1) Falkirk could improve on seasons previous
After three successive third place finishes in the First Division, early signs suggest that Gary Holt’s Falkirk can aim a little higher and have dreams of promotion.
Their 3-1 win over Greenock Morton at Westfield was a fairly typical performance from the home side: there was an eye-catching ability to take the ball from out of defence; there was an excess of positive energy from midfield; and there was a spectacular finish further forward. What marks this result out over last year’s performances, however, was the balance the team seemed to have covering almost the whole pitch.
Crucial to the equilibrium of the team is the role of Scott Olumide “Ollie” Durojaiye at the very centre of midfield. Tidy yet sensible on the ball, Durojaiye doesn’t look for the defence-splitting the pass from deep that his predecessor Stewart Murdoch had a competency for, but his impermeable defensive play means more for the team. With sound positioning and peerless strength (a fair and successful shoulder barge with the more slight but usually irrepressible Fouad Bachirou was a notable highlight), Durojaiye offers something that Falkirk have missed since Eddie May’s reign at the club.
Durojaiye cannot hold the midfield on his own, of course – he must rely on his three midfield colleagues ahead of him to track their runners as and when the Bairns defend their final third. This was a big concern for Falkirk last season, as midfielders piled forward to support Lyle Taylor, but Holt might have come across an adequate solution. Ironically, it comes with one more forward: with two strikers remaining high up the pitch, there is less need to over-commit the midfield to attacking transitions. Philip Roberts’s best play is still arguably outside the penalty box (after missing chances in duels with goalkeepers in the last couple of matches, his difficult smash into the top corner from 15 yards showed his talent to strike from distance), but Rory Loy appears to be a more natural finisher and they should continue to build on their promising partnership.
Gary Holt could still do with an experienced centre-back to partner Will Vaulks’s prodigious talent, something which would free Stephen Kingsley to reprise his role as one of the best left-backs of the lower leagues. Nevertheless, Falkirk look like they will be a very difficult team to beat at home this season. JAM
2) What has happened to Queen of the South’s defending?
At first glance, Queen of the South have enjoyed a stellar start to the season. The Doonhamers have successfully negotiated their way through the first rounds of the Ramsdens Cup and the League Cup, and are unbeaten in two league matches, scoring 14 goals across the four matches in the process. While these bare facts suggest the bookmakers were correct to decree the side as potential title contenders, not every aspect of their team has adapted well to the rigours of the Championship.
Last year’s Second Division-winning squad were lauded for their scoring process, but their miserly rear guard was equally responsible for their success. The Queens defence conceded just 23 goals over the course of the campaign; this season they have already lost six goals in two games (last term, it wasn’t until November before the same figure was reached). Of course, this can be partly attributed to the step up in quality, but having played admirably against Hibernian, Rangers, Dundee United, Kilmarnock and Partick Thistle in last season’s cup competitions, it appears as though their defensive resolve was lost at some point over the summer.
New manager Jim McIntyre has moved away from last year’s orthodox 4-4-2 system into a more stylish 4-3-3, something which had the potential to leave his side more exposed. Yet five of the six goals conceded have come from set-pieces, something which suggests the backline are lacking in organisation. For instance, during Saturday’s 3-3 draw with Livingston, Paul Burns – one of the team’s shortest players – was left marking the opposition’s greatest aerial threat in Simon Mensing. The basics must improve.
Changes in personnel haven’t helped. Last season’s solidity was built around the excellence of goalkeeper Lee Robinson, who kept 19 clean sheets. The popular Robinson defected to Sweden’s Ostersunds FK in the summer, but has not been adequately replaced – Calum Antell, recruited from Hibernian, has his qualities, but has yet to impose himself, particularly in dealing with cross balls. He disappointed in last week’s victory over Dundee and his lack of confidence appears to have affected those around them. Elsewhere, new signing Andy Dowie has inexplicably replaced last season’s Young Player of the Year Mark Durnan and has yet to develop any kind of rapport with fellow centre-back Chris Higgins.
