Saturday, July 30, 2011

SPL: Goodwillie Hunting

Another week of SPL fixtures with the sun still not set on July. An abbreviated card today and an abbreviated run through from me as babysitting duties call.

St Johnstone v Rangers

After the drama of this week's bout of Goodwillie hunting and the unfortunate reverse against Malmo Rangers get back to league business.

An odd transfer saga that played out as an homage to Rod Petrie's approach to the transfer market. As the vendor Dundee United's Stephen Thompson was determined to hold out for the best deal. As the customer Rangers seemed equally determined to blag their way under the asking price.

Immovable object met resistable force and Blackburn were free to nip in with £2 million quid and the promise of all the processed chicken products the Tannadice board can eat.

Rangers have lost out on a quality player. That much is both obvious and not the end of the world. But Goodwillie's arrival would have been a welcome boost for Ally McCoist and soothed some of the concerns over just how competitive Rangers are being in this summer transfer market.

It wasn't to be though. So good news will need to come on the pitch today.

One reading of today's game is that Rangers - held at home by Hearts and beaten at home by Malmo - are there for the taking, leaving St Johnstone free to fill their boots.

That's one reading. Mine is that Rangers will again underwhelm in patches but get the job done today. Away win.

Inverness v Hibs

Such joys Hibs have on their travels to the Highlands. This trips normally represents a graveyard to any hopes of a Hibs win.

There's many a considered Hibs fan at the moment and the thought of a trip up north won't be smoothing out furrowed brows.

For their part Inverness didn't look ready for last week's resumption of duty and neither club will consider their opening fixtures to have been the start they wanted.

But Hibs don't win in the Highlands. Or do they? Probably not. Draw.

Kilmarnock v Motherwell

I'm increasingly of the opinion that the Kenny Shiels revolution at Rugby Park is going to work out just fine.

Stern test today though against a Motherwell side who - dammit why not be hyperbolic - are absolutely chewing up this league at the moment.

Could be a good game this one. Away win but not predicted with any confidence.

St Mirren v Aberdeen

Heartened but not wholly satisfied might sum up how these two felt after draws last week.

Goals. That's what they want. And they want them now.

That being the case it would be nice if both clubs went goal crazy today. I suspect they won't though. This one's another draw for me.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Third Lanark Remembered

Great little video looking at the life, times and eventual demise - "murder" - of Third Lanark, Glasgow's lost football team.

And a little more information on Cathkin Park here:

Third Lanark will be playing in Edinburgh tomorrow in a challenge match with an impressively rich historical context:
"Edinburgh's St Bernards FC are to play Third Lanark FC on July 30th 2011. Both clubs were born out of the Territorial Army in the 19th Century and have had a long and close relationship throughout the last hundred and twenty years, St Bernards from the 3rd Edinburgh Rifle Volunteers and Thirds from the 3rd Lanarkshire Rifle Volunteers. Both were founder league members, Scottish Cup Winners and shared many,many players over the years. One such player was Inside Right, John Ferguson, a popular University student at the time who would still guest for Saints during his 3rds career. Sadly John was to be the first professional footballer killed in the First World War. He was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross." (More on the Friends of Cathkin Park blog)
The game kicks off at Letham Park, Ferry Road, kicking off at 3.30pm.

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

Monday, July 25, 2011

SPL: Dunfermline v St Mirren

The Game

Dunfermline make their SPL return with the TV cameras in attendance for the unveiling of last season’s championship flag.

I can’t truthfully make a prediction without admitting that the game has already started. It’s 0-0 right now.

I’ll back - despite the evidence of the opening stages - both teams to score and take a point each.


Newly promoted and favourites for the drop? A common reading of how Dunfermline’s season will pan out.

Unfair? Perhaps. The stagnant nature of top flight often allows promoted clubs to survive, to spring enough of a surprise to ensure safety. St Johnstone fight on two seasons after promotion, Inverness eye warily their difficult second season.

I’ve not seen much of this Dunfermline side and, even if I had, a fairly heavy period of recruitment has increased the sense of mystery.

Paul Burns, Kevin Rutkiewicz, Paddy Boyle, Andy Barrowman, Paul Gallacher, John Potter, Jason Thomson have arrived, offset only by the loss of Calum Woods to Huddersfield.

It’s a deepening of a squad that manager Jim McIntyre obviously thought was in need of replenishment before embarking on the challenge of the SPL. How much quality do the new players bring? At the moment that’s an imponderable.

What we do know is that Dunfermline were impressive in clinching promotion, powering ahead of Fife rivals Raith Rovers in the closing stages of the season. In a league where only four teams registered a goal difference of more than +10 Dunfermline reached an impressive +35.

They scored more goals and conceded less than anyone else and the league table reflected that achievement. It’s also worth pointing out that they did this while contending with eight Fife derbies against Raith and Cowdenbeath and four games against traditional rivals Falkirk. Throw in their meetings with a financially hamstrung but at times rampant Dundee and we can see their success last year against a tricky and stubborn backdrop.

And McIntyre impresses, a young Scottish manager on the way up who has stated his commitment to playing the game in the style he demands. As Craig Cairns shows in a tactical analysis over at Three At The Back he’s also happy to change formation as the situation requires.

Where does all this leave Dunfermline?

Gretna’s SPL annus horribilis was the last time a promoted side went straight back down. It also appears - as much as we can tell this early - that there’s been a levelling out in the lower ranks of the league. As many as six or seven teams look difficult to place.

As Inverness showed last year a quick start can do wonders for a newly promoted side. As Hibs showed it doesn’t take a hugely extended run of form for the threat of relegation to be replaced by a comfortable mediocrity in the bottom six.

I can’t see Dunfermline going on the sort of run that had Inverness scaling the heights of the SPL on their return to the league.

