially injured Ashley Smith-Brown probably doesn't either, but its unclear whether his loan from Manchester City can be terminated in January or if he is stuck till the summer. If a new keeper does come in then surely Jack Hamilton will be loaned out.

WHAT DO THEY NEED? An upgrade in the full-back positions would be useful, especially as Steven Whittaker has been a bit of a disappointment. Neil Lennon criticized Ofir Marciano recently, so it wouldn't be surprising if they made a move for a new keeper.

POSSIBLE DEPARTURES? Deivydas Matulevicius is only a quarter of the way into a two year deal but the Lithuanian striker is well down the pecking order. The main worry is that someone makes an offer for John McGinn that the club can't refuse.

WHAT DO THEY NEED? Steve Clarke has worked wonders with the squad he inherited, and this is his first big chance to put a stamp on it. Having already brought in Youssouf Mulumbu, they have ex-Spurs and Norwich centre-back Sebastien Bassong on trial. Another striker would be tempting, despite the recent good form of Kris Boyd and Eamonn Brophy.

POSSIBLE DEPARTURES? Brad Spencer and Alex Samizadeh are obvious candidates to be binned, with neither Lee McCulloch signing anywhere near the first team. Steven Smith has been injured but doesn't look like he has a future at the club.

WHAT DO THEY NEED? A replacement for Louis Moult is the overwhelming priority.

POSSIBLE DEPARTURES? Moult's £450,000 move to Preston will go through as soon as the window opens. Keeper Gennadio Xenadochov is only on a short-term deal. There are so many midfield options that loan moves away for Shea Gordon, Ross MacLean and Liam Brown are possible.

WHAT DO THEY NEED? To improve the defence, either through getting players back from injury or new signings. The question is whether to bank on the likes of Callum Booth and Abdul Osman providing sufficient reinforcement, or whether new faces need to be brought in regardless.

POSSIBLE DEPARTURES? Thistle's back line has been rank for much of the year, yet Milan Nitriansky still can't get a game. If they don't need him for depth purposes, he'll be away.

WHAT DO THEY NEED? The situation is complicated by the lack of a permanent manager at this point - if they appoint one then he'll want to bring in his own players; if not, then any new signings will be presumably controlled by the Director Of Football, Mark Allen. They have been linked with Brighton attacker Jamie Murphy.

POSSIBLE DEPARTURES? How many Caixinha signings will want to leg it from Glasgow? Eduardo Herrera and Fabio Cardoso may not be happy with spending the rest of the year on the bench. Dalcio and Aaron Nemane will surely go if their loan spells can be terminated in January.

WHAT DO THEY NEED? One suspects Roy MacGregor will have another busy January bringing in the reinforcements required to maintain County's top flight status. Another centre-back would be helpful, and a regular goalscorer is a priority too (yes, I know that's the case for everyone).

POSSIBLE DEPARTURES? There are already four centre-forwards but none have scored frequently; Thomas Mikkelsen and Billy Mckay haven't done enough to justify even a run in the team and could be moved on. Tim Chow is also on the fringes.

WHAT DO THEY NEED? After the win over Rangers, Tommy Wright talked of his intention to bring in a few new faces, and how this week he would find out if he was shopping for "new cars or used cars" (not the greatest analogy, but you know what he means). A deal has already been done for Dundalk forward David McMillan.

POSSIBLE DEPARTURES? Not Chris Millar, who seems to be back in favour. It's unclear if Michael O'Halloran's loan deal will be extended, while Chris Kane may stay out on loan at Queen Of The South. Graham Cummins has been linked with a return to Ireland.

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, December 8, 2017

McInnes fiasco is just a symptom of Rangers' bigger problems

To paraphrase Jane Austen, it is a truth universally acknowledged that a football club without a manager must be in want of a manager.

Six weeks down the line from the 'mutual consenting' of Pedro Caixinha, Rangers will still have Graeme Murty in the dugout for this weekend's game against Ross County...and, according to yesterday's statement, till the end of December. This means he'll be in charge for another five games after that till the winter break, taking him to a total of twelve at least. Some clubs keep permanent managers in their posts for less time than that.

