Courier Sports writers Eric Nicolson, Ian Roache and Neil Robertson discuss some of the burning issues at our local football clubs.
Q That’s St Johnstone joint-second in the table. How high should their sights be set this season?
NR: It doesn’t seem that long ago that the mantra coming out of McDiarmid at the start of every season was the first aim was to make sure they were safe in the Premiership. Expectation levels have understandably risen and if Saints can remain relatively injury free, then there is no reason why they cannot aim to be the “best of the rest”.
IR: After the sad news that “Cuptie” Dave Mackay has called it a day, the victory over Hearts put smiles on a few faces at the club. Let’s face it, though, seeing Saints sitting in third spot is not a surprise and they can be in the mix with Aberdeen, Hearts and Rangers behind champions-elect (yes, even this early) Celtic.
EN: Fifth is still probably the likeliest finishing place for Saints but, as of just now, they’re a better team than Rangers and on a par with Aberdeen and Hearts.
Q None of you predicted Tommy Wright would choose Zander Clark over Alan Mannus last week, shame on you all. A future Scotland keeper?
NR: If he produces a few more performances similar to Saturday’s against Hearts, then a Scotland call-up is inevitable. Gordon Strachan was watching on as Clark pulled off a succession of stunning saves. The goalie certainly has all the physical attributes to go to the very top and temperament wise, nothing seems to faze him.
IR: Nothing against young Zander, but can I have Tommy Wright as Scotland manager instead?
EN: Wright is a big fan of Mannus so it says it all that Clark was preferred to him when both were fit. I do think he’ll play for Scotland. Neil mentioned his size, and that gives him a big advantage over the likes of Scott Bain.
Q Saints have become a bit of a bogey side to Hearts these days. Another team you could say that about is Aberdeen. What chance do you give Saints at Pittodrie in the League Cup?
NR: I was at McDiarmid and watched Aberdeen as they beat Dundee live on Sky, and there is very little between the teams. Saints will have to snuff out Jonny Hayes and the midfield battle will be key but I can see this one going all the way to extra-time and penalties.
IR: I would rate this one at 50-50, even with the Dons at home. I imagine that Aberdeen would rather have any other team – with the exeption of Celtic – coming to visit than the Perth men. Having seen them at Dens on Sunday, they have matchwinners in Hayes and exciting new loan signing James Maddison but Saints definitely have an evens chance and are worth a bet.
EN: I give them a very good chance. Take it to extra-time and let the Pittodrie crowd get on their team’s back.
Q Paul Hartley was quite upbeat about Dundee after their defeat to the Dons. Do you share his positivity?
NR: On the plus side, Dundee scored a goal of the highest quality and could rightly feel hard done by following the award of Aberdeen’s clinching penalty but the simple fact remains that Hartley’s side have just one win to their name in the league after six games. With Faissal El Bakhtaoui ploughing a lone furrow up front against Aberdeen and starved of service, it was difficult to see where further goals were going to come from on Sunday.
IR: The 3-1 scoreline certainly flattered Aberdeen and the Dundee goal was a cracker. However, it is hard to be overly positive when results are not going your way. As Neil pointed out, the gap between the rest and El Bakhtaoui was too great at times and they suffered as an attacking force as a result.
EN: We’ve been here before with Hartley’s Dundee but he always tends to dig out a result when he needs one. I can see them winning at Inverness to continue that trend.
Q Managers like to talk about their home ground being a “fortress”. Dens Park is anything but just now. Surely that must be a worry?
NR: The longer the wait for a win at home goes on, the harder it will be to get the proverbial monkey off their backs – luckily it is Celtic who are next up at Dens, then! Seriously though, three out of the next four games are on the road. We will know exactly what this Dundee squad are made of after the next four matches.
IR: Yeah, that’s some fixture schedule but it is what it is and the Dundee players have to embrace it. Also, we should remember that while it’s nice to play well and win in front of your own crowd, points grabbed away from home count the same.
EN: It will be a worry if attendance figures start dwindling.
Q It’s still early in the season but is the chopping and changing up front an issue for Dundee?
NR: Rory Loy seems to have fallen out of favour in recent weeks while Craig Wighton was benched for the Aberdeen game after starting against Kilmarnock the previous Saturday. It looks like Hartley will persevere with El Bakhtaoui but his team-mates cannot allow him to become isolated like he was against the Dons.
IR: What is an issue for Dundee is that they have lost two fine players in Greg Stewart and Kane Hemmings and the pair are proving difficult to replace.
EN: I was surprised that Wighton didn’t start. By all accounts he played well against Killie. Now is the time for him to get a proper run in the team.
Q Dundee United got all the incentive they needed at Falkirk when Hibs lost to Ayr before their game kicked-off. I suppose it will make the defeat all the more painful?
NR: That defeat at Easter Road really was a coupon buster and it presented the Tangerines with an ideal opportunity to close the points gap on Hibs. Ray McKinnon’s men obviously failed to do so but Falkirk had won their three previous matches and were in fine form so a defeat on the road was not a big shock.
IR: I saw a bookie offering odds on Hibs winning all their games just last week so that ship has sailed. United looked good for long spells against Falkirk and had they won the game themselves late on it wouldn’t have been a shock. However, their defence let them down once again – more of that later.
EN: It was a sickener alright. A win would have made a real statement. Perhaps more significantly, it showed that Falkirk aren’t a busted flush and will be in the promotion hunt.
Q United’s defence. Discuss.
NR: The names change but the failings remain the same, unfortunately. Until that defensive frailty is eradicated, then United’s hopes of going straight back up will be fatally undermined.
IR: Different players, different manager and different opponents but it was a case of same old rotten defending by United as they again lost goals to simple headers off crosses into the box. It’s frustrating and annoying in equal measures and must be sorted out.
EN: I suppose we should cut the two new centre-back imports a bit of slack but the headed goal from five foot nothing John Baird was an alarming one. I’m sure other Championship centre forwards will have taken note.
Q Is it time we start looking at Queen of the South as genuine promotion contenders?
NR: Absolutely. They have won their last seven games in a row which is all the evidence needed to show that Gavin Skelton’s side are the real deal. The signing of Stephen Dobbie was a major coup but the Queens team is laced through with experience with the likes of Derek Lyle, Andy Dowie as well as Jamie Hamill and I am sure the Doonhamers will be in the play-off mix come the end of the season.
IR: No. The top three will be Hibs, United and Falkirk, probably in that order.
EN: Forget Tony Andreu. Stephen Dobbie was the best Championship signing of the window. Keep him fit and they’ll be in the play-offs. Actually, he would have been perfect for United.
Q Dunfermline’s start to the season wasn’t in the script, was it?
NR: No, I have to admit I thought they would easily adapt to the Championship after winning promotion. I was at East End Park last Thursday for their press briefing and I was struck by the amount of new faces at the club. Boss Allan Johnston is probably still trying to find his best starting XI and I am sure results will change sooner rather than later.
IR: It won’t do them any good pointing this out but things have genuinely gone against the Pars this season. They have had a pile of injuries and let’s not mention the penalties (sorry, we must).
EN: They’re on the same points as St Mirren, who have just sacked their manager. That puts their start into perspective. The Pars certainly need to pick up very quickly if they’re not to be cut adrift from the play-off battle. Even this early.