Saturday, December 24, 2011

SPL Advent: St Mirren

We're so close now you can almost smell the reindeer dung. We reach the final window in the SPL Advent calendar. Fling open the curtains and have a nosy at St Mirren.

One thing you can say about St Mirren is that Danny Lennon will do what's best for St Mirren Football Club and what's best for Danny Lennon. Because what's best for Danny Lennon is also what's best for St Mirren Football Club. That's how Danny Lennon operates.

Ah, Danny. I'm happy to adopt a Bruce Forsyth style theatrically conspiring whisper and admit: "Danny, you are my favourite."

The severe sincerity of his post-match utterances amuse me. But I also admire the way he got on with the job when many felt St Mirren had erred with his appointment.

And I want him to thrive because the idea of managers and players making a progression through the leagues is one that would seem essential to the game's survival in Scotland.

So good on you Danny.

This season he's added experience in the dugout with the arrival of the much travelled Tommy Craig. And he worked to reshape the squad in the summer.

Last year Lennon did what was required, performed the basic function of his job, by keeping St Mirren up.

But his approach in the summer seemed an acknowledgement that not everything he tried, not everything he transferred from Cowdenbeath, had worked.

One does wonder if that idea of a manager being given time to make the odd mistake and the opportunity to put it right will ever catch on.

Has it worked?

19 games in, half the season gone, and 22 points won. Five victories, seven draws and seven defeats.

That's already two thirds of the way to last season's points total but it'a another warm welcome to inconsistency, the theme that's run through this SPL Advent like cloves through mulled wine.

Draw at Ibrox one week, lose to Hibs in Paisley the next. Beat Kilmarnock at home one week, lose in Inverness the next. Hard to build a head of steam with those kinds of results.

Taking only eleven points from 24 against teams below them in the league points both to the tightness of the league and the struggle St Mirren face to establish themselves in the top six this season.

26 goals conceded is a fair SPL record but only nine goals scored at home and nine on the road are not enough. Nobody above St Mirren in the league has scored less.

That helps explain why they find themselves in the bottom half of the table and why Lennon will scour the January sales in search of a striker.

The team looks more experienced than last year with more solidity and a greater ability to win games.

That should be enough for safety. Danny Lennon's hope will be that it's enough for slightly more than that.

King forever, ceasing never. Over us all to reign

Danny Lennon wants everyone, players and Danny Lennon himself, to keep learning.

He probably also wants Santa to bring him a goalscorer and more points from "winnable" games.

If he gets that St Mirren could still be bothering the top six come the SPL split.

The Scottish Football Blog blogathon took place in November in aid of Alzheimer Scotland and the Homeless World Cup. You can still donate to help two great causes.

Friday, December 23, 2011

SPL Advent: St Johnstone

Day eleven. Guided by a star of wonder, the SPL Advent takes a trip to Perth.

Perhaps we should all read a Christmas lesson from the good book of McDiarmid Park.

St Johnstone have lost both a talented young manager and a steady, long-serving chairman this season.

And, so far, it's been more evolution for revolution.

The boardroom succession was from father to son as Geoff Brown decided to retire.

His final task was to find a replacement for Derek McInnes.

When McInnes left for Bristol City there was sadness but also an acceptance that such departures are the norm for clubs like St Johnstone.

He went with best wishes and was invited to suggest a potential successor.

Steve Lomas was one of the names that McInnes, although maybe not many other people, put forward.

And so it was that Lomas joined the rogue's gallery of SPL managers.

A surprising appointment? Perhaps, given his low profile in Scotland and his lack of experience.

But they know what they like and like what they know in Perth.

McInnes was charged with evolving the blueprint put in place by another ambitious young manager. Lomas will be given the opportunity to do the same.

A solid stability about these Saints. And it seems to work.

No chasing of impossible dreams, no hissy fits, no financial panics, no existential crises.

Just steady progression. Onwards and upwards but not at the sort of pace that will bring on dizziness.

