Ecstasy: The 2014-15 League 1 Preview

While most of the attention will be on the glamour of the Championship or on the machinations of League 2 and its snazzy new relegation trapdoor, there is a feeling that League 1 is a little unloved this time around, like an unremarkable middle child in an otherwise brilliant family.

It’s not unfair to suggest that casual observers might have lost their interest in the division. Last season’s edition was one of the most uncompetitive in recent years, with the bulky presence of Rangers rendering any hopes of a title contest irrelevant (although more of a fight might have been expected from Dunfermline Athletic). There was minor fascination to be found in the battle for fourth place and the tussle at the bottom of the table but, with the exception of Ally McCoist and his shiny unbeaten record, no-one will really look back on the year with much fondness.

This season should be more entertaining but even at this early stage, only one team seems likely to win the competition. Dunfermline look to be the best side in the league already: they’re a full-time team, their transfers have weakened their immediate opposition and, perhaps more importantly, no-one else looks as competent enough to challenge just yet. Greenock Morton’s full-time status might see them placed as the division’s second best side but in truth, they look no better than the other teams in the division.

Can Dunfermline make it over the finishing line this time around? Can Stranraer repeat last season’s third place finish? Will Mark Roberts win over the Somerset Park faithful? Is Scott Booth going to silence the haters and the trolls? Can Peterhead’s petrodollars see them finish in the play-offs? And will Lewis Coult ever be taken seriously?

All these questions and more will be answered by May 2015…

All previews and transfers correct as of 7 August 2014

 

Airdrieonians

Players in:

Lucas Birnstingl (Queen’s Park)
Marc Fitzpatrick (Greenock Morton)
Scott Gray (St Johnstone)
Joe Hamill (Formartine United)
Jack Kirwan (Celtic)
Andy McNeil (Waibop United)
David Proctor (FC Edmonton)
Robert Wilson (Hibernian)

Players out:

Grant Adam (Dundee)
Jordan Allan (Wolverhamption Wanderers)
Craig Barr (Raith Rovers)
Gregor Buchanan (Dunfermline Athletic)
Lewis Coult (Stirling Albion)
Grant Evans
Ricki Lamie (Greenock Morton)
Caolan McAleer (Partick Thistle – end of loan)
Darren McCormack (Brechin City)
Stefan Milojevic (Greenock Morton)
Chris McCluskey

Prediction:

9th

For all the progress Airdrieonians made over the second half of 2013-14, there is a definite sense of pessimism going into the new campaign. Between January and the end of term, the Diamonds collected 33 points from 18 matches and propelled themselves from the lower reaches of the division to the safety of mid-table. There was a feeling that if manager Gary Bollan was able to retain the majority of his squad then the team could push for promotion this season. But since then, inevitably, almost all of the players central to their improvement have moved on elsewhere. It is a case of one step forward, one step back for Airdrie.

Bollan was able to bring about his side’s upturn through a combination of clever management and a shrewd exploitation of the January transfer window. He brought in Grant Adam, Craig Barr and Stefan Milojevic to augment the likes of Gregor Buchanan, Caolan McAleer and Darren McCormack to configure a functioning, stable and – at times – exceptional side. It might be one thing to manipulate the January transfer window in your side’s favour by recruiting unwanted and discarded players on a short-term basis, but it’s another entirely to do the same thing over the summer. There is little to get excited about over Airdrie’s transfer activity so far.

With the talismanic Adam joining Dundee to cover the injured Scott Bain (until the end of August, at least), Andy McNeil will assume the role of first choice goalkeeper. The former Hibernian youth can be a fine performer but his career has been marred by inexplicable bouts of clumsiness and his inability to perform under pressure. In their two competitive matches both he and his deputy Lucas Birnstingl have boobed and were directly responsible for the loss of two soft goals.

In central defence, David Proctor and Marc Fitzpatrick step into the big shoes vacated by Milojevic and Buchanan. Proctor, entering his second spell with the club, returns to Scotland after two years with the North American Soccer League’s FC Edmonton while Fitzpatrick joins after an indifferent spell at Greenock Morton. The pair have looked a little shaky together but should settle into a decent partnership in time, even if there are doubts over Fitzpatrick’s suitability for the position. the hyperactive Nathan Blockley should complement the more nuanced play of Joe Hamill in midfield but there is a real concern about the alarming lack of creativity throughout the side; Craig Barr will certainly be missed. There will be a reliance on winger Liam Watt to provide for Jim Lister and Keigan Parker in attack, two sound forwards at this level.

Airdrie were perhaps unfortunate not to have done better in their Challenge Cup match with Albion Rovers but they were dreadful in the 1-3 League Cup defeat against Stenhousemuir, turning in a bloodless, error-strewn display that harkened back to the dark days of Jimmy Boyle’s reign. Bollan – the strongest weapon in the club’s arsenal and an excellent third tier manager – must find a more balanced and purposeful starting XI if the club are to prosper.

