1) Dumbarton’s poor form is a cause for concern
It might be a little too early to start panicking at the Bet Butler Stadium, but Dumbarton’s poor run of form means that any resurgence from the two clubs beneath them then Ian Murray’s side could be drawn into a fight to stay in the Championship. Saturday’s latest defeat, a 1-2 loss to Raith Rovers at Stark’s Park, was far from a poor performance and Ian Murray might have felt slightly aggrieved that his team failed to take something from the match (although his claim that the Sons dominated the second half strained credulity). Nevertheless, the result underlined the flaws that have hindered them in recent months. Dumbarton have won twice in their previous nine league matches, and their subsequent form has seen them slip from the safety of mid-table to one place and four points above the relegation play-off position.
Murray selected an attack-minded starting XI, pairing Colin Nish and Bryan Prunty up front while Chris Turner supported from a slightly deeper position. The Sons also looked to exploit the Rovers’ left flank as often as possible, and Nish and Turner frequently drifted wide to support Mark Gilhaney, but the approach ultimately cost them the match. Dumbarton enjoyed a greater share of the possession throughout the first half and although they created a handful of dangerous opportunities, they were never truly able to test goalkeeper Ross Laidlaw – Rovers punished their wastefulness in the second half.
On 51 minutes, Joe Cardle and Calum Booth combined to take advantage of the vacant space on their left wing and the latter crossed for Lewis Vaughan to finish from close range. The second strike came after Dumbarton cheaply ceded possession from a freekick – despite being reduced to ten men following Cardle’s dismissal, Rovers countered, finding themselves in a four-on-one situation, and Jason Thomson deftly lifted the ball over Jamie Ewings. Steven McDougall’s 90th minute strike proved little more than a consolation.
Dumbarton’s willingness to push players forward brought them success earlier in the season, particularly when Hugh Murray provided a screening presence in midfield. However, the on-loan Partick Thistle player has failed to find the same kind of form since returning from injury at the beginning of November, while Scott Agnew’s persistent groin injury has left the club lacking in the middle of the park. The manager also has problems to solve further forward, with Nish looking less and less like a worthwhile signing with every passing week: one goal from 16 appearances is a meagre return for any forward.
Two of Dumbarton’s next three games are at home, but it is not necessarily an advantage for a team who haven’t won a league fixture at the Rock since August. If Murray’s side are unable to take anything from their next two fixtures – Hamilton Academical and Dundee – then their match against Greenock Morton on 4 January will take on even greater significance. SM
2) Familiar failings frustrate Ayr United
Familiarity breeds contempt, but it was not Dunfermline Athletic – opponents for the third time in a fortnight – that were the cause of the Ayr United supports’ consternation. Instead, it was the manner of their team’s defeat. Despite racing to a two-goal lead inside 26 minutes, Mark Roberts’ side failed to hold onto their advantage yet again and contrived to lose 2-4. The Honest Men have now drawn four and lost three matches this season in which they have been ahead, dropping 17 points – the worst record in the SPFL.
It represents a persistent shortcoming in Roberts’ managerial record: almost 12 months ago to the day, this column commented to Ayr’s lack of resolve – in total, they surrendered 24 points last season. The manager’s inability to address this reoccurrence is a charge for those unconvinced of his aptitude, a noisy contingent of the United support which is ever increasing.
In many respects, the turnaround in this fixture was little surprise. Ayr’s disregard for points not yet won is matched by Dunfermline’s desire to fight for points not yet lost. This season, Jim Jeffries’ young side have collected 19 points from losing positions, winning six times and drawing once after going behind. Inspired by captain Josh Falkingham, the Pars – for whom 17-year-old centre-back Lewis Martin was making his debut and Ryan Williamson, also 17, started his third game at right-back – were hungry and cocksure throughout.
The timing of Stephen Husband’s howitzer just before the interval to halve Ayr’s lead was critical and after a sustained period of pressure, Ryan Wallace equalised with a penalty on the hour mark. Dunfermline’s third typified Falkingham’s influence on the game, the midfielder driving forward from the half-way line and slipping a cute ball through to Wallace for his 11th goal of the season. The victory was guaranteed when Jordan Moore scored in the final minute – that a third of Dunfermline’s league goals have come in the 80th minute or later, with six in the 90th minute or in stoppage time, demonstrates the spirit within the squad and the benefits of full-time football in a part-time division.
