With the SPL’s big kick-off looming, what kind of shape are Aberdeen in, compared to the other top six challengers? Philip Sim takes a hard look at how next season is shaping up.
Kilmarnock were a surprise inclusion last season, but have lost their manager and star player over the summer and have recruited relatively little proven quality, save perhaps Gary Harkins, who is yet to prove himself at SPL level.
Hearts have made some good signings and generally seem to have strengthened across the board, despite their ongoing off-the-field difficulties. Many of their signings are more squad players than stars, but they have retained the core of last year’s team, and if they can hang on to the likes of Rudi Skacel and Marian Kello then realistically third place is theirs to throw away.
Dundee United meanwhile has lost an entire midfield in Buaben, Gomis, Conway and Robertson, as well as defensive cover in Darren Dods. Their only quality recruitment has been Willo Flood – how much of the budget has he taken up? – and the less said about Hibs reject John Rankin the better. They have young players coming through, but they desperately need to make some signings before the window ‘slams shut’ or their top six position is far from assured.
Hibs have spent most of the summer in a weird state of limbo, with manager Colin Calderwood openly pondering a move back to Nottingham Forest. They have made two very good signings in Ivan Sproule and Garry O’Conner, both proven players who know the club well. However they have lost eleven players over the summer, including Liam Miller, Derek Riordan and Colin Nish, so their squad is pretty thin on the ground. Their traditionally excellent conveyor belt of youth talent can’t prop up the team forever, but how many quality players are going to be attracted to a club whose manager might jump ship to be an assistant in the Championship?
Motherwell is in a similar position to Dundee United in that they haven’t recruited nearly enough players. They have made one good signing in Michael Higdon, but he will act as a direct replacement for Hearts-bound John Sutton. They’re currently sitting at eight out and just two in. Retaining Steven Jennings is a plus, but it would be very difficult to claim the Steelmen have strengthened.
So now to the Dandy Dons…how does their summer match up? At first glance, the picture appears slightly gloomy – it seems like eight out and five in. Nine out really, with Jamie Langfield incapacitated for the foreseeable future. However on closer inspection, Craig Brown has paid attention to where Aberdeen were found lacking last season and has strengthened the core of the team.
This does not look like a team which will be over-run in midfield or indeed a team which will give up cricket scores at Celtic Park
The starting back four this term could be completely different to that which was bested so regularly last term. The team has two players with experience of playing full-back in Foster and Chris Clark, and two players with strength, presence and experience at centre-half in Youl Mawene and Kari Arnason.
The addition of Arnason and Osbourne will bring a bit of steel to the team, a bit of fight that was crucially missing last season.
Although this remains in the realm of speculation, this does not look like a team which will be over-run in midfield, or indeed a team which will give up cricket scores at Celtic Park. There are also a number of very adaptable players in the squad, including Clark, Osbourne, Foster and Arnason, who can play both defence and midfield, which will come in handy when the team suffers its traditional mid-season injury crisis.
The only thing the Dons are missing right now is a replacement for Sone Aluko and Chris Maguire, a bit of creativity and flair going forward. A signing needs to be made here, as the entire burden cannot be placed on youngsters like Peter Pawlett, Fraser Fyvie and Nicky Low.
Craig Brown has publicly made a flair striker his priority, and if he secures this – probably through a loan from England – then Aberdeen will be in excellent shape to take the fight to the other top six challengers for those precious European qualification spots.