Every single Scottish football fan must be totally shocked (and many delighted) at just how amazingly well Hamilton have performed. Most pundits and experts would have had Hamilton scrambling around the bottom of the table trying to stave off relegation this season. Nothing could be further from the truth though as the Accies were actually top of the league during the early matches and despite them slipping a little they are still riding high at the top end of the table.
After the playoff victory against Hibs in May that secured their place in the top flight it was up to Alex Neil to prepare his squad for the new season. One of the reasons that many people did tip Hamilton for the drop is down to the fact that they didn’t really change their squad too much and didn’t sign a large number of players with Neil having faith in the team that got them promoted.
The season started the way many people thought it would with a defeat against Inverness at home. Fans might have been worried that the score line that day indicated the possibility of a long and hard season. Even those diehard fans wouldn’t have predicted that Hamilton were to then go on a wonderful run of 9 matches without defeat (including 7 wins). These results were no flukes as they took several teams apart including Aberdeen who they totally demolished 3-0 at home. The football on show was also very pleasing on the eye as Hamilton passed teams to death on many occasions.
The form of Hamilton caught the eye of fans and broadcasters outside of Scotland as people wanted to know how this relatively small team who had just been promoted were managing to achieve such fantastic results (including a 1-0 victory at Parkhead). Alex Neil simply told people it was down to hard work and a strong team ethic.
Just as with every football team the good times were not going to be here forever and it has to be said that Hamilton have started to stutter a little bit. Since their victory against Aberdeen in October they have had a series of up and down results but they have just about kept their momentum going as we approach the New Year.
What has to be said is that Hamilton have managed to get the very best out of a squad of players that to many will be either relatively unknown or are now approaching the twilight of their career. Players like Dougie Imrie and Mickaël Antoine-Curier are guys that wouldn’t excite many Scottish football fans but they have been excellent this season in a Hamilton side that has a great balance and a system that really works.
Accies fans will still be erring on the side of caution as they look ahead to January and beyond but they must be confident that having now played every team in the league that they can compete with almost anyone. Even if the worst happens and they do go on a bad run of form then they at least have a large number of points already in the bag.
With such a strong start it will be interesting to see Alex Neil’s approach in the transfer window and whether or not he feels the time is right to add more bodies.
Top Performer – At the start of the season this blog had Michael McGovern down as being the key man for Accies this year. McGovern has been a standout for the side so far but his form has been overshadowed by the guy they call #22. Tony Andreu has been simply outstanding for Hamilton this term. The technically brilliant Frenchman is not only Hamilton’s top scorer but the top goal scorer in the Scottish Premiership despite not actually really being an out-and-out striker. Andreu is a playmaker, a goal scorer and a goal provider. It might be tough for Hamilton to hold on to him if he continues his impressive form.
Must do Better – It is really harsh to actually single anyone out for this given just how well Hamilton have been doing. The whole team has played a part in this magnificent season so to single out an individual for any criticism wouldn’t be very fair. Fans have however been a little disappointed with the form of young defender Stephen Hendrie. A player with so much potential he should be thriving in this league but he has struggled at times. He is still very much at the development stage of his career though and it is natural for young players to go through bad patches.
Promising Youngster – Hamilton do one thing very, very well and that is produce talented young footballers. The setup at New Douglas Park has worked wonders in the last few years and shows no signs of stopping. It is difficult to single out one youngster from the Hamilton team at the moment because most of the young players have been playing regularly for a few seasons now due to Hamilton blooding youngsters very early. One player that has yet to be given a real chance in the first team is Eamonn Brophy. The 18-year-old has been putting in some brilliant performances for the Hamilton development team and he is scoring goals for fun. It is only a matter of time before he gets his chance to shine.
Christmas Verdict – What else is there to say other than Hamilton have been the most impressive team in Scotland this year in terms of team performances and maintaining a level of form that even the most optimistic Hamilton fan would have never dreamed of. Can they keep it up? It will be a huge ask but they are surely doing enough to challenge for a top six finish and possibly more.
July Prediction – 12th
New Prediction – 5th
It is safe to say that Inverness Caley Thistle are the team that have perfected the art of getting a huge amount out of a small squad and a tight budget. Year after year it looks like the Inverness club might come unstuck given the relatively unglamorous signings they make and the little money that they have to spend. However year after year they prove people wrong and manage to churn out really solid performances that have them looking up the table rather than down.
The big worry for fans at the start of the season must have been manager John Hughes. When the former Hibs and Falkirk manager took charge in December 2013 he led Caley on a run of incredibly erratic form that ranged from the distinctly average to the utterly abysmal in terms of performances and results. It must have sent alarm bells ringing for supporters with many of them questioning the ability and long-term future for Hughes.
Testament to Hughes then as Inverness turned up for this season refreshed, reorganised and just a hell of a lot better than they were towards the end of last season. Caley lost just twice in their opening eleven matches, a run that propelled them towards the top of the league. The campaign also started with five clean sheets in a row, something that highlighted their consistent back line (more on them below).