It would be incorrect to be completely dismissive of Airdrie’s chances for the upcoming season but equally, it would be foolish to expect them to repeat last term’s histrionics. There is still time to address the problem areas in squad but until then, a lower mid-table finish – maybe even in ninth – is perhaps the likeliest outcome. CGT

 

Ayr United

Players in:

Nicky Devlin (Stenhousemuir)
Ryan Donnelly (Albion Rovers)
Jon-Paul McGovern (Derry City)
Kevin McKinlay (Stenhousemuir)
Peter Murphy (Celtic Nation)

Players out:

Robbie Crawford
Adam Hunter (Arbroath)
Kevin Kyle (Newton Stewart)
Alan Lithgow (Stenhousemuir)
Jackson Longridge (Stranraer)
Craig Malcolm (Stranraer)
Anthony Marenghi (Stranraer)
Kyle McAusland (Rangers – end of loan)
Michael McGowan
Michael Moffat (Dunfermline Athletic)
Gordon Pope (Auchinleck Talbot)
Mark Shankland

Prediction:

8th

Ayr United supporters rarely hear from chairman Lachlan Cameron these days. The big American returned to California in 2010, 12 months after putting the club up for sale, but he still calls the shots at Somerset Park. Cameron has yet to find a buyer – proposals to transfer the club into community ownership have stalled (but with no word from the chairman) – and the stasis is becoming increasingly vexing. Of greater consternation, however, is manager Mark Roberts. Such was the maelstrom of invective in the aftermath of United’s feeble surrender to Cowdenbeath in last season’s play-off semi-final that Cameron was moved to post a lengthy statement on the club’s website.

The chairman argued that Roberts had been given the target of reaching the promotion play-offs (indeed, the Honest Men held a top four spot all year) and thus deserved a third term. But Cameron also hinted at his dissatisfaction over several aspects of the campaign and made clear the manager’s objectives for the forthcoming season: promotion; avoiding relegation; youth development; improving club discipline; and playing attractive football. The most unequivocal – and perhaps relevant – part read: “relegation, or a sustained period in the wrong half of the table, would result in termination”.

It may seem a little hysterical to talk of the Honest Men in terms of relegation but it is difficult to overstate just how keenly the departure of Michael Moffat will be felt. United were hugely reliant on the striker’s ability to create something out of nothing and his 26 goals in 32 games were instrumental in the side reaching the play-offs. The loss of Alan Lithgow and Craig Malcolm to Stenhousemuir and Stranraer respectively has also weakened the squad. In total, 12 players have left over the summer and with just five brought in, Ayr look ill-equipped for the season ahead.

Despite the upheaval, man-for-man, United’s defence is arguably stronger than last term’s. It comes with a caveat, however: Martyn Campbell’s fitness. Roberts talked the 33-year-old out of retiring at the end of the season and appears to be pinning his hopes to a player who has missed over 70 per cent of United’s games over the last two years through injury. Perhaps more pointedly, Campbell looked cumbersome and hesitant at the tail end of last season. He will be joined at centre-back by legendary Carlisle United defender Peter Murphy. Murphy made over 400 appearances for the Cumbrian side and earned international recognition with the Republic of Ireland. He is an organiser and a leader – something Ayr have lacked in recent years – but he will need a robust performer alongside him; whether or not Campbell is durable enough to fulfill the role remains to be seen. At full-back, Nicky Devlin and Kevin McKinlay both join from Stenhousemuir and, while not without their limitations, are solid enough League 1 players.

Further forward, United’s midfield will have a familiar look after Michael Donald, Brian Gilmour, captain Scott McLaughlin and Alan Forrest all signed up before the conclusion of last season. Doubts remain whether or not McLaughlin and Gilmour can together form an effective partnership in the centre of the park: both are good footballers but don’t always provide the side with the requisite steel. Much (perhaps too much) will be expected of 17-year-old Forrest, an exciting attacking talent but one who would be better suited to a role with fewer defensive responsibilities.

The biggest concerns lie in attack and Roberts has admitted that Moffat’s departure will necessitate a renewed (and potentially more attractive) strategy. Rather than looking to find Moffat as quickly as possible, Ayr, according to the manager, will look to play their way into scoring positions instead. Earmarked for the number 10 role, Jon-Paul McGovern returns to Scotland after ten years in England and brings with him a fine pedigree. It remains to be seen how he assimilates into part-time football in his advancing years (like Murphy, whom he played with at Carlisle, McGovern turns 34 in October).

McGovern may have nothing to prove, but the same cannot said for Ryan Donnelly. The former Airdrie United striker will be looking to recapture the form that won him the Second Division Player of the Year award in 2012. His switch to Brechin City at the start of last season failed to pay dividends and the 22-year-old is already at a crossroads in a once promising career.

