Sunday, 15 September 2013

On the Precipice

Much has been made of Danny Lennon’s record since he led St Mirren to their first ever League Cup triumph in March earlier this year. The statistics surrounding the run since then have been done to death, so I won’t bore you with those. Instead, we will take a look into some of the reasons why so much is going wrong for the Paisley side.

For starters, the squad is weaker than it was six months ago. From that cup winning eleven Ismael Goncalves, Craig Samson and Paul Dummett all left the club during the summer. The team may have found itself in even worse shape had the services of Paul McGowan and Conor Newton not been retained.

David Cornell, who, from his early season form, is a downgrade on Samson in goal. And you don’t need me to tell you just how much weaker the defence is without Dummett. The Welsh Under 21 international excelled at left-back last season, and centre-back when required.

The likes of Dougie Imrie, Sam Parkin, Lewis Guy and Graham Carey, less prominent names, followed, leaving the squad thin just about all over the pitch, particularly in attacking areas. Jake Caprice and Stéphane Bahoken increase the options but it is far too early in their St Mirren careers to assess their potential impact.

Another new signing, Gary Harkins, seemed a good addition to the squad in theory. In practice Danny Lennon has failed to get the best out of the former Dundee playmaker. When stationed behind Steven Thompson in attack - who, it must be stated, has scored only once in his last sixteen league matches - their partnership lacks pace. Experimentation with Harkins in one or two other positions has also done little to inspire.

Perhaps it all could have been different for St Mirren had referee Kevin Clancy not unjustly awarded Inverness Caledonian Thistle a penalty when the ball struck David van Zanten’s arm on the opening day. Any hopes of salvaging a point were then doomed within seconds when some cataclysmic ball retention saw them concede directly from the restart.

Within another ten minutes it was three. They have failed to recover since.

A draw at home to Kilmarnock, their sole point thus far, was followed by another thumping in the Highlands. This time Ross County was the ruthless opponent with the lack of confidence and motivation evident in the St Mirren ranks a particular concern.

For the third goal in another 3-0 defeat, Richie Brittain was given the freedom to run around twenty-five yards without anyone tracking him before latching onto a Graham Carey corner. When he strikes to score there are five defenders stationary and within the six-yard box. Additionally, for the second goal, a Brittain penalty, only two St Mirren players are bothered about any potential rebound giving the County captain an easier time following up David Cornell’s save.

Lennon’s side took the lead in their next two fixtures but lost both 2-1. One of these came against Queen of the South in the League Cup. This result all but banished the sole remaining defence of the St Mirren manager: that his side were the holders of the competition.

The most worrying aspect of St Mirren’s situation is the downbeat post-match interviews given by Lennon. Week after week we hear to tired platitudes and clichés from a man who sounds like he lacks fresh ideas or the motivation to find any. Facing the media on Saturday slightly bucked this trend but still done little to convince. Lennon bemoaned a penalty decision – even though it was, eventually, called correctly – then went on to take the positives from the new system they had been working on.

That may not suffice for the St Mirren faithful, who are growing increasingly impatient with their team’s inability to trouble opposition goalkeepers. Just a single shot on target was achieved during Saturday’s defeat. A distinct lack of strikers, apparent since the end of last season when Lewis Guy, Sam Parkin and Ismael Goncalves left the club goes a long way in explaining why St Mirren have scored at least three goals fewer than every other team in the division.

And constantly switching formations and shoehorning players into different positions, hoping that it will just all click into place eventually, is not the way to get the best out of your squad of players.

The season is still young, St Mirren have played a game less than most, the new signings are still to be given their chance and Darren McGregor’s return from long-term injury should improve the side. Unfortunately for Lennon, the responsibility for halting St Mirren’s decline and acting upon these few positives will likely be handed on to one of the current BBC Sportsound regulars within the next few weeks.

The little under three years between Danny Lennon’s appointment as manager and the cup success consisted of a steady progression of the playing squad and an valiant, if not always effective, attempt to instil a purer form of the game. However, one league finish of 8th, two in the bottom three and another that is heading in the same direction does not bode well. Even for a club with only modest ambitions.

The cup win was a high that was above and beyond the remit of the St Mirren manager even if it masked another terrible league campaign. Since then Danny Lennon has poorly negotiated the transfer window and seems unable to instil a system, or a confidence in his players, to compensate for the squad’s reduced quality. The way things are going at St Mirren Park, he will not see another transfer window to rectify the situation. 

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Edinburgh Derby Preview

With the removal of the Glasgow derby from what turned out to be the final SPL season, a lot of the television marketing weight was put behind its Edinburgh equivalent to compensate. Instead of emerging as the most anticipated fixture, it bored its audience to the point where its future presence on television was dreaded. Far greater entertainment was provided from the enterprising football of Stuart McCall’s Motherwell, the unyielding St. Johnstone and the rise of the Highland clubs.

