1) Mark Beck might not be where it’s at
Two away matches. Two defeats. One point in nine. Six points from the summit. Crisis.
A lot has happened in this month. At the end of January, all of the league’s momentum was with Falkirk as they comprehensively beat Dundee at their own ground to climb to the top of the league on goal difference. With the Dees hemorrhaging points in John Brown’s final weeks at Dens Park, the opportunity was there for Falkirk to take a commanding lead into the final third of the season.
It wasn’t taken. Dundee were surprisingly swift with Brown’s departure and his successor, Paul Hartley, has managed back-to-back single-goal wins against sides reduced to ten men. Falkirk have not been able to keep up with the pace, with defeats away to Queen of the South and Dumbarton harming their chances of automatic promotion to the Premiership.
It’s not crisis at all, of course, but it will be disappointing for those associated with the Bairns to see their club fail to grasp what was within their hands. Third place with 36 points to play for is still an enviable position to many within the division, but it is the minimum expected of a side who have consolidated third place in the league in the three previous seasons.
Falkirk probably deserved something from the weekend’s visit to the Bet Butler Stadium, with enough chances created to arguably win the match, but their performance was neither pretty nor was it of the style of the previous couple of months. The inclusion of Mark Beck caused an imbalance that affected the fluency of the team’s attack. While he used his 6ft 5in frame to some effect, notably to flick on Stephen Kingsley’s clipped ball into Rory Loy’s path for the opening goal, and although he found himself unfortunate not to score from a couple of corner kicks, his presence skewed the shape of the rest of the team.
Maybe that couldn’t have been helped. With Blair Alston not available for selection, Gary Holt had little options outwith his usual starting XI. Placing Beck up front for his first start forced resident chief centre-forward Rory Loy to play more as a supporting forward, with Philip Roberts’s placement on the outer channel of the right side making the team’s shape resemble more of a lop-sided 4-3-3 than a 4-4-2, given how narrow Craig Sibbald played from the left. Width came from the full-backs, but they never got to the by-line to serve Beck to the best of his potential. Playing down the wing and chipping balls in for the tall guy isn’t quintessential Falkirk, so when they didn’t have the wind behind them in the second half of the loss to Dumbarton they failed to build on their lead and let the hosts back into the match.
Among Scott Agnew, Mitch Megginson and Jordan Kirkpatrick, Falkirk’s goalkeeper Michael McGovern had plenty to do in both halves and it wasn’t a shock that the home side won the game. Agnew was been in the winning team in six of his last nine matches and the Sons are still unbeaten in all competitions in 2014. When all of the plaudits seemed to have gone to Hartley earlier in the season for getting Alloa Athletic up the table, it is Ian Murray’s side who are now flirting with the play-off positions and their 11 point lead from the same point last year is fully merited.
For Falkirk, they might have to settle for the play-offs themselves now that Dundee have rediscovered their capacity for milling positive results. The title race isn’t over yet; it just feels that way. JAM
2) Raith Rovers are in free fall
There has never been a better time to have access to football. Sky covers every aspect of the English game, and BT Sport are gainfully clinging onto their coat-tails (although their employment of Michael Owen, a man who could make a 4-4 draw seem as exciting as a convention for office stationery, is trifling). All the major European leagues are broadcast in some form or other, and, if your tastes are a little more refined, the internet caters for everything from Bogota to Belarus and back again.
The downside to all of this is that fans rarely witness things they haven’t already seen before. A dog running onto the park? Been there, mate. Strikers biting their opponents? That’s, like, so 2013. No, in this culture of instant gratification, you have to produce something really special to break new ground.
With this in mind, you have to give the Raith Rovers support credit for coming up with a novel way to motivate their team. As the players trotted out after the half-time interval on Saturday – they were already four goals down to Hamilton Academical at this point – a sizeable minority booed them back onto the park.
Admittedly, the Rovers fans can play up to the dour Fifer stereotype and often ferociously criticise their team, but on Saturday the ashen-faced Langtonians had a point. It wasn’t the score-line that particularly rankled – freak results can happen from time to time – but the performance was quite astonishing. It was a debacle so dreadful and completely devoid of anything positive – such was the ineptitude on show, it bordered on something Anelka-esque: the ultimate insult. The four-goal lead did not flatter Hamilton in the slightest; if anything, it should have been more.
Rovers began the match in a 4-5-1 formation but the system looked inappropriate from the outset. The Accies took the lead after four minutes courtesy of a fabulous Anthony Andreu strike but they had spurned a number of opportunities before then. The basics seemed too complex for the Rovers players who, seven days previously, casually dismissed Premiership opposition in the Scottish Cup – passes were hit long to an isolated Greig Spence, who was inadequately supported by the midfield. They were uncertain all over the pitch: full-back Jason Thomson looked uncomfortable deployed in the middle of the back four, a position the Rovers captain has little experience of. Instead of working with his centre-back partner Dougie Hill, he continued to drift out to the right to support Fraser Mullen and left pockets of space across the back-line.
