1) Easter Road witnessed an extravaganza!
As Queen of the South’s progress in the league was halted by the postponement at Raith Rovers, Hibernian and Falkirk to had a chance capitalise, with Hibs seeking to create a bigger gap between them and the Bairns looking to get on the same number of points as Queens. But both Falkirk and their hosts at Easter Road had to settle for a point apiece in a match that was sometimes brilliant, occasionally ridiculous and never less than entertaining.
In Dominique Malonga’s absence, Alan Stubbs chose to start Martin Boyle up front alongside Jason Cummings. Boyle’s sheer pace offered a different kind of threat to Malonga’s awkward strength – it was interesting to see Boyle used in a more central role, much more reminiscent of the position from which he was prolific for Montrose in various spells before John Brown and Paul Hartley began using him on the right side of a 4-2-3-1 formation for Dundee. In either case, Boyle’s asset is his speed on the counter attack and his movement caused Falkirk problems, even if it was his strike partner who took home the match ball.
Peter Houston, in comparison, immediately played John Baird with Rory Loy, with the former typically patrolling the left-hand channel. Hibs’ ability to transition from defence to attack was helped by the fact that Falkirk’s forwards were often so narrow that it allowed Scott Robertson to sit a little more deep at the back of midfield and release Lewis Stevenson from the left-back position to break further upfield. Stevenson scuffed a ball into the box early in the first half that was met by Liam Craig at the edge of the penalty area, which narrowly went wide. Hibs’ first goal came on the counter on 12 minutes where Robertson intercepted in front of his box and allowed Scott Allan to drive forward with the ball. Allan found Cummings on the right side of the Falkirk box and he cut in to shoot with his left foot: what should have been a comfortable save shoddily handled by Jamie MacDonald, and the ball spun off the top of his outstretched hand to land behind him over the goal-line. It was just the start of an uncomfortable afternoon for the former Heart of Midlothian goalkeeper.
Baird’s inclusion was vindicated six minutes later, when some tidy Falkirk play through midfield allowed Will Vaulks to encourage Keiran Duffie forward from right-back. Duffie swung in a precise cross from deep, where Baird snuck behind the doddling Paul Hanlon as the ball entered the area for the striker to head back across goal, just inside the netting with the kind of clinical efficiency that Pippo Inzaghi was famous for.
Falkirk caused Hibs problems with cross balls into the box. Baird put the ball in the net again as he got on to the end of a dangerous set-piece, but he was half a yard offside. The referee’s assistant took an age to put her flag up – and was even seen making her way towards the halfway line as if to prepare for a kick-off – but ultimately made the correct call. It was a reprieve for Hibs, who enjoyed the rest of the first half as Cummings completed his hat-trick: the first was from reacting to Liam Fontaine winning his header at a corner kick; the second came from another counter attack. Hibs’ goalkeeper Mark Oxley threw the ball out to Allan at right-midfield and he had the vision to pick out Boyle’s run from inside to the right-hand channel. Despite there being some Falkirk players around to help defend the break, Falkirk’s goalkeeper made the call to commit to coming out to Boyle at the edge of the penalty area – Boyle’s pace got him to the ball first and then to the byline, from where he had time to tee up an easy header for Cummings.
Hibs ought to have been 4-1 up at least early in the second half, where MacDonald was caught out trying to sweep up at the edge of his box once again, but Boyle’s early shot pinged just past the post. Not long after, Boyle had the time to aim up a shot from the edge of the penalty area, but bizarrely his team-mate Allan got in the way of the effort, with the only plausible explanation from this perspective being that Allan wanted to steal it for himself. Hibs rued the profligacy, though, with Falkirk getting a couple of goals around the hour mark dead balls crossed into the box – Peter Grant showed his aptitude for finishing on the bounce once again with a fine shot at the far post for the equaliser.
