1) Heart of Midlothian come out on top in a game of two halves
It was an excellent weekend for everyone connected with Heart of Midlothian. With Rangers drawing with Alloa Athletic at Ibrox, the Jambos’ victory over Falkirk in Saturday’s evening kick-off saw them extend their lead at the top of the Championship to six points. Chuck in Hibernian’s failure to beat Queen of the South and everything is coming up Milhouse down Gorgie way.
It is unlikely that Hearts will face opponents as obliging as Falkirk again this season – for the opening 45 minutes, the Bairns were absolutely dreadful and Robbie Neilson’s side were allowed to shuttle the ball around the pitch as they saw fit with no resistance. On 27 minutes, Billy King collected possession, waltzed beyond two half-hearted challenges and teed up Kevin McHattie to swivel and crash a shot into the roof of the net; ten minutes later and Hearts doubled their lead when Jamie Walker scooted away from Joe Shaughnessy and centred for Soufian El Hassnaoui to poke home. Although they took a two-goal lead into the interval, it could (and maybe should) have been a far greater margin based on the chances created.
Falkirk were far better in the second half but it would have been difficult for them to have been any worse, in all honesty. (Peter Houston’s decision to remove David Smith in favour of Alex Cooper four minutes after the restart was a strange one – why not make the switch during the break instead of embarrassing the player like that?) They played with more purpose and pulled a goal back through Botti Bia-Bi in the 71st minute but Hearts were guilty of not approaching the second period with the same effort as the first – their passing was slack and their finishing profligate, with James Keatings guilty of passing up an excellent chance towards the end of the match.
The second half mirrored their recent travails. For all their offensive muscle over the course of the season, Hearts have been more subdued in recent weeks. They’ve still taken seven points from their last three league matches but their swagger seems a little diminished and they’ve only scored four goals – for a side that’s scored four or more times in five matches this season, it is an uncharacteristic dip in form. They were bested by Hibernian in last month’s Edinburgh derby and looked sluggish in the win at Raith Rovers. But Hearts are still winning, and it says a lot about how good the team has been this season when a scrappy 45 minutes against a poor Falkirk side comes under examination.
They cannot afford to be as listless in their next match. Rangers visit Tynecastle in six days and Hearts can increase their advantage at the summit of the division even further. If they are able to repeat the weekend’s first half performance – for the entire match, this time – the Jambos will be out of sight. CGT
2) If Cowdenbeath didn’t have bad luck, they’d have no luck
In Cowdenbeath’s two-and-a-half years in Scotland’s second tier, the same themes always seem to recur during an analysis of any defeat. Under Jimmy Nicholl and his predecessor Colin Cameron, it appears as though the team is held back by questionable formations, confusing team selections, their habit of relinquishing leads, and second half capitulations; all four played a factor in the weekend’s 1-2 loss at Raith Rovers.
The Blue Brazil were also brought low by an unusual slew of injuries, some of which started before the match had even begun – midfielder Jon Robertson was listed in the starting XI but was stricken during the warm up and replaced by Thomas O’Brien. The misfortune continued when on-loan Rangers forward Calum Gallagher was withdrawn with a head knock after quarter of an hour and swapped with Craig Sutherland, and then 15 minutes later Dean Brett hobbled off with Ian Campbell coming on to fill in at left-back. To compound matters further, Sutherland was removed at half-time with a knee injury.
The ream of changes did little to enliven a match that was low on quality and short on goalmouth action. Indeed, in the first 30 minutes there were actually more substitutions than shots on goal, with an effort from Raith captain Jason Thomson that fizzed high over the bar the game’s only attempt. Cowdenbeath did nudge in front five minutes later – Sutherland’s participation might have been fleeting but he did assist Kudus Oyenuga’s goal, who swept the ball beyond David McGurn in an excellent fashion.
Sutherland might have made an impact but the same cannot be said of Ian Campbell. His continued presence in the first team is the source of consternation amongst the Cowdenbeath support and the player looks ill at ease in the Championship. Campbell was a curious summer signing – he had spent five unremarkable years at Forfar Athletic (where he was managed by his father, Dick) and his level of performance appears to have been copied and pasted onto his displays for Cowdenbeath. He was poor on Saturday and the only positive aspect of his appearance on Saturday was that it got him out of the house for a few hours.
