Five Things We Learned, 15 September 2014

1) It’s all White on the night for Livingston

Livingston super sub Myles Hippolyte has had a pretty busy week. Not only has he taken part in a photo shoot with a hippopotamus, his limited edition t-shirt – replete with #FeedTheHippo emblazoned across the front – has gone on sale in the club shop. Despite all the recent acclaim, Hippolyte was forced to play second fiddle to Jordan White on Saturday: White’s hat-trick against Alloa Athletic secured a fine 4-0 victory and allowed the Lions to continue their steady start to the season.

No-one was entirely sure how the West Lothian club would fare this term – dwindling crowds and off-field concerns hinted at a difficult campaign ahead. The sale of the talented Marc McNulty, who followed Stefan Scougall to Sheffield United, only compounded anxieties. The loss of two artistic players would harm any side at this level, but then John McGlynn has always been the kind of manager to favour pragmatism over pizzazz: the acquisition of White is a case in point.

After disappointing spells with Dunfermline Athletic and Falkirk, the towering striker joined Stirling Albion and enjoyed an excellent scoring record in League 2. Even so, some eyebrows were raised when McGlynn brought him to Livi but a return of five league goals has vindicated his transfer. The manager’s post-match comments suggested he wasn’t entirely convinced to begin with either, but White impressed during pre-season training with his “attitude and workrate”, two attributes that rev McGlynn’s engine.

The club’s attacking options are impressive. As well as White, there is the aforementioned Hippolyte, whose game-changing late introductions and gymnastic approach to goal celebrations has made him an immediate hit with fans. There’s also Gary Glen, a forward who runs hither and thither and is everything McGlynn looks for in a striker – part goal threat, part worker any.

Livi also look a lot more solid at the back and have kept four clean sheets in their ten competitive matches. Declan Gallagher has been key to their miserliness, and the former Dundee centre-back has been a commanding presence (even if he was missing on Saturday with a knee injury).

That Alloa were unable to take advantage in his absence says a lot about the poverty of their own performance – Livingston were not at their best, but then they didn’t need to be. With Kevin Cawley shackled by Keaghan Jacobs in midfield, Greig Spence and Liam Buchanan were starved of service up front. At the other end, Barry Smith’s defence, and in particular goalkeeper Craig McDowall, all had afternoons to forget.

Football tends to deal in the here and the now and it can occasionally be a little easy to forget relatively recent history – as such, it should be pointed out that at the same stage last season, Livingston were bottom of the Championship under Richie Burke with just two points. Now, under the tutelage of McGlynn and in a more difficult league to boot, they sit in fifth with seven.

Of course, the season is still in its infancy and the division’s eclectic mix of teams makes it difficult to gauge just how good each side is. What is clear, however, is that Livingston are a very different outfit this time around and probably all the better for it. With matches coming up against Heart of Midlothian and Rangers in the next three weeks, we will find out just how far they’ve come on. SM

 

2) Stranraer come out on top of the A77 derby

Last season will be remembered as a remarkable success for Stranraer, but it was perhaps easy to overlook their inauspicious start to the 2013-14 campaign. The Blues earned just one point from their opening five fixtures and naysayers grew confident in their unfavourable forecasts. Twelve months later and Stephen Aitken’s side have started in analogous fashion with positive performances in the Challenge and League Cups, but with two draws and two defeats in League 1. Stranraer’s 2-0 victory against Ayr United on Saturday, therefore, means the Blues have actually bettered their start to last season.

After making the 52-mile trip up the A77, Stranraer made two changes to the side that ousted Falkirk in the Petrofac Training Cup last weekend and forwards Jamie Longworth and Daniel Stoney replaced Chris Aitken and the suspended Craig Malcolm. Mark Roberts, meanwhile, resisted the temptation to start marquee signing Craig Beattie.

The game started with league leaders Ayr spurning a presentable opportunity after just two minutes. Nicky Devlin and Ryan Donnelly combined well down the right and when the latter’s cross was miscued by Craig Pettigrew, Alan Forrest cutely volleyed the ball to Brian Gilmour but his close range effort well saved by David Mitchell; it was to prove the Honest Men’s best chance of the game.

Stranraer adjusted to the loss of Scott Robertson in the 16th minute with a dislocated knee by introducing Jackson Longridge, who came on with a point to prove at left-back. Pettigrew, meanwhile, switched to the right of a solid but unadventurous back four that ceded little space in behind.

Fronted with a physically imposing defence and with midfield duo Grant Gallagher and Stephen Stirling also sitting deep, Ayr’s diminutive attackers Forrest, Gilmour and Peter McGill – supporting the hardworking Donnelly – were unable to make much of an impression. Indeed, Stranraer were unfortunate not to go into half-time ahead (albeit undeservedly so on the balance of play); a slack touch by centre-back Martyn Campbell presented Stoney with an opportunity to go through on goal but a poor first touch from the Rangers loanee allowed United goalkeeper David Hutton to scoop the ball up.

