Tuesday, September 12, 2017

We'll always have Paris: that James McFadden goal, ten years on



Ten years ago today, James McFadden made himself a Scottish footballing legend.

Hyperbole?  I don't think so.

The first sixty-four minutes at the Parc Des Princes were a siege around Scotland's goal.  Not that the French had created much, but the 2006 World Cup finalists were absolutely dominant.  No doubt seeking revenge for a smash-and-grab defeat at Hampden a year earlier (Gary Caldwell!!!), it was only a matter of time until Ribery, Trezeguet, Anelka et al made the breakthrough.

Starting McFadden up front on his own had seemed an odd decision, one that might not have been made had Kenny Miller been available.  He was hardly going to hold the ball up, or run the channels.  Maybe Alex McLeish's logic was that Scotland would be devoid of possession anyway and it was worth shoehorning in the one player who could conjure something magic out of nothing.  Maybe it was just that the only other option was Garry O'Connor.  Maybe it was just a roll of the dice.

Regardless, a Craig Gordon goal kick cleared the midfield and McFadden dropped off the French defence to take the ball down, a good thirty-five yards out.  He turned and shifted the ball out of his feet.  Still thirty yards or more away from goal, no-one made much effort to close him down.  So he had a pop.  It was so ambitious that the xG rating was probably minus something.

The ball was hit well, with plenty of power and a decent amount of swerve, but it wasn't heading for the top corner.  The French goalkeeper, Mickael Landreau got into a decent position to turn it over the bar but his left hand inexplicably diverted the ball sideways instead of upwards, and into the back of his own net.

Cue pandemonium.




Keen to sell as many tickets as possible, and aware that the Tartan Army were hardly likely to cause trouble, the French had been extremely relaxed about segregation; this meant that, in addition to a huge contingent of Scots in the away end, large numbers were dotted around throughout the stadium.  Almost everywhere one looked, there were Scottish fans going mad.

On Sky Sports News, Gordon McQueen lost his s***, yelling "I don't believe it!  I don't believe it!  Jay-sus, what a goal fae Scotland!" on live telly.

And in my flat in Aberdeen, four of us went absolutely berserk, the euphoria enhanced by the complete lack of anticipation, the total shock.  We all just jumped around, screaming incomprehensibly.  My closest friend Iain let out what I assume is the closest thing going to a primal scream.  He then managed to kick the TV control and change the channel...putting celebrations on temporary hold as I fumbled to change it back.  Then we all kicked off again.

It's ten years, and yet I still remember it vividly.  I'm pretty certain every other Scottish football fan remembers exactly what they were doing, and what they did, when James McFadden scored that.

And of course that was the only goal of the game.  Scotland had beaten the French again, and on their own patch.  And stuff the dodgy keeper; it was an unbelievable goal.  I could barely sleep that night, high on ecstasy (no, not that sort!).  I found myself phoning my parents late at night to share the joy with them.  My mum answered the phone with "you'll have to wait a minute.  Your father's trying to find the expensive whisky."  My dad then came on the phone trying to sound indignant: "what on earth could you be calling about at this time?"  But there was so much happiness in his voice that it gave the game away.

On Sky Sports, they showed the highlights of the game first, before England's win over Russia.  That's how big a deal it was.  And the panel of Englishmen couldn't have been more chuffed for us.  When it comes to football, the England-Scotland rivalry really does only flow in one direction.

A friend of mine who was at the game reminisces of how the bars in the French capital stayed open for hours afterward; bar owners from former North African colonies were keen to celebrate along with the Tartan Army.

Of course, it can be argued that it was all for nowt in the end.  Scotland didn't get to Euro 2008, with McFadden of all people missing a glorious chance that might have beaten Italy.  And since then we've not got remotely close to qualifying for anything.  McFadden was only 24 when he scored that goal, but his career never quite hit the heights it once threatened to.  Within a couple of years, even a Scotland strip stopped having a Superman-like effect on him.  His last cap was in 2010.  Constantly dogged by injuries, he has just signed for Championship Queen of the South.  Given he is 34 and has played only rarely in the last two and a half years, it seems a lot to hope for that there are many glory days left.

But moments like that are what football fans live for.  The nil-nils in wintry weather, the disappointing defeats, the relegations, the anticlimaxes...the hope that another one of those moments might be around the corner is what keeps us all going.  And when it happens, we treasure it forever.  Just writing this gives me goosebumps.  There is a giant blowup photograph of the goal at the front door of the Scottish Football Museum; as if visitors need to be reminded!

People don't forget moments like that.  In 2013, I was fortunate enough to witness a virtuoso performance from McFadden in Inverness, where he scored twice for Motherwell in a 4-3 defeat.  Even in the home end, we were all chuffed to bits for him, and felt privileged to have got to see him put on a show like that.  For anyone else, we might not have been so magnanimous.  But James McFadden had built up an awful lot of credit.

He'll always have Paris.  And we'll always have Paris.  Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman?  The romance between James McFadden and Scotland is greater even than that.


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, September 11, 2017

Five years on, the Rangers saga might yet do for Stewart Regan and his SFA cronies

It's been more than five years since liquidation, newco and all that.  But the whole Rangers thing just won't go away.  And this is becoming a problem for SFA Chief Executive Stewart Regan.

