Celtic get their way as always; Rangers’ recruitment policy is a break from the recent past, and Hearts are set in the centre of the park, writes Craig Fowler
1) Orange is the new green and white
Ronny Deila really likes his players in a tangerine shirt, doesn’t he? Celtic once again looting an already decimated Dundee United side taught us a lesson that, quite frankly, we should have known already: if a bigger club wants a player – particularly one with less than a year left on his deal – there’s pretty much nothing his current club can do about it, especially if the same player reciprocates said club’s affections. I was one of those many people who fell into the logic trap by thinking ‘surely, SURELY, United won’t sell another player Celtic’.
Of course, the club had full intention of keeping their promise, that is until Nadir Ciftci turned down the move to Wigan and made it known through his agent* that he wanted to play for a team with a strong chance of making the Champions League. Since Arsenal or Manchester City weren’t poised to make a late offer, United were left with the horrible conundrum of refusing to sell the player and then watching him waltz down the road to Celtic Park for free when his contract expired next summer.
In the end, Deila got his man and United fans are faced with the horrifying prospect of watching Ciftci, Stuart Armstrong and Gary Mackay-Steven lining up in green and white hoops against the likes of Barcelona, all the while clutching onto beloved family members for dear life before Celtic take them away too.
*An additional thing we learned this summer is that Pierre van Hooijdonk had much better hair as a player.
2) Rangers are doing things the right way
Mark Warburton’s transfer strategy has required a little patience. Fans have been nervous about the time it has taken for the new boss to mould this squad in his own image, and quite understandably so. You only have to look back to the start of last season to see how this coming Championship season can go horribly wrong for Rangers in a hurry. Hibs, with their team already 95 per cent fully formed, could do what Hearts did and storm out of the gates slaughtering every opponent in sight. While new Rangers teammates are still at the awkward small talk stage, Alan Stubbs’ men could be several points clear at the top of the table, which could have a huge bearing on where the title is headed.
Warburton’s reasoning is simple. He’d rather take his time and ensure his signings are capable of winning this season’s Scottish Championship crown. After all, he could have rushed into decisions, picked players on past reputations and points may be easier to come by in August in September. But if those guys aren’t right in the long-term then it could just as easily cost the team points at a later, more crucial, juncture.
It’s a difficult process for the new management team: the scouting network isn’t there, the financial situation is still unclear, and having watched them fail spectacularly last season some players are now hesitant about dropping down a league to join Rangers because the return to the top no longer appears guaranteed.
There’s a scattering of players around Britain who’ll be perfect for Rangers, Warburton and Weir just need time to uncover them.
Either that or they could go back to signing a player for the sake of it. I hear Lee Robinson is free.
3) Gary Locke likes giving jobs to old pals
The criticism of Locke’s transfer policy seems pretty harsh on the surface. There are obvious benefits to signing players you’ve either worked with previously or know on a personal level. So even though his summer has lacked imagination, what’s the problem?
Well, Locke’s not the only one who’s familiar with the strengths and, more importantly, weaknesses of Jamie MacDonald, Scott Robinson and a 37-year-old Lee McCulloch. Instead of learning and reacting on the fly, opposing managers can draw up a pretty well though-out gameplan for how to attack Kilmarnock right from the off, and a struggling start is exactly what this side doesn’t need if, as expected, they will battle against relegation again next season.
It’s always worth sprinkling in a few players from outside the Scottish leagues.
The other downside is that, at the very best, Stevie Smith will be Stevie Smith. We know this team’s ceiling already and it isn’t in the top six. Locke has signed three ex-Hearts players from a team that was relegated (they would still have finished 11th without the points deduction), an ex-Partick Thistle winger who spent two years in the bottom six, a Celtic youth player, and three Rangers players who, alongside their other indiscretions, were on the side roundly defeated by Motherwell, a team worse than Kilmarnock last year.
All that being said, if Boyd has enough left in the tank and Kallum Higginbotham can come close to reproducing his 2013/14 Partick Thistle form then Kilmarnock should still have a strong enough squad to avoid the drop.
4) Fear of the unknown benefits part-time teams
It must be difficult for players in this current climate. Even freedom of contract has its downsides when footballers get out onto the open market and realise it’s populated by thousands of other guys. When the phone doesn’t ring immediately, it’s only human that some players will begin to get restless. Chances are someone will call eventually. Injuries and horrendous signings cause managers to panic and shift through the free agent market looking for someone to plug the gap a couple of games into the new season. But nobody wants to live with the constant fear of the unknown. If a part-time club can offer security then it gets more tempting with every passing day.
This summer many notable top flight players have opted out of the waiting game by signing deals with part-time clubs. A couple even went so far as to drop out of the league altogether.
Darren Barr and Mark Brown went to Dumbarton, Paul Cairney travelled down the west coast to join Stranraer after leaving Kilmarnock, Richie Brittain opted for a shot at player-management with Brora Rangers and, strangest of all, Paul Lawson left Motherwell and signed for Formartine United! With Ian Black, James McFadden and Jason Scotland still available I eagerly await this list growing further.
5) Hearts appear to have complete faith in their centre midfield
Earlier predictions of how well last season’s Hearts team would do in the top flight were tempered initially by their inability to defeat Rangers or Hibs in the second half of the 2014/15 season, and then by Motherwell’s complete destruction of Rangers in the play-off final. In the eyes of the fans, the amount of new signings needed went from a modest two or three, to an ambitious five or six. Once this window SLAMS shut it will likely be around that number, but compared with other areas of the park they seem to have been less aggressive pursuing centre midfielders.
A big reason is the four first-team players already on the books, with three of them playing to a very high standard last season. Morgaro Gomis was a player of the year nominee in the Scottish Championship and Prince Buaben would have earned similar consideration had he not missed a lot of the season’s second half through injury. The same can also be said for Miguel Pallardo had he not signed midway through September. Hearts have three seemingly undroppable players and Kenny Anderson providing depth.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t question marks about the group. Gomis struggled in his brief return to Dundee United before his Hearts switch, while Buaben underwhelmed in a loan spell at Partick Thistle before his move to Gorgie. Will they return to that sort of form now that they’re back in the top level? Only time will only tell. At least Pallardo should be fine. His experience of playing in La Liga should make the Scottish Premiership an easy transition.
To be fair, based on what they’ve done so far, who can argue with Robbie Neilson and Craig Levein? If they trust Gomis and Buaben to recapture their Dundee United form, and for Kenny Anderson to emerge as a top player, who am I to disagree? They’ve gotten it right 99 per cent of the time thus far.
6) Alan Stubbs has some serious clout at Hibs
Alan Stubbs tells Scott Allan and the Hibs board the player is going nowhere and everyone goes “ok”. Yes, circumstances have strengthened the manager’s hand. Holding onto the player and winning the Scottish Championship title is worth much more in a financial sense to the Hibs board than selling him now for £500,000. We can only wonder if the same strategy would have been applied if the club were currently middling around the fringes of the top six, as they were for so many years before Terry Butcher’s destruction plan.
Take nothing away from Stubbs, though. There are countless examples from around world football of boards failing to look at the long-term picture and cashing in on their asset out of sheer fear - there are even some notable examples from Hibs’ past (Darren Jackson, anyone?). He’s even managed to get the player to say, at the very least, he’ll see out the remainder of his deal. He has the respect of the board, players and fans. The rebuilding job is only at stage one, but there’s whispers of positivity around Easter Road going into this season, and the manager has played a big part in that.