Five Things We Learned, 13 April 2015

1) Queen of the South have done enough for fourth place

Three wins in succession; five goals scored; and none conceded. It’s been a decisive week or so for James Fowler’s Queen of the South, with the beating of Hibernian last weekend followed by a resounding 3-0 win over Rangers, then followed once more in this 1-0 victory against Falkirk. In terms of judging the “size” of the respective clubs whom Fowler’s team usurped, as well as impact those three wins might have on the outcome of this season, Queen of the South might not have enjoyed a more fruitful eight days in their recent history.

Have they won those matches with great style? Probably not, but that depends on your own opinion of what is a good or bad way to win a game of football. It doesn’t need repeating that the sport is so universally popular due to the many ways in which it can be appreciated, and while Queens have not set any heather alight in their wins they have comfortably kept their opposition at a safe distance.

Sitting with a deep defence and hitting with pace and penetration on the counter has been the primary strategy in the last wins. Although that was hugely effective in Thursday night’s win over Rangers, particularly as the second half progressed, the team appeared to have collectively ran out of energy in the second period against Falkirk and had to be content with just absorbing pressure from the Bairns in long enough spells. But for one fine save that Zander Clark had to pull off late in the match, Falkirk toiled in front of goal all afternoon, despite having the majority of possession of the ball between the sides. Rory Loy continues to be missed from the team, with precious little firepower beyond him – on the evidence of this match at least, it is clear that Fowler was happy enough to allow John Baird to leave earlier in the season when the Queen of the South manager still has three forwards in the squad scoring 34 league goals among them.  The closest Baird came was from a volley at the edge of the box which the goalkeeper got a strong hand to.

Falkirk had plenty of the ball but possession means little, of course, if the midfielders cannot provide enough service behind the opposition backline. Andy Dowie – deputising for Mark Durnan, who picked up a strain against Rangers – was comfortable enough alongside Chris Higgins at the heart of the Queens defence, as Queens settled for their usual configuration of two banks of four in front of Clark. The concession of the extra central midfielder to Falkirk’s 4-2-3-1 would be made up for in putting Falkirk under pressure with the directness of their attacks.

That is indeed what happened, even if not quite in the fashion that Fowler or anyone else might have expected. A Falkirk long ball behind the Queens defence was intended to get the centre-backs turned, but Clark casually swept play back upfield from outside his own box. Few would have figured that Falkirk’s 21-year-old team captain Will Vaulks would struggle with his headed clearance – was it a mistimed clearance at all, or an undercut passback? In any case, the looping trajectory above and behind him allowed Gavin Reilly and Derek Lyle to race on to the loose ball and Lyle called his team-mate out of the way, before side-footing the volley beyond Jamie MacDonald with impeccable technique.  It was Queens’ first real sight at goal a quarter of the way into the match, but it wasn’t too long after where the best chance of the tie was set up by Doonhamers midfielder Ian McShane at the byline for Gavin Reilly to score an open goal from a couple of yards, but unbelievably the striker managed to divert the chance off target in a scene quite reminiscent of Chris Iwelumo against Norway.

Falkirk’s brightest attacking spark came from 16 year old Kevin O’Hara when he was brought on for Mark Kerr with just less than half an hour remaining.  O’Hara was like a turbocharged Baird, with plenty zest in his off-the-ball movement and he brought out Clark’s best save with a header across goal.  On this evidence, as small a sample as it is, O’Hara could turn out to be a very good player.

Yet just a few minutes after O’Hara’s introduction, Queen of the South took Lyle off for Mark Millar to shore up the back of midfield, to see out the rest of the contest for their third win and clean sheet in a row. With successive wins against those clubs around them in the league, the Doonhamers are now in a splendid position to finish in the play-offs, showing the right kind of form that might even see them make the final rounds. JAM

 

2) There is more drama in the Championship relegation story

It seems a little odd that, when any team attempts a late-season bid to avoid relegation, it is always labeled “The Great Escape”. After all – and apologies in advance if you’re one of the few people who hasn’t seen the 1963 classic movie – almost no-one gets away and the majority of the escapees are either recaptured or killed. In short, The Great Escape doesn’t end well, but it is an apt comparison to Livingston’s current run.

The Lions’ 2-1 win over Cowdenbeath was their third successive victory, and they’ve now lost just once in their last six matches. It’s a sequence of results few could have predicted and while Mark Burchill’s side have clearly been buoyed by their Challenge Cup success last weekend, their good run of form had begun in the weeks before Alloa’s shellacking.

