Robbo’s Rebuilding Job: The Early Signs

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The MFC Podcast’s Jay takes a look at the transfer dealings, both in and out, at Fir Park over the summer and considers whether Robinson’s rebuilding job has the potential for success.

Deadline day remains a number of weeks away and, with it, so does that longed for and blessed relief of successfully hanging on to the likes of Moult and Cadden. For now, the potential for a big loss remains in existence. However, with the opening match of the league campaign now just a matter of days away, ‘Well fans can look at their squad knowing that it is, by and large, complete. This early on in August, it’s fair to assume there may still be one or two outgoings and incomings, but ahead of Sunday’s opener the majority of our wheeling and dealing has now been completed.

Stephen Robinson has been incredibly busy over the summer as he seeks to rebuild after last year’s shit-fest. Only time will tell just how good a job he has done. But in the early stages of this new season, does it look like he has managed to rebuild successfully?

There have been a number of exits from the squad which narrowly avoided a relegation playoff with Dundee United and, in the main, this has involved the removal of deadwood. Ayr United have moved quickly to snap up David Ferguson and Craig Moore, and the “will he ever stop tweeting about Celtic and actually fulfil his potential?” saga which has surrounded Dom Thomas at Fir Park for years is now over as the winger joins Kilmarnock.

Zak Jules has returned south with early rumours he might return permanently thankfully now looking unlikely, Joe Chalmers has possibly found his level in the Championship with Caley, and the binning of palming-extraordinaire Craig Samson has been universally welcomed. The enigma that was Lee Lucas – a player made from balsa wood who seemed to vanish off the planet for long spells – was another expected departure and, although a hard-worker who gave his all, most ‘Well fans were happy enough to wish Craig Clay their best wishes as he departed for Leyton Orient.

In terms of those whose have departed leaving a larger void, the obvious loss appears to be Scott McDonald. The Australian has been a fantastic player for Motherwell – and Louis Moult – in the last couple of seasons, being a constant thorn in the sides of opposition defences and a constant moan in the ears of officials. The rumours surrounding his negative impact in the dressing room were prominent over the summer and, for the good of the squad as a whole, his departure is arguably a positive step but it has to be acknowledged that losing of player of his ability is always going to be a big loss.

Keith Lasley, a bona fide club legend, moving into the assistant manager role is another notable name missing from this year’s playing roster. Despite now being in his late-30s, Keith continued to be, at times, our best midfield player last season and the debates over whether he could continue to play at the highest level in Scotland in 2017/18 will now never be proven either way, although I still tend to believe he had something to offer on the pitch. Regardless of viewpoint, his departure from central-midfield was naturally going to be a hole requiring filling.

Lionel Ainsworth provided a number of memories for ‘Well fans during his four year spell in Lanarkshire, in particular the third goal at Ibrox which sparked incredible scenes in the away end. On his day, Lionel could rival most attackers in the Scottish top flight and yet, sadly, those days were all too few at Fir Park, making him the perfect example of the clichéd inconsistent winger. By all accounts a big earner, the lack of consistency means his departure – although sentimentally disappointing – was probably the best move for all concerned.

Another player who, at least on paper, still arguably had something to offer is Stephen Pearson, a graduate of the Class of ’02 and a man who managed to win favour back from the ‘Well support with some fantastic performances to keep us in the division in 2014. Unfortunately though, he has looked a completely different player since his return from India and moving him on was undoubtedly the correct decision. And that leaves Faddy – a legend, an icon, a hero to many – who netted his last goal for the club on the final day of last season but who was never going to feature in the first-team in any meaningful fashion anymore. A big loss in terms of how highly he is thought of at the club, but a minor footnote in the out column when it comes to contribution on the park as harsh as it may sound.

With such a large number of players leaving the squad, Robbo has had the daunting prospect of piecing together a team that not just includes standard replacements being brought in, but – given how poor last season was and how close to relegation we came – boasts a marked improvement overall. And early signs seem to suggest he might just have succeeded.

Trevor Carson has, admittedly, had a fairly quiet time of it over the Betfred Cup campaign so far as Motherwell have largely controlled all four matches. However, when called upon the Northern Irishman has looked confident, assured, strong in the air, and has pulled off the odd excellent save. Despite the occasional concerned mention on Steelmen Online regarding his height (because Andy Goram was mediocre at best…), early signs would certainly suggest that he is a vast improvement on Samson, despite how easy such a feat might be. As backup, Russell Griffiths re-joined the club after impressing late on last season. A young goalkeeper who could have a bright future ahead, it’s hoped his taste of first-team football last year will drive him on to competing for the number one jersey again this year.

