Just what on earth is going on at Montrose Football Club?
Initially, the season started quite well by the Gable Endies’ customary low standards. Despite falling at the first hurdle in both the Challenge and League Cups, the league campaign featured welcome early wins at home against East Stirlingshire and Annan Athletic and a surprise march into the play-off places. Buccaneering performances from the likes of Garry Wood, Paul Watson and Terry Masson suggested that the Links Park side, against doom-laden pre-season predicitions, were in for a good year.
How long ago the bright days of August seem now. As November staggers into December, the club have not won in two months; a streak of three draws and six defeats that began immediately after a surprise win against Clyde at Broadwood on 23 September. Saturday’s confidence-shot nadir – a four-goal drubbing from a Shire side with plenty of their own worries – was the worst Montrose performance that most of the diehards in the small travelling support could remember. Parallels were drawn between this listless shambles and last season’s defeat at Peterhead (Stuart Garden’s final match) and a six-goal drubbing at Ochilview against Stenhousemuir in 2005-06 (in which Henry Hall was obliged to resign in the aftermath).
Apologists for manager George Shields will point to the losing streak including three games against the best Arbroath side since the late-nineties, featuring an unlucky cup draw against League 2’s pace-setters. They will cite a fighting performance in the first cup game at Gayfield – a 2-2 draw which, on another day, Montrose could have sneaked; and last week’s desperately unlucky failure to close out a win at Galabank, with only a very dubious injury-time penalty award, robbing the Mo of all three points. Moreover, injuries to long-serving centre-half Alan Campbell and, in recent weeks, Terry Masson have denied the club the services of two of their better players.
What Shields’s fast-dwindling band of supporters cannot explain away is the catastrophic nature of some of the defeats in this dire run. A 0-4 home demolition by East Fife at the end of September set the tone – Gary Naysmith’s mid-table side shredded Montrose without really getting out of second gear. The home cup humiliation against Arbroath, a 1-5 defeat featuring multiple clangers from Shields’s signing Lucas Birnstingl, was simply staggering in its ineptitude.
Saturday’s shocking capitulation to East Stirlingshire was a final kidney-punch to a side already stretched out unconscious on the canvas
And, since then, Montrose have recorded further new, embarrassing lows. The 0-3 home defeat to Clyde was almost a carbon copy of the East Fife performance; the Bully Wee, who cannot buy a win anywhere else, strolled to their easiest victory in a long time, and even scored in the opening 30 seconds. Saturday’s shocking capitulation at Ochilview was a final kidney-punch to a side already stretched out unconscious on the canvas.
There are four cardinal indicators that this is a manager and group of players already in the carrion stage of failure.
Firstly, the manager appears not to know his best team, or how to set them up in any kind of purposeful manner. Changes are rung with bewildering regularity week in, week out. Five goalkeepers have already been used this season, farcically. The current incumbent, young Northern Irishman Joe McGovern, is a great shot stopper but hasn’t yet mastered the art of commanding his area – something a young lad will find difficult when playing behind an itinerant and confidence-sapped defence. McGovern clearly has a good career ahead of him but he looks a bit shell-shocked at the moment.
Defensive injuries have forced Shields into pairing callow on-loan centre-halves together in a seeming revolving door selection policy from game-to-game alongside Garry Wood, who should be playing up front. It stands to obvious reason that young and inexperienced players, used to SPFL U-20 football, will struggle when suddenly pitched into the physical and sometimes cynical demands of a League 2 first team. Only Jon Crawford and summer recruit Ross Graham look anything like the required standard of the current fit players. The fact that Wood is obliged to start in defence most weeks because the players meant to do that job aren’t good enough tells you all you need to know about the catastrophic and directionless recruitment policy both during the close season, and in response to events since the big kick-off.
For a squad chock full of wee midfielders, it is absolutely baffling that Montrose are neither settled in the middle of the park nor look remotely up to the task. The expensively acquired Aberdeen youth team captain, Stephen O’Neill, has been a big disappointment, to put it mildly. Older lags like the aforementioned Paul Watson and Terry Masson provide a bit of dig and experience, but they can’t carry passengers. There is no shape or purpose here. Steven Robb, Danny Cavanagh and Graham Webster have drifted in and out of contention without leaving much of a mark and Montrose have very little by way of creative outlet in this department. Ross McCord, Paul Harkins and winger Stevie Day have shown glimpses of promise, but they’ve never had the run of games required to build up match fitness and confidence. They are in the starting line up one week and dropped the next, for reasons that are cloudy to say the least.
Montrose’s main outlet for goals, Garry Wood, can’t really score if he is deployed as a finger in the rather porous dyke at the back. As in all other areas, combinations have been randomly deployed up front – Scott Johnston will run and try all day but he isn’t really a goal-scorer. Hope now rests with Leighton McIntosh, who after a poor start has begun to look pacy and dangerous in recent games. Last season’s reliable marksman, the talented Bryan Deasley, is cutting a dejected and disconsolate figure on the sidelines of first team action. Deasley is very much a confidence player and his current body language suggests he thinks that “Confidence” is the capital of a British colony in the Caribbean.
Tactically rudderless and uncertain team selections, together with a complete lack of self-belief, are three of the big reasons behind Montrose’s awful run. The players appear scared of the ball and do not talk to one another; as soon as this side goes behind, you know it will not come back.
Training games against junior teams seems to produce junior levels of fitness that are woefully inadequate for a senior league
Criminally, and finally, the squad appears not to be very fit, which leads experienced observers of the semi-professional game to wonder what on earth passes for training at Links Park these days. Running up multiple goal gubbings of Dundee junior sides in endless closed-door friendlies appears not to be very useful preparation for the rigours of League 2. Training games against junior teams seems to produce junior levels of fitness that are woefully inadequate for a senior league.
At full-time at Ochilview, after a 0-4 defeat which could have been seven or eight, the Montrose board rose grim-faced to go to chew over the implications of this latest disaster. It is a shame for the directors, who have worked tirelessly in clearing accumulated debt in the last few years and who do not really have a lot of financial room for maneouvre. However, their misguided appointment of this manager, and their oversight of his re-signng most of a rather uninspiring squad, is now delivering a toxic payload.
There really is a sense that time is fast running out for George Shields. His players do not seem to believe in his leadership anymore, and he appears bereft of ideas on how to change it. Lee Wilkie appears to bring very little to the table as his assistant.
With relegation a possibility for the first time this year, the board will have a brutal opportunity-cost equation to grapple with: carry on regardless, and hope that things will get better, despite the mushrooming body of evidence to the contrary; or pay the costs associated with clearing out the management team and a good number of the current squad, and hope the financial hit pays off with improved performances and attendances under a different manager and a refreshed enthusiasm for the fray amongst a dwindling home support. This is a football club crying out for fresh eyes and a new approach to trying to deliver success on the park- something that has eluded Montrose sides since the mid-nineties. There are good people behind the scenes at the club who deserve much better than the current “product” on the park.
Whatever way you look at it, there are few shooglier tracksuit tops in the Scottish game than George Shields’s. One more shambles like Saturday and his brief stint in senior football management will be over, if it isn’t already.