1) Is the Championship a two-horse race already?
The Championship table might not be as tightly knit as League 2 but with a quarter of the season already gone, some patterns are beginning to emerge. With five points separating the top four teams, the summit of the division is more clustered now than it was 12 months ago – a campaign which, for the best part, was shaping up as a three-way fight for the title. Dunfermline Athletic’s financial woes and subsequent points deduction saw them drop out, leaving Partick Thistle and Greenock Morton to contest the championship. Although the season’s narrative has yet to completely reveal itself, the smart money would be on another two-horse race again this year.
This certainly didn’t appear to be the case several weeks ago when Hamilton Academical had surged to a five point lead after six weeks. But momentum, so often a significant factor in sport, appears to have swung in the favour of Dundee.
John “Bomber” Brown, one of the most maligned figures in Scottish football, seemed to be under real pressure after going four games without a win in September. Three matches later, however, his team are nine points better off and sit second in the table. The signing of Craig Beattie has been a risk worth taking and the side have scored nine goals across their winning streak. Their run coincides with Brown’s abandonment of his more unusual team selections and formations – his side are far more settled in a 4-4-2 system rather than the disorganised 3-4-1-2 they began the campaign with.
As for Hamilton, the team still holds first place but their recent results have not been as rewarding as they were earlier in the season. Saturday’s draw with Greenock Morton might not have necessarily been a bad result, but it was a poor performance from a side who have now won two of their last six league and cup fixtures. Furthermore, strikers James Keatings and Mickael Antoine-Curier have yet to develop an understanding and the pair have looked profligate. Keatings has contributed five league goals but with two having come from the penalty spot, he must provide more from open play to justify his role as the Accies’ key forward (although in his defence, the great Stevie May scored five times between August and December last year – even prolific players can begin the season slowly).
With difficult fixtures ahead and a resurgent Dundee just three points behind them, Hamilton will need to arrest their decline to retain the top spot over the coming weeks. SM
2) Alloa Athletic’s evolving style will see them through to safety
Alloa Athletic’s meeting with Falkirk at Recreation Park was a curious encounter. Despite the lack of quality and genuine goalmouth action, it was the home side’s evolution under Paul Hartley which caught the eye.
When the former Scotland international first took charge of the Wasps in the summer of 2011, he completely remodelled the first team squad, bringing in players such as Scott Bain, Kevin Cawley, Ben Gordon and Ryan McCord, and instilled both ultra-professional levels of discipline and preparation and an attractive, possession-based approach. Hartley’s side dominated matches but often lacked the ruthlessness to fully punish teams – it wasn’t until mid-January when they took command of the league and cantered towards the title, prevailing by 14 points.
They continued their upward trajectory in 2012-13 and won promotion to the newly minted Championship via the play-offs, with the same passing strategy central to their success. This season, however, Alloa are a different side. Hartley has set up his midfield into a tight diamond, utilising Stephen Simmons at its base and Cawley or Graeme Holmes at the tip. Against Falkirk, their levels of discipline and organisation prevented their visitors from playing their neat, triangular passing, stifling and frustrating them. Alloa looked to contain and then counter using the speed of Cawley and Andy Kirk. The latter has become a very shrewd signing and has assimilated seamlessly into Hartley’s system.
One of the most impressive facets of Alloa’s season is that the spine of the team is still made up of the same players who first joined in 2011. As Hartley has adjusted his side’s approach to meet the demands of the division, his players have adapted too. But in some respects, the reason the system has changed is because these players have reached the peak of their abilities – they are unlikely to take the club any further than mid-table in the second tier. This is where Hartley deserves particular credit. The manager has been praised for the standard of professionalism at the club and the manner in which they are regimented is rare in part-time football. For example, look how they attack and defend set-pieces compared to Cowdenbeath.
Their total of 14 points after the first quarter is an exceptional achievement. It is inevitable that Alloa will hit a poor run of form at some point over the season but – as long as Hartley remains – it would be very surprising to see the club concern themselves with relegation this year. CF
3) Brechin City’s poor season continues
Brechin City are in a slump. The weekend’s defeat to Stenhousemuir was their sixth consecutive match without a victory and, judging by the nature of their performance at Ochilview, their dismal sequence is likely to stretch further.
