Five Things We Learned, 18 August 2014

1) Queen of the South can finish the season as the best of the rest

There may have been some concerns amongst the Queen of the South support about how their lengthy injury list might impact upon the opening weeks of their Championship campaign but, remarkably, it’s been pretty straightforward so far. Two games, two victories, two clean sheets and six goals – if the Doonhamers are understrength just now, one can only imagine how impressive they could be with a full squad of players to choose from.

Against Dumbarton, Jim McIntyre began the match with the same starting XI that defeated Alloa Athletic the previous weekend. Persisting with a winning side might have been obvious but there were no real alternatives. The absence of Chris Mitchell, Mark Kerr, Paul Burns, Stephen McKenna and Michael Paton might have restricted their options in reserve, but there was plenty of experience on the pitch.

New player-coach James Fowler might have been afforded more game time than he expected since joining from Kilmarnock in the summer but through necessity or design, his midfield partnership with Ian McShane has looked very solid. Equally as impressive is the pairing of Derek Lyle and Gavin Reilly in attack and such is their prowess that new signing John Baird has been limited to just substitute appearances since returning from injury.

With a gale bellowing around the Rock and whipping the River Leven into a froth, Dumbarton – playing with the wind behind them – failed to take advantage of its benefits and did not vex Zander Clark in the Queens goal. Instead, the game ebbed in the opposite direction and the paucity of the Sons’ performance should have seen it over and done with before half-time. Their preponderance for a narrow midfield system had been touched on last week, but it must be noted again how inferior it looks compared to last season’s version. The quick back-to-front style has made way for a ponderous, possession-based approach and it doesn’t appear to suit anyone, least of all Scott Linton whose dreadful back-pass after 20 minutes allowed Reilly to square for Lyle to open the scoring.

Both teams lined up in an orthodox 4-4-2 formation but Queens dominated in almost every area of the park. Fowler and McShane got the better of Scott Agnew and Chris Turner while full-backs Linton and David van Zanten struggled to contain Iain Russell and Danny Carmichael. It was little surprise when Reilly added a second five minutes after the restart, heading Lyle’s cross beyond Danny Rogers.

If Dumbarton did not benefit from the wind in the first half, then Queens certainly did in the second. In one superb movement, Fowler controlled one of Rogers’s clearances and thumped a shot from 30 yards that clattered off the underside of the crossbar and into the net. Russell went on to complete the rout with his side’s fourth of the afternoon (and his fifth of the season). It was a thoroughly convincing win and won that could have ended with a greater deficit.

Queen of the South sit atop the Championship on goal difference, but their position comes with a caveat. Their opening two fixtures have come against two unfashionable part-time sides in a state of flux, and they were perhaps expected to triumph in both fixtures. It’s too early to be definitive about anything in the division just yet but their form against the league’s weaker teams suggests they could finish in the play-off places this season. Queens round off August with games against Livingston and Rangers and their credentials will come under far greater scrutiny then. SM


2) New division, same old Edinburgh derby…

Here is a confession: this writer in recent years has avoided the Edinburgh derby like the suviving citizens of the plague in 1645. Regardless of the circumstances, the playing staff or the managers involved, the fixture is invariably played out as a dull, overcrowded battle that Heart of Midlothian inevitably win.

The weekend past saw the first ever lower league tie between Hearts and their local rivals Hibernian, but the change in environment for both clubs didn’t induce anything different to the match. Hearts ultimately won 2-1 at Tynecastle with a thrilling final 20 minutes almost making up for an attritional first 70. In the end, the game contained all the requisite flashpoints to be considered a classic contest, but it didn’t make what came before any more easy to endure.

The two sides were set up in similar fashion, which didn’t help matters much. Both teams had big, physical strikers – Hearts with Osman Sow and Hibs with Farid El Alagui – supported to varying success by three attacking midfielders. Hibs had Danny Handling in an assisting role, while his equivalent in the Hearts side was Jason Holt. It was the latter who had the better match, combining very effectively with Billy King and particularly Sam Nicholson in the pockets of free space around the perimeter of the Hibees’ penalty area.

It took a lot of difficult work for Holt and Nicholson to get there. The match was bookended by goals of outrageous quality and a couple of sendings off, but it was better defined by the scrappy play from both teams for the most part. Despite Hibernian manager Alan Stubbs previously attempting to instill a slow build-up and short passsing approach from defence, Hibs found the centre of midfield too packed for Liam Craig to dictate things and their goalkeeper Mark Oxley repeatedly went long with his kickouts toward El Alagui, with Handling and Sam Stanton rarely in involved in atttacking moves.

The Morrocan striker took time to successfuly challenge the centre-backs, but his headed flick-on for Handling enticed Hearts’ teenage goalkeeper Jack Hamilton into committing a foul in the eyes of referee Willie Collum. Hamilton was recently recalled from a loan spell at Stenhousemuir due to injuries to senior colleagues and he was faced down by Craig, only for the Hibs captain to steer his penalty kick wide of the post.

