1) Rangers will do well to finish second
This latest defeat by Rangers to one of the Edinburgh team puts the club from Govan firmly in third place in the league. Five fixtures completed against Hibernian and Heart of Midlothan; five losses; just two goals scored; and 13 conceded. It’s an abysmal record looking over the piece and one that justifies their current position in the table. They do, of course, have three games in hand over Hibs to claw back the two point deficit, but looking at the trend of results since the beginning of December they will struggle to consolidate themselves as the “best of the rest” behind Hearts. Hibs’ conversion of 2.1 points per game since the beginning of December contrasts with Rangers’ 1.5 – on that evidence, the Gers would soon overtake Hibs with their extra matches still to play, but it also shows that they wouldn’t be holding on to second for long again. Perhaps more alarming is that on such a trajectory to the end of the season, Rangers would finish just a couple of points ahead of Falkirk.
Fag-packet figures can only get you so far, of course, but it is becoming increasingly difficult at this moment in time to find evidence of Rangers being successful in the play-offs. If they have lost 9-1 on aggregate to Hibs over three matches, how are they going to beat them – and whoever finishes second-last in the Premiership – at the end of the season, let alone Falkirk or Queen of the South?
In spite of the basic numbers, there were actually some signs of promise on the pitch in the latest defeat to the Hibees. Rangers arguably produced enough opportunities to score – and possibly win – but they were wasteful, none more so than Kris Boyd. Boyd failed to get his headers on target after quality movement got him on the end of some incisive crosses, but his inability to trouble the goalkeeper with them was a deficiency that epitomises Rangers’ current malaise on the pitch. Boyd’s all-round game was much more reminiscent of his form for Kilmarnock last season than what we have seen of him this campaign. Last year, he scored to secure points for Killie in 13 different league matches, most notably with his winner at the very end of the campaign to consign Hibs to the relegation play-off; this season, he has only made telling contributions in cup competitions against lower league opposition.
Boyd did, nonetheless, strike up a respectable partnership with Nicky Clark, when the latter was brought on as a substitute for Kenny Miller after half an hour. Miller himself looked to be Rangers’ lynchpin beforehand, dropping deep to link with the midfield and allow Haris Vuckic to support Boyd. Clark offered a different threat on the last shoulder and brought the best out of Boyd’s own link-up play, none more so than when Boyd’s flick around the corner got Clark goal-side of the Hibs back three, but Clark was caught on his heels and lost his balance trying to control the ball.
Rangers weren’t dazzling, but they were more than a match for a Hibs team that was faltering in quite a surprising fashion compared to their 3-1 victory at Ibrox in September and the more recent 4-0 thrashing at Easter Road. Hibees manager Alan Stubbs reprised the 3-5-2 formation that suited them well in their last visit to Govan and, on paper, it seemed like the correct thing to do here. With Rangers deploying Vuckic and Nicky Law as the wide midfielders in a 4-4-2, it seemed that they would have no width to trouble the visitors with, while Hibs would always have a spare player in both the centre of defence and midfield.
It didn’t work out that way, however. Hibs were hamstrung by Paul Hanlon’s awful distribution from the centre of defence, while Rangers’ midfield four defended narrow and compact to allow little space between the lines. Hibs’ supposed tactical advantage soon turned into a disadvantage as it allowed Rangers to spring forward and put them under spells of pressure to varying degrees. For almost the first 20 minutes, Rangers looked the better team, but the midfield lost its shape momentarily and allowed Scott Allan the space to pick a pass behind midfield for Jason Cummings to latch on to and test Lee Robinson, before the rebound fell to Scott Robertson to score in front of an open goal.
Kenny McDowall made six changes to the team that lost to Raith Rovers in the Scottish Cup the previous weekend and, on paper, it looked a weak line-up compared even to recent selections. The side grew into the game, however, with Vuckic and Law combining well when they went inside off the flanks. Vuckic looks like he could be a tremendous player for Rangers if his form isn’t dragged down to the level of some of his colleagues, and Law looks better for having a midfielder on his wavelength again – if the other Newcastle United loanees can perform to a similar standard, then Rangers could salvage something from this season yet, but it’s a big “if” in the farcical circumstances surrounding the loan arrangement.
