Five Things We Learned, 2 March 2015

1) Cowtenbeath

There are some things you never want to see. Walking in on your mum and your da French kissing on the settee is right up there; so too is seeing your team conceding ten times in a single match. With that in mind, it’s hard not to have even the smallest smidgen of sympathy for Cowdenbeath supporters after they were ruthlessly bodied by Heart of Midlothian at the weekend.

It’s strange to think that, going into the fixture, some quarters were suggesting the Jambos had lost a bit of their hustle. The fluid, stylish play and the frequent drubbings dished out at the beginning of the campaign had vanished, making way for more stolid, ground-out victories. Some recent wins were even pretty lucky – the decisive strike in the 2-1 triumph at Queen of the South arrived courtesy of a deflection off Chris Higgins’s rear end – and four of their previous six victories were achieved by slender, one-goal margins. It’s safe to say that the performance against Cowden was a little more comprehensive.

The Blue Brazil have been in atrocious form of late and their poor run seemed likely to continue long before Bobby Madden blew for kick-off. Darren Brownlie, their most composed defender, was absent from the starting XI while Colin Marshall missed out altogether. The well-travelled midfielder might not be noted for his bullishness or tenacity but he is decent enough at keeping possession, a handy knack that no-one else in Jimmy Nicholl’s side is adept at.

That said, they didn’t fare too poorly in the opening stages. Cowden didn’t exactly keep Hearts at arm’s length, but they came through the opening 25 minutes unscathed – they also enjoyed a goal-free spell in the final 15. It was just that pesky 50-minute period that let them down; they performed like an absolute gang.

Within the space of three minutes, the score went from 0-0 to 3-0. Genaro Zeefuik netted a hat-trick, his fine finish from out the box bookended by two penalties. Cowden could claim they were harshly treated at this point – the first spot-kick was awarded after the ball hit Kenny Adamson’s hand at pace from close range, and Madden seemed a little too keen to dismiss Lewis Toshney after he fouled Sam Nicholson for the second. The referee, though, was certainly not to blame for the capitulation that followed.

Mismatches can happen in all sports, usually as one side is far superior to the other. That perhaps explains what went on at Tynecastle on Saturday but Cowden tapped out long before the final whistle, like one of Ric Flair’s opponents after he slapped them into his patented figure-four leg-lock. Nicholson added a fourth with a rip-snorter of an effort and the same player turned provider for the fifth, teeing up Jamie Walker to pirouette and strike beyond Robbie Thomson. It was a fine effort but he was abetted by the lack of pressing from the Cowden defence.

Often in similar situations, the whole affair can begin to look lop-sided and the second half is of little consequence – the losing side shuts up shop or the winning team simply eases off. Neither happened here, and Hearts continued with their pummelling. Morgaro Gomis sent an impudent Panenka penalty over an exasperated Thomson before Alim Ozturk scored his third goal of the season with an astonishing 30-yard drive. Danny Wilson sclaffed in the eighth goal from a corner kick and the ignominy was complete when Osman Sow came off the bench to add a brace.

The evisceration was a harrowing and humiliating experience for everyone connected with Cowden. It would probably be incorrect to say the double-digit defeat was the final straw for many supporters – patience with Nicholl had ran out some time ago. The manager might have celebrated his 59th birthday on Saturday but it is unlikely he was in any mood to celebrate. You’d get long odds that he’ll still be in charge at Central Park when he turns 60. SM

 

2) There is no stopping Brechin City

It has been a good week for Brechin City. Another good week, in fact. Ray McKinnon’s men picked up six points from their two fixtures – extending their unbeaten league run to 15 games – and moved up to third position in League 1, just four points behind leaders Stranraer. Make no mistake: the Hedgemen are serious title contenders.

City’s run of form (their last league defeat was in mid-October) has been founded on a miserly defence – it is mid-December since they conceded more than two goals in a league game, and they’ve let in just four times in their last nine games. Gerry McLauchan, who was not in McKinnon’s first team plans at the start of the season, deserves special mention for an exceptional season. Brechin might not have been prolific in front of goal but they have not needed to be.

On Saturday, Stenhousemuir didn’t provide the sternest of tests but they gave City an early fright. McKinnon made two changes to the side that hammered another nail into the coffin carrying Dunfermline Athletic’s promotion hopes on Tuesday night with a typically hard-fought victory. Darren McCormack missed out with the injury that forced him off at East End Park and was replaced by right-back Ewan McNeil (Paul McLean moving infield to partner McLauchlan) and Andy Jackson deputised for Bobby Barr, absent for family reasons.