After beating Dundee, Queen of the South showed they have the offensive arsenal to challenge, but history suggests they will need to tighten significantly in order to offer a realistic contest. Five of the last six First Division winners boasted the league’s meanest defence – one of them, McIntyre’s Dunfermline Athletic of 2010-11, conceded less than a goal a game. The manager must restore this kind of defensive solidity if his Queens side can enjoy an equally successful season. SM
3) Marvin Andrews can cure lesbians – but can he cure Forfar Athletic’s defensive woes?
Forfar Athletic manager Dick Campbell’s priority over the summer was obvious. Despite his side enjoying a relatively successful season by qualifying for the promotion play-offs, the Loons’ campaign was undermined by an inadequate and ill-disciplined defence. To address such shortcomings, Campbell recruited three experienced centre-backs – Marvin Andrews (37), Darren Dods (38) and Stuart Malcolm (33).
Andrews and Malcolm were paired together in the celebrated League Cup victory over Rangers but with the latter succumbing to injury, Dods was drafted in alongside Andrews for their following match, a 3-3 draw with Airdrieonians. Although Campbell was unimpressed by the team’s performance, Andrews and Dods continued in central defence for the weekend’s match with Ayr United, with the manager shuffling his team around elsewhere: Michael Dunlop started at right-back; Neil McCabe moved into midfield; and wingers Omar Kader and Bryan Deasley were relegated to the bench.
While Andrews and Dods boast experience, the pair are badly lacking in mobility. Their partnership might only be temporary until Malcolm regains fitness, but there is little to suggest it will be a fruitful one. Their lack of pace necessitated that the backline sat deep (the speed of Ayr’s Michael Moffat was a constant concern), and with full-backs Dunlop and Mark Baxter reluctant to push forward, it left a mostly inexperienced midfield with the difficult task of protecting the back four, as well as supplementing Chris Templeman and Paul McManus in attack.
Moffat was a menace and took every opportunity to run at Andrews and Dods. On the 75th minute, the tactic paid off. Already winning by a goal to nil, Forfar were forced to push up in search of an equaliser and when Moffat collected the ball inside his own half, he dribbled directly at their defence, bursting beyond two opposition players before going one-on-one with Dods. The striker deftly knocked the ball around the centre-back and continued in on goal. Although Darren Hill did well to force him wide, Moffat’s shot was handled on the line by the backtracking Dods – the defender was dismissed and Moffat neatly slotted home the penalty.
Forfar have collected one point from their two league fixtures, and have conceded five goals. For all the euphoria after beating Rangers, Dick Campbell is still to find a solution for last season’s problems. Iain Campbell and Martyn Fotheringham return from suspension and could face Dundee in tomorrow night’s Ramsdens Cup tie, as well as potentially making up the side that takes on Brechin City on Saturday. Their inclusion, as well as Dods’s suspension, will require further changes.
When Campbell is able to field his first choice XI, and with no players deployed out of position, Forfar Athletic will perform with more cohesion. The question is: does Campbell know what his best team is, and can he resist the temptation to alter it? AG
4) John Coughlin outsmarted Ross Jack
By beating Elgin City 3-0, East Stirlingshire have enjoyed their best start to a season since 1975-76. Their victory was fully merited, and the Shire were the better side throughout the majority of the contest. While David Greenhill’s performance will inevitably draw the greatest praise (the midfielder scored a fine brace and was unfortunate to have been denied a hat-trick, with a second half header incorrectly disallowed for a perceived offside), it was the triumvirate of centre-backs Chris Townsley, Michael Bolochoweckyj and screening midfielder Iain Thomson which was the most noteworthy aspect of the match.
