About a Boyd, County courting second
In this week's North of the Border, Kris Boyd is the latest former hero to return to Scottish football as he signs for Kilmarnock, while Kevin Thomson is also back in town and Ross County are rising.
STEP BACK IN TIME
Last week, North of the Border talked about the return to Motherwell of James McFadden, a transfer that was remarkable, romantic and went against all we know about the economic relationship between football on either side of the England-Scotland border.
McFadden has rarely been a trendsetter. Few copied his rat's-tail hair style, or the red Mohawk that followed it. This week, however, there was a rash of clubs repatriating their rebellious sons. The SPL is partying like it's 2003. Ah, the glory days.
First up was the return to Kilmarnock of the SPL's all-time leading goalscorer, Kris Boyd. That's 'all time' in the 'since 1998' sense, of course. Still, Henrik Larsson is No. 2 on that list and Boyd's numbers reveal the truth about the way he played for Kilmarnock and Rangers. His penalty-box game was incredible, he read unfolding attacks brilliantly and finished first-time with either foot and his head with equal efficiency of effort. He posted a goal every other start for a losing Kilmarnock team. At Rangers, he scored two for every three appearances he made. Never was there a player so easy to judge on such numbers. When Boyd wasn't scoring, there wasn't much to see.
However, his career since leaving Scotland in 2010 saw his stock nosedive to the point where a return to Kilmarnock was possible. He signed a £30,000-per-week contract at Middlesbrough, but was loaned out to Nottingham Forest. He left for more money in Turkey, but played less than 90 minutes before ripping up a three-year contract after five months, claiming he had never seen a penny. In MLS, with Portland Timbers, his strike-rate sank and his contract was terminated in January.
Had Boyd developed the application to match his ability to finish, he would be a rare kind of striker. It is hard to believe that will come at 29. How Boyd does back at Kilmarnock is more likely to be an interesting gauge of what has happened to SPL defences since he left.
His target during a two-month contract is, he says, to save his career. First he must win a starting position in a Kilmarnock team that is in-form, with a goalscoring centre-forward in Paul Heffernan. It is also a team playing in a different style to that which Boyd left in 2006. There is a danger that a striker who does not play his part in the possession game before it reaches the box may disrupt the team plan. However, it is on what happens when the ball gets there that Boyd will be judged.
The day after Portland released Boyd, Kevin Thomson was cut loose by Middlesbrough. Thomson had been a team-mate of Boyd's at both Rangers and the Riverside, having started his career as one of a golden generation of graduates at Hibernian. The club who first sold him for £2 million now have him training at the academy built on the profits made from the sale of those players.
Having initially raised hopes of a return for the player, manager Pat Fenlon this week said there was no money left to offer a short-term contract and that central midfield was an area in which he had sufficient cover to ride out what is left of the season.
Thomson is 28 and of all those who came back - his former Hibs classmates Derek Riordan and Garry O'Connor have both been returned and left Easter Road during his absence - he has suffered most through injury.
Hibs supporters remember an all-round central midfielder with all the passes, while Thomson became a more aggressive force at Rangers and Middlesbrough. With the SPL compacted as the split nears, if he is fit, Thomson may be a game-changer for a club who can afford a late-season reboot to their midfield.
KINGS OF THE COUNTY
The eight teams from Inverness Caledonian Thistle in second place to Dundee United in ninth are covered by four points. The approaching split is horribly damaging for what would, in an open season, be a thrilling race to the line for the European places. Instead three teams are going to drop out of the battle for second in order to play meaningless matches when the line is drawn on April 6. It could be worse: they could call it off after 22 games.
Amid this season-long scramble, several teams have taken a bow. This week it is the turn of Ross County, the newest and most northerly team in the league. What is more, they have the lowest budget in the division.
County went third this week with a 1-0 win at Aberdeen. They are unbeaten since Christmas, winning seven of nine, including their last four. That streak has included wins over Hibs (twice), Aberdeen and Motherwell - teams hitting with far bigger sticks.
The story in Dingwall is about Derek Adams, the young manager there, and his father, George, the director of football. Their team has no stars, but they can't afford any player they bring in to fail in their role. Most recently this has seen Ivan Sproule picked up from Hibs, where he had appeared a jaded impersonator of the winger who had burned off full-backs in his first spell with the Edinburgh cub. At County, Adams has recast him as a forward and Sproule not only has five goals from six games but has changed the way the team attacks, giving a moving target for an under-rated midfield unit to hit.
If County end up in the top six after the split, it will be an achievement to match any other in Scottish football. If they hang tough for a European place, you can close the book on manager of the year.