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.

Fletch Appeal

Strach saves the day, and Fletch could take us above and beyond

by Johnny Connelly

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If ever the influence of a single man was to be illustrated in the modern game of football, you’d need to go a fair distance to find a better example than the exhilarating start Gordon Strachan has made to the Scotland national squad. 

A matter of months ago, Strachan took over a Scotland side that was unquestionably on the ropes, with an apathetic support and a team verging on the dreaded ‘pot 5’ seeding position. Now, with a modest number of personnel changes, Scotland are resurgent, thanks to that insatiable, nippy belief Strachan has injected into the squad. 

In our last four competitive matches, we’ve won three (two of which were against the top seed in the group), and narrowly lost one. Strachan’s injection of belief into an ailing squad has shown just exactly what one man can do. This leads us to wonder, how much farther could we go with a top English Premiership striker firing on all cylinders. Enter, Steven Fletcher.

The big target man is now just days away from making his domestic return for Sunderland, and what a shot in the arm for Strachan’s men he’ll be if he stays injury free, and on top form for the national side. 

It’s forever been a complaint of the long suffering Tartan Army that we don’t have a world class striker (with the physical stature of Fletcher at least). The former Hibee’s Scotland career has been stunted due to disagreements with former managers, and long-term injuries, but we’re now ready to forget about all that, and get behind him, as he could be the man to fire us to Euro 2016. 

Throughout Fletcher’s career, he’s always been a goalscorer, and since his move to England, his rate has improved gradually, despite playing against increasingly difficult opposition.

Hibs – 156 apps, 43 goals (Goal every 3.6 games)

Burnley – 35 apps, 8 goals (Goal every 4.3 games)

Wolves – 61 apps, 22 goals (Goal every 2.7 games)

Sunderland – 31 apps, 12 goals (Goal every 2.5 games)

Scotland fans will be hoping and praying that this trend continues and transfers over to International level. 

His physical prowess and intelligence to read the game in that position will fill a void for Scotland that’s been there for over a generation. The introduction of that type of player gives us a threat in the air from set pieces, someone who can hold the ball up well, and someone who can bring other players into the game. 

The absence of that type of player has forced us to play pacey players as lone strikers, without any real physical dimension to our attacking play in the last third. Even against Croatia on Tuesday night, Strachan played a 5ft 10in Steven Naismith as something of a target man. Naismith, to give him his due, did incredibly well (as you’d expect with such a tenacious attitude to his play), but his talents in the side would ideally be utilised elsewhere. 

With Fletcher as the target man striker, players like Naismith, Jordan Rhodes and Shaun Maloney would ultimately feel the benefit. His ability to hold the ball up, and feed into a smaller, pacey striker/winger, could be the key to forging a successful striking partnership (something else we’ve lacked for a significant number of years).

At only 26, Fletcher’s best years are ahead of him. He’ll hopefully be coming to the peak of his powers for the next qualification campaign. He’s looking better all the time scoring more and more goals, and learning from experience in one of the best leagues in the world. He could be the key to our qualification hopes.

There’s much in the way of patience and hard work to follow for Scotland. It’ll be almost a year before we play another competitive match, but we all know, for Gordon Strachan, there’s no such thing as a Friendly. 

The fiery Scot will have his players pumped up to play USA in November, and whoever comes along before the Euro 2016 campaign kicks off. The Tartan Army will be in strong voice, the enthusiasm is brewing once more, and we could have a star striker to make all the difference.

Over to you Fletch.

 

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.

Bring on the English! – After Brave Scots Lose At Wembley, The Tartan Army Want A Rematch!

by Johnny Connelly

Scotland players applaud the crowd after a 3-2 defeat against England at Wembley

So near, yet so far. Scots have come a long way in a short time…

12 years, 8 months, and 29 days had elapsed since Scotland last took to the field against our auldest of enemies on the football field; but when the players lined up, the national anthems boomed out, and the kick-off finally arrived, the excitement and passion around the match was so overwhelming that it was hard to imagine how the sides had ever been kept apart.

An explosion of energy right from the word go was a welcome change for the long-suffering Tartan Army. Gordon Strachan’s side, psychologically charged by the deafening noise from the 30,000 travelling supporters, the players lay siege to the England side, battling far harder than we’ve been used to seeing in recent years. It was always going to be an uphill battle, and nobody in the football world gave Scotland a hope against the highly ranked England, yet the Scots managed to take the lead on two occasions, before eventually succumbing to a 3-2 defeat.