Since 2012, Scottish football's powers that be have resisted any pressure for an enquiry into how the fiasco was managed, mostly by using the ongoing Big Tax Case as an excuse to repeatedly kick the can down the road.  Well, the Big Tax Case finally concluded at the end of the summer, with confirmation that EBTs really were unlawful.  That can has got stuck in a drain and ain't going no further.

The SFA still wants to hide behind the Nimmo Smith verdict - that Rangers were guilty of improperly registering players (and the newco fined as a result) but that they did not gain any sporting advantage as a result.  That bit, of course, is ludicrous; of course Rangers gained a sporting advantage as the use of EBTs meant they were able to pay higher wages and therefore attract better players.

That sticks in the craw with many fans - despite Regan's claim that "the final decision in the Big Tax Case signalled closure for many involved in the game", and is the reason for continued calls to strip titles.  This author couldn't give the tiniest damn about that; I'd love to believe the main motivation for doing so is justice and fairness, but I'm pretty certain its just so Celtic supporters can get it up their Rangers equivalents by overtaking them as the winners of the most league titles, and by smashing the nine-in-a-row record.

Of course, if titles were taken away then cups would be too, but what would retrospectively declaring Queen of the South as 2008 Scottish Cup winners do?  The players don't get to lift a trophy; the fans don't get to celebrate the greatest day of their football lives.  Nobody feels better...except those who get a rather unhealthy kick out of schadenfreude.

The matter of SFA governance, on the other hand, is a more significant issue and easily justifies calls for an enquiry.  After all, the organization was not completely oblivious to the existence of EBTs - Campbell Ogilvie, vice-president of the SFA from 2003 to 2011 and then president till 2015, was a secretary and director at Rangers during the EBT era.  Hell, he even had his own one!

We also know that, because of unpaid tax, Rangers should not have been granted a licence to play in Europe in 2011/12, but the SFA gave them one anyway.  Regan has tried to appease by detailing his Compliance Officer to look into this, but that has satisfied no-one.

Regan's big advantage is that his organization is not really accountable to anyone - fans, clubs or otherwise.  That's how he has managed to survive as Chief Executive for seven years despite a tenure known more for big dinners than big achievements.  And given that the leadership of SFA generally operates like an old boys' club, it suits those next in line for the status quo to remain.

Which is why Celtic's decision to throw a spanner in the works came as a bit of a surprise.  Their chief exec, Peter Lawwell, is on the SFA board (he was appointed in 2013).  And yet his club stuck the boot in on Saturday with a statement criticizing the SFA's decision not to commission an independent review.  Moreover, they said that failure to do so would "represent a failure in transparency, accountability and leadership".

This is surely not too far away from being a vote of no confidence.

It also puts Regan in a terrible bind now.  Agreeing to the enquiry now looks like capitulating to the thrall and influence of Scotland's biggest club; conversely, rejecting Celtic's demands makes it look like they have something to hide.  As much as we all love a good conspiracy, Duncan Mackay on Twitter made an excellent point:
But even if Regan and his cronies simply screwed up big-time, that would be a huge issue in itself, one that would make his position untenable.

That said, what is Celtic's motivation here?  They could simply be playing to the gallery, sating the appetites of their diehard supporters who demand Rangers be crushed for all time as punishment for their tax-avoiding sins.  Or this could be out of genuine concern regarding the governance of Scottish football (being a cynic, I couldn't stop myself from rolling my eyes as I typed that sentence).

A more likely reason may be that the club have scented the huge weakness in the SFA and see this as the perfect opportunity to try and elicit greater influence - whether that is for Celtic alone, or for all Scotland's clubs in general (after all, the SPFL have also agreed that a review is required), is unclear.

What is certain though is that, for the first time in his seven years in charge of the Scottish Football Association, incompetence may actually be close to costing Stewart Regan his job.  And it's difficult to see how he can wiggle his way out of this situation.


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.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Talking points from Vilnius

Pace to burn
During the home draw with Lithuania last year, Scotland's play was so pedestrian it could have been in slow motion.  That was because Chris Martin was up front and, Oliver Burke (who didn't seem to know what position he was playing) aside, there was no threat of anyone getting in behind or stretching play.  So the visitors pressed high up the pitch and the Scots couldn't get anything going.

Contrast that with last night, when Gordon Strachan fielded a front three of James Forrest, Leigh Griffiths and Matt Phillips.  It could be argued that none of them were outstanding; Griffiths did have two assists but looked increasingly frustrated as the match went on and his linkup play dipped in quality as a result, while Phillips went on some great dribbles but didn't offer that much of an end product.  Meanwhile, I have a theory that the 'threat' of James Forrest is often worth far more than the player himself - the Lithuanian left-back stayed deep throughout because of the constant worry that Forrest would fly into the space behind him and do some damage, even though we all suspect that all he'd do is run the ball over the byline and fall over.

In fact the best work the trio did was without the ball.  Their pressing play on the Lithuanian defence and goalkeeper in the first half was outstanding and frequently allowed possession to be won back easily.  But their presence - and Griffiths' ability to hold the ball up against bigger defenders - was crucial to the gameplan.

