1) Rangers are back in business
Given the perpetual circus that noisily clatters away in the background, it is sometimes easy to get distracted from what Rangers are actually doing on the park. Since the dismal 1-3 loss to Hibernian on 29 September, Ally McCoist’s side have embarked on an good run of form, winning their last five league matches as well as progressing to the semi-finals of the Challenge and League Cups. They’ve scored 21 times in eight matches and conceded just once. For all the recent criticism, Rangers are beginning to look like a fearsome proposition.
The 4-0 win over Falkirk at Ibrox was another straightforward affair. The sides had met previously in the league in mid-August and were well matched until a late tactical misfire from Peter Houston swung the match in Rangers’ favour. This time around, the encounter was far more one-sided. Granted, the first half was a balanced contest with Nicky Law’s strike the difference between the teams (David Smith’s lack of awareness inside his own penalty area was quite horrendous and he will wince when he sees how Law beat him to the ball), but the second period was played out almost exclusively on Rangers’ terms. Lewis Macleod’s thumping header – a gorgeous example of counter-attacking football – and goals from Kenny Miller and Nicky Clark gave the score-line the gloss it probably deserved.
After the match, it was Macleod’s performance that was centre of attention. A daring, unpredictable player, the 20-year-old is a splendid talent – his use on the ball and his willingness to express himself was central to his side’s victory. His rise to prominence over the last two years – and his call-up to the national side – has been remarkable, particularly in the context of McCoist’s stewardship. The manager has shown little interest in bringing through youth players, nor has he shown any real aptitude as a coach but such is Macleod’s quality that he has developed handsomely regardless of these deficiencies. If the player wants to progress further, working under a better, more thoughtful regime would probably benefit him but for the moment at least, he’s doing just fine.
Rangers currently sit in second place in the Championship table, seven points from Queen of the South in third but four from Heart of Midlothian at the summit. The sides meet on 22 November at Tynecastle and the match is already taking on grandiose proportions. Should Rangers fall behind any further then McCoist will come under unprecedented scrutiny, but on current form – and with Lewis Macleod dictating play from the middle of the park – they might just come out on top this time around. CGT
2) Livingston are in trouble
These are difficult times for John McGlynn. After losing 0-1 at Alloa Athletic on Saturday, his Livingston side have gone seven league matches without victory, something that will no doubt be poorly received by a notoriously capricious board with a hairpin trigger for dispensing with managers. We last touched on Livi following their 4-0 win over Alloa in September, a result that lifted them to fifth in the Championship table; since then, a lot has changed for the “Amber Machine”.
At the time, Livi looked like a reasonably astute team and collected seven points from their opening five matches. Their form appeared to have quelled rumours that the summer’s financial cutbacks would impact on McGlynn and his group of players over the course of the year. Seven fixtures and just two points later, however, and the initial apprehension has been justified.
At the weekend, a combination of shocking profligacy and solid Alloa defending prevented Livi from finding a breakthrough. There was the belief that Kyle Benedictus’s suspension would significantly weaken the Wasps’ backline but Jason Marr, slotting in alongside Ben Gordon, repelled any attacks with little fuss. Alloa made the most of the chances that came their way and Liam Buchanan – a striker enjoying something of a renaissance – scored the crucial goal, finishing from inside the area after some fine work from Kevin Cawley. Buchanan has now netted four times in Alloa’s last five league matches.
How Livi could do with a striker in such form. They’ve failed to score in seven of their last ten fixtures and only Dumbarton have struck with less frequency in the Championship (although the injury to key forward Chris Kane might go some way to explaining their poor tally). Jordan White’s stuttering performances have mirrored his team’s – he last scored in the demolition of Alloa back in September (a hat-trick, no less) and although his team-mates created a number of decent chances for him on Saturday, the service has generally been of a poor quality.
Declan Gallagher’s red card towards the end of the match for foul and abusive language did little to help matters. Speaking after the match, McGlynn described the centre-back’s dismissal as “stupid” and having been absent through injury for the last two months, he will now miss two games through suspension. The return of Simon Mensing from injury will be important to their chances and there is hope that he and Gallagher will strike up a partnership.