The Lomas succession appeared miraculously seamless. There was a goalless draw at Ibrox - the manager proving his passion with a quickfire ban for "gesturing" - and then back-to-back wins over Hibs and Hearts.

Three straight defeats since then have proved that life in the SPL is perhaps as not as easy to adjust to as Lomas was making it look.

Yet St Johnstone remain in fourth place. The chasing pack are tight behind them and Motherwell look to have inched too far ahead in third. In a league where most clubs are capable of beating each other there's little to suggest that another wee run won't have the Saints securing not only a top siz place but a top four place.

Some clouds remain on the Perthshire horizon. Those last three defeats all came at home in the space of just eight days.

Played ten, won three, drawn one, lost six. It's not a great home record. 15 of the 20 goals they've conceded have been scored at McDiarmid Park.

Compare and contrast with an away record that's seen them win four and lose only once. That includes wins at Celtic and Motherwell and, arguably, an unpunished dive at Easter Road is the only thing that's robbed them of an unbeaten run on the road.

As with Motherwell we can only wonder how much tighter the top of the league might look if away form could be replicated at home. That's all ifs and buts, the thwarted dreams of living in a duopoly.

What we can say is that St Johnstone really do need to stop this current run if they're to keep ahead of the teams below them and have any hope of engendering some anxiety in Lanarkshire.

And Lomas is going to be tested. Maybe these three straight defeats are about more than injuries to Cillian Sheridan and his strike partner Francisco Sandaza.

They are missed though. Sandaza, top scorer so far, has been one of the success stories of the season and it's asking a lot of Marcus Haber to replace them.

What wriggle room will the January transfer window give Lomas? And will he use it wisely?

There's more to this management lark than wearing a scarf and suggestion a match official is a wan...

Still, this mini-slump apart, I'm reasonably impressed so far. There are teams in the SPL with more to fear going into 2012.

From now on, our troubles will be miles away.

More wins, particularly home wins, and deliverance from injury worries.

Those were Steve Lomas' whispered wishes when he sat on Santa's knee at St John's Shopping Centre.


And if he's going to be scouting round for talent in January, the signings need to be both affordable and effective.

Let the progress continue...

The Scottish Football Blog blogathon took place in November in aid of Alzheimer Scotland and the Homeless World Cup. You can still donate to help two great causes.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

SPL Advent: Rangers

Day ten of the SPL Advent. Rangers. Dreaming of a Whyte Christmas.

Rangers offer another chance for one of these half season reviews to become more a work of financial reporting. I'll try to resist.

We know the taxman cometh, we know Craig Whyte himself rarely seems short of a battle to fight and we know that other companies and individuals have raised concerns over Rangers' financial position.

We still don't know where this particular footballing fable about the perils of avarice will end.

Partly that's because the ins-and-outs of the previous board's relationship with the taxman will not be fully aired until January.

It's also because of Mr Whyte's apparent - to this outsider at least - refusal to properly communicate.

He seems quicker to engage lawyers than engage with fans. There's been the odd platudinous interview. But - again as a detached observer - the lack of an AGM for shareholders and the apparent brittleness of his relationship with the media really only serve to shroud a complex business situation in more mystery.

Is that me being guilty of wandering off the football pitch and into the boardroom and the tax office?

Yes and no.

I'd say that Craig Whyte and his new team have presided over a succession of PR blunders that have undermined them even as they've raised the business as usual signs.

That, of course, is entirely up to him. He obviously has a disdain for the media and doesn't consider himself, his business interests or his strategy for Rangers as public property.

But it's created a vacuum that's been filled by constant speculation, supposition, rumour and the odd fact. And Rangers have often looked paralysed in the face of it.

It has helped create a constant "club in crisis" narrative. And that's unfortunate because it's a narrative that hasn't been borne out on the pitch.

There were doubts about Ally McCoist's ability and suitability. There was a strong body of opinion that this was not a season where Rangers could afford to have a novice - all be it a fairly long in the tooth novice - at the tiller.

Two European exits before the summer was frozen from memory, an early league cup defeat to Falkirk. Even the opening draw at home to Hearts.

