Uncork the champagne, put up the tinsel and stick on that Kool and the Gang LP – Queen’s Park’s season starts here!
The weekend’s 3-3 draw with Elgin City yielded their first point of campaign and has, for the moment at least, assuaged the general malaise surrounding the club. The level of performance, particularly the manner in which the team recovered from a two-goal deficit, was commendable and hinted that the infinitesimally incremental improvements seen over the last three weeks (a bloodless 0-2 surrender to Stirling Albion was, at the time, described by observers as the best of the season, and the club were perhaps unfortunate not to take something from last weekend’s defeat at Peterhead) might even culminate in a victory over Annan Athletic on Saturday.
And boy, how manager Gardner Speirs could do with a win. The last time Queen’s Park took just one point from their opening six fixtures was in 2001-02, where they went on to finish the Third Division season in tenth place; on current form, they seem likely to repeat the feat. Their inability to offer a contest the competitive division, coupled with their pending move to Airdrieonians’s New Broomfield for over 12 months, have seen a normally chipper support appear disenfranchised with their club and their manager.
Speirs appears to be bulletproof, and his four consecutive play-off finishes have probably given him enough credit to see out a season like this. Yet as the Spiders staggered wearily through last season’s play-off semi-final against Peterhead, there was a school of thought that the manager had taken the club as far as he could: if he was unable to guide his team out of the basement league with a core of outstanding players, how would he have been expected to perform after the inevitable outward movements over the summer?
Of course, Speirs will point out that losing Andy Robertson, Ricky Little, Lawrence Shankland and Neil Parry amongst others has been highly detrimental but the glaring failure to successfully replace them has been deeply disappointing, with only Joao Vitoria and a number of young loan signings recruited to flush out the squad. The canny scouting that sourced players such as David Anderson and Jamie Longworth from junior football is no longer there. Although Queen’s Park have brought through a steady stream of hyper-talented youngsters over the last decade to augment the senior squad, it appears as though the well, for now, has run dry – it would simply be unrealistic to expect the club’s youth system to produce players of the calibre of Stuart Kettlewell, Barry Douglas and Robertson on an annual basis, but the first team is in decline because of it.
As such, Speirs has adopted a more reductive method of play, utilising a target man and percentage based approach, something which goes against Queen’s Park’s celebrated ethos (and which last season saw the clinical Lawrence Shankland marginalised on the flanks to accommodate Tony Quinn as the lone forward). With David Anderson – one of the finest ball-players in the division – absent through injury, Speirs paired Quinn with Mick Keenan in the middle of the park against Clyde and Stirling Albion; it was the equivalent of asking two nightclub bouncers at closing time in a Cardiff city centre to patrol the midfield. The tactic might have been forced out of necessity, but it certainly did not work.
From an external perspective at least, there appears to be an abrasive relationship between the manager and some of his players. Giuseppe Capuano, who had made more than 100 appearances for the side, was suddenly released from his contract before the end of the transfer window and goalkeeper Mark Brown (one of the few successful summer recruits) unexpectedly left the club last week after being dropped for the match with Peterhead.
Stevie Canning, a popular player who enjoyed seven years with the club and was an integral part to the wonderful 2006-07 side, had contacted Queen’s Park regarding using their training facilities. The full-back-cum-midfielder retired after leaving Albion Rovers in 2012 but is looking to return to football and wanted to maintain his fitness while he searched for a new team. Despite making more than 200 appearances for the club, Canning’s request was denied, with Speirs informing the player that his squad was already too big. Canning could barely hide his dismay and voiced his displeasure with the manager on Twitter; he was soon joined by a number of former players.
It is difficult to reconcile with Speirs after their dismal showing in the 2011-12 play-off semi-final with Stranraer. That team – arguably the strongest Spiders side since their return to Division Three in 2009 – boasted Darryl Meggatt, a midfield of David Anderson and Martin McBride, and Jamie Longworth in the finest form of his career. They had comfortably defeated Keith Knox’s team in each of the four league fixtures but when it came to the showdown, they weren’t there: Queen’s Park were beaten by the Blues in both legs.
But what should we have expected from Queen’s Park? It is not unreasonable to imagine the club operating successfully in the third tier. The teams of 2011-12 and 2012-13 were certainly capable of performing one level higher. To lose one play-off semi-final is unfortunate; to lose four in succession is careless. It is not good enough. And here we are.
There is an on-going joke amongst Queen’s Park fans comparing the club’s current plight to that of Springfield nuclear power plant’s softball team in the seminal Simpsons episode Homer at the Bat (in this author’s eyes at least, the very finest moment of the animated series). With a crucial game against their counterparts from Shelbyville looming, Mr Burns decides to recruit a number of ringers in order to secure the pennant. In conversation with Smithers, Burns suggests hiring Cap Anson, Honus Wagner, Mordecai “Three Fingers” Brown and Jim Creighton, despite the latter being dead for 130 years.
It’s easy to see the comparison. Gardner Speirs is equally as out of touch.