1) Prince Buaben and Morgaro Gomis put the heart into Heart of Midlothian
And so it was Heart of Midlothian, then, who emerged as the victors from yesterday’s meeting with Rangers at Ibrox. Nicky Law’s smartly taken goal in injury time appeared to have cancelled out Danny Wilson’s 53rd minute header but immediately after the kick-off, Sam Nicholson played in Osman Sow and the striker slid a wonderfully taken shot beyond Cammy Bell and into the corner of the net. It was a richly entertaining contest (albeit sometimes lacking in quality) and one that Hearts probably deserved to win. Robbie Neilson’s team were more imaginative, more aggressive and played with a lot more purpose than their hosts.
Sow will no doubt take the headlines – he played superbly, his goal proved to be the difference between the sides, and his name lends itself to an infinite number of puns – and Danny Wilson should be satisfied with his man of the match award, but the game’s two best players were in fact Prince Buaben and Morgaro Gomis. The pair didn’t do anything necessarily outstanding but their endless industry in middle of the park provided Sow, Nicholson and Billy King with a solid platform on which to build their offense, and they also nullified the threat of both Law and his comrade Ian Black (although the former scored, it was more to do with Alim Ozturk’s ponderous defending rather than an error from the midfield).
In his 2014-15 Championship preview, John A Maxwell described Buaben and Gomis as “a pair of previously lost lovebirds brought together once more to rekindle past courtship” but there was nothing romantic or starry-eyed about this performance. Here, they resembled something closer to the New Age Outlaws, the Wet Bandits, Bulk and Skull, Bebop and Rocksteady, the great Dean Portman and Fulton Reed, or any of the other great heel partnerships in recent years you care to think of. Whenever Law, Black or Lewis Macleod had the ball, the pair were always there to confront them. They were belligerent – Gomis was booked for a late foul on Macleod – but it never bordered into illegality.
Elsewhere, Neilson correctly identified David Templeton as Rangers’ key threat (his introduction against Hibernian midweek helped turn the match in side’s favour) and the winger was heavily scrutinised by his markers. Before his substitution, Templeton had drawn five fouls from his opponents, more than any other player on the park, and looked to have had the better of Jordan McGhee and his replacement Brad McKay. Why did Ally McCoist remove him from the match? Dean Shiels did little of note in his 25 minutes on the pitch.
It was another McCoist substitution that perhaps cost Rangers the match. Immediately after Law’s equaliser, Darren McGregor replaced Richard Foster – why? What was this change supposed to serve? – and by the time he had ambled over to the right-back position, Sow was already scooting past Marius Zaliukas and placing the winning goal into the net.
It should probably never have come to this and Rangers could have led by several goals long before Wilson’s opener but for outrageous profligacy or mindless selfishness. Templeton was guilty of both, sending a diving header over the crossbar from six yards and later attempting to score from a crude angle instead of squaring to an unmarked Kris Boyd. With every squandered opportunity or misplaced cross, the Rangers players would bicker with one another and point in the direction they were expecting the ball. Boyd and Kenny Miller will both guarantee goals at this level but when the pair are bereft of service, they are of little use (their combination for the equaliser notwithstanding). Boyd spent large periods of the second half glowering at anyone who entered his field of vision.
(As an aside, after the match McCoist took the opportunity to round on former chief executive Charles Green. The straight-talking Yorkshire man has suddenly reappeared with claims he is close to raising £10m to invest in the club and McCoist described him as “a sideshow we can do without”, adding: “For the first time, one or two of the players actually said to me about the timing of all and that kind of stuff”. Almost a year ago to the day, Rangers were knocked out of the League Cup by Forfar Athletic – after the match, McCoist did not exclusively discuss on the defeat but instead chose to focus on Green, calling him “an embarrassment”.)