Inverness Caley have maybe been a tad shot shy compared to some other teams in the top six this season but their resolute defence has ensured that more often than not they manage to get results.
In the League Cup Inverness had the task of travelling to Ibrox in September to play Rangers but they left with a 1-0 loss and by all accounts it was possibly one of their poorest performances of the season so far. The Scottish Cup has provided a bit more in the way of positive results and they are set to take on Partick Thistle in the 5th round.
John Hughes has managed to turn many fans around with the performances so far this year and he will be pleased at the way his team are once again performing well despite only making a couple of signings since the summer. Hughes is a big fan of possession football so maybe it needed time for this philosophy to be bedded in at Caley, possibly explaining their results last season.
Form has taken a slight knock in the past month and there are some tricky fixtures coming up over the festive period but Caley have enough about them to continue doing what they do best.
Top Performer – When you look at the stats for Inverness so far this season you can see exactly why they have been impressive at the back. Goalkeeper Dean Brill and defenders David Raven, Graeme Shinnie and Josh Meekings have all played in every single Premiership match this season (fellow defender Gary Warren has only missed one game). This kind of consistency breeds confidence and helps the rest of the team. So for the top performer so far (and this is a total cheat) it goes to the entire back four of Caley. Okay so that isn’t one player but to be honest it is a case of the back four being greater than the sum of its parts. That isn’t a disrespectful dig at any of the Caley players, they are all excellent defenders, but it would be a worry for fans if this back four is taken apart.
Must do Better – This is a strange nomination given just how good this player has been for Caley. Every side needs a good goal scorer and Billy McKay is that player. For the last few seasons he has been scoring goals for fun in the Scottish Premiership but this season things have been a little different. It might be down to the change in style of football that Inverness play under Hughes but it shouldn’t be. It might be a confidence thing or it might just be one of those footballing mysteries. Whatever it is the Northern Ireland internationalist has been like a different player this season and the goals have dried up. McKay is still the talisman for the Inverness frontline but he really needs to start hitting the back of the net again.
Promising Youngster – Ryan Christie without a shadow of a doubt. The son of Inverness legend Charlie is the real deal. At 19 he has had to wait for his chance in the Inverness team but he has grabbed that chance this season. He has recently found himself on the prestigious ‘In Bed with Maradona – 100 for 2015’ list that aims to showcase new footballing talent from around the globe and he has also kick-started his international career this year. A real shining light he is a player that might not be at the club for too much longer if he continues to develop in that way many people think he should.
Christmas Verdict – Admittedly it has been a little surprising to see ICT perform as well as they have so far this season. They have though shown once again that they can produce consistent performances and it looks like they will be a fixture in the top six for the majority of the season. If McKay can get scoring again they could be pushing for Europe.
July Prediction – 6th
New Prediction – 4th
Kilmarnock are a strange team to try and sum up. For most clubs in the league you can pick out things that are either right or wrong straight away but with Killie it seems as though on the park and off the park they are still very much in a state of limbo and have been for some time.
Allan Johnston started his second season in charge at Rugby Park like a band making that ‘difficult second album’. He had made a few signings over the summer and come August he had a chance to really make his mark on this Kilmarnock team. After a fairly uninspiring first season in charge the pressure was on Johnston to now show his true worth. Fans are always willing to give a new manager a year to bed in (in particular if budgets are being cut) but season two is different.
Kilmarnock kicked things off with a 1-1 draw at newly promoted Dundee and the performance in that game has set the tempo for much of the season. During the match Killie showed that they can play decent football and pass the ball about reasonably well but when it comes to killing teams off or maintaining a good level of performance for 90 minutes then things start to fall apart a little.
Johnston’s team have been very much up and down since August and they are the masters at getting a few decent results strung together and then all of a sudden losing all momentum. They are currently in 8th place with a record of 6 wins and 8 losses showing just how inconsistent they have been.
Fans have been unhappy at the way Johnston sets his teams out and the complete lack of any goalscoring threat. An average of one goal a game is not going to get you anywhere fast. More worryingly is that fans are voicing their concern that Johnston (and the club) don’t seem to have kind of plan at the moment. There is no long-term vision for the club and that is turning fans away. You could argue that Kilmarnock don’t have any real identity at the moment. You can look at other teams in the league and spot what they are trying to do but with Killie that isn’t the case.
The real concern at Kilmarnock is still what is happening off the pitch. For fans of the club this has been a really tough few years and that continues this season as arguments about finances, player’s bonuses, boardroom members and the investment in the youth structure have all been on the agenda since the summer. There are supporters who are genuinely worried about the long-term future of this club and the apathy amongst the fans is growing.
Top Performer – It isn’t easy picking someone from this Kilmarnock team given they have been so inconsistent. The best of an up and down bunch has to be Irish defender Mark Connolly. The central defender arrived in the summer from Crawley Town and he has looked assured and consistent and the back, something many of his teammates could learn from. If his excellent form continues then Kilmarnock might have a hard job of keeping hold of him.