If manager Grant Murray’s plan was to alter his team at half-time, then it proved to be a fatal mistake. Hamilton scored their second, third and fourth goals in the final ten minutes of the first half, with all three the result of abysmal defending or poor decision making (and in the case of the fourth, a James Keatings penalty, a combination of both). Changes were inevitably made at the interval, and Spence and Liam Fox made way for John Baird and Gordon Smith. Two late goals gave the score-line a veneer of respectability but it did not reflect Hamilton’s superiority.
Rovers have collected one point in their last six matches. It is the worst record across the entire SPFL. The club are now as close to the relegation play-offs as they are to the promotion places and unless Murray and his players can arrest their desperate form over the next eight days against Dumbarton and Alloa Athletic, those jeers might just start to get a little louder. SM
3) Derek Riordan can save Alloa Athletic’s season
Alloa Athletic are in trouble. The club have collected two points from their last seven matches and have slipped from the cusp of the promotion play-off places to eighth. Such is their current form that challenging to avoid a ninth place finish seems the likeliest outcome this term. It is difficult to ascertain exactly what has brought about their recent downturn, but the weekend’s home defeat to Livingston highlighted the side’s recent failings.
New manager Barry Smith continued where Paul Hartley left off by utilising a narrow diamond in the middle of the park, keeping nine men behind the ball and moving as a pack while forwards Ross Caldwell and Eddie Fearns split and moved out to close down the opposition defence. So far, so Hartley. But Livingston, who were far more technically sound on the ball, were allowed more time in possession and thus able to pass through the Alloa midfield with relative ease. Simon Mensing’s goal after 20 minutes, Martin Scott’s outrageous lob (surely a contender for the goal of the season) and Keaghan Jacobs’ late strike awarded Livi a comfortable win. Smith’s side, who passed the ball dreadfully throughout, had no answer. The return of Ryan McCord cannot come soon enough.
Are the players still bemoaning the departure of Hartley? Perhaps. At half-time, the stadium announcer played the Arctic Monkeys “Do I Wanna Know?” over the PA system. It was an appropriate song for the occasion, featuring the lyrics “Do I wanna know if this feeling flows both ways / Sad to see you go, was sorta hoping that you’d stay” and “Maybe I’m too busy being yours to fall for somebody new”. What should that somebody new do? Does Smith continue to operate using Hartley’s preferred system? Or does he configure his players into a formation he’s more comfortable working with?
Alloa’s hopes of enjoying a successful season might now rest with Derek Riordan. The forward had trained with the club for almost three months before agreeing terms (until recently, the player had no intention of joining the part-time club) and made an immediate impact following his 56th minute substitution. Riordan nipped the ball from the toes of Mensing, forcing the Livi captain into a professional foul that left referee Iain Brines no alternative than to send him off. He continued to play with menace and was key as Alloa tried to press their advantage, but they were unable to pose a significant threat to their visitors. Scott and Jacobs made sure of the win, both scoring in the final ten minutes.
Riordan has spent more than a year without a club but in 34 minutes showed he is a footballer who, as he later put it, “should be playing in the Premiership”. If he is able to keep Alloa in the Championship, then it may be enough to convince a top tier club he is worth entertaining. And in turn, Smith has the unenviable task of shaping the side in his own image in the post-Hartley era. CF
4) What is the point of Emilson Cribari?
Another day. Another victory. Another clean sheet.
Rangers’ 23rd league win of the season maintained their 23 point advantage at the top of League 1, with second half goals from Nicky Law and Jon Daly ensuring victory over Ayr United at Somerst Park. Ally McCoist’s side must be congratulated for the professional manner in which they have approached the campaign and they have continued to perform with ruthless efficiency. For all United’s resolute play throughout the first half, Law’s header 40 seconds after the interval effectively killed off the contest.
With the resources at their disposal, however, it is apposite to demand more from this Rangers team than just a rudimentary three points and a clean sheet, particularly as the league title moves ever closer. A more forensic examination of their relentless form would hope to find evidence that McCoist – January’s League 1 Manager of the Month, lest we forget – was adding value to a group of individuals far superior to their opponents, building a squad and an ethos that will support the club’s elevation back to the top tier, or simply entertaining a group of fans who continue to follow the side in numbers. On Saturday, the manager was found lacking – pragmatism triumphed over forward-thinking.
With first choice centre-backs Lee McCulloch and Bilel Mohsni both absent through suspension, McCoist chose to recall Ricky Foster at right-back and move Sebastien Faure inside to partner the returning Emilson Cribari. Eighteen-year-old defender Craig Halkett made the bench, but there was no place for Luca Gasparotto, also 18, who appeared sporadically throughout 2012-13 and featured on loan at Stirling Albion at the turn of the year. Both Halkett and Gasparotto have recently impressed for Gordon Durie’s U-20 side but – like so many youngsters at Ibrox – have not been given the opportunity to prove their worth to the first team this term.