That was on the half hour mark and the visitors did very little beforehand to suggest they looked like scoring. Their only fleeting glimpses of quality in the middle third came from right winger Alex Harris when he came infield to dictate play. Harris did an excellent job of opening up the space on the pitch ahead of him, inviting left-back Lewis Stevenson to overlap, but on the whole the central midfielders didn’t do enough to bring Harris and Stanton into play. Handling, meanwhile, was mostly anonymous and rarely played a pass into space in the way that a player with his creative responsibility should.

Hibs went into the interval with no shots on target – even after the penalty – and it was Hearts who made better use of the territorial warfare in the centre. Holt and Nicholson at times combined superbly on the left flank and even right-winger King ventured over to the left to overwork David Gray in Hibernian’s right-back area. Nicholson was often double-marked, so when Holt and King arrived in tandem Hearts could play intricate football leading up to the penalty area. The biggest fault from the home side’s perspective was that Sow didn’t get involved in the game enough in the first half.

The striker did more in the opening phases on the second half than he did in most of the first period, collecting a long diagonal ball and bursting beyond Gray on the outside-left to get to the byline. If it hadn’t been for Michael Nelson – who, compared to last season’s efforts, delivered an uncharacteristcally assured performance – then the striker’s cut-back would have found someone. The majority of Hearts’ play was in front of their rivals’ defence and perhaps more could have been made of Sow’s pace over 15 yards.

Nonetheless, for the most part the match was exceedingly dour. It took a moment of inspiration from Nicholson with roughly 15 minutes to go for the game to burst into colour. Nicholson had not long been moved to the right flank to accommodate Jason Walker’s introduction and he was slightly infield as a pass was played into him. The winger took the ball side-on and his nutmeg on Scott Robertson was almost as glorious as his left-footed strike off the inside of the post to put Hearts ahead. Robertson had a disastrous few minutes as he brought down Prince Buaben in the penalty area to collect his second yellow card shortly after; Buaben didn’t make Craig’s mistake from the first half.

It looked like Hearts were comfortable to see out the remaining portion of the match, but El Alagui made a fool of Danny Wilson’s poor headed clearance, that bounced up for the forward to flick over his marker’s head and volley past Hamilton. Moments before, Sow had seen red for planting an elbow on Nelson’s face – not for the first time in the match – but the Jambos were not troubled again before full-time.

Hearts looked like the superior side over the course of the game, which is understandable given the advanced preparations for the season compared to their rivals. With an abundance of attacking options in the final third to cover injuries and suspensions – even if Sow’s sheer size and pace is peerless – there is a strong argument for believing that they will finish ahead of Rangers in the league. Hibs must have more modest ambitions but are likely to have a stronger finish to the campaign than at the start, with the amount of change needed at the club. This Championship season is already compelling just two matches in. JAM


3) Substitutions make the difference in Rangers’ win at Falkirk

Rangers collected their first three points of the season following a 2-0 victory over Falkirk on Friday night. As has come to be expected from Ally McCoist’s side in recent months, it was a nervous, unrefined performance that lacked quality – for long spells, particularly in the second half, they were bettered by the energy and tenacity of their opponents and, had it not been for the brilliance of goalkeeper Cammy Bell, could have found themselves down and out in Westfield long before Lewis Macleod’s fortuitous 78th minute strike. Instead, it was a misfiring tactical manoeuver from Bairns manager Peter Houston which turned the match in the visitors’ favour.

For all their supposed ability in the middle of the park, it is an area of the pitch where Rangers have struggled badly in recent weeks. Against Hibernian and Heart of Midlothian, they were overrun at times and Nicky Law and Ian Black were unable to stanch the forward movement of their opponents – the pair looked bereft of confidence and, compared to 12 months ago, hopelessly out-thought. McCoist must have realised this and began the match against Falkirk by configuring his side into a 4-1-3-2 formation, moving Lee McCulloch into midfield behind Macleod, Law and David Templeton. The move served a dual purpose: to offer greater numbers in central positions and, perhaps more importantly, shut down Falkirk’s more expressive players. After the loss to Hearts, two defeats in a row would have been unthinkable and brought the groundswell of negative feeling towards McCoist to a head.

Houston would have recognised his counterpart’s anxiety and more or less matched Rangers with their own 4-2-3-1 system. Tom Taiwo and Ollie Durojaye – reprising the role he played with little success last week – operated as the screens in front of the defence while Conor McGrandles, Blair Alston and Alex Cooper offered support to Rory Loy in attack. The five midfielders were industrious, assertive and pressed and harried their opponents whenever they were on the ball (although their best chance of the match came after the returning Bilel Mohsni, under no pressure, sent a tame header back towards Bell which Cooper chased onto. Mohsni did well to recover the situation but surely, when his full compliment of players is available, McCoist can no longer persist with such recklessness). McGrandles and Alston – the game’s best two players – worked hard further forward while Taiwo and Durojaye (who had grown into the game after a difficult opening spell) recycled possession well, and acted as two unfussy cogs in an effective machine.