In a division where the “big three” seem superior to the rest of the competition, beating one another could be crucial to deciding the destination of the title. A win against Hibernian on Sunday would put Hearts in a strong position, even at this early stage. Rangers, meanwhile, will soldier on despite the increasing unrest between the management and the board. A victory at Falkirk on Friday night is now essential. CGT
2) Grant Murray can breathe easy for now as Raith Rovers win
It’s difficult to recall a more negative build up to a new season at Stark’s Park. Having ended the 2013-14 season with three league wins in 20 and then made a ham-fisted attempt of defending their Challenge Cup, losing 0-1 to local rivals Dunfermline Athletic last Tuesday, there was a sizeable number of the Raith Rovers support who believed that a clean break between the club and manager Grant Murray was immediately required. The manner of the defeat at East End Park led to one internet user to call for fans to unite at full-time on Saturday and let the board know just exactly how disgruntled they were.
And yet come 5:05pm, as Turnbull Hutton enjoyed a post-match tab outside the ground, the only protestation the chairman could see was the Dumbarton team bus laboriously struggling to get up the sharp incline in front of the stadium. It would be fatuous to suggest that Raith’s 3-1 win over the Sons was a completely dominant performance, or that the doubts surrounding Murray have been obliterated, but there were encouraging signs a and definite improvement on recent displays.
Both sides looked tentative in the first 45 minutes of an attritional spectacle. Ian Murray claimed his team were unlucky not to have gone into the interval a goal up, and he probably had a point when Kevin Cuthbert did well to beat away Jordan Kirkpatrick’s drive. Scott Agnew and Chris Turner had the upper hand over Liam Fox and Martin Scott in the middle of the park, while Archie Campbell and Colin Nish were proving to be a nuisance to centre-backs Paul Watson and Ross Perry.
The biggest talking point, however, was Dumbarton’s socks, a bold, fleshy colour that, from a distance, made it appear as if they weren’t wearing any anything at all. Tell Him He’s Pelé might not be quite up to speed on the current sartorial trends but one thing’s for sure: Scottish football has never been exposed to such appalling hosiery.
Although Raith Rovers failed to impress in the first half, they steadily grew into the match as it went on and took advantage of the problems that Murray has failed to address over the summer – their defending last season was badly hampered by the lack of pace in the backline, and the additions of Lee Mair and David van Zanten have done little to improve it. Van Zanten struggled to contain the pacey Mark Stewart and the former Bradford City forward and his partner Christian Nadé became increasingly influential.
Nadé might have become a figure of fun in some quarters in recent years, but the Frenchman was outstanding on Saturday. The ball was played into his feet with greater regularity and he was able to use his strength – oh God, those muscles look like they’ve been hand-hewn from granite! – to bully those around him. He was involved in the opening goal, flicking on a Rory McKeown throw that Paul Watson rifled home from close range, and he added the decisive third by rounding Danny Rogers and slotting it into the net. In between, Ryan Conroy scored with a sumptuous freekick, and Raith never looked like relinquishing their comfortable cushion.
As for Dumbarton, it was all a bit anti-climactic. They looked decent enough in the opening exchanges but as the game wore on, their passes went longer and the approach failed to get the best out of Campbell or Nish. Murray might also be concerned by the lack of width in the team, with Kirkpatrick’s crossing a particular source of frustration. Agnew’s late consolation was a small reward for their efforts but this side still seem like a work in progress.
Rovers fans were able to sing about being at the top of the table, something that was as welcome as it was unexpected. There is still a long way to go, and they would do well to keep their feet on the ground – who was the last team to sit atop the Championship after the first round of fixtures? Greenock Morton. SM
3) Falkirk show their frailties
Saturday’s 2-2 draw at Central Park between Cowdenbeath and Falkirk wasn’t the most irresistable of matches, but it taught us a few things about the Bairns’ current state on the pitch more than the one-sided cup ties ever could.