Outstanding Armstrong
Of course, everyone else put in a shift too.  And the epitomy of the 'energy' that Gordon Strachan raved about was, of course, Stuart Armstrong.  The Celtic midfielder even risked messing up his immaculate hair to head in the opener; not a hair was put out of place, of course.  Heck, if Armstrong was stuck outside in the midst of Tropical Storm Harvey for three days, I bet it would still look great.

The man himself contributed far more than the goal.  His relentless running provides an invaluable link between midfield and attack and his willingness to get on the ball and drive at the back four was a delight.  To be honest, it's got to the point that, if a Scotland fan came home to find his wife cheating on him with Stuart Armstrong, he'd probably consider it a privilege.

Centre-back still a concern
The Lithuanians did have a handful of decent chances, with the one that Arvydas Novikovas spurned at 0-0 particularly crucial.  Novikovas turned his ex-Hearts teammate Christophe Berra inside out on the way, just one of a few times that Berra's limitations were exposed.  There was another moment in the second half where he made a mess of shielding a ball out of play and got caught out.  Charlie Mulgrew hardly breezed through the game either.  It doesn't help that the gallivanting full-backs can leave the centre-backs exposed, but there's no question that this position is the achilles heel.  As ever, there is reason for significant concern when we play a team that can press us the way we pressed Lithuania.

As for the future, I can't help feeling that Kieran Tierney's long-term role for the national team will be in central defence, especially if as expected his club team-mate Tony Ralston emerges as a quality right-back.  Tierney's height isn't ideal for the position - though he is marginally taller than Fabio Cannavaro was (no, I'm not comparing Tierney and Fabio Cannavaro).  But it is astonishing that a lad of 20 can look so comfortable playing out of his best position at this level.  His last three caps have come as a right-back, a right sided centre-back and as a right-back again.  This boy is something special...and therefore I'm continually filled with dread that someone is going to injure him badly and stop him becoming the world class player he seems destined to be.

No problems on plastic
The players were right to largely shrug their shoulders about the playing surface pre-match, and the fact that it had been heavily watered clearly benefitted the Scots' passing and made conditions far more similar to grass (Kilmarnock and Hamilton take note please!!!).  But it was amusing to watch players from both sides frequently checking their thighs for rug burn after various slips and slides.  Not so to see Matt Ritchie lose his footing as he tried to round the keeper for a late fourth goal.  Ritchie had admitted a few days ago that he had never played a competitive game on such a surface; if he had, then maybe he'd have worn the correct studs.

What next?
Malta at home on Monday should be a banker - anything other than three points and the country should just give up football and replace all the stadia with tennis courts instead.  The bottom line is that we're going to have to win the two other games (Slovakia at home then Slovenia away) to get a playoff.  So if Gordon uses the term 'not a must-win' again, we are all entitled to hit him very hard with sticks.

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.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Solidarity payments: helpful or harmful?

Let's play a game.
Suppose you conditionally receive a sum of money - let's say £100. You have to propose how to divide that sum between yourself and another person. The other person chooses to either accept or reject this proposal. If the other person accepts, the money is split according to your proposal. If the other person rejects, neither of you receive any money.

How much money would you propose to offer that other person?

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As expected, Celtic secured their Champions League play-off victory against Astana last Tuesday with their 8-4 aggregate victory over the national champions of Kazahkstan. In doing so, they can expect to earn over £25m in central distributions from UEFA for their participation in the group stage of European football's premier tournament.

Those central distributions comprise a 'participation bonus' of at least £12.5m for qualifying for the Champions League group stages, plus a share of the 'market pool', which will be distributed according to the proportional value of that country's TV market. (While the market pool is shared between the Champions League participants from each country, since Celtic are Scotland's only participant in the Champions League they will receive the entirety of that share.) In addition, Celtic can boost their earnings by bonus payments of £1.5m per win and £500,000 per draw in the group stages.

As part of Celtic's Champions League qualification, a further £3m will be shared between the Premiership's other 11 clubs in solidarity payments from UEFA. This means that each individual club will receive around £270,000 as a result of Celtic's progress to the group stage.

Last week, BBC Sport Scotland ran an article on its website on how Celtic's Premiership rivals were welcoming the potential Champions League 'windfall', with Partick Thistle boss Alan Archibald and Hearts interim head coach Jon Daly both saying this was "great" for their clubs, while Aberdeen assistant manager Tony Docherty said that this "can only benefit the clubs and the standard of Scottish football."
But is that really the truth?

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Let's return to the game I mentioned at the start of this article.

Now let's suppose that the Scottish Premiership conditionally receives a sum of money of £30m and UEFA get to propose how to divide that sum between Celtic and the other Scottish Premiership clubs. The Scottish Premiership clubs have to either accept or reject this proposal. If the clubs accept, the money is split according to UEFA's proposal. If the clubs reject, none of the clubs receive any money.

In this game, you are no longer the proposer but are now the responder. If you represented the Scottish Premiership clubs and the proposal was for Celtic to get 90% (£27 million), with the other eleven clubs getting 10% (£3 million) to share between them (roughly £270,000 per club) should you accept this proposal? In other words, is it better for the Scottish Premiership clubs to receive this money as currently apportioned, or for none of the clubs to receive any money at all?

(Note that the question here is whether this money better or worse for the Scottish Premiership clubs; this issue often gets conflated with whether this money benefits Scottish fitba' as a whole, however given that 32 of the 42 SPFL clubs will receive SFA – as with the SFA itself – any benefits they would receive can only ever be incidental at best.)

