5 Men Who Could Replace Ronny Deila

by Johnny Connelly – @hitthebyline

An uninspiring 2-2 draw for Celtic at Tynecastle has kept Aberdeen in the Scottish Premiership title race, and further added to the moans and groans from the Celtic support with regard to the leadership qualities of current manager, Ronny Deila. 

Osman Sow’s late strike secured a point for Robbie Neilson’s Hearts side, as Celtic blew the chance to go 3 points clear of Aberdeen in 2nd place. This latest disappointment means the Bhoys have won just 3 of their last 9 matches in all competitions, with growing discontent at the style of play on show.

It’d be naive to think Celtic aren’t sizing up potential replacements for Deila. In the event that Ronny fails to get the Parkhead club back on track, here are 5 men who could potentially be his successor…

David Moyes

David Moyes

Just a few seasons ago, David Moyes was one of the emerging talents in European football management. His no-nonsense style was well respected in the English Premiership after a successful spell at Everton. When Sir Alex Ferguson hand-picked Moyes as his successor at Manchester United, it looked as though the Scotsman was on the verge of becoming a blue-chip manager of sorts.

Moyes fell victim to a transitional period of low resource and high expectation at United. He was dismissed less than a season in, despite having a better record both domestically, and in Europe than Louis Van Gaal (with considerably less money spent on transfers).

A shock move to Real Sociedad was next for Moyes. He took the reins with the club in 15th place in La Liga. After an initial upturn in fortunes at the club, form began to stagnate. Communication was touted as a problem by those at the club, with Moyes not being able to speak Spanish.

With Sociedad sitting comfortably in mid-table, Moyes was relieved of his duties. A win % ratio of just 28% at the Basque club was deemed unacceptable.

Gary McAllister

Gary McAllister

Something of a surprise addition to the list of candidates, the former Motherwell midfielder has yet to set the heather alight in his management career, but has gained enough experience to be a contender for the Parkhead hot seat across various management positions.

With a working knowledge of the Scottish game, international experience, and connections south of the border, McAllister is the polar opposite of current Hoops boss Ronny Deila. This shift in focus could be appealing for the club, particularly to boost the opportunities in the transfer market.

McAllister’s first stint in management came back in 2002 when he was appointed player-manager of Coventry City. He lasted just over a year and a half in the job, before resigning to spend more time with his family.

A four year sabbatical ensued, before he returned to management on a temporary basis as Leeds United manager. With the club then playing in the third tier of English football, McAllister turned things around magnificently, taking the Yorkshire club from 8th, all the way to the playoff final. A poor start to the following season led to his departure in December 2008.

Since then, he’s taken up various coaching positions, at Middlesbrough (working alongside former Celtic manager, Gordon Strachan), as Assistant Manager at Aston Villa (under Gerard Houllier), and First Team Coach at Liverpool (as part of Brendan Rodgers’ coaching staff).

Ian Holloway

Ian Holloway

Another potentially surprising name to be thrown into the hat, Iain Holloway would certainly liven things up at Celtic Park. His relentless attacking style has brought him mixed fortunes in management, but would at least win favour among the fans at Celtic.

The majority of Holloway’s career has been spent managing clubs in the English Championship, with his most famous success being when he propelled relegation-touted Blackpool to the dizzy heights of promotion to the English Premier League in 2010. After a whirlwind adventure on a shoestring budget, Holloway’s side went down fighting on the last day of the season.

The outspoken manager almost pulled off the impossible again the following season, taking Blackpool to the playoffs, and narrowly missing out on promotion back to the Premiership.

After Blackpool, Holloway took over at Crystal Palace in 2012. Things started well with a 5-0 win over Ipswich, and continued to go smoothly as he again managed to promote the club to the English Premier League. Things turned sour quickly after just 8 matches in the Premiership. Holloway came under pressure from the fans after amassing just 3 points in this time, and left by mutual consent.

His latest managerial position came in January 2014 when he signed a 2 and a half year deal to become Millwall manager. He was initially tasked with saving the club from relegation from the Championship, which he achieved by finishing 19th, 4 points above the drop zone. The 2014-15 season didn’t go so well, and Holloway was sacked for the first time in his career in March 2015.

Henrik Larsson

Henrik Larsson

Never far from the hearts and minds of the Celtic fans, Henrik Larsson will forever be idolised at the club. A section of the support backed Larsson for the Celtic manager’s job before Deila took over, and you can bet that should Deila be relieved of his duties, the super Swede’s name would be mentioned again.

Sentimental appointments rarely work out in modern football, but rarely do we see a player idolised so exclusively as the way Larsson is at Celtic. Larsson’s appointment would certainly unite the fans and bring back a buzz straight off the bat. The respect he’d command in the dressing room could only be a good thing, and his reputation across Europe could open doors in the transfer market.

That said, Larsson is relatively new to the management game, and his inexperience could be a major risk.

In December 2009, Larsson took his first management role, at Swedish 2nd Division outfit Landskrona. In his first season, he took the club to the brink of promotion, finishing 5th, and adopting an attractive 4-3-3 attacking style of play. His 2nd season was something of a disappointment, with the club sitting bottom of the league more than halfway through the season. A positive run of results propelled the club up to 10th, but the fans had expected promotion. Larsson stayed for a third season, but could only manage a 6th placed finish, and resigned shortly afterwards.