Roberts has suggested that his budget allows for the recruitment of three further players and the manager will require performers with the personality to make an immediate impact on the division if he is to meet his targets. As things stand, Cameron may be called upon to define the length of a “sustained period” because Ayr look certainties for the bottom half of the table. AG

 

Brechin City

Players in:

Ross Brash (Stenhousemuir)
Gary Fusco (Forfar Athletic)
Colin Hamilton (Arbroath)
Darren McCormack (Airdrieonians)
Jamie McCormack (Greenock Morton)
Callum Tapping (Heart of Midlothian)

Players out:

Jonny Brown
Derek Carcary (Annan Athletic)
Graham Hay (Formartine United)
Gary Kenneth
Ewan Moyes (East Fife)
Darren Petrie (Dundee United – end of loan)
Steven Robb (Montrose)
Allan Walker (East Fife)

Prediction:

5th

Things just didn’t work out for Ray McKinnon during his first full season in charge of Brechin City. Of course, the raft of injuries and suspensions that marred the campaign might have been put down to misfortune, but there was no denying that many of the manager’s summer signings failed to improve the side and the existing, trusted core of players disappointed.

Defensively, Brechin were a shambles and conceded 71 goals in 36 games. Ewan Moyes never seemed to fully recover from the car accident that disrupted his pre-season preparations, while Graham Hay was not always as dominating as when he first joined. The fact the both players were unable to regularly attend training in Stirling was also a likely factor in their poor campaigns. Garry Kenneth’s short spell, meanwhile, was an unmitigated disaster from start to finish. All three centre-backs departed alongside regular left-back Jonny Brown and forced McKinnon to completely rebuild his defensive unit.

Darren McCormack will be a key addition. The former Hibernian youngster endured a difficult 18 months at East Fife and then Airdrieonians but he found some redemption under Gary Bollan in the final six months of last season, albeit as a holding midfielder alongside Craig Barr. Indeed, McCormack might actually be better in the middle of the park than he is in defence and it remains to be seen how he’ll be used. Colin Hamilton and Jamie McCormack are solid enough full-backs and will be keen to put disappointing seasons behind them.

In front of the back four, Craig Molloy has been reunited with the underrated Gary Fusco. At the recent AGM, McKinnon admitted his mistake in releasing Fusco at the end of 2012-13: “We let him go as we wanted to change the style. We put our hands up and we made a mistake and we are delighted to have him back”. Fusco’s unfussy, destructive presence was badly missed last term and his return will provide the ideal platform for the side’s attacking talents.

Indeed, as an offensive force, Brechin remain a strong proposition. Bobby Barr is a sporadic threat from the flank, while Robert Thomson scored seven goals in 14 games since joining in January and helped relieve the burden on Andy Jackson and Alan Trouten. Callum Tapping is an intriguing signing and the 21-year-old will add creativity and guile to the final third. Injury scuppered his chances of making a greater impression at Heart of Midlothian last term but he still has promise in abundance.

Recent cup performances against Cowdenbeath and Dumbarton have been entirely respectable and the team already looks more capable than they did last time around. If McKinnon can successfully balance his side’s defence and attack (they still remain something of a team of two distinct parts) and curb their aggressive streak (their record of 105 yellow cards and nine red last term was the worst in League 1 and resulted in a fine) then Brechin can be more than a sound bet for a top four finish. AG

 

Dunfermline Athletic

Players in:

Gregor Buchanan (Airdrieonians)
Michael Moffat (Ayr United)
Ryan Scully (Partick Thistle – on loan)
Andy Stirling (Stranraer)
Gozie Ugwo (Reading)

Players out:

Craig Dargo
Danny Grainger (Carlisle United)
Stephen Husband (Forfar Athletic)
Jordan Moore (Dundee United – end of loan)
Callum Morris (Dundee United)
Declan O’Kane (Montrose – on loan)
Lawrence Shankland (Aberdeen – end of loan)
Kerr Young

Prediction:

1st

Dunfermline Athletic begin the season as considerable favourites to win League 1. It is difficult to see beyond them for the title: they’re a full-time side in a part-time division and their squad is superior on almost every level to the rest of competition. Jim Jefferies completed the bulk of his transfer activity before the end of May, giving his new charges plenty of time to bed into his squad and, perhaps more importantly, significantly weakening his rivals in the process.

The fact that the Pars, not long out of administration, were able to recruit the division’s best players certainly stuck in the craw of Ayr United chairman Lauchlan Cameron. “It baffles me how a team that a year ago were on the brink of extinction with no assets and debts far outweighing any reasonable chance of getting out of can offer such a rewarding package to a single player,” he said after Michael Moffat’s defection to East End Park. Whether Cameron’s comments are a damning assessment of Dunfermline’s perpetual lack of fiscal responsibility or simply just sour grapes is a discussion for another time, but there was no doubt the chairman was smarting after losing his jewel in the crown.