Hearts and Hibernian supporters

The final Edinburgh derby of the 2012/13 season produced three goals - fabulous strikes from Leigh Griffiths and especially from Ross Caldwell cancelled out Darren Barr’s earlier whatever-that-was – but the previous two had ended goalless and followed a middling encounter from early in the season. Overall the fixture contributed only five goals across four SPL meetings and not enough quality to justify the hype. I will be finding it difficult not to cringe during the live TV coverage when the inevitable cheesy promotional reel that precedes the punditry hopelessly attempts to build the match up this time around.

Hearts scored only 40 goals last season, with 10 of them coming in the final six matches. In football parlance, that would usually indicate some goal-scoring form worth mentioning, however, the Hearts squad has since regressed and is currently strikerless. Ryan Stevenson and Callum Paterson are the two tasked with filling the void, but Hearts supporters have seen enough of both in that position – even if, admittedly, less so of Paterson -  to not be too optimistic about these options.

That’s not to say that neither will find the net, just that it is doubtful whether either can be prolific enough to satisfy Hearts’ needs.  A friend of mine swore that one of them had possession in the St. Johnstone penalty area last weekend but it didn’t make the Sportscene highlights, so it’s unconfirmed on my part. Almost every outfield player in Hearts’ diminutive first-team squad is required to produce at least a goal or two if they are to overcome their fifteen point deficit and get anywhere close to the league’s other sides.

But since the fixture list was released, Gary Locke will have had an eye on Sunday’s match knowing it would be an ideal opportunity to fire-up his players, sneak a result and embark on the run that will ultimately give them a chance of survival. And the earlier the better because if the Tynecastle club fail to and if a season such as the preceding one unfolds – Dundee aside, but there are reasons for their poor showing – every other club will be too far away by the time they reach zero.

Things aren’t looking much better, form wise, down at Easter Road though they will also see Sunday as a potential catalyst for a decent run of form. Hibernian will be looking to put their early season mauling at the hands of Malmö and their uninspiring season opener at home to Motherwell behind them. A derby victory to rub salt into the wounds of a bleeding Hearts would certainly aid that.

Goals have been an issue for Pat Fenlon’s side as well - three games, no goals so far this season - but this weekend will be the first time he has both Rowan Vine and James Collins to choose from. Vine proved dangerous cutting in from the left side for St. Johnstone last season and Collins already displayed some potential during his debut. What’s more, the away side go into this match as favourites both in terms of recent form in this fixture and when assessing the respective starting staring elevens.

Pressure can often work against you though, even more so when fierce rivalry is involved. A converted Derek Riordan penalty earned a makeshift Hibs side, containing Steven Thicot and an expiring Ian Murray at central defence, a 1-0 victory against an in-form Hearts side at Tynecastle in 2009 and the current team will be hoping that a similar upset, albeit in their disfavour, doesn’t occur.

If the unthinkable happened and Hearts were to snatch an unlikely victory then time may be called on Pat Fenlon’s career at East Road. His win percentage is dangerously close the other Hibs managers that have been forced out the exit in recent years and this added to the poor showings at two Scottish Cup finals, not to mention a record defeat in Europe for a Scottish club, would be deemed inexcusable by many if it culminated in defeat at Tynecastle.

For many but not for all, however, as these days the Hibernian support is split into two opposing camps during their bleakest periods: those who blame the manager and those who blame the chairman for appointing the wrong man and/or not backing his choice sufficiently. Fenlon could perhaps point to not being afforded adequate time thus far but cannot complain about a lack of finances, as in a period of severe austerity for Scottish football Hibernian have spent somewhere in the region of £200,000 on Collins as well as a nominal fee on Bradford defender Michael Nelson.

Other proponents of sticking by the manager would point to the proverbial gelling of the squad being in its rudimentary stages and that changing manager directly following pre-season is counterproductive. The performances of the new recruits at their previous clubs suggest that given time they will strengthen the squad and assist the club in beginning to climb the league. Giving Fenlon until later in the year would allow his new signings to settle and begin hitting the form that attracted their attention in the first place.

The smart money for this match is that neither seizes the moment and that a dour, low-scoring draw that does nothing to help either side awaits. Failing that a narrow victory for either side is expected, with Hibernian the most likely. It is possible, however, that the negative angle of this piece was misguided from the start. It’s a new season with all new, yet chored, branding and with yet another new dynamic surrounding this Edinburgh derby. It may just surprise us all and throw up a spectacle that we had previously come to expect from this fixture when it lurked in the shadows of the Glasgow derby.