For the Blue Brazil, first of all, not much has really changed from last season except their attacking options. They have lost the mobility and explosive nature of the Greg Stewart-Kane Hemmings axis, but have made up for it in the cunning of Sean Higgins. Higgins set up his side’s first and scored their second and looks like he could thrive at Cowden more than he did at Stenhousemuir last season.
Otherwise, it was a fairly typical performance from Cowdenbeath under Jimmy Nicholl. The three-giant-centre-back system returned in all its glory and Lewis Milne scampered about at the tip of the midfield with typical enthusiasm. But for a late lapse in concentration by Nathaniel Wedderburn, they could have opened their league campaign with a win.
The learning was all on Falkirk’s side, for instance, and particularly on how slack they defended sometimes. Their biggest culprit appeared to be Ollie Durojaiye at the back of midfield, but there were issues elsewhere too. Durojaiye is a terribly strong performer who can put the fright into the opposition when he builds up momentum going forward, perhaps like a young English-Nigerian equivalent of Julio Baptista: the sledgehammer to pulverise the most stubborn of defences. Maybe that’s how he should be used more often, then, because he was lax when defending deep in his own half. He tends to look uncomfortable when having to play with his back to the opposition goal and knocking about passes with his defensive colleagues, and Cowdenbeath were afforded an excellent chance into the box from a misplaced ball.
Most alarming, though, was the way in which he completely lost his concentration for Cowdenbeath’s first goal. With a throw-in coming from the left, Lewis Milne was loitering about 20 yards out, but a burst into the box was completely ignored by his marker Durojaiye. Higgins’s clever flicked header fell into Milne’s path and he didn’t need to do much to score. It really was a simple goal and could have been easily prevented – one wonders if Durojaiye would benefit from Tom Taiwo being the specialist holding midfielder, a player who can read the game better.
Higgins’s goal to make the score-line 2-1 to the home team was the fault of Alan Maybury, who firstly allowed Higgins to get goal side of him as they ran inside the Falkirk box, and then allowed him to outmuscle him before being sold by the feint inside and finish. With David McCracken often appearing to be one game away from a glaring error, Falkirk manager Peter Houston has a bit of defensive drilling to do.
They were let off the hook by a wonderful goal by Rory Loy, selling Dean Brett with a cut inside – much like Higgins – before curling a sumptuous shot into the top corner of the goal after combining excellently with Blair Alston. Left-back Liam Dick overlapped to put in a whipped head-height cross that was difficult to defend against, from which Botti Bia Bi couldn’t miss for the late equaliser. In fact, Maybury got forward quite well himself in the first half, defying this site’s recent criticism of the full-backs.
Falkirk have all of the ingredients going forward to test most teams in the league, and ought to be capable of holding off other play-off candidates, but they must protect the space around of the edge of the penalty area much better in the future. JAM
4) Greenock Morton are in need of some experience
At around 4.35pm on Saturday, a grim but all too familiar reality was dawning on the sizable travelling support basking in Somerset Park’s the late-summer sunshine. Any Greenock Morton fans making their way along the Clyde coast hoping that life in League 1 – as one of the division’s bigger sides, no less – would banish the traumas of the last 12 months was to be sorely disappointed. Ayr United thoroughly merited their 1-0 victory as the Ton turned the same kind of wretched performance that would not have looked out place last season; this side do not have their problems to seek.
Jim Duffy was honest in his assessment. “We were second best,” he said. “Ayr United deserved to win the game”. Morton were, by the manager’s own admission, a yard off the pace and ceding too much space to opponents who were able to control large periods of the contest. In possession, Ayr were the most dangerous with Alan Forrest (on the right of midfield but given a free role) and Peter McGill (on the left) by far the most exciting players on show. Centre-backs Peter Murphy and Martyn Campbell unfussily strolled through the match and the partnership of Scott McLaughlin and Brian Gilmour dominated their counterparts in midfield.