A short stint at newly promoted Falkenbergs in the Swedish top flight followed. Larsson managed to keep the club in the top division, but left after one season to take the top job at his former club, Helsingborgs, where he remains to this day.

Larsson has previously admitted that he would like to return to Celtic some day as manager, but whether or not that day will be anytime soon remains to be seen.

Michael O’Neill

Michael O'Neill

One of this year’s biggest stories in international football is the rise and rise of Northern Ireland under Michael O’Neill. The former Hibs player has transformed his home nation from footballing minnows, to a formidable force who qualified comfortably for the Euro 2016.

O’Neill has a great working knowledge of Scottish football, having played for Dundee United, Hibs, Aberdeen, St Johnstone, Clydebank, and Ayr United.

With Celtic being unable to attract a blue-chip or English Premier League manager, rising stars like O’Neill could be the club’s best bet to delivering sustainable success.

The Northern Irishman’s managerial CV is a short one, with just over a season at Brechin City under his belt, he left for Shamrock Rovers in 2009, where a modicum of success ensued. O’Neill took the Rovers to 2nd place in the league in his first season, and won the league in his second season. Another league title ensued in 2011. He also guided the team to win the Setanta Sports Cup in 2011, and recorded a notable victory over Partizan Belgrade that same year.

O’Neill’s biggest achievement by far has been the work he’s done as manager of Northern Ireland. With an average group of players at his disposal, he’s taken the nation to their first major tournament in 30 years by qualifying for Euro 2016. They topped a group containing the likes of Romania, Greece, and Finland, losing just 1 match in the process.

O’Neill’s success hasn’t gone unnoticed, with several English Championship clubs sniffing around him already. He’ll clearly want to reap the rewards of his efforts by managing the Northern Irish side at the finals in France in the summer, but beyond that, it’s expected that he’ll move on while his stock is high.

With O’Neill being potentially unavailable until the summer, the timescale could work out well for Celtic, as Ronny Deila would still have enough time to prove himself as a success. Deila will continue to come under fire until Celtic start to win, and win in style. The next few months could be crucial for the club either way. Time for Ronny to shape up or ship out.

 

 

Fearless and Focussed – Strachan’s Scots Go Down Fighting in Dortmund

Fearless and Focussed – Strachan’s Scots Go Down Fighting in Dortmund

A closer look at how Scotland fared against the World Champions

By Johnny Connelly

As Thomas Muller’s looping header sailed over the head of David Marshall and nestled into the back of the net after just 18 minutes at the Signal Iduna Park in Dortmund, The Tartan Army could have been forgiven for thinking a hiding was about to ensue.

What happened next was truly remarkable. A wounded Scotland side were galvanised. Facing a German World Cup-winning side who steamrollered past everything in their path in Brazil, the Scots matched their opponents, and delivered a performance that made Joachim Lowe’s side work much harder than they’d ever have anticipated. A stunning equaliser from Ikechi Anya set the cat among the pigeons, and at one point Scotland even looked as though they’d go on to win the match. The pressure finally told, with 20 minutes left on the clock, as golden boot winner Thomas Muller bundles home the winner.

There’s no disputing that collectively, the Scotland team’s effort was herculean; but where in particular did Strachan’s men shine? Where could they improve? And where were they simply not good enough? – Hitthebyline takes a closer look…

The Goalkeeper

David Marshall at full stretch, as Muller opens the scoring

David Marshall at full stretch, as Muller opens the scoring

 

With the likes of Allan McGregor, Matt Gilks, and Craig Gordon breathing down his neck, David Marshall should draw confidence from the fact that Gordon Strachan has once again handed him the no.1 jersey. Sadly for Scotland, this confidence seems in short supply. Marshall has come a long way since he was given a baptism of fire, being thrown on at half time as a young boy for Celtic against Barcelona. He’s cut his teeth for many years in the English Championship, and won many plaudits as he kept Cardiff in with a fighting chance of staving off relegation from the English Premiership last year. Despite coming such a long way, Marshall still shows a worrying lack of confidence and fails to command his area adequately.

He was always going to have a busy night against the world champions, but he did himself no favours after being beaten by a looping header early on that caught him flat-footed. A string of world-class saves followed from Marshall, in the first half, and the second. As much as this undoubtedly redeemed his early mistake, it must frustrate the manager, knowing that his goalkeeper is so close to having the whole package.

Marshall rarely looked troubled by anything the Germans had to throw at him in terms of shot stopping, and could do little to prevent their 2nd goal. However, the former Celtic ‘keeper looked shaky from cross balls, and seemed to be happiest when his defence were organising themselves, rather than when he was forced to reprimand them at any time.

Hitthebyline Rating – 8/10: Football is a cruel game. Marshall made one mistake against the world champions, but was made to pay for it. A lesser goalkeeper would have conceded 3 or 4 on the night. The only person Marshall needs to convince that he’s a world class goalkeeper is himself.
If Marshall can convince himself he’s a world class goalkeeper, he’ll be an asset to this campaign. If not, then someone else will receive the no.1 jersey, sooner rather than later.