Indeed, the capture of Moffat is exceptional business and the striker will improve Dunfermline’s attacking options tenfold. The lack of a genuine goal threat was a sticky problem last year and Moffat – hitherto the best part-time player in the country, perhaps – should immediately rectify it. The 29-year-old’s marksmanship was the key factor in his side’s play-off achievements last season – where would Ayr have finished without him? He is fast, composed, and deadly inside the penalty box. Any worries about a player of his age assimilating into full-time football have been vanquished after a number of impressive performances in pre-season and the cup competitions.

Gregor Buchanan is another player making the transition to full-time. His rise and rise over the past two years at Airdrieonians has been remarkable – originally signed from Bathgate Thistle in 2012 as a fringe player, a series of increasingly statuesque performances over the latter half of last season have earned him his move to Dunfermline. Buchanan is a fine defender: tall, athletic and imposing, he is comfortable both facing play and turning towards his own goal. Perhaps more impressive is his vocal presence and ability to organise a backline – in time, he might even graduate to captain. The 24-year-old has already formed a strong partnership with Lewis Martin at centre-back and, with Ryan Scully returning in goal for a second loan spell and Alex Whittle and Ross Millen continuing to improve at full-back, the defence will be a far stingier proposition this time around. As terrific a player as Callum Morris is, it is telling that he has not been missed.

The midfield is the most dynamic in the division. Captain Andy Geggan was excellent throughout last season and his energetic box-to-box approach compliments the rough ‘n’ tumble scrapping of Josh Falkingham and Ross Forbes’s playmaking abilities (although Forbes must do more to impose himself on matches, as talented as he is). Creativity comes in the form of Andy Stirling, the joyous box of tricks signed from Stranraer. Currently sidelined with an injury, it will be fascinating to see how Jefferies plans to use him but the little forward will no doubt thrive on servicing Moffat, Ryan Wallace and Fayssal El-Bakhtaoui. It is hard to pinpoint any immediate weaknesses in this squad.

Dunfermline already look the part after crushing Annan Athletic in the League Cup and then knocking out holders Raith Rovers in their Challenge Cup match earlier in the week. There are, however, some niggling concerns about aspects of Jim Jefferies’ management and his ability to prepare his team when it matters the most. Many supporters will wince at the memory of the 1-2 defeat to Airdrie and the 3-3 draw with Partick Thistle at the end of the 2012-13 season, and last year’s play-off final defeat to Cowdenbeath was an undisputed low point – the personnel may have changed, but the common factor in both collapses is still there. That said, it is unlikely that this side will find themselves in any real high stakes matches in the league this season – they should be out of sight long before then. CGT

 

Forfar Athletic

Players in:

Danny Denholm (Livingston)
Dale Hilson (Dundee United – loan made permanent)
Stephen Husband (Dunfermline Athletic)
Aaron James (Edinburgh City)
Andrew Steeves (St Johnstone)
Derek Young (Queen of the South)

Players out:

Marvin Andrews
Iain Campbell (Cowdenbeath)
Ross Campbell (East Fife)
Bryan Deasley (Montrose)
Odmar Færø (B36 Tórshavn)
Gary Fusco (Brechin City)
Keith Gibson (Broughty Athletic)
Darren Hill (Hamilton Academical)
Neil McCabe (East Stirlingshire)
Jamie McCluskey (Greenock Morton)
Duncan Reid

Prediction:

3rd

Forfar Athletic manager Dick Campbell quickly drew a line under last season with typically bullish grandiloquence. After an underwhelming seventh place finish, he declared: “Next year, I’ve got a lot of exciting things happening and some good young boys coming through”. So far, though, it has been an inauspicious start to competitive action and the Loons have exited both cup competitions at the first hurdle, losing to East Fife in the Challenge Cup and then to Raith Rovers in the League Cup. There have been encouraging signs, however.

When Campbell foretold of “exciting things”, he was most likely referring to the return of Danny Denholm. The 23-year-old winger, who made the Tell Him He’s Pelé Second Division Team of the Year in 2012-13 with the Loons, was by no means a failure at Livingston but struggled to hold down a regular starting position and found himself shunted around the team (but mainly onto the bench) by incoming manager John McGlynn. Denholm netted twice against Raith, with Gavin Swankie in particular combining with his direct, pacy and skillful play to good effect. Alongside Denholm, Swankie and the evergreen Chris Templemen, Forfar’s attacking options are further enhanced by the arrival of Dale Hilson on a permanent basis (after making over 100 appearances for the Loons on four loan spells from Dundee United).