Ray McKinnon began the match by configuring his team into a 5-2-3 formation, with full-backs Paul McLean and Steven Jackson expected to push forward offensively and offer support to wide forwards Alan Trouten and Jonathan Brown. Stenhousemuir’s 4-2-2-2 system has been susceptible to overloads on the flanks all season; in theory, Brechin should have profited by targeting their opponents vulnerabilities.
During the opening exchanges, the visitors were indeed the better side, moving the ball with pace and incision and forcing their hosts back deep into their own half. McLean’s towering header on 14 minutes gave Brechin a deserved lead but instead of building on their advantage, they allowed Stenhousemuir back into the match. Soon they were outclassed in almost every area of the pitch.
Brechin’s greatest problems lay in central midfield. The partnership of Allan Walker and Stuart Anderson is one of the most passive in the lower leagues and as Bryan Hodge and Sean Dickson began to take control of the game, the City pair offered their team no dig or drive. Their inability to get on the ball meant McLean and Jackson sat back and gave their counterparts Kevin McKinlay and Nicky Devlin the occasion to get forward – Trouten and Brown are not the most defensively minded of players and McKinlay and Devlin were able to break into the Brechin half at will. Furthermore, with Sean Higgins often dropping deep to support Hodge and Dickson, if left three centre-backs taking turns to mark John Gemmell with varying degrees of success. In short, Brechin were in tactical disarray.
As the first half drew to a close, only a combination of poor finishing and solid goalkeeping from Graeme Smith protected Brechin’s lead. Two minutes into the second half, however, and Stenhousemuir equalised after Gemmell’s effort deflected off McLean and into the net. Dickson gave the home side the lead shortly afterwards with a vicious drive from the edge of the penalty area before Gemmell added his second and the Warriors’ third ten minutes later.
The goal prompted McKinnon to withdraw centre-back Gerry McLauchlan and the ineffectual Brown (the midfielder was unable to contain Devlin’s raids down his patch all afternoon) for Derek Carcary and Bobby Barr and reshape his side into an attack-minded 4-2-4 formation. Despite Andy Jackson scoring with ten minutes remaining, Stenhousemuir repelled Brechin’s late pressure and held on to win. The result lifts the Warriors into second place; Brechin, meanwhile, are languishing in seventh.
Last season, Brechin were at their most destructive when set up in a 4-4-2 system with Alan Trouten cutting inside from wide. McKinnon would perhaps be better served by not only utilising those same tactics, but by also making changes in midfield personnel. It is easy to see why Walker and Anderson were discarded by Raith Rovers in the summer – Greg Cameron and Craig Molloy would be far more appropriate for the rough and tumble of the division. The industry of Gary Fusco, currently in and out of the Forfar Athletic side, has also been badly missed.
McKinnon has faced a number of challenges since taking charge of Brechin 12 months ago – reinvigorating the squad after Jim Weir’s departure, and guiding the club through a backlog of fixtures in March and April – but arresting their current decline could be one of his most trying. With a difficult home match with Rangers and consecutive Angus derbies with Arbroath and Forfar looming, it might be some time before Brechin are back on track. CGT
4) New East Fife; same old struggles
East Fife may have begun the season with a new chairman, a new manager and a new squad of players (some might even call it a revolution…) but their failings on the pitch have been all too familiar. If Willie Aitchison is searching for an adjective to sum up his side’s predicament, he should look no further than his predecessor Billy Brown: strugglin’. The Fifers remain at the foot of the League 1 table – ominously, they are one point and a place worse off than they were at the same stage last season.
Ayr United, themselves on a six-game winless run, were the visitors on Saturday. There was no place in the East Fife squad for new signing Stephen Hughes, with the former Rangers and Motherwell midfielder deemed too short of fitness to participate. On the weekend’s evidence, he is much needed: the midfield pairing of Craig Johnstone and Jonny Stewart were overran throughout the 90 minutes, while wide players Cyrus Moosavi and Scott McBride were largely ineffective.