The Defence

All Hans on deck - Grant Hanley had his work cut out for him against Germany

All Hans on deck – Grant Hanley had his work cut out for him against Germany

 

Attacking line-ups don’t come any more formidable than that of Germany. André Schürrle, Mario Gotze, Marco Reus and Müller tormented the Scots back 4. Alan Hutton, Russell Martin, Grant Hanley and Steven Whittaker faced the most formidable of opponents, but in most respects, did as well as could be expected. Collectively, they fought hard, held shape, kept their cool, and threw themselves infront of shots and crosses from the first whistle until the last.

Strachan clearly values pace in his side, particularly on the flanks. This is probably why we’ve seen so much of Alan Hutton, and on Sunday night’s form, he looks like the correct choice. Never a player with a great deal of finesse, but Hutton’s ability to get from box to box at pace is invaluable to the team. He rarely looked out of place from start to finish.

Martin and Whittaker did well, without doing anything spectacular. A disciplined performance will be what was asked of them, and very few people would argue that they didn’t deliver that. Grant Hanley seems to be a player that divides the Tartan Army. For the most part, a hard-working, no-nonsense defender, but at times his lapses in concentration seem to lead him into trouble. Hanley’s tendency to give away needless fouls or be caught out of position has costed Scotland in the past, and continued to cause problems against Germany.

Hitthebyline Rating – 7/10: The central defensive partnership for Scotland has been a pain point for many years, and it doesn’t quite look as though it’s been cracked just yet. Strachan has his side well-drilled, but if there’s one area of the field the side could do with strengthening, it’s in the centre of defence.In terms of the performance against the Germans, there’s not much to complain about. The work rate was correct throughout, and the discipline was good for the most part.

 

The Midfield

Anya slots past Neuer

Anya slots past Neuer

 

If Scotland were going to contest the game well against Germany, a strong midfield performance was required. This was delivered overall, but the diversity in performance standard was more apparent in midfield, than in any other area of the park. Ikechi Anya, James Morrison, Charlie Mulgrew, Darren Fletcher, and Barry Bannan lined up in an unusual midfield 5.

It hasn’t taken Ikechi Anya long to establish himself as a firm fans favourite. With only a handful of caps to his name, he’s already bagged a few goals, and never fails to get the fans up off their seats. In that respect, It was business as usual for Anya against Germany. The Watford wing-back was the standout Scot on the field. He covered every blade of grass for the full 90 minutes; battling hard against the German attackers, passing & moving well, skipping past German defenders, and running more than half the length of the park to slot home a well-earned equaliser. Anya’s passion, skill, energy and pace are unparalleled in the Scotland squad. Whether Scotland qualify for Euro 2016 or not could be in no small part, down to the form of Ikechi Anya.

James Morrison spent much of the game chasing shadows. He is unquestionably a dogged, hard-working midfielder, but looked a little over-awed by the occasion at times. Instances of slack-passing and poor decision making were peppered throughout his performance, but Morrison remained resolute, and continued to work hard.

Celtic’s Charlie Mulgrew looked out of sorts from the first whistle to the last. I’m not sure what’s happened to the experienced dead-ball specialist over the summer, but for whatever reason, the player’s form has dropped drastically. Mulgrew looked sluggish, and couldn’t keep up with the pace of the game. His distribution wasn’t up to its usual standard, and moments of frustration crept in, which ultimately led to a yellow, then red card. Not a good night for Charlie.

The return of a natural leader like Fletcher buoyed the support, and this definitely had an effect on the team. The Manchester United man looked a cut above the rest. He was composed, fearless in the challenge, and sprayed passes around with ease. Fitness still seems to be an issue for Fletcher, as he was subbed off for James McArthur in the second half, but the fans will have seen enough to unanimously agree that Fletcher will be one of the first names on the team sheet for the foreseeable future.

Busy doing nothing would be a fair summary of Barry Bannan’s evening. Always running? Yes, but never any end product. Bannan has unquestionable talent, but for some reason, the Scotland fans have yet to see the best of it. At just 24, there is hope that he’ll mature into a big game player for his country, but if his first 18 caps are anything to go by, this maturity could be some way off. The Crystal Palace midfielder succeeded in making a nuisance of himself against the Germans. An abundance of pace serves him well, but a tendency to be caught in two minds seems to crop up more often than Gordon Strachan would like. Another so-so performance by Bannan saw him hooked for Wigan’s Shaun Maloney. Strachan does seem to have faith in the player, but there will come a time when he’ll look for this faith to be repaid.

Hitthebyline Rating – 8/10: Stunning performances from Anya and Fletcher were juxtaposed with Mulgrew’s miserable showing. Bannan and Morrison had decent enough games, but could have done so much more. Scotland have plenty options in midfield, with McArthur and Maloney pushing for a starting place, as well as the likes of Scott Brown and James Forrest on the road to recovery.The players Strachan has at his disposal in this area of the field have experience at the very highest level, and could be hugely significant for the Euro 2016 campaign.

