Friday, July 22, 2011

SPL: 12 To Watch - Part One

Part one of an entirely prejudiced, unscientific look at 12 players I'll be keeping track of in the SPL this season. Maybe not the biggest stars but a player from each team whose progress I'm interested to follow.

Steven Naismith, Rangers

Steven Naismith turns 25 this September. No longer a kid bursting with potential but a senior member of a championship winning squad with a five year contract under his belt.

That he was considered among the runners and riders in the annual player of the award festivities last season points at a season of great accomplishment. He also played over 40 games for the first time since he moved to Ibrox.

But here's the thing, I think he pulled the wool over a lot of eyes last season. True he nabbed a player of the month gong in October - the same month he scored his first Scotland goal against Spain - and that was well deserved. But much of his best form was restricted to the opening months of the season.

It's a different Rangers now. And Naismith needs to prove himself as a main man in a squad that is being largely written offer before they've even begun. And he needs to do that in the warm glow of late summer, in the autumnal sun, the bogged down winter and the championship deciding spring.

He also needs to grab his chance for Scotland. Ten caps since 2007 is not a huge return - although injuries have played a part there - but Craig Levein seems keen to give him his chance. Time to repay the faith with a season of disciplined consistency and sustained achievement.

Andy Webster, Hearts

From the inspirational captain of a Scottish Cup winning side to the trembling mass of wibbly wobbly self doubt that saw him relegated to barely even a bit part player with Rangers.

Andy Webster's contradictions and riddles would be better suited to a British Psychological Soceity convention than a profile in a "matchday magazine".

Odd. Odder still that he's so nonchalantly returned to Tynecastle where he earned such plaudits but left amid such rancour first time around.

Scottish centre backs - the rocks upon which Craig Brown built so many of his international achievements - are suddenly a bit thin on the ground. As part of a strengthened Hearts squad can Webster grab his moment? Already known to the international manager, will this be a season of redemption?

And can he silence the doubters in Govan as a pivotal part of a Tynecastle title tilt?

Fraser Fyvie, Aberdeen

A proper Scottish youngster. By which I mean he's actually young in a country almost unique in world football in excusing players for various crimes of crapness and bad behaviour because they're "young" even as they approach their mid twenties.

But Fraser Fyvie is the real deal. He's going to be playing catch up though having just about missed last season in it's entirety.

Given how things panned out for Aberdeen that might have provided just a hint of solace for him, at the age of 17 he was able to avoid any guilt by association as the Dons misfired once again.

A new season and a fresh start. A quick blast of my creaky mental arithemetic suggests that, in Craig Brown, Fyvie's development this season will be overseen by a manager old enough to be his great grandfather.

Given the hints of quiet confidence that seem to be swirling around Pittodrie at the moment could the Fyvie-Brown double act become a defining image of the season? The youngster's heroics on the pitch being rewarded by an avancular smile and a Werther's Original from the dugout?

Brown has apparently said Fyvie has the potential to be the best midfielder he has ever worked with. High praise if not, perhaps, the best way to keep pressure to a minimum.

It's going to be interesting to find out if he's right though.

Cillian Sheridan, St Johnstone

I don't think I was alone in expecting Cillian Sheridan to be a Hibs player by the start of the season.

But St Johnstone struck like a bolt in blue to nab him on a six month loan deal. There are conflicting accounts of exactly how that happened but, whatever the reasons, St Johnstone will be hoping to have a found a solution to their goalscoring travails.

He's got some form here, nabbing a goal from every other league start in an earlier loan deal in Perth.

His time in Bulgaria with CSKA Sofia has not been as satisfying as he would have hoped but he still managed seven goals in 26 appearances, a return that would have rocketed him up the St Johnstone scoring charts last season.

So what St Johnstone may have got, and what Hibs may have lost out on, is a 22 year old striker out to prove himself by scoring goals. Even on a short term contract that could be quite a mix, a dose of Viagra for Derek McInnes' impotent front line.

Nicky Law, Motherwell

Obviously Stephen Craigan is the one Motherwell player I'll be forced to watch, a man so keen to tout himself on TV and radio that he makes tabloid hack stereotype Paul McMullan look reclusive.

But one player I'll actually be interested to see is Nicky Law. Picking up an out of contract Rotherham player for free is not perhaps the kind of thing to get the pulse racing.

Yet Law, who came through Sheffield United's youth academy and is now 23, seemed highly rated in his two seasons with the Millers. He twice made the League 2 team of the year, was near the top of the assists table and picked up a fan's player of the year award. He was also said to be attracting the interest of clubs further up the English league food chain.

A certain pedigree then.

Will that be enough? Some Rotherham fans talk of a drifter who shuns the physical element of the game. I'm tempted to borrow a pundit's phrase and ask how much will he relish a rainy night in Lanarkshire?

Time will tell. But Motherwell have unearthed a few gems in the past couple of seasons and the pressure will be on Stuart McCall to do the same.

With Law he might just have struck lucky.

Gregory Tade, Inverness

As Terry Butcher moans about the early start to the season, and the rest of us wonder why he doesn't just buy an appointments calendar, the focus must surely be on his team's ability to survive the loss of Adam Rooney.

A striker whose style perfectly complements the strengths of the rest of the squad and who also pitches in with 20 goals is a rare commodity. Difficult to find, even harder to replace.

All of which leaves Gregory Tade some unenviable boots to fill.

And Tade is no Rooney. He's not without qualities - lots of them and many that SPL defenders will not relish - but he's some distance from being the finished article and remains untested at this level.

But he's bundled his way through the Scottish leagues - something of an oddity for a Frenchman - and while he might lack some of Rooney's subtlety he should be able to offer Inverness a strong and quick focus in attack.

He doesn't score a hell of a lot of goals though so much will depend on his teammates' ability to feed off his strengths in other areas and pitch in with goals themselves.

For better or worse Tade's SPL baptism could come to define the season in Inverness.

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