1) Dundee are fortunate to still be top of the table
With results having gone well for them elsewhere, Dundee still find themselves top of the table, but they sure do seem to make it difficult for themselves.
Livingston won against John Brown’s side for the second time in a row. What was once an impeccable home record is now around par with their title rivals Hamilton Academical and Falkirk. Over the last six matches, Dundee are still the second-best performing club in the league behind Falkirk, but with a visit to Westfield looming after hosting Hamilton on Saturday, there is a growing sense that Dundee’s season could be made or broken within a few short weeks.
The biggest worry for Brown must be that Livingston were well worth their win. Mark Burchill’s registration as a player – despite being John McGlynn’s assistant manager – seemed at some point to be just a contingency plan but despite having been a fleeting presence within the side until recently, he seems to be good value for his role in the team. Burchill’s general link-up with the midfield was arguably an improvement on Andrew Barrowman’s play so far this season, while his prowess in making the set-piece run to guide a free header beyond Kyle Letheren was as accomplished a finish as Dens Park will witness this season.
Goal-scoring is something of a rare commodity from the home dressing room at the moment – with Peter MacDonald absent, so was a third of the club’s league strikes this season. Only one shot on target from Dundee, when chasing a goal deficit, came from a bounce of the ball (after a stuttering dribble) falling kindly for Craig Wighton to play Ryan Conroy through on goal – despite having most of the goal inside the far post to aim at, Conroy didn’t trust his right foot and failed to open his body up enough to fully test Darren Jamieson in the Livingston goal with his left. Apart from that and a missed headed chance by centre-back Declan Gallacher, there was little goal threat from the home side. Livingston’s make-shift back-line cruised through the game, with Simon Mensing lapping up the direct balls towards Wighton and Martin Boyle.
Brown has to be firmly at fault for that to happen. He wasn’t able to change the course of the game and that is a damning indictment on a manager in charge of what is the strongest squad in the lower leagues, regardless of balancing issues. It doesn’t help when players are needlessly played out of position: Kevin McBride offered no width or penetration on the right side of midfield, which has been something of an issue for the team for a couple of years when Nicky Riley isn’t playing. Iain Davidson is an average make-shift centre-back who ought to be holding the midfield in place of the once match-transforming but now pedestrian Gavin Rae. Yet Brown’s insistence on playing his senior players means that the perfectly adequate centre-back Kyle Benedictus remains unused on the substitute bench. With Carlo Monti proving that he is a little out of his depth in this competition – which was not much of a surprise considering he left Greenock Morton to play at junior level, from where he was plucked – Brown now just needs a former Rangers player on trial and a bewildering reaction to low-key questioning to complete the parallels with his failure at Clyde.
Livingston, indeed, could have won by a bigger margin. McGlynn managed his side to sit behind the ball and counter with energy. Driven by Martin Scott from the centre of the park, Livi pressed Dundee’s one-dimensional midfield and made a trio of reasonably well-presented chances. Scott himself should have done better with a couple of shots from around the edge of the box, with some deceptively delicate play from Burchill and Marc McNulty bringing him into contention. Stefan Scougall was always a dynamic threat and once made fools of Davidson and Matt Lockwood, who couldn’t clear their lines despite having opportunities to do so – Scougall managed to dink the ball over his shoulder and was only thwarted by the star shape of Dundee’s goalkeeper, which was just enough to force the shot to trundle past the post. The goal would have been both a technical delight and an embarrassment had it gone in.
Dundee must improve in their next couple of games if they have a chance of staying top of the league in the long term. New signings might help, but only if they genuinely improve the squad and Brown utilises them appropriately. On recent history, there cannot be a guarantee of either. JAM
2) Hamilton Academical need to make use of the January transfer window
Falkirk’s meeting with Hamilton Academical – third against second in the Championship table – was a match of importance as both sides looked to put pressure on Dundee at the summit of the division. Hamilton went into the contest buoyed by consecutive wins but their apparent confidence was not enough to lift the match from the doldrums – it was a dire affair. The teams mustered one shot on goal between them and the game was littered with misplaced pass after misplaced pass which broke up any rhythm. The evident technical ability of the relatively young sides was not on show here.
While Martin Canning and Michael Devlin impressed in the centre of the Accies defence, it was the failure of those in front of them to retain possession which contributed to the sub-standard display. The ever-unpredictable Ali Crawford offered little in a creative sense from the flanks, while Grant Gillespie and Louis Longridge were unable to influence play from the middle of the park and left Mickael Antoine-Curier frustrated and isolated in attack. It has already been expressed on a number of occasions but the team is badly missing player-manager Alex Neil.