Each team can defend better and they will need to in order to secure good positions in the play-off places. Nothing is lost, however, in a match that contained six goals, goalkeeping errors, occasional goalkeeping brilliance and a hat-trick for one of Scotland’s brighter teenage prospects. JAM
2) Livingston are is desperate need of goals
“Whispering” Ted Lowe, the silky-smooth voice of snooker for almost three decades, used to call it “the curse of the commentator” – to lavish praise on a player and then watch them immediately make an error or lose their form. To some extent, this could be applied to Livingston striker Jordan White. In September, the 22-year-old was garlanded with plaudits after scoring five times in his first five league matches; since then, however, his level of performance has plummeted with just two goals in 15. White appears to be stricken with some kind of anti-Midas touch with everything he touches turning to guff rather than gold.
Of course, Livi’s travails run far deeper than an under-performing forward (the club are accumulating more crises than a box set of 24) but White’s laboured display in Saturday’s 1-1 home draw with Cowdenbeath played a major factor in his side taking one point instead of all three. He passed up a number of presentable chances and even missed a penalty.
It was a frustrating afternoon for Mark Burchill’s side. They began the match in the perfect manner and took the lead after just four minutes – not for the first time this season, Keaghan Jacobs was the creator and Danny Mullen met his cross from to nod the ball past Robbie Thomson (who, not for the first time this season, should have done better).
Under normal circumstances, Cowden fold after conceding but their equaliser came from an unlikely source. The gnarled veteran Simon Mensing got himself into a fankle and gracefully knocked the ball beyond Darren Jamieson after 25 minutes. Alarmingly, Mensing has begun to make a habit of this sort of thing – he headed in an own goal during last month’s 0-2 defeat at Rangers. The Blue Brazil’s own failings in attack have been examined previously, and Mensing’s leg-up was warmly received – it was only their fourth goal in seven matches.
The bright opening hinted the match would blossom into a rambunctious affair but it proved to be a falsehood. It wasn’t helped by the inclement conditions, with snow and storm-force winds hampering both sides. That said, the players must take some responsibility for the poor contest, which only produced sporadic pockets of interest. One such occasion was Livingston’s penalty award after Darren Brownlie fouled Kyle Jacobs. White’s effort was blocked by Thomson, who dived to his right to push the ball away – it was a good save, sure, but the height of the shot certainly gave the goalkeeper a chance.
It was Livingston’s best opportunity to not only win the match but to close the gap between the sides at the foot of the Championship table. They face Alloa Athletic and Dumbarton, while Cowden take on Hibernian and Rangers; Livi have certainly have the more favourable of the run-ins and they should look to take full advantage. To do so, Burchill must either bring in reinforcements or find a way to coax goals from his existing options. It won’t be easy – White is short of confidence while Burchill, Myles Hippolye and Robert Ogleby have fewer league goals between them than Mensing has OGs.
If things don’t change soon then Livingston will be reacquainting themselves with the third tier next season. SM
3) Stefan McCluskey has turned the corner at Greenock Morton
It’s been a difficult season so far for Stefan McCluskey. The 24-year-old forward has struggled since joining Greenock Morton in the summer and has often cut a forlorn figure. A standout with Clyde in last term’s League 2, he followed Jim Duffy from Broadwood to Cappielow and was expected to reprise his role as a left-sided attacker with the license to drift infield. Capable of scoring and setting up goals, he should have been a handy asset for a team with Morton’s promotion aspirations.
But, for whatever reason, the player has looked a little daunted by the step up – maybe he’s struggled to adapt to the demands full-time football, maybe he’s unable to handle the expectation of the Ton support – and has not made the impact predicted from him. McCluskey has failed to impose himself on matches and the team arguably looked more purposeful in his absence. The low point of his season was his dismissal in Morton’s 1-2 Scottish Cup loss to Spartans – with the score tied, McCluskey picked up two daft bookings and was sent off; eight minutes, later the Lowland League side netted the winner.