At the back, Cedric Kipre has, for me, looked the stand-out of the three defensive signings made this summer. A good bit over 6 foot, the centre-half is an imposing athlete, strong in the challenge, and very effective in the air, with his defensive abilities looking promising when tested during the cup group stages. But what Kipre also seems to have in abundance is both excellent calmness and composure, and genuine ability with the ball at his feet. Like all new signings, Sunday will prove the first proper test of just how good an acquisition Cedric will be, but the early signs are that Robbo could have snapped up a very decent player when he added the Parisian to the squad.

Charles Dunne is another who has shown early promise since arriving – strong in the air and with lightening speed, he comes into the squad with attributes that should benefit a back line that didn’t boast the greatest pace last season, although questions remain over his distribution at times. And this week, Ellis Plummer arrived at Fir Park having been released by Manchester City – an England youth international who has found first team opportunities limited on loan spells with Oldham and St Mirren, largely due to injury, there are enough reviews regarding his potential to suggest there might still be a formidable defender there.

In Gael Bigirimana, Robbo seems to have captured as close to a coup as the club can get these days. A Burundi international who has excelled in two spells at Coventry City and featured in both the English Premiership and Europa League with Newcastle United, Gael arrives with great pedigree and has shown already the touches, passing, and energy that suggest he could be an influential player in the Scottish Premiership in the coming campaign. The reaction and general disbelief of two Coventry supporting mates upon his arrival would suggest those behind the signs have done exceptionally well to bring in a player of Bigi’s ability and reputation to Fir Park.

His Coventry team-mate Andy Rose has also been added to the squad, after previous spells with Seattle Wolves, Ventura County Fusion, and Seattle Sounders. A tall, athletic box-to-box midfielder, the 27 year old arrives with the promise of contributing positively to the side, but has struggled during the Betfred Cup matches to exert influence on the match and may require a longer settling in period than some of his fellow new additions. The jury remains out although it is still far too early to be writing any of the new signings off.

22-year old Craig Tanner, able to play on the wing or in the hole, is another new face about Fir Park this season. Joining from Reading after productive loan spells at AFC Wimbledon and Plymouth Argyle, the diminutive attacker has already shown plenty in the opening four competitive matches to suggest he can be a positive player, showing great energy and enthusiasm, and keen to venture forward whenever possible.

Alex Fisher, who scored consistently for a doomed Inverness side at the tail end of last season, has spent the group stages of the League Cup searching for that important first goal without success. Clearly a hard-worker who is strong in the air, Fisher has struggled to open his account at Fir Park despite being handed a number of chances to do so. Last season has proven he has the ability to score at this level and there’s nothing to suggest he can’t do so in claret and amber, but the longer that first strike eludes him, the harder it will be for him to keep some fans onside and maintain his place in the line-up. It has to be hoped that he can get off the mark as early in the league campaign as possible as, once that monkey is off his back, we should then hopefully begin to see the best of the hitman.

Regardless of how below par guys like Samson, Lucas, and Chalmers may have been, rebuilding after losing the number of players that the Steelmen did at the end of last season is still a very difficult task for any club and any management team to take on, particularly when working to a budget. But, based on the limited competitive match-time we’ve seen so far, Stephen Robinson appears to have done so admirably. The 2017/18 Motherwell squad doesn’t just appear to have been built on replacements for those who have left, but there seems to be a genuine quality in a number of the signings brought it suggesting there have been improvements made all over the park.

Having witnessed the four wins in four in the Betfred Cup group stages, who amongst the ‘Well support would choose Zak Jules over Cedric Kipre, or Craig Samson over Trevor Carson, or Craig Clay over Gael Bigirimana? The answer is, quite obviously, no one.

When you factor in the players who remain from last season (at least at the time of writing!) – in particular Louis Moult, Chris Cadden, and Carl McHugh – it would appear there is already a solid case to be made that Robinson has improved the playing squad at Fir Park by quite some distance.

It remains to seen whether Moult and Cadden can be kept at the club, whether the last dregs of the deadwood can be moved on, and whether there may be one or two new signings still to arrive, but overall, I think Motherwell fans can look back at this summer’s transfer activity with genuine appreciation of the rebuilding job undertaken by the gaffer and can now look forward to seeing the squad in its entirety taking the club into a more successful campaign than that of last year.

– Jason Henderson

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