Given that Caixinha's jacket had been on a shoogly peg since the failure to Progres (sic) in Europe back in July, it seems quite remarkable that the club hadn't already started quietly sounding out alternatives in advance of his inevitable exit. Delaying the start of that process till he left the building was either incredibly honourable or incredibly incompetent; I'll leave you to decide which of those descriptions to delete as applicable.

The Rangers board contains a number of successful business folk, and there is also a managing director heavily experienced in the ways of football (Stewart Robertson) and a Director Of Football too. And yet a thousand monkeys attending a thousand board meetings would have been more effective than this.

There has been a lot of conspiracy talk about Rangers trying to use the media to tap up McInnes and destabilise Aberdeen.  And we know there are a depressingly high number of Scottish football journalists who would happily report that "the sky is green and grass is blue" if Jim Traynor sent that to them in an email titled 'Today's Rangers Press Release'.

But forty days passed between Caixinha leaving and an approach being made to Aberdeen for McInnes, and another two before he actually turned them down. The club's claim that "there was no outstanding candidate among those who applied for the position" is almost certainly true, but it seems crazy to have waited several weeks to confirm that is the case. If McInnes was earmarked early on as the leading candidate, the suggestion that Rangers wanted to wait until the double-header against the Dons was out of the way is laughable; five weeks passed between Caixinha going and that first game at Ibrox, plenty of time to sort things out.

It seems more likely that the board's strategy was as detailed and well thought out as David Davis' Brexit impact assessment files, and so the media simply filled the information vacuum as well as they could. And with little to go on other than a link to McInnes which certainly seemed plausible, they regurgitated it again and again like Roman nobles at a 1st century AD banquet. The speculation probably did unsettle McInnes and Aberdeen, but to suggest it was all part of a cunning plan gives the impression that Rangers operate with more nous than Baldrick.

One thing it has accomplished, however, is to distract supporters - and, either wilfully or otherwise, the media - from two far more significant issues surrounding Rangers. The first was their recent accounts which stated that £4m was required for working capital by the end of November - November! That's less than halfway through the season before they basically ran out of money. In fact, it's possible that the long delay in moving for McInnes is because Rangers couldn't meet Aberdeen's compensation demands until that cash injection.

That £4m, plus another £3.5m next year, will apparently come in loans from a company called NOAL the holders of the shares bought by Dave King's family trust, which leads me onto the second issue - the ongoing battle between King and the Takeover Panel. King has bascially admitted he can't actually afford to bid for Rangers (his lawyer's claims that he is "penniless" and that he hasn't got any sort of control over the actions of NOAL seem interesting in the context of the loans that have gone the club's way). Just being in conflict with the Takeover Panel is unheard of (this is the first time someone has fought a ruling from them); losing would put King in a very precarious position indeed.

Those are probably the reasons why McInnes felt staying in the North-East was a better career move than going to Ibrox. And this embarrassing affair may well bring that into the conscience of even those with the bluest-tinted spectacles.

In the meantime, Murty will plug on. By the end of December he will have, in two spells, managed Rangers for eighteen matches. Caixinha was in charge for only twenty-six. Murty is clearly not a viable long-term option; whilst his tactical changes for the games against Aberdeen were impressive they came on the back of embarrassing losses to Hamilton and Dundee. If Rangers choose to stick with him into the new year, they will not finish second. But by confirming him in the role till the winter break they have conceded that they are yet to devise a plan B, after seemingly taking a month to come up with a Plan A that was so simple that even Kris Boyd had thought of it.

On the bright side, they do apparently have Alex McLeish's phone number...

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.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

We need a revolution, but Project Brave feels like the wrong one

It's hard to feel optimistic about Project Brave.