 

The Forwards

On the run - Naismith chases a wayward pass

On the run – Naismith chases a wayward pass

…or, forward, as the case was against Germany. Everton’s white-hot Steven Naismith had the unenviable task of being the lone striker against a usually water-tight Germany defence. The ex-Kilmarnock and Rangers frontman didn’t disappoint. Naismith has slotted in seamlessly to replace the tireless runner that was Kenny Miller. His work ethic was exactly what was required to cause problems against Germany, and the striker was unlucky not to get on the scoresheet in the second half after snatching at a few chances. Naismith has developed well over the past few seasons, and with a little more exposure in the English Premier League, should continue to improve. Strachan made the decision to switch Naismith for another English Premier League-based Scot, in Steven Fletcher. Fletcher lived up to his exorbitant price tag, making an immediate impact to slot a beautifully weighted pass through to Anya for the equaliser. Fletcher’s physical edge boosted Scotland’s attacking options. The big striker fought hard in the air, and held the ball up well for supporting midfielders, but could do little to reverse the fate of Strachan’s men on the night.


Hitthebyline Rating – 8/10:
Both Naismith and Fletcher were terrific. They battled hard against superior opposition, and were unlucky to come away on the losing side. With Naismith’s terrier like pressing of the ball, and Fletcher’s physical, yet intelligent play being at the disposal of Scotland, the real shame was that both players didn’t get the chance to play together against the Germans.  Scotland have very little else to call upon in the striking department beyond these two players but their commitment and ability will serve their country well on the quest towards Euro 2016 qualification, and beyond.

Celts in Europe – Was it really so awful?

by Johnny Connelly

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As a dejected Celtic side trudged off after a 6-1 skelping against the majestic Barcelona, Hoops fans voiced their anger and frustration at what many of them judged to be an inferior and lacklustre performance by their heroes.

Now that the dust has settled, was it really so awful? Both in terms of the performance on the night, and the effort given in the Champions League overall?

True enough, Barcelona demolished Celtic. Not since 1965 have Celtic conceded six goals in a single match; but on the night, what could have been done to stop the rampant Catalan side?

Twitter, Facebook, and football phone-in frequenters were aghast at Neil Lennon’s team selection, (after the match of course). What a fine thing hindsight is. The most frequent questions asked circulated around the omission of Charlie Mulgrew, Kris Commons, and Anthony Stokes.

I’m sorry, but does anyone really believe that  the inclusion of any of these players would have reigned-in the likes of Xavi and hat-trick-hero Neymar? Celtic were played off the park, in every area of the park. Surely there’s no permutation of Neil Lennon’s current Celtic squad that could’ve changed the outcome of the game? The fact is, when Barca set the heather alight, the best teams in the world struggle restrain them.

If we’re truly honest, Celtic have rode their luck against Barcelona pretty much every time they’ve come up against them in modern history, even when they’ve managed to beat them. Particularly in the last handful of fixtures between the clubs, Barca have had the lion’s share of chances and territorial possession.  Brave, resilient performances from Celtic have helped keep these matches tight, with any defeats being inflicted by the odd goal, but given the gulf between the sides and the control held by the Spanish giants, a heavy drubbing was always a possibility.

The expectation of Celtic fans is for their team to play well, contest every game, and win in style when it’s humanly possible. To achieve what they have in recent times in the Champions League is formidable. As much as this season’s Champions League campaign could be viewed as disappointing, Celtic have in no way been humiliated, when compared with the other  teams that finished bottom of their group in the competition.

Marseille, Copenhagen, Anderlecht, CSKA Moscow, and Real Sociedad for example all finished 4th. Nobody would dispute that these sides are major European entities, so there’s no shame in suffering a similar fate to them.

Although Celtic have previously reached the knockout stages, to do so this year seems to require major financial clout. When we compare Celtic’s first team wage budget to some of the sides that topped their groups, we begin to understand the David v Goliath nature of the task they face.

Celtic pay just over £300,000 every week on wages to their squad. This is by no means miserly, but Borussia Dortmund (top of Group F), pay almost three times as much. Chelsea pay more than six times more than Celtic in terms of wages, and Barcelona pay an astonishing, 11 times more than Celtic.

Perhaps a shift in mentality from the fans is required. Sadly, Celtic can’t be the world-beaters they were in the 60’s and 70’s. Since then it’s been a rollercoaster ride. For every triumph against Man Utd, Juventus, and Barcelona; there’s been an implosion against Neuchatel Xamax, Wacker Innsbruck, or Artmedia Bratislava.

Celtic are operating well on and off the field at the moment. A few key signings could give them the edge and excitement they long for. Ok, they won’t win the Champions League anytime soon, but 99% of clubs in Europe are in that same boat.

Crack a smile Hoops fans; your team are cruising to another league title, competing in Europe every year, and living within their means. There’ll be ups and downs; good times and bad. Sit back, and enjoy the ride.

Stand By Your Man

Why Saints Were Right To Have Faith In Danny Lennon

by Johnny Connelly

(as seen on PLZSoccer.com) – 09/10/13

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You could almost hear a faint knelling of a funeral bell, as the Grim Reaper sharpened his scythe and turned his damning gaze towards the managerial career of one, Danny Lennon at St Mirren just a few weeks ago.