It all added grist to the mill. McCoist the entertainer was going to turn into McCoist the managerial clown.

Right now it seems like a thousand questions about the future remain unanswered. And it's far too early to make any predictions about McCoist's likely longevity or overall success as a manager.

Yet Rangers have a four point cushion at the top of the league.

They've lost only once, conceded only nine goals, won 15 games and have the league's best goal difference.

Those statistics don't suggest a club suffering a crisis on the pitch. There have been some tight wins, some iffy performances.

Yet they remain four points clear.

That gap has narrowed. At one stage it was a twelve point cushion. But Celtic had a game in hand and were always as likely to go on a run of victories as Rangers were to drop a few points.

I have to admit that I thought Rangers were hopeless - but not lucky - in beating Hibs a couple of weeks ago. I've not seen the game but I've heard tell of a couple of big strokes of fortune helping them past Inverness at the weekend.

Performances like that contribute to the idea of a side struggling to hold itself together as their main rival become ever more buoyant. It's a funny kind of perfection we demand in an imperfect game if 19 points from the last 24 is a sign of impending doom.

Crucially, of course, in the championship waltz played out in Glasgow, Rangers have - right now - the upper hand in the head to heads.

How McCoist must have enjoyed that 4-2 win at Ibrox in September. How he'd like to repeat it next week away to a Celtic side that look more inspired than they did a couple of months ago.

So McCoist is where he is. Top of the league, a four point gap and his team still monotously winning games, even those games they don't look like winning.

Which, as far as the league is concerned, is pretty much exactly what is expected of a Rangers manager.

And yet unease seems to remain. Will players - most crucially top scorer Nikica Jelavić - be sold to help balance the books?

What will happen with the tax case? And how serious will the consequences of that case be?

Amid all this games still need to be played. Three matches between Christmas Eve and the New Year holiday. Including that trip across Glasgow.

Big questions, big stakes, big games.

All McCoist and his players can do is keep winning.

Don't look back or turn away, life can be your's if you'll only stay

Keeping hold of their best players. A resolution to the tax case that is not punitive enough to demand further penury - or worse.

Rangers might be asking for some quite big gifts this year.

More important gifts than football?

Perhaps. But a win at Celtic Park, putting a halt to the momentum Celtic seems to have been building and extending Rangers' lead at the top of the SPL.

Well, that might just feel priceless.

The Scottish Football Blog blogathon took place in November in aid of Alzheimer Scotland and the Homeless World Cup. You can still donate to help two great causes.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

SPL Advent: Motherwell

Day nine of the SPL Advent. Motherwell, the success story of the season so far.

What were we to expect from Motherwell this SPL season?

Stuart McCall's arrival to replace Craig Brown raised more of a shrug of the shoulders than a cheer last season.

But he impressed in taking the team to the Scottish Cup final, an achievement that raised intriguing possibilities about how he'd fare with a close season behind him.

Crucially he also survived the summer with a relatively unscathed squad.

Top scorer John Sutton left for Hearts but that departure aside, McCall didn't lose any players to rivals and didn't find himself forced into selling key players.

That provided a solid platform for the manager to build on. Unlike so many SPL managers, McCall had the luxury of using his acquisitions to strengthen what was already in place.

The key themes of this SPL Advent review have been transition and inconsistency.

Escaping the tyranny of transition, Motherwell have been the one team from the chasing pack that have delivered consistency.

They've done it with an old school approach to stability.

Six players have featured in every league game, another three have managed 17 out of the 18 games played so far.

If it ain't broke don't fix and all that. And Motherwell are far from being broken.

Michael Higdon, who I'll confess doesn't always convince me, was signed to replace Sutton. And, whatever doubts might remain about a certain profligacy, he has filled the role of top scorer.

With less than half the season gone Jamie Murphy has already equalled his goals tally of the previous two seasons.

Nicky Law was one the Scottish Football Blog's dozen to watch before the season began and he's rarely disappointed. An ever-present, he's the fulcrum of a team playing with confidence and consistency.