Part of that is due to the corny name - even thinking about it makes one cringe inwardly. Part of that is the thought that Malky Mackay is it's figurehead. But most of it is due to the fact that the SFA have done little in recent years that justifies ever giving them the benefit of the doubt.

Still, they've recognised that the failure to produce talented players for our national team is a huge problem, and this is their revolutionary plan to fix that. And sure, revolutions always upset lots of people.

The concern is that the criticisms so far have been pretty reasonable.

To recap, eight clubs are given Elite status, which means extra funding. Another eight have been put in a second tier with a bit less funding, and four more are a tier lower. The elite eight are Celtic, Rangers, Aberdeen, Hearts, Hibs, Hamilton, Motherwell and Kilmarnock. That's just one club north of the Firth of Forth.

As you'd expect from any organization who uses the word 'transparency' often, there's been a fair amount of secrecy about the criteria used. In fact, much of the detail has only come as a result of some clubs publicly explaining why they are not at Elite level.

Dundee United revealed that because there are no adequate indoor training facilities in Tayside, they had no chance (presumably St. Johnstone suffered from the same problem).

St. Mirren would have had to hire five new members of staff - including a head of recruitment, a sports scientist and a performance analyst, which wasn't financially viable.

Partick Thistle, whose youth academy is financially backed by well-known Euromillions winners Chris and Colin Weir, released a beautifully written statement which was a tactful way of saying "we think it's all bollocks". They would have increase their overall outlay on the youth setup to £600,000/year - 20% of their annual budget. As they pointed out, they've been doing pretty well at producing players via their own methods.

Greenock Morton, stuck in the third group, were marked down simply because they've only had an academy for five years - apparently history matters more than actual quality (insert Rangers joke here).

And finally Ross County are appealing against missing out on Elite status despite apparently meeting the criteria; chairman Roy McGregor fired a pre-emptive strike last month by claiming the club's refusal to make primary school-age kids travel 200 miles to the central belt and back on Sundays was being used against them.

Of the eight clubs picked as Elite, five were shoo-ins: the Gruesome Twosome, the two Edinburgh clubs and Aberdeen. The Dons don't even have their own training ground let alone indoor facilities, but being able to access the local University's sports village is apparently good enough. That's despite stories that their kids' teams have to do a tour of local parks to find ones to train on.

The other three have clearly taken a wee bit of a financial risk in order to be deemed Elite. And since Kilmarnock, Hamilton and Motherwell all have a good recent record for developing and playing their own products it is hard to begrudge them. But is there really a need for five of the eight clubs to be within 30 minutes' drive of Hampden Park? The SFA's own annual performance review from earlier this year uses Keiran Freeman, a youngster signed by Southampton last summer, as evidence of the benefit of the Performance School model it is looking for clubs to adopt. Freeman is from Dundee. The next Tayside tyro will have to travel all the way to Edinburgh and back at least to train with an Elite setup.

As for the other five, what has actually changed that will improve the calibre of Scottish player being produced? There's no disagreement that the quality is insufficient, but its the clubs that produce the players, not the SFA. And these five clubs already hoard significant numbers of youngsters. How many so far are going on to be first teamers? Well, counting only players who have been in their academy setups in the last five years - so guys like Andrew Considine and Lewis Stevenson don't count - Aberdeen, Hibs and Rangers have between them just three players who have started Premiership matches this season. Hearts and Celtic can at least boast far more.

The main motivations for youth setups in the past have mostly seemed to be a combination of creating links with the local community and the hope that you'd be lucky enough to find the next superstar. So when in a couple of years Kieran Tierney gets to the point that playing in Scotland is holding him back the transfer fee will pay for many, many years of Celtic's setup. On a smaller scale the £1.5million Hibs got for Jason Cummings more than justified two or three completely stagnant years of production.

But the big clubs have always done their best to hoard the youth talent. Getting them to play the kids and give them the chance and experience they need has always another matter. After all, what First Team Manager is going to risk results and his own neck by playing youngsters and benefitting only a successor several years down the line? After their Euro 2000 disaster, Germany forced Bundesliga clubs to put six homegrown players in their matchday squad every week; only by introducing rules like these, rather than relying on the clubs looking past their own short-term selfishness, will progress be made in that area.

