1) Heart of Midlothian have the better squad and the better individuals
In the lead up to Friday’s meeting between Rangers and Heart of Midlothian, Gers midfielder Fraser Aird made it clear in no uncertain terms what he thought about he quality of his team. “I still think that we have a better squad than them and better individual players, but we need to go out and prove that,” he said when comparing his side with their title rivals.
Aird and his team-mates were not able to prove it on Friday, with their match abandoned at 0-0 after 23 minutes. Referee Bobby Madden eventually came to the correct conclusion that the game wasn’t playable on a snow-covered pitch, even if the farcical process in reaching his decision could have been better organised. While questions remain as to why the Ibrox surface couldn’t have been cleared immediately before the match started or before it was abandoned with the clock stopped, the amount of slush rendered the game effectively unplayable, albeit ever-so-slightly improving as the match went on.
That just leaves us with the season’s previous 20 league matches for us to judge on, and, simply put, there is no evidence to back up Aird’s claim that Rangers have better players and a better squad. They might get paid more but the statistics don’t lie in this case: Hearts have a 13 point lead at the top of the table; they are unbeaten throughout the season (having played Rangers twice and Hibernian three times); and they’ve scored ten more goals and conceded ten fewer than Aird’s club. Rangers have lost in every full match played against the two Edinburgh clubs this season.
A lot of that comes down to Ally McCoist’s poor management of the first team over the past four years, which manifested itself in this season’s comparatively lame performance to date. It is also a result of the calibre of players currently at the club, however: Lee McCulloch, Jon Daly, Kenny Miller and to some extent Kris Boyd, despite previous achievements, are at the end of their careers; Steve Simonsen and Darren McGregor were drafted from struggling teams; and Kyle Hutton is a mediocre midfielder and isn’t of the same level of quality as most of his peers from the top half of the Championship.
In a composite team from the starting line-ups from Friday’s abandoned match, as contrived and subjective such an exercise might be, only Lee Wallace, Nicky Law (although his form has declined over the last 12 months) and Jon Daly (on the strength of the type of direct football required by both teams on the night) would be selected. How about a composite XI of: Neil Alexander; Callum Paterson, Alim Ozturk, Danny Wilson, Wallace; Sam Nicholson, Law, Morgano Gomis, Jamie Walker, Prince Buaben; Daly?
Aird admits that Rangers need to prove that they are the best. They’ve had more than half the season so far to do so and we’re yet to be convinced. JAM
2) A tale of two penalties might settle the race for fourth place
It would have been difficult to squeeze any more intrigue into the build up to Falkirk’s match with Queen of the South. Not only are the two teams duking it out for the coveted fourth place, the last few weeks have seen Mark Kerr and John Baird defect from Palmerston to Westfield while one-time Bairns favourite Mark Millar joined Queens from Peterhead to beef up their midfield. The subsequent 1-1 draw in Grangemouth did little to indicate which side will finish the year in the final play-off position – in a match that revolved around two penalties, there was nothing between the teams.
The first spot-kick, awarded to Falkirk in the 16th minute, arrived in slightly controversial circumstances. Rory Loy had the beating of Mark Durnan and as he made his way into the box, he appeared to be tugged back by the defender – whether or not the clinch continued into the penalty area is open for debate but referee Crawford Allan was convinced it did; Loy opened the scoring with a straight, low finish into the bottom corner.
If there was an air of dubiety about the penalty, there was little debate that the Bairns deserved their lead. They should have extended their advantage before their interval but stout Queens defending and wayward finishing kept the score-line as it was.
It will be interesting how the partnership between Loy and John Baird develops over the remainder of the season, but the tentative evidence suggests they could produce an effective rapport. While Loy is technically superior, Baird is all about hard work and graft, always looking to run the channels or bring team-mates into play. Baird’s weakness, however, is his finishing – he was unlucky not to score when his dinked effort was kept out by a combination of Durnan and the post, but he is often careless and wasteful in front of goal.
The Doonhamers improved after the break but their equaliser came against the run of play. Iain Russell’s drive from the edge of the area made its way through a phalanx of bodies as it hit the net – although Russell was credited with the goal, Gavin Reilly appeared to flick the ball as it crossed the line.
Despite the setback, Falkirk had a gilt-edged chance to restore their lead minutes later. Durnan stopped Loy’s shot from crossing the line, only this time with his hand. The centre-back was sent off and the Bairns were awarded their second penalty. This time Loy elected to go high, and his effort slammed off the crossbar.