Vuckic ultimately looked short of match fitness and when he was taken off on 75 minutes, Rangers barely made a goal-scoring opportunity in spite of the amount of territory gained by Rangers in the second half. Liam Fontaine was particularly excellent in the Hibs defence and his ability to win the vast majority of his duels gave Hibs the platform to win the game. Against the run of play, Fraser Fyvie backspun a 15-yard pass that dropped into Stevenson’s stride for the wing-back to volley to Robinson’s left side – perhaps the goalkeeper could have done more than to deflect the path of the ball into the net, but it was symbolic of creativity that Rangers generally lacked, particularly once Vuckic tired.
Maybe Rangers will finish second; maybe they will end up in fourth. They showed enough to suggest they are certainties for the play-offs on the balance of play, but is that enough? In any case, it would be folly to bet against Hibernian overcoming them over two legs given recent history. JAM
2) Queen of the South’s strength in depth can lead them to fourth place
After going through a bit of a shoogly spell over the festive period, it looked as though Queen of the South were in the process of ceding their play-off to Falkirk. Two wins from seven matches had seen James Fowler’s side tumble to fifth, and his decision to release Mark Kerr and John Baird, both of whom joined the Bairns, was seen as foolhardy. However, three successive victories in the league and the Scottish Cup suggests the Doonhamers have found their mojo once again.
Saturday’s 1-0 win over Alloa Athletic might not have been the daring performance to enthuse over – Queens struggled for long spells against an obdurate Wasps side, particularly in the second period when they were indebted to goalkeeper Zander Clark after a number of impressive saves – but they did enough to prevail. They had the better of the opening half hour, but their progress was hampered by an injury to talismanic forward Gavin Reilly. Although Iain Russell was an able replacement, he lacked Reilly’s prodigious workrate and attacking nous.
While the enforced change did not make a positive impact, Fowler’s substitutions midway through the second half certainly did. Mark Millar was introduced at the expense of Michael Paton and he added vim to a pedestrian midfield, while Danny Carmichael provided the assist for Kevin Holt’s winning goal just 90 seconds after coming on. The manager’s alterations highlighted the strength in depth at Palmerston – for the first time this season, the squad is largely free from injury and players like Paton, Ian McShane, Paul Burns and Chris Mitchell are all available and making a positive contribution.
Alloa too have beefed up their numbers, with Philip Roberts, Isaac Layne, Greg Rutherford and Calaum Jahraldo-Martin arriving to swell their attacking options, and all four featured against Queens. They made little difference, however, and it was more of the same for Barry Smith’s team – they’ve now won one league game in their last 20 attempts, scoring just 12 times over the period. Unless their new strikers can find the net on a regular basis, there is a fear the Wasps will drop into League 1 next term.
Queen of the South might be playing in a different division too next season, but they’re looking up rather than down. With Falkirk drawing at Raith Rovers, Queens have extended their advantage in fourth to three points – but as a difficult fixture with Heart of Midlothian looms, the final Championship play-off place could change hands once again next week. SM
3) Ayr United can stay up, but Stirling Albion are staring into the abyss
Spectators attending Saturday’s League 1 clash between Stirling Albion and Ayr United were probably not expecting to witness homage to the French national team of the 1980s, or the Brazilian side of the mid-1990s – the context for this unlikely tactical curio, after all, was a relegation six-pointer between two outfits in dreadful form; Stirling Albion hadn’t won a league game at Forthbank all season. Ayr United, meanwhile were without a victory since the middle of October. One might have expected a primitive, blood and thunder encounter; instead it was a subtle, but no less engrossing contest.
The Binos’ need for the victory was greatest, and manager Stuart McLaren deserves credit for trying something different: essentially a 4-2-2-2 formation as utilised by France under Michel Hidalgo at the 1982 World Cup and Euro ‘84, and later by Henri Michel at the 1986 World Cup; and by Brazil for a generation, by Telê Santana, and then Carlos Alberto Parreira and Vanderlei Luxemburgo. (Martyn Corriagn’s Stenhousemuir also adopted it in 2013-14.)
McLaren’s reimagining of the system on Saturday saw Gordon Smith and Lewis Coult deployed as deep-lying forwards in front of Angus Beith and Craig Comrie while Phil Johnston (ordinarily a winger) and Scott Shepherd led the line. Stirling’s shape may have been more suited for countering Ian McCall’s preferred 3-5-2 but the Ayr manager switched to a 4-4-2 and, regardless, Albion’s approach was undermined early on by substandard defending.