For Cowden, meanwhile, the result and the performance was a serious setback. After two consecutive wins (and commanding ones at that against Dumbarton and Raith Rovers), it looked as though Jimmy Nicholl’s boys were well on their way to Championship safety, especially after Nat Wedderburn blootered the ball beyond Darren Jamieson to open the scoring at Central Park.

But, like Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part III, just when they thought they were out they were pulled back in and two goals from Jordan White secured a late, deserved win for Livi. White has had a peculiar season, shim-shamming between prolific and profligate, but he’s chosen the perfect moment to get into the groove. His first was certainly helped by poor defending, with neither Wedderburn nor John Armstrong appearing to a notice a 6ft 4in striker in a bright yellow top had slipped between them to turn home Miles Hippolyte’s cross. White’s decisive second saw him demonstrate another side to his game – he held off a challenge from Darren Brownlie before spinning clear and finishing into the corner. It was his 15th goal of the season.

Cowden’s slipshod performance was reminiscent of their early season displays, replete with an almost traditional late capitulation and weird substitutions. The introduction of the defensive midfielder Chris Kane for Sean Higgins, a striker, attempted to shore things up but the move backfired as Livi scored their equaliser within seconds of Nicholl tampering with his system.

It does not bode well for the Blue Brazil – not only are they being hounded by a revitalised Livingston, but Alloa Athletic are also on their tail. It might have been down to the fabled “new manager bounce”, it might not have been, but Danny Lennon’s first victory since taking charge of the Wasps, a thumping 3-0 win over Dumbarton, ensures the relegation equation will not be solved until the final day of the season when they take on Cowden at Recreation Park.

It was Alloa’s first win over the Sons since August 2009, 12 meetings ago, and it was achieved in some style. Iain Flannigan’s free-kick was a decent way to get things going but the second was a thing of beauty – Kevin Cawley gathered possession before cutting into a pocket of space and unleashing a rip-snorter of a finish beyond Danny Rogers. Greig Spence’s goal 20 minutes from time was a little more mundane – he took advantage of Rogers’ hesitancy to poke the ball into the net – but it was no less important. It was the first league match this season in which the Alloa stadium announcer was able to play their goal celebration music – the theme tune to The A-Team – three times in one match. Heady days indeed.

It was the poorest set of results possible for Cowdenbeath: Alloa now sit two points behind them with a game in hand; Livi trail by five but have played two matches less. How things will play out between now and the end of the season is anyone’s guess, but it’s guaranteed to be a thrilling finale. SM

 

3) Ayr United and Stenhousemuir are inseperable

For all the highly venerated sporting events that took place this weekend – the Grand National, the Masters, the Boat Race – you did not have to look further than the lower reaches of League 1 for high drama. Like two old nags, or course hackers at the municipal pitch ‘n’ putt, Ayr United and Stenhousemuir (four wins between them in 2015) resumed their increasingly calamitous attempts at avoiding the relegation play-offs: United were at home to Peterhead; the Warriors travelled to Inverclyde to face title-chasing Greenock Morton.

At half-time, the outlook was unfamiliarly positive for both sides. United had dominated the Blue Toon and were unfortunate only to be leading 2-1. On his return to the starting line-up after injury and illness, 18-year-old Alan Forrest put United ahead in the 18th minute, adroitly controlling Michael Donald’s deep cross and rounding goalkeeper Graeme Smith before slotting home. Three minutes later, Jordan Preston doubled Ayr’s advantage – Nicky Devlin pounced on slack play by Jordon Brown to feed Preston, who checked inside Ryan Strachan and rolled the ball beneath Smith. It provoked joyous scenes in the Ayrshire sunshine.

The teenage goal-scorers then passed up opportunities to extend the home side’s advantage – Forrest volleyed wide from ten yards after Peterhead had failed to clear and then Smith, somehow, was able to direct Preston’s low drive over the bar from on the goal-line with his right hand. By this point, news had filtered through to the terraces that Stenhousemuir had gone ahead a Cappielow after right-back Ross Meechan found himself in space and shot past Derek Gaston from the edge of the area. Then, back in Somerset, Peterhead scored. United had seven players in the penalty box, plus goalkeeper David Hutton, but ex-Ayr man Andy Rodgers was free to nod home Steven Noble’s left-wing cross. At least the half-time break, three minutes later, gave Ian McCall the opportunity to calm his charges.

