1) Queens are kings (and Ally McCoist is the court jester)
What to say about Friday’s events, then? It was the most tumultuous day of the season so far – first, at around lunchtime, news broke that Ally McCoist had tendered his resignation as Rangers manager; shortly afterwards, it was announced that it had been rejected by the board and he would remain in charge for the evening’s match at Queen of the South. Speaking before the match, he refused to confirm or deny what had happened – it was utterly baffling all round.
If McCoist had given up, then it certainly looked as though his players had had enough too. Rangers played as Rangers tend to do these days – they were unimaginative, one-dimensional, dour and stuffy (take your pick) and undermined by individual and collective errors. Sure, they had their chances – Zander Clark was required to slap away Kenny Miller’s angled shot, and the goalkeeper did well to block Kris Boyd’s low drive midway through the second half – but they never really exerted their opponents and they deserved exactly what they got. There was no cry of defiance here; just a gentle whimper of submission.
Let us examine Rangers’ record over the last five weeks. They have won two of their seven matches in all competitions (their most barren run since their re-admission into the football league); they have failed to win the Challenge Cup at their third attempt of trying; and, most damning of all, they sit nine points behind Heart of Midlothian in the Championship table. It is nothing short of disgraceful.
Earlier this morning, McCoist handed in his resignation but whether he sees out the final 12 months of his contract or leaves the club a little more abruptly makes little difference. He is killing his image at Ibrox. His reputation as a player is undimmed and he merits a degree of praise for leading the club through their difficult administration and subsequent liquidation but this – these simpering defeats and turgid performance after turgid performance – is hopeless. Since uttering “we don’t do walking away” almost three years ago, the phrase has hung around McCoist’s neck like an albatross and it would be better for all parties if he did just that as soon as possible. There is no more good that can come of this relationship.
It is unfortunate that the build up to the match and the outcome was dominated by McCoist, because it has somewhat diminished Queen of the South’s role in the contest. They were cute in possession, moving the ball around the park in a tidy fashion, without ever having to strain themselves. This is not to emphasise how poor Rangers were – far from it – rather it highlights just how good this Doonhamers side is. James Fowler’s team is peppered with a number of excellent players: what about Mark Durnan, the rugged, thoughtful centre-back? Or Ian McShane, the 21-year-old quietly developing into an excellent midfielder? Or even Gavin Reilly, whose stunning control and finish doubled Queens’ lead? There is plenty to be satisfied with here.
At the beginning of the season, Queens saw themselves as a sound call for the final play off place but their recent form – they’ve taken 17 points from their last eight matches – and the deficiencies of those around them suggest they could go one further. Third place (and maybe, just maybe, even second) is not an unrealistic possibility. CGT
2) Dumbarton can enjoy a very merry Christmas!
They might be going about their business with a little less hoopla than last season but slowly and surely, Dumbarton are creeping up the Championship table once again. The weekend’s 2-1 win over Raith Rovers was their third victory in four matches – it might not have been their most dominant performance of the season, and it arrived with a reasonable dollop of good fortune, but they’ve now lost just one game to a side outwith the division’s top four (a 1-3 defeat to Raith on the opening day of the season, and they deserved to be beaten on account of confusing tactics and horrible socks – since then, Ian Murray has ditched the unsuccessful 3-5-2 formation and, more importantly, the hosiery).
On Saturday, the manager’s game plan was hindered by a series of injuries and he was forced to make three enforced changes before the interval. It started before the match had even began when centre-back Mark McLaughlin was withdrawn from the starting XI after injuring himself during the warm-up. Eight minutes into the match, the Sons were forced into another rejig after a stricken Jordan Kirkpatrick had to be replaced by Colin Nish and 20 minutes, later Mark Gilhaney was forced off with Steven McDougall taking his place.
Ultimately, the upheaval did not really affect the match – in Scott Agnew, Dumbarton had the game’s outstanding player and the midfielder was at the hub of everything good about his side’s performance. The former Ayr United and Stranraer playmaker has something of a reputation for outlandish strikes and it would have been enhanced after his opening effort. Picking the ball wide on the right, 35 yards from goal, he let fly with a ripsnorter of a shot that swerved and dipped on its way into the net. The Raith defence were slow to close him down but David McGurn was left with no chance.