But they’re certainly not relegation certainties. Unfortunately I can’t convince myself that this squad is going to be strong enough to reach the safety of mid-table. Luck and their stomach for a scrap might well decide their eventual fate.

St Mirren

It’s fair to say there were a number of doubters when Danny Lennon got the St Mirren job. It’s probably also not outrageous to contend that he didn’t assuage all the doubters over the course of his first SPL season.

Unheralded and unfancied he was accused of building a first division side that wouldn’t survive the stresses of the SPL. On air he often sounded like a down-at-heel motivational speaker, a bizarre platitdunal mish-mash of management and fitba’ cliche.

Yet the Whitburn philosopher has lived to tell the tale. He kept St Mirren up and he’s used the summer to prove that there is steel in his heart.

Changes have been made at every level. Assistant manager Iain Jenkins has moved on and in comes the experienced Tommy Craig who, if memory serves, will have coached a young Lennon at Easter Road back in the day.

Steven Thompson, Nigel Hasselbaink, Paul McGowan, Graeme Smith, Gary Teale, Graham Carey and Jeroen Tesselaar have signed up for Lennon's Paisley project.

Jettisoned are Craig Dargo, Gareth Wardlaw, Patrick Cregg, Sean Lynch, Jamie McClusky, Nick Hegarty, Garry Brady, Michael Higdon, Paul Gallacher and John Potter.

It’s a big turnaround and the arrival of Thompson and Teale suggest that Lennon was looking for experience on his summer spree.

The loss of Michael Higdon would look to be dangerous, St Mirren have not been free scoring since their return to the SPL and 15 goal strikers are hard to come by. One must also concede, however, that few of us saw Higdon as a 15 goal striker when Lennon took over so the manager might be confident of his alchemist’s touch with forwards.

Lennon couldn’t seem to settle on his best side last season. A summer of change should have given him the squad he wants. Achieving that largely on his own terms makes him something of an oddity in the SPL.

A lot will depend on how quickly the team come together. A failing last year was how some solid play could be undone by an inability - even with “hot shot” Higdon - to convert chances when on top only to let defensive frailties lead to a sucker punch.

A dangerous combination that. Lennon’s reworking of the squad looks to be aimed at overcoming those self inflicted obstacles. Unfortunately I can’t see his side going on the sort of consistent run of form that would lift them clear of the lower reaches.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

SPL: Dundee United v Kilmarnock

The second of today’s two opening Sunday fixtures and look at what’s going on with Dundee United and Kilmarnock.

The Game

Let’s quickly gloss over any jokes about how much the early start to the SPL helped Dundee United’s European campaign.

After starting with a flurry on Thursday they eventually slipped out of the competition by the narrowest of margins. Agonising for the team and fans - and the co-efficient - but also a useful taste of competitive action that Kilmarnock haven’t had.

That and home advantage should be enough for United to get underway in the league with a win.

Dundee United

An SPL manager must turn himself into a miracle working apothecary in the summer, somehow concocting a wonder potion that salve the wounds left by the sudden removal of a team’s vital organs.

At Tannadice the departures of Craig Conway, Morgaro Gomis, Prince Buaben and David Robertson have gone straight to the heart of the team, ripping apart one of the SPL’s most impressive midfields.

Talent, of course, remains and David Goodwillie is still a United player despite a swelter of rumours linking him with a move elsewhere. Can they hold out until the transfer window close? Their ability to keep him will have a telling influence on the story of their season.

Elsewhere Willo Flood returns after a fairly unsatisfactory stint away from Tannadice - amazing the number of players returning to pastures old this SPL season - and John Rankin arrives from an underwhelming time at Hibs. Flood will be tasked with offering some of what was lost with the departure of Conway, Rankin with ensuring a much changed midfield has the ability to adapt and survive.

If Goodwillie does depart then the ability of Johnny Russell to become an integral part of the side will be incredibly important as United’s impressive commitment to youth continues.

I remain unconvinced about Peter Houston’s decision to serve his country at the side of Craig Levein, the feeling persists that even entering his second full season as manager he remains slightly in the shadow of his predecessor.

But now, more than ever, this is his team and the evidence of last season suggests that he’s comfortable in the role.

Comfortable in the league as well. The Goodwillie question might still hang heavy in the Dundee air but with or without their crown jewel United are a top six side.


If Peter Houston feels he’s been dealt a dud hand by the transfer fates then pity poor Kenny Shiels, confirmed in the job and immediately charged with rebuilding a side that so impressed last season.

It’s been cheerio to Alexei Eremenko, Craig Bryson, Frazer Wright, Medhi Taouil, Jamie Hamill and Mahamadou Sissoko, a series of departures that would worry any SPL club.

And these were players who contributed to Kilmarnock’s turnaround from SPL relegation favourites to one of the successes of last season.

So an overhaul has been required. And Shiels has stepped up to the plate. In comes Gary Harkins carrying high hopes on the back of his performances for Dundee, Danny Buijis is shipped in from ADO Den Haag, Paul Heffernan will be charged with scoring goals just like Connor Sammon (another missing part of last season’s jigsaw) did before him.

James Dayton will look to build on the fine reputation he was building before injury brutally curtailed last season for him.

When money is tight and players are lost such a rate it makes building on successes a very tricky thing for sides like Kilmarnock.

Kenny Shiels will know all that. He knows too how teams can spring a surprise just like Kilmarnock did last season when was assistant to Mixu Paatelainen. He’s drafted in Jimmy Nicholl as his own number two which looks an astute move.

I can’t see Kilmarnock repeating last season’s success but Shiels has backed himself to build a new team. If he’s right then they should be comfortable enough in the jam packed middle of the SPL.

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.