In previous seasons, Forfar have lacked a dominant personality in the centre of midfield (either a cause or an effect, perhaps, of their direct style of play) but Campbell has moved to address this by signing Derek Young and Stephen Husband. The pair are not quite up to speed just yet but they possess the pedigree to form one of the division’s most effective midfield partnerships. Young will likely anchor at the base while Husband should look to dictate play further forward and could thrive on the movement provided by Denholm, Hilson and Swankie.

Forfar’s weakness this season might ironically be an area they took great measures to strengthen last summer. While Denholm and his team-mates were impressing two seasons ago, Forfar’s malfunctioning defence were conceding a rate of over two goals per game. Campbell turned to experience to address the problem – and Forfar conceded 11 fewer goals last season – but age means Marvin Andrews, Darren Dods, Stuart Malcolm and Rab Douglas could only ever be short-term fixes. Andrews has departed but Dods (39) and Malcolm (35 later this month) will again form the Loons’ first choice centre-back pairing, with limited options in reserve. Furthermore, Darren Hill’s move to Hamilton Academical leaves the untried Ross Salmon as depute to the 42-year old Rab Douglas.

Recent seasons have seen Forfar attempt to move away from direct football to a more fluid, passing approach. At times, it worked to devastating effect last year (as evidenced by 4-0 and 5-1 wins over Dunfermline Atheltic and Brechin City respectively) but these were the exceptions rather than the rule. The new additions, particularly Young and Husband, should provide a more robust platform for their attacking players to shine. If Campbell can resist the temptation to tinker too much with his starting XI – and can nurse another year out of his ageing centre-backs – Forfar have strong credentials for a top four finish. AG

 

Greenock Morton

Players in:

Jordan Allan (Dundee United)
Andy Barrowman (Livingston)
Sean Crighton (Elgin City)
Lee Kilday (Hamilton Academical)
Ricki Lamie (Airdrieonians)
Jamie McCluskey (Forfar Athletic)
Stefan McCluskey (Clyde)
Michael Miller (Celtic)
Stefan Milojevic (Airdrieonians)
Conor Pepper (Inverness Caledonian Thistle)

Players out:

Archie Campbell (Dumbarton)
Darren Cole
Stuart Findlay (Celtic – end of loan)
Marc Fitzpatrick (Airdrieonians)
Dougie Imrie (Hamilton Academical)
Jamie McCormack (Brechin City)
Barrie McKay (Rangers – end of loan)
David O’Brien
Garry O’Connor (Selkirk)
David Robertson (Livingston)
Ben Sampayo
Scott Taggart (Dumbarton)
Rowan Vine
Tony Wallace (Broomhill Sports Club Glasgow)

Prediction:

2nd

After the club’s worst season in living memory – and one which culminated in the most shameful defeat in their 140-year history – there was a hope that Greenock Morton could begin the 2014-15 by starting afresh, purging them of the short-termism that dogged them over the last decade, and returning to the Championship in a far better state than they left it. Instead of renewed belief for the forthcoming campaign, however, supporters have a far gloomier outlook.

Much of the despair stems from chairman Douglas Rae’s decision to hire Jim Duffy as manager. Duffy is not necessarily bad – his final 12 months in charge of Clyde were relatively successful – but his spells at Hibernian, Dundee and Brechin City were underwhelming and the perception of his preference for dour, uninspired football has counted against him. Equally upsetting was the chairman’s decision to make such an unimaginative appointment when more expressive coaches like, say, Stephen Aitken or Gary Bollan were also available at the time. Rae’s ambitions for Morton remain unclear but one would imagine that promotion must be the immediate target.

It is difficult to know just how well the Ton will fare this term. Compared to Dunfermline Athletic, for example, the squad is deficient in most departments and thus unlikely to unsettle Jim Jefferies’ team at the top of the table. What should set them apart from the other eight sides is their full-time status. Duffy will have more time to prepare and drill his players and they should be fitter and more focused than their part-time counterparts but this is no guarantee for success – remember, it was supposed to have given them an advantage over Cowdenbeath and Alloa Athletic last season. Perhaps the prediction of second place is based on their reputation and nothing more.

As mentioned above, a customary glance through their squad does little to inspire. Duffy’s side is defensively sound – the manager has always been capable of constructing a decent backline – but there is a lack of width and attacking options. Morton begin the season unprepared and require another two or three forward-thinking players at least.

No-one could ever accuse Duffy of neglecting his defence and the manager has recruited five centre-backs – Stefan Milojevic, Sean Crighton, Michael Millar, Lee Kilday, Ricki Lamie – to complement his existing options. All come with varying pedigrees (Milojevic and Crighton in particular are good acquisitions and have already started to dovetail well with one another) and it remains to be seen how Duffy intends to use them all, with Kilday and Lamie both starting their last matches at full-back. Such configurations might make the side stodgier and more difficult to break down but it has the potential to limit their offensive threat.