But my biggest bone with Project Brave is that I feel like the whole problem has been approached from the wrong angle. The biggest problems we have as a footballing nation are a lack of facilities and a lack of coaches. The first is not being addressed - clubs are just accessing what is already there - although it seems like coach numbers will be on the rise, albeit only at these Elite clubs. But it costs a fortune to get that qualification.

Given their recent successes Iceland are in vogue, and quite right too. Their achievements stem from building loads of indoor facilities (with government support) and subsidizing coaching qualifications, whilst refusing to allow anyone to coach even a four year old without some sort of UEFA licence. Said four year olds get access to said facilities and said coaches. Even though the vast majority are no more talented than you or I they get high quality coaching and, more importantly, exercise; the whole thing is a significant public health benefit. And as a bonus, fifteen years down the line there are far more international-class footballers per head of population than anywhere else in the world.

Maybe its a pipe dream to think the Scottish Government would have been amenable to such a scheme. But there's nothing to suggest the SFA even thought about it. Project Brave seems to instead do little more than give Elite clubs a badge that gives them even more chance of hoarding the kids who look the most talented, without actually giving them a carrot or a stick to get them to improve their output.

Plus ca change...

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

Monday, November 13, 2017

Dundee: stand by your man, or can McCann?

If there was one obvious lesson to be learned from Inverness Caledonian Thistle's relegation from the Premiership last summer, it was this: showing too much faith in a struggling manager is laudable, but it also often leads to complete disaster.

The ability of the manager/head coach/caretaker kept on as the cheap option because of all the money wasted on a Portuguese bloke (delete as applicable depending on the management structure of the club in question) is of course important at any club, but the smaller the club and their playing budget, the bigger the difference that the quality of the coach makes.

Whether through astute tactical acumen or just having an eye for (and contacts to find) a decent player, it can be - to use Caley Thistle as an example again - the difference between being the third best side in the country to being in the division below.  Richie Foran had neither quality.  His predecessor John Hughes couldn't tell the difference between the next Lionel Messi and the next Lionel Blair, but was outstanding at improving the players he inherited, which is why ICT won the cup.  Before that, Terry Butcher displayed little tactical nous beyond "let's get into 'em" but managed to find and attract several gems to the Highlands and create one of the best half-dozen squads in the country.

Of course, Foran had no experience as a manager and precious little as a coach, and within six months it was clear he was out of his depth.  Neil McCann has been at Dundee for a similar period.  Last weekend's defeat at Hibernian was his eighteenth league game since taking over in May, so that's nearly half a season as a sample.  The stats: four wins, two draws, twelve defeats, eighteen goals scored and thirty-four against, fourteen points out of a possible fifty-four.

Now it must be pointed out that McCann was appointed because the Dark Blues were already spiralling hopelessly out of control.  Paul Hartley's last seven matches in charge were all defeats, which means that rotten league record can be extrapolated to fourteen points from twenty-five games, a figure which would normally be acceptable only if the club had picked up one of its once-a-decade points penalties for administration.  So there was certainly something very wrong to begin with.  But can McCann put it right?

Already this season four Premiership clubs have pulled the trigger and changed manager.  Rangers obviously don't belong in a conversation about sides at the bottom, but Kilmarnock and Ross County certainly do, and Hearts were so bad under Ian Cathro (league record: 5 wins, 4 draws, 13 defeats) that they were heading in that direction sharpish.  Both they and Killie, with Lee McCulloch (league record: 4 wins, 9 draws, 11 defeats), had appointed managerial rookies, and they were correctly dismissed because it had become clear that they were out of their depth.