Rangers had little answer to their athleticism and McCulloch in particular looked increasingly hopeless. As the match wore on, the better Falkirk became. Alex Cooper’s freekick was slapped over the crossbar by Bell, and then the goalkeeper acrobatically beat away David McCracken’s header from the resultant corner. Rangers could barely work the ball into enemy territories and Kris Boyd and Nicky Clark (who had replaced the injured Kenny Miller) looked more and more peripheral.

With 20 minutes remaining and the game edging ever closer to a home victory, Houston swapped Durojaye for striker Botti Bia Bi and shifted his team into a 4-4-2 with the aim of adding a greater attacking threat to his side. And just like that, Falkirk’s advantage dissipated. Where they had constricted the available space, large swathes of the pitch opened up and Rangers had more room in which to shift the ball into. Removing Durojaye was was the equivalent of pulling the plug from a bath.

Fraser Aird had come off for Templeton ten minutes earlier and sauntered down the right flank before cutting infield into vacant space. He had time to compose himself and tee up Macleod, whose daisycutter clipped the heels of Will Vaulks and trundled neatly beyond Jamie MacDonald, nestling in the corner of the net. The goal was a powerful punch to the stomach and Falkirk immediately folded. Clark’s goal, five minutes later, came after a shabbily defended corner kick where Craig Sibbald didn’t even bother to match Law’s sharp run. Would the Bairns have lacked concentration in the same manner if the score was level?

It was the effect of the substitutions that changed the match: Houston’s cost his side the game; McCoist’s made the winning contribution. That said, the home side should be proud of their performance. If Falkirk can show the same levels of determination over the course of the season, they should enjoy a fine year. Conor McGrandles and Blair Alston have continued from where they left off last term and will surely be the next talents from the club’s youth academy to move elsewhere soon enough.

Rangers, meanwhile, will simply be relieved to have emerged from the contest relatively unscathed. “I don’t think we have started the season playing as well as we can,” McCoist told STV after the match. “I couldn’t put my finger on why it is not quite clicking because we have got good players.”

One can only imagine where their problems lie. CGT


4) Ayr United are adjusting to life without Michael Moffat

Early season predictions were not favourable to Ayr United or to manager Mark Roberts. A host of players had departed Somerset Park over the summer, headed by star striker Michael Moffat, and a limited recruitment policy meant that United’s squad looked short in numbers and, crucially, short in goals. But after the opening two rounds of fixtures, the Honest Men top the League 1 table and boast its only 100 per cent record. On Saturday, they breezed past Stirling Albion with an impressive attacking performance.

Roberts adjusted his starting line-up that had overcome ten-man Greenock Morton the previous week to great effect, interchanging Jon-Paul McGovern and Brian Gilmour – McGovern slotted in alongside Scott McLaughlin in the centre of midfield and Gilmour moved forward into the trequartista role behind Ryan Donnelly. Gilmour was the epitome of an Ayr side that assiduously pressed the Binos high up the pitch, winning back possession with regularity and controlling the match. With the ball, United were purposeful and dangerous. Gilmour was at heart of things and the wide men (or, more appropriately, boys – both are yet to reach their 18th birthdays) Peter McGill and Alan Forrest were constant threats. When Ayr’s forwards were unable to fashion a chance at goal and Stirling cleared their lines, the ball was quickly returned to the attacking third through McGovern and McLaughlin.

The intensity with which United started brought about a goal in just the fifth minute. Skipper McLaughlin headed Chris Smith’s clearance back towards the area and Donnelly beat Craig Wedderburn in the air to nod it into the path of Gilmour at the edge of the 18-yard box. Smith might have been able to recover and poke the ball away but only made it as far at Forrest, who slid the ball into the net with his customary composure.

Forrest is set to be United’s – and possibly one of the league’s – star performers this season. Operating from the right wing, the younger brother of Celtic’s James possesses intelligence that belies his age and is revelling in the free role awarded to him by his manager. Playing behind Forrest, full-back Nicky Devlin has provided an attacking threat. The pair linked up to good effect on a number of occasions, not least for United’s second goal ten minutes into the second-half. Forrest played a throw-in back to taker Jon-Paul McGovern, who looped the ball over Darren Smith’s head into the path of Devlin. The full-back arrowed towards the byline before cutting the ball back to Gilmour. He found Forrest, who once again demonstrated his ability arrive in the right place at the right time and finished with a curling left foot shot.

