Since the summer, Partick Thistle have gone from a club fighting for a return to the Premiership, to a club fighting against the embarrassment of a second relegation in a row. Gary Caldwell replaced club legend Alan Archibald back in October, but the change has not had the impact required. In fact, results have worsened under Caldwell, and there is no doubt that January will be a key month in his reign. Fans defending the ex-Scotland centre back have stressed that he ought to be given the chance to sign his own players before he can be fairly judged, so here are five players I think he should and could recruit to try and save the Jags’ season…
Right back has been a position where Thistle have been caught short this season. Long-serving Christie Elliott has returned to form there in recent weeks, but with no back-up or competition, he had to struggle through a wretched run of form in the season’s early weeks. Bringing in 20 year-old Ralston on loan would make sense. He’d fit in with Caldwell’s style of play too. When playing with the 5-3-2 that the Thistle manager has implemented in recent weeks, Ralston would have a license to get forward in the wing back position, one of the stronger aspects of his game. He’s already scored a goal this season in one of just two appearances for Celtic, after netting a couple of times in fifteen appearances at Dundee United last season. He may be young, but he already has experience of the Championship slog. Playing in a team where possession seems to be the focus should also please Brendan Rodgers. He’s currently behind Mikael Lustig in the pecking order at Celtic, and with Christian Gamboa at the club too, Ralston may feel he needs game time now in his career to catch the eye of Rodgers. A player with the sheer audacity to laugh in the face of Neymar during a tanking in a Champions League game might just be the kind of daft fearlessness that Thistle need to really dig in and steer themselves away from trouble.
This suggestion could be a loan or a permanent signing. Steven Saunders joined Livingston in the summer after two years in Wales with The New Saints, but has struggled to break into the team – the formidable back three of Gallagher, Halkett and Lithgow has kept him out. At 27, Saunders is at the perfect age to step into a side and instantly improve them. He should be at the peak of his powers, and a commanding centre-back (who can also fill in at right-back) is exactly what Thistle need. Sean McGinty and Niall Keown were not the main culprits during a lengthy winless run through October and November, but they weren’t great either. Dan Jefferies and Tam Scobbie have stepped into the team in recent weeks to form a back three with McGinty, but each look like they have a mistake in them. As well as having a Welsh Premier League winners medal, Saunders has also amassed over 100 appearances in Scottish football with Motherwell, Ross County and Livingston. Capped at under 19, under 21 and at senior level for Scotland, Saunders would be looking to get his career back on track after a few injury problems and a spell out of the team at Livingston. The centre-back, who’s good on the ball, and dangerous at set-pieces, scores a goal every twelve games on average – not bad for a centre back. Saunders could add the calmness on and off the ball that Caldwell has been looking for at the back, and be a key player at both ends of the park.
Ross County defender Steven Saunders scores a sensational overhead to pull his team back into the match during the 2-1 defeat to St Mirren at St Mirren Park in the …
With just six goals in nine games since Gary Caldwell took charge, it’s clear that the Jags are crying out for some attacking flair. Stevie Lawless, who has flourished at Livingston this season left a creative void in the side that hasn’t really been filled. Sean Mackie, another 20-year-old, impressed in his forty-five-minute appearance in Hibs’ 2-0 win over Celtic this month. A player who has publicly stated his desire for more first-team action could be a potential loan signing to add some pace and end product that the Thistle attack has been lacking this season. Whether or not Gary Caldwell burned his bridges with Neil Lennon after his dubious comments on the radio about the Hibs boss’ touchline behaviour remains to be seen, but Mackie would certainly excite the Firhill faithful if he was brought in. Mackie can also play at left back, so his defensive instincts should serve him well if played further up the pitch. Caldwell demands hard work from everyone in his team, as was clear to see when Andrea Mutumbo was subbed off in the first half at Firhill recently for not working back. Enthusiastic Mackie’s work-rate would see him fit nicely into Caldwell’s plans. The youngster has been loaned out to Edinburgh City and Berwick Rangers, since Hibs signed him from Raith in 2016, so has experience of the lower leagues. Younger players can be more fearless, so would hopefully ignore the increasingly tense atmosphere at Firhill amidst fears amongst fans of a double relegation.
Another creative player, Scott Wright loves it at Firhill. The Aberdeen youngster has netted all four of his career goals for Aberdeen in Glasgow’s west end, including a stunning hat-trick on one of his first starts for the Dons in 2017. After a run of games in the side at the start of last season, Wright has struggled for game time this campaign and is at the stage of his career where a loan move could really benefit him. It could really benefit Thistle too. Chris Erskine has looked a shadow of the player he once was, and the team badly lacks impetus from midfield. With Aberdeen regularly using a 4-2-3-1 shape, Wright can operate anywhere in an attacking 3 behind a striker. His versatility and capability to deliver spectacular moments could re-ignite a dark and miserable season so far in Maryhill. Wright has also been capped by Scotland at under 19 and under 21 level, so is a player with potential. Playing in a Gary Caldwell managed team could suit the youngster, where the emphasis is on possession and controlling games. Thistle have had lots of the ball this season, but have missed a bit of directness in the final third that Wright could provide.
19-year-old striker Scott Wright scores his first ever goal for Aberdeen and follows that up with a brilliant hat-trick during the 6-0 demolition of Partick Thistle …
Lastly, and perhaps most optimistically, Blair Henderson could be the marquee signing of Gary Caldwell’s first window. At 6’4″, Henderson would provide the physicality up front that Thistle have badly missed this season. But of course, it’s not just physicality Henderson would bring. With 24 goals in 27 games for Edinburgh City this season, Henderson is going through a prolific run in front of goal and has the potential to fire Thistle away from danger. He doesn’t totally rely on good service either. Lots of Henderson’s goals this season have come from his own hard work to battle and create chances for himself. Henderson would command a fair fee for a League Two player, but with his contract up at the end of the season, he is surely get-able for the Firhill board. At just 24 too, Henderson could turn into the club’s next Doolan-type cult-hero. Or if he is a staggering success, he is at a good age for the club to make a profit from sell-on fees. Kris Doolan has struggled in front of goal this season, and while he still has a lot to offer, perhaps isn’t quite the player he was two or three years ago. The club has been crying out for a successor to Doolan’s throne for a while, and Henderson would be the perfect fit. He would also offer a different option up front, someone Thistle could use as a focal point to their attacks. Since Ade Azeez’s departure, the club has lacked that presence up front. Conor Sammon was fine in front of goal, but as was highlighted in the Livingston play-off, was never the type of target man needed to hold the ball up in a more direct style of play. It’s been suggested that the board are prepared to back Caldwell with cash, and the signing of Blair Henderson would be a real statement of intent from the club.