Morton’s full-time status has marked them out as favourites to finish behind Dunfermline Athletic but Duffy has assembled a squad that is lacking: lacking in width; lacking in creativity; and perhaps crucially, lacking in experience. Their starting XI on Saturday had an average age of just 22; United’s meanwhile, boasted an average age 26 and over 1300 more league appearances (all this despite fielding two 17-year-olds). Morton’s callowness was evidenced throughout the match, notably in the form through poor finishing and ill discipline. Declan McManus, signed on loan from Aberdeen on Friday until the New Year, lacked composure with his two attempts, particularly when he tried to float a ball over David Hutton when put through on goal in the second-half. And as frustrations grew, their tackling became increasingly ill-judged, culminating in Jordan Allan’s reckless, over-the-ball lunge at Forrest in the 68th minute that earned him a red card.
Alongside the lack of experience, there is the lack of balance and width. Morton ended the game with six centre-backs on the pitch: Lee Kilday and Ricki Lamie at full-back; Michael Miller at the base of midfield; and Thomas O’Ware deployed as an auxiliary striker towards the end of the game. Kilday and Lamie were awkward participants in attack, with the former horribly sclaffing an attempt to equalise in one of the rare occasions he found himself inside Ayr’s penalty area.
Forwards Andrew Barrowman and Stefan McCluskey (both absent through injury) will come into the side in due course – but only Barrowman really has “been there and done it”. As the season progresses, Morton’s full-time status might give them a physicial and competitive advantage (as it has historically done at this level) but emotionally, this squad does not have the nous or the winning mentality. Whether or not Jim Duffy is the right man to help his players overcome these deficiencies remains to be seen. AG
5) Montrose come out on top in the “Lowland League six-pointer”
The season’s curtain raiser at Links Park saw two sides that many expect to struggle this season pitted against one another. As East Stirlingshire headed north to face Montrose, many fans were snorting with on line derision and billing the match a “Lowland League six-pointer”.
It was hard to predict a score-line before the kick-off. Barring a brief blip in the Spencer Fearn years, the Shire have a truly horrendous record at Links Park; Montrose, meanwhile, are notoriously slow starters to the season and rarely get going before September. Between them, these teams shipped 17 goals in four cup games in the fortnight before the league season started.
The first half hinted at a dire scoreless draw as both sides struggled to avoid the impression that they’d all just met five minutes before kick-off. But, once Montrose took the lead through a scrappy Alan Campbell goal just after the half-hour, they were rarely troubled. Their passing improved and Paul Harkins, making his full debut, stood out alongside Ross McCord in the middle of the park.
Ex-Shire forward Scott Johnston put in a buccaneering performance, setting up two of his side’s second half goals as his old team showed they simply could not cope with pace and direct running. The Montrose midfield was in biting form, snapping into the tackle and overpowering their opponents. In this context, manager Craig Tully’s three at the back strategy seemed suicidal. Harkins, Johnston and late substitute Steven Day all gave the visitors’ dolorously slow backline a torrid time.
This is the most inexperienced Shire line-up in a decade and clearly they have yet to knit together. In Nathan Shepherd, Michael Bolochoweckyj, and David Greenhill they have players who know the league well, as does the suspended David McKenna (whose threat up front was sorely missed). However, the Shire’s younger players and new recruits need to up their game significantly if the club are not to endure another long and difficult season fighting at the bottom of the table. Tully’s desire to attack more than predecessor John Coughlin is admirable, but it is not sustainable when his team simply cannot defend. The Shire have now conceded 15 times in three competitive games.
Montrose fans have seen enough failure not to get too carried away with one good result. But this team has a competitive midfield and a defence that is knitting together well, with Ross Graham looking like a shrewd acquisition. If George Shields can recruit a reliable striker to complete his summer signings, then his side may well do better than many have predicated. With pace down the wings through Day and the irrepressible Johnston, the Gable Endies carry more of a threat going forward than their first outings suggested. Harder tests lie ahead, however. JB