1) Miguel Pallardo keeps Heart of Midlothian ticking over
In the week when Jason Holt and Dale Carrick were sent out on loan to Sheffield United and Raith Rovers respectively, it is difficult to escape the feeling that Heart of Midlothian are missing something from their title chase. As has been mentioned several times on this site before, Hearts could break records on their way to winning the Championship and they look as good – and indeed better – than any other side that has played in the lower leagues in this writer’s memory. A lot of credit must be given for the restructuring of the club post-Vladimir Romanov and the success that Director of Football Craig Levein and head coach Robbie Neilson have had with developing such a successful team: they win a lot, and they’re enjoyable to watch with it.
Yet it seems that there is a missed opportunity to build a side for themselves, with a local identity and with the future in mind. Such a team was already there – you only have to look at the substitutes bench to see the homegrown quality that Hearts have in reserve, with Billy King relying on a brief cameo in an unfamiliar position and Gary Oliver having to be grateful for even less time on the pitch. Carrick’s loan to Rovers is only for a month and, just like Oliver’s spell at Stenhousemuir at the beginning of the season, should give the forward some valuable playing time. But what will happen when he returns, now that Osman Sow is back to fitness and looking like his ominous best alongside James Keatings? Those strikers turned Ben Gordon and Kyle Benedictus inside out for the duration of the routine 4-1 win away to Alloa Athletic, with Keatings scoring a wonderful goal with his left foot after confusing Gordon at the edge of the penalty area. With Genero Zeefuik dropped to the bench after last week’s defeat to Falkirk and with Soufian El Hassnaoui to return, there are going to be disappointed players somewhere along the line.
Of course, that’s the whole point. Neilson has been ruthless in his quest to achieve as many wins and points in this league as possible, and there isn’t anything wrong with that. If the club have the resources to recruit as strongly as they have, why shouldn’t they? When Neilson has midfielders with the poise of Morgaro Gomis, the power of Prince Buaben and the vision of Miguel Pallardo, the first team isn’t an easy place for playmakers like Scott Robinson and Jason Holt to make an indispensable role for themselves. Perhaps Holt will impress in Sheffield to the extent that he could be lured to remain there on a more permanent basis. Two things are certain in that respect: the midfielder has the potential to make a positive impact there and he would be a big loss at Tynecastle from an emotional point of view as much as a technical one. But when Pallardo dictates proceedings from the back of midfield as well as he did against the Wasps (opening the scoring with a superbly controlled sliced shot past Craig McDowall from 25 yards), it is difficult to argue against Neilson’s selection.
We will continue to watch Hearts’ dominance of the league with interest and some extolment, but all the while thinking that a team containing Dale Carrick, Sam Nicholson, Billy King Jason Holt, Jamie Walker and Kevin McHattie might still have been good enough to win the league. JAM
2) Christian Nadé is still the Hammer of Hibernian
When Hibernian and Raith Rovers butted heads at Easter Road in October, Raith’s Christian Nadé – who found the net and subsequently disrobed in the 1-1 draw – claimed he could score against the Hibees whenever he wanted. Big talk from the titanic Frenchman, but there’s certainly some truth in it: when the sides met in Edinburgh on Saturday, he pounced to head home a last-minute equaliser to ensure his side headed home with a fortuitous share of the spoils.
While Rovers might have been smitten with good luck at the weekend, there’s little doubt their form has picked up. After losing 1-5 to Livingston at the beginning of December – the nadir of the season so far, and sequenced in a dismal run of one win in 11 matches – performances have steadily improved and recent results have been far more palatable. Grant Murray’s side have recorded three wins and two draws from their last five outings – since Christmas, the only Championship team to have collected more points are Hibs (who have played a game more).
Raith’s upturn has coincided with Ross Perry’s departure from the club. Gone are the centre-back’s leaden-footed performances and hoofed clearances and his replacement Dougie Hill seems far more assured in the heart of defence alongside Paul Watson. The maligned Rory McKeown is slowly improving too – he may have suffered by being compared to Callum Booth, his popular predecessor, but his positional sense, tackling and all-round game are better than they were in the early stages of the campaign.
Such is their recent defensive solidity that Rovers have lost just two goals in their last five games. While the draw with Hibs was a little jammy, the backline performed stoutly and restricted the space available to the opposition attackers. They were certainly abetted by another exemplary display from David McGurn, and the goalkeeper repelled shots with every limb and every part of his body. At times, he resembled an impenetrable neon pink wall.
There was little McGurn could do about Hibernian’s goal, however. It came a minute into the second half when Scott Allan – the best player on the park – played a delightfully weighted pass for Martin Boyle to thread past the ‘keeper. Allan and his midfield partner-in-crime Dylan McGeough dictated the match, neatly side-stepping the attention of their counterparts Kevin Moon and Ross Callachan.
