1) Hamilton Academical have luck – and the omens – on their side
If the weekend’s match between Cowdenbeath and Hamilton Academical was an examination of the latter’s squad depth, then at around 3:50pm on Saturday afternoon they appeared to be flunking the test. The Accies went into the interval fortunate to be only two goals down after strikes from Nathaniel Wedderburn and Lewis Milne, and, with Dundee leading at Falkirk, it looked as though their lead at the top of the table would be cut to the merest of slivers. By 5pm, however, not only had they overturned the deficit to win 4-2, they had increased their advantage at the top of the Championship to six points, thanks to Luke Leahy’s late equaliser at Dens Park.
With Marc Antoine-Curier absent through a facial injury and top scorer James Keatings, John Routledge and player-manager Alex Neil missing out with various ailments, Hamilton’s trip to Central Park was never likely to be straightforward. Nonetheless, few could have been anticipating a first half in which Cowden would score twice. It was the Accies’ poorest 45 minutes of the season, with the makeshift front pairing of Jon McShane and Eamonn Brophy particularly struggling.
Their resurgence was as fortunate as it was astonishing. Jesus Garcia Tena, introduced on 65 minutes after Martin Canning’s injury, scored with his first touch of the ball, with his 45-yard wind-assisted lob catching out goalkeeper Thomas Flynn. Five minutes later his side were ahead. Darian McKinnon equalised, before right-back Ziggy Gordon scored with an excellent effort. Anthony Andreu completed a remarkable comeback in stoppage time.
An inspirational team talk, an increased work rate, the strong wind – they all probably played their part in Hamilton’s revival. The Accies were also facing off against a team who have become experts in capitulation. Colin Cameron’s side have squandered 11 points from winning positions throughout the campaign. Last year, they ceded 26 points in the same manner and unless the manager can stiffen their resolve, they are likely to equal that total this term.
Of course, beating Cowdenbeath is one thing but next week, Hamilton welcome Dundee to New Douglas Park. The six point cushion they enjoy over John Brown’s side came in part because of the outlandish weather at Central Park. It’s worth noting that last season, Partick Thistle’s title victory came after their match against Cowden – a match in which they looked likely to lose after trailing 1-2 – was abandoned because of fog. Alex Neil will be hoping this is some kind of omen as his side, without their first choice strike force, look to go nine points clear at the summit of the table. SM
2) Dundee have met their match in Falkirk
Although Dundee remain unbeaten at Dens Park this season, John Brown’s team can possibly be thankful for earning a point against Falkirk in a disappointing performance. In another match where the quality of play was at least partly affected by strong winds, the Bairns attempted to take the game to their hosts and deserved a point on the balance of probability.
The two teams were easily comparable inasmuch as they set up in similar 4-4-2 formations, but one team was more successful than the other in playing through their midfield and involving their strikers. Mark Millar was the prominent midfielder on the pitch for the first hour of the match as he drove his side forward, while Philip Roberts’s running inside both flanks dragged Dundee’s defence around. Millar’s final ball was quite wasteful at times, but his experience and decision making will be an asset to Gary Holt.
Gavin Rae looked a poor imitation of his former self among Falkirk’s midfield. Rae had Jim McAllister as his more attack-minded central midfield partner but neither were able to particularly impose themselves on the match. Whereas Rae’s drafting into the team inspired Dundee’s mid-season title charge in October 2011 and his later departure to Aberdeen was sorely missed from the dynamic of Barry Smith’s middle quintet, his advancing years have caught up on him. No longer mobile enough to make the surprise bursts into the final third, Rae’s responsibility to protect the back-line does not suit him. Stephen O’Donnell’s return from long-term injury has seen him recently appear on the substitute’s bench, but his start and possible displacing of Rae cannot come soon enough for the side’s medium term prospects.
Nicky Riley was Dundee’s best out-ball and he provided Stephen Kingsley with the left-back’s biggest test of the season. It was perplexing to see Riley moved into a free role behind Peter MacDonald later in the match, as Brown attempted to further solidify his midfield by stationing substitute Kevin McBride on the right flank. Removing a forward for a midfielder is not always a problem when defending a lead against a team, who over the course of the match had the better of the balance of play, but it was the reconfiguration of the midfield that caused the problem.
It is uncertain as to whether or not Brown expects Riley to reincarnate on the pitch to become Brian Laudrup in the trequartista position, but all it proceeded to do was free Kingsley to combine with Jay Fulton on Falkirk’s left side ten yards further up the pitch, which was an important effect to Falkirk’s cause in the last 20 minutes.
