THE 2014/15 Scottish football league season is almost underway.
It won’t be long before we learn whether all our hopes and dreams for the upcoming year are a credible possibility, or if we’ve kidded ourselves into believing that this time things were going to be different.
The men who we pin those hopes on, more so than others, are the summer signings. They capture the imagination of supporters; representing the possibility of change for the better.
Of course, they can’t all be world beaters. Last month I examined the more interesting transfers during June and gave them marks out of ten, and through three separate blogs I’ll do so again for July.
First up is the division that everyone’s talking about: the Scottish Championship.
Marius Zaliukas to Rangers
The signing of Zaliukas makes a little more sense after the club’s Petrofac Training Cup win over Hibs, where manager Ally McCoist opted for a 3-5-2 formation from the start. It would be unfair to say the signing was illogical up to that point, though it did seem as if resources could be spent better elsewhere with Darren McGregor in line behind Bilel Mohsni and Lee McCulloch.
Zaliukas can be a dominant centre back on his day: strong, brilliant in the air, possesses good pace and can carry the ball out from the back. However, he can also throw away points all on his own. A new centre back should have spelled trouble for Mohsni given his unpredictability, though Zaliukas is hardly a safe pair of hands himself.
Besides, who knows what damage sitting out a significant portion of last season, then dropping in and out of the Leeds side has done for Zaliukas’s confidence and abilities. Plus, he’s another ageing player joining a squad littered with old stars.
His concentration has certainly improved as his career wears on, but there were still games during his last season with Hearts in which he made startling basic errors. There is a much smaller margin for error at Rangers than in Gorgie, with the Ibrox side are expected to collect as many points as they can if they are going to fulfil ambitions of strolling to the Championship crown.
The overriding criticism of McCoist and the Rangers team has been of a lack of imagination. They struggled mightily to break down Albion Rovers, and managed to outfight Dundee United but still conceded three goals in their Cup clash at Ibrox. Signing two strikers and two centre backs indicates that we should expect more of the same this season. Instead of bringing in Zaliukas, another midfielder with a bit of guile would have been a better choice for this squad.
Scott Allan to Hibernian
Hibs didn’t feature in last month’s ratings because, well, they hadn’t signed anybody. Since then they’ve been incredibly busy, bringing in four players and forming what’s beginning to look like an intimidating outfit in the Scottish Championship. This is the most interesting signing of the lot and, while I know Hibs fans are delighted with the acquisition, I have to say I’m a little torn.
Allan really looked like he could be a world beater during his Dundee United days. It wasn’t so much his performances in tangerine that wowed me, but more the way he went into Scottish under-21 internationals and ran the show.
When on his game he’s the type of midfielder that crowds cannot help loving. He insists himself on proceedings and cannot be pigeon-holed into the specialised roles that have changed the centre midfield position. Is he an attacking midfielder? Is he a defensive midfielder? He’s neither. He’s a centre midfielder who wants the ball in front of his own defence and in the opposition box.
The wariness comes from the fact that, for all his undoubted skill, he’s yet to prove himself as a worthy first team footballer. There are major doubts over his character and whether he’s willing to work hard enough to fit in with the rest of a team.
He’s owned up to those selfish tendencies but there’s a major difference between saying something and actually following through on those words 365 days a year. Similar to Aberdeen signing Goodwillie, he’s a gamble with plenty of upside. I just wonder if Hibs need that type of player right now as they look to rebuild.
But then I flip back the other way. Have Hibs taken many gambles with regards to player acquisitions over the last few years? McPake, Craig, Vine, Clancy, Nelson, bringing Thomson back; all of these signings look like bad punts in hindsight but at the time we thought they were a sure thing. All of them had experience in Scotland and had proved themselves in the Scottish Premiership. None of them worked out. Hell, you could even throw the last manager into that list. Bringing Stubbs in was a gamble and maybe it’s about time they started doing likewise with their player recruitment. Because if Allan can realise his potential then his signing alone makes Hibs’ midfield look a lot stronger.