Now, from an objective (albeit restrictive) perspective, your initial response may be to accept the proposal. All but the most avaricious of Celtic supporters would surely be happy with getting 90% of a £30 million pot of cash. Supporters of other clubs may also be happy with getting £270,000 (just less than 1% of the total amount) for their own club as it's still more directly beneficial to their club than receiving no money at all. For example, Aberdeen – the second placed team in the Scottish Premiership for the last three seasons – reported a turnover of over £13.4 million for the year ended 30 June 2016; an additional £270,000 would represent an additional 2% - not a future altering figure for the Dons, but not an amount to be sniffed at either. By contrast, Inverness Caledonian Thistle – who finished bottom of the Premiership last season – had a turnover of around £4.35 million in the year to 31 May 2016; an additional £270,000 would represent over 6% additional revenue. For a club that has subsequently been relegated to the Championship and is currently struggling financially to the extent that they recently held an EGM to create £1m worth of new shares, this is the kind of cash that could make a hell of a difference.

However, while the Scottish Premiership (or, indeed, the Scottish Professional Football League in its broader context) is a collective, the main objective of the SPFL is to operate its league competition. It is here, when we come to the 'competition' aspect of the league, that the current distribution of payments from UEFA sees its league champions get exponentially richer than its fellow Premiership clubs; competitively, every other club in the Premiership is losing out to Celtic by a factor of 100.

Also, this 'game' is not played only once; it is replayed on an annual basis, with the most successful club in the Premiership receiving the opportunity to compete for qualification to next season's Champions League and - if successful in that subsequent venture – entitling it to the lion's share of any subsequent central payments from UEFA; this is where the lack of reciprocity in the benefits that Premiership clubs receive from these payments becomes far more apparent. To witness the deeply corrosive effect this has on national competition, it is worth looking at the impact that UEFA central payments has had on other mid-ranking domestic leagues in Europe.

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As of 2009, the UEFA Champions League began with a group stage of 32 teams which was preceded by two qualification 'streams' for teams that did not receive direct entry to the tournament proper. The two streams were divided between teams qualified by virtue of being league champions, and
those from top-ranking domestic leagues which finished in Champions League qualifying positions from their national championships.

Between the 2009-10 to the 2017-18 competitions, with the format of two qualifying route – the Champions Route and the League Route – in place, the clubs listed below qualified on more than one occasion from the Champions Route:

Multiple 'Champions Route' Qualifiers between 2009/10 & 2017/18:
APOEL; BATE Borisov; Celtic; Dinamo Zagreb (4 times)
Basel; Copenhagen, Malmo, Maribor, Olympiacos, Ludogorets, Victoria Plzen (2 times)

In that same time period – between the 2009-10 and 2016-17 seasons to date - here is how those same teams have fared in their own domestic league competitions:

Domestic League titles since 2010:
Basel (Switzerland); Celtic (Scotland) (8 titles each)
BATE Borisov (Belarus); Dinamo Zagreb (Croatia); Olympiacos (Greece) (7)
APOEL (Cyprus); Ludogorets (Bulgaria), Maribor (Slovenia) (6)
Copenhagen (Denmark) (5)
Malmo (Sweden); Viktoria Plzen (Czech Republic) (4)

You can clearly see from the above information that there is a clear correlation between the number of times that national champions have gained qualification to the group stages of the Champions League qualification – and the riches associated with this – and the dominance they have concurrently exerted over their own domestic competition. Nor does it seem to be a fluke, given that the same effect can be seen – to a lesser or greater of lesser extent – in each of these mid-ranking European leagues impacted.

Of the eleven examples listed above, Basel from Switzerland, BATE Borisov from Belarus and Olympiacos from Greece have won every domestic league title since 2010, while APOEL & Ludogorets have been reigning Cypriot & Bulgarian champions, respectively, since 2012. (Remarkably, Ludogorets won their first title in 2012 during their inaugural season in the Bulgarian First League and have retained the title ever since, displacing traditional powerhouses such as CSKA & Levski Sofia.)

Meanwhile, in Croatia, Dinamo Zagreb's run of eleven consecutive league titles was only ended last summer when HNK Rijeka won their first ever championship. Aberdeen fans will fondly remember their historic 3-0 win at Rijeka during Europa League qualifying. They would not lose another home game in either domestic or European competition for over two years, finally losing that record just a fortnight ago in a Croatian First League fixture – to Dinamo Zagreb. In Slovenia, Maribor – who knocked Aberdeen out of the Europa League qualifying last season and have also previously ousted Celtic, Rangers and Hibernian from European competition – have won the PrvaLiga 6 of the last 7 seasons, rectifying their only blip (losing out in 2015/16 to Olimpija Ljubljana) by regaining their title last season and parlaying that into a return to the Champions League group stages this week.

While the Scandinavian representatives have been less dominant in the above context, they have still won their respective domestic leagues more often than not - Copenhagen have won the Danish Football Championship in 5 of the last 8 seasons, while Malmo currently have a 10 point cushion in the 2017 Allsvenskan (which is 20 games into their summer league) that would also be their fifth title in 8 seasons.