Stirling were given a brief glimmer of hope when Martyn Campbell inexplicably handled in the box for a penalty that Gordon Smith dispatched but just three minutes later, Gilmour’s fine performance was rounded off with a goal. Unnoticed by the Stirling defence, the diminutive midfielder dashed off the far post and, unmarked, steered home a corner knocked down by Kevin McKinlay. In the end, United ran out comfortable winners.

Ayr may have not replaced Michael Moffat, but his departure has brought about a greater diversity to their attack. Previously, United looked to hit Moffat (and Kevin Kyle) as quickly as possible down the middle, but now the side are seeking to hold on to possession, use the flanks and work their way into scoring positions. It is an altogether more pleasing approach in what is a vital season for Roberts.

Forfar Athletic visit Somerset Park at the weekend and will likely pose a stiffer test than Stirling. Maintaining their perfect start to the season will set the Honest Men up nicely for an Ayrshire derby in the League Cup a week tomorrow. After that, predictions for the side’s potential this season may need to be upgraded from mid-table fodder to something a little loftier. AG


5) Elgin City’s experienced players are a mixed bag

The match between East Stirlingshire and Elgin City might have been the least glamorous fixture of the weekend’s card, but both teams played out an entertaining contest at Ochilview. There were a number of interesting aspects to the Shire’s 2-1 victory – their vast improvement on the preceding three matches and their willingness to vary their play were both noteworthy – but this column will instead focus on Elgin’s experienced campaigners and their impact on the game.

Marvin Andrews made his second appearance as a trialist for Barry Wilson’s side and lined up in central defence alongside Matthew Cooper. Andrews had played alongside Wilson at Livingston and Queen of the South and in a recent interview with this site, the manager spoke at length about the Trinidadian’s qualities. “He was just a colossus,” Wilson told John A Maxwell. “Anything in the air he would win and you wanted him on your team rather than the other way around.”

Few could dispute Andrews’s qualities in terms of a pure stopper. At static defending, the 38-year-old must be one of the best centre-backs in the lower divisions. His sheer strength – those big thighs and all that hulking muscle – gives him an enormous advantage over his competitors and he rarely, if ever, loses out in an aerial duel. Given the more primitive nature of the football in League 2, this ability is a valuable asset to his team.

But while Andrews is fine at keeping the ball away from his goal, he never seems quite sure what to with it when he gets it. Although he will win his headers, they’re typically shelled straight back where they came from, while his distribution from feet is equally haphazard and often punted long in hope more than expectation. (That said, one speculative chipped effort in the game against East Fife on the opening day of the season teed up Craig Gunn to score only goal of the game.) It is a pity Sean Crighton has moved on elsewhere, as the pair would probably complement one another.

Andrews’s most important contribution to the match was a 94th minute consolation goal when, operating as an auxiliary striker, he nodded in Danny Moore’s well-placed cross. Is he worth signing on a permanent basis? Perhaps. Wilson would do well to station someone like Mark Nicolson, a tidy ball player, in at the base of midfield and gather the possession from the centre-backs instead of allowing them to boot it towards Shan Sutherland up top. Andrews is perhaps too long in the tooth to change his game – giving him additional support nearby would allow him to concentrate on simple defending.

While Andrews’s performance was an equivocal success, the same cannot be said for goalkeeper Michael Fraser. Fraser’s signing from Ross County in the summer was seen as a major coup for City – of his capture, this site commented that the player “could significantly improve Elgin’s prospects of avoiding finishing towards the bottom of the league”. Fraser might have played soundly throughout the opening exchanges, gathering any loose balls with little fuss and distributing it well, but he was directly responsible for the concession of both goals in an ultimately poor showing.

Nathan Shepherd’s 23rd minute corner looked like a relatively straightforward claim but Fraser boobed, springing from his line and clutched at nothing. The ball flew past him and straight onto the head of the stooping Chris Townsley. If the error for the first goal was poor, Fraser’s second blunder was diabolical. Andrews, under a little pressure from David McKenna, knocked a simple back-pass to the goalkeeper. As the striker closed in on him, Fraser attempted to control the ball, drop his shoulder and skirt past the attacker. But he miscalculated spectacularly and McKenna was able to sweep the ball away from him and then poke it into an empty net. “Fuck off, Mikey! Fuck off!” came a shout from the Elgin bench.

Craig Tully should be delighted with team’s display – it was their first victory under his management – but Wilson will have more to concern himself with. While Fraser’s aberration can be marked down as “one of those days”, the manner of Elgin’s performance and the one-dimensional nature of their play was flat and unimaginative, despite their late rally. The weekend’s meeting with Clyde at Borough Briggs will provide a good chance to put the defeat behind them build on the impressive showing against East Fife. CGT

Tell Him He's Pelé

Tell Him He's Pelé

If Tell Him He's Pelé were a boy band, they would probably be the much-missed One True Voice, both in terms of appearance and musical output.

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