Scotland’s cash-strapped clubs approach this month’s transfer frenzy with a list full of freebies

SO often a window which opens up to little more than misery for the majority of Scottish football clubs, insiders believe that even the Old Firm will be more restrained in their dealings during this month’s transfer period, rendering it one of the lowest-budget windows ever on this side of the Border.

Historically it has never been the busiest, with the roll call of past recruits populated with names who barely registered, let alone made a telling impact (Dumitru Copil, Abderraouf Zarabi, Jacob Lensky anyone?) but with money tight the gambles and the panic buys will be even more limited or, at the very least, low value.

With the first week of the month gone there has already been a mini burst of activity, with Aberdeen bringing in Mark Reynolds to replace fellow defender Ricky Foster, who was sold to Bristol City. Motherwell have signed up Estonian striker Henrik Ojamaa, while Hibs have also moved to secure the services of Leigh Griffiths until the end of the season and added Eoin Doyle. But what all the incomers have in common is the minimum of outlay. Reynolds and Griffths are both loan deals, while the others were free agents. In Aberdeen and Hibs we have two of the nation’s bigger clubs, both of which are desperate for some fresh personnel to help salvage their season, but the lack of cash splashed underlines the paucity of funding in the Scottish game.

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So far the greatest density of traffic has been out the door of Scotland’s cash-strapped clubs, with some desperate to reduce the size of their squad and most keen to cut wage costs. It’s a trend agents anticipate will continue throughout the month.

“Most clubs know that there is no money and managers have been told to get rid of players before they can bring anyone in,” says agent Darren Jackson. “The problem is that they have virtually all been given the same instruction and when everyone is looking to sell, no one is buying. Stagnation is the end result. I don’t think we will see that many comings and goings and we definitely won’t see a lot of money being spent this month.

“The January transfer window has always been a strange one but now so many clubs are waiting for players to come out of contract and very few contracts are up at this time of the year. The only options are players who are out of favour and might be allowed to leave for nothing or, for the few clubs who maybe have a little bit of money, they might be able to afford to pay a very small fee for a fringe player. But most clubs won’t be able to pay any kind of fee.”

Quality does not come cheaply, though, so most will explore the only real avenue open to them. As in recent times, the most sizable slice of new faces will arrive on loan deals. In the past, marquee names such as Craig Bellamy and Robbie Keane at Celtic and El Hadji Diouf at Rangers appeared in such circumstances, but there has been a proliferation of their kind at every club, albeit that most of them have not enjoyed the same levels of fame or boasted the same impressive CV.

“But going for big names does not guarantee success, as some of those names prove,” says Billy Dodds, the former Rangers and Dundee United striker. “Sometimes clubs have gone for players just for the sake of it; some have been panic buys and they don’t always work out for the best either.

“I don’t think there will be much money spent by any club this month but I do think that some of those brought in will be panic buys. I think Rangers are heading towards that now when I see who they are being linked with. Kyle Lafferty is the latest player to pick up an injury and Ally [McCoist] knows he has to strengthen if he wants to win the league but I’m not sure there’s that much money there and I think he will have to take some risks on players he might not normally have gone for because the best quality players are already under contract and he can’t afford major transfer fees.”

But while several of those panic buys blot the list of comings and goings throughout the history of the transfer window, some mid-season acquisitions can reap the kind of rewards their managers pray for. “I was a panic buy when Rangers signed me midway through the season,” says former Scotland player Dodds. “That was after Michael Mols was injured and they were looking for an easy replacement and I was in the form of my life at Dundee United.

“I went on to play my part in Rangers’ success that season but the other side of that is the harm it did to Dundee United. Rangers made an offer United couldn’t refuse but after I left they flirted with relegation and I have spoken to Paul Sturrock since and he always says I almost cost them their place in the league.”

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Which is why, while the title challengers look forward to the chance the window offers for strengthening their squad and plugging gaps left by injuries, the majority of managers of other clubs are simply happy to see it shut.

“That’s because if managers of the big clubs are desperate to bring someone in they often go for players at other Scottish clubs, with Fran Sandaza and Garry O’Connor both already linked with Rangers,” says Dodds. “That makes it less of a risk because Rangers aren’t having to worry about Europe and these players have already proved they can perform in the SPL. St Johnstone and Hibs might not want to lose their players but at least the transfer fees will filter back into the Scottish game.”

That can be little consolation, according to Dundee United manager Peter Houston, who has suffered through several Januarys as clubs sniffed around his prize assets.

“I was at United when we lost both Willo Flood and Barry Robson in January transfer windows and both times we had hardly any time to try to use the money to replace them and both times our form took a dip afterwards, unsurprisingly as they were two key players for us. It’s not what I would call a window of opportunity,” says Houston, bemoaning the month he says does little but undermine the cause of provincial clubs. “The only clubs it benefits are those with money to spend and up here that is really only Celtic and Rangers.

“The rest of us might find £20,000 here or there but that’s of little use at this time of the year. The smaller clubs all do most of their business in the summer when there are more free agents, although it will be interesting this month to see what happens with regards the Hearts players, etc.”

But while business is unlikely to be brisk, both Dodds and Houston believe that most managers will be wheeling and dealing to bring at least one new face into every dressing room in the hope that they add something to the cause.

“Clubs like Dunfermline and Hibs will be desperate to freshen things up; they will know they need to,” says Dodds, stressing the importance of stirring things up in the quest to avoid relegation. “They need someone to hopefully kick-start something.”

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“It’s usually just the teams at either end who do welcome this window,” agrees Houston. “Pat Fenlon is new there [at Hibs] and will probably have the backing when it comes to bringing in a few faces of his own.”

They just have to be the right faces, and in a market where contracts and cash constrain SPL managers, that could be the biggest ask.