Even the 'least' dominant example, Viktoria Plzen of the Czech Republic, is a textbook example of the extent to which the inadvertent timing of a club's success with the exponential rise of Champions League riches available to league champions in recent years has led to the skewing of a domestic competition that is entirely out of proportion to historical results. Viktoria Plzen, a club from the fourth largest city in the Czech Republic, bounced between the Czech First League and 2. Liga for most of its history. In 2010, they recorded their joint highest league finish (5th) and won their first ever Czech Cup. The following season, they won their first ever league title and, with it, entry to the Champions League, where they qualified for the group stages at the first time of asking. Since then, Viktoria Plzen have won 4 of the last 7 Czech titles and are the earlier pace-setters again this season with 4 wins out of 4.

As for Scotland, Celtic have won the last six Scottish Premier League/Premiership titles and have used the 'Champions Path' during that spell to enjoy smooth passage to the Champions League group stages in four of those six occasions. (The consecutive failures under Ronny Deila proving the exceptions to the norm.) However, they were not originally occupying the box seat...

For the 2009/10 season, Scotland was ranked as high as number 10 in the Association Ranking and had two teams in Europe's premier competition. In the first couple of seasons of the 'Champions Path' era, Rangers actually received direct entry to the Champions League group stages, while Celtic twice tried (and failed) to qualify through the 'League Path'. By 2011/12, Scotland had dropped to number 16 in the Association Ranking, meaning only got to enter one team via the 'Champions Path' - Rangers failed to qualify, going out to Malmo before the play-off round before subsequently going out to Maribor in the play-off round for the Europa League. 2012/13 was the last time Scotland had two entries into Champions League qualifying. Celtic, taking their first opportunity through the 'Champions Path', qualified; Motherwell, taking the place of Rangers following in the 'Non-Champions Path' following Rangers' administration and eventual liquidation, did not.

Which brings us to now. Champions League qualification is set to be reformed for the 2018/19 season, with the number of qualifying rounds that next season's Scottish title winners will have to
negotiate likely to be increased, while the number of teams qualifying from the champions play-off route are likely to be reduced. However, the distorting effect of the Champions League 'windfalls' have already taken root. Celtic now enjoy the pre-eminent position in Scottish football, with Brendan Rodgers' recent successes in qualifying for the last two Champions League group stages meaning that the club today holds a financial foothold so secure that its domination over its domestic competition is effectively unassailable for the foreseeable future.

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This brings us back to the original question: is it better for the Scottish Premiership clubs to receive Champions League 'windfall' payments, even if those payments benefit one club a hundred times more than any other club?

The game that I introduced to you at the start of this article is an economic experiment that is used to work out whether an offer represents a 'fair' or 'unfair' proposal; the more 'fair' the proposal, the more likely the responder is to 'accept' the proposal.

The most 'fair' result would be a 50:50 split between all of the interested parties. Before Celtic fans berate me here by saying that a 50/50 split wouldn't be 'fair', seeing as it is Celtic that earned the Champions League windfall by qualifying for the Champions League group stages in the first place, let me be clear that I am looking at this purely in terms of distributive justice (i.e. who gets to decide who gets more money, and on what basis) and there are many different schools of thought here.

During the same Radio Scotland interview where Tony Docherty said the Champions League windfall "benefits everyone in Scottish football", he went on to joke that while the £3 million will be shared between the Premiership's other 11 clubs, he'd prefer the £3 million just for his own club and went on to discuss the difference this kind of cash would make to other Premiership clubs. Imagine the benefits to domestic competition if instead of Celtic pocketing their prize money, that cash was redistributed evenly? What difference could £2.7 million make to the playing resources of the likes of Hamilton Accies, for example. Indeed, taking that example even further, imagine of that cash was redistributed evenly across all the SPFL clubs? A windfall of over £700,000 per club would make a radical difference to virtually every semi-professional club country in the country, and be a boon for most fully professional outfits too.

Too radical? OK, how about something a little more tempered, then? Well, when the aforementioned game was carried out in real life between members of social groups, offers of less than 30% were more often than not rejected. (It should perhaps be source of embarrassment for the Directors of other Scottish clubs that even members of remote villages and tribes have routinely held out for better offers than the amounts that they seem more than happy to accept in solidarity payments.) Taking 30% as an arbitrary benchmark, how about if Celtic – as a gratuitous gesture for the benefit of improving our domestic competition – agree to release a further £6 million pounds of its own prize money to the SPFL to redistribute to the rest of its clubs in a manner that was agreed to be fair and equitable amounts by its own members?

Just last month, Brendan Rodgers suggested that a lack of competition in Scottish football may stop him from adding a third "top striker" to his squad; on the more recent evidence of last Tuesday, an extra central defender or two wouldn't go amiss either. Brendan wasn't suggesting that Celtic's current resources were an issue to procuring another top striker – this view was expressed before Celtic had even negotiated their previous qualification round against Rosenborg, so Celtic have presumably now secured an additional £25 million that they won't be spending on bringing another top striker to Scotland.

I may be monumentally naïve, hopelessly unrealistic, or indeed a combination of both, but it seems there is a 'middle-ground' that could be reached whereby improving the resources available to Scottish clubs would lead to an improvement in the level of competition in this country, which in turn would embolden the top clubs in this country to improve their own playing squads, which in turn should improve the chances of those top clubs to perform better in Europe and potentially earn more prize money that could be invested back into Scottish football clubs as further cash windfalls.