Unfortunately for Ayr, whatever wisdom McCall passed on the interval failed to have the desired result. Referee Calum Murray’s full-time whistle sparked a cacophony of jeers from the home supporters who had stayed until the end. United had simply folded in the second period and from the point Preston broke through on goal 43 seconds after the restart only to see Smith deny him once more, Peterhead were dominant; United were in disarray.

The equaliser came in the 52nd minute. Scott McKenna, occupying an unfamiliar left-back role, nudged Rodgers to concede free-kick, although the award looked soft. McKenna then failed to track Jordon Brown who headed home Noble’s inviting in swinging centre. The game became increasingly frantic. A Jon-Paul McGovern free-kick hit the crossbar in the 55th minute before Brown put Jim McInally’s side ahead. Rory McAllister cutely dummied a forward pass from centre-back Strachan taking Peter Murphy out the game and causing indecision between Martyn Campbell and Hutton (the defenders seemed to spend much of the second-half getting in each other’s way, while Hutton became increasingly erratic); Brown pounced to bundle the ball home. By now, Stenny were two goals to the good at Morton, the livewire Paul McMullan tapping home. The final ignominy for United was to see Gary MacDonald put the game out of reach, running onto Rodgers’s flick to fire home. Two goals up and cruising, fragile Ayr had blown it. Again.

As the players trudged down the tunnel, Stenhousemuir were still ahead at Cappielow despite Peter MacDonald’s 78th minute strike and the Warriors held a three-point advantage at the foot of the table. But not for long. MacDonald, along with Jon Scullion and Joe McKee, tilted a match in which Morton had been entirely wretched for 70 minutes in their favour following their introduction from the bench – by the time the last Ayr player off the park reached the dressing room, Declan McManus had equalised for the Ton, converting a Ross Forbes corner. Then, four minutes after the full-time whistle in Ayrshire, Stefan McCluskey nodded home from six yards to spark incredible scenes at Cappielow not seen since, well, Jim Duffy’s side did the same against Ayr three weeks previously. Morton had repeated the hammer blow they had inflicted on United and in the process handed the Honest Men a “get out of jail free” card.

When the dust had settled, the change at the foot of the table was subtle. Ayr’s one-goal advantage over Stenhousemuir had been eradicated; the Honest Men top the Warriors by virtue of having scored two more goals with three games to go.

Elsewhere on Saturday, there was also last-gasp drama at Glebe Park where Andy Jackson’s goal two minutes into stoppage time strengthened Brechin City’s grasp on the final promotion play-off spot, and condemned Stirling Albion to tenth place and automatic relegation. It had been a long time coming: quite simply, the Binos have been uncompetitive from day one – they’ve lost nine of their last 11 games, evidence that a change of manager in November had little impact upon results.

For Ayr United and Stenhousemuir – two squads of players evidently mentally and physically enervated – the end of the season cannot come quick enough; yet one side will face four additional games if they are to avoid joining Stirling in League 2 next term. And the Binos could play a pivotal role in determining which will be spared from hauling themselves to (most likely) Arbroath, Methil or Elgin in the play-off semi-final first leg. United host Albion on the penultimate weekend while Stenny (who have lost twice to Stirling this season) travel to Forthbank on the final day. It might come down to which side can derive the biggest advantage over the division’s whipping boys – and if either has the resolve to bounce back from this weekend’s trauma. AG

 

4) Albion Rovers put the champagne on ice (for now)

“Still on top, fuck yeez,” muttered John Gemmell as he trudged down the tunnel at full-time. Jeered by a raucous home support, the big striker raised his index finger to emphasis the point. And he was right – Albion Rovers might have lost at East Fife but they maintain a five-point lead at the summit of League 2. With three games remaining, it is surely a matter of time before they’re crowned champions.

That said, a lot more was expected from them given what was at stake. An Albion Rovers victory combined with a Queen’s Park loss to Annan Athletic would have handed them the title so it was curious to see them turn in such a bloodless showing for the majority of the match. There was no outrageous difference between the teams but Darren Young’s side were lacking in craft and invention and never really looked like prevailing.

It was a horrible afternoon for football. The sky was a bleak, milky gray and then all of a sudden it was bright blue. It was very windy and then it wasn’t and there was rain and hail. The ball was lumped backwards and forwards and it was little surprise to see the game’s only goal born out of a punt up the park. Ross Dunlop, under pressure from Nathan Austin, failed to meet Jordan Millar’s long clearance and the ball ran through to Kevin Smith. Smith dribbled into the box, coaxed Neil Parry from his line, and then played in Sean Dickson to slide the ball home. The touch looked as though it actually came off Gary Phillips (Dickson admitted as much after the match) but it was the midfielder’s fifth goal since joining the Fifers in January.