The Pars look certainties to finish the season in second place, but United face an almighty scrap for one of the remaining two play-off places as Stranraer, Stenhousemuir and Forfar Athletic have all emerged as contenders. As Ayr travel to Station Park this weekend, Roberts needs to find a way to steel his side, otherwise another disappointing campaign lies ahead. AG
3) East Fife are looking up under Gary Naysmith
Is this the moment when the East Fife revolution finally gets underway? After Willie Aitchison’s dismal regime proved to be a false start, the club are now starting to resemble a very capable prospect under the temporary management of Gary Naysmith. Following last weekend’s defeat of Stenhousemuir, the Fifers beat Airdrieonians 3-1 to record back-to-back victories for the first time this season. Such a feat was last achieved 12 months ago (which, curiously enough, coincided with the beginning of Billy Brown’s tenure) and, on current evidence, Naysmith and his assistant Paul Hegarty are worthy candidates for being awarded the managerial vacancy on a permanent basis – having won the Scottish Cup, been awarded 46 caps for Scotland and played in the English Premier League for seven seasons, he has most certainly been places and dun hings.
Saturday’s match at the Excelsior Stadium will not be remembered for its aesthetic wonder – there was none – but in such dire conditions, the victory was far more important than anything else. Airdrie began the contest the more purposeful of the two sides and Lewis Coult’s opening goal after 18 minutes was just reward for their endeavour. They were unable to maintain their lead, however, and their good work was undone after Gregor Buchanan diverted Lewis Barr’s shot into his own net late into the first half. The introduction of midfielder Stephen Hughes after the interval irrevocably turned the match in the visitor’s favour: Ross Brown headed home his corner to give the Fifers the lead before Hughes ensured the victory with an outrageous freekick six minutes later.
Few clubs in the division outwith Rangers can boast a midfielder of Hughes’s class or control. Although the player is biding his time at East Fife to improve his form and fitness and will no doubt return to a higher level soon enough, there is a hope he will extend his short-term agreement with the club until the end of the season. While a play-off position might seem like too outlandish a proposition at this juncture, consolidating their League 1 status for another year in a far more comfortable manner than last term is perhaps the priority for Naysmith, or whoever the new manager may be, and Hughes will play a crucial role.
As for Airdrieonians, it’s difficult to view them as anything other than certainties for relegation. According to the Airdrie and Coatbridge Advertiser’s Colin Paterson – the self-styled “chronicler of Monklands misery” – the Diamonds began their 20th match of the season with their sixth different goalkeeper and their tenth back four combination; they have used 33 players so far; and only four of the Saturday’s starting XI began Jimmy Boyle’s final match, a 0-2 defeat to Forfar Athletic on 19 October. (Reading Paterson’s Twitter timeline on a Saturday afternoon is a polite reminder that no matter bad things are at your own club, they could always be much, much worse.)
These statistics tell us that Gary Bollan has yet to find the right groupings within his side or, more likely, he has little belief in the players he inherited and has had to use short-term loans and trialists (Keigan Parker began the match in attack) to flesh out the squad. As the transfer window looms, there is a hope that Bollan can right Boyle’s wrongs and attract a higher calibre of player. Whether or not he is afforded the budget to do so remains to be seen but Airdrieonians are running out of time to turn their season around. CGT
4) Scott Ferguson is turning into Clyde’s match-winner
Clyde’s comfortable 2-0 win away to Montrose on Saturday allowed them to return to the summit of League 2, with four wins in five and only two defeats in 11 league matches entirely justifying their position. The Bully Wee’s run of form is only matched by Peterhead, who look like the title favourites at this stage of the season (especially after their 3-1 win at Broadwood last weekend), but who could only manage a draw at home to Albion Rovers. Their failure to keep pace has allowed Clyde to build another two point lead.
