1) Scott Allan and Fraser Fyvie can play well together
When Scott Allan joined Hibernian in the summer it was unanimously viewed as a good signing for a Championship club aspiring to return to the top flight at the first time of asking. Allan hadn’t played much at Dundee United before his early promise caught the attention of West Bromich Albion, who were happy to pay a six-figure some for him. It is fair to say that Allan’s career in England never took off, having never played competitively for West Brom and only playing sporadically for loanee clubs in the last couple of seasons. A playmaker with talent needed to start playing much more regularly and a place in the team at Easter Road has turned out to be the perfect environment to develop his skills. Allan’s performances have not only been of paramount importance to Hibs’ excellent run of form since beating Rangers at the end of September, his two goals, nine direct assists and countless dominating displays in the Championship haven’t gone unnoticed in the upper echelons of the division above.
Instead of being tempted to sell Allan, Hibs decided to try to improve the midfield beside him and Alan Stubbs signed Fraser Fyvie, a player with some parallels to Allan. Fyvie played more first-team football at Aberdeen than his colleague got at United but broke into the senior side early and arguably left for England’s riches prematurely. Only one league appearance at Wigan Athletic was sandwiched between loan spells elsewhere and he too returned to Scotland looking for regular football and a point to prove. Both midfielders are in their early 20s, their height isn’t much more than 5ft 7in and their touch and passing is more prominent in their playing styles than their industry. Given how cutely Fyvie managed to wedge a ball over the top of the defence for Lewis Stevenson to score against Rangers at Ibrox just over a month ago in Allan’s absence, it was clear that Stubbs found the perfect deputy to Allan when the latter was missing. But could Stubbs adequately play the two midfielders together in a midfield four? Or would it upset the balance that has worked so well over the last six months?
If the visit to Central Park on Saturday was anything to go by then Allan and Fyvie can thrive in the same team that is counterbalanced by Scott Robertson and Dylan McGeouch. The opening goal in Hibs’ seventh successive win in all competitions was scored by Fyvie in a classic move where the ball was cut-back from the right side for the oncoming midfielder to stroke the ball beyond the goalkeeper first time. The assist this time came from David Gray’s trademark surge down the flank, but it was Allan – who else? – who found him with a low driven pass from inside the centre-circle, inside Cowdenbeath wing-back Kenneth Adamson and into Gray’s path for a one-touch assist. Adamson could have done better with his desperate lunge at the through ball, but it is a privilege to see Allan produce passes like these on a consistent basis in the Championship.
The game was effectively over just a couple of moments after that with 34 minutes played, when Blue Brazil midfielder Colin Marshall played a calamitous back-pass to Robbie Thomson from 25 yards without realising that Jason Cummings was right beside the goalkeeper. Cummings only had to nip ahead of Thomson and flick the ball to his side to score possibly the easiest goal of his career, but he only got into that position after attempting to attack another creatively driven pass by Allan to the far post.
Hibs are now a comfortable seven points ahead of Rangers in second place and even the two matches in hand won’t reduce the deficit sufficiently – not that Rangers are likely to win both games when they’ve only won one of their last six fixtures. With Fyvie dovetailing with Allan in midfield, it would be a brave person to bet against Hibs getting to the play-off final at the very least. JAM
2) Stuart McCall cannot work miracles at Rangers
Whenever a team goes through a prolonged downturn in form or slips into a sustained funk, the phrase “Alex Ferguson couldnae manage this lot!” is often yelped by exasperated onlookers: never before has the cry been more applicable than to the current Rangers side. The appointment of Dave King to the board might go a long way to alleviating the off-field concerns but the deep-seated malaise enveloping itself around Ibrox and Auchenhowie shows no sign of abating just yet.
For the last three years, the club has been a giant vortex. Ally McCoist fostered a culture where just getting by was acceptable, where doing the bare minimum was alright and where every defeat and every dropped point could be excused. Good, talented players have pitched up but not one of them has improved – cossetted and protected by their handsome contracts, they have coasted through the seasons and all regressed to the mean. Standards have been incrementally lowered with every passing week: this is probably the worst group of players at Rangers since the early 1980s. Fergie couldn’t work with this lot; heck, even John Dee would struggle to turn this leaden bunch into gold.
Goodness knows what Stuart McCall’s supposed to do. Out of work since leaving Motherwell in November, McCall is tasked with galvanising the squad and take them into the Premiership via the play-offs. “I’m not putting the boot into the players because they know it themselves but anyone who has watched Rangers for the last three or four months would say they have been struggling,” he said shortly after taking charge. “They know they haven’t done it consistently enough but they wouldn’t be at Rangers if they weren’t good players. I would have signed most of these players but you need a different mentality to play for Rangers.”