With both Higdon and Law, McCall has shown he's got an eye for a sensible signing, for bringing in players that will compliment what he's already got.

Judged on his tenure so far McCall is an impressive fellow, keeping both his side winning and the lustrous ginger hair of a much younger man.

More power to him.

And where has winning got them? The media enjoyed a flirtation with the idea of Motherwell splitting the Old Firm at one stage.

A defeat to Celtic soon put an end to those careless whispers. But Motherwell are looking nicely secure as the best of the rest.

They remain ten points behind Celtic but they're eight clear of fourth placed St Johnstone and twenty points clear of bottom.

With only 12 points separating fourth to twelfth in the SPL, Motherwell are out on their own.

10 games won and four draws. It's been impressive. Heartening too is the way they seem to be able to dust themselves down after the odd defeat, move on and start winning again.

That's not always a quality one associates with teams outside the Old Firm.

Maybe a measure of how good the season has been so far is that some disappointment lingers.

There's the strange discrepancy between home form and away form. Only Rangers have scored more and won more on the road.

But at home Motherwell seem oddly stifled, they've only won three of nine and are the joint lowest scorers at home.

And although they gave some people flutters by positioning themselves between the big two for a while, they're still to take points off Rangers or Celtic.

Minor quibbles. But the difference between a good season and a great season.

And a sign that this could be - with a fair wind and dose of luck - a team that can continue to improve.

I can see a better time, where all our dreams come true

Arguably Motherwell have done quite well out of their last two managers deciding to bugger off.

Old Motherwell manager's don't die. They just go to Aberdeen.

That's allowed progression to the current state of best-of-the-restness.

Staying up there, and further progress, means keeping the nucleus of the team and the manager in place.

The best Christmas present - along with an order for more of the same - would be to keep covetous eyes away from Motherwell's solid riches.

The Scottish Football Blog blogathon took place in November in aid of Alzheimer Scotland and the Homeless World Cup. You can still donate to help two great causes.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

SPL Advent: Kilmarnock

We tend to be quick to condemn the managerial merry-go-round as propelled by the Largs mafia.

But we're also too often suspicious of incomers who come into the SPL with their odd ways and their funny accents.

We should embrace them. Especially if they're such a delightful puzzle as Kenny Shiels.

There are times when I don't really know what he's talking about. But he speaks with such intensity and enthusiasm that I can't help but warm to him.

Whether it's a "support your local team" war-cry or a "my players were tired because they hadn't played" oxymoron, King Kenny of Killie can usually be relied on to say something that most other managers wouldn't.

Why not? Even if some of it is bollocks it all adds to the gaiety of a game that spends to long wallowing in the doldrums. And until he announces that "fitba' men understand" his methods I'm happy to listen to him over yet another stereotypical Scottish mediocrity.

Last week Shiels was addressing the issue of his transfer window plans. He hinted at activity ahead because the wholesale changes in the summer had resulted in a few players arriving that turned out to be not quite fit for purpose.

So it's a warm welcome for those recurring SPL Advent themes: consistency and transition.

Shiels had to recruit en-masse to reshape a squad that had taken a few heavy blows since Mixu Paatelainen's side had shone some much needed light on the SPL last season.

Kilmarnock required the obligatory period of transition and that's delivered an accompanying period of inconsistency.

Thus Killie have become the team that can ship six goals to Inverness at home, draw away at Hibs a week later and then enjoy a first home win over Rangers in 17 years. Don't call us unpredictable, call us football coupon busters.

It can't do much good for an excitable manager's equilibrium.

Won five, lost five, drawn eight. There's a symmetry to that sequence that points to a season more steady than it's been spectacular.

Comedy nine-goal thriller defeats to Inverness aside, home form has been a cause for cheer.

16 points from 24 and 18 goals scored. Only Celtic have scored more at home. Mind you, only Dunfermline have conceded more on their own patch.

Only one win away from home though. And just six goals scored in eight games, a claim-to-shame bettered only by Hearts.

Ups. And downs.

An odd season. I've been assured since the season kicked off that Shiels felt he'd built a top six side.

