1) Scotland’s match with Georgia made no difference to lower league attendances
“Shambles!” “Disgrace!” “Typical SFA wankers!”
The scheduling of the weekend’s lower league fixtures on the same day as Scotland’s European Championship qualifying match with Georgia was met with predictable ire. With the Scotland kicking off at 5pm, it left many supporters in an invidious position: how can I watch my club side play in the afternoon and see the national team in the early evening?
Some clubs had rearranged their matches for the day before – Raith Rovers and Ayr United hosted Queen of the South and Dunfermline Athletic respectively on Friday night – while a handful of games on the Saturday were brought forward to 1pm and 2pm. Some teams competed at 3pm; others arranged to postpone their matches altogether. Regardless, the general consensus was that the international fixture would impact on attendances across the country.
Yet this was not the case. Of the matches that took place on Saturday afternoon, three had corresponding fixtures last season: Airdrieonians and Brechin City; Forfar Athletic and Stenhousemuir; and East Stirlingshire and Queen’s Park. In 2013-14, the games took place on an ordinary Saturday afternoon (Scotland’s friendlies and World Cup qualifiers at the time were arranged for Tuesday and Friday nights). And in almost every case, the weekend’s attendances were actually higher (significantly so in Airdrie’s case) than they were a year ago on afternoons with no international fixtures.
At the Excelsior Stadium, 718 took in the Diamonds’ convincing 4-0 win over Brechin; on 5 October 2013, only 606 watched the them defeat City. A crowd of 489 saw Forfar thrash Stenhousemuir; on 31 August 2013, 483 witnessed the Warriors’ 2-1 win at Station Park; and 351 spectators caught the Shire’s 1-3 loss to QP; on 19 October 2013, 339 watched the sides play out a 1-1 draw.
The SFA played no part in dictating the international calendar – that particular responsibility lay with UEFA, who announced the dates (and the kick-off times) after the European Championship draw in February. It was the SPFL who arranged the fixtures, having scheduled the games in the summer. If the clubs were unhappy about the timing of the weekend’s games, it was their responsibility to come to a suitable date between them (Stenhousemuir approached Forfar to rearrange their match but the offer was rebuffed because the Station Park hospitality was fully booked).
Lower league matches have been scheduled for the same day as international games in the past and, as has been proven above, the clash makes little difference in terms of attendance. If supporters want to feel aggrieved about something, then their frustrations should be reserved for the SFA’s decision to charge £45 to attend Scotland’s match against Georgia – a scandal, if ever there was one. CGT
2) Raith Rovers and Queen of the South have played out the game of the season
After a long week of shoogling papers and dealing with tedious conference calls, there are a variety of ways to relax on a Friday night and take your mind off away from your workplace woes. Why not have a delicious meal with your partner? Or take in the latest Danny Dyer movie at the nearby cineplex? Or maybe even have a cheeky vino and some great banter with your mates in the local nightspot (and wake up the next morning with a sore head and dismal sense of inadequacy)?
However you spent your Friday night, the chances are you probably didn’t tune into BBC Alba to watch Raith Rovers’ match with Queen of the South. And, quite frankly, that was a mistake.
The 4-3 win for the Doonhamers was a rip-snorting humdinger of a contest and was often as absurd as it was exhilarating, especially the barnstorming final half-hour. With both sides expected to finish the campaign somewhere between the play-off places and mid-table, the match was expected to offer up some indication as to how they’d progressed since the beginning of the season. The result was far from a decisive barometer but it suggested that James Fowler’s side are the better of the two teams.
The first 55 minutes were generally straightforward. Queens were worthy of their two-goal advantage, with – who else? – John Baird, returning to Stark’s Park, and Gavin Reilly opening the scoring. At that stage, Raith had no answer to the visitors’ high tempo approach – Ian McShane and Mark Kerr dominated the midfield, while Danny Carmichael and Iain Russell enjoyed limitless freedom down the flanks.
It was Grant Murray’s substitutions on 57 minutes that swung the match in his side’s favour, however. Off went Kevin Moon and the ineffectual Barrie McKay and on came the galloping Grant Anderson and Mark Stewart, who provided some much needed support to Christian Nadé in attack. And five minutes later it was all square. Stewart and Nadé scored within three minutes of one another to tie the score, and the match suddenly began to resemble playground football as both teams duked it out in breathless fashion.
Queens’ full-back Kevin Holt was dismissed for a wild lunge on Jason Thomson but that didn’t stop his side from going 3-2 ahead courtesy of Derek Lyle, their own super sub. Raith responded immediately with Stewart taking advantage of Martin Scott’s fine work to score his second of the match and by this point, the teams were trading blows like Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed in the final rounds of their first heavyweight clash.