While Cowden’s substitutions made them weaker, Raith’s one change was key to their victory. Christian Nadé was introduced at the expense of Martin Scott ten minutes after the interval and his presence unsettled the Blue Brazil’s backline. Until that point, Scott and Calum Elliot had failed to combine effectively and neither player was able to hold onto the ball and bring others into play. Nadé helped forced Cowden into dropping deeper as the match wore on and their defenders struggled to match his physicality. The forward was not involved in Kevin Moon’s equaliser but he netted the winner, muscling into the six-yard box to turn in Elliot’s cross after Barrie McKay’s fine work.
Raith ended a run of six games without a win, but it was a sore defeat for Cowdenbeath – on the balance of play, they were probably entitled to a point. With a tricky-looking fixture list between now and Christmas, taking something from the weekend’s match against Livingston looks vital if they are to stay close to the teams around them. SM
3) Jim Jefferies is under scrutiny once again
The last time Dunfermline Athletic took on Stenhousemuir, it was a predictably one-sided encounter. The Pars thrashed their opponents and the 2-0 score-line flattered the Warriors; so impoverished was their attack, they didn’t even record a single shot on target. On Saturday, the teams met again but the outcome was entirely unexpected: Stenhousemuir prevailed 1-0 courtesy of Kris Faulds’s fine strike and ended their miserable recent record against Dunfermline. Jim Jefferies’ side are still within touching distance of the summit of League 1 but his position is coming under increasing scrutiny.
Last season, Dunfermline sat in second place with 25 points from their first 13 matches; this time around, they’re four points and two league places worse off. They’ve recorded just two points from their last four matches, and the standard of play has been dour, unimaginative and lacking in penetration. This was certainly the case at Ochilview. Dunfermline saw a lot of possession in the opening exchanges and certainly zipped around the park at a brisk tempo, but they seemed to be doing everything with the ball while simultaneously doing nothing – they moved it around in front of the Stenhousemuir defence without ever looking to open them up or get in behind. Ross Forbes was particularly guilty of this, indulgently shifting it here and there with little purpose. Forbes is certainly a pretty ball player but he’s never likely to dominate matches.
It was Stenhousemuir, who were structured and disciplined throughout, who had the better of the chances in the first half and hit the woodwork twice (three times, if Michael Moffat’s botched clearance that spun onto the crossbar counts). After a wonderful passage of play, Kris Faulds sent a spinning backheel against the bar and Colin McMenamin clipped the outside of the post from an acute angle after latching onto Gary Oliver’s through ball. The tactic of contain and counter worked well and Dunfermline’s passive midfield was unable to stifle their raids forward.
The second half continued in the same manner as the first. Goalkeeper Greg Fleming was called upon to make an outstanding double save from Josh Falkingham and Forbes but beyond that, the Pars knocked the ball around with little intent. On 71 minutes, Oliver cut into the penalty area and squared for Faulds to crash the ball home form 12 yards to open the scoring. Jefferies response to this was to encourage his players to begin shelling the ball into the Stenhousemuir penalty area at any opportunity, even sending Gregor Buchanan up front for the final five minutes, but the tactic was unsuccessful.
Michael Moffat should have equalised in injury time, however. The ball was worked out to the right and Andy Stirling tossed in a cross towards the back post. The ball arced over Fleming and right onto the head of Moffat, four yards out with a vacant goal to aim at – but instead of nodding it home, he contrived to flick it wide. It was an inexplicable miss (and the worst this author has seen since Arbroath’s Jon Voight missed an open goal in a 0-0 draw with the Warriors on 11 March 2006). Moffat is a player badly lacking in confidence and is doing things he would not have done with Ayr United last season. He isn’t on fire; he isn’t even lukewarm. He’s a bucket of tepid water.