Both the euphoria of putting the ball past Joe Hart twice; and the agony of watching Ricky Lambert’s bullet header crash into the top corner leaves the Scotland fans with a gaping hole to fill, a hole that can only be filled by the promise of another chance to take on England again in the near future.

The powers that be surely must see the light and put this fixture back into the diaries of both FAs on a regular basis.

The positives we can draw from having an annual or bi-annual match against England are too great to ignore.  Speaking on Peter & Roughie’s Football Showlast week, former Scotland ‘keeper Alan Rough stressed the importance of the annual Scotland v England fixture back in his day: “It gave the players something to aim for. Everyone wanted to play in that game.”

Roughie’s point is an excellent one. In a time where we’ve seen players ‘retiring’ from international football, withdrawing from the squad with debatable injuries, and at times showing apathy towards the prospect their own involvement in the Scotland setup, a focal point such as the prospect of getting a crack at England on a regular basis could be enough to get them interested in Scotland again.

Scotland lost the talents of Kris Boyd, Barry Ferguson, Kris Commons, and Steven Fletcher (albeit temporarily) prematurely for a variety of reasons. The disappointment of not reaching major finals may have led some players to feel as though representing Scotland in lower profile matches and friendlies is somewhat meaningless. With no focal point to aim for, it’s understandable to see how this mentality could creep in. The psychology of a player can be a difficult thing to unravel. We’ve seen it 100 times before in the domestic side of the game: players will continue to fight hard and produce top performances in league matches that would be otherwise meaningless, if the club still have a cup final scheduled to take part in later in the season.

A match against England every year or two could be our cup final.

It’s nothing short of scandalous that England and Scotland have been kept apart for so long, and it’s a minor miracle that they’ve never drawn each other in the qualifying groups for World Cups or European Championships. Celtic captain Scott Brown donned the captain’s armband for his country against England, but had he been injured or unavailable, a player like Brown may never have played against his country’s greatest rivals. Brown was just 14 when Scotland played England in 1999, surely it’s only right that the best players we produce get to showcase their skills in what is the biggest grudge match possible for the country? Can you imagine Manchester United never playing Manchester City again? Or Barcelona and Real Madrid waiting 14 years for another ‘El Classico’? Everyone in football would be worse off for it.

As much as almost 13 years is a long time to wait to face England; our wait to reach the finals of a major tournament has been longer still. France 98’ is but a distant memory, Gordon Strachan and everyone at the SFA has a responsibility to do everything in their power to give us the best chance possible of reaching a major finals within the next few attempts. England always qualify, it’s just the way it is. A regular match against them could help our campaign, as it’d serve as a barometer and progress marker, year on year (or every two years).

Our road back to reaching the finals of major tournaments will be a long one, so measuring our progress in a tangible manner is key. England’s performance in major finals is fairly stagnant, and as such serves well as a way of measuring how far away we are from being good enough to qualify.

The timing of these matches could aid us too. World Cup and European Championship qualifying campaigns can be long and arduous. Those big 6 month gaps between competitive matches for Scotland can’t be conducive to forming and maintaining a cohesive unit, capable of challenging for qualification. There’s only so much you can learn from the likes of the recent friendly against Luxembourg. When compared to the heated nature of our 3-2 defeat to England, it’s plain to see that as a team, we benefit more from the experience of being pitted against our neighbours.

Away from our immediate qualification and progress goals, current manager Gordon Strachan made a great point about the financial benefits that could be harnessed from a regular Scotland v England fixture. It’s no secret that developing young players, and getting things right for both Scottish and English players from an early age is an expensive task in this day and age. It’s for this reason that Strachan suggested ploughing all the benefits from the annual or bi-annual match directly back into the grass roots of UK football. Wednesday night’s match attracted around 90,000 to Wembley stadium, before we even look at the TV money involved, we’re talking about gross revenue of £3,150,000 from ticket sales alone. This match could easily raise around £10m for grass roots football, and that’s money that our game could put to very good use.

It remains to be seen whether or not the powers that be will bow to the snowballing pressure from fans both north and south of the border to make the match a regular occurrence, but even if we don’t get the action we’re looking for, we’ve come a long way under Strachan. The team look passionate about playing for their country, and the fans are beginning to believe that we can take on anyone, regardless of stature. Strachan’s infectious attitude and personality is under the skin of the nation.

Just a few months ago we wouldn’t have wanted a regular shot at England for fear of the skelping that could ensue. Now, after our victory in Croatia, and a spirited performance at Wembley, Scotland’s lion is well and truly rampant once more.