Is anyone else interested in playing this game?

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.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Caley Thistle's summer from hell (and how Ross County are making the most of it)

Invernesians tend to display a significant level of snobbery when it comes to Dingwall, a small town just to the north but which is rather less pretty and rather less affluent.  And as in life, so on the football pitch.  Caley Thistle and Ross County joined the Scottish Football League in 1994, and they have spent twelve of their twenty-three seasons in the same division as each other; however, it was always ICT who managed promotion first, who always seemed to be a step ahead.

Quite right too, their supporters would say; Inverness is one of Europe's fastest growing cities, while you could fit the whole population of Dingwall into the Global Energy Stadium (a ground named after a sponsor? Another reason to look down on them).  In fact, they would add, County are only where they are because they are bankrolled by Roy MacGregor, Scotland's 82nd richest man and the closest thing this part of the world has to Uncle Pennybags from Monopoly.

It's that sort of superior attitude that led Caley Thistle to arrogantly adopt 'Pride of the Highlands' as their motto.  Well, pride comes before a fall.  Caley Thistle are falling fast.

Relegation comes as a blow to any football club, but it has hit them far harder than most, and far harder than it should have.  'Turmoil' does not seem a strong enough word to describe their summer, which so far has seen the following:
  • the resignation of the chairman, Kenny Cameron
  • a subsequent delay of the inevitable sacking of manager Richie Foran, during which time he was making decisions on retaining and releasing players he wouldn't be coaching
  • the appointment of a new manager, John Robertson, who didn't even apply for the job
  • initially announcing season ticket prices were to be frozen (which meant, given there is one fewer home game in the Championship, that they were more expensive per game), coupled with a press release that seemed to suggest promotion was a certainty
  • the dismissal of stalwart youth coach Duncan Shearer by voicemail, followed by a cackhanded attempt to honour him by offering to hold a 'Duncan Shearer Cup' game between youth teams
  • trying to cajole a Highland League team into letting their best player sign for us for no transfer fee, and then suggesting that somehow they were the ones at fault
  • Twittergate, which would have just given a few folk a wee laugh had the club not decided to release a statement drawing the entire world's attention to it
  • oh, and don't forget the loss of several first team players
Caley Thistle's relegation was not bad luck, nor was it fate.  Bad decisions and a lack of leadership have led them into this mess, and recent events suggest plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.  The only difference is that this year they will toil against Brechin and Dumbarton rather than Kilmarnock and Motherwell.

Meanwhile on the other side of the Kessock Bridge County have begun their sixth consecutive top flight season in rude health.  Their opening day win at Dundee bodes well for the weeks to come.  And their midfield has just been boosted by the £100,000 signing of...Ross Draper, erstwhile of Inverness Caledonian Thistle.

Caley Thistle are as the Carthaginians, who have spent too much time thumbing their noses at Ross County's Romans over the water and too late realised that the upstarts have superseded them in every respect. Not only do they not have a Hannibal to lead them out of their troubles, but they've just sold Draper, the closest thing Scottish football has to a war elephant, to their deadliest rivals.

Make no mistake, Draper is an excellent fit for Jim McIntyre's side and has been signed purely on footballing merit. But for County fans, and I daresay for the club, the opportunity to rub their neighbour's noses in it is a welcome bonus.  The numerous selfies posted online by supporters with Draper and Billy Mckay, another erstwhile Caley Thistle hero signed by County in recent weeks, have been like Harry Potter Dementors in pictorial form, sucking away our souls.  £100,000 has bought a very decent footballer, along with an opportunity to twist the knife a bit.

There has been little, if any, ill-will towards Draper, no crys of "Judas" or "Et tu, Ross?" If he was miserable at ICT it didn't reflect itself in the efforts he put in on the pitch.  Yet he had plenty of reason to be fed up.  For eighteen months he had been played mostly out of position, not allowed to display his qualities properly as a defensive midfielder and instead used as an offensive battering ram in the thoughtless assumption that a six foot five inch brick s**thouse of a player should always be deployed as such.  The nadir came when Foran inexplicably dropped him for a crucial derby in Dingwall late in the season.  The home team won 4-0.

Draper still had two years left on a lucrative contract at Caledonian Stadium, yet he could also be forgiven for wondering if Caley Thistle would let him see the end of it.  The admission that the six figure transfer fee will not go towards the playing budget also confirmed what many have suspected; that the club is struggling financially.  There was an EGM last week that somewhat flew under the radar - no gazebos in the middle of the pitch up here - the outcome of which is that a million quid's worth of new shares will be created.  The rumour is that these will be used to convert the soft loans keeping us afloat into equity further down the line.  This is not the most reassuring long-term strategy.

It has become increasingly apparent that too many players were receiving ridiculous remuneration.  Goalkeeper Owain Fon Williams has been frozen out.  Stalwart defender David Raven has been, for the second consecutive summer, invited to find a new club.  It was revealed that forward flop Scott Boden's release freed up enough wages to fund two new players, with some change left over; Boden had signed a three year deal, and scored a single league goal.  Whilst John Robertson had made it clear that Draper was factored into this season's budget, what about next year, especially if, as seems likely, there is no return to the Premiership?