I wouldn't be willing to be against him.

Santa Claus won't make me happy with a toy on Christmas Day

There was opprobrium piled on Kenny Shiels after that defeat to Inverness.

Fair enough. It would be a hard one to take as a Kilmarnock fan despite the smiles it brought to the faces of neutrals.

Eight points since twelve since then though.

It's a reaction that shouldn't be sniffed at.

More of the same would be the ideal gift. It could get them through a derby semi-final at Hampden and pretty much wrap a top six place by the middle of February.

The Scottish Football Blog blogathon took place in November in aid of Alzheimer Scotland and the Homeless World Cup. You can still donate to help two great causes.

Monday, December 19, 2011

SPL Advent: Inverness

Day seven of the SPL advent. A trip to the frozen north to see how Inverness are coping this SPL season.

I find Terry Butcher something of an engima. In the past I've - not altogether seriously but not completely in jest - derided him as a bit of an incompetent.

The sort of chap that the Scottish managerial merry-go-round should really jettison for the greater good of the game.

But there he is, ensconced in the Highlands. He brought Inverness back to the SPL and he kept them there.

He likes to foster something of a bunker mentality: "Everybody hates us, cause we're so far away."

Fair enough. It's Scotland not China, but anyone who rails against Scottish football's central belt smugness probably deserves at least a nod of encouragement.

It also seems to foster a certain esprit de corps. They keep plodding along, occasionally producing a performance that make people sit up and take notice.

Only this weekend they were being praised to the rafters, or at the very least profusely patronised, for their bravery in losing at Ibrox.

And there's the rub. Bravery's not to be sniffed at but it doesn't help Inverness move up the table.

At the moment they're just a point off Hibs and Dunfermline at the bottom with Aberdeen's tally of seven points from three games beginning to cast the terrible trio adrift.

This is, of course, Inverness' second season in the SPL. It's a cliche that such seasons are always difficult. Maybe it's true.

Certainly it wasn't much of a prediction to say that they might find life a bit harder this time around.

Not only has the stunning away record that sustained both their promotion and excellent start to last season fizzled out but they had also lost some key players.

A season spent embracing the SPL's key themes - transition and inconsistency - always looked likely.

So it's proved.

Only four games won. More worrying still, 12 games lost. That's more than any other team and a couple more than both Hibs and Dunfermline.

As if to underline the contrast to last season they've lost seven games away from home, conceding 23 goals in the process.

At the moment they seem incapable of building any momentum. Only once have they managed to avoid defeat in the game immediately following a win.

They've taken six points from both St Mirren and Kilmarnock but have yet to beat either of the teams below them.

The goals of Adam Rooney are much missed and - as was predicted - a ready made replacement has not been found.

Although they finished in the bottom six last season must be considered a success. To beat that points total this year Inverness will need to win 13 games in the second half of the season.

It seems unlikely that they're going to manage that. So already we can say that this season has been one of regression?


But there comes a stage when escaping relegation by a point is just as satisfying as finishing 27 points from last place.

Here's to the hope in the future he brings

Yer man, Gregory Tade?

Let's be charitable and say that his signing as a replacement for Adam Rooney intrigued us.

A wee stat though: Tade's scored six goals this season. And Inverness haven't lost when he's scored.

If they keep that up and he finds his touch more often they'll be heading for Europe next season.

Credit also to Andrew Shinnie for his seven goals so far. Keeping those two in the goals would be the sort of gift that goes a long way to keeping Inverness in the SPL.

Terry Butcher wants nothing more than a penalty or two at Ibrox right now.

But a couple of back-to-back wins - Aberdeen style - would probably bring more satisfaction in the long term.

The Scottish Football Blog blogathon took place in November in aid of Alzheimer Scotland and the Homeless World Cup. You can still donate to help two great causes.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

SPL Advent: Hibs

Hitting the halfway stage of the SPL Advent calendar. Another annus horribilis for Hibs.

Even those well versed in the grimness of the SPL might have been taken aback by the sheer scale of the despair Hibs have engendered amongst the faithful this season.