Both teams had opportunities to score in the game’s early stages, but Ayr’s opening goal in the 29th minute summed up their host’s shortcomings. In his own half and under pressure from Robbie Crawford, Stewart turned a played a loose pass directly to United’s Michael Donald. The winger advanced unchallenged before striking a ferocious drive beyond Greg Paterson. Seven minutes later, McBride’s pass out of defence was intercepted by full-back Gordon Pope and, via Scott McLaughlin, Michael Moffat was given time on the edge of the area to pick his spot and double the score-line. The goal was Moffat’s ninth of the season and his 50th for the Honest Men.
Liam Buchanan’s penalty before half-time – East Fife’s sixth league goal of the season – gave his side false hope. Ayr were never in danger of losing the match and their third came from another turnover in possession – Martyn Campbell easily dispossessed Johnstone and Kevin Kyle lofted a deliciously deft pass over the defence and onto the head of McLaughlin. The rout was complete after Gary Thom’s lack of awareness allowed Craig Malcolm to square for Donald to finish from close range.
Chairman Lee Murray has received plaudits for the club’s off-field changes, but it is results that matter. If Aitchison is unable to improve East Fife’s form then Murray could be forced to consider the manager’s position (and perhaps address the question of why the former Cowdenbeath and Heart of Midlothian youth coach was given the role in the first place). Their next two games could not be more testing, with a trip to face Dunfermline Athletic followed by a home tie against Rangers. The revolution so far remains hugely unconvincing. AG
5) There is a growing case for dropping David Niven
What does a manager do when his team consistently shows that they play better when the long-appointed captain is out of the reckoning? That must be the conundrum for Ross Jack, whose Elgin City side performed a remarkable comeback to win 3-2 away to Berwick Rangers – with the first of three goals arriving almost immediately after David Niven was taken off.
Niven is probably Jack’s first pick when it comes to his weekly selection. As the captain, Niven commands authority and never gives off anything but the air of total confidence in everything he does. The quality, however, is sometimes lacking, and it can hold City back. As a centre-back, he is neither tall enough to compete nor disciplined enough not to chase down loose balls in front of the defence, which more often than not leaves too much space behind him. As a central midfielder, his passing isn’t consistently tidy enough to play the more defensive role to complement a playmaker (and, again, can be found chasing the play which occasionally exposes the space behind him). As a right-back, his technique and distribution of the ball can let the team down, as neither the long diagonal nor the hoof into the corner terribly suit his team-mates further forward.
Where does he suit, then? It’s not an easy question to answer. Jack has settled on a 4-4-2 in recent times, which in the most basic generality relies upon at least one of the full-backs to be comfortable in coming forward with the ball, particularly against other 4-4-2 teams (which accounts for the majority of the lower leagues). Elgin have shown glimpses of quality going forward from left-back in Ross McKinnon, but a broken jaw has seen the return of Paul McMullan, whose composure in chipping balls forward on the left flank is rarely any better than Niven’s. Nonetheless, it has left Elgin with two full-backs who need to be providing the midfield and front line with better delivery, but who typically are not.
Jack at least acknowledged this concern by bringing on Graeme Beveridge with 35 minutes to go, with a view to progressing from the full-back area as Elgin searched for a way back into the game. Beveridge is a fans’ favourite for his willing attitude, honesty and “heart” – attributes that could generally be applied to Niven too. What Beveridge has to his advantage, however, is his tidiness on the ball and an ability to overlap on the flank, which with Paul Harkins tucking in front the flank ahead is exactly what is required at times too.
What is the solution then? In the short term, it makes sense to play Niven on the left side of defence. There will be little lost in the way of distribution from the back if he replaces McMullan, while this can be counter-balanced by a) Beveridge offering the overlap ahead of Harkins on the right, and b) Ali McKenzie providing natural width further up the left flank in any event. That, at least, further solidifies an already impressive defensive set-up among Jamie Duff, Sean Crichton and goalkeeper Ray Jellema. Will it happen? Probably not, but it might just provide the equilibrium that brings the best out of both and transitions in attack. JAM