Queens seemed more settled with ten men than they did with 11 (although Peter Houston’s substitutions might have had something to do with that – Will Vaulks’s removal stripped his midfield of a dynamic presence, while Morgan Taylor lacked Baird’s influence up top) and they will probably be more satisfied with the point than their hosts. They retain their two point advantage over Falkirk and have played one game fewer – with such fine margins between the sides, Loy’s missed penalty could prove to be a significant moment at the end of the season. SM
3) League 1’s full-time teams are still struggling
Conventional wisdom dictates that Scottish football’s third tier championship will be won by a full-time team. This has been the case in each of the last seven seasons the league has boasted at least one full-time (or substantially full-time) outfit – the last occasion a part-time side bettered their full-time counterparts to clinch the title was 2004-05 when Dick Campbell’s Brechin City and Stranraer, managed by Neil Watt, finished above Greenock Morton (despite the Ton’s huge outlay in December that season for City’s top goal-scorer Chris Templeman). Ten years on, could we be set for a repeat?
Both Morton and Dunfermline Athletic failed to win on Saturday and find themselves increasingly off the pace in the League 1 title race. Since their embarrassing Scottish Cup exit at the hands of Spartans, Morton have picked up just eight points from a possible 21, beating lowly Stenhousemuir and Stirling Albion in the process. Dunfermline, meanwhile, have not won in their last six games, losing three and drawing three and John Potter still awaits his first win in charge. Morton sit four points behind leaders Stranraer and Dunfermline nine (albeit with a game in hand); the Pars have even dropped out of the play-offs positions.
The gravity of the situation at both clubs has spurred them into transfer activity. Peter MacDonald rejoined Morton from Dundee and signed on with Ross Caldwell and Grant Adam. Andrew Barrowman and Ross Forbes traded places, with Barrowman returning to East End Park where he was a casualty of the club’s administration in 2013, while Potter also added Kyle McAusland and Jim Patterson. The weekend’s evidence suggests both sides are still some way off championship form despite their reinforcements.
Morton travelled along the Clyde coast to take on Ayr United Somerset Park. Jim Duffy handed Peter MacDonald a starting position – and the captain’s armband – and dropped Ross Caldwell to the bench, Ross Forbes made his debut, and the versatile Thomas O’Ware slotted into the back four in place of Sean Crighton. Like Barrowman, MacDonald showed signs of rustiness as Morton failed to beat the Honest Men for a third time this season, but he did have a decisive influence on the game, netting the equaliser just after half-time when he capitalised on uncertainty in the United defence.
Morton’s full-time status didn’t give them the upper hand in the closing stages and it was Ayr who could have earned their first win since October (where the beat the Ton at Cappielow). After impressing against Stenny last weekend, Stefan McCluskey was quiet and the midfield two of Forbes and Michael Miller were swamped by Ayr’s three – something Duffy failed to address as the game went on.
In Fife, Barrowman and McAusland made their debuts, with the former replacing Michael Moffat in attack for the visit of Airdrieonians. In the end, it was actually Moffat who made the difference, coming off the bench to salvage the Pars a 2-2 draw. The maligned striker netted his first goal since mid-September after Jim Lister and Brian Gilfillan had twice put the Diamonds ahead (a Ross Millen penalty ensured the sides went into the break level). It was another defensively unsure performance from the Pars, who lost Paterson after 27 minutes with a groin injury, and Lister dominated centre-backs Gregor Buchanan and Lewis Martin. At the other end, a commanding performance from Ben Richards-Everton kept Barrowman quiet. Dunfermline finished the strongest (perhaps to be expected from a full-time side at this stage of the season) with Ryan Wallace, making just his fifth appearance of the season, also proved to be a bright spark from the bench. Potter was at least pleased with the desire showed by his side to get back in the game.
For both Morton and Dunfermline, the failure to win promotion could have grave implications for their perilous finances: the spectre of part-time football at Cappielow is perennially threatened by Morton benefactor Dougie Rae, while the Dunfermline board made it clear at the start of the season that “promotion to the Championship [was] the required minimum objective” for the year. The sides meet next weekend at East End Park, live on BBC ALBA. Dunfermline’s league position puts them in the greatest need of victory but they will be without the suspended Buchanan and have already been defeated twice by Morton this season.
In this heavyweight clash between the League 1’s toiling full-timers, could it be the Pars knocked to the canvas? AG
4) Jamie Stevenson knocks Stirling Albion’s hustle
Stirling Albion are looking like a team transformed. After opening the New Year with a deserved victory over Stenhousemuir, the Binos followed it up with a credible (and unfortunate) 2-2 home draw with Dunfermline Athletic. The two results were the culmination of several weeks of gradual improvement and new manager Stuart McLaren has brought the best out of a downtrodden squad of players, turning them into a competitive outfit.
