Although this site pays scant attention to the hurly-burly of Scottish football’s top tier, it would be somewhat remiss to completely ignore the development of Partick Thistle following their promotion, particularly given the level of attention afforded to the club over the previous 12 months.
For the best part, Thistle were a wonderful proposition last season. Observing their progress throughout 2012-13 and watching them clamber out of the old SFL and back into the top flight for the first time in nine years was – without wishing to patronise – akin to a proud parent taking their child to their first day at school. How will they react? How will they adapt and adjust to their new surroundings?
Friday night’s match against Dundee United – the inaugural fixture of the newly minted SPFL Premiership – had taken on a curious subtext. Although the two clubs have operated on different footballing discourses for almost a decade, the pair have recently developed an unexpected rivalry. When Jackie McNamara absconded from Firhill in January, few would have begrudged him the opportunity to manage a club of United’s stature, but the manner in which he has conducted himself since has left a sour taste.
First, there were the wrangles between the clubs over the compensation for McNamara and his assistant Simon Donnelly. Then three months later, on the cusp of Thistle’s crucial league fixture with Raith Rovers, United announced the signing of Paul Paton and Chris Erskine on pre-contract agreements. But perhaps most disappointing of all was McNamara demanding a bonus of £40,000 after Thistle won the First Division. The contention between both parties, sometimes verging on animosity, provided a reasonably diverting subplot to the match.
The last time this author attended Firhill, Thistle had effectively secured the Division One title after defeating Greenock Morton in a monumental clash in April. Friday’s match, lovingly bathed under a low, late-summer sun, did not match those grandiose proportions (despite an equally impressive attendance), but the fixture would be used as a barometer to indicate whether or not the champions could hold their own in the top flight. With Heart of Midlothian beginning the season with 15 point deduction, automatic relegation seems unlikely but the advent of the play-offs could sucker them.
There are legitimate concerns as to how Alan Archibald’s squad will acquit themselves to the Premiership. The large majority of the squad have never played in the country’s highest echelon, and the manager has gambled by trusting in his young charges. Some might have chosen to flood their team with discarded journeymen from SPL sides, but by fleshing out his squad with, amongst others, John Baird, Mark Kerr and Isaac Osbourne – none of whom started Friday’s match – Archibald has effectively passed the responsibility of keeping the club in the division to the same team that won promotion. Players like Stuart Bannigan and Aaron Taylor-Sinclair (new season, new double-barreled name) are two footballers of rich potential and their development over the season will be fascinating.
Partick Thistle punched their weight throughout the contest. It was an engaging encounter, entertaining without ever being genuinely thrilling. On the balance of play, a draw was the fair result (although the home side should feel aggrieved not to have been awarded a penalty after Calum Butcher launched himself illegally into Bannigan towards the end of the match) and there are a number of salient points Archibald can take from it.
The midfield, as it was so often last term, looked outstanding. The addition of Gary Fraser from Bolton Wanderers on a temporary basis looks to be a fine acquisition, and the youngster excelled in the “quarterback” role. Some of this long passes from deep were quite exquisite, fired with dip and verve, and he looks to have formed a sound understanding with Bannigan already. Steven Lawless, operating in an advanced role, made a nuisance of himself and his energy and enthusiasm will be important commodities as the season progresses.
There are a number of issues, however, that must be addressed. Goals might become problematic as the season goes on. Kris Doolan worked admirably as the lone forward but failed to convert when presented with any decent opportunities, most notably when he failed to connect with Taylor-Sinclair’s cross midway through the first half. Baird, his deputy, has forged a solid career for himself as an honest, committed forward, but hard work can only go so far. A striker’s main currency is goals and the player should have scored as the game drew to a close, but he appeared to inexplicably attempt to divert the ball into the net using his chest when a leg or a head would have been a more suitable option. It is obvious that replacing Chris Erskine will be difficult; there is no-one else quite like him in Scottish football. The defence was also guilty of slackness at times; their poor decision making and over-elaboration would have been punished by superior opposition.
(As for Dundee United, it is appropriate to point out how successfully Andy Robertson and Brian Graham performed. Robertson, a young left-back recruited from Queen’s Park, patrolled the left flank with authority and looked especially menacing when he moved into advanced territory; Graham, meanwhile, the beanpole striker from Raith Rovers, added a different dimension to his side’s attack after replacing Ryan Dow. Both players should do well this year.)
Partick Thistle will be alright this season. Like the child on their first day of school: at first, they look around awkwardly, nervous, anxious. They throw a tentative glance towards their parent. Everything will be alright, do not speak to them, do not call. Then suddenly they are swept up with their friends and they’re gone and not once do they look back.
No. Partick Thistle will be alright.