Farid El-Alagui to Hibernian
I’ll be kind on Hibs and give them a two-for-one since they didn’t feature last time. This is the kind of safe buy we’re used to the club making, and for that reason it does concern me a little.
We know El Alagui’s ceiling in the second tier and, at 29, that’s unlikely to be improved upon. What Hibs need to hope is that he is the same player who delighted Falkirk fans for the duration of the 2011-12 campaign.
Since then he suffered a serious knee injury while at Brentford, and Dundee United fans branded the striker an immobile dud after having similarly high hopes when he signed at Tannadice on loan in January.
Having said that, Hibs did need to add another striker, and perhaps it’s a case of El Alagui just struggling at a higher level. Besides, he wasn’t an automatic first choice at Tannadice and, seeing as he was only on loan, would hardly have felt secure in the new environment. There have been countless strikers through the years who have banged in the goals at the Championship level and struggled in the top flight. Hibs will be happy if he proves to be one of those this season.
His height and penalty box prowess should also make him a perfect foil for Jason Cummings or, if playing with one up front, Sam Stanton attacking from deeper positions. He also gives the team an out ball when an opponent’s pressing becomes a little unbearable. Stubbs may want his side to pass the ball, but there’s nothing wrong with adding a different option into the gameplan.
He has probably hit his career peak and if Hibs were signing him to play in the Premiership then this is a transfer I would not rate. But for the Championship it’s hard to pick too many holes in the deal.
Osman Sow to Hearts
I refuse to use pre-season friendlies as a means of judging the capabilities of any player or club, so I don’t have much to say on Hearts’ new recruit as I’ve never seen him play a professional football match. However, he does appear to fit the bill perfectly with regards to the type of player Hearts required to round off their summer transfer activity.
The addition of James Keatings up top and Soufian El Hassnaoui to play as a second striker reinforced a previously threadbare unit, but the attack still lacked balance. Hearts were without any physical presence and, for a team with such a plethora of quality options on the wings, it was odd that they didn’t have anyone with great height. Even though he won’t dominate in the mould of a previous Craig Levein favourite, Mark de Vries, he at least gives a different option; keeping the opposing defence honest against the cross.
In spite of his height, Sow is another who moves quickly and works hard to shut down opponents, which as we discussed in last month’s rating is exactly what Robbie Neilson is looking for in his attackers.
He’s only played a handful of matches at a high level so enthusiasm should be curbed until he plays a few matches of the league season, though anyone worried about Hearts being his sixth stop in four years should be assured that he was moving up the divisions throughout the first four of those transfers. Only his move at Crystal Palace didn’t work out, and I’m not exactly going to criticise him for failing to play with a mid-table English Premier League side when he’ll be featuring at a much lower level this coming year.
Declan Gallagher to Livingston
It didn’t seem imaginable when Livingston sold Coll Donaldson in January that they’d eventually replace him with someone who had a stronger 2013/14 season. Donaldson is an incredible prospect and by the time his career is done he should have dwarfed any success that Gallagher may enjoy, but for the here-and-now John McGlynn has gotten himself an upgrade.
Gallagher should have been playing in the Premiership this season. Not only was he one of the better players in the Dundee team, he was arguably among the best in the division. The Dees had their share of critics for the laboured manner in which they finally secured the second tier crown that looked a certainty back in August, though Gallagher was one such player who did not his share of mocking tones aimed at the Dens Park club.
Easily identifiable by his huge frame, the former Clyde player is more than just a towering stopper of crosses and long balls. He has the ability to bring play out from the back and reads the game with intelligence not usually synonymous with someone of his size.
That he hasn’t yet risen to the next level is down to a long running, yet utterly mystifying, contract saga between the player and his former club. Dundee eventually announced that a third contract offer had not been accepted and a fourth would not be forthcoming. Whether this was about money or first team assurances, Livingston have benefited from the split. Gallagher will slot in alongside Simon Mensing next season and provide the club with one of the stronger (in every sense of the world) centre back partnerships in the division.
Question marks over his character in light of the contract dispute, and some other off-field concerns, are the only things keeping this acquisition from getting full marks.