Matches between Dumbarton and Raith tend to be open affairs – there’s been 41 strikes in the preceding ten meetings – and although this game wasn’t laden with goals, both sides had a number of chances to score. The Rovers probably controlled the majority of the match but with Christian Nadé and Mark Stewart in attack, they were spearheaded by players who tended to drift away from dangerous areas. Nadé kept on dropping deep, sometimes coming as far back as the halfway line to link with play, while Stewart moved out wide; for all their offensive prowess, they were undone by a lack of a definitive number 9.
Stewart did score the equaliser, however, controlling Ryan Conroy’s precise pass on his chest before dinking the ball beyond Danny Rogers. It was deserved on the balance of play but from then on, Raith seemed to run out of puff and the contest appeared to be heading towards a draw. Instead, with two minutes remaining, Ross Callachan tripped Archie Campbell inside the box and Agnew finished from the penalty spot to hand his side the victory.
Dumbarton have put a disappointing autumn behind them (between September and November, they’d won one of their eight league fixtures) and are now actually one point better off than they were at this stage last term. The Sons are closer to the top four than the relegation places – a promotion play-off spot is probably beyond them but with winnable games against Falkirk and Cowdenbeath coming up, they can spend the festive period ensuring they maintain their second tier status for a third year. SM
3) Stranraer’s extraordinary run shows no sign of stopping
Stranraer deservedly moved into second place League 1 after extending their winning run to three matches in and their unbeaten streak to 12. In fact, there hasn’t been a club in any competition that’s beaten them in 90 minutes since Ross County and Dunfermline Athletic in late August. With the most goals scored and the best goal difference in the division, Steve Aitken’s side are challenging for the league on merit and lie only a couple of points behind leaders Forfar Athletic.
The Blues eventually skelped Peterhead 4-1 away from home, but they didn’t have it all their own way. It’s no mean feat to beat the Blue Toon at Balmoor: Jim McInally’s side were also unbeaten at home since August. Indeed, Peterhead had only lost two league matches in 28 before Stranraer’s visit on Saturday, spanning back to the extraordinary winning streak at the end of the 2012-13 season (and of those two defeats, one was at home to Stirling Albion once they had already won the League 2 title). There is some resonance in this instance to the old cliché that it’s a difficult trip to the North East and it gives Stranraer’s beating of them some handsome context.
Not that the victors had it all their own way. Jamie Stevenson opened the scoring with a curled shot beyond David Mitchell’s outstretched arms to put Peterhead in the lead from a flowing counter attack early on. Rory McAllister was in a prowling mood and he was hard done by not to get at least one goal, with some opportunistic shooting from unorthodox angles narrowly missing their target. But it only took ten minutes after Stevenson’s early opener for Frank McKeown to equalise after outmuscling his marker at the far post of a Chris Aitken free-kick.
It’s difficult to shake off the suspicion that Peterhead have not adequately replaced Graeme Sharp after the wing-back moved to Greece earlier in the season. David Cox played as his replacement in Stranraer’s 5-0 thrashing of Peterhead at Stair Park at the end of October, but McInally has since re-moulded the defence to a back four with 19-year-old Cammy Kerr playing at right-back after arriving on loan from Dundee. Kerr is a spritely full-back who likes to get forward – he was Peterhead’s best attacking outlet late in the second half when losing 1-4 and has the athleticism to get beyond his man high up the pitch – yet he is still quite naive and needs to learn from his mistakes, because Stranraer scored their second and third goals from the player not tucking in or being decisive enough when defending from the far post.
The score-line slightly flatters Stranraer but that point only highlights how effective the team is in taking advantage of the key moments in the match. There is quality throughout the side, particularly in the attacking third with Craig Malcolm’s form currently keeping Jamie Longworth on the bench and Danny Stoney itching to get a proper run in the team. The unbeaten run could well be tested against Dunfermline at East End Park this weekend, but given the Pars’ run of form, would you bet against the Blues? JAM
4) Airdrieonians’ play-off push begins now
When Airdrieonians manager Gary Bollan suggested that his side could revive their promotion play-off aspirations by finding some form over the festive period it seemed a little quixotic. The Diamonds went into Saturday’s home match with Dunfermline Athletic in eighth place, 13 points behind the four clubs occupying the play-off places and with just one win in their previous eight matches. The game also took on an interesting twist as their previous meeting, a 0-3 reverse at East End Park in August, still rankled with Bollan, who described it as the only time this season his players had been outplayed. Revenge was sweet, and Airdrie brushed dismal Dunfermline aside with ease.