Against Montrose, Clyde kept their opponents in their own half for significant spells in the opening period as Jim Duffy’s side managed to take advantage of the conditions affected by “Hurricane Bawbag II” – with just over half an hour played, Kevin Watt’s opener was shortly followed by Scott Ferguson’s header. Ferguson has now scored two winning goals since the end of the October and although he only turns 19 in January, the player is becoming increasingly important to Clyde’s prospects this season.
It is with some regret that this site hasn’t already prepared a scout report on Ferguson. Having had the opportunity to monitor him closely in two matches in succession at the beginning of September, it was clear that Duffy was content to rely on chances made from Ferguson on the right wing and Stuart McColm on the left. While Ferguson’s final ball was often lacking in quality at that point, it was only a matter of time before he would settle into the team and mature in his decision-making. He is showing promising hints of an ability to excel in League 2 and Duffy’s constant encouragement towards him can only be a good thing in the coming months.
Ferguson’s progress has been helped by the re-introduction of Stefan McCluskey as Clyde’s number 10. McCluskey himself missed out on the win at Links Park, with Watt being partnered with the increasingly stout Pat Scullion up front in his absence, so it will be encouraging to Duffy to find a winning solution even when McCluskey has been one of the telling factors of Clyde’s recent success. McCluskey is reminiscent of Paul di Giacomo in his prime, both in physical appearance and style of play: both forwards do their best work in dragging centre-backs out of their usual lines of comfort, which opens up space for midfielders to run into.
Ferguson’s winner against Stirling Albion came about from McCluskey counter-attacking down the right, while McColm was allowed to cut inside for one of the best strikes of the season from McCluskey holding the position on the left flank, to score the winner against Annan Athletic. While McColm would probably be League 2’s most improved player this season, even without McCluskey’s build-up play (and if Clyde keep a hold of McColm beyond his contract it will be a surprise), Ferguson’s willingness to drive inside is perfectly complemented by McCluskey’s supporting role and Duffy must be content to be able to call upon such options.
Ferguson will surprise many with his ability to beat full-backs in the air, despite his modest, approximately 5′ 7″ stature, but if he and McColm continue to light up the division then it shouldn’t be incredible that Clyde can challenge for promotion. JAM
5) Ill discipline sees East Stirlingshire continue to slide down the table
If the manner of East Stirlingshire’s ascent to the top of League 2 at the beginning of the season caught a number of people off guard, then so too has their sudden plummet down the division. Just four weeks ago, the Shire led the division but an appalling run of results – they have drawn three of their previous six matches and lost the others, including the weekend’s tie with Berwick Rangers – has seen the chasing pack overtake them. Granted, they sit in seventh with just goal difference separating them from Annan Athletic in the final play-off place, but their lack of form has become a concern.
Against Berwick, another team experiencing their own funk after three consecutive losses, there were mitigating factors in their defeat. Although the match was opened by a lovely goal from Darren Lavery, the Shire had opportunities to take something from the contest until poor discipline undermined their chances. Michael Bolochoweckyj was red carded with 15 minutes remaining after wrestling Scott Dalziel to the ground as the striker burst through on goal, and David Greenhill was dismissed six minutes later after collecting a second booking. Lee Currie’s late strike concluded a miserable day for the visitors, many of whom have connections to Shielfield.
Comparing the Shire’s current plight to last season is perhaps a useful way to understand their current of form. The quality of John Coughlin’s transfers over the summer drew praise, particularly his defensive additions – so far, they have conceded 25 goals; after 16 games last term, they had lost 40. But while they have infinitely improved at the back, their forward play is still lacking, with 23 goals scored this term compared to 2012-13’s 22. Coughlin’s cautious approach has been criticised, but the manager began Saturday’s match by pairing Kevin Turner and Paul Quinn in attack – given the conditions and the two red cards, it is difficult to know whether or not the tactic was a success. With key personnel missing for the forthcoming tie against Elgin City, Coughlin is unlikely to approach the match with anything as cavalier as a 4-4-2 formation, but the strategy might be worth pursuing in the future.
After travelling to Elgin, East Stirlingshire conclude 2013 with a home fixture against Montrose. Both games are certainly winnable, and even a victory in either fixture could reassert their play-off credentials. The addition of a forward would be greatly received – keeping teams at bay and conceding the odd goal is all very well but the lack of firepower will cost them in the longer term. CGT