McCluskey’s performance in the weekend’s 3-2 victory over Stenhousemuir, however, might just be the moment his season ascends. He turned in a fantastic display, scoring his side’s equaliser and playing a part in their second and third goals. The very best of his talent was on show – he was fast, direct and skillful and tore through the Warriors’ backline at will. If he can maintain this level of consistency, he will emerge as a potent force for his team
After a first half of absolutely no consequence, Stenny took the lead on 50 minutes when Colin McMenamin reacted quickly to turn Sean Dickson’s parried shot into the net. Morton restored parity almost immediately when Jamie McCluskey picked up the ball on the left wing, danced beyond Alan Lithgow and squared for his brother to finish from close range. Seven minutes later he took advantage of a faulty offside trap to wander into the area and feed Thomas O’Ware – the utility man shuffled the ball onto his right foot and drilled a low shot into the corner of the net. Morton’s scoring was completed on 63 minutes when McCluskey took the ball down the right and centred for Ross Caldwell to finish smartly.
Caldwell had joined the club on a six-month agreement earlier in the week after negotiating his release from St Mirren. A prodigious talent, the former Hibernian forward is best known for two things – scoring a 90th minute winner in an Edinburgh derby, and publicly duelling with Terry Butcher following his substitution in a Scottish Cup tie at Ross County. Caldwell looked to have made a positive impression with the Buddies at the beginning of the season before dropping out of first team matters altogether but on Saturday he looked sparky in parts and should look to make the most of his time at Cappielow.
Caldwell was withdrawn on 78 minutes and his replacement drew the loudest applause of the afternoon. “He’s coming home! He’s coming home! He’s coming! Peaso’s coming home!” sang the visiting support as Peter MacDonald ambled onto the pitch. The 34-year-old striker played with some distinction for Morton between 2011 and 2013 and was a popular figure on Inverclyde. He returned to the club after 18 months at Dundee and, along with Caldwell, should beef up a frontline in bad need of attention following Declan McManus’s departure. MacDonald looked a little rusty on occasion and his touch a little unsure, but this will no doubt improve in time – he is a fine player and, if he can remain free from injury, he should shine in League 1.
Morton finished the match a little anxiously after Sean Crighton inexplicably handled inside the box to allow McMenamin to add his second from the penalty spot, but they were worthy winners on the balance of play. With Caldwell, MacDonald and goalkeeper Grant Adam all signed up until the end of the season, it should significantly increase their chances of winning the championship. Duffy has been criticised for his recruitment policy since taking charge but deserves some credit for landing a trio of fine players. If the manager is able to find a settled, stable defence from his multitude of centre-backs and add a creative presence in the middle of the park, his side will become a dangerous proposition. CGT
4) Ian McCall is in, but Ayr United are still looking down
Standing on the touchline at Glebe Park, clutching a pad of paper in which he intermittently scribbled notes and clad in an unzipped manager’s jacket over a white shirt, his new club tie slightly askew, you would forgive Ian McCall a brief moment of satisfaction. It might have been his 454th game as a manager but his 453rd was an age ago. And, for a number weeks and months, years even, the 50-year-old has been desperate to get involved again.
Overlooked by Greenock Morton’s Dougie Rae in favour of Kenny Shiels in December 2013 and by a host of other clubs who chose to appoint younger men (many of whom McCall has mentored at some point since hanging up his boots in 1998 to concentrate on his first job at Clydebank), he might have wondered if he’d forever be yesterday’s man. Instead, the Ayr United board last week decided he was the man. Impressed with his hunger – and fitting their criteria for an experienced manager – McCall was appointed on Monday and got straight to work.
His first team selection for three years, eight months and 26 days saw two personnel changes to the starting XI that lost to Stranraer last weekend. Craig Beattie and Sean McKenzie dropped to the bench, while Morgyn Neill (signed on loan from Motherwell during the week) and Craig McCracken (recalled from Auchinleck Talbot) were drafted in to make their first senior starts. The 18-year-olds formed the central defensive partnership, with McCall clearly deciding two specialist centre-backs, no matter how tenderfoot they were, were better than others playing out of position. The maligned Kevin McKinlay switched to left midfield in a 4-5-1 formation.