It’s difficult to tell whether or not Stenhousemuir have turned that metaphorical corner – the 4-0 win at Stirling Albion was supposed to herald an upturn in fortunes but it was followed by three consecutive defeats, each one more dismal than the last. Scott Booth’s side are maddeningly inconsistent, veering wildly from fantastic to farcical , but if they are able to carry the same level of performance into coming weeks then they stand a decent chance of moving away from the bottom of the table. They have an unenviable series of forthcoming fixtures, however, starting with a trip to league leaders Greenock Morton.
“We will have to change it, give somebody else a chance and see if they can take the chances that are coming along our way,” said Jefferies after the match. “I was fair to the players, I said to them that you cannot keep playing well, working hard and not winning games. Somebody else is going to be saying ‘when are we going to get our chance?’ That will be next week.”
Dunfermline invite Stirling Albion to East End Park on Saturday and the division’s bottom side present the ideal opportunity for the manager to make the necessary alterations to ensure victory. Anything else and even his most ardent supporters will lose their patience. A defeat to Stenhousemuir is one thing, but failing to beat Stirling at home is something else entirely. CGT
4) Mark Roberts is on the brink
It was a defiant Mark Roberts who faced the media in the aftermath of Ayr United’s defeat to Peterhead on Saturday. “If the fans don’t like me then tough, I’ve got enough pals,” he said. “The Board are behind us, the players and the management team are together and you want the fans to all pull in the same direction. Once we get [our] better players back I’m sure we’ll climb up the table, no problem.” Unfortunately for Roberts, Ayr supporters – turning up to Somerset Park in ever decreasing numbers – appear united in wanting him sacked.
The reason for the fans’ ire is obvious: five consecutive league defeats at home; six losses in their last seven league games; just two wins from 13 matches in all competitions; and all within the context of an unconvincing two seasons in charge. Ayr might have ended August at the top of League 1 but their progress has halted spectacularly and the clock must surely be ticking on Roberts’s tenure. The 0-4 Scottish Cup replay defeat at Alloa Athletic last Tuesday night was played out with an air of inevitability and, following three goals in nine first-half minutes, vociferous vocal dissent from the travelling faithful.
Of course, there are extenuating circumstances. Roberts was dealt a blow in the aftermath of the Alloa game with the news that Nicky Devlin is facing an extended period on the sidelines. As a result Ayr lined up against Peterhead missing their entire first choice back four while several others are played through the pain barrier, including skipper Scott McLaughlin who filled in again at centre-back alongside trialist Kevin Rutkiewitz.
It took just eight minutes for the Blue Toon to breach United’s makeshift defence. Described as a “ludicrous” goal by Roberts, Rory McAllister was able to get in behind, skip by Rutkiewitz and then send a shot goalwards that ‘keeper David Hutton fumbled over the line; it was entirely apposite for Ayr’s current predicament.
In contrast to a muted first half, the second period was a wonderfully open affair. Roberts sent on Craig Beattie to partner Ryan Donnelly in attack and the big striker took just five minutes to sweep home the equaliser. In response, Jim McInally went with three forwards in an attempt to take advantage of United’s shaky defence and ultimately it worked. Goals from the penalty spot were exchanged within the space of three minutes – Rory McAllister benefited from on-loan full-back Dale Keenan’s rash challenge on Jamie Stevenson, and then Scott McLaughlin grabbed a second equaliser on the day after Graeme Smith felled Ryan Donnelly – before McAllister completed his hat-trick, neatly rounding Hutton after outpacing Rutkiewitz.
The home side had chances to level the game in the final ten minutes. Brian Gilmour saw a weak left-foot volley saved by Smith and a Beattie centre failed to find a taker as it bobbled along the goal line. A point might have been a fair result for a much improved performance – but would have changed the convictions of few.
Attentions now turn to United Chairman Lachlan Cameron. Of the targets set out by Cameron at the start of the season, one ultimatum in particular stood out: “Relegation or a sustained period in the wrong half of the table would result in termination”. The Honest Men started the day six points off the top but ended it six points from the bottom in seventh. Six days (United dropped into the “wrong half” of the table on Tuesday night, when Brechin beat Stirling Albion) doesn’t constitute a “sustained period” but California-based Cameron will be obliged to address the crisis soon. AG
5) Elgin City are atrocious
With East Stirlingshire recording a fine win at the hands of Clyde at the weekend, Elgin City’s seventh league loss in 12 games leaves them firmly rooted to the bottom of the League 2 table. Following the 1-4 home loss to Queen’s Park, City are three points behind their rivals now and with fixtures against East Fife, Arbroath and Albion Rovers to soon follow, they might be there for a while yet.
