1) Dundee are finding their rhythm under Paul Hartley
Having kept Livingston at arm’s length for pretty much the whole of the weekend’s match at Almondvale, Dundee proved they are serious contenders for the title and have the capability of setting the pace for Hamilton Academical between now and the end of the season. When Dundee’s form had signs of being in sudden freefall in John Brown’s final days, Paul Hartley has defibrillated their initial stuttering form under his reign into something more ominous for the rest of the division.
Ominous, not because Dundee are thrashing opponents (the Dees have not scored three goals in a match since the end of last year), but because teams find it exceedingly difficult to score against them. A mishap at Cowdenbeath aside, Dundee’s proficiency to keep their palms rested against the forehead of the opposition, arms flailing futile, isn’t a fluke.
At the beginning of the season, it was clear that apart from some imbalance issues, they had the division’s strongest squad on paper. That John Brown managed to keep the club towards the top of the table despite struggling to break teams down when they sat in, and in spite of the nervousness that began to manifest in the stands and on the pitch, was arguably more down to the experience and ability within the squad than it was in executing a successful strategy.
Without having the luxury of the transfer window to begin to mould his own side, Hartley has made minor changes to the team that he inherited from Brown. Stephen Hughes was allowed to return to East Fife on loan, easing some of the bloating in the middle of the team. Martin Boyle has been given a permanent role in the side, either wide on the right as against Livingston or centrally, with his peerless pace giving the team much needed variety in attack, as well as the ability to pin defences back. Declan Gallacher and Kyle Benedictus have been encouraged to forge an ever more promising defensive partnership, instead of using natural midfielder Iain Davidson as a needlessly makeshift centre-back. Willie Dyer has been re-instated at left-back in place of Matt Lockwood, who at 37 years old looked to be on the last leg of his playing career a couple of seasons ago. Gavin Rae and Kevin McBride are now unsung heroes in the centre of the park, with the latter’s unfussy ball retention particularly important under Hartley’s stewardship. Even without McBride at Livingston, Davidson slotted in without fanfare and held up well against Simon Mensing and Martin Scott.
Four wins and as many clean sheets from the last five matches is form that is only closely matched by Hamilton at this stage of the season. With both teams on 52 points and there being only eight rounds are left of the league campaign (with Dundee having a game in hand on that), it could be that we have our closest second tier title race in years. JAM
2) Dunfermline Athletic take plaudits but not points from Ibrox
Given Dunfermline Athletic’s advantage over the teams beneath them in the League 1 table – 15 points separate them from Forfar Athletic in fifth – there is a worry that Jim Jefferies side might coast through the remainder of their league fixtures in anticipation of the end of season play-off contest. A quick glance at their recent results lends some credence to this argument: a solitary point from their previous three matches is an uncharacteristic loss of form. Yet to look at their results alone misses the point – although they were undone by poor individual errors in their 1-3 loss at Stranraer, they were the better side in the 0-0 draw with Stenhousemuir and again in the weekend’s 0-2 defeat to Rangers. Indeed, the calibre of their performance at Ibrox indicated that Jim Jefferies’ side can finish the season in a strong fashion.
And Dumfermline had a point to prove. Until Saturday, they were the only side in the division not to have presented some kind of challenge to Rangers. Every other team in the division had done something to unfix or unsettle the League 1 champions, but the Pars’ previous matches against Ally McCoist’s side had been dismal, one-sided encounters. Their last meeting, a fifth round Scottish Cup tie, was particularly brutal with Rangers tearing through their bedraggled backline at will.
Dunfermline were far better on Saturday. Rangers ultimately won the game courtesy of Stevie Smith’s sublime freekick and a late Callum Gallagher goal, his first for the club, but they were often second best and lacked the poise and control of their visitors (indeed, there is little point in offering any fresh analysis on Rangers’ performance – they have been extensively covered by this column in recent weeks, and there are only so many different ways to write “Rangers played terribly” without beginning to sound repetitive).
For the best part, the Pars defended resolutely and contained their opponents with relative ease. Speaking with Sky Sports at half-time, Dunfermline assistant manager Neil McCann explained how his team were prepared for Rangers’ aerial barrage from back to front, and centre-back Callum Morris looked especially capable when confronted by Lee McCulloch and his swingin’ elbows (with one eye on tonight’s Scottish Cup quarter-final replay with Albion Rovers, McCoist saw fit to rest a number of key players, hence McCulloch’s redeployment in attack), while further forward, the excellent Ross Forbes, Andy Geggan and Stephen Husband dictated play with a series of clever passes and worked opportunities through the middle and on the flanks. Even when reduced to ten men – Danny Grainger was sent off with 12 minutes remaining – they still continued to control the match.