Struggling Stenny quickly capitalised on any uncertainty the readjustments may have caused. In just the third minute, the Warriors’ livewire box-of-tricks Paul McMullan played through an inch-perfect pass to an unmarked Colin McMenamin and the striker netted for his 13th goal of the season. Three minutes later, Forfar Athletic-bound Bryan Hodge hit the upright with a shot from just inside the penalty box, while Anthony Marenghi also came close with a free-kick.

Brechin were missing the verve and vigour of Barr but were level in the 18th minute. With captain McLean off the pitch receiving treatment to a head wound, Ryan Ferguson and Jackson combined and the latter sent an unstoppable shot past Greg Fleming. The equalising goal provided a platform for Brechin to go on and dominate the game as Stenny wilted. McLean and McLauchlan snuffed out their limited forays forward and on the hour mark were involved in City’s winning goal. A stramash in the Warriors’ penalty area was emphatically concluded by McLean’s strike, after efforts from Thomson and McLauchlan were blocked. There was a late scare when Ciaran Summers’s long-range effort required a smart stop from Graeme Smith but Brechin are well versed in closing out games.

They’re in action at Glebe Park again on Tuesday night with a early return fixture against Dunfermline, who will travel to Angus shell-shocked by their 1-5 reverse at Stranraer. City enjoy a game in hand over Stranraer, Greenock Morton and Forfar Athletic but the Blues and Ton also in midweek action, facing Stenhousemuir and Stirling Albion respectively. They travel to Inverclyde at the start of April and host Stranraer on the final weekend of the season; both fixtures will be crucial determining the destination of the League 1 title. AG

 

3) Dunfermline Athletic are sinking in the rain

There was nothing remotely astonishing about Stranraer’s comfortable 5-1 beating of Dunfermline Athletic at Stair Park on Saturday. The Blues might have lost a few matches recently to contrast with their unbeaten mid-season form, but they have still won eight league fixtures out of 12 in the last three months. They had already scored four or more goals on three other occasions this season, while Jamie Longworth and Craig Malcolm have netted 15 more times between them than the highest scorer at Dunfermline still with the club.

The Pars went into the match in utterly ordinary form since Jim Jefferies resigned in the middle of December. They hadn’t lost by four clear goals at any point in the season, of course, but a couple of recent wins against two of the bottom three sides in the division hasn’t masked the fact that they have been uncompetitive in the fixtures that really matter – back-to-back victories against Airdrieonians and Stranraer in August represent their only wins against any of the current top five clubs in the division. Considering Athletic’s sizeable resources compared to the vast majority of the division, it is a sorry state of affairs.

Wigton brought its worst weather to Stair Park and the pitch had reached its saturation long before the final whistle. It didn’t affect things too early on when Stranraer were generally the better of the two sides, even with Dunfermline’s Lewis Allan making a good chance for himself to score one-on-one against David Mitchell before over-running the ball. Stranraer attacked well down their left-hand side with Willie Gibson combining with Jamie Longworth running the channel and they combined for Grant Gallagher’s finish at the far post. Dunfermline equalised after quarter of the match gone from a deep set-piece – Frank McKeown got lost between two markers to allow Andy Geggan to head low inside the far post – but on the balance of play they didn’t look convincing.

It didn’t take long for the match to begin to swing back in Stranraer’s favour, however, with Pars captain Gregor Buchanan sent off for a stamp on Longworth’s back after a niggly tussle between the two. Buchanan has been Dunfermline’s best player this season along with Ryan Scully and to a lesser extent Ryan Williamson, so losing him for at least a couple of matches could hurt the team’s prospects of salvaging an unlikely charge for one of the last play-off places. Only Buchanan can justify what happened, but the petulance leading to the sending off is perhaps symptomatic of a callow side relying too much on the experience of just a few players to carry them through matches.

Stranraer capitalised on that handsomely. Goals from Chris Aitken and Gibson were almost identical in their build up and were each exquisitely taken curled shots inside the far corner from over 20 yards. Even with a man less, Dunfermline weren’t organised well enough to protect the space in front of their defence and those goals sealed the outcome before half-time. At that point the pitch was soaked through and the match became less of a spectacle. Dunfermline got plenty bodies forward in an attempt to stage an undeserved comeback but Stranraer, with the numerical advantage, coped better with the conditions.