The buzzards were circling; such is the intense nature of football in this country. A run of half a dozen poor results at the start of the season ensured that Danny Lennon was the red hot candidate to be the first manager in the SPFL to be sacked this season.

It was unanimous, there was no debate to be had. St Mirren were playing poorly, in rut you could say, and with Lennon at the helm, they were on the brink of being pulled into a relegation battle with crisis-stricken Hearts.

Fast forward a few weeks, and the Buddies picked up a spirited draw against Aberdeen, and a huge victory in a must-win fixture against Hearts. All of a sudden, the clouds from above St Mirren Park, and the football world begins to remember that (all things considered), Danny Lennon has done an excellent job as manager of the Paisley club.

St Mirren in recent years has been a club that budgets to finish 11th in the Scottish top flight. Under Lennon, the club have invested in a new stadium, achieved their highest league finish, and won their first major trophy in 26 years when they got their hands on the League Cup this year.  

By all accounts, that’s about as good as Danny Lennon could be expected to do, given the resources available to him. 

Prior to the Hearts game, if Lennon had been relieved of his duties, it’d have been far from the biggest shock in our game over the last few years. It would have been a foolish decision, as just a handful of matches can change everything. 

St Mirren may well get relegated this season, and on the other hand, they may well finish in the top six. It’s just too early to make any kind of concrete prediction of that magnitude. We’re just 9 games into a league season, and unless there’s a readymade Sir Alex Ferguson or Jose Mourinho willing to take over, it makes little or no sense to light the blue-touch paper and instigate the uproar that ensues when a club sacks their manager. 

When Lennon was flying below the radar of scrutiny way back in August, Pat Fenlon was the man that bore the brunt of the sacking speculation. Yes, Hibs had a shocking start to the season, and yes, yet another Easter Road sacking wouldn’t have been beyond the realms of imagination, but just look at what can happen with a bit of time and support.

Fenlon’s men imploded to record a 9-0 aggregate defeat to Malmo, but now look at them. They are the form side in the SPFL, sitting in 5th place, just five points behind Inverness Caley Thistle in 2nd place, and they’ve lost just one of their last seven matches. 

The real scrutiny in football nowadays should be happening at the appointment stage, not after a club has committed to a long term deal with a new manager. The gaffer who currently finds his head nearest the guillotine is Kilmarnock’s Allan Johnstone, and perhaps rightly so.  Killie haven’t won a competitive match since 11th May, so the pressure on the management is understandable, and the patience placed in them won’t be inexhaustible. 

As much as there can be a right time to part company with a manager in some circumstances, the virtue of patience has historically been proven to pay more dividends than any knee-jerk sackings.

Can you imagine what would currently stand for the global institution that is Manchester United if they’d given Fergie the bullet after 6 months?  The biggest club in the world may never have reached their potential!

Conversely, the perils of knee-jerk sackings are all too apparent, especially in English football. The recent Paolo Di Canio debacle highlights this perfectly. Sunderland have hired and fired managers all too eagerly in recent times. Di Canio’s appointment came but a day after Martin O’Neill was relieved of his duties. The Sunderland board withstood criticism from all corners of their fan base for the original appointment, only to fire the manager after just 13 matches in charge.

St Mirren have done the right thing in backing Danny Lennon for the time being, and I sincerely hope the correct level of patience and faith is extended to all SPFL managers this season. Hibs, Hearts,  and Killie (amongst others) have experienced a turbulent few years, purely because they’ve gone through a drove of managers in that time. Hibs have had 4 managers in 5 years, Hearts have had 4 in 3 years, and Killie have had 3 in 3 years. 

Now, more than ever, a bit of patience, and dare I say it, common sense is required.

Make the right appointment, trust your judgement, and back your club to the hilt.

The SPFL – Fan Fuelled Evolution

by Johnny Connelly

(As hosted on http://www.plzsoccer.com/news)

It’s been a long, long time coming, but we’ve successfully reformed the structure of our professional football league format in this country. It’s all kicking off this week, and not a minute too soon.

That arduous, seemingly never-ending string of weeks where we find ourselves with a gaping football hole to fill is almost at an end. We kid ourselves that pre-season friendlies, and even old Youtube clips of bygone years will anesthetise us throughout the summer, but the truth is, nothing but the real McCoy will do. In Scotland, the fans need football; but more importantly, the football needs fans.

This interdependency has never been more apparent than it is now. The dark cloud of doom that lurked over Rangers throughout the Craig Whyte/Charles Green/liquidation saga served as a stark warning that all clubs can fall victim to the perils of the business aspects of the modern game. Yet, at the other end of that turmoil, we saw glimpses of the finest element of our game, the unwavering and unquestioning support of the fans.

Clubs in our country have been plagued by problems of their own, but we’re fighting through it together as football fans. The news this week that Dunfermline’s long standing threat of liquidation could be at an end is huge shot in the arm for our wavering game. The fact that the CVA came from ‘Pars United’, an ordinary group of Dunfermline supporters, further enhances the remarkability of this particular happy ending.