It will be interesting to see how Stefan McCluskey adapts to full-time football. The forward enjoyed a stellar season under Duffy at Clyde last term, scoring ten goals and assisting in many others, and can operate from the flank or the number 10 position; the manager would do well to allow the player to reprise the same role this time around. Conor Pepper and Joe McKee will provide the support from deep (although the former would do well to lose some puppy fat, while the latter will be expected to curb his flakiness), and Mark Russell offers a decent outlet on the flanks.

Morton squeaked beyond Spartans and Berwick Rangers in both cup competitions, winning by slender one-goal margins, and the stark lack of attacking options was shown up. Andy Barrowman, the side’s sole striker, is currently absent with a hamstring complaint and had defender Thomas O’Ware deputise in his place. Shunting square pegs into round holes is unsustainable in the long-term and will be exploited by better opposition. Their obvious shortcomings must be addressed if Morton are to enjoy a prosperous season. CGT

 

Peterhead

Players in:

Reece Donaldson (Raith Rovers)
Jamie Stevenson (Cowdenbeath)

Players out:

Kevin Buchan
Jake Fitzgerald
Callum McDonald
Connor McGlinchey

Prediction:

7th

Peterhead appear to be one of the most settled teams in the SPFL. It seems that Jim McInally’s side have been playing together for years and for the most part, they certainly have. Having been knocking on the door of the third tier for a couple of seasons, they now have the chance to show they are worthy of consolidating in League 1 for a considerable time.

There is little evidence in the argument against the Blue Toon retaining their place in the division. Almost all of their expected first XI and even some of the fringe players have shown capable performances at the top of League 2 or around the middle regions of the lower leagues. The one obvious exception to that might be Ross Smith failing so spectacularly during his time at Stenhousemuir, which sits between his first and current spells at Balmoor, but in a three-centre-back system that McInally tends to favour, Smith generally does adequately with a covering defender alongside him. The manager has done well to tempt Reece Donaldson back on a permanent basis, and between Scott Ross’s growing maturity and Ryan Strachan’s versatility, there is a cohesive unit in defence.

There might be an argument that there isn’t enough flashiness in midfield, but it will do its job. Players such as Brian Gilfilan and Jamie Redman are entirely dependable and will be ably supported by Jamie Stevenson, a shrewd acquisition from Cowdenbeath. Stevenson has been around the block and only typifies the considerable experience found from the wing-backs in Graham Sharp, Steven Noble and goalkeeper Graeme Smith. When a spark is needed, McInally can turn to David Cox, a streetfighter with a low centre of gravity and a ferocious shot with little backlift. McInally is maybe missing an out and out winger in the squad to provide something uniquely different at a pinch, but there is plenty graft and a little craft to ensure the side performs reasonably well.

And then there are the forwards. Little needs to be said about the pairing of Andy Rodgers and Rory McAllister that hasn’t been said before. Are each of them good enough at this level? Yes. Do they combine well as a strike partnership? Without a doubt. Will they score 30 league goals between them? Maybe – probably yes – but it depends upon their individual discipline. If either striker is unavailable for any length of time then McInally might have issues, but while he has the two together there will be an enviable source of goals in the team.

In short, Peterhead will be fine this year: too good to be relegated again; not quite good enough to be promoted. But if they stabilise in League 1 and continue to build on such a strong core of players, they should only be looking up as time passes. JAM

 

Stenhousemuir

Players in:

Kris Faulds (Falkirk – loan made permanent)
Gregor Fortheringham
Martin Grehan (Stranraer)
Jack Hamilton (Heart of Midlothian – on loan)
Alan Lithgow (Ayr United)
Colin McMenamin (Celtic Nation)
Ross Meechan (Partick Thistle)
Kieran Millar
Ryan Millar (Stirling University)
Jamie Reid (Dundee – on loan)
Paul-Jon Sludden (Stirling University)

Players out:

Ross Brash (Brechin City)
Nicky Devlin (Ayr United)
Errol Douglas (Spartans)
John Gemmell (Albion Rovers)
Ben Greenhalgh (Inverness Caledonian Thistle – end of loan)
Sean Higgins (Cowdenbeath)
Salim Kouider-Aissa
Sean Lynch
Eddie Malone
Kevin McKinlay (Ayr United)
Ross McNeil (Albion Rovers)
David Rowson (retired)
Darren Smith (Stirling Albion)

Prediction:

6th

The times they are a-changin’ at Ochilview and the Scott Booth regime is well underway. The players are now training three nights and working alongside a 23-year-old video analyst and the manager is slowly attempting to coax a sharp, continental playing style from his charges. Booth is shaping the squad in his own image: fit, professional and dedicated.