Not for the first time this season, Hibs’ failure to capitalise when on top (especially at home) saw them emerge from a match with less then they merited – they’ve now dropped 15 points at Easter Road – but equally as frustrating were the architects of the equalising goal. It was made in Gorgie, chiseled out by a current Heart of Midlothian player and finished a former one. Dale Carrick, who arrived on loan at Stark’s Park at the end of last week, did well to win a corner, and Ryan Conroy flighted the ball over for Nadé to divert it goalwards with an awkward header. There was no undressing this time, just a spot of boogaloo with McKeown at the corner flag.
It’s a game that Raith would almost certainly have lost two months ago but with the team appearing to have a lot more substance, the remainder of the season might be far more comfortable than anyone dared believe. But with a Scottish Cup tie at Rangers coming up next, they’ll need a fair dollop of chutzpah if they’re to keep their fine sequence going. SM
3) The promotion play-offs are out of Airdrieonians’ reach
Last month’s League 1 Half-Term Report Card found Airdrieonians in rude health. Unbeaten in five games, Gary Bollan’s side had propelled themselves from ninth place into sixth, casting aside that relegation concerns that had arisen after taking just two points from their first six matches. A tilt at the play-offs looked to be next on the agenda but since then, Airdrie have faltered – defeat at home to Peterhead followed by draws with Stranraer and Dunfermline Athletic left them eight points behind Saturday’s opponents Brechin City, who occupied the final play-off spot going into the fixture.
Brechin’s previous visit to the Excelsior Stadium at the beginning of October was a chastening experience for Ray McKinnon’s side as they were swept aside 0-4 in Airdrie’s first home win of the season. The Hedgemen have hardly put a foot wrong since: unbeaten in their last 13 games, they would provide a stern examination of the Diamonds’ play-off credentials. The subsequent 1-1 draw has done three things: extended Brechin’s unbeaten run; maintained the gap between the sides; and probably ended Airdrie’s hopes of breaking into the top four.
The home side showed one change to the team that snatched a late point at home to Stranraer. Centre-back Luca Gasparotto, swapping Montego Bay (where he has been representing Canada at the CONCACAF U-20 Championships) for Monklands, replaced Ben Richards-Everton who has returned to Partick Thistle. Alan Archibald has sent Liam Lindsay to the Excelsior as a direct replacement for Richards-Everton but illness prevented the defender from participating on Saturday. City’s only change saw Robert Thomson start following Craig Wighton’s recall to Dundee.
An entertaining encounter was marked by City’s midfield supremacy and pressing (Gary Fusco and Craig Molloy have been integral to Brechin’s recent good form) and some fine goalkeeping by Graeme Smith. The visitors took the lead when a Thomson shot was blocked into the path of Alan Trouten, who turned the ball home against his former club. Ten minutes later, Airdrie levelled in spectacular fashion – Jamie Bain sent an unstoppable shot into the top corner from 30 yards after Nathan Blockley’s ratting about in the penalty area turned over possession. Smith had no chance but he did make an exceptional save to deny Gasparotto, having blocked Paddy Boyle minutes before. Airdrie had created the best chances but a draw was just about right on the balance of play.
As a result, Airdrie remain adrift of the play-offs at the top of the table but clear of those at the foot. The sides above them, Peterhead, Dunfermline and Brechin, all have games in hand (the Blue Toon could even find themselves a point behind leaders Stranraer if they win all three of their rearranged matches). If the Diamonds can overcome Ayr United next weekend they will boast an 11 point advantage over the Honest Men in ninth. Consolidation and building for next season looks to be Airdrie’s lot for the remainder of the campaign. AG
4) Berwick Rangers are in danger of drifting
Colin Cameron’s Berwick Rangers lost their second game in succession. Losing 2-4 at home to Annan Athletic – their apparent rivals for the final League 2 play-off position – last week was bad enough, but the 0-2 defeat to Elgin City at Shielfield leaves the Black and Gold three points behind Annan having played a game more. Even as the Galabankies lost to Montrose, Berwick could quickly find themselves with too much to do to get into the top four if they don’t soon pick up points on a more consistent basis.
Jonny Fairbairn’s early red card didn’t help much. His last-man challenge on Craig Gunn actually won the ball and, in real-time, it might not seem that there was much wrong in prodding it away from the striker. Slowed down, however, it is obvious that Fairbairn’s follow through with two arm’s on Gunn’s back took the forward out of the play when he was most likely to get to the ball once again. In that respect, referee Don Robertson undoubtedly made the correct decision. The sending off didn’t hinder Berwick too much initially, though: Lee Currie continued to work angles across the pitch and there were plenty deliveries into the box; they more than held their own for the majority of the match against Jim Weir’s side. Steven Notman filled in at centre-back beside Kerr Young and strolled through the game until Elgin were allowed to break later on. Craig Dargo was perhaps a little hard done by in not finding the target after looping a shot over City’s onrushing goalkeeper from Ross Gray’s bouncing header to him – the striker’s movement was causing Elgin’s defence some problems without ever truly testing them, while Darren Lavery posed little thread from the left wing.