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The New Way – Neil Doncaster showcases the new SPFL logo at Hampden

As we prepare to embark upon the new dawn that is the SPFL, it becomes apparent that fan power is more important than ever. Last season was resplendent with hints that the fans will have the final say when it comes to football in this country.

Last season we saw something of a siege mentality at Ibrox, as Rangers fans flocked to support the team in their darkest hour. Attendance records were challenged, and dare I say it, the much maligned Glasgow club seem to be through the worst of their troubles, all thanks to the fans.

Similarly, Dunfermline looked doomed just weeks ago, probably more so than Rangers, but the collective presence of likeminded fans have all but saved their club, albeit through the means of a CVA and by virtue of an empathetic set of creditors.

The SPFL’s big focus now should be channelling energy into finding a solution for Hearts. They too will sink or swim based on the actions of their fans. The effort and commitment so far from the Hearts fans has been overwhelming, and if they could somehow meet the desired monetary amounts to satisfy the creditors, we’d be witnessing a miraculous escape for one of our country’s most revered clubs.

Clubs defying the odds to survive thanks to fan power are perhaps somewhat sensationalised examples of what the common punter can achieve in the world of football. We can however, step back and see that the fans have the power to make the new SPFL a success, despite the apparent downgrading of our domestic game since the days of Larsson, Laudrup, De Boer, and Sutton.

As fans, we’ve faced debacles like the Setanta deal and uncertainties galore, yet here we are, on the brink of another glorious season. Excitement is cascading across the country in anticipation of the big kick off. Yes, there’ll be more problems, and yes, it’s far from the polished product that our neighbours across the border take in every weekend, but it can still be glorious in its own inimitable way.

Small steps are being taken in the right direction all the time. It’s looking positive for the start of the season, as there’s no clearer indication of support than a rise in season ticket sales. 7 of the 12 SPFL Premiership clubs have reported increases in season ticket sales so far, and another 3 SPFL Premiership clubs say their sales are on a par with last season.

Even without the presence of Rangers in our top division, the clubs do have something to attract their fans this season. Celtic, Motherwell and St Johnstone have a taste of European football. They’ll be looking to maximise their involvement this term, and ensure they get to participate again next time around.

Ross County and Inverness Caledonian Thistle will strive to continue their meteoric rise, challenging for 2nd place in the Premiership this season perhaps? Hearts, Hibs, Dundee United and Aberdeen will seek to right the wrongs of last season and finish in a position that befits their club stature; while St Mirren, Kilmarnock, and the new boys Partick Thistle will be well aware they’ve been touted to go down, so they’ll have fire in their bellies, and a will to escape the drop.

The road back to the big time for Scottish football is a long one, we may never get back to where we were, but football in this country is a labour of love. We’ll forever indulge in nostalgia, we’ll forever exaggerate the glory days, and we’ll forever dream of a product better than the one we current showcase.

Our excitement for football is insatiable, there’s nothing quite like those start of the season butterflies. This time around, we’ll take the bad news with a pinch of salt and remember that football is for enjoying.

It may not be perfect, but it’s our league, and we love it.

SPL/SFL Merger: Progress at last or a gamble we can’t afford?

By Johnny Connelly

At long, long last, a majority of SPL and SFL clubs have come to an agreement on the future structure of our domestic leagues. In a wrangle that felt equally as long-winded as the Rangers v HMRC tax debacle, a breakthrough was reached as 23 clubs voted in favour of new plans that’ll see the creation of a single governing body (the SPFL).

Audible sighs of relief (as opposed to the expected hubbub of optimism) rippled through the Scottish football community when this deal was reached. The big black cloud that loomed over our game’s future has been cleared from our skies at least temporarily, as we can now look forward a new exciting format that boasts financial redistribution, as well as the reintroduction of playoffs.

As much as I’m pleased to see the end of this, I can’t help but think back to the massive overhaul in structure that the fans and the clubs cried out for. The new, 12-10-10-10 structure just doesn’t match up to these demands in my eyes. If we look initially at the SPL and SFL Division 1 clubs, as far as I can see (playoffs aside) all that’ll change is the distribution of wealth amongst them.

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When two become one – The SPL and SFL will be replaced by the SPFL

 

I see this as something of a gamble, although I do understand the strategy. Make some of the top placed teams in the SPL suffer financially in the short term, so as to financially boost the bottom placed clubs in the SPL and the rest of the SFL initially, and create a more holistically-centric, financially viable league structure in Scotland in the long-run.

The logic is sound, but we must hold our hands up and admit that it is a gamble of sorts. This process would be the golden ticket to revamping our game domestically if all the current SPL clubs were financially bloated, but we all know this isn’t the case. From a moral and idealistic standpoint, throwing money at the 1st Division clubs is without a doubt the right thing to do. It shows that the powers that be are thinking about the game’s success in the long term; but to disregard the threat this scheme poses to the top SPL clubs is foolish.