He was perhaps a little less magnanimous at around 5:50pm on Saturday after his new side drew 1-1 with Livingston, anchored to the bottom of the Championship table. Rangers started well enough and knocked the ball around in a brisk fashion before Haris Vuckic gathered Nicky Law’s pass, cut inside and drilled the ball home to open the scoring, but they could not maintain the same levels of intensity and visibly wilted. Just before the interval, Craig Sives’s header bounced back off the post and Ibra Sekajja equalised from close range.
Rangers had chances to score in the second half – Lee McCulloch headed over Law’s corner and Kenny Miller forced Darren Jamieson into a sprawling save – but they could not force a winner. In fact, it was Livingston who came closest to landing the critical blow when Lee Robinson and Marius Zaliukas almost contrived to allow Jordan White in on goal. The draw was Rangers’ fourth in a row – they have now won just once in their last six league matches and although they still hold a two-game advantage over Hibernian in second, they can no longer overtake them, even if they prevail in both encounters.
How McCall gets the best from this squad will be interesting. Tom Walsh was handed his first start of the season – Walsh is a little lightweight and sometimes shirks a challenge but he dynamic and capable of carrying the ball forward, something Rangers have badly lacked this term. Introducing young, ambitious players at the expense of the team’s senior members might go some way to restoring pride in the side. Bilel Mohsni, Ian Black and Jon Daly were all left out of the matchday squad (Daly allegedly flounced out of Ibrox at the news) while there is a decision to be made about McCulloch – the captain has been roundly terrible this season and a spell on the sidelines would benefit both parties.
If McCall can lead this team through the play-offs it might just surpass his achievements with Motherwell, but there is no short-term fix for this group of players. Regardless of where Rangers finish the season, a major clear-out is required come the summer. CGT
3) Brechin City’s unbeaten streak has come to a sorry end
The run had to come to an end at some point. Brechin City’s 0-3 loss at Peterhead was their first in 18 games – had they gone without defeat, the team would have set a new club record. Instead, the Hedgemen turned in one of their shabbiest performances of the season and their position within the top four looks a little less secure than it did before the weekend.
Brechin looked reasonably bright in the opening exchanges but the match irrevocably swung in the Blue Toon’s favour shortly after the half-hour mark. Gerry McLauchlan was caught out by Andy Rodgers’ looping cross and Rory McAllister, storming beyond Ewan McNeil at the back post, slid the ball across the six-yard box for Gary McDonald to tap in. In the aftermath, McLauchlan and goalkeeper Graeme Smith butted heads in a seamy altercation.
Before David Cox doubled Peterhead’s advantage, prodding the ball into the net after Smith carelessly spilled Jamie Stevenson’s free-kick, Brechin were reduced to ten men – Colin Hamliton had already been cautioned in the first half when he pulled down Cammy Kerr to collect his second booking in the 63rd minute. Cox probably could have been sent off himself not long afterwards when he appeared to knee Bobby Barr in the face as the winger lay prostrate.
Jordan Brown gave the score-line the gloss it deserved when he toed Mc,Donald’s flick into the net. His team were the better throughout the contest – McDonald, Stevenson and Kevin Dzierzawski controlled affairs from the middle of the park while McAllister, Rodgers and Cox were menacing up front. The win, coupled with the midweek victory over Forfar Athletic, has lifted Jim McInally’s side within touching distance of the play-offs, but they must find a way to solve their maddening inconsistency. Alongside an increasingly resurgent Airdrieonians, they might just gatecrash the top four.
Both sides now lie four points behind Brechin. It was a disappointing manner to lose their unbeaten streak and it highlights some deficiencies within the squad. They defended poorly, but that can be marked down as “one of those days” given how well the backline has played in recent months. No, the concerns lie in attack – in their previous eight league matches, they’ve only scored seven goals and only Stenhousemuir and Stirling Albion have found the net with less regularity in the same period. Alan Trouten has scored 12 league goals but principal strikers Robert Thomson and Andy Jackson have the same number between them; the pair must chip in with greater frequency.
Brechin welcome Forfar to Glebe Park on Saturday before taking on Peterhead again next Tuesday. If results do not go in their favour at the weekend, then City might find their next meeting with the Blue Toon will have a lot more riding on it than they feel comfortable with. CGT
4) The battle at the bottom of League 1 isn’t over
The match between Ayr United and Stenhousemuir was probably the weekend’s most important fixture. It was a definitive contest to decide who would finish the season in the League 1 relegation play-off place; a match that neither side dared lose. Before the game, the teams were separated by a slender margin – a defeat would have left the Honest Men facing a four-point gap to overcome, while Stenny were looking at returning to ninth. Instead, it finished 0-0; nothing has changed.
It was an entertaining affair and both sides were reasonably well matched throughout but on chances alone, Ayr should have thrashed their opponents. In the opening ten minutes, Craig Beattie swiveled inside the penalty area and sent an effort crashing against the crossbar and shortly afterwards Jon-Paul McGovern’s spinning volley forced goalkeeper Greg Fleming to dive to his right to paw it away.