Circumstances at Ross County were rather different; to uninformed outsiders - and there were depressingly many occupying sportsdesks in the central belt - sacking Jim McIntyre just a year and a half after winning the League Cup was scandalous.  Yet County had been honking last season and heavily reliant on Liam Boyce, and despite significant backing McIntyre had brought in lots of players who didn't even remotely look like replacing him.  Much like when they punted Derek Adams a few years earlier, a change had to be made to preserve their Premiership status.

In came Steve Clarke at Rugby Park, and Owen Coyle at the Global Energy Stadium, two coaches with rather excellent pedigree compared to the ones who usually pitch up in the bottom half of the Scottish Premiership.  Both have made very decent first impressions, and have both started getting points on the board.

Dundee had the chance to move for a coach with that experience and calibre at the end of last season, because of course McCann initially declined the opportunity to stay on after seeing the team to survival - which he managed by winning his first two games before the players downed tools for the last two matches, embarrassing defeats to Inverness and Hamilton.  The club made overtures towards St. Mirren's highly-rated Jack Ross that were not welcomed, before McCann had a change of heart and chose not to return to the Sky Sports studio after all.  That initial lack of enthusiasm seemed to bode ill even then.

Still, its not as if he isn't trying.  The dramatic change in playing style shows that.  Last year the plan A was to punt the ball up to Marcus Haber - one could imagine Paul Hartley on the touchline yelling "HIT MARCUS!", Graham Taylor-style - and plan B was, erm, to punt it up to Marcus Haber.  Now there is a conscious effort to build from the back with the goalkeeper rolling it out to the centre-backs when possible.  That goalkeeper, incidentally, is currently Elliot Parish, as longstanding number one and former Scotland squad member Scott Bain has been dropped after a bust-up with the boss.

Falling out with arguably your best player isn't an ideal strategy when confidence is rock bottom.  Neither is passing the ball around at the back.  Inevitably there are blunders which result in cheap goals being given away and heads dropping further.  There is also an element of bad luck.  Dundee's xG conceded from open play is 17.4, well below the real total of 22 goals let in...but that xG is still the worst in the Premiership (thanks to The SPFL Radar for those stats).

At the other end, Haber's recent return to the lineup shows that at least a little pragmatism has been allowed for, as Sofien Moussa, Faissal El Bakhtaoui and AJ Leitch-Smith have all completely failed to be a consistent goalscorer.

There's certainly an overall lack of quality, which is rather concerning given that quantity is not an issue.  No-one, not even Celtic or Rangers, has as many players aged over 21 on their books as Dundee - enough for two starting XIs plus a couple spare, and that's not counting youngsters such as Kerr Waddell, Lewis Spence and Jesse Curran who are very much in the first team picture.  The club's American owners have backed McCann just as they backed Paul Hartley, and not unreasonably they expect at least a top six finish for their bucks.  They missed out on that in each of the last two seasons and will surely do so this time round as well.

Even at this relatively early stage, the name of the game is survival.  There has been surprisingly little chat about the possibility of Dundee being relegated, which is not dissimilar to how things played out at Inverness last year; on paper they seem far too good to go down, but that of course is not how football works.  McCann has also largely dodged criticism so far - possibly protected by his own links within the media?

But they need wins and points pronto.  Sadly for McCann, the upcoming fixture list is not reassuring - a resurgent Kilmarnock at home, then Rangers at home, then Ross County away and Aberdeen at home.  It wouldn't surprise anyone if they didn't win any of those four games...and a failure to do so would surely force the issue on the manager's future.  McCann may be left hoping that they're just keeping his seat warm for him in the Sky Sports studio.

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

Friday, November 3, 2017

McInnes should run a mile from Rangers

The Caixinha era was extremely costly for Rangers, both literally and metaphorically.

