The last Saturday in August, when both these clubs are in the same division, normally means the first instalment of the Angus coastal derby. Fans of bigger teams may snort but this is one of the most intense local rivalries in Scottish football. Segregation is rigorously enforced (much to the dismay of older fans) and it is the only game in the bottom two divisions of the SPFL which has at various times been marked down by the police as a Category “A” match – a label normally more associated with the likes of Millwall visiting Leeds United. Relations between the two clubs are akin to the bonhomie between the two blocs during the Cold War; mostly glacial. Glasnost is nowhere to be seen in this part of Angus.
Traffic of players and managers between the clubs has always been contentious. Infamously, Arbroath manager Tommy Campbell defected to Links Park in the summer of 1997 where he was nothing short of a disaster; Montrose local boy Greig Henslee’s transfer from Gayfield to Links Park in 2005 was spoken about as “treason” on the internet (and not entirely jokingly); more recently, ex-Gable Endies such as Stuart Ferguson and Sandy Wood have moved to Arbroath and met with little success and some derision from the home support – there is a feeling once you’ve worn blue, you can’t wear maroon convincingly, and vice-versa. Montrose’s Paul Watson, who had an unhappy spell at Arbroath and is now integral to the team at Links Park having first played on loan in 2009, is a rare exception.
In recent times the fixture has see-sawed frantically, more in Arbroath’s favour than in Montrose’s. The Gable Endies have had their moments, particularly in the cup; fans still salivate over Mike McKenzie’s double that filleted the Smokies in a cup replay in 2000-01. More recently, Martin Boyle and Ross McCord have been the heroes as the maroon hordes have been bundled unceremoniously to the cup door marked “exit”.
But Arbroath fans have the trump card; winning the old Third Division title in 2011 at Gayfield with a 4-1 thumping of Montrose. This was a victory that was only slightly soured by Ramiro Gonzalez, Montrose’s ‘keeper, being knocked to the ground by a glaikit blond sumph wearing only blue Y-fronts during the final-whistle pitch invasion. This season had already featured the Arbroath Apocalypse at Links Park, a brutal 5-0 evisceration in a start to the New Year far worse than anything Only An Excuse could conjure up on telly.
Glasnost is nowhere to be seen in this part of Angus
Clearly, then, this is a derby capable of producing hallucinatory moments as well as the customary local derby fare; sclaffs, mistimed tackles, specious finger pointing, half the crowd choking with rage over not very much at any one time, and red cards. This game was played out in quite pleasant late summer sunshine, with a moderate easterly breeze and the calmed grey North Sea stretching lazily behind the enclosure wall. And, in a division where fans in the top leagues sneer at sub-500 crowds, an attendance of 1137 – 200 or so from Montrose – was gratifying to see. This is a fixture that brings all with these two clubs at heart out, even if games against others in the league don’t appeal so much.
It has been a while, too, since these antagonists met at the right end of the divisional table. Both sides had 100 per cent records before kick off, with Montrose having a game in hand. For Arbroath, a win would cement their early leadership of the division under new manager Allan Moore; for George Shields, meanwhile, a win would take his side top and with a game in hand, leaving the still-gelling new Arbroath side receding in the rear-view mirror.
Montrose were missing centre half talisman Alan Campbell through injury, and brought in the returning Jonathan Crawford in his place; Scott Johnstone, through whom much of Montrose’s attacking impetus has come this season, was also absent. Steven Robb was drafted into the side with ex-Aberdeen youngster Stephen O’Neill filling Johnstone’s place, whilst Bryan Deasley made his first start of the season in the number 11 shirt. For his part, Moore resisted the temptation to start with young Simon Murray, who has been impressive since his return to senior football; instead the experienced Paul McManus lead the home attack, alongside Paul Buchan and Bobby Linn.