In the second half Jordan Preston had an effort cleared from the line, Fleming tipped Robbie Crawford’s low drive onto the post and Beattie poked a shot wide of goal. Perhaps most glaring of all was Alan Forrest’s aberration towards the death – Crawford’s low centre wasn’t properly cleared and the substitute, six yards out, smashed his shot off the bar; it looked easier to score.
Stenhousemuir had turned in their best performances of the season in their previous two matches with Stranraer and Peterhead but they were unable to really get into this game. Centre-backs Alan Lithgow and Ross Meechan defended well but their distribution was unimaginative and often hit long towards the frontline. As a result, the game passed by Kris Faulds and Kieran Millar in midfield, and the livewire Paul McMullan was also uncharacteristically subdued. Stenny did have the ball in the net twice, but both goals were disallowed – Colin McMenamin was offside when he deflected Ciaran Summers’ shot past David Hutton, and the striker used his hand to punch McMullan’s cross into the net. On the whole, Brown Ferguson will be relieved to have left Somerset Park with a point.
What did we learn from the game? Well, nothing we haven’t discussed elsewhere before. Ayr look a far hardier proposition with Robbie Crawford in central midfield and he appears to have formed a decent partnership with Jon-Paul McGovern. Crawford was involved in all of Ayr’s best moments, and it’s hard to believe that a player with his guile and ability on the ball was often overlooked by Mark Roberts. Stenhousemuir, meanwhile, certainly benefitted from their host’s prolificacy but their solidity and spirit deserves praise. After taking seven points from their last three matches, that corner has finally been turned.
Both sides have difficult fixtures between now and the end of the season but League 1 has proved to be a division where anyone can beat anyone else. Stenhousemuir might hold the advantage at the moment but based on the weekend’s encounter, anything can happen before May. CGT
5) East Fife need to look over their shoulder
After an eight-match unbeaten streak that yielded 18 points and moved them up the table into the last play-off position, East Fife had done the difficult work to galvanise their season once more. Yet two defeats later, they find themselves looking over their shoulder with four other clubs within four points of them, none more so than East Stirlingshire, who are enjoying their best spell of the season and who are proving to be worthy contenders for the final play-off berth.
It wasn’t even a fortnight ago when Nathan Austin blitzed through Elgin City’s defence in an enthralling 5-3 midweek fixture at Borough Briggs. Austin scored five goals in two matches against Clyde and Elgin but picked up a couple of soft bookings in the 0-1 loss to Queen’s Park last week, to be suspended for the 0-2 defeat away to the Shire. Austin’s form in league competition this season has been a bit flaky but it looked as if his East Fife career was about to blossom before he was unavailable to play at Ochilview. It seems more likely than not that he will prove himself to be a very good player in the lower leagues and his power was certainly missed by the team – Ola Adayemo was put up front to work in front of Derek Riordan but the Dundee United loanee failed to make much of an impact, while Riordan was very much on the periphery of the match until late into the second half when East Fife had to chase the game.
Chris Townsley’s towering header set the Shire on the way to their fifth win in seven fixtures, but the match was defined more by two terrible passes by East Fife’s Sean Dickson either side of half-time. The first was a first-time bobble inside that didn’t find a team-mate but allowed Max Wright to drive forward with the ball and draw a fine two-handed save from Allan Fleming, which should have been a warning that a lapse in concentration could soon see the match slip out of his side’s grasp. The second was an even more careless pass towards Allan Walker in front of East Fife’s “D” at the edge of the box, without realising that Walker’s run was to a different direction. Instead, David McKenna – a threat throughout – capitalised and lobbed the ball to the other side of the penalty area for Kevin Nesbit, who juggled it past Ross Brown and scored inside Fleming’s near post with a remarkable sense of composure far beyond his four senior career appearances.
East Fife had their opportunities to get back into the match, with Riordan just off-balance from ten yards, Alan Cook shooting over from a pocket of space in front of the box (when a reverse pass to Riordan would have likely resulted in a goal) and a header from a corner kick hitting the top of the crossbar. Ultimately, though, East Stirlingshire were good value for the three points with some quality attacking enterprise among Nesbit, Wright, McKenna and David Greenhill. Over the last six matches Craig Tully’s side are the form team in the league and their recently untapped potential is now beginning to crystalise, just in time for challenging for the play-offs – a midweek trip to Elgin gives them the chance to go level on points with East Fife. The Fifers, meanwhile, hope that Austin finds his goal-scoring touch straight away again, but they now have three consecutive home fixtures to try to consolidate their position in the league.
Whatever happens, it looks like the competition for fourth place could go down to the last couple of matches. Between that and the title race itself, there is plenty to look forward to in this division yet. JAM