Indeed, Holt shuffled his midfield better than Brown in the second half. With Craig Sibbald departing, substitute Blair Alston eventually shifted to the right and facilitated Fulton’s switch to the left. Until then, Fulton was flirting with the periphery of the game, but on the left showed exquisite touches to put Roberts behind Dundee’s defence. Fulton competed against Gary Irvine, who once seemed an accomplished right-back at Championship level, but whose confidence and maybe even some other attributes have deteriorated to the extent that he is losing out in duels more often than not. As it happened, Fulton’s tidy play on the left brought Rory Loy into contention deep into injury time and the forward was fortunate to see his shot smash off the face of Luke Leahy and beyond the otherwise impervious Kyle Letheren, to cancel Ryan Conroy’s first-half penalty.
This leaves Dundee six points behind Hamilton Academical with a trip to New Douglas Park to follow this week. Brown ought to be looking for at least four points from these fixtures if Dundee are to stay keep pressure on at the top of the league, which in turn means that they could do with winning on Saturday. A nine point deficit at this juncture would be unfortunate, although not impossible to overcome.
There were doubts about Brown’s ability to manage a successful return to the Premiership at the first time of asking and it is worth raising that question again. The advent of the play-offs would still give the former Clyde manager a chance at redemption, but second place will not be good enough with the resources available relative to the rest of the division. With an abundance of attacking midfielders and forwards at the club, Brown has a top-heavy squad with little cover for defence. Iain Davidson continues at centre-back, showing an ability to sweep up after others (he cleared the ball from the line superbly after a mix-up between Irvine and Letheren) but he also showed that he can be lured from his position, which Roberts attempted to do frequently. An unbalanced squad does Brown no favours at this stage, but a win at Hamilton could quickly change the perspective. JAM
3) Stenhousemuir’s fringe players are making their point
Stenhousemuir’s 3-2 victory over Arbroath was noticeable for a number of things: it was their first win in four matches; it continued their curious pattern of league victories won by single-goal margins; it elevated them into third place; and each of their three goals was scored by a summer recruit. Sean Lynch opened the scoring with a hooked effort; Eddie Malone added a second directly from a corner; and substitute Errol Douglas rounded the goalkeeper before slotting the ball into an empty net. The three players have, for a number of reasons, found themselves on the periphery of the Warriors’ starting XI at times but through differing circumstance are now back in the side.
Malone, recruited from Raith Rovers, was brought to the club as the team’s de facto left-back and after a brief spell on the bench, has played in every position across the defence. With manager Martyn Corrigan losing faith in Ross Smith, he has recently been operating in central defence. His current role is born out of necessity and he is likely to be redeployed once again when the club bring in cover in January, but for the moment at least he is one of the side’s most underrated performers.
Douglas, meanwhile, has shown in flashes the ability that prompted Corrigan to pay a small fee to Craigroyston for his procurement. Powerful, athletic and a fine finisher, the striker has the natural attributes to succeed at this level but is sometimes let down by a lack of awareness, positioning, and a poor first touch. Perhaps he is not being used correctly: with a big lad up top, there can be a tendency aim long balls in his general direction, but despite his athleticism, Douglas appears to be more comfortable hanging on the shoulder of the last defender and running onto threaded passes (as can be seen in the contrasting performances between the Arbroath game and his lamentable showing in the Scottish Cup replay against Annan Athletic). Already a popular figure amongst the Warriors support, if Douglas is able to hone his natural talent into something more tangible, he could become a tremendous prospect.
It is the incremental improvements in Sean Lynch, however, which have been most pleasing. The former Airdrie United midfielder was signed in the summer as a direct replacement for the long-serving Iain Thomson but has cut a maligned figure. Lynch has looked unfit and has struggled to impose himself, with games often passing him by, and he found himself in and out of the starting XI. Yet after completing his first 90 minutes of the season in the 3-2 win over Brechin City on 12 October, he has quietly developed into a sound performer with an impressive knack for scoring important goals.
When Stenhousemuir have their full complement of players available, Malone, Douglas and Lynch are more likely to be on the bench than on the pitch, but Corrigan must be reassured about the quality in reserve. Stenhousemuir’s forthcoming match against Ayr United is shaping up to be an important game for both sides and the manager will be hoping his fringe players can impress once again. CGT
4) Airdrieonians are facing another winter of discontent
Three games and three defeats into Gary Bollan’s tenure as Airdrieonians manager and the side still remain at the foot of League 1. With two of the fixtures having come against Rangers at Ibrox (one in the league, the other in the Scottish Cup) and the third at home to Dunfermline Athletic, it is perhaps little surprise they sit in tenth. In recent weeks, their shortcomings have become even clearer and the magnitude of Bollan’s task even greater, and the 0-3 surrender to the Pars extended a slew of miserable statistics: it was Airdrie’s fifth consecutive loss in the league; the fourth league game in a row in which they failed to score (the Diamonds have drawn a blank in over half their league matches this term); and Shaun Byrne’s 17th minute opener ensured they have gone a full calendar year without keeping a clean sheet.
