Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Frugality, Whyte knights and January gambles

A week away from the blog.

I'd like to explain my absence with exciting tales of derring do. But I can't. The most excitement I got was watching Hibs beat Kilmarnock in the Scottish Cup, nailbiting to the end.

No, I've been away largely because I couldn't be arsed for the last week. One of the many dividing lines between the humdrum blogger and the paid chronicler of our beautiful game is that my can't-be-arsedness means very little to anyone, can't-be-arsedness on their part means children go unfed.

What great events did I miss?

Well, speaking of paid chroniclers, last week was the week that the Daily Record - oft referred to as the Daily Ranger in the more unforgiving corners of our footballing society, a newspaper once literally printed on blue paper - suggested that, whatever else he may be, Rangers owner Craig Whyte is not, after all, a white knight.

Rangers, said the Record, are screwed. One way or t'other, to differing degrees dependent on a variable here or there, but screwed nonetheless.

"Not so," responded Craig Whyte.

This, largely, is all Craig Whyte does. Deny things. Sometimes he also issues legal threats. But largely he denies and denies and denies. He's either incredibly wronged or he's the boy who cried wolf until he was hoarse.

One thing he's not, right now, is the owner of a football club with any momentum. Behind in the league, out of the cup - all the cups - and shorn of their star striker.

Rangers lost the the transfer window just as surely as they lost to Dundee United in that meek Scottish Cup capitulation on Sunday.

Gone is Nikica Jelavić, in is the initially phonetically amusing and initially underwhelming Mervan Celik.

A January devoted to frugality? Perhaps. But it's hard to see how this window's business has done anything but further deflate the Ibrox championship challenge.

And still, perhaps, even bigger battles lie ahead.

Rangers January's travails allowed Celtic to complete a quiet month looking like the biggest winners. Ahead in the SPL and getting past opponents of all shapes and sizes in the three domestic competitions, Celtic brought in Pawel Brozek, Rabiu Ibrahim and Michael Lustig.

What impact the three recruits will have remains to be seen. In a strange January, however, Celtic kept hold of their best players. That may well be enough in what has become a treble chasing season.

Holding on to your best players; Hearts managed that as well, despite talk of a financially motivated fire sale.

That looked to have set them up for a real tilt at third place. Best-of-the-rest might still be a realistic possibility but less than a week into February and Hearts have apparently all but dispensed with the services of 'keeper Marián Kello after a move to Austria Wien fell through.

And then the taxman - who has become as ubiquitous as the SFA compliance officer this SPL season - came calling once again with a bill to be settled and a court date to hammer home the point.

It looks like whatever Hearts achieve this season - and they could still achieve a lot - it will be done against an economically unsettled backdrop. Paulo Sergio must surely be getting used to having to do things the hard way.

Doing things the hard way seems to be a capital trend right now. A beleaguered Hibs team has once again been subjected to a January revolution.

Colin Calderwood's miracle cure lasted for about six games last season. That was enough to win him a manager of the month award and save Easter Road from hosting First Division football.

Then things settled down and the incredulous faithful realised that Calderwood had built something even worse than what had gone before.

The hope is that Pat Fenlon's reshaping will have more sticking power, although the short term goal remains the same - to finish the season in 11th place or better.

There was relief but also a certain belief as Hibs got past Kilmarnock on Saturday. But they face Aberdeen next weekend joint bottom of the table. The proof of whether Hibs have gathered another bunch of puddings lies in the weeks and games ahead.

Elsewhere prudence prevailed. Aberdeen brought in five players with Russell Anderson, Stephen Hughes and Gavin Rae addressing any problems Craig Brown felt he had with experience in the squad. And I'm intrigued to see how Danny Uchechi - a 22 year who stupendously reverses any Pittodrie strategy of making signings with senior experience in mind - fares. Scouting reports from elsewhere suggest his pedigree falls somewhere below middling.

St Mirren bought - the very act of "buying" seems something of a throwback these days, especially when the fee is £35,000 - Dougie Imrie and were boosted by Jim Goodwin deciding to stay put, a decision which would suggest that belief remains in the Danny Lennon Project.

The benefit of holding on should also be felt at St Johnstone where Francisco Sandaza remains until the end of the season, a rumoured victim of the general cack-handedness of Rangers' current recruitment policy.

Early reports suggest Motherwell have unearthed something a wee bit special in Henrik Ojamaa and Dean Shiels has made a video montage with a Cat Stevens soundtrack pretty much compulsory in the build up to the league cup final by staying on at Kilmarnock.

Dundee United brought in only Richie Ryan and Miloš Lačný but the crucial business at Tannadice was keeping a tight rein on Johnny Russell as vultures swooped.

Inverness were restricted to a couple of loan deals and the free transfer of Claude Gnakpa - an "exciting asset" according to Terry Butcher, whose word I'll need to trust for now.

Dunfermline, the church mice of the SPL whose fiscal travails would have inspired Charles Dickens, brought in Kyle Hutton on loan from Rangers and raided the same discount store to get Jordan McMillan on a free.

A 1-1 draw with Kilmarnock last night - their first home point since November - brought Dunfermline level with Hibs having played a game more.

Where Pat Fenlon has chosen scalpel wielding and reconstructive surgery, Jim McIntyre has been left to largely make do and mend.

If off-field events could still impact on the top of the league, at the bottom it looks like being a battle of wits between those two managers.

One was given resource enough to take a January gamble. How that works out will decide this relegation battle.

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