Their general play in the final third, however, was their undoing, with a lack of ingenuity and decisiveness breaking down a series of fine moves. Alex Whittle in particular continually misused the ball and was replaced by Shaun Byrne after 28 minutes, while Lawrence Shankland, normally a potent goal-scorer, passed up a number of presentable chances. Had they shown a little more composure in front of goal, Dunfermline could have taken more from the match than plaudits.
Dunfermline have the ideal opportunity to turn fine performances into points with home ties against East Fife and Brechin City, two teams badly out of form. If Jefferies can maintain their momentum and maintain their form going into the play-offs, an immediate return to the second tier looks increasingly likely. CGT
3) Stenhousemuir’s brave new era under Scott Booth is up and running
Scott Booth’s brief tenure as Stenhousemuir manager has begun in remarkable fashion. While last weekend’s 0-0 draw at Dunfermline Athletic was a lesson in arch pragmatism (and one that went some way to exorcising the Warriors’ inferiority complex with the Pars), Saturday’s 4-2 victory over Brechin City was a superb performance and one of their best in years. It was a controlled, measured display and showcased Booth’s vision for his new team.
Since Martyn Corrigan’s dismissal in January, Stenhousemuir had shown gradual improvement under Brown Ferguson’s interim stewardship, culminating in a superb 4-1 home win over Forfar Athletic. Ferguson began his seven-match caretaker spell with a slight refinement of Corrigan’s 4-2-3-1 approach, favouring caution over courageousness. It yielded three consecutive 1-1 draws, all achieved courtesy of injury-time equalisers. In his final few matches, including a 3-3 draw with Rangers at Ibrox and the victory over Forfar, Ferguson’s team looked far more purposeful and they played with verve and cohesion. The use of pure wingers, unheard of under the previous manager, became central to their approach.
Booth has built on the progress under Ferguson and, on Saturday’s evidence, has smoothed over the rough edges and moulded a confident, expressive side that are prepared to move the ball patiently before looking to exploit the space on the flanks with fast wide men. The new manager set up his side in a 4-3-3 formation and it made an immediate impact as Stenhousemuir scored twice within the opening five minutes through Darren Smith and Sean Dickson. Previously, the team would rely on goalkeeper Chris Smith to kick the ball as far as he possibly could and attempt to play from there; now, the team play from the back, keeping the ball on the ground and moving it from defence and into midfield, with every player keen to get possession. At its most fully realised, particularly throughout the opening 20 minutes, Stenhousemuir were excellent.
Brechin scored twice through Alan Trouten but they were never able to build a sustained foothold in the match. Josh Watt and the returning John Gemmell scored in the second half at 3-1 and 4-2 respectively, with the former delivering a highly credible performance, full of trickery and verve. Signed by Corrigan in September, Watt was rarely used, with some fans questioning his recruitment. After a brief loan spell at East Stirlingshire, however, the player has been introduced into the team under Ferguson and looks as though he will form the attacking fulcrum of Booth’s side. As well as Watt, Sean Lynch and Bryan Hodge played impressively in the middle of the park while Darren Smith’s runs through the middle from deep were a constant menace.
With eight matches remaining, a play-off place might seem a little outlandish but their next two fixtures against Stranraer and then Ayr United should offer a solid indication as to what direction their season will take. Speaking after the match, Booth said he and his players are taking each game as it comes but victory in both ties should strengthen their credentials. If nothing else, the manager should look to continue his bold, exciting approach and build towards something tangible for next term. CGT
4) East Fife? Still strugglin’, brother
It’s little over 11 months since Billy Brown’s extraordinary “been places, dun hings” post-match interview. A 1-2 defeat at home to Stenhousemuir had just extended East Fife’s run without a victory to 14 matches and Brown, pacing about the bowels of New Bayview, delivered a withering assessment of the squad at his disposal. Without saying as much, the insinuation was clear: the players just weren’t good enough. A lot has happened at the club since, yet Gary Naysmith gave a jarringly similar assessment following the Fifer’s 0-5 defeat to Ayr United on Saturday (albeit in a more measured and less manic manner).