Bring on the English.

 

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.

Lay off Allan Johnston

The Queen of the South Gaffer is a Worthy Winner

By Johnny Connelly

Isn’t it funny how every armchair supporter becomes an expert when it comes to the awards season in football? No sooner had Allan Johnston picked up his PFA Manager of the Year award, before a legion of disgruntled fans of SPL clubs registered their disgust at the outcome, some even branding it a farce.

Allan Johnston points on the touchline

Top Dog – Johnston scooped the top managerial award in Scotland

In what must have been a close run vote, Johnston trumped Neil Lennon, Stuart McCall, and Terry Butcher to claim the first managerial prize of his career.  All nominees made it to the shortlist purely on merit. Lennon guided Celtic to a fairly straightforward SPL title win, as well as some wonderful European nights, most notably against Barcelona. McCall continued to defy the odds with a miniscule budget and squad size to secure 2nd place in the SPL, while adhering to an attractive style of play along the way. Butcher similarly galvanized an under-resourced club to punch above their weight, and should be commended for pushing Motherwell all the way in the battle for 2nd spot.

Each nominee’s achievements should be commended, but none overwhelmingly eclipse those of Allan Johnston this season, on a pound for pound basis at least. Johnston’s Queen of the South team romped their way to the 2nd Division this season, scoring goals for fun, and insisting upon an expansive style.  Johnston’s men were the first team in the United Kingdom this season to win their league. If there was ever a leveller for all managers to be compared by up and down the country, surely this is it. Even with Celtic having no Rangers to contend with, Queen of the South had their title in the bag long before the Parkhead club, or any other title winners across the country.

The Scottish 2nd Division trophy was joined by another piece of silverware that everyone and their granny expected to reside in Ibrox by now, the Ramsdens Cup. Although not the most prestigious tournament in world football, the achievement of a 2nd Division club winning the Ramsdens Cup is certainly at least noteworthy. Knocking out tournament favourites Rangers early on was as much of an achievement as lifting the cup itself in that unforgettable final against Partick Thistle. Even the top sides in the country came across tangible difficulty when playing against Queen of the South this season. A single goal was all that separated the Doonhamers against Dundee United and Killie in the League Cup and Scottish Cup respectively. The 2nd Division outfit even managed to go one stage further against Hibs in the Scottish Cup, securing a 2-0, and another feather in Johnston’s cap.

Away from cup competition, their league form has been outstanding, both in terms of results and performances. They’ve lost just twice in the league, chasing a points total just short of 100! Along the way, the style of play has attracted plaudits from the media as well as Johnston’s peers. His expansive style as a player has been replicated in his first management role, as his focus would appear to be entertaining the fans, and simply outscoring the opposition. On their way to the title this year, the fans have been treated to a glut of goals, currently sitting with a goal difference of +69, and having scored 3 or more goals in a game on 17 occasions.

Some sections of supporters within the Scottish Football realm have turned their noses up at a 2nd Division manager and team being rewarded on the PFA front at all. I do wonder, if Rangers go on to win the 2nd Division and Ramsdens Cup next season in style, would people be so quick to discount the achievements of Ally McCoist and his players?

Another criticism leveled at those who voted for Johnston is that Queen of the South do have something of a wider resource pool than all other clubs in the division. While this is a clear advantage in some ways, it brings with it a huge pressure to win by a healthy margin. The Doonhamers boss has thrived under this pressure, and delivered on all fronts.  I find it strange that the resource inequality argument isn’t leveled at the likes of Neil Lennon’s Celtic side, Jupp Heynckes’ Bayern Munich side, Tito Villanova’s Barcelona side, or Carlo Ancelotti’s PSG side for example. Surely it’s such a common issue that you’d have to criticise everyone in question, or swallow your pride and admit it when a manager has done a good job?

Perhaps the ‘fresh air’ factor of Allan Johnston’s performance this season is what set him apart from the others on the shortlist? The Queen of the South journey has been something of a whirlwind at a time when our game was beginning to seem a little stagnant. As much as Lennon, McCall and Butcher’s achievements have been laudable, there was nothing ground breaking about any of them (domestically speaking at least).

Those who voted for Johnston for the PFA award clearly felt that the game in Scotland developed a much needed, exciting young manager. Shame on anyone who berates a man who’s trying to play the game the way it should be played. Long may he continue to inject this new life into our game, and with any luck we’ll see a few more developing managers of his ilk strengthening the quality and appeal of the game in Scotland.