Thursday, July 28, 2011

SPL: 12 To Watch - Part Three

The third and final part of a random collection of players I'll be keeping my eye on as this SPL season progresses. Today a player each from St Mirren and Dunfermline.

Nigel Hasselbaink, St Mirren

"If football was played in the air," an old sage of Easter Road once told me, "then Paul Fenwick would be Pele."

That comment flashed through my mind at the fag end of last season when I saw Nigel Hasselbaink leave the field to a standing ovation from Hibs fans who had watched him torture their own defence.

"Nigel," I thought, "if you could play against Francis Dickoh every week, you'd be Lionel Messi."

Sadly for Nige, not every SPL defender switches between charitable positioning and complete bamboozlement as regularly as the former Hibs centre back. It's normally tougher than that.

The challenge for Haaselbaink is to make sure he's a threat to every defence he comes up against not just those of limited concentration and ability.

His first SPL season, which encompassed what I can only imagine was the shock of the culture swap from PSV Eindhoven to Hamilton, ended in relegation for his club but some favourable reviews for the player.

That was enough to ensure he stayed in the top flight, picked up as part of Danny Lennon's summer shopping spree at St Mirren.

At the risk of second guessing Lennon it would seem that Hasselbaink's role will be as a foil to the very different atttibutes of Steven Thompson, a little and large act accentuating the positives in both.

And he has positives, plenty of them. Many of them were on show that day at Easter Road when a combination of pace, skill and determination left Dickoh and the rest of the Hibs defence wondering what day of the week it was.

Yet in his 28 games for Hamilton he scored only four goals and, to this observer, rarely dominated proceedings as he did that day at Easter Road.

Being launched into an SPL basement battle might not be the best introduction to Scottish football but it does offer a real chance to stand out from the crowd. I don't think Hasselbaink took that opportunity often enough.

His ability to find that consistency at St Mirren - along with banging in a few more goals - will have a big influence on whether or not he is trapped in another stodgy relegation fight this season.

On Monday night at Dunfermline, St Mirren and Hasselbaink drew a frustrating blank. It was an encouraging start but one with just the whisper of familiar failings in front of goal.

Lennon's made his signings, backed his judgement. It's now up to Hasselbaink and his new colleagues to prove him right.

Paul Gallacher, Dunfermline

It's getting rarer for me to find SPL players older than me these days (honourable mention, as ever, to the ancient Davie Weir) and even more unusual to find one the same age as my elder brother.

So Dunfermline's contribution to this SPL dirty dozen was very close to being auld timer Martin Hardie. And I am genuinely interested to see how Hardie, heroic as his team closed out promotion last season, copes this year.

But my affection for the lonely art of the goalkeeper means I instead have to give the nod to Paul Gallacher. Yet another player returning to a former club in the SPL's summer of friends reuniting, Gallacher's career has been something of a mystery.

He was young and highly rated as he started out with Dundee United. Scotland's number one? The little lamented Berti Vogts thought so. Capped in his early twenties this was a goalkeeper with the world, Scotland's small share of it at least, in his hands.

A move to Norwich, then as now a top flight club, followed but injury, a propensity for errors and a neverending managerial merry-go-round combined to deny him a regular start.

When chances came his way he seemed unable to take them, saving his most dramatic mistakes for those exact moments when his fortunes seemed to be on the rise.

By the time he joined up for his first stint at Dunfermline he was barely considered a contender at Carrow Road.

East End Park offered salvation, a Jim Leighton style career trajectory with a return to Scottish football providing the road to redemption. Like his illustrious predecessor Gallacher took the chance and his form and reputation recovered.

By 2009 he was in the SPL with St Mirren and back in the Scotland squad, although he didn't add to his eight caps.

The road to international glory now seems closed but Gallacher just about survived a tricky season for St Mirren last term. Again in Paisley we saw a goalkeeper with many qualities but one who often gave in to his old frailty of "chucking" the odd goal or two in.

Dunfermline need to be confident of their defence in their first season back in the SPL and, although St Mirren apparently offered him a new contract, I don't look at Gallacher and see a 'keeper who will save a number of crucial points in a season. Points that could be the difference between survival and relegation.

You can see the attraction for his new manager Jim McIntyre, the goalkeeper adds, along with players like Hardie and Andy Kirk, experience as Dunfermline take their first steps back in the SPL.

Gallacher, adding another twist in his strange career path, could be one of their most important players this season. A chance for the loneliest position to become one of the most celebrated.

12 to watch - part one
12 to watch - part two