Here is how the money is expected to be redistributed throughout the current SPL and SFL Division 1 clubs:

SPL
1: £2,405,514 (13.39%, -£314,487)
2: £1,717,454 (9.56%, -£682,546)
3: £1,460,555 (8.13%, -£59,446)
4: £1,288,629 (7.17%, -£71,371)
5: £1,202,757 (6.7%, -£77,243)
6: £1,116,884 (6.22%, -£83,116)
7: £1,056,701 (5.88%, -£63,299)
8: £1,005,142 (5.6%, -£34,858)
9: £987,895(5.5%,+£27,895)
10: £902,023 (5.02%, +£22,023)
11: £816,150 (4.54%, +£16,150)
12: £730,277 (4.07%, +£10,277)

First Division

1: £386,248 (2.15%, +£318,248)
2: £343,132 (1.91%, +£276,132)
3: £300,016 (1.67%, +£234,016)
4: £256,900 (1.43%, +£191,900)
5: £240,731 (1.34%, +£176,731)
6: £188,633 (1.05%, +£126,633)
7: £172,464 (0.96%, +£111,464)
8: £154,499 (0.86%, +£94,499)
9: £138,331 (0.77%, +£79,331)
10: £120,366 (0.67%, +£63,366)

This looks good in theory. If we take only the top two Divisions into account, we see that 8 clubs will suffer initially, while the remaining 14 benefit substantially. The 2nd and 3rd Divisions tell a similar story, with some smaller clubs standing to make an additional £46,000 a year, while any decrease of revenue for clubs can be as little as £80.

However, the likes of Motherwell punch above their weight, on a shoe string, with a threadbare squad. Every penny counts for them, yet if this structure was in place last season, despite them miraculously finishing 2nd Scotland’s elite division, the Lanarkshire club would be £682,546 worse off. This, although nothing compared to the money that the giants of European football are throwing around, is still significant when we put it in context that it would almost double the losses made by the club, bringing them up to a combined loss of over £1.2m for the season.

This year’s 3rd and 4th placed clubs would be dealt a similar hand, although not quite as severe. St Johnstone would have been almost £60,000 worse off for the year, and Inverness Caledonian Thistle too would be down by over £71,000. Again, these figures mean nothing without context, but when you see that St Johnstone have made six-figure sum losses in three of the last four seasons, that £60,000 becomes a sum of money that’s not to be scoffed at. Terry Butcher’s Inverness Caledonian Thistle too run on a shoe-string budget, but this projected loss of £71,000 represents around 18% of the club’s current overall debt.

On the other side of the coin, how can we be sure that the right clubs are benefitting if all we’re going on is their final league position over a season? Take Queen of the South for example. This season they cruised through the Scottish Second Division, thanks to a larger budget amongst other things. Under this new structure, the team in the 2nd Division that claimed the title thanks to greater financial muscle, would further be enhanced by a winnings pot of £102,401 (an increase of over £46,000 on the previous year).

I suppose we’ll never know how this’ll pan out until we stop speculating, and let it run for a few seasons. One thing that we all seem fully behind though is the revamp and reintroduction of playoffs across all of our divisions. Playoffs guarantee that the season has a focus and purpose, regardless of how far apart the clubs may be points-wise. A final showpiece and crescendo to the season is ensured, which should hopefully dispel the apathy that’s been creeping in over the past few seasons.

This season the SPL has been crying out for a playoff setup. Celtic won the league at a canter; and Dundee went down without a whimper. The whole league was a dead duck by Christmas. At least with playoffs, we’ll have something to get excited about right until the end of the season as teams will have something to play for right until the very last kick, and in all divisions too. The closest thing we had to excitement outside the SPL this season was the Ramsdens Cup final. What a great example of how to achieve excitement in football in a simple way. 10,000 people crammed in to Almondvale for the final, and thousands more watched live on BBC Alba. This proves beyond doubt that although we may not have the quality of the Premiership at our disposal, the route to success for our game in this country lies with generating excitement. Structuring the game correctly is the key to this, and we’ve shown from the likes of the Ramsdens Cup, that excitement trumps quality any day of the week.

My personal preference would have been for a bigger league, and the fans voted in their numbers for this. The fact is that we must bend over backwards to get bums on seats in football grounds all over Scotland. When you achieve that, the desired TV deals could well have followed, as we’d have injected the excitement back into the game that drew crowds, and would spur interest from further afield. Who’s to say this won’t happen in the future, but for now I’m happy that a cohesive approval from our top clubs will drive a united front for our domestic game to succeed. The formation of the SPFL could signal the start of a journey towards a prosperous league setup in Scotland, but if it’s to succeed, we must back it unwaveringly. It must be adjusted accordingly to generate as much revenue and excitement as possible, or we could find ourselves in the midst of another moribund spell of ‘reconstruction talks’ again before too long.

Is the penny finally dropping for Ally?

McCoist looks as though he’s learned lessons from last year’s flops

The long suffering Rangers fans of the modern era will no doubt continue to have their club dragged through the dirt in the coming season as more and more details of the Craig Whyte & Charles Green cavalcade of misdemeanors and skulduggery come to the fore. Sadly these club issues will wrangle on, but the last few weeks have had a silver lining of sorts on the actual football side of things, as Ally McCoist has made some impressive signings straight off the bat since the controversial transfer embargo has been partially lifted.

