He left the club in the same state he found it.
Greig McDonald’s resignation as manager of Stirling Albion in the aftermath of their 0-4 defeat to Stenhousemuir was sudden and unexpected. Earlier in the month, he had spoken confidently about turning around the Binos’ campaign; seven days later both he and his assistant Marc McCulloch were gone. Perhaps it was the heavy loss to one of the division’s most mediocre sides – and their immediate relegation rivals – that convinced him otherwise.
The weekend’s capitulation at Forthbank might have been their worst performance of the season. The poor form of both teams going into the fixture saw it elevated to “must-win”, even at this early juncture. Until Saturday, the Warriors had been horrid away from home, losing all four league matches and even failing to score. A lack of personality, particularly in the middle of the park, was seen as a major factor in their recent travails and going into the game there was a belief that Stirling’s Darren Smith and David McClune, two gnarled old street fighters, could dominate the contest.
As it turned out, the pair were barely in the match. Albion’s 4-4-2 formation was inappropriate to contain Stenny’s expressive 4-2-3-1 – Kris Faulds and Kieran Millar, operating as the “double pivot”, controlled affairs from deep while Gary Oliver and Tom Walsh, under little duress, were able to run at a bedraggled backline time and time again. The defence might have been offered no protection but it was their hesitancy and indecision that allowed Faulds and Oliver to score either side of half-time. Stirling lost the third goal after Callum Reidford’s inexplicable error while the fourth saw them cut apart by a ruthless counter-attack. Along the way, they were reduced to ten men after Willie Robertson deftly headbutted Colin McMenamin within yards of the referee, and Reidford gestured to the home support after they sarcastically cheered him.
All in all, Stirling were a rabble.
It was a disappointing manner for McDonald to end his association with the club. His side have been in rotten form of late – since their rambunctious 5-4 win over Stenhousemuir in August (a result that looks curiouser and curiouser in the current context), Stirling have taken just two points from their last seven fixtures and lost their last four. Goals have suddenly become a luxurious premium, and the team haven’t scored since the 2-2 draw with Forfar Athletic on 20 September; they’ve also conceded 17 times in the last six matches. Tenth place was to be anticipated from this side, but the statistics are decidedly unfavourable.
It’s difficult to gauge McDonald’s tenure at Stirling. A handful of red letter days and a promotion (dubbed “Beautiful Sunday” by chairman Stuart Brown) is probably about right for a club of the Binos’ stature and on that basis, his management should be considered a success. But for the best part, his side were brutal to watch and the style of football was often reductive and ugly. Does the end justify the means?
McDonald was 29 when he replaced Jocky Scott midway through the 2011-12 Second Division campaign. A very decent centre-back, particularly with East Fife, he had joined the club in 2010 but his playing career at Forthbank was curtailed by injury. When Scott departed on 5 December 2011, the team were bottom of the table with the controls firmly set towards the Third Division. McDonald was awarded the managerial role on a permanent basis in late January but despite a brief spike in form, he was unable to correct their downward trajectory and his young side were relegated on the penultimate weekend of the season.
Stirling were expected to finish in a play-off place the following year, but 2012-13 turned out to be an absurd campaign. Although the team took five points from their four meetings with Rangers (McDonald missed their 1-0 win in October 2012 because he was getting married), the first half of the season was appalling and they collected just 13 points from the first 16 matches. Beset by a multitude of problems including dire defending and a bizarre propensity for tossing away leads, McDonald’s position was routinely called into question. Their form over the latter part of the year, however, was largely superb and they won 32 points from the remaining 20 games to finish in seventh. The reversion to an orthodox 4-4-2 formation and the addition of Jamie Bishop and the returning Ross Forsyth helped catapult them up the table.
The 2013-14 campaign was a qualified triumph and ended with promotion via the play-offs. Despite spending all but six weeks of the season in the top four, there was still a level of dissatisfaction with McDonald’s management. Stirling were routinely horrible to watch, and the ball was played from back to front with grinding regularity as the centre-backs looked to hit Jordan White as quickly as possible. But as the discontent reached a pitch, the team went on an excellent run from the end of March onwards and won five of their final six matches to finish in third. Their fine form was enough to propel them beyond Annan Athletic and then East Fife in the play-off competition and into League 1.
“The Binos are grimly obdurate, particularly away from home,” wrote Alistair Gemmell in the recent Tell Him He’s Pelé League 1 Mid-Term Report Card. “They’re quite capable of strangling the life out of a game, regimentally pressing their opponents and denying them time to move the ball; only never for quite for long enough. There is no lack of effort, just a patent shortage in quality. Containment seems to be the limit of this team’s capabilities.”
With a parsimonious board and arguably the lowest budget in the division, recruiting players of an extraordinary calibre was always unlikely and Stirling simply look like an above-average League 2 side playing at a level beyond their capabilities. The defence seem unsure how to deal with pace and intricate movement, and the midfield are a stolid lot who offer dig and industry but little else. There are also several players who look overweight and unfit to successfully compete in the third tier.
Perhaps more than anything else, losing Jordan White to Livingston in the summer has caused the greatest disruption. The striker scored 15 league goals last year and his replacements have been inadequate: Gordon Smith is an honest worker but lacks finesse; Steven Doris’s mojo seemed to disappear the moment he left Arbroath for Dundee in 2013; and Lewis Coult is perhaps now more famous for his Twitter account and his silly clothes than he is for his footballing ability. Perhaps McDonald’s statement after the Greenock Morton loss was a cry of defiance; privately, he might have known that anything less than a win against Stenny and the game would be up already.
The club have already advertised for a new manager and are openly accepting applications. Ross Forsyth and Darren Smith will take charge on an interim basis, but erstwhile Stenhousemuir manager Martyn Corrigan has already emerged as a candidate, as has Sacuhie Juniors’ Fraser Duncan. Whoever replaces McDonald faces a difficult task in keeping the team as competitive as possible – addressing the deficiencies at both ends of the park will go a long way. The weekend’s match with an improving Airdrieonians is now taking on grandiose proportions: a victory would see them come within touching distance of the sides above them; a defeat (and other results going against them) could open up a six point gap at the bottom. Since the advent of the play-offs in 2005-06, seven teams have been promoted from the fourth tier to the third via the play-offs and all of them survived for at least a season – that statistic could change by the end of the year.
As for McDonald, he can look back on his achievements at Stirling Albion with satisfaction. He leaves without sullying his reputation, and his CV has been bolstered handsomely with a promotion (and an excellent series of results against Rangers to boot). In time, everything else will be forgotten – the long ball tactics, the defensive mishaps, the failure to find a credible striker beyond Jordan White… All those moments will be lost in time like tears in rain.