The three new signings impressed during the opening day win at Queen’s Park, and they continued their good form against a poor Elgin side. In a 4-1-4-1 formation, the Shire’s most experienced players formed a solid triangle between the defence and midfield, something which afforded the other seven outfield players varying degrees of creative freedom (full-backs Michael McGowan and Graeme MacGregor pushed high up the pitch to support wingers Jamie Glasgow and the excellent Max Wright, while Kevin Turner was augmented in attack by Greenhill – it is warming to see Shire manager John Coughlin allow his side to play with a little more abandon).
Not only did the trio provide the defensive platform for the team’s attacking success, their deployment played an important tactical role. With City’s general play revolving around lobbing long balls from back to front towards Shane Sutherland, the striker would often drop deep to bring collect the ball. The strategy worked sporadically: either Sutherland would wander in Thomson’s territory and invariably lose possession, or, if he dragged his marker out with him, Thomson would slot in to fill the vacant space, preventing Brian Cameron from sneaking in behind. Beyond this, Elgin offered little – Coughlin outsmarted Ross Jack.
On the whole, City lacked craft or guile. They had their chances – on two occasions, Bolochoweckyj was forced into clearing from the line, and Sutherland hit the post midway through the second half – but they rarely unsettled their hosts. Sutherland was unable to get the better of Townsley (at one point, the forward threw a glowering glance at a supporter who encouraged him to “get into the game”), Craig Gunn and Cameron were peripheral, and the side, on the whole, lacked width.
Captain David Niven, in particular, was awful. He was directly culpable for Greenhill’s second goal, with his slack back-pass sending the midfielder one-on-one with Raymond Jellema, but his general play was dire. Niven was unsteady competing with the rough ‘n’ tumble style of Kevin Turner, but more concerning was the manner in which he frequently abandoned his post to charge after the ball. When Graeme Beveridge deflected the ball into his own net on 90 minutes, Niven was trotting back from the opposition penalty area after the quixotic pursuit of a consolation goal. Had this been a military situation, Niven would have been shot for the good of his own platoon; one can only wonder if his captaincy is the only reason for his inclusion.
While the Shire continue to reinforce their play-off credentials, it is difficult to envisage Elgin finishing the season as strongly. With a one-dimensional strategy and an under-performing squad that looks far less than the sum of its parts, Ross Jack must find a solution to avoid another season of naval-gazing. CGT
5) The season looks grim for Queen’s Park
Another week, another heavy defeat, another red card – this has been a rotten start to the season for Queen’s Park. Saturday’s 0-4 defeat at Berwick Rangers, their fourth consecutive loss, was a dreadful affair and pound-for-pound, their worst performance of 2013-14 so far.
With David Anderson removed after 24 minutes through injury, QP offered little resistance and were quickly torn asunder by their hosts. Mick Keenan deflected a cross into his own net before Scott Dalziel took advantage of abject defending to nod the ball beyond the hopeless Michael Brown. Darren Lavery added a brace midway through the second half, and the misery was complete after Bernard Coll’s dismissal for hacking down Owen Ronald with ten minutes remaining.
Berwick were efficient and professional and thoroughly merited their victory. It was an impressive response to last weekend’s surprise loss at Clyde and with forthcoming fixtures with Montrose, Annan Athletic and Albion Rovers, it should provide Ian Little’s side with the perfect platform on which to build their play-off challenge.
The outlook is more bleak for Queen’s Park. Without Anderson, the team resorted to shelling long balls in the general direction of Joao Vitoria, despite the forward lacking the obvious attributes to fulfil the role as target man. The willingness to play a direct style in Anderson’s absence is surely against the Queen’s Park ethos, but some of the players in this QP are simply just not good enough. Manager Gardner Speirs must also field some uncomfortable questions about the manner in which he utilises the same formation, regardless of the available personnel – all too often, players are shoehorned into awkward positions. Unless there are any significant additions to the playing staff, it is not inconceivable the club could experience a similar season to the dismal 2001-02.
At the weekend, Queen’s Park will face Clyde, a team they have beaten in their last 11 encounters. Such is the gloom surrounding the club, that unbroken series looks likely to come under serious threat. CGT