It was the Doonhamers who delivered the final, crucial blow. Iain Russell, who had blocked Laurie Ellis’s goalbound shot a minute earlier, rattled a shot off the defender’s leg and beyond Ross Laidlaw for the winning goal. At full-time, the home support weren’t sure if they should boo the pitiless performance of the first hour or applaud the endeavour of the final half-hour. Confusingly, some did both.
Queens’ dominance of the first 60 minutes made them worthy winners and with just one win since taking charge at Palmerston Park, Russell’s late intervention would have been a huge relief to his manager. As their injury list begins to clear, Fowler’s side look well placed to take a play-off place, especially as the return of Mark Durnan from a knee injury should go some way to alleviate their haphazard defending.
And if nothing else, the match suggests that James Fowler’s time with Queen of the South will be pretty entertaining. SM
3) Hibernian’s 3-5-2 is holding them back
The second draw for Hibernian at Easter Road in as many weeks leaves the Leith outfit bang in the middle of the table, six points from the bottom and a whopping 14 from the top. From five league matches at home, Hibs have conceded seven points – almost half of the total available – which is probably not good enough form over the course of the season if they want to finish within the play-off places, let alone among the top three as they should. When their away results are so poor (one win and three losses from four games played), they really ought to be doing more with their home advantage.
As against Raith Rovers the previous week, the Hibees had plenty of the ball but couldn’t do enough with it to hurt their opposition. Very few clear-cut opportunities came their way, or indeed to Dumbarton who played with a very narrow and disciplined back four during the most part. The best chance in the match came to Dominique Malonga, who was hauled down inside the penalty area as he was about to shoot. Malonga took the penalty kick himself, which appeared at first to be expertly saved by Danny Rogers, but the shot momentarily squirmed out of the goalkeeper’s reach – neither the referee nor his assistant thought that the ball had crossed the line by the time that Rogers could command control of it again, but that decision is very much open to scrutiny.
Hibs manager Alan Stubbs has been loyal to the XI that started and eventually won comfortably at Ross County some weeks ago, with the only alteration to the line-up being Dylan McGeough coming into the midfield in place of Scott Allan after the former served his suspension for a red card in Dingwall. Stubbs has used an orthodox 3-5-2 exclusively since that night, and although it has undoubtedly stabilised the defence, it has blunted the attack to a certain extent.
The three-at-the-back system has arguably brought out the best form in Paul Hanlon, who looks assured with Jordan Forster and Liam Fontaine on either side of him. All three are comfortable with each other defending across the line and few will beat them in the air and on the ground. All are reasonable enough in possession but nothing special, and in a three-centre-back system, when there is always at least one spare central defender to sweep or step up, maybe it isn’t enough for Hibs to thrive in the Championship.
In the wins against County and Rangers, the side were allowed to concentrate on containing first-most and then hitting on the counter. It brought the best out of wing-backs David Gray and Lewis Stevenson, who, when hitting on the break, would have the time to measure their deliveries. But neither are renowned for their technique in crossing – relying on them solely for width since then has sometimes been counter-productive, especially in the last two home games in fixtures where they were expected to win.
Looking through the whole team, it is littered with players who are functional but not exceptional; who know their jobs but aren’t creative enough to break teams down. Starlet Jason Cummings often looks the most likely to conjure moments of opportunistic finishing, but he cannot be the lone spark in the team. Liam Craig appears to provide the biggest thrust from middle to front and while he has a powerful and accurate shot, he will not produce something out of nothing for his team-mates beyond set-pieces.
When Stubbs played his final year at Celtic, it was Martin O’Neill’s first campaign in charge of the club and it was ground-breaking, demolishing Rangers 6-2 early in the season to mark the end of Dick Advocaat’s trophy-laden era. O’Neill used the 3-5-2 to great advantage, because he had the resources and the conviction to play wide midfielders at wing-back and a brilliant trequartista in Lubomir Moravcik between the midfield and attack. It meant that the service further forward was always consistently excellent and the strikers thrived on it.
Stubbs doesn’t have the resources that his former manager did, but if he wants to persist with the same system then he will need to come up with better combinations to break down opposition defences, or else they will find themselves toiling to make the play-offs at all. He could start with giving Sam Stanton, who carries the ball forward so well, a chance in the attacking midfield role. JAM
4) The Moff is lukewarm
Dunfermline Athletic went top of League 1 on Friday evening (albeit for only 19 hours) with a narrow 1-0 away win over Ayr United. It was a third consecutive victory for the title favourites, a sixth clean sheet in nine league games and further evidence that Jim Jefferies’s side are now performing as expected after a stumbling start to their league campaign.