As the game began to open up in the second-half, Stranraer looked increasingly dangerous on the break. When the anticipated arrival of Craig Beattie eventually came in the 65th minute, the former Scotland striker’s first touch was a kick-off: Frank McKeown steered a clearance back into the Ayr half, which was knocked into the path of Gallagher by midfield partner Stirling. Gallagher strode forward before sending an unstoppable 30-yard drive into the net to open the scoring.

Ayr’s attack, also supplemented by Paul Slane (last heard of spending his pay-off from Celtic on hookers in Amsterdam) who featured as a trialist, became increasingly frantic in search of an equaliser but found itself matched by Stranraer’s defensive intensity. The second goal for the visitors came when Beattie failed to control the ball at the edge of the 18-yard box and the Blues’ counter attack caught Ayr shorthanded. Stoney found the lung-bursting run of Gallagher, who slid the ball to Longworth to round Hutton and slot home.

Once they had a two-goal cushion, Stranraer comfortably saw out the game. While lacking a creative threat (Willie Gibson and Anthony Marenghi did not impress in the wide midfield positions), their tried ‘n’ tested doggedness and organisation was more than enough to overcome an under-par United. The final ignominy of the day for the Honest Men came in the 84th minute at East End Park where a Michael Moffat (who else?) goal from the penalty spot deposed United from the summit of League 1, albeit only on goal difference.

Much like with the addition of Kevin Kyle last season, Mark Roberts must find a way to introduce Craig Beattie into team without causing too much disruption. Stranraer, on the other hand, just need to keep on doing what they have been doing successfully since Stephen Aitken took over in October 2012. The Blues’ next three fixtures come against division’s bottom three sides (Stirling Albion, Airdrieonians and Stenhousemuir) and should see them consolidate a position clear of the foot of the table. AG

 

3) Stenhousemuir’s bright new era has stalled

There is no shame in losing to a team of Dunfermline Athletic’s quality, particularly at East End Park – it is worth repeating they’re the comfortable favourites to win League 1 – but the manner in which Stenhousemuir capitulated on Saturday was as alarming as it was disappointing. After a relatively uneventful first half (save for Michael Moffat’s scooped effort that clattered off the crossbar), the Pars dominated the second; it would have been hard not to give the paucity of their opposition.

Nine minutes after the interval, Ryan Thomson climbed above Kieran Millar to thump home Josh Falkingham’s corner; and shortly before the end, Moffat scored from the penalty spot after Ciaran Summers felled Ryan Williamson (as an aside, is there a more thrilling full-back in the lower leagues than Williamson at the moment?) In between, they were measured and intelligent and able to keep their visitors at bay. Gregor Buchanan ably marshalled the defence, while Falkingham controlled affairs in the middle of the park. Goalkeeper Ryan Scully was so underworked, he could have nipped out to the Elizabethan for a jar or two and no-one would have noticed.

Indeed, Stenny didn’t even muster a shot on target in an utterly colourless showing. There was no spirit or guile and the team crumpled after conceding. Colin McMenamin, a half-time substitute, was sent off in the 69th minute – his dismissal would have been hilarious had it not been so pathetic. Already booked for dissent, the 33-year-old player-coach attempted to punch Kris Faulds’ shot into the net five minutes later; referee Craig Charleston had little option to show a second yellow.

It is difficult to see where Stenhousemuir’s next victory is likely to come from. They travel to Peterhead on Saturday before back-to-back home ties with Greenock Morton and Stranraer, then complete the quartet of fixtures with a trip to face Forfar Athletic. On current form, it is conceivable the club could emerge in mid-October with nothing. Scott Booth’s side have played well just once this season: the first half of their League Cup victory against Airdrieonians (and even then, it must be put into context how dreadful the Diamonds were that afternoon). Their league campaign has been uneven – a home win over Airdrie on the opening day of the season was outrageously fortuitous, while a defeat at Brechin City and a draw with Ayr United bookended a dreadful 4-5 home loss to Stirling Albion.

At a meet the manager event last Thursday, Booth declared himself content with his squad – he was never likely to say anything to the contrary. He may have moved on some of last season’s bigger characters but the current team is badly lacking in personality and, perhaps more saliently, looks weaker than last term (central defence notwithstanding). Is Ross Meechan really an upgrade on Nicky Devlin? Is Paul-Jon Sludden any better than Ross McNeil? (For those asking, Devlin has impressed since joining Ayr while McNeil scored his first goal of the season for Albion Rovers on Saturday.)

With the level of upheaval at the club (in terms of management, training, youth development, and recruitment), Booth has cautioned about the need for patience and said that it could take as many as 11 or 12 games for his ideas to become fully realised. His ambition for the club and his desire to improve his players and bring through a string of youngsters is admirable, and while the majority of fans are prepared to accept short-term torpor for long-term gain, there has been nothing on the pitch just yet to suggest the Warriors will be able to eventually challenge for a top four place.

Who knows – by mid-November, observers might look back on this entry and treat it was haughty disdain as Stenhousemuir ascend the table; but on the evidence so far, avoiding ninth and tenth place is surely the season’s aim. CGT

 

4) Gary Naysmith’s nous tips the balance

Arbroath went into their home fixture against East Fife top of the table with a 100 per cent record in the league this season, but have now conceded first place after a 0-2 defeat (and Albion Rovers’ comfortable win at Montrose). Allan Moore won the Manager of the Month award for August and, while the plight of the curse might be one of the most tenuous myths peddled around Scottish football, standards slipped just enough for the away side to take three points in a close match.