The Blues continue to lead the division since their previous win over Dunfermline just before Christmas. Greenock Morton – inspired by their trio of strikers – are proving to be potent challengers and Brechin City aren’t far behind at all, but the Blues remain where they are on merit. Dunfermline lie in sixth and are absolutely where they deserve to be after such mediocre form for so many months. The thrashing of teams at East End Park at the start of the season seems a long time ago now. Recovering a nine-point deficit to finish fourth in the league seems too much to ask for with just ten fixtures remaining – are they realistically going to win three matches more than Brechin or Forfar Athletic? On current form it appears definitely not. JAM

 

4) Berwick Rangers are “doing an Albion Rovers”

Around seven weeks ago, Berwick Rangers looked to be in a reasonably comfortable position. Back-to-back 3-0 victories over East Stirlingshire and Clyde had elevated them into the final play-off place – they were still some distance from the top three but sat just ahead of the chasing pack; all Colin Cameron’s side were really required to do was harness their good form until the end of the season.

Since then, however, Berwick have stalled. They’ve taken just four points from their last seven matches – the joint-worst record in the division next to Montrose – and dropped down into seventh. The 3-3 draw with the Gable Endies on 17 January precipitated their poor run and was immediately followed by defeats to Annan Athletic and Elgin City. A measured performance in the 3-1 win over Arbroath – one of their best of the season – came before three consecutive defeats, the latest of which was the weekend’s 0-2 loss at Albion Rovers.

A goal in each half, one from Ross Dunlop, the other from Mark McGuigan was enough for the Vers to prevail and the result ended their own horrendous losing streak, catapulting them back to the top of the table in the process. They didn’t necessarily play with any great verve or swagger, but they were up against opponents who perhaps had one eye elsewhere.

On Saturday lunchtime, Berwick will take on Hibernian in Scottish Cup quarter-final tie: eerily enough, their progress to the last eight mirrors Albion Rovers’ journey 12 months ago. James Ward’s team put their uneven league form to one side and advance to the quarter-finals where they met Rangers. An unlikely 1-1 draw at Ibrox draw earned them a replay and saw Ward sacrifice the Rovers’ chances of a play-off place for cup glory; they were beaten the second time around and miserably trudged through the remainder of the season, eventually finishing in seventh.

While Cameron and his players are surely keen on giving a good account of themselves against the Championship high-fliers (particularly given Cameron’s association with Heart of Midlothian), they must not lose focus on the bread and butter of the league. Having agreed a new contract in January and rumoured to be furnished with a handsome budget in relation to his rivals, Berwick have yet to get real value for their money with Cameron just yet. Failure to reach the play-offs would be a major disappointment.

With Annan still sound in fourth place and East Fife and Elgin marching up the table, Berwick are in danger of getting cut adrift. While the club will benefit financially from their meeting with Hibs, with purely their league campaign in mind, it is probably a distraction they could do without. CGT

 

5) Kevin Nesbit can fire East Stirlingshire to safety

East Stirlingshire nudged themselves further away from the foot of League 2 after a thoroughly deserved 3-1 victory over Queen’s Park at Ochilview. In dismal, rain-swept conditions, the Shire controlled the midfield, were ruthless in front of goal and were generally the better side throughout. It was also the first time this season they’ve won by more than a single-goal margin.

It was young Kevin Nesbit who made the decisive contribution. The 17-year-old forward joined on a month-long loan from Partick Thistle the previous day and opened and finished the scoring in a wonderful debut – on 12 minutes, Nesbit gathered David Greenhill’s pass and slid beyond David MacGregor before drilling a low shot into the corner of the net, and with three minutes of the game remaining he stole across his marker to flick home Ross Gilmour’s cross.

Along the way he showed a number of intelligent touches, linked thoughtfully with his striker partner David McKenna and competed well against MacGregor and Tony Quinn, two of the division’s hardiest competitors. Craig Tully has brought Nesbit to the club at just the right time – with a busy month ahead and scant attacking options (Luke Donnelly will be missing for an indeterminate period, Michael Wallace is currently unfit and Max Wright is only just returning from a lengthy absence), he will no doubt play an important role.

The win was the Shire’s third in four matches and has given them a five-point cushion over Montrose in tenth, all with two games in hand. Expecting them to maintain their current form is perhaps a little silly but they certainly