Sunday, July 24, 2011

SPL: 12 To Watch - Part Two

Part two of a completely scattergun selection of a dozen players whose progress I’m keen to track in 2010/11 SPL. St Mirren and Dunfermline will follow tomorrow.

Sean O’Hanlon, Hibernian

The returning Ivan Sproule and Garry O’Connor have left Sean O’Hanlon’s arrival at Easter Road somewhat overshadowed.

If that has allowed him to go about his business while avoiding association with the fug of despondency that seems to have settled in Leith then he might be quite relieved, he could hardly have expected when he signed how unsettled the pre-season would be become.

But O’Hanlon has a key role to play. At 28 he’s been signed to become the experienced quarter of a back four that is rich in youthful potential but also carries the risks of callow naievety.

61 goals were shipped last season. More than any other team in the league and two more than both relegated Hamilton and Aberdeen, who leaked nine in one game, conceded. Since the wheels came off the John Hughes experiment clean sheets have been rarer than a Rod Petrie smile.

Captain Paul Hanlon will start with O’Hanlon in the centre while at full back the exciting Callum Booth will be joined by either untried or out of position youngsters until (or if) there is more movement in the transfer market.

The need for O’Hanlon to play big brother is obvious and his success in doing that will be intrinsically linked to how Hibs fare this season.

No pressure then. Coming through Everton’s youth system O’Hanlon moved first to Swindon - where he often captained the side - and then MK Dons.

He played over 150 league games for the Dons and scored as Paul Ince’s side won the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy.

A knee injury rule him out of much of the 2009/10 season and, although he played over 30 games last term, there seems to be a feeling in Milton Keynes that he struggled to recapture his best form. Hints also surface that it was fears over that injury that led to his release this summer.

Colin Calderwood, and any potential successors, will be hoping that he can stay fit and prove any medical doubters wrong by commanding a defence that has too often recently looked like a ragbag of exciting but rudderless talents.

Scott Brown, Celtic

Is it really four years since Brown left Easter Road and became the most expensive player to be transferred between Scottish clubs?

I recall seeing him at a function just before the deal was confirmed. By then it was an open secret but Brown seemed without a care in the world, playing up to his reputation as the extrovert’s extrovert, playing the fool.

Little seems to have changed. If you want someone to turn up at the golf course dressed like Ronnie Corbett on acid then Broonie remains your man. If you want someone to wear their heart on their sleeve during a match then give Scotty a call.

Yet somewhere along the line this one dimensional characterisation has deepened at Celtic, the wide eyed youngster developing into something of an enigma.

Not all Celtic fans took to their expensive signing. Neil Lennon moved him to the right and showed his faith by making him captain. That assuaged some but it would be wrong to say the jury is unanimous in appreciating his worth.

The same applies with Scotland. Brown is now a regular starter but not every fan is convinced of the value he brings to the team.

At 26 he might be about to reach a crossroads. This is a big year for Celtic and a big year for Scotland. It will also be a big year for Brown.

His contract with Celtic runs out next summer. Neil Lennon is keen to keep him but rumours of interest from the English Premier League have never quite been silenced.

Clearly the managers who covet him and the fans who don’t completely trust him differ in their interpretation of his qualities.

He’d dearly love to lift the SPL trophy as Celtic captain and in Lennon he has the perfect manager to coax from his limitless effort and application the discipline and knowledge needed to consistently impose himself on midfield.

Could this be the season that we finally see Brown unlock the potential that so thrilled as the raw youngster developed at Easter Road?

If it is then I suspect both Neil Lennon and Craig Levein will allow themselves a satisfied smile.

John Rankin, Dundee United

An entirely selfish choice this. I’ve spent the last few seasons watching Rankin occasionally impress, often frustrate and sometimes completely disappear at Hibs.

One thing that’s never in doubt is his application, enthusiasm and willingness to graft. This is a player who can make warming up as a substitute look like an Olympic decathlon.

That wasn’t enough at a struggling Hibs and it was no great surprise that he was one of the many players allowed to slip quietly into the Scottish footballing night when his contract expired.

His arrival at Tannadice might have raised eyebrows though. Relegated to a bit part player in Leith here was Rankin arriving at a club that had been Hibs’ SPL superiors in recent seasons.

More than that, the summer had ripped the Tannadice midfield asunder, faced with the need to replace quality with quality Peter Houston had settled on John Rankin, purveyor of honesty and the fleetingly famous squiggler.

Were the Hibs fans to blame for his failure to impress at Easter Road? Eager to please at the best of times, did the unforgiving gaze of the crowd lead Rankin to put too much pressure on himself?

Maybe there’s an element of truth in that. At one stage last season Rankin took the armband for the closing stages of a match. The reaction of those around me is not fit for publication but might be best articulated as a feeling that this was the moment the football club jumped the shark.

Now he finds himself with a level of seniority in a squad having to cope with change. It’s a fair turnaround in his own fortunes and his success will have a bearing on the success his new club and his new manager enjoy this season.

I wish him well. He’s always seemed like a good bloke and he’ll certainly not shirk. It will be interesting to see if that combination is enough.

Danny Buijis, Kilmarnock

In a summer of flight from some Scottish clubs Kilmarnock have not had their troubles to seek. More than half a team of first team regulars - a first team that so impressed last season - have upped sticks.

That’s presented Kenny Shiels with quite a challenge but his activity in the transfer market looks like being reasonably impressive. The progress of Gary Harkins, much admired at Dundee, will be closely monitored as he sets out to prove himself in the SPL.

But it’s another of Shiels’ recruits that I’ll be keeping my eye on. Danny Buijis arrives from ADO Den Haag offering a blend of experience and midfield-defensive versatility that could add more of a spine to Kilmarnock this year.

Scottish football is forever in thrall to to the continued technical ability and success of Dutch football. Quite rightly we stare, mouths agape, in wonderment at the scale of their achievements compared to the paltry return of our own toils.

With a career spent in the Eredivisie following a decade as part of Feyenoord’s academy, Buijis has the Dutch pedigree that we can’t seem to replicate.

Yet I’d suggest he’s also made of the sort of stern stuff that will allow to cock a snook at the physiciality of the SPL.

I’ve actually seen him play. A tetchy, disjointed 1-1 draw between Den Haag and NAC Breda played on the kind of February night, and the sort of pitch, that would leave Scots feeling at home.

Buijis more than held his own, the sort of performance that impressed Derby County coach Johnny Metgod and twice saw Nigel Clough come close to taking him to Pride Park.

Clough’s loss could well be Kilmarnock’s gain, if there was a powder puff element to their undoubted quality last season then Buijis should provide a stable foundation this year.

A Dutch master in Ayrshire? He can control the ball and play a pass too. They’re just too bloody clever, these foreigners.