Perhaps the biggest story to come from the game was the visitors’ manager Gary Naysmith picking himself for the first time in seven months and only the third time in 2014. The 35-year-old left-back’s collective transfer fees total close to £3m during an established career in England, and he banked on all of his experience to shackle the Red Lichties’ most dangerous attacker Bobby Linn. Naysmith in fact doubled up on Linn along with regular starter Scott Smith and the reactive measure proved to be a considerable success.

Arbroath are not a one-man team by any stretch, but Linn had been enjoying some impressive form going into the match, opening the scoring against Queen’s Park in his previous start and setting up his side’s two goals against Montrose previously. The winger’s turn of pace to dribble 40 yards with the ball toward the heart of the Spiders’ defence was both exhilarating and frightening and it was something that Naysmith was clearly wishing to curtail.

The winger barely threatened beyond the opening exchanges and it disrupted Arbroath’s rhythm to the extent that Moore felt compelled to make a double substitution during the interval. One of the changes, Dylan Carreiro, has recently been brought in on loan as a starlet from Dundee needing exposure to Scottish football and some classy touches hint toward a bright future ahead, as well as an obvious Plan B for Moore, but he and his colleagues couldn’t find a way past an in-form Allan Fleming when they eventually created chances at the end of the game.

Despite this setback, Arbroath have every reason to believe that the remaining fixtures in the season’s first quarter are winnable but as teams adjust to them, the pack could close in as the season progresses. East Fife, meanwhile, look a bit more steady at the back than they once were and it is telling that they are now picking up points on a more regular basis. With the reshuffled defence including loanee Jonathan Page, and with Ewan Moyes dropped for the time being (he had previously been culpable for a number of goals flighted on top of or behind the defence) , the greater stability will prove a bit help in keeping around the play-off places. Being able to count on the manager to perform so well on an ad hoc basis certainly helps. JAM

 

5) Annan Athletic have made good use of the international break

Slowly but surely, Annan Athletic look as though they’re ready to put their dreadful start to the season behind them. After losing their opening three league fixtures – always by slender margins, often with varying degrees of performance – Jim Chapman’s side recorded their first point of the season in a 3-3 draw with Elgin City before the international break; they would go one better against Berwick Rangers at the weekend.

Colin Cameron’s team have started the season well with a stirring victory over East Fife and a 5-0 thrashing of East Stirlingshire, but Berwick – regardless of form or personnel – seem to have something of a complex every time they jaunt down the A7. Their last win at Galabank came in April 2011; since then, they’ve collected three points from their subsequent seven visits. And for all their huff and their puff, they were unable to successfully unsettle their hosts and turn the match in their favour.

For the majority of the match, Berwick were maybe the better side. They recorded 19 shots on goal but their efforts on target never sufficiently tested goalkeeper Alex Mitchell, with only Darren Lavery’s cross-cum-shot at the beginning of the second half forcing him to leap to tip the ball wide. With Lee Currie suspended, there was a lack of guile in the middle of the park and Lavery and Scott Dalziel were often forced to shoot from distance.

Berwick would rue their profligacy. Annan’s opening goal on 64 minutes had as much to with the visitors’ generosity as it did their own ingenuity. Cameron had withdrawn himself in place of defender John Fairbairn and rearranged his side into something resembling a 3-5-2 formation two minutes earlier, but the substitute found himself caught between Matt Flynn and Kenny Mackay as Josh Todd swung a handsome ball towards goal; Flynn’s glancing header landed at the feet of Stuart McColm, who crashed a stunning half volley into the net from 12 yards. McColm, making his debut for Annan, can be a flighty presence on the flank but when on form, he is a dangerous proposition – why Barry Ferguson deemed him incompatible with his grand vision for Clyde is anyone’s guess, but his loss is Chapman’s gain.

Three minutes later and one goal became two. That a player of Mackay’s quality was allowed to loiter unchecked inside the six-yard box at a set-piece was nothing short of disgraceful – David Hopkirk worked a smart short corner and tossed in a decent ball for Mackay to nod home the most straightforward goal of his career. Later on in the match, the pair combined twice more: Mackay could have scored a hat-trick, but it would have given the match a score-line it did not deserve.

Speaking after the match, Chapman reflected on an unconvincing performance and claimed his side have played better elsewhere without reward. Regardless, the manager was grateful for the victory. Although Annan are still in tenth place, the result can be the catalyst for their climb up the table – Saturday’s match at East Stirlingshire should be an indication of just how significant this game was.

Berwick, meanwhile, had their deficiencies but on the whole, it should be marked down as “one of those days”. Their seven points from a possible 15 is a very decent return and with Lee Currie set to return for their match with Albion Rovers, as well as a fully fit Paul Currie and Andy Russell, they should certainly be capable of giving Darren Young and his team something to think about. CGT

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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