With Livingston sitting in ninth place with two wins to their credit all season, their second tier survival will require them to do it as quickly as possible. If they’re not scoring, then keeping the ball out of the net at the other end would be the very thing. SM
3) Jon Scullion is making his mark at Greenock Morton
Greenock Morton’s 0-0 draw Airdrieonians in the Scottish Cup last weekend unexpectedly hit the headlines. Slated for serving up “the most tedious, excruciating football imaginable”, a vivid match report by the Herald’s Callum Baird captured the imagination in a way the contest did not for the 1420 spectators. The Ton’s performance was far removed from their fine victory over Dunfermline Athletic seven days previously and only some profligate finishing from the Diamonds prevented their removal from the competition.
Back in League 1 action, manager Jim Duffy made four changes for the visit of Forfar Athletic on Saturday and awarded midfielder Jon Scullion his first senior start. The 19-year-old operated behind Declan McManus and Andrew Barrowman and, unlike last weekend, the three players terrorised the Forfar backline with their intelligence and clever movement.
Unexpectedly released by St. Mirren in the summer where he was a mainstay of their U-20 side, Scullion is a little barrel of a player, exceptionably comfortable on the ball and with an aptitude for long range shooting. A series of impressive performances in the Development League persuaded Duffy to hand Scullion a start, and it didn’t take him long to make his mark. His freekick in the 12th minute arced just wide and just three minutes later, Scullion drove towards the edge of the area and sent a deflected shot beyond Rab Douglas to open scoring.
Moving away from their usual 4-4-2 formation, Dick Campbell elected to bolster the Loons’ midfield with an extra man, dropping wingers Omar Kadar and Danny Denholm and relying on Dale Hilson and Gavin Swankie to support Chris Templeman in attack. It didn’t work, and the veteran striker cut an isolated figure for the hour he was on the pitch. Forfar’s change in shape also suited Morton’s narrow diamond – anchored by Thomas O’Ware and with Robbie Crawford and Conor Pepper pitching in, the home side dominated possession and finished the game with 61 per cent of the ball.
Kadar and Denholm were thrown on after 60 minutes; 60 seconds later, Declan McManus pressurised Forfar’s hapless right-back Michael Dunlop, chased down his deflected clearance and sent an inch-perfect low cross into the box for Barrowman to turn in his side’s second of the game. A miserable day for the Loons was compounded by an act of malice from experienced full-back Jim Paterson, who was shown a straight red card by referee Greg Aitken lashing out at Jordan Allan.
Peterhead’s late equaliser against Dunfermline means the Loons remain top, a point clear of the Pars and Morton, but, either side of a lacklustre effort to overcome Championship strugglers Cowdenbeath in the Scottish Cup, they are now without a win in their last three league games; Brechin City are up next. Morton, meanwhile, now face a double-header against Airdrie at the Excelsior Stadium. The games offer a second chance to progress to the next round of the Scottish Cup on Tuesday night, and the opportunity to go top of the league on Saturday.
There is no shortage of young, technically proficient, attack-minded midfielders at Jim Duffy’s disposal but none of them posses the same trickery and shooting ability of Jon Scullion. The youngster’s deal expires in January but there is a good chance he could prove an important player for the Ton – keeping him at the club for the remainder of the season would be a prudent move. AG
4) Arbroath’s defeat can’t knock their hustle
Arbroath have spent the season so far steamrollering anything unfortunate enough to cross their path, but their progress was curtailed by Queen’s Park on Saturday. Although the Lichties won their last five league matches (including a thumping derby win over Montrose), they just could not open up a stubborn Spiders defence and eventually succumbed to a 1-2 home defeat. Allan Moore’s side still hold a comfortable lead at the top of League 2 but their advantage has now been whittled down to five points.