East Fife continued their dominance into the second half and should have had a penalty when Mick Dunlop blocked Austin’s shot with his hands – granted, the ball was struck at close range but the Rovers captain had both hands raised; it should have been a straightforward decision for referee Alan Newlands to make. The Fife forwards were a nuisance all afternoon: Austin was game, chasing down every ball; Dickson probed at the Rovers backline; and Kevin Smith’s direct running down the left flank was particularly eye-catching. Smith kept on running at the bedraggled Gary Fisher, taking him this way and that, before looking to cut balls back from the byline. Sometimes his decision-making was a poor, sometimes he ran out of puff, but he was one of the few players capable of sparking something.

Albion Rovers only began to look coherent after John Gemmell’s introduction in the 56th minute. Gemmell joined Mark McGuigan up but rather than using the two forwards as a dual battering ram, their play was more subtle than anything earlier in the match. With Gemmell dropping deep to act as a pivot, one move saw the ball swished from the midfield to the frontline with precision; it is a pity McGuigan’s shot only brought out a rudimentary block from Millar. They came very close to equalising when Chris Cadden’s shot bobbled against the post late on but that was as good as it would get.

With Queen’s Park recording a routine win over Annan, they couldn’t have won the league then anyway. Having been in superb form since the middle of February (six wins in seven), Albion Rovers can probably mark the defeat down as a blip, an anomaly, a bad day at the office. With Clyde, Arbroath and East Stirlingshire lying ahead – two teams with nothing to play for and another in complete free-fall – the remainder of the campaign should be a formality.

So you can boo John Gemmell and Albion Rovers all you want because it doesn’t matter. Still on top, fuck yeez. CGT

 

5) East Fife and Elgin City will battle for the final play-off place

It has been a strange campaign in League 2. Arbroath dominated it until the New Year after which their spectacular implosion – which cost Allan Moore his job yesterday evening – has seen them slip to third, not yet totally assured of a play-off place, with three games remaining. Although title-winning pretensions have long since disappeared, they can still act as championship kingmakers with their next two fixtures against Queen’s Park and Albion Rovers.

In truth, however, the Lichties’ first half of the season will probably be enough to see them in the play-offs, even if their dreadful form makes it unlikely that they will prosper in that high-octane, nerve-shredding atmosphere. Perhaps a more significant battle can be found in the struggle to nail down the final place and secure play-off qualification.

The two remaining realistic contenders are East Fife, currently lying fourth after an impressive win over table-topping Albion Rovers, and Jim Weir’s Elgin City. Fascinatingly, the two sides meet at New Bayview on the final day of the season in what is shaping up to be a winner-takes-all encounter. East Stirlingshire did also have a faint chance of making fourth after a strong run in late winter and early spring, but they were undone yesterday with a very poor performance in a surprise home defeat to wooden spoonists Montrose.

On paper, Elgin have the easier two games before the battle on 2 May; next week they travel to Montrose and then their final home game is against a woeful Annan Athletic side whose season seems to have ended some weeks ago. East Fife travel to Galabank next weekend, before another long away trip to Berwick Rangers on 25 April. Gary Naysmith’s team are a frustratingly maverick side, capable of playing really well one week and then like 11 atrocious strangers the next. The last three games in March are a case in point. Fine, confident wins at home to Montrose and Arbroath sandwiched a truly baffling 1-4 reverse against lowly Berwick.

Elgin, too, have been consistently inconsistent in the last month. Jim Weir and Gav Price have done a remarkable job in transforming a dead-in-the-water backmarking side into a surging, confident, attacking unit. Elgin have seen off Albion Rovers at Cliftonhill, and yesterday became the latest team to get the better of Arbroath; yet they also failed to beat East Stirlingshire over two games, home and away. Defensive frailties will be the cause of Elgin’s narrow failure if they fail to overtake the Fifers; in their last encounter with the Methil side, the home defense crumpled like a dynamited tower block in a 3-5 defeat.

If results go to form in the next two weeks then the final day encounter at New Bayview will be one for the neutral to savour. By then the title should be decided in Albion Rovers’ favour, and Montrose are already doomed. Whoever prevails will provide a tough opponent in the play-off semi-final for either Stenhousemuir or Ayr United. East Fife’s recent play-off experience, with tough characters like Naysmith and Sean Dickson in the ranks, or Elgin’s free-scoring, never-say-die squad, will both be awkward assignments. JB

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.

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