The opening of this game was slower than many in recent times. Both sides, unfamiliar to one another, were cagey, waiting for the first blow to fall. Montrose fans had hoped that their players’ greater experience of past Angus derbies would help, but it was Arbroath who settled down more quickly, kicking towards the Pleasureland end. Montrose’s makeshift centre-back pairing of Declan O’Kane and Jonathan Crawford had a tough afternoon and rarely looked comfortable against quick balls being played over the top of them for forwards to chase. Out of nothing, Buchan was played clean through by such a lofted pass with the defence absent; embarrassingly, his poorly hit half volley slunk well wide of McKenzie’s left hand post. A similar ball was played through for McManus a few moments later but again, accurate shooting was at a premium and it sailed over the bar when the forward should have done much better.
Montrose, playing with the wind, probed and poked but rarely fashioned more than half chances. Again, the Gable Endies looked to Garry Wood as the target man, hoping to create openings after the ball had bounced off of his rougher edges. But Arbroath were steady against that threat, with Ali El-Zubaidi a towering and reassuring presence in the number 5 shirt.
The phoney war in the first 15 minutes came to an abrupt end when, out of nothing really, Arbroath took the lead. Hesitancy and poor communication in the Montrose defence saw a pass played short; McManus nipped in and fed Linn who scored with a low drive past the exposed McKenzie. It’s the kind of cheap and slack goal caused by a lack of concentration and one that is rarely seen outside the bottom division in Scottish senior football. Linn led his team-mates in a celebratory wind-up of the Montrose fans behind the goal and was booked for his trouble.
It got worse for Montrose as Arbroath were donated another entirely avoidable goal
The gifting of a goal to the opposition was a morale-sapping blow for Montrose and they couldn’t find a response. Indeed, eight minutes later, it got worse for the, as Arbroath were donated another entirely avoidable goal. This time a bustling run from McManus saw him play a ball across the “corridor of uncertainty” between McKenzie and the centre backs. The blue shirts froze and left the skimming low cross to others to deal with; unfortunately, it was dealt with by Buchan who adeptly collected, rounded the goalkeeper and rolled the ball home.
Halfway through the first half Montrose had handed Arbroath a two-goal lead, and even at this early stage, it didn’t look like they had the heart to mount a comeback. Montrose huffed and puffed with Wood trying his best to generate some opportunities up front. Arbroath keeper David Crawford bore the brunt of these efforts; he was badly clattered contesting a high ball with a Montrose forward then, just before half-time, took another accidental blow as Deasley slid through contesting a 50-50 ball. This latter knock signalled the end of Crawford’s afternoon, and he was substituted by Scott Morrison.
The home support were in good voice as the half-time whistle went, and rightly so. It is easy to forget that this is a still-developing Arbroath side with a totally new management and some of the players in the very early stages of their career at Gayfield; they look like they have developed a good understanding already. The Montrose fans, in contrast, shook their heads sullenly after their favourites simply failed to turn up for the first 45 minutes. Hopes were pinned on another George Shields rocket at the interval and maybe bringing on hard working winger Stevie Day in favour of either Deasley or the ineffectual Robb.
Montrose had their best spell of the game in the 15 minutes after the restart. There were no changes, but the players seemed to have a little less lead in their boots and pushed forward. A clogging hack on the edge of the area Garry Wood saw a freekick opportunity presented. Stephen O’Neill had the confidence to take it, curling a delightful shot over the wall and off the base of the right hand post, with Morrison scrambling. Moments later, Wood had a genuine claim for a penalty when he was crudely bundled over in the area when well placed. However, referee Alan Newlands, who oversaw what can be a card-happy fixture with extreme leniency, decided that there was nothing in the claim and was forced to ward off a sustained protest from the Montrose players.
But the decisive moment of the game came not from Montrose pulling a goal back, but from Arbroath making a substitution. With nearly an hour on the clock Buchan was withdrawn to be replaced by Simon Murray and his violent red trellises of hair – he looks like he has had a tin of spaghetti hoops emptied onto his pate. His father, of course, was Montrose legend Gary Murray; young Simon was released by Montrose two or three seasons ago,and has since made a name for himself in the juniors at Tayport. Within a minute of him taking to the pitch, he demonstrated what that reputation was based on and why his release from Links Park was one of the more cretinous of recent times.