Must do Better – In a season like this there are more than a couple of contenders for this. There have been many critics of goalkeeper Craig Samson this year and many of the summer signings have made little impact but Manuel Pascali wins this category. Having been at the club since 2008 there will be supporters who see Pascali as being a bit of a legend at Kilmarnock but it is looking like his time is close to being up. At 33 he is beginning to show his age and he has caused more than a few problems for his team this year.
Promising Youngster – A player who earlier in the season became a bit of a ‘YouTube sensation’. Young striker Robbie Muirhead was playing for the Scotland Under-19s against Norway in October when he hit a stunning 40-yard strike with his left foot into the top corner. Something special from a player who, at 18, has broken into the Kilmarnock first team. Many supporters are concerned that Muirhead has been playing out of position under Johnston and they are also concerned that he will be leaving sooner rather than later unless things improve at the club. For his own development he must be treated the way he deserves.
Christmas Verdict – Allan Johnston faces a tough few months ahead. Fans are beginning to voice their concerns more regularly and there are teams in and around Kilmarnock who are possibly in a better position moving forward into the second half of the season. They won’t go down but things are looking bleak at Rugby Park.
July Prediction – 8th
New Prediction – 10th
Third, second, second. That is how Motherwell’s record looks over the past three seasons. Impressive stuff considering they are a club who’s budget has been slashed year on year for some time now. Like most other clubs in Scotland they have had to re-asses their financial structure but unlike other clubs they have managed to consistently produce the goods needed to compete at the very top of the table.
Fans of the Fir Park club approached this season like they had done the previous few. They knew the club was reducing its budget, they knew that a few of the bigger names would have to leave the club and they knew that Stuart McCall would yet again try to get the best out of their tight squad. McCall was beginning his third full season in charge and was facing many of the same battles that he had faced before.
Motherwell’s season started earlier than most as they kicked off their European campaign in late July. They faced Stjarnan of Iceland in the Europa League second qualifying round. It was a tie they were hopeful of winning but that they somehow managed to throw away in the most unbelievable of circumstances. Winning 2-1 at home they managed to concede a 92nd minute penalty that was converted by the Icelandic side. In the away leg they played well and managed to take the lead twice but again transpired to throw things away. The game finished 2-2 so extra-time beckoned and another slice of Motherwell bad luck struck as Atli Jóhannsson of Stjarnan struck the winner deep into extra-time.
You would think that a confidence blow like that might dishearten a team but Motherwell did win their first game of the season against St.Mirren. However that 1-0 victory was a small highlight in what has been an utterly disastrous season so far. That might sound harsh but it is true. The fact that Motherwell have only won four games all season (including the cups) proves just how bad things have been.
In the first few months of the season it was a mixture of a real lack of goals and a horrific defensive record but it was also partly down to poor management by McCall. That poor management cost McCall his job as he resigned in November after five straight defeats. Despite being one of Motherwell’s best ever managers it was time for everyone to move on. Kenny Black took temporary charge but lost out on the fulltime position as Englishman Ian Baraclough was offered the job in mid-December.
Baraclough was a vastly experienced player and has had some brief success as a coach and manager. He has his work cut out with Motherwell as he attempts to salvage this disaster of a season. With a squad that contains a top goalscorer on 4 goals and a team in -15 goal difference he has a difficult task ahead of him.
Motherwell are another Scottish club trying to sort their future out off the field and there have been movements made to ensure that the club are secure in the long-term. Financial backer Les Hutchison has set plans in motion that will eventually give Motherwell fans the opportunity to control their own club in a few years time. Fan ownership is something that many football supporters want so it will be interesting to see if Motherwell can make it work.
Top Performer – This is pretty easy. In a squad that contains more than a few underperformers there is one shining light in Henrik Ojamaa. He of course was previously with Motherwell and was adored by fans (and admired by everyone else). In his second spell with the club, he is easily one of the best attacking talents in the league. He is actually only on loan until January so the most pressing need for the new Motherwell manager must be to try to extend his loan deal from Legia Warsaw
Must do Better – Is it okay to pick the whole Motherwell team? Probably not. Therefore the person to be singled out here is defender Simon Ramsden. The 33 year-old missed the start of the season through injury but it is safe to say that many Motherwell fans are wishing that he was still missing. He has had a very poor season and has cost his team on numerous occasions. A new manager coming in will hopefully improve his form and the form of the whole squad.
Promising Youngster – Not much to choose from here really. A mixture of younger players not really impressing and others not being given a chance means that there are only a couple of options when it comes to picking a promising youngster from this Motherwell squad. The player who looks like he might be one to look out for is young striker Lee Erwin. Despite not playing too often height be the type of player that will be given a chance to prove his worth under the new manager.
Christmas Verdict – Lets just forget the last few months shall we? A decision was made by the club and by Stuart McCall to move on and start again. That means that for fans this season will simply now be about avoiding relegation (they won’t be relegated) and laying down foundations for next year. Is Baraclough the man to change it all around? He is certainly saying the right things and seems positive about the future for his new side.
July Prediction – 4th
New Prediction – 9th
The final roundup will be posted tomorrow and will feature Partick, Ross County, St.Johnstone and St.Mirren.