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Tough Acts to Follow

*This article initially appeared on The Terrace Scottish Football Podcast's website. Check out their podcast (as well as lots of other great content) which starts tomorrow.

St. Johnstone Chairman Steve Brown’s first managerial appointment of his tenure was slightly against the grain to those of his predecessor and father. Whereas Geoff Brown, more often than not, gambled on inexperienced coaches, giving over half of his choices their first taste as the sole man charge of a professional football club, Chairman Brown Jr. decided to promote from within, replacing the departing Steve Lomas with his slightly more experienced assistant, Tommy Wright. Despite this also being the former Northern Ireland international’s first managerial role of a professional club (he managed at semi-professional level in his native land, as well gaining several years of experience as a goalkeeping coach in England and Ireland), Wright is older than all but one of Geoff Brown’s nine appointments and has at least ten years on each of the last three Saints managers - all at the time of their respective appointments, of course.

If the current chairman estimates that his father is going to be a tough act to follow, he should spare a thought for the new manager who is expected to do what the three most recent St. Johnstone managers have achieved, and that is build upon the good work of their respective forbearer. Owen Coyle was able to stabalise the club after a turbulent few years and may have achieved promotion in 2007 were it not for the lavish spending of Gretna, not to mention a last-minute goal from James Grady. After departing for Burnley, Coyle was replaced by Derek McInnes who secured promotion during his second season in charge, before going on to establish St. Johnstone as SPL regulars once more.

The curse of a successful management team struck once again when English clubs began to take an interest in McInnes. He eventually left for Bristol City and was replaced at McDiarmid by another first-timer, Steve Lomas. Coincidently, the day Geoff Brown announced Lomas as manager was the day he signalled his intention to step down as chairman of the club and pass his stewardship on to his son. Lomas led St. Johnstone to the top six in consecutive seasons, including their most recent third place finish in May, earning them a shot at the preliminary stages of the Europa League. Predictably, this feat led to yet another English side turning to St. Johnstone for their next manager, making Lomas the third head coach to leave McDiarmid for the English Championship in less than six years.

Shortly after his promotion, Tommy Wright’s task was made all the more difficult when Murray Davidson (though the central midfielder has since rejoined), Gregory Tade, Rowan Vine and Liam Craig, all key components of last season’s success, left the club under freedom of contract. The quartet was amongst the club’s six top scorers last season, with a combined total of 29 goals - including 27 of the side’s 45 league goals. Furthermore, what remained of the team was rewarded for last season’s achievements by having their holiday ended prematurely in order to prepare for an extremely difficult tie against a side with the European pedigree of Rosenborg.

Any supporter of the Scottish game could be forgiven for being a pessimist regarding Saints’ chances, but Wright and his side proved those doubters wrong by shocking the Norwegians into a 1-0 home defeat, before coming from behind to earn a 1-1 draw at McDiarmid Park. They did so by employing similar principles to that of Lomas and McInnes before him: a strong, organised defensive unit, first and foremost, with some decent ball players in the middle of the park, along with a few creative outlets in advanced areas.

It was one of those outlets, in the form of new recruit David Wotherspoon, who provided the assists that ensured St. Johnstone would be lining up against Belarusian side Dinamo Minsk next week. The attacking midfielder flattered to deceive at Easter Road for a number of years before finally moving on this summer. It was his corner in the first leg, and clever first-time ball in the second, that allowed Frazer Wright and Stevie May to score the goals that clinched progression to the next round. The hope now is that Wotherspoon can build upon his impressive start and become the player he has promised to be for so long.

The Hibernian graduate isn’t the only decent signing to arrive in Perth this summer. Brian Easton has proved a top performer in the two stints he’s had at SPL/Premiership/What-are-the English-calling-it-now-so-we-can-copy, whereas Gary McDonald brings a wealth of experience from stints both north and south of the border. Gwion Edwards, who impressed during a loan spell at McDiarmid last season, returns to and seems a promising acquisition. Added to these are Steve Banks and Rory Fallon, the former of which has been brought in to provide back up, while Fallon must improve on his Pittodrie performances if he is to avoid a similar fate.

It is, of course, too early in the day to declare any of these signings, or the recent managerial appointment, a success, despite the heroics of the last two Thursdays. Though if those two matches are anything to go by, it would appear that shrewd managerial appointments runs in the Brown family, and that Wright will be every it a success as those who have come before him. It is at least safe to say that, on a night where Pat Fenlon was forced to apologise for a Scottish club’s worst ever showing over two legs in Europe, Tommy Wright’s St. Johnstone were the talk of the nation’s football contingent with a result that will go down as one of Scotland’s finest: A 2-1 aggregate victory over a side with an annual budget eighteen times the size of theirs, and who were recently a regular in the group stage of the UEFA Champions League.