It would have been unrealistic to expect the Portuguese to turn the mediocre and unbalanced squad he inherited from the third best team in Scotland to title challengers in the seven and a half months he spent in charge.  But, given the amount of money spent signing the players he wanted in the summer, it is a catastrophe that they have not made any recognisable progress towards the level of Aberdeen, let alone Celtic.  Roughly £8million was paid out on the likes of Carlos Pena, Eduardo Herrera, Fabio Cardoso and others, and that isn't including signing on fees and wages.  Rangers also paid Caixinha's previous club, Al-Gharafa, £300,000 to procure him, and £500,000 to pay him off.  His successor will now inherit a squad built in Pedro's image with a number of players for whom "could they do it at Kilmarnock on a wet Tuesday night?" is less a borderline-racist cliche and more a genuine question.

If those in charge at Ibrox have any sense at all, they will do all they can to ensure that said successor is the man that has made Aberdeen so superior.  And Derek McInnes ticks the boxes: a successful, proven manager at this level, and he qualifies as a 'Rangers Man', the quality that Barry Ferguson has deemed so important to this appointment (possibly because poor Bazza wants a job there rather badly).  Admittedly, McInnes played only 53 games in four and a half years, and no-one remembers any of them except the times Dick Advocaat played him as a holding midfielder against PSV Eindhoven in the Champions League - with great success - and in the next game against Valencia - with great failure.  But he pulled on the blue strip, and left the club on relatively good terms, so, yeah, Rangers Man.

And one can imagine McInnes being tempted.  Domestically, it feels like the only way is down for the Dons.  They've hit a glass ceiling that's about 30 points thick and there's no way they'll break through to Celtic.  He accomplished a minor miracle to overcome the loss of several important players this summer, but will have to face the same dilemma at the end of the season - Kenny McLean has already indicated his intention to leave - and probably every other year after that.  His stock can't really go any higher whilst he remains in the North-East.

And of course Rangers should have great potential with their enormous support and funding that dwarves Aberdeen's,  The right manager, with sufficient resources and adequate time, could in a few years turn them into title challengers again.

But whilst McInnes is certainly the right manager, the other two conditions do not look likely to be met.  For a start, telling the supporters that it'll take two or three seasons before they can at least give Celtic a half-decent challenge would go down like a Union Jack ban at the Loudon.  Ibrox has always become very toxic very quickly when there's no success on the immediate horizon.  Unless the new boss can turn water into wine - or, even more impressively, Fabio Cardoso into a competent defender - the required overnight turnaround will be impossible.

And as for resources...well, Deek took one look at Sunderland in the summer and said "naw".  One the basketcase scale, Sunderland are Bomber Brown (who, incidentally, got appointed to Rangers' scouting team this week; one hopes his reports are more eloquent than his speeches).  But on that scale, the Gers are probably Terry Hurlock.

As mentioned above, they bet the house on Caixinha.  Chairman Dave King wasn't kidding when he claimed that the season ticket money was being spent on new signings - it's quite possible that it all was.  And now what?  That's the main income stream for the entire season blown already.

The club's annual accounts are due imminently; in fact last year's were published by the end of October so these are a bit later than expected.  Is that reason for concern?  Well, its no secret the club were managing with soft loans from directors more than a year ago.  In those accounts they also felt the need to boast that the player wage bill for 2016/17 was projected to be £10.3million.  The current figure is unlikely to be any lower and in fact is likely to be higher.

Meanwhile no banks will touch them with a barge pole and their chairman is currently the first person to ever be taken to court by the Takeover Panel...where, in an attempt to get out of being forced to bid to buy the whole club (a bid worth 'only' £12million) his lawyer actually described him as being "penniless".

Aberdeen would demand at least £1million in compo for McInnes - which is what they would have got from Sunderland, and that was before he signed a new contract - which may or may not be tricky to raise.

McInnes showed with Sunderland that he's not for being set up to fail.  Taking over at Ibrox would surely be a similar scenario.

It wouldn't be at all surprising if the board are praying for Graeme Murty to be a success - and he should be given he has back-to-back home games against Partick Thistle and Hamilton coming up before the international break.  Whilst he clearly isn't a long-term solution, he'd be cheap, and could buy the powers-that-be sufficient time to come up with a better option for when he inevitably fails.

But if they do come calling for McInnes, he should run away.  Very quickly.

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