That’s not to say that Elgin didn’t attempt to impose themselves, but they didn’t look at their best until Shane Sutherland was introduced to the match, coming on for Dargo’s old strike partner Dennis Wyness. Sutherland made an instant impression, with his switch in play to the left flank inviting Craig Thomson – who had swapped wings with Archie MacPhee – to take on Devon Jacobs. Thomson won the drag race, despite giving the South African right-back a few yards’ advantage, and once he was goal-side of the defender he was brought down for a penalty that MacPhee easily converted. Sutherland then looked good on the counter attack as Berwick played on the front foot again and he ought to have put away an opportunity to get one-on-one with Billy Bald, but mishit a bobble over the crossbar. Before then, however, Berwick’s attacking midfielder Paul Willis struck the crossbar with a header from an inswinging corner and things might have played out differently had it gone in.
Instead, Elgin continued to hit on the break and a sloppy pass in the centre of midfield allowed Daniel Moore and Cieran MacLean to combine for the former to score a tap in at the far post. It leaves Berwick with a trio of difficult fixtures against the league’s top three sides and they could find themselves further behind Annan by March if they’re not careful. Elgin, meanwhile, were able to pull themselves out of the pit for the first time in seven matches. With three wins and a draw out of four and some fixtures in hand, Jim Weir’s start at the club couldn’t have gone much better and they look perfectly capable of avoiding the relegation play-offs. JAM
5) Mark Roberts can do a job for Clyde
He was difficult to pick out, but in amongst the sizeable entourage on the Clyde bench was Mark Roberts. The 39-year-old forward was listed as a trialist for the Bully Wee’s match at East Stirlingshire, 456 days since he last took part in a competitive fixture (his last appearance was on 2 November 2013, when he played for 69 minutes in Ayr United’s Scottish Cup victory over Queen’s Park). A lot has happened since then – as player-manager, Roberts took the Honest Men to the 2013-14 League 1 promotion play-offs but a drastic downturn in form over the second quarter of the current campaign cost him his job.
It doesn’t matter that he hasn’t played in over a year. With the score tied at 1-1, Roberts replaced the anonymous Stephen McDougall midway through the second half and immediately made a positive impression. Slotting in just behind the forwards, he provided Clyde with the spark to break down an obdurate Shire side. His first touches saw him dance away from his marker to open up space in front of the centre-backs, allowing him to find the onrushing Scott McManus with a cute reverse (although the striker was ruled offside). More pertinently, his patient play was central to the winning goal – he fed Brian McQueen, who in turn teed up McManus to curl a fine effort into the net.
Roberts probably doesn’t have the legs for the cut and thrust for a full 90 minutes but he would still make for a fine addition to Barry Ferguson’s squad. Despite his advancing years, Roberts’s technical ability is without question and he has plenty to offer coming off the bench to open up stubborn defences. Signing him until the end of the season would be a shrewd move.
Other than Roberts’s 21-minute cameo, there was little to discuss from the match. It was windy, bitterly cold, and throughout the opening period the ball spent as much time in the air than it did on the ground. The Shire’s Michael Wallace offered a dynamic threat on the right wing and was always looking to take on his full-back but beyond that, the home side lacked any real menace. Clyde, meanwhile, their midfield featuring Stephen O’Donnell and Hugh Murray, were flat and one-paced and offered little beyond a Scott Ferguson effort that hit the crossbar.
Barry Ferguson’s decision to remove David Gray from the attack at half-time and replace him with McQueen was a rare moment of tactical ingenuity. Chris Townsley had done an excellent job of repelling Clyde’s aerial attacks but with someone of McQueen’s stature added to the frontline, the centre-back found it far more difficult. McQueen was like a one-man wrecking ball and his presence afforded McManus far more room to shift around the penalty area. Indeed, the pair combined for the game’s decisive moment.
After four matches without a win, the three points will be gratefully received by Clyde. The victory lifted his side into sixth places and the Bully Wee now lead the pack of teams adrift at the foot of the table. It remains to be seen whether or not this will act as a springboard to greater success but with experienced heads such as O’Donnell, Murray and Mark McLaughlin (and possibly Roberts) in their ranks, they have a solid foundation that should keep them away from tenth place between now and the end of the season. CGT