WHATEVER the Scottish Premier League might be said to lack this season, it isn’t goals.
Or players with the happy knack of netting them in thrilling fashion. In turn, however, that brings its own anxieties for those desperate to see their teams remain free-scoring.
For as well as operating at the top of the SPL scoring charts, Celtic’s Gary Hooper, Hibernian’s Leigh Griffiths, Motherwell’s Jamie Murphy, Dundee United’s Johnny Russell, and Inverness Caledonian Thistle’s Billy McKay share something else. They are players who could be enticed away from Scotland next month.
Motherwell manager Stuart McCall has more reason than most to fear the impending January transfer window since Murphy is one of several players out of contract next summer. The striker has found the net 11 times this season and is expected to move this week, with Sheffield United the likely destination in a deal worth £100,000.
“Forwards will always be talked about when it comes to getting moves, and good moves,” says McCall. “We’ve seen it with David Goodwillie, Conor Sammon at Kilmarnock – who moved in a January window – Chris Maguire, Craig Conway and Adam Rooney.
“Clubs will always be looking for goalscorers but it would be sad if we see a lot of players move in this window. It would be nice for defenders with some of the quality goals that have been scored, but not for Scottish football. It is a worrying time for all managers and I certainly fall into that category.”
Yet McCall no longer sees the balance firmly tipped in the direction of Scotland losing all its top scorers half a season in. He believes there are sufficient cautionary tales from recent years to prevent players jumping at the first opportunity.
Murphy has been patient. He has remained at Motherwell despite his departure being predicted for the past three windows. His manager believes the player has reaped the benefit of this and will not begrudge him his move if he does decide to leave next month.
“Jamie is probably playing as well as he has done for a long, long time and been terrific,” McCall says. “He’ll probably look upon having played in Champions League [qualifiers] and now being bang on form, and think that the decision he made to stay with us in the summer as being the right one.
“There is always going to be a lure from English football, just because it is England and also because of the finances. But there is a balancing act to be struck when you look at the players who have moved from Scotland and are not playing regularly in England, and in fact not playing any football at all down there. You can go back to a year and a half ago when Danny Wilson moved from Rangers to Liverpool, and Fraser Fyvie from Aberdeen to Wigan, Goodwillie from United to Blackburn Rovers.
“I think players and agents and families have a big say as well. Are they getting an offer from the right club, they have to ask? Once you’ve played regularly the last thing you want to do is end up playing in the reserves or sitting on the bench. That has happened to a lot of players. Goodwillie is a prime example because he went on loan to Crystal Palace after not being able to get a game at Blackburn, but then didn’t make the Palace team either.
“A couple of extra zeros in your bank account is better than not but I think you’ve got to weigh it up, and think about the joy you get from playing. If you are going to go and play at a higher standard that’s all well and good but you have to be playing and making the first-team squad of 18, which some of those who have left the SPL are not.”
Hooper is a different case from the other sought-after scorers in the SPL. He could probably go to a mid-ranking English Premier League team and be sure of making an impact. His Celtic manager Neil Lennon admits the 24-year-old is likely to be on “the shopping lists” of most English top-flight clubs. Lennon also has concerns over midfielder Victor Wanyama, both these players having thus far declined to sign contract extensions. Hooper has only 18 months left on his deal and his refusal to commit to a longer contract would see January as the optimum time for the club to sell a player valued at £8 million in the current market. However, the fact Celtic are chasing glory on four fronts, most notably with a last-16 Champions League tie against Juventus, leaves Lennon believing the striker he signed for £2.2m from Scunthorpe has more reason to stay put.
“I am always wary of the windows but I can’t imagine any of the players will want to go,” Lennon says. “They might not get this opportunity again to do what they are doing. We are going well in all competitions. It could be for the sake of four or five months and they could maybe look at their own futures in the summer. I would imagine even upstairs would not be encouraging any club to come in for our players.
“We will stave off any move for Gary vigorously. Having spoken to his representatives and the player himself, he loves it here. That’s no guarantee that nothing will happen and everyone has their price, I suppose, but the timing would be so wrong for us and would mean we would have to go and find someone like Gary. They are hard to find. There is no time limit on the new contract offer but obviously the longer it goes the more precarious our position becomes. I would like to get something tied up over the next month or so.”
The likelihood of transfer activity involving SPL strikers highlights the more transient nature of today’s player. Not since Kris Boyd four years ago has any player broken through the 100-mark for goals in Scotland’s top flight. After near-decades in the game up here, Derek Riordan and Scott McDonald moved on while their totals were in the 90s. Short of either returning, it is difficult to see when next a striker will commit to playing in Scotland’s upper tier long enough to join the 100 club.
Gary Hooper WAS £2.2m
16 goals this season
Billy Mckay WAS free
18 goals this season
Jamie Murphy WAS free
11 goals this season
Leigh Griffiths WAS £150,000
14 goals this season
Johnny Russell WAS free
11 goals this season