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Is a title challenge possible for Man Utd?

Manchester United
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Too much, too young?

In this week's North of the Border, a possible move for Ryan Fraser, plus money talks at Hibs and Hearts.

The Ryan game

The breakthrough player of the SPL season so far has been Ryan Fraser, an 18-year-old winger who was dipped into the Aberdeen first team during pre-season and has been hard to keep out of it ever since. This week, it transpired that he was breaking out almost as quickly.

Fraser is in the final year of his current contract and declined the offer of new terms made by Aberdeen. Fraser believes he can play at a higher level and for more money and he may be right on both counts. However, it is unlikely he can be a first pick at such a level just yet and the argument between financial gain and career progression has been live since he knocked back the new contract this week.

In all of it, criticism of the player is hard to find. The consensus is that Fraser will earn far, far more if he leaves Aberdeen in the summer or before and most supporters can empathise with his position in that regard. Fraser is represented by the son of Alex McLeish, who remained at Aberdeen until the winter of his playing career despite being among the finest central defenders in Britain during the 1980s. The harsh reality is that if McLeish came out of the Aberdeen academy now, he probably wouldn't see his 21st birthday at Pittodrie.

Fraser is not put off by the precedents of two recently departed graduates. Fraser Fyvie, 19, is on the fringes of the first team at Wigan Athletic after they picked him up for an initial £500,000 near the end of his contract. Roberto Martinez, the manager there, has seen great value in young Scottish-based players such as James McCarthy and James McArthur, and the low costs involved in their recruitment make it easy to absorb those who do not work out, such as Conor Sammon.

Jack Grimmer broke Fyvie's record as the youngest to play for Aberdeen and he was poached by Fulham before he had reached double figures in appearances. At an initial £200,000, the transfer fee is less than some first teamers at Craven Cottage pick up in a month.

The anger and frustration from Aberdeen supporters is more about the situation than the individuals involved. There may, too, be an argument that Fraser could have been identified as a potential asset and secured on a longer contract before his explosive start to this season gave him scope to look elsewhere.

Regardless of the financial realities at the heart of this rather sad story, it is hard to argue that these players' development is more acute in the reserves or academy sides of an English Premier League club, or on loan in the lower leagues, than it would be if they were starting every week for their team in Scotland. The majority would be better placed then to move on and more likely to play first-team football when they did so. But who can expect a teenager at the start of a 15-year career to ignore the sparkle and swagger of the SPL's Bentley driving neighbour?

Money talks

Money-raising schemes are everywhere in Scottish football. Some teams need cash to stay in business, some to keep their players and some to bolster the balance sheet.

After Hearts fans answered the SOS call of their club and raised enough money to keep the taxman at bay and pay the players' wages, they were asked this week to do it all again. The reason? They had lost to Hibs. That, according to a spokesman for the club's owner, Vladimir Romanov, was not good enough and it was only going to improve if supporters paid for it. This struck a very bum note after the heroic fundraising undertaken when the rallying call was far more severe. If new funds can be used to build the team so soon after the defibrillators were being applied to the Edinburgh club, questions have to be raised at the very least over the clarity of the information coming out of Hearts.

Across the capital, at Hibs, the chairman Rod Petrie this week warned supporters that budget cuts would be unavoidable if more of them did not attend matches and spend money at the club. After a successful start to the season, capped by the Scottish Cup victory against their great rivals, it is hard to see what more the team can do in the short term. Business is bad all over and at least Hibs' financial record over the past 10 years, of which they have often trumpeted, should give them some shelter from the storm that has seen back-to-back annual losses approaching the £1 million mark.

Motherwell's rollicking win over Ross County, 3-2 at home, put them third in the division and that club has had more bang for its buck than any other over the past five years. This summer, pretty much all of their best players are out of contract and before their Scottish Cup replay with Aberdeen, Stuart McCall, their manager, said a good run in that competition could give him the budget he needs to keep at least one or two of them. If he is not allowed that, it will take some magical recruitment work to sustain the standard at Fir Park. But don't believe that is not possible.

Butcher's prime cuts

Inverness Caledonian Thistle are proving them all wrong. The second-placed team in the SPL, 3-0 winners over Hibs last weekend, are the story of the season to date. They are a team built around neither a golden generation of academy graduates, nor a speculative splurge on players outwith the reach of other SPL teams.

Terry Butcher overhauled his starting line-up in the summer with players who were hiding in plain sight in the academies and lower leagues in England and in Irish football. The Inverness team still, too, includes several cast-offs from elsewhere in the SPL, most prominently Andrew Shinnie, who was dropped by Rangers and fell all the way through the competing budgets of the top division to the Highland club, which operates in the bottom third of SPL finances.

Their ace in the recent drive up the table has been Billy McKay, an Irish striker who was picked up after his release by Northampton Town; Ross Draper, in central midfield, had played 100 games for Macclesfield; David Raven, in defence, is a veteran of the lower leagues of English football.

Butcher's CV is not impeccable, but at Inverness, as he did at Motherwell, he appears to have brought together a group of players who respond to him and among them, undoubtedly, are a few excellent picks. Pound for pound, they are the best in Scotland.

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