Their progress, however, was curtailed on Saturday. Peterhead were always likely to be a far more difficult proposition compared to mid-card jobbers like Stenny or a vastly underachieving Pars, and so it proved. The meeting between the sides – played out against the backdrop of a powerful blaze from a nearby fish factory – was an entertaining encounter and one in which the Blue Toon did just about enough to win. There contest was settled by two factors: Sandy Cunningham’s miss at the beginning of the second half, and Jamie Stevenson’s overall contribution.
Peterhead began the match as the more enterprising of the two sides. Rory McAllister, as he tends to do, was proving to be a particular nuisance and the striker passed up a couple of decent opportunities to open the scoring – he fired an angled shot just wide of goal after 23 minutes, and shortly afterwards his curling effort from Cammy Kerr’s cutback edged just past the post. Stirling had taken some joy from their raids down the right flank and they profited with four minutes of the first half remaining – Craig Comrie found Scott Shepherd in the channel and the Falkirk loanee beat Steven Noble before squaring for Craig Wedderburn for the easiest of finishes.
They could have doubled their advantage ten minutes after the restart. Dean Cowie squandered possession in the middle of the park and Phil Johnston threaded an exquisite pass through a faulty backline for Sandy Cunningham to chase. The little striker’s touch was poor, taking him wide of goal, and although his effort beat Graeme Smith it bounced off the post and was cleared.
Stirling would rue their profligacy. Jamie Stevenson clipped a free-kick towards David Cox inside the area but the forward was barged over by Ross McGeachie as he brought it under control. McAllister tucked away the penalty with a flourish, and very soon the Binos found themselves behind. Angus Beith was a little too smart for his own good when he tried to play his way out of a crowded midfield and his slack pass was intercepted by Stevenson – he exchanged touches with McAllister beautifully before running in on goal and finishing underneath Paterson.
Over the last few months, Stevenson has developed into Peterhead’s most decisive player. His goals are his most obvious quality – Stevenson has six in the league, including four in his last five matches – with each strike making a telling impact. He opened the scoring in a 2-0 win over Ayr United in October, equalised against Dunfermline Athletic in November, netted the winner in the slender victory over Greenock Morton and put the game beyond Airdrieonians with a goal at the beginning of the second half last weekend. Playing in a more advanced role just behind McAllister, Stevenson is relieved of his defensive duties and can express himself freely. His prowess in dead-ball situations is also probably the best in the division.
The win lifts Peterhead level on points with Dunfermline in fifth with a game in hand and, on current form, there is little reason they cannot overtake them and compete for the final play-off place. Their credentials will be tested over the next few weeks – three of their next four games are against Brechin City, Stranraer and Forfar Athletic.
With Ayr taking a point from their match with Morton gap has now opened to five points at the foot of the table. Stirling’s forthcoming fixtures are equally as grueling and they will also take on the division’s top three sides. They must capitalise on their current level of performance and turn it into something tangible if they are to catch up with the Honest Men. CGT
5) Arbroath can’t beat their title rivals
Arbroath’s campaign so far has been unexpectedly excellent. At the beginning of the season, they were considered an outside gamble for fourth place but their prowess has been astonishing – they have led the division for all but two weeks of the year and at one point, held an eight point lead at the summit. Their only real weakness has been their inability to beat the teams around them – three of their four league defeats have come against Queen’s Park and Albion Rovers. At the weekend, the Spiders prevailed for the second time in as many meetings.
The Lichties entered the contest in good form after taking 17 points from their previous seven matches. It was the best record in the division, but their most recent match was marred by extreme carelessness when they tossed away a two-goal lead to draw with Montrose. The same lethargy appeared to follow them to Hampden and they found themselves trailing after just four minutes. Paul Woods – surely one of the most exciting players in League 2 – pounced on a poor clearance to drill home from the edge of the area. Sean Burns doubled their advantage 18 minutes later when he gathered Darren Miller’s pass and fired it beyond Marc McCallum.
Arbroath looked shell-shocked. Key players like Bobby Linn, Simon Murray and Mark Whatley were subdued and unable to influence the match in their typical fashion. With Kevin Nicoll missing, the midfield missed its destroyer and the backline were not afforded their usual protection, while the attack lacked a vital component in Paul McManus’s absence – with no-one to hold up play, Murray was diminished as a result. They did improve in the second half but they were unable to genuinely unsettle Willie Muir in the Queen’s Park goal (although Murray really should have scored on the hour mark). Linn’s injury time effort was nothing more than a consolation.
A small element of the travelling support jeered the Arbroath players as they left the pitch. It seems both astonishing and idiotic, but fans are probably beginning to feel a little anxious. Their position at the top of the table, once so inviolate, is beginning to look a little shaky. With Queen’s Park now just three points behind and Albion Rovers lurking in third, it is developing into a fascinating race for the championship.
Take your eyes off it at your peril. CGT