Both sides went into the fixture in good form. Queen’s Park have also enjoyed an excellent sequence of results, winning five of their previous six games, and they began the match in superb fashion when Shaun Fraser found himself in space inside the penalty area and finished beneath Scott Morrison. Fraser has adapted well to the demands of senior football since joining from Irvine Meadow in the summer and has developed a habit of netting at important times, with four of his five league goals opening the scoring.
The game was then played out in a rat-a-tat fashion, but Arbroath quietly took control and spent long periods of the second half camped out around the Queen’s Park goal. Yet for all their pressure, they were unable to turn it into anything tangible. Paul McManus and Simon Murray missed a handful of presentable chances, while Dyaln Carreiro and Bobby Linn, normally so influential, were unable to make a decisive contribution. Whatever they came at the Spiders, David MacGregor and Bryan Wharton were able to keep them at arm’s length; on the occasions the pair were breached, Willie Muir stood firm. The sucker punch came with 11 minutes remaining when substitute Ciaran McElroy charged upfield and combined with John Carter to set up Kevin Fortheringham to score, thumping the ball high into the net from close range. McManus pulled a goal back three minutes later but it proved to be little more than a consolation.
“It was far a disappointing performance,” said an upbeat Allan Moore after the match. “We just didn’t have the cutting edge that we’ve been demonstrating. Performance-wise, we dominated the game from start to finish. I have been frustrated in the last few weeks at not putting the chances away that we create and it has come back to haunt us today but we’ve got to march on.”
Given Arbroath’s recent form, the defeat will be marked down as little more than “one of those days”. Some supporters might be a little anxious to see the chasing pack creeping up behind them but the point of boasting such a handsome advantage at the top of the table is for rainy days like that. It is an insurance policy and with games against Albion Rovers and an improving Clyde on the horizon, they may need to dip into it once again. CGT
5) A draw does East Fife and Albion Rovers no favours
It is far too early to make rash judgements on the final outcome of two clubs adrift from the top of the SPFL’s bottom division but, if an answer is forced from a half-nelson, then it must be argued that Albion Rovers and East Fife are letting their season objectives slip by them.
It seems that is more so for the Fifers and for the Vers. The 0-0 draw between the sides at Methil means that East Fife are without a win in the league since the 4-0 beating of Montrose away from home at the end of September – since then, a loss and a draw at at home to Clyde and Annan Athletic respectively, followed by the humbling at Queen’s Park, has resulted in them slipping down the table. They are still only three points away from the last play-off spot, yet only four points from the bottom of the table and sit in an uninspiring seventh, ahead of Annan on goal difference.
Judging from Saturday’s match, there isn’t a whole lot wrong with Gary Naysmith’s side, but they do lack a bit of pizazz to be able to swing the balance. With Nathan Austin unavailable and Coalen McAleer suspended for his straight red in the Scottish Cup the previous week, it was left to Ross Campbell on the right flank to try to create chances for the home team. Campbell looked bright in a good opening half hour for East Fife, and he delivered an excellent cross that just evaded Kevin Smith. The wide midfielder faded, however, after the necessary re-shuffle to the side after captain Steven Campbell had to go off before the break.
The draw was probably more favourable to Darren Young’s side, firstly by being the away team and secondly by the fact that they are still sitting in third place in the table. Yet even with Arbroath losing their second league game of the season, Albion are still two wins and an inferior goal difference away from leading the division. Are they good enough to claw that back? The recent beatings of Berwick Rangers, Elgin City and then Queen’s Park in the cup suggest that they can fend off their peers, but they never truly looked convincing at Bayview. They were perhaps a little unfortunate not to take the lead when Marc McKenzie sneaked inside to head a near-post cross against the upright, and they looked at their best when Mark McGuigan got himself into pockets of space off the frontline and on the right hand channel, but couldn’t cut open a defence guarded by Naysmith and others.
Not every team in League 2 has a Dylan Carreiro, or even a Shane Sutherland, but both of these sides’ prospects would improve hugely if they had an attacking midfielder who could take people on and open up that extra yard of space. In the absence of that, Albion Rovers might have to settle for the play-offs; East Fife, meanwhile, will do well to finish there. JAM