There was one exception, however: it was another muted display from Michael Moffat. With a quarter of the season now gone, ‘The Moff’ has scored three league goals, five fewer than at the same stage last season for the Honest Men, and Friday was a fourth consecutive game without finding the net; his dearth of goals has already become a talking point.
The striker’s own assessment of his form in the run up to the game focused on adjusting to a different style of play. Last season, Moffat was Ayr’s main focus and the side sought to play the ball to him quickly and directly; at Dunfermline, there is a greater emphasis on passing and movement. Rather than always being at the apex of the attack, Moffat has found himself often dropping deeper to involve himself in the play. “It is something I need to work on in training but it takes time to adjust to a different style of play,” he said.
Perhaps it was the peculiarity of his first return to Somerset Park that played a part in what was arguably the striker’s poorest performance of the season. Despite the Pars dominating the first half, Moffat was a largely peripheral figure – his touch was often poor and he found it difficult to involve himself in proceedings. In an archetypical “game of two halves”, Ayr put Dunfermline under immense pressure after half-time but were repelled by a impressive rearguard display by the visitors (Gregor Buchanan, in particular, was outstanding). Jefferies replaced Moffat with Andy Geggan with eight minutes remaining in an attempt to close out the game – it was the first time he has been withdrawn this season. A relieved home crowd gave their former hero a generous ovation.
Despite Moffat’s lack of goals he insists he isn’t concerned, yet he said: “We do create a lot of chances and maybe it just takes one to go in. I’m not too worried at the moment. I’m usually quite harsh on myself and I think that I should have scored a few more goals so far this season but I’d be more disappointed if I was scoring and we were getting beat.”
And that’s what really matters. Moffat will surely come good but clearly some further adjustment is required on the part of both the player and his team-mates if he is to provide the goal return that is expected of him. AG
5) Silly slip-ups knock East Stirlingshire’s swagger
While East Stirlingshire’s 1-3 defeat to Queen’s Park was nothing to be ashamed of – the Spiders’ new recruits have taken to the division with aplomb, and the Shire played well enough in spells to show encouragement – the manner in which they conceded will have caused consternation throughout the ranks. Queen’s Park’s three strikes is their highest total in a match this season; it is unlikely they will score three easier goals.
Granted, the opener was exceptionally well taken – after five minutes, the ball was worked out to Ciaran McElroy on the left flank and his inviting cross was crashed into the net by Shaun Fraser – but their second and third goals were as much to do with the Shire’s deficiencies more than anything else.
QP won a series of corners midway through the first half and their pressure eventually paid off, although they were abetted by a dreadful error from Shire goalkeeper Richie Barnard. He leapt from his line to claim Darren Miller’s arcing ball but missed it completely; Fraser, tumbling backwards, swung his studs at it and sent it trundling into an unguarded net.
The third goal, scored in injury time, was perhaps the poorest of the lot. Jordan Tapping, who had struggled throughout, was bullied off the ball by Chris Duggan and the burly forward rolled the ball across the goalmouth for Paul Woods to prod it home. (Tapping’s performance was in fact one of the worst performances this author had seen in some time. The young defender’s potential had been talked up on several occasions – last season, one Shire fan remarked, “he can he anything he wants to be” – but this this was a calamitous display, with misplaced passes and mistimed tackles a key feature. Not once did he look like he was capable of getting to grips with Duggan or Fraser; this match was probably the exception rather than the rule.)
In between the second and third goals, the Shire actually looked reasonably threatening. They knocked the ball around with purpose, particularly in the middle of the park, and their one and two-touch passing caught the eye. Connor Greene slammed home David Greenhill’s corner with 25 minutes remaining but they were unable to turn their dominance into an equaliser. The score-line was reflective of the nature of the match – East Stirlingshire enjoyed just 32 per cent of then possession and had one corner and one shot on target.
There are a number of handy players in the Shire team – Greenhill and Martyn Shields looked decent when on the ball and Jay Doyle and Billy Vidler had their moments – but there is still a soft underbelly to Craig Tully’s side. If they are able to harden their resolve (and cut out the petty errors) then they could make for hardy opposition. The Shire need the substance to match their style. CGT
Many thanks go to Craig Anderson for his help in explaining the knotty administrative process that determines the UEFA, SFA and SPFL fixture list.