IF Christmas is a time for giving, then January may well be a time for taking away.
The reopening of the transfer window next week is likely to be a source of anxiety for a number of Scottish managers as they wait to see what offers come in for their promising talent and whether their club can afford to turn those bids down.
Stuart McCall is philosophical about it all. The Motherwell manager was told two years ago when he started the job that his remit each year would be "to finish in the top six and sell a player" and, although extra income from competing in Europe and a Scottish Communities League Cup tie at Ibrox have helped this season, McCall is bracing himself for the possibility of losing one of his top players in the month ahead.
Lech Poznan already have been credited with an interest in Henrik Ojamaa, while others such as Jamie Murphy, Michael Higdon and Shaun Hutchinson will also likely to be the subject of speculative bids from a number of clubs. "You've got to be realistic," said McCall. "I've spoken to three or four other SPL managers and we all expect to lose players. Every manager is a bit worried at this time.
"I came into the job here two years ago and Mark Reynolds left a few days later – he was the last one we sold for money. From a selfish manager's point of view, I'd love to keep the players to the end of the season as we want to finish as high as we can. From a realistic point of view, I'd expect to lose one, and no more than one, in the window."
Were he to lose one of his forward players next month then at least McCall has a ready-made replacement in Bob McHugh. The 21-year-old has had to settle for the role of impact substitute this season due to the form of Higdon, Murphy and others, but showed what he is capable of by appearing off the bench to score in his side's last two matches.
With Motherwell entering a busy period, starting with Aberdeen at Fir Park this afternoon, McCall intends to make changes to keep things fresh and hinted that McHugh could be in line for his first start since early September.
"With three games in quick succession, there will be changes in personnel and formations," added the manager. "Bob came off the bench and scored the winner last season against Aberdeen and he's been chipping in the goals. The problem for him is the other lads. Higdon has 12 goals, Murphy has eight, Ojamaa has been playing really well, as has Humphrey. But Bob can't do any more. He's been knocking on the door and he's got a good chance of starting soon." The departure of some of his team-mates would automatically improve McHugh's chances of regular first-team football but the player would hope get in on his own merit, rather than by default.
"I want to play with better players as that will help me become a better player," he said. "All I can do is what I have been doing and that is trying to push myself into the starting line-up. The whole team has been playing well and the strikers have been good, so it's difficult to get in.
"That's been the case over the past year and a half as the strikers here have been very consistent. You look at Michael Higdon, Jamie Murphy and Henrik Ojamaa who have been playing out of their skins and it may be frustrating, but I just need to keep on pushing them."
Jonny Hayes, the Aberdeen winger, has targeted a 12-point haul from their festive campaign to fire them into the second half of the season. Aberdeen, who beat St Johnstone 2-0 on Saturday, face Motherwell today before taking on both Dundee teams. Aberdeen are fifth in the SPL but can go above their third-placed opponents if they win at Fir Park.
Hayes, who has shaken off a knock that kept him out against St Johnstone, said: "We were disappointed dropping a few places down the league table and dropping points but if we can get maximum points or near enough over the Christmas period then we are right back in there."
Aberdeen have not beaten Motherwell in 11 SPL games stretching back more than four years but have twice knocked them out of the William Hill Scottish Cup in 2012, most recently with a 2-1 replay win earlier this month. Motherwell have only won two home games all season and, like Aberdeen, have recorded more victories on their travels.
Hayes said: "Motherwell are one of those teams, similar to ourselves, that are probably better counter-attacking. It seems to be that way with a lot of teams in the SPL, better away form. We know Motherwell aren't great at home and if we are better on the road this year then it looks good for us but we still need to turn up, like we did for the second half two weeks ago."
Pittodrie manager Craig Brown urged his players to take their cup form to Fir Park and avoid a repeat of last season's follow-up to their cup triumph. Aberdeen won 2-1 in a March quarter-final but six days later lost on their return to Lanarkshire when Motherwell left-back Stevie Hammell scored the only goal with a superb 30-yard strike.