The former Scotland U-17s coach has a distinctive approach and, as has been indicated by his transfer activity over the summer, prefers working with youngsters willing to learn from him and unlikely to question his methods. A core of older, outspoken personalities have departed (including John Gemmell, Scot Buist – who was coaching on an ad hoc basis – and Kevin McKinlay) and been replaced by a mish-mash of experienced pros and unheralded youths.

Booth’s senior recruits are sound additions. Alan Lithgow is a solid, steady defender and should add depth at centre-back alongside Stewart Greacen and Ross McMillan, while striker Martin Grehan arrives after an outstanding season at Stranraer and is a capable replacement for Gemmell. Colin McMenamin, despite denouncing Scottish football as “dead” a little over 12 months ago, has signed on in a player-coach capacity.

Youngsters Jack Hamilton, Jamie Reid and Kieran Millar have all played for the Warriors in the past at either academy level or on loan. Hamilton began his career in the club’s youth teams before transferring to Heart of Midlothian and will provide cover for the injured Chris Smith until Christmas. Reid spent the tail end of 2012-13 on loan from Dundee and returns to provide penetration and trickery from the right (although he is perhaps more suited to a central role as a number 10). If Millar is able to put his injury concerns behind him – he was expected to break into the Hamilton Academical first team after his loan spell at Ochilview in 2011-12 but broke his kneecap during pre-season training – he has the potential to develop into an excellent central midfielder. Elsewhere, the rest of the imports are either discarded from full-time teams or signed from the Lowland League and will flesh out the first team and the club’s development squad.

There are a number of the existing squad who will look to make their mark on the campaign. Bryan Hodge is both tenacious and technical in midfield, Sean Dickson is improving with each season and Josh Watt often thrills from the wing, even if he does have a tendency to drop out of matches. There are high hopes in particular for Ciaran Summers, a sparky, attack-minded full-back who has excelled over the last few months. It is still early in his development but he already looks like one of the club’s most exciting prospect in years.

The relaying of Ochilview’s artificial surface has disrupted the team’s pre-season preparations and the large majority of their friendly fixtures took place at Stirling University. Booth has experimented with a number of formations including 4-4-2 and the fashionable 3-5-2 but looks to have settled for a 4-2-3-1. Stenhousemuir were poor in their Challenge Cup defeat to an experienced but one-paced Brora Rangers and, despite showing flashes of excellence, looked a little fragile against Airdrieonians in the League Cup. There are some talented players in the side but there is a brittleness and a feeling they could fold under duress. Kris Faulds is a decent ball player but has an alarming habit of capitulating when pressured, particularly around his own penalty box. Such soft-centeredness can be exploited by better sides than Airdrie.

Booth believes that Stenhousemuir are capable of winning the division but there is a concern he lacks the understanding of what it takes to succeed at this level. His idealism and progressiveness deserve credit but there are times when it must be sacrificed for pragmatism. If the players can buy into the manager’s training methods and harden their resolve over the season, then the team can achieve a top four finish, and achieve it in an attractive manner to boot. It will take time to implement and until it does, mid-table seems a likelier outcome. CGT

 

Stirling Albion

Players in:

Lewis Coult (Airdrieonians)
James Creaney (Alloa Athletic)
Steven Doris (Dundee)
Greg Paterson (East Fife)
Willie Robertson (Alloa Athletic)
Darren Lee Smith (Stenhousemuir)
Gordon Smith (Raith Rovers)
Craig Wedderburn (St Andrews United)

Players out:

Danny Ashe (Sauchie Juniors)
Jamie Bishop
David Crawford (Arbroath)
Stephen Day (Montrose)
Mark Ferry
Mick O’Byrne
David Weatherston (Alloa Athletic)
Jordan White (Livingston)

Prediction:

10th

It may surprise you to learn that Stirling Albion’s Greig McDonald is the sixth longest serving manager in Scottish football. It is surprising for two reasons: first of all, because he only took the post back in January 2012, aged 29, and became the youngest manager in the football league in the process; and secondly, because many believed his time was up around October last year. McDonald had been unable to keep the Binos in the Second Division and then finished seventh in the basement league the following season; three months into 2013-14 and patience had worn thin, especially given the attritional nature of the football on show.

But they got there in the end. Despite some hiccups along the way (0-4 defeats at Elgin City and Berwick Rangers were particularly galling), Stirling hanged around the top four for the best part of the season and five wins in their final six matches thrust them into the play-offs and then into League 1. The challenge for this team – an unspectacular above-average League 2 side, for the best part – is obvious.

The loss of Jordan White to Livingston is a severe handicap. After unsuccessful spells with Rangers, Hibernian, Dunfermline Athletic and Falkirk, White netted 36 times in two season at Forthbank and played a central part in their promotion – not only did he score goals, he was the major focal point of his team’s approach. McDonald has drafted in a number of attackers in the hope of offsetting his departure and signed Gordon Smith, Lewis Coult, Darren Lee Smith and Steven Doris.