Arbroath’s third goal had to be admitted – even if through gritted blue teeth – as a thing of beauty
Full of energy, Murray received the ball on the standside touchline, just in front of the Arbroath dugout. Dropping a shoulder, he turned on the afterburners and went on a coruscating run as the home fans in the stand got to their feet with anticipation. Like a surface to air missile honing in on its target, Murray jinked past several challenges and hurtled into the box, rounding McKenzie who had bravely come out to narrow the angles. BOOM! Three-nil and a goal worthy of a game at a much higher level. If Montrose had given away the first two goals, the third had to be admitted – even if through gritted blue teeth – as a thing of beauty.
This was the decisive moment; an ice bucket challenge of freezing water on the feeble embers of the Montrose fightback. After this, their chances of salvaging the game went from “remote” to “nil”.
George Shields made some changes, bringing on Day perhaps a dozen minutes too late for Deasley, Graham Webster for the ghostly and bypassed Robb and, puzzlingly, Danny Cavanagh for a frustrated Paul Harkins. Unfortunately, this was just one of those days for the Gable Endies; whatever they tried didn’t work out. Webster did find a late consolation, floating a soft header across Morrison and into the net after the Arbroath defence, already basking in victory, went to sleep. There were a couple of half-hearted late alarms, but another Montrose goal would have flattered the visitors far too much.
At the other end, pressure was kept up on McKenzie; Murray missed a much easier chance when well placed, and the impressive, over worked keeper was faultless under high balls, catching and punching with equal confidence. In the dying moments, Montrose’s centre-half Declan O’Kane was quite rightly red carded for a horrible late challenge on the youngster, right in front of an enraged home support. Sometimes red cards are unavoidable but this nasty hack was done out of pure frustration, and will once again stretch Montrose’s thin-ish squad in the weeks ahead.
So the bragging rights stayed at Gayfield after the first Angus derby of the season. In truth, Arbroath looked a division above Montrose – the gulf between the sides was both surprising and, from a Montrose point of view, bitterly disappointing. Their players may have played more Angus derbies between them than their opponents’ but they were out-muscled in midfield, out-thought tactically, and swept aside by a side with a greater appetite for the fray. Montrose’s poor first half mistakes created the foundations for Arbroath’s comprehensive victory.
For Allan Moore, his start to his career as Red Lichties boss must be hugely satisfying. His side are far from settled and still gelling and developing, yet go into the international break with four wins out of four and already building up a convincing momentum for the season ahead. And for Moore himself, having come into this job after a year of professional upset and personal tragedy, such a confident start will have gone a long way to re-establishing his standing and self-confidence.
George Shields faces a different set of problems after such a defeat. Whilst he will be relieved that the home side were not clinical enough to turn this game into a damaging rout, the lack of strength in depth in his squad will be worrying. Having beaten poor sides at home in the first two games of the season, this derby was something of a reality check – a marker of how much further Montrose will have to travel before they can seriously be considered as promotion candidates.
The evidence so far points to Montrose being more than good enough to stave off becoming Scotland’s Lincoln City – the first team to drop out of the senior leagues via relegation; however, the way that they react to this defeat, and keeping the first choice XI fit and free of suspension, will go a long way to determining whether they are good enough to make the play-offs. Montrose didn’t have the shoes to recover from self-inflicted problems today; ironing out inconsistencies and brainfarts at the back, is perhaps the most urgent of the three tasks facing the new Links Park boss in the fallow week ahead.
Man of the Match: PAUL McMANUS (Arbroath)
I liked the way Paul McManus led the Arbroath line today, trying to bring his team-mates into pla, and pulling Montrose’s unfamiliar centre half pairing all over the place – his experience makes him one of the better readers of the game at this level. Young Simon Murray also deserves a mention for his thrilling half-hour cameo. Montrose’s outfielders, with the exception of Garry Wood and Paul Watson, struggled badly in a very below-par performance. The default man of the match for the Gable Endies, then, was keeper Stuart McKenzie who was not at fault for any of the goals, and who worked hard to prevent what could have been an embarrassing score-line.