And having watched so many of his teammates from the 2015 Scottish Cup winning side move onto better things, its no surprise that he jumped ship too.  And he is indeed moving onto better things - a better run club, a higher standard of football, probably a bit more money.  Not much more - one of the endearing things about County and Roy MacGregor is that his millions have been spent mainly on establishing themselves as a real Community Club.  MacGregor will come up with the funds when required to preserve their top flight status, but he's mainly worked on integrating the club with the locals.

Contrast ICT's botched season ticket launch with County's decision to offer cut price season tickets in the Jail End behind the goal.  Contrast the excellent communication with ICT's PR disasters and their lapsed June promise to have a fans/players/manager event before the season started.  Contrast County's Development League-winning youth squad with ICT's decision to pull out of the Development League altogether.

And going by Draper's own take - that the clubs agreed the fee but Caley Thistle insisted the player submit a transfer request before they would sanction the move, to try to deflect criticism for selling him - it seems that dignity is in rather short supply too.

It is said that it is always darkest before the dawn: the sun isn't rising over Caledonian Stadium anytime soon.  It's shining on the other side of the Kessock Bridge, and Ross County are using it to make hay.


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.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

2017/18 Scottish Premiership preview - Partick Thistle

Check out these other season previews:
CelticDundee; Hamilton AcciesHeartsHibernian, KilmarnockMotherwellRangersRoss CountySt. Johnstone


Partick Thistle FC logo.svg
PREDICTED LEAGUE POSITION: Seventh

LAST SEASON: 6th, 42pts

NOTABLE INS: Niall Keown (Reading, loan made permanent), Milan Nitriansky (Bohemians 1905), Jamie Sneddon (Cowdenbeath), Blair Spittal (Dundee United), Jordan Turnbull (Coventry City, loan)

NOTABLE OUTS: David Amoo (Cambridge United), Ade Azeez (Cambridge United), Liam Lindsay (Barnsley), Matthew McInally (Cowdenbeath), Mark Ridgers (Inverness Caledonian Thistle), David Wilson (Dumbarton), Jason Banton (Crawley Town, end of loan), Sean Welsh

LAST SEASON'S BEST XI (Departed players crossed out): Cerny, Elliott, Keown, Lindsay, Booth, Barton, Osman, Edwards, Erskine, Lawless, Doolan


Last season was Partick Thistle's best in thirty-six years, as they deservedly broke into the top six (this is the point where I note that I predicted them to pull it off in last season's preview, and you all thought I was mad.  Mad, I tell you!!!).

And yet it actually could have been even better.  Thistle had their customary slow start to the campaign, and had a terrible tendency to concede late goals that cost them points.  Coming away with nothing from two home games against Rangers, having led both with ten minutes to go, was catastrophic.

But, especially in the second half of the season, they were a pretty decent football team.  And like most decent teams, it was because of a strong defensive backbone.  The loan addition of Niall Keown - Martin's son - to play alongside revelation Liam Lindsay in central defence meant that Adam Barton, one of the best signings in the league last season, could step up into midfield alongside Abdul Osman, where they formed the most muscular duo since the Legion Of Doom, but with rather more panache.

Add in a good goalie in Tomas Cerny, impressive form from Steven Lawless and Chris Erskine in midfield and Kris Doolan chipping in with enough goals to get by and you have a very tricky opponent indeed.  Add in some impressive off-field developments, such as the huge investment in their youth setup, and it's a very good time to be a Real Jag.

Lindsay has gone, which was expected, but Keown has returned permanently, which wasn't.  This writer thought the former was overrated and the latter underrated, so he thinks Alan Archibald is up on the deal.  Jordan Turnbull has arrived on loan from Coventry to fill the gap left by Lindsay; he struggled in English League One last season but Alan Archibald will hope to revitalize him.

Otherwise the first XI is pretty much as is, and new arrival Blair Spittal certainly has the potential to add to it.  Having missed last season, Stuart Bannigan is like a new signing too - though how he dislodges one of Barton, Osman and the busy Ryan Edwards is unclear.  So now the concern is depth.  Up front there's only Doolan and a couple of kids, since Ade Azeez - who seemed to miss three one-on-ones in every game - has left, and whilst Doolan's linkup play is outstanding his lack of physical presence means that he is only so effective as a lone striker, and his goalscoring form tends to be streaky.  Archibald would love a big powerful forward who can lead the line and score fifteen league goals, but wouldn't everyone?

Right-back is the other issue.  Mustapha Dumbuya is perenially injured, while Christie Elliott is serviceable in that role but is still basically a converted winger, and little is known of new signing Milan Nitriansky.

The trouble for Thistle is that convential wisdom (for what it's worth, which isn't much) is that there's only really one top six spot up for grabs as Celtic, Rangers, Aberdeen, Hearts and Hibs all have such superior resources.  Certainly they need to move forward just to stand still.  But overcoming the likes of St. Johnstone, Dundee et al to be the 'best of the rest' is a tall order even if they continue where they left off last season.

But conceding fewer late goals would certainly do the trick.