Neil’s absence since November has negatively correlated with a downturn in form. With Neil in the side, the Accies lost one league match; since his injury, they have lost three times and points are being carelessly dropped. Hamilton once had a nine point advantage over Dundee but have since fallen two points behind them – unless the issue is addressed, there is a danger they could fall further down the table.
As well as missing Neil’s controlling influence, the side are also missing a consistent goal-scorer. Hamilton’s two senior forwards, Antoine-Curier and James Keatings, have managed 11 league goals between them and when compared with their divisional peers, the statistic becomes pertinent: Kane Hemmings, Rory Loy, Peter MacDonald and Marc McNulty have all met or surpassed that mark individually. Keatings began the campaign in prolific form and scored thrice in two matches but the goals have since appeared sporadically. Antoine-Curier – who has been absent through injury – has failed to impress, and a return one goal every three games from the two forwards combined will not be enough to keep this side at the top of the table. If Hamilton are to maintain their title challenge then an additional forward must be sourced over the next few weeks. RC
3) Garry O’Connor is large, but not in charge, for Greenock Morton
It’s always a little churlish to label any fixture as “must win” when there’s four months of the season still to negotiate, but it’s win-or-bust time for Greenock Morton already. Before the weekend’s home tie with Raith Rovers, Kenny Shiels’ side had contrived to lose their previous seven league fixtures, a wretched run of form which left them nine points behind Cowdenbeath in ninth. These are desperate times in Inverclyde, and desperate times call for desperate measures: the signing of Garry O’Connor represents a final throw of the dice for a club in serious peril of dropping out of the Championship.
Five or six years ago, O’Connor could have conceivably troubled a second tier back four all on his own. Now, the former Scotland striker is glaringly unfit – anyone who has ever spent time watching Gok Wan will tell you that horizontal stripes are never a good look for someone carrying an extra bit of timber, but the design of Morton’s strip was the least of his worries.
On Saturday, O’Connor began the match as his side’s lone forward but made little impact on the game’s outcome. He was slow, immobile, and dominated by his markers. There was a header after 25 minutes that drifted harmlessly over the bar and a nice finish towards the end of the first half that was rendered irrelevant by the linesman’s flag. His last opportunity of note came after the interval when his angled shot was well saved by Rovers goalkeeper Ross Laidlaw. There were a number of occasions where the forward was able to hold up play, but a lack of support from midfield undermined his efforts.
O’Connor aside, there were a number of salient points for a match that finished without a goal. Rovers’ Calum Elliot was denied by a point-blank save from Nicolas Caraux in the first half, while Dougie Hill somehow managed to tangle up his legs like a pretzel in the six-yard box when presented with an earlier opportunity. The away side also had two goals disallowed: one correctly when Ross Callachan tapped in an Elliot shot; the other questionably after Joe Cardle’s last minute strike. Morton, meanwhile, had several efforts of their own but Laidlaw was able to keep Dougie Imrie, David Robertson and Barrie McKay all at bay.
With Shiels claiming that a bizarre medical issue is preventing him from giving post-match interviews, his assistant David Hopkin was tasked with speaking to the assembled press. Hopkin claimed that Morton dominated the match from start to finish and could have won by three or four – strange comments about a match tighter than O’Connor’s shorts.
A 0-0 draw might be considered an improvement for a side who had lost seven consecutive league matches but Morton will not be able to claw back an eight point deficit with games that end in parity – this side need to start winning immediately. With their next three fixtures coming against an in-form Livingston, Queen of the South and Falkirk, there is the chance they could begin February no better off than they are just now. A lithe, motivated Garry O’Connor would of course be a huge benefit to the team but Morton are fast running out of time for the striker to regain his match fitness and move closer to safety. SM
4) Stewart Greacen can’t solve Stenhousemuir’s defensive problems on his own
Although results against Dunfermline Athletic and Rangers had not gone in their favour, Stenhousemuir’s performance in both matches was of a reasonably sound standard and suggested the club that were in a position to enjoy a successful 2014. “I don’t think we deserved to lose to Dunfermline – it was a late sickener,” Martyn Corrigan told the Falkirk Herald last week. “In that game and against Rangers I was proud of my players and the way we played. They are the two teams at the top end of the division but I know we can do well if we keep it up.”
After the concession of three last minute goals in their last three encounters with Dunfermline, Stenhousemuir appear to have an inferiority complex when it comes to the Pars, while Rangers are edging beyond every other team in the division without playing well, but Saturday’s match against Forfar Athletic was expected to provide the Warriors with a more realistic test of their capabilities. Stewart Greacen, signed by Stenhousemuir at the beginning of the month on an 18-month contract with the aim of holding together an overly generous defence, is more likely to be judged on his ability to acquit himself with the likes of Chris Templeman than Jon Daly. There was an expectation that with the former Greenock Morton centre-back in the side, the Warriors would be a far hardier proposition.