The Honest Men’s opening goal came after just 12 minutes. United recycled a corner, with Alan Forrest lifting the ball to the unmarked Jordan Preston at the back post. Three defenders rushed out to the on-loan Blackburn Rovers striker, causing his shot to be deflected onto the post, but the rebound landed at David Robertson’s feet for a simple tap-in from six yards. Just three minutes later the advantage was doubled. Forrest dispossessed Scott Shepherd and played in Craig Murray who forced another corner; Adam Blakeman played a one-two from the corner quadrant with Forrest, and his cross was deflected past by Gordon Smith past his own ‘keeper. Happy Birthday, Goggsy!
The Binos, with a mountain to climb, eventually came into the game. Despite their lack of width, their front four, supported from deep by the promptings of Beith and Comrie, began to trouble United’s rearguard: a long-range effort from Smith was tipped over by David Hutton; Phil Johnston pounced on a loose pass from Murray and shot narrowly past the post; and Lewis Coult, with his wacky new haircut, was unlucky to see his effort hit the base of the post after some clever footwork eased him past Blakeman. They deservedly pulled a goal back ten minutes into the second half having gone route one: a long punt from Kevin McKinlay was nodded on by Coult to Johnston, who turned inside Murray and beat Hutton at his near post.
Ayr responded. Through accident – both David Robertson and Robbie Crawford suffered injuries requiring them to depart the field – and design, McCall readjusted his side to give them greater width and the game opened up as Stirling looked for the equalising goal. Instead, it was the Honest Men who extended their lead. Yet again, the genesis of the goal was a corner – the Stirling defence allowed the cross to bounce in the six-yard box and it looped up to Craig Beattie to nod home unchallenged at the back post. Beattie then set up debutant Jordan Preston to complete the scoring ten minutes later, seven minutes before time.
For all the ingenuity of their approach, Stirling were once again let down by elementary defensive errors. It may have been the first league game in nine the Binos had been defeated by more than one goal but the result leaves them nine points adrift at the foot of the table. Their prospects of survival – whatever the tactic – now look very bleak indeed.
Ayr’s first win for 120 days, meanwhile, was the culmination of Ian McCall’s tireless endeavour to drag the rabble left by Mark Roberts into shape. The starting line-up on Saturday included five players brought to the club by the new manager (plus Robbie Crawford, whom Roberts had been reluctant to start despite his obvious talent) – the youthful team is full of industry, hunger and urgency. The majority of the squad is also full-time, which will give United an additional advantage over nearest rivals Stenhousemuir, whom they jumped above into eighth.
For the first time in months, Ayr look like a team capable of avoiding the drop. AG
4) The future’s bright, the future’s Brown for Stenhousemuir
Colin McMenamin summed it up better than anyone else. After his superb arching header put his side two goals in front, the Stenhousemuir striker raced to the bench to embrace Brown Ferguson, the Warriors’ interim manager. McMenamin was quickly joined by his team-mates, who leapt into a joyous a huddle. It’s been a long time since that’s happened.
Stenhousemuir have become a little more palatable in recent weeks. Scott Booth’s dismissal at the beginning of the month has gone a long way to relieving the despair ensconcing the club, and the popular Ferguson has been placed in charge until the end of the season. It is his third spell as a caretaker manager – he replaced Allan Maitland to oversee Alloa Athletic’s doomed relegation play-off in 2010-11, and filled in while Stenny swapped Martyn Corrigan for Booth last year.
Ferguson met with supporters at an assembly last week to outline his plans for the remainder of the campaign and impressed with his forthright, honest outlook; compared to the bullshit and bluster of his predecessor, he is a refreshing tonic. Ferguson acknowledged that the squad is deficient in a number of areas (he admitted the team do not have the capabilities to operate as a compact, defensive unit) but suggested he had a preferred XI and system in mind that can trouble the opposition.
And against Dunfermline Athletic, for the first half at least, Stenhousemuir looked the part. Ferguson moved away from the stodgy 4-2-3-1 formation to an orthodox 4-4-2 and the team looked structured and coherent for the first time in weeks. Kris Faulds and Bryan Hodge (who has agreed a pre-contract agreement with Forfar Athletic) were able to knock the ball around the middle of the park with flair, and Martin Grehan linked well with McMenamin in attack.