It is remarkable to find how far they have fallen. The last time this writer saw them for 90 minutes was in the 1-0 victory over the Bully Wee at the end of August, but they haven’t won in the league since – their only win at all since then was a Scottish Cup second round replay at Forres Mechanics. Against Clyde, they looked a reasonably well-balanced side with a mixture of attributes and a wealth of experience that gave the impression they’d be comfortable in mid-table at the very least this season. On this particular showing, and from just about every other match since, that early promise seems a long time ago already.
Which is strange, because at the weekend the only changes from the last league win in the first XI were in defence – Marvin Andrews, Graeme Beveridge and Gordon Finlayson were left on the bench against the Spiders. Andrews perhaps wasn’t missed as much as he might have been – young Matthew Cooper and Jamie Duff did reasonably enough over the course of the 90 minutes at centre-back, but for allowing Shaun Rooney to tower a header from a corner kick to make the score 0-2. Elgin looked weak in the full-back areas, however, and although Beveridge might prefer to play as a marauding central midfielder, his effort and energy could be better used at right-back rather than being an unused substitute.
It’s not that Barry Wilson can say he doesn’t have a settled side. Nine players have played in ten of the 12 matches in the league and can claim to be regular starters, with Archie MacPhee having played eight times. It’s just that the team as a whole is terrible at the moment and is much less than the sum of its parts. The self-perpetuating, confidence-sapping errors in defence are a big part of the problem, but against Queen’s Park it was the performance of the midfield that had the biggest say on the outcome of the match.
On paper, MacPhee and Mark Nicolson seem a fine pairing, with good awareness and technique to keep possession ticking over. But neither commanded the ball from the defence or looked forward enough when they had it to impose themselves on the game. The lack of positivity from the centre of midfield left the defence to pump long balls towards the wide players and Craig Gunn, who barely got a sniff of the ball all afternoon and scored with one of the few scrappy half-chances that fell his way. The midfield looked rigid in a 4-4-1-1 set-up that might not immediately have looked too different to the Spiders’ 4-2-3-1, but the away side’s combination play was much more fluid. More often than not, MacPhee and Nicolson were left to protect the space around Shaun Fraser, leaving Darren Miller and (to a lesser extent) Patrick Slattery plenty time to recycle possession.
By the time that Wilson addressed the problem, Elgin were 0-3 down at the break. His change to a 4-2-3-1, switching Brian Cameron and Shane Sutherland around so the latter was on the wing, seemed to make an immediate impact. Elgin pulled a goal back within moments of the restart and suddenly the home side were on top of territory and possession of the ball. They also had two efforts cleared off the goal line and looked a much better team than in the first half after the re-calibration.
MacPhee had the encouragement to play in the opposition half with Cameron and it pegged Queen’s Park back, although the leaders were clearly content to try to soak up pressure, with Gus MacPherson preaching discipline in keeping shape to his two holding midfielders over keeping possession and risking being pulled apart after attacks. Indeed, it was Elgin who were picked apart again after what was their most composed spell of possession – a misplaced pass toward the halfway line was intercepted and diverted to Fraser, who played an intricate through ball for John Carter to poke beyond the onrushing Michael Fraser.
Elgin’s brief midfield dominance fell away again once Queen’s Park restored the three-goal lead. With QP’s goalkeeper William Muir happy to play sweeper-keeper to stop Gunn getting on to any desperate balls behind the defence, the away side just slowed the game down as much as they could; it wasn’t too difficult against a team badly lacking in confidence.
As the mist descended to add a different texture to the late autumn colours, it was easy to remember that Borough Briggs is one of the more romantically old-fashioned and pleasurable grounds to watch football from in the lower leagues. It would be a shame to miss that if Elgin were relegated, but there’s every chance that could happen at the moment. JAM