The inclusion of Cribari, in simple terms, can be justified by a 16th clean sheet of the year and a very unfussy, untroubled performance. But little else was achieved by selecting a defender on the cusp of his 34th birthday and with an uncertain future at the club – it was his fourth appearance of the season and his first start since late August. Through the week, McCoist spoke of his young defenders, stating on the club’s website that “the boys are doing well very but it’s a different game on Saturday. It’s not an U-20 game and it’s against one of the most experienced strikers in the league.” McCoist was referring to Kevin Kyle in his statement, but the big forward represented an ideal opportunity for the youngsters to learn more than they ever could playing in an academy match.
With Rangers holding a considerable margin for error this season, Saturday’s team selection was disappointingly conservative but it did not come as a surprise. Lewis Macleod (currently sidelined with a virus) and Fraser Aird are the only teenagers to feature with any regularity – the fact they have been amongst Rangers’ best performers this term only frustrates those who feel that youth is not being given a chance to flourish under McCoist.
Four more league wins will confirm the title, and Dunfermline Athletic’s trip to Ibrox on 15 March has been pencilled in as the decisive fixture. It would leave seven league games for McCoist to see what his youngsters are made of, to prepare for the Challenge Cup final at the beginning of April and, if they are able to overcome Albion Rovers before the Dunfermline game, the later stages of the Scottish Cup. Winning at all costs is beneficial in the short-term, but McCoist’s myopic approach could prove to be his undoing in the near future. AG
5) Stenhousemuir leave it late to make their point once more
Before examining Stenhousemuir’s match against East Fife, it is perhaps worthwhile looking at a number of statistics to highlight their current malaise. The Warriors have not won at home in over three months, with their last victory coming on 16 November against Arbroath. At that point, they sat in third place, competitive with the teams around them and a sound shout for the play-off places. Since then, however, the campaign has gone badly awry and Stenhousemuir have taken seven points from their last 11 matches, toppling into sixth place. Martyn Corrigan has gone, the manager dismissed after bringing in the New Year with four consecutive defeats, and the club are yet to win in 2014. Last weekend’s humiliation at Albion Rovers in the Scottish Cup was the unarguable nadir of a season that has increasingly disappointed.
A draw between two struggling sides wouldn’t normally lend itself to such analysis – East Fife are experiencing their own funk after consecutive defeats to Dunfermline Athletic and Brechin City and the zest that new manager Gary Naysmith has brought to the club has quickly dissipated – but the manner of Stenhousemuir’s last three league results has been remarkable: three 1-1 draws, all courtesy of last minute equalisers. Against Ayr United, it took Ross McNeil’s intelligent finish late on to win a point, while Eddie Malone’s 95th minute header tied the match with Stranraer. Here, it was Malone again who cancelled out Liam Buchanan’s 46th minute strike, gathering Errol Douglas’s flick before steering the ball into the net at the death. The draw leaves the Warriors in mid-table limbo, eight points from the play-off places and ten from the foot of the table.
Stenhousemuir should have won the match before the interval, with Darren Smith guilty of passing up four excellent opportunities. Their play throughout the opening period was crisp and precise. They were, of course, abetted by opponents whose preference to push their backline 35 yards from goal allowed them space in which to run into and the combination of Malone and Sean Dickson down the left flank showed promise – the pair swung in a series of presentable crosses that Smith failed to take advantage of. The Warriors have now failed to score a first half league goal at home since the win against Arbroath.
Buchanan’s goal – East Fife’s only shot on target – gave them the cushion to sit back, drop deep and allow their hosts to attack them. But where Stenhousemuir’s play throughout the first half was decisive, they were dire throughout the second period. There was no cohesion, no attempt to play with fluidity and balls were launched from back to front and Joe Mbu and Kevin Rutkiewitcz repelled them with ease. For the best part, the Fife defence stood firm, only wavering in the final minute when the ball deflected off Douglas’s back and into the path of Malone, who passed it into the net.
For all that Stenhousemuir’s performances have improved and the players have shown spirit and strength to recover from losing positions during Brown Ferguson’s interim management, one cannot help but feel that any sense of progress has been undermined by the dire display at Cliftonhill last weekend. Where they go from here is anyone’s guess. Eleven candidates have been interviewed for the vacant managerial post, including Allan Moore (who has done his homework by attending the club’s last four matches) and Max Christie, a former player and son of the legendary Terry Christie. If the new manager is able to coax the requisite levels of consistency from the team, then there is an outside chance the club could rouse themselves from their stupor.
Up next? A trip to Ibrox to face Rangers. CGT