They were undone four minutes into the match. A failure to clear their lines and push out afforded Gavin Swankie with the time and space to lash a low strike into the corner of the net from 20 yards. Twenty-four minutes later, the excellent Omar Kader cut inside from the right wing to go through on goal but was illegally felled by Ross McMillan as he was about to shoot; McMillan was dismissed and Martin Fortheringham scored the resultant penalty. And with six minutes of the first half remaining, Fotheringham, under no opposition, added his second of the match by sliding the ball under Chris Smith from close range.
Forfar did not approach the second half with the same intensity – there was no real requirement for them to do so – but they were outstanding throughout the opening period. Darren Dods (who spent the majority of the shouting “Up! Up!” at his backline) kept John Gemmell at arm’s length, Fotheringham and Odmar Faeroe were a dominant presence in the middle of the park, and Kader and Dale Hilson offered excitement and incision from the flanks. Dick Campbell’s side have now excelled in their last two matches – they were devastating during their 5-1 victory over Brechin City – and if they are able to maintain the same level of performance over the next few weeks (starting with a home tie against Rangers), there is a chance they could develop into something more than just dark horses for promotion.
Stenhousemuir, meanwhile, were largely appalling, the excellent Sean Dickson excepted. Greacen performed reasonably well but with a lack of cover from the flanks and no protection from midfield, the defence was exposed again and again. McMillan’s red card – his third of the season – hardly helped matters. The captain has experienced a disappointing campaign and is likely to face a lengthy suspension. His unavailability will see Martyn Corrigan fit square pegs into round holes once again – a key factor in his team’s defensive instability – to plug the gaps in the backline. They are back to where they started.
The Warriors are now seven points from a play-off place and on current form, it is difficult to know where their next win will come from. Their next three fixtures will be crucial – for all Arbroath’s current struggles, Stenhousemuir have never been successful at Gayfield in recent years, while Ayr United and Stranraer are likely to pose significant problems. It is a case of one step forward, one step back yet again. CGT
5) Paul Sheerin is becoming Harvey Dent
There is an early scene in The Dark Knight where Harvey Dent discusses the nature of morality and justice with Bruce Wayne and Rachel Dawes. “You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain,” he says. Although Arbroath’s current plight isn’t quite as portentous and doom-laden as The Dark Knight trilogy, the words could easily be applied to Paul Sheerin.
The fog at the foot of the League 1 table cleared a little on Saturday after three of the bottom four sides were beaten. There was nothing really expected from Airdrieonians and East Fife who visited Somerset Park and Ibrox respectively, so it was the result in the Angus derby between Arbroath and Brechin City which was to be the most significant. City prevailed 1-0 and climbed above East Fife into seventh place and leave behind them a gloom over Gayfield like the haar which regularly covers the North Sea town. The result extends the Lichties’ winless run to 11 league games and was a third consecutive match in which Sheerin’s side have succumbed to their relegation rivals – losses to Airdrie and East Fife either side of New Year’s Day have left Arbroath just two points ahead of the Diamonds and six from the safety of eighth place.
Since Arbroath’s elevation to the third tier after Sheerin’s first successful season at the club, there has been an obvious and gradual devaluation of the squad. They began the 2011-12 Second Division campaign with an excellent complement of players – Josh Falkingham, Gavin Swankie, Steven Doris, Brian Kerr, Stuart Malcolm – but all five have since departed and have not been adequately replaced. The residual is a squad lacking in quality and badly struggling to compete: Arbroath currently have half as many points as they did after 20 games last season, indicating just how far Sheerin’s team have regressed. The manager has limited options at his disposal – beyond Saturday’s starting XI, only midfielder Darren Smith and the returning Ricky Little can count on any senior experience of note. A lack of strikers has been their biggest problem, and three goals in their last seven matches indicate where their problems lie. Steven Doris’s return on loan from Dundee has misfired due to injury.
Defeat on the final day of last season saw Arbroath miss out on the promotion play-offs and flagged up the importance of Sheerin avoiding a consecutive season of disappointment. Yet so far, the manager has failed to arrest his side’s decline – in a dismal run of form and desperate need of strengthening during the transfer window, his career with the club is at a tipping point. Sheerin has made some poor choices in recent months and although the retains the backing of the majority of the Arbroath support, the ones he makes over the next few weeks will be vital in shaping the club’s – and his own – future. AG