The outstanding player, however, was young Paul McMullan. The on-loan Celtic winger is one of the few positives from Booth’s legacy and he was a perpetual menace throughout. Whenever he gathered the ball – and his team-mates looked to find him as often as possible – something wonderful looked likely to happen. And so it proved – on 18 minutes, McMullan opened the scoring when he took advantage of uncertainty between Gregor Buchanan and Lewis Martin and skipped through them to hook the ball into the net.
No sooner had McMenamin added a second goal than Andy Barrowman had pulled one back – two minutes into first-half injury time, the big striker was well placed to let the ball bounce off his pelvis and over the goal-line. Barrowman’s intervention was crucial for both sides, galvanising the Pars and wounding the Warriors, knocking their stride. As such, the second half was more or less played out inside the Stenny half – Michael Moffat had missed a penalty before Kyle McAusland equalised with a stunning drive from 30 yards and on 94 minutes, Barrowman reacted quickly to stab home the winning goal. Stenhousemuir and Dunfermline have met seven times over the last two seasons and the Pars have prevailed courtesy of last-minute winners in four of them.
Ferguson was bitterly disappointed with the outcome and spoke about his side’s lack of “match experience” in their concession of both Barrowman goals, but he was able to take positives from their performance. He said: “One of the things I said to the players before the went out today was that they need to step off the pitch having played at an intensity and a tempo that we can hopefully take into the remaining games of the season, which will hopefully give us the chance to be in the position we want to be in at the end of the season. That was the key message to them stepping out onto the pitch. And we came off, and we’ve done that.”
He must harness this and turn it into something tangible – with Ayr United winning, Stenny have dropped into ninth place – and something has to be done to arrest the dismal sequence of results (five defeats and one draw since the New Year). With Airdrieonians and Brechin City up next, two sides in good form, Ferguson has a difficult task ahead of him but it is not an insurmountable one just yet. CGT
5) Sean Dickson can help fire East Fife into the play-offs
The last time Tell Him He’s Pelé’s Five Things We Learned charted Sean Dickson’s progress, the midfielder has just been reintroduced to Stenhousemuir’s starting line-up after a period of unexplained exile to score one and set up the other in his side’s 2-1 win over Greenock Morton. If Scott Booth had uncertainties about the 23-year-old’s qualities then the swashbuckling, attack-minded performance should have vanquished any major doubts. Towards the end of the January transfer window, however, their relationship had broken down and the manager advised Dickson he was free to find a new club.
Dickson didn’t really want to leave Ochilview but he moved on to Gary Naysmith’s East Fife, signing on until the end of the season. His arrival has coincided with their upturn in form – he made his debut in a credible 1-1 draw with league leaders Arbroath, and his deflected cross assisted Kevin Smith’s winning goal in the midweek victory at Albion Rovers. Dickson’s dynamic displays on the left flank and through the middle have already drawn compliments from onlookers, and he appears to have found his swagger again after Booth’s dire mismanagement.
On Saturday, he netted his first goal for the Fifers in their 3-0 win at Montrose, opening the scoring after making a typically late run into the penalty area to head home Fraser Mullen’s crisp cross. It was a timely strike – the Mo had looked like the better of the two sides throughout the opening exchanges and had passed up a series of good chances before Dickson’s intervention. East Fife dominated the second half and added to their lead via Ross Brown’s knee and Mullen’s sumptuous drive. They have now beaten the Mo three times this season, scoring ten times without reply.
Montrose manager George Shields resigned after the match. Where they go from here is anyone’s guess but with East Stirlingshire closing the gap after their late victory over Elgin City, their plight looks increasingly dismal. The excellent Gable End Graffiti (rebranded as “Guillotine End Graffiti” for the run in) will be an essential resource between now and the end of the season.
East Fife, meanwhile, remain in sixth, almost as close to the final play-off place as they are to the Shire at the bottom. They have games in hand over Annan Athletic and Berwick Rangers above them and with a presentable run of fixtures between now and the end of the month, they could leapfrog both sides. With Gary Naysmith having found a settled, stable side and the luxury of introducing players like a rejuvenated Dickson, they might just go on to have a successful season. CGT