Rangers Manager Ally McCoist

Stern of face – McCoist has his work cut out for him

The past and continued involvement of Charles Green and Craig Whyte is a matter for the courts, and is well out of the fans and McCoist’s hands, but it would appear that there are signs of life as the manager has wasted no time in pressing on with strengthening his squad for life in Division 2, with one eye clearly on shaping a team that could compete in Division 1 and the SPL.

Gers fans haven’t had much to smile about over the last few years, broadly speaking, but the latest 4 players to join Rangers should bring a smile to even the grumpiest of supporters.  Although Rangers cruised to the Scottish 3rd Division title, even the most devoted of fans grew weary of the performances (or lack of) being put in by some of last season’s signings. A distinct shift in signing policy was required; and it looks as though it’s being delivered.

The likes of Fran Sandaza and Ian Black were never going to be wise choices to slot into a Rangers side facing a gruesome fight in the Scottish 3rd Division – for very different reasons of course. Sandaza, although a gifted goal scorer, has never been the most energetic player. His lethargic style of play led to him being a divisive character at Dundee United, and generally unpopular during his short spell at Brighton. There’s no doubt that he can stick them away when given a decent supply; but when be faced with a muddy park, playing against hard-nosed joiners and labourers who’d like nothing better than to put you on your backside, his effectiveness soon diminishes.

Ian Black too has struggled to win over the Ibrox faithful. He succeeds where Sandaza fails in terms of endeavour, but his blatant lack of ability and over-reliance on a style of play that borders on thuggery leaves him well short in terms of credentials to hold down a place in the Rangers midfield.  Of course there have been glimpses of promise from the likes of Dean Shiels and David Templeton, but the overall style and standard of signing has been lacking from a long-term perspective.

McCoist has wasted no time in securing the services of 3 top SPL players and a 40-goal striker from Queen of the South. Jon Daly, Nicky Law, and Cammy Bell have been joined by Nicky Clark as Rangers look to take the 2nd Division by storm.

Jon Daly is no spring chicken at 30 years of age, but with a goal tally of 58 from 167 appearances for Dundee United available on a free transfer, McCoist would be a fool to turn him down. Again in stark difference to Sandaza, Daly can throw his weight about and isn’t afraid to mix it up when it comes to tackling hard. His vast experience in England’s lower divisions while playing with Stockport, Bury, Grimsby, and Hartlepool will be drawn upon again as this same grit and determination will be required to guide Rangers up through the divisions here in Scotland.

Cammy Bell was something of a surprise when you consider Rangers already have a quality keeper in Neil Alexander. Ongoing contract debates with Alexander, and a propensity to concede goals due to lapses in concentration last season have clearly lead his manager to look for alternatives. In Scotland’s lowest division, Alexander managed just 12 clean sheets in matches where Rangers picked up all 3 points. Cammy Bell has his best years ahead of him at just 26 years of age, and could easily hold on to the no.1 jersey when Rangers eventually return to the SPL. His impressive performances over the last 7 years for Killie even led to peripheral inclusion in the Scotland setup. Bell will be around for a while at Rangers if he plays his cards right, but will come under the same scrutiny as Alexander if he fails to hit the ground running.

The acquirement of Nicky Law’s signature caught everyone off guard. Law was at the heart of the Motherwell midfield this season as they punched above their weight to finish 2nd in the SPL.  He’s attracted attention from the Championship, and reports even linked him with SPL Champions Celtic, so a move to the Scottish 2nd Division, albeit with Rangers, was a surprise to everyone. At just 25, he too could remain as a first team pick for McCoist when the club get back to the big-time. He’s shown himself to be strong in the tackle, but with a decent engine to go box to box, and with the ability to split defences with a clever pass. Law has cut his teeth in England’s lower divisions, having spent time with Sheffield United, Yeovil, Bradford, and Rotherham. He’ll be one to watch for Rangers this season and beyond, if his performances last season were anything to go by.

Away from the SPL, Queen of the South striker Nicky Clark also joined the ranks at Ibrox this week. McCoist shattered the delusion that Rangers would simply be cherry picking players from the SPL, as he opted for Clark who shone in the 2nd Division and Ramsdens Cup last year. He rattled in 40 goals last season, and knows only too well the pressures of playing for Rangers if he’s been listening to his father, Sandy Clark. It’s fair to say he’s not proved himself at the highest level, but finding the net 40 times in a season at just 21-years of age makes him a hot prospect for the future. It’ll be interesting to see if he can replicate or better his tally this season, given the increase in pressure brought on by playing for a bigger club.

Given the way the last 3 years have gone, we know that there’ll be more twists and turns to come in this seemingly never-ending saga of ownership, debt, EBTs, title deeds, liquidation, and every other sensationalised story that’s landed at the gates of Ibrox in recent times, but credit must be given to McCoist on this occasion for competently dealing with the task at hand – strengthening his squad. The road back to the big-time for Rangers will be a long and arduous one, and if success is to be achieved, then McCoist will need to deliver the right type of performance from the right type of signing. The real pressure starts now, and his latest signings will be expected to explode into action next season.