If appointing Colin Calderwood was a mistake it was an exponential error, compounded by every signing he was allowed to make and every show of support the board made.

While Calderwood played footsy with Nottingham Forest and blew kisses at Birmingham, Hibs were sinking further into the abyss.

But a petrified (Petrie-fied?) board stuck with him, even rhapsodised about his well hidden attributes, and let the destruction continue.

The result of that folly can be seen in a squad that's not fit for purpose, a support that has ebbed away and a league position that tells no lies.

It has been, for those of us whose sympathies lie in Leith, a horrendous nightmare.

The second half collapse in the League Cup against Celtic, an astonishingly one-sided one-nil defeat against Motherwell, abject surrenders against a limited Dunfermline side in both an away draw and a home loss. Take your pick.

Two of the three games Hibs have won have been 3-2 victories. This was a team so bereft of spine that scoring three goals was just about the only way they could be - reasonably - confident of winning.

It all left Calderwood - and by extension chairman Rod Petrie and his band of taciturn directors - about as welcome in the pubs and hearts of Leith as Jeremy Clarkson at a Fabian Society conference.

I'm not one for leaving games early but it became clear quite early in the home defeat to Dunfermline that the only sensible reason for staying was to vent your frustrations at the end of the game.

Calderwood - the man Rod Petrie had trumpeted as a masterful manager in July - had succeeded in turning the club against itself.

There is a body of opinion that the unease - often the outright negativity - of the fans has hampered Hibs, contributed to their woeful home record.

I'd only really buy that if their away form was spectacularly better. It hasn't been: six points won at home, eight points won away.

The league's joint lowest goalscorers, Hibs have scored eight goals at Easter Road and eight on the road. Half the 28 goals they've conceded have come at home and half away from home.

A team has been built capable of attaining the same levels of crapness wherever they go.

Something had to give. And give it did, in the immediate aftermath of the Dunfermline defeat that had given final confirmation that a Hibs side led by Calderwood would be condemned to fight a relegation battle that they lacked the character to survive.

So Calderwood was gone. The names of the usual suspects were tossed around like empty crisp packets on the cold Edinburgh wind.

But the board - not Petrie, who apparently excused himself from the selection process - alighted on a saviour from across the water.

Welcome Pat Fenlon.

Fenlon arrived with a strong track-record in Irish football, a pocket full of bang-on-the-money, supporter pleasing platitudes and a Herculean task ahead of him.

The neglect, the incompetence, the inadequacies of the last year or so all now lie on his desk.

He immediately brought Michael Hart back into the team at full-back. That wasn't universally welcomed by fans, particularly after what many seemed to consider a horror show against Rangers last week.

But it's hard not to feel sympathy for the manager. Why did he play Hart? Because he's the sort of revolutionary gaffer who likes players to play in their own position. And Michael Hart is, remarkably, the one player in the Hibs squad who would describe himself as a full back.

That's where the mismanagement of the club has led. To a squad that needs strengthening in the next transfer window in exactly the same areas as it needed strengthening in the last transfer window. And the transfer window before that.

Budgets, wage caps, worldwide economic instability. We all know its hard. But Hibs have spent money, paid wages, identified and signed players and not even managed to stand still.

Fenlon's immediate priority is to stop the club going backwards.

And, when you find yourself joint bottom of the league, the margin of error is negligible.

Then the stranger spoke, he said: "do not fear"

The success of Pat Fenlon would be the best, and the most important, gift of all.

It's too early to make a judgement on that. I've warmed to him since he's arrived and there looks to be a change in attitude and application on the pitch.

No real conclusions can be drawn from an abandoned game at Motherwell and a spirited defeat to a misfiring Rangers. Yesterday Hibs had chances against Aberdeen. A dodgy penalty later and their shape and coherence was lost. Same old, same old.

The only hope is that Fenlon has answers enough to solve the ugly conundrum of Hibs' season.

The Scottish Football Blog blogathon took place in November in aid of Alzheimer Scotland and the Homeless World Cup. You can still donate to help two great causes.