With the manager now back from his holidays and pre-season training due to start later this month – including a training camp in the USA – much of the debate online is dedicated to the quality of the squad for our first year back in the Scottish Premiership.
Although Mark Warburton has already signed four players for his second campaign in charge, various players have also left (or are due to leave) so there’s no doubt several more new players will be required over the coming weeks. The scale of this may depend on both the budget and who is available while the manager is continually at pains to discuss value and leanness.
With that in mind, just how tight is our squad and how many players do we really need if we’re to challenge for the title? Let’s go through each part of the team and see what’s required.
Out of the three main parts of our squad, arguably we’re most short in defence. Two goalkeepers (with development deputies) is fine but with Bell out of contract next summer and probably not keen to remain as back-up I’d expect the former Killie man to leave and a new ‘keeper brought in. As it stands the prime candidates to replace him are of international quality - Ulsterman Michael McGovern and Costa Rican Esteban Alvarado.
In front of them, we’re markedly short in defence per se and as last season closed, our short-comings there were exposed time and time again. As such it’s safe to say Davie Weir, in particular, will be as worried as the fans about how we cope with an improved standard next season. Last year’s most productive loan signing, Dominic Ball looks as if he’ll be brought in permanently from Spurs but it remains to be seen if he (and Bosman arrival Matt Crooks) are utilised in defence or midfield. Moreover, are both ready to lead at the back? Rumoured interest in Grant Hanley, Steven Taylor and Eitan Tibi has also left many bears non-plussed – even if all three have the more physical stature required to address last season’s deficiencies.
We’re similarly short at full-back. Whilst Tavernier and Wallace were stand-outs in these roles last season (and also ever presents) their attacking strength does mean they’re not as good defensively. Modern football strategy means that’s not necessarily a huge concern but if either was to pick up an injury, we do lack replacements. All in all, it could be argued we’re two or three players short in defence – and certainly need a dominant centre-half at the very least.
Despite the departures of Law and Zelalem from last year’s squad, the arrival of the four players we have signed means we’re now well covered in midfield – especially if Dom Ball does sign permanently for the new season. The good news is that not only do we have the quality and experience of Joey Barton, the signings of Windass, Crooks and England under-19 skipper Rossiter offers us an excellent blend in the engine room.
In addition to these new players, Andy Halliday and Jason Holt had impressive début seasons last year and will be keen the build on the good work they brought to the team. Dean Shiels has also now left but Thompson and Burt offer good cover from a development point of view.
Consequently, I don’t see many more players added in this area – although someone like Matthew Knox may yet be brought in with one eye on future years.
As much as the team often struggled to break opposition sides down for periods last season, we did score 129 goals across our 50 matches in all four competitions – averaging over 2.5 goals a game. This was in no small measure to stand-out performers such as McKay, Waghorn and Miller who were all vital creative sources. Harry Forrester also impressed before his Challenge Cup Final injury.
Although Nicky Clark and David Templeton have since left, neither really contributed enough to warrant new contracts. Billy King has also returned to Hearts from his loan and it’s unlikely another deal will be sought for the winger. Meanwhile, O’Halloran and Hardie will be keen to make themselves a first pick in what is a competitive attacking operation.
Despite the above positives, the injuries to Forrester and Waghorn, as well as the ageing Miller, means there is an arguable lack of quality depth above. As such, it’s no surprise the club has been linked with creative players such as Graham Dorrans, Niko Kranjčar and Ben Pringle. Goal-scorers such as Jason Cummings from Hibs and a rather unlikely loan deal for Danny Ings of Liverpool have also been rumoured. It certainly remains to be seen if the manager is interested in any of these players but it would surprise me if another creative player wasn’t added – along with a more recognised or natural striker.
Liam Kelly (loan)
Ross McCrorie (loan)
Andy Murdoch (loan)
Jordan Thompson (loan)
Tom Walsh (loan)
Liam Burt (loan)
Ryan Hardie (loan)
If we count up the squad players in the main part of the article, that gives us a (genuine) first team squad of around 20 players. Given the players that could leave when their contract ends, along with likely loan deals and other departures then that number could actually decrease further to as few as 16 or 17, leaving us very short in depth.
On the other hand, if we do bring in a new goalkeeper, two defenders, two creative players and another striker, that’s a further six players which would make the squad much healthier. Add in one or two loan signings during August then I’d say a total of around 24-25 quality players is the ideal number the manager will be looking for.
Therefore, if we take those seven signings and add them to the four we’ve made, that means eleven new players for this season – effectively a whole new team. That may concern many of us in terms of continuity but, as Hearts did last summer, we can ill-afford to keep players that weren’t equipped for the bigger tests ahead. Yes, guys like Shiels, Law, Templeton and Clark were useful at times but they never really showed themselves to be reliable often enough. Thus, allowing them to leave whilst retaining those that did do well does make sense.
That leaves us around seven new players to find ahead of the new season with our first competitive game in five weeks’ time against Motherwell at Fir Park. The last time we visited the Steelmen, they routinely despatched us 3-0 in the SPFL play-off final. Both teams will be markedly different from that day but, just as our 6-2 win at Easter Road last July set the tone for last season, we need to lay a marker down next month too.
Not all the players we require will arrive before then but the squad above is still strong enough as it stands to win that game and many others. However, if we’re to genuinely challenge Celtic, Hearts and Aberdeen for the Premiership title then it will need to be supplemented. The onus is on Frank McParland and the board to provide the manager with the tools to do the job. Record levels of season ticket sales will help and we’ll need to let these people do their work and give the benefit of the doubt to whoever we sign. Not every player will be a household name like Barton but that doesn’t mean they won’t become one.
To aid in our judgement, the signings so far have been largely successful enough and the steps made over the last year positive ones. As such, I can’t wait to see who will be joining us and the squad above on the march back to more success this year.
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