Fans of their former clubs often malign Gordon Smith and Coult and the pair are only likely to add depth, but Darren Lee Smith and Doris have both demonstrated their scoring prowess in the past. Smith returns to Forthbank a better player than he left after two years at Stenhousemuir and is a slippery, awkward forward who is good for around nine or ten goals a season. Doris, meanwhile, scored 44 times in his three seasons with Arbroath but was unable to transition to full-time football with Dundee last term; if he can put his fitness issues behind him, he should be a potent threat.

Some handy players from last term remain. Chris Smith is a muscular stopper, while the other Darren Smith – once described as the best part-time player in the country – and Craig Comrie are capable midfielders. Phil Johnston can occasionally sparkle on the flank and the pint-sized Sandy Cunningham is a livewire attacker.

On the whole, the Stirling squad is the weakest in the league. Bridging the gap between the third and fourth tier is not impossible and they will look to Stranraer as the example to follow, but maintaining their position within the division is McDonald’s target for the season ahead. AG

 

Stranraer

Players in:

Jackson Longridge (Ayr United)
Craig Malcolm (Ayr United)
Anthony Marenghi (Ayr United)
Sam McCloskey (Bonnyton Thistle)
Craig Pettigrew (Auchinleck Talbot)
Scott Rumsby (Aberdeen – loan made permanent)
Barry Russell (Albion Rovers)

Players out:

Dean Agnew
Ryan Borris (Kilbirnie Ladeside)
Marc Corcoran
Mark Docherty (Alloa Athletic)
Martin Grehan (Stenhousemuir)
Lloyd Kinnaird (East Stirlingshire)
David MacGregor (Queen’s Park)
David McKenna (East Stirlingshire)
Andy Stirling (Dunfermline Athletic)

Prediction:

4th

In amongst all the variables this year, there will be one certainty: no-one will be underestimating Stranraer. Written off by many as little more than relegation candidates 12 months ago, Stephen Aitken worked wonders at Stair Park, assembling a well-balanced side capable of playing quick, incisive football, and their third place finish was thoroughly merited. Although the Blues eventually ran out of steam – they took just six points from their final ten matches – their achievement should not be underrated.

Success, however, inevitably brings with it the risk of losing your better players. The summer has seen Stranraer’s most accomplished attacking talents cherry picked by their League 1 rivals with Martin Grehan and Andy Stirling – both of whom featured in this site’s Team of the Year – joining Stenhousemuir and Dunfermline Athletic respectively. It was a huge fillip, then, that Craig Malcolm rejected Ayr United’s offer of a contract extension to return to the Blues. Although he lacks Grehan’s finesse, Malcolm shares many of his qualities: he is a robust striker and his selfless endeavor suggests he can form an equally profitable partnership with Jamie Longworth. Most importantly, he guarantees goals and has scored 57 times in the past four seasons.

The loss of Stirling will be more keenly felt, as the diminutive playmaker was the team’s key creative force. Aitken hasn’t recruited a like-for-like replacement, mainly because players of Stirling’s calibre are difficult to come by on such modest budgets. Anthony Marenghi, signed from Ayr, might have similar technical ability but certainly not his dynamism. Players like Grant Gallagher, Stevie Bell and the returning Chris Aitken will be expected to provide the thrust from the middle of the park.

Like 2013-14, Stranraer have started the campaign by winning both cup fixtres. Their victory over Dumbarton typified Aitken’s Stranraer – two-nil down at half-time, the Blues were inspired by the irreproachable Frank McKeown’s brace before Sean Winter netted a last minute winner. Another 90th minute strike courtesy of Malcolm secured their progression in the League Cup at the expense of East Fife. Both matches have seen the manager utilise a back three of McKeown, Craig Pettigrew and Scott Rumsby, with Jackson Longridge (who has big shoes to fill after Mark Docherty’s defection to Alloa Athletic) and Scott Robertson operating as wing-backs. It is an intriguing switch from Aitken, and one that perhaps hints at the lack of attacking options at his disposal.

Stranraer’s greatest asset is their manager, and Aitken’s new two-year contract is a major boon (particularly given that he was linked with Greenock Morton over the summer). Reputations in Scottish football can be lost just as quickly as they are built but if he can lead his side to a second successful season, a move to a bigger club looks certain. Indeed, qualifying for the play-offs for a second year is not out of the question. AG

Tell Him He's Pelé

Tell Him He's Pelé

If Tell Him He's Pelé were a boy band, they would probably be the much-missed One True Voice, both in terms of appearance and musical output.

1 Comment

  • Reply August 9, 2014

    Maximiliano

    Great preview! Certainly the most in depth preview on the internet.

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