Unfortunately for the hardy band of United supporters who travelled up to Angus and cheered McCall’s name throughout, there was to be no instant impact: the imbroglio the Honest Men find themselves in requires much more than four days’ intervention. On-form Brechin went ahead in the 16th minute when McKinlay, one of McCall’s first signings at Partick Thistle, failed to track the run of Paul McLean and the captain marked his 200th appearance for the club by steering home Andy Jackson’s cutback.
A spirited spell at the start of the second half, in which Ayr kept the ball well, came to nothing as their lack of cutting edge became patently clear; on his return to Glebe Park, Ryan Donnelly cut an isolated figure up front and endured an afternoon as equally unhappy as his short spell with Ray McKinnon’s side. With ten minutes remaining, Neill gave away possession on the halfway line and Alan Trouten was able to send substitute Robert Thomson through on goal – the striker lofted the ball over David Hutton in the with some aplomb. Alan Forrest’s 90th minute consolation, where he expertly controlled McCracken’s long pass and curled it past Graeme Smith, was one of the few positives McCall would have scribed in his notepad.
McCall left Glebe Park pondering how to divide his time over the next six days. He said: “I’ve got to think about how much time I’ve got to give to getting other players in and how much time I’ve got to give to taking training with John [Henry, McCall’s new Assistant]… but we do need players”. McCall spoke with an assuredness that 15 years as a manager affords but he was under no illusions that relegation is real possibility for a club that has never played in the fourth tier of Scottish football. Ayr need to start winning soon: next up are Greenock Morton at Somerset Park, the last side United tasted victory against 11 matches and three months ago. AG
5) Elgin City are making the bottom of League 2 interesting
Jim Weir’s Elgin City won their second league match in a row, putting them just two points behind each of East Stirlingshire, Montrose and Clyde on 19 points. City’s second successive 3-2 score-line away from home puts them in a much better position to recover their season from the prospect of relegation. They’ve still not won as many games as any of the rest of the division, but there is clear progress evident in Weir’s side in comparison to the team that went nine league games without a win under Barry Wilson.
The victory looked unlikely at the start, with Elgin missing Michael Fraser in goals, as well as both of the previous central midfield partnership in Bryan Cameron and Mark Nicolson. When David Hopkirk ran away from stand-in captain Stuart Duff to head in a corner kick after five minutes, it didn’t look good. In previous games – the 1-4 defeat to Queen’s Park, for instance – when Elgin conceded they didn’t seem as if they had the fight nor the quality to get themselves back into matches, but the beginning of Weir’s reign looks to have improved on that a lot. Daniel Moore’s corner kick to the far post was headed into the six-yard box and Craig Gunn capitalised on Alex Mitchell’s lack of presence to equalise.
Elgin went behind again, when an Annan free-kick was deflected against the base of the post – with no defender reacting to the loose ball in the penalty area, Ryan McStay put the Galabankies ahead just after the interval. The lead only lasted 15 minutes, when Moore – enjoying a surprise central midfield role in Cameron’s absence – took on a couple of players into the Annan box and shot low with his right foot, before teenage centre-back Ally Gilchrist benefited from a smartly whipped corner kick to freely head in at the near post for the winning goal.
Elgin didn’t have it all their own way and their opponents could have had a goal before the end of the match. Annan had a couple shots from the outside of the box narrowly missing the inside of the far post, while David Hopkirk’s sumptuous cross was met by Peter Weatherson on the volley, but his effort at point-blank range was expertly parried by 19-year-old Stuart Black. In different circumstances, Elgin would have been expected to fold and allow the other team to come back, but at present the change in management appears to be having a positive effect and the narrow margins are working in their favour.
The Black and Whites now have two wins and two draws in their last six games, putting them in the top half of the form table for that exact amount of fixtures. It is a table that sees Montrose firmly bottom, although they are not that far behind East Stirlingshire and Clyde. With the Shire getting their first win in six games over the Mo, it leaves the latter with four difficult fixtures to follow (Berwick Rangers away; Albion Rovers home; Annan home; Queen’s Park away) and it could be that the Gable Endies find themselves bottom after the run of those fixtures. But with just two points separating the bottom four clubs in the SPFL, anything can happen. JAM