In stark contrast to Brown, Naysmith started his post-match interview with an apology to the East Fife supporters. “They should have booed us off and been throwing things at us for that performance,” he said. His appraisal of the first 36 minutes was correct: there was nothing much between the sides as a strong wind in the home side’s favour made for a disjointed match, with the players struggling to use the ball effectively. Ayr’s opener came from the penalty spot after Michael Donald drove into the box and went over Jonny Stewart’s trailing leg. It was a soft award but Naysmith’s disgust was directed not at referee Euan Norris, or Donald – instead, his players took the brunt of his ire: “We take the easy way out too much. Someone runs at you in the box… It’s an art, defending; you’ve got to stay on your feet, you need to be hard to beat.”
Once Michael Moffat converted the penalty, Naysmith felt his side folded. “Once we went a goal down, [the players have] thrown the towel in,” he said, hinting at a lack of personality within the dressing room. And fold they did! Moffat doubled the advantage just three minutes later, capitalising on a woeful error from Gary Thom, and it was 3-0 before half-time after Kevin Kyle bundled home when Greg Paterson flapped at a corner. There was no coming back for the League 1’s lowest goalscorers – East Fife have found the net just 22 times in 29 games (twenty fewer than at the same stage last season). This was to be a 13th game in which they have failed to score, as United added a further two goals in the second-half.
The defeat leaves East Fife in ninth position, just one point ahead of Arbroath after collecting just two points from their last eight matches. The ckubs have played each other four times already this season (Paul McManus grabbed the winner for the Red Lichties at Gayfield a fortnight ago) but East Fife might just have the advantage in that they have also played Rangers four times, with Paul Sheerin’s side due to host the champions at the end of the month. East Fife must start scoring goals to start giving them a chance of picking up points. Ironically, it is an East Fife old boy, McManus, who arguably gives Arbroath the best chance of avoiding automatic relegation.
Naysmith, like Brown, is a man who has been places and done things. He has won a Scottish Cup medal, made over 130 Premier League appearances for Everton, and collected 46 international caps. For all his achievements as a player, keeping East Fife in League 1 might be the greatest of them all. AG
5) Albion Rovers have chosen fortune and glory over a League 2 play-off place
Albion Rovers are riding the crest of a wave. Their Scottish Cup run and subsequent £10,000 donation to the Cash For Kids charity has seen the club experience unprecedented attention and goodwill, with many neutrals adopting them as a second team. Yet for all their achievements in the cup competitions and away from the park, the team are toiling in League 2. Rovers are some distance from the top three and are failing to keep pace with the teams competing for the final play-off position – the minimum achievement for the season. A match against Queen’s Park – a side who hadn’t won in eight matches – provided them with the chance to make some headway on fourth place. But James Ward isn’t concerned with such bread ‘n’ butter league matters – no, the Albion Rovers manager has his sights on much loftier targets: tonight’s Scottish Cup quarter-final replay with Rangers.
It would be unfair to expect Rovers’ players, staff and supporters not to be distracted by the upcoming match but few would have imagined that Ward would have so drastically reconfigured his side to the weekend’s visit to Queen’s Park. The manager didn’t make a handful of changes for the trip to the Excelsior Stadium – the entire starting XI that drew with Rangers was altered, with fringe players and trialists making up the squad. The outcome was perhaps inevitable. James Brough scored twice within the opening 26 minutes, with both goals headed home after corners (curiously enough, Queen’s Park appear to pose more of a threat from set-pieces than Rangers). Blair Spittal scored his 12th goal of the season on 67 minutes, and Liam Gormley completed the rout with a fourth late on. It is not unfair to suggest that QP could have scored more, and the result gave Gus MacPherson his first victory as the Spiders manager.
Defeats to Stirling Albion and East Stirlingshire, the teams immediately above them, means that Rovers are still six points from a play-off place (with a game in hand, no less) but given the size of the division and their inconsistent form, a major upswing seems unlikely. Will any of this matter should the club achieve the greatest result of their history and progress to the Scottish Cup semi-final? Does a play-off appearance even compare? There may be concerns about the depth of the Albion Rovers squad (there are some players in the team who are there to do nothing more than make up the numbers) and there may be some disgruntlement from supporters who travelled to see a match the team had little interest in taking part in, but this would all be forgotten should the club overcome Rangers tonight. They came close before and, with their first choice XI all rested, they could do it again.
“Fortune and glory, kid,” said Indiana Jones sagely in The Temple of Doom. “Fortune and glory.”
And who could argue with that? CGT