Bollan might have struggled to know just where to start. He has inherited a goalkeeping crisis; a callow and toiling defence; a midfield that neither creates enough with the ball nor works hard enough without it; and forwards who appear to have forgotten the way to goal. It is now indubitable that this Airdrie team requires major surgery – any notions that Jimmy Boyle assembled a capable squad over the summer have been sound dispelled; Bollan must strengthen in every area.
The manager’s first movements in reshaping his squad came against Dunfermline, David Sinclair was dropped for Jamie Pollock, a former Motherwell and Scotland youth player. Pollock scored the SFL Goal of the Month in September 2012 for East Fife against Ayr United, but largely failed to impress and departed for Kirkintilloch Rob Roy in March before pitching up at Airdrie. Nathan Blockley also made way for Nicky Cadden, a player promoted from the club’s U-19s; he would become the 28th player to be used by the Diamonds this season.
After an hour, they forced into using their 29th. Goalkeeper Andrew Duncan – who had excelled against Rangers in their 0-2 defeat last weekend – was dismissed, and 18-year-old Johnny Grier introduced. Despite saving Jordan Moore’s penalty, his first touch in professional football, it did little to galvanise a side who were poor throughout. Eight minutes later, Callum Morris lifted a fine ball over a static Airdrie backline for Allan Smith to finish, and the defender assisted again for his side’s third, his pass setting up Craig Dargo in stoppage time.
Airdrie were probably not expected to take anything from their past three matches, but now Bollan can focus on moving his side away from the bottom of the division. They face a difficult task against an in-form Stranraer, before taking on Brechin City and East Fife in two crucial ties at the bottom of League 1. Notwithstanding the persistent defensive frailties, Bollan must quickly find an approach – and the personnel – that will improve his team’s goal-scoring potency. A failure to do so and the Diamonds will be facing an unthinkable second consecutive relegation. AG
5) The Maverick is back!
Mothers, lock up your daughters: the Maverick is back! Yes, Andy Rodgers is back in town. The 30-year-old striker was up to his old tricks again at the weekend, lighting up a dour match with another moment of florid splendour. Against East Stirlingshire on Saturday, he scored an audacious overhead kick, latching onto Graham Sharp’s wayward cross in a graceful, deft movement to hook the ball into the net. It was an utterly glorious goal.
For any other player, such a strike would likely be a career highlight; not Rodgers. A player who lives by the motto “just try hings”, he has the habit of making the spectacular look routine. Saturday’s goal is just something else to add to the showreel. What about his strike against Sunnybank for Ayr United, or his 88th minute winner against East Fife whilst at Stenhousemuir? Just another day at the office for Andy. In the muck and the mire of lower league Scottish football, he can be the diamond in the rough.
However, Rodgers is always likely to be a scorer of great goals rather than a great goal-scorer and until recently, his career seemed to have stalled. Twelve months ago, the player had fallen out of favour at Martyn Corrigan’s Stenhousemuir and was often shunted into an unfamiliar advanced midfield role (or dropped altogether) to accommodate new striker John Gemmell as the team’s focal point. The second half of 2012-13 saw Rodgers move on loan to Peterhead and despite a brief flurry of goals towards the tail end of the season, he was unable to help his side win promotion and they crumbled in the play-off final to East Fife.
Rodgers joined the Blue Toon on a permanent basis in the summer, but a pelvic injury and suspension had so far curtailed his participation. Before last weekend’s game against Elgin City, he had even picked up more red cards than goals (his dismissal against Clyde was the nadir). However, since opening the scoring against City and combining with Rory McAllister for the big striker’s second goal in a 4-2 victory, Rodgers appears to have rediscovered his spark.
Peterhead should have collected three points but Jordan McKechnie’s 95th minute equaliser, scrambled home after a melee, denied them the victory. It was the second time this season they’ve contrived to turn three points into one in the final minute (against Clyde, they succumbed to a late Kieran MacDonald penalty), but with 17 for the season so far, they should be reasonably content. With Rodgers and McAllister beginning to rise to prominence once again, Peterhead must now focus on putting together a consistent series of results and mounting a sustained bid for the championship.
As for East Stirlingshire, the club appear to be in something of a slump after winning just one of the last five matches. Granted, the team have actually drawn three and lost only one in the same period, but their position at the summit of the table is now under threat. With Annan Athletic, Stirling Albion and Clyde all winning, the Shire now lead the division by a single point after setting the bar so remarkably high at the beginning of the campaign. On Saturday, they host Clyde at Ochilview and John Coughlin must do his best to reinvigorate his side and maintain their otherwise excellent start to the season. CGT