Looking to bounce back from exiting the Scottish Cup at home to Stranraer on Tuesday night, the Pars made the worst possible start to the game and conceded after just 135 seconds. A long ball out of defence found Paddy Boyle in space on the left and the full-back centred for Bryan Prunty, similarly unencumbered in the penalty area, who expertly first-timed the ball past Ryan Scully. Once the game was able to settle into a pattern it was typified by Dunfermline possession but the home side refused to make it easy for the Pars and, as so often this season, they struggled to break down organised opposition.
Dunfermline’s frustration was exacerbated by poor finishing – Allan Smith passed up a gilt-edged chance in the first half when played in by Michael Moffat – and then more lackadaisical defending. Ten minutes into the second half, another ball passed into the penalty box from the left found an unmarked Diamond to double their advantage with Nathan Blockley stealing in at the back post while left-back Alex Whittle daydreamed. Two goals became three shortly afterwards when Marc Fitzpatrick rifled home from the edge of the area.
The Pars have now conceded ten goals in their last four games against League 1 opposition, more than in their preceding 14 matches. Jonathan Page returned from a loan spell with East Fife and went straight into the starting line-up on Saturday but the problem extends beyond the back four; Jim Jefferies laid into his midfield when he eventually emerged from the away dressing room. “They are not doing their job once we lose the ball and keeping their shape,” he grumbled. “What they are doing is leaving gaps and we are getting caught”. That same midfield is also guilty of over-elaborating at times going forward – it is an area Jefferies quickly needs to get a handle on if Dunfermline are to close the gap on league leaders Forfar Athletic, who extended their advantage over the Pars to five points with a late winner against Stirling Albion.
Despite deploying a broadly similar approach to Dunfermline – 4-4-2 but with a narrow midfield –Bollan is getting far more out of his team: his full-backs, Paddy Boyle especially, provide an effective attacking outlet; the midfield is disciplined, closing down opponents and allowing on-loan midfielder Scott Fraser to create; and Jim Lister continues to work opposition defences. Like last season, the whole is greater than that sum of its parts.
Twelve months ago, Airdrie were in the midst of a eight-match losing run and sat five points adrift at the foot of the table – and 15 behind fourth spot – but an astonishing run of form from mid-January saw them close the gap to just four points in the final reckoning. Whether Bollan’s current squad is equipped to match last season’s exploits and give themselves a shot at promotion still remains to be seen but the next few weeks will be critical in determining the play-offs at which end of the table the Diamond’s will be concerning themselves with in 2015. AG
5) Can Barry Ferguson arrest Clyde’s dismal form?
Liam Cusack’s strike for Albion Rovers after 14 minutes consigned Clyde to their fifth straight defeat, which is a sequence of results that has seen the Bully Wee plummet from fourth in the table to second last, four points ahead of Elgin City having played a game more. At the stub of the SPFL, you wouldn’t assume the bottom placed side to necessarily make up ground with a game in hand but even so, Clyde’s position is disappointing, both in comparison with last year’s form and this season’s expectations.
The Vers’ goal at Broadwood was well worked, with patient build up play from Mick Dunlop in defence linking with the midfield before pinging a pass into John Gemmell’s feet. With Gemmell dropping short, it allowed Scott Chaplain and Cusack to advance and the latter two combined superbly. Chaplain’s through ball behind Clyde’s left-back Fraser McGhee was played on the turn and was weighted to perfection for Cusack to have enough time to compose a finish inside Alan Martin’s far post. Chaplain’s assist made the goal but the patience of the team’s approach is commendable when it can be easy to be tempted to just lump it up to Gemmell and expect him to work something from nothing.
Clyde’s Scott Ferguson similarly played a neat through pass behind Rovers’ Josh Mullin for Scott Durie to drill a low cross ball to the far post. Clyde somehow contrived to miss with Michael Daly and Kevin Watt comically sliding into each other and into the netting instead of connecting with the ball. But it was the Wee Rovers who deserved the win on the balance of goal-scoring chances created, either from Clyde’s own sloppy play or legitimate creativity of their own. Chaplain himself spurned two excellent opportunities from his left foot just to the side of the penalty spot – the first strike firmly hit the upright while the second was sclaffed for an easy save.
The result leaves Albion Rovers in third place, still close enough to Arbroath at the top to think about going toe-to-toe with the league leaders. Winnable fixtures against Montrose, East Stirlingshire and Annan Athletic follow before a crunch match against the Lichties. But you need to wonder where Clyde’s next win is going to come from. The team looks unbalanced and just not good enough at the moment, but with only four players from last year’s regular team one must question if Barry Ferguson has moulded the squad appropriately. JAM