THE SQUAD (players born after 1 January 1996 in italics)
Goalkeepers: Tomas Cerny, Ryan Scully, Jamie Sneddon
Defenders: Callum Booth, Daniel Devine, Mustapha Dumbuya, Ross Fleming, Niall Keown, Milan Nitriansky, James Penrice, Jordan Turnbull
Midfielders: Stuart Bannigan, Adam Barton, Ryan Edwards, Christie Elliott, Chris Erskine, Gary Fraser, Mark Lamont, Steven Lawless, Andrew McCarthy, Abdul Osman, Blair Spittal
Forwards: Kris Doolan, Neil McLaughlin, Kevin Nisbet

THE BEST XI?





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.

2017/18 Scottish Premiership preview - Aberdeen

Check out these other season previews:
CelticDundee; Hamilton AcciesHeartsHibernian, KilmarnockMotherwell; Partick ThistleRangersRoss CountySt. Johnstone


Crest of Aberdeen F.C.
PREDICTED LEAGUE POSITION: Third

LAST SEASON: 2nd, 76pts

NOTABLE INS: Kari Arnason (Omonia Nicosia), Gary Mackay-Steven (Celtic), Nicky Maynard (Milton Keynes Dons), Greg Tansey (Inverness Caledonian Thistle), Ryan Christie (Celtic, loan), Greg Stewart (Birmingham City, loan)

NOTABLE OUTS: Neil Alexander (Livingston), Jonny Hayes (Celtic), Ryan Jack (Rangers), Aaron Lennox (Raith Rovers), Niall McGinn (Gwangju), Peter Pawlett (Milton Keynes Dons), Cammy Smith (St. Mirren, loan made permanent), Ash Taylor (Northampton Town), Joe Nuttall, Lawrence Shankland

LAST SEASON'S BEST XI (Departed players crossed out): Lewis, Logan, O'Connor, Taylor, Considine, Jack, Shinnie, McLean, Hayes, McGinn, Rooney


This time last year I suggested Derek McInnes' side had reached their peak, yet they went on to finish second again, with a comfortable cushion over Rangers.  I'm not going to make such a prediction this time; there is a quiet optimism at the club, and amongst the support, that they won't be dropping down the table any time soon.

McInnes' decision to turn down a move to Sunderland was an enormous fillip.  So too was news of investment from software entrepreneur Dave Cormack.  Both events have contributed to the club's summer transfer dealings.  At the start of June, the prospect of losing Jonny Hayes, Niall McGinn, Ryan Jack and Ash Taylor would have filled Aberdeen fans with dread.  Not so much now that Gary Mackay-Steven has been bought, Kari Arnason signed, and Greg Stewart brought back north on loan.

Crucially, Ryan Christie was also persuaded to extend his loan stay from Celtic; if the 22 year old plays like he did in the Europa League qualifiers then he will have a spectacular campaign.  Whilst the loss of McGinn and Hayes (for whom they reaped a very decent £1.3million) robs the Dons of some trickery and loads of pace, the former will certainly be compensated for by Christie, Mackay-Steven and Stewart, a triumvirate of attackers who could wreak havoc if McInnes gets the best out of them.  Reassuringly, Mackay-Steven has looked rejuvenated by the move.

Of course, it would help if there was a prolific centre-forward to take all the chances being created.  Adam Rooney's figures are inflated by the number of penalties he converts - take away the spot kicks and he managed just nine league goals from open play last season.  For reasons that are unclear to those of us with eyes, McInnes has often preferred Jayden Stockley for big matches, despite the fact that Stockley offers little other than an elbow to the chops of opposing centre-backs.  Veteran English striker Nicky Maynard offers another alternative, but missing out on Liam Boyce was a disappointment and it wouldn't be a surprise to see the boat pushed out to land Motherwell's Louis Moult this month.

But it feels like a regular goalscorer is about all they're short of.  At 34 Arnason is a stopgap solution in central defence, but Anthony O'Connor has shown signs of stepping up his game and - whisper it-  Mark Reynolds has given the odd glimpse of his form from a few years ago too.  A more reliable, long-term option at the position would be ideal though.  The full-back positions are sorted with Shay Logan and Andy Considine consistently excellent.

The latter's solidity has allowed Graeme Shinnie to develop into one of the country's finest central midfielders, and he should thrive with the added responsibility of being captain.  The loss of Jack removes a safety net in front of the back four, but McInnes will be unkeen to shackle Shinnie or Kenny McLean by forcing either of them deeper.  An alternative would be to throw Greg Tansey into that position, but that would involve removing one of the attacking players.  It's not a bad problem to have.

No Dons fan has realistic aspirations of a title challenge, though the disappointment at their Europa League exit gives an impression of how far expectations have risen.  But second in the table is theirs to defend.  They can't match the cash that Rangers are throwing at the problem, but so far Aberdeen have shown that a good manager with a decent team constructed with nous and thought can take you a long way.


THE SQUAD (players born after 1 January 1996 in italics)
Goalkeepers: Joe Lewis, Danny Rogers
Defenders: Kari Arnason, Andrew Considine, Daniel Harvie, Shay Logan, Scott McKenna, Anthony O'Connor, Mark Reynolds
Midfielders: Dean Campbell, Gary Mackay-Steven, Kenny McLean, Frank Ross, Graeme Shinnie, Craig Storie, Greg Tansey
Forwards: Ryan Christie, Nicky Maynard, Connor McLennan, Adam Rooney, Greg Stewart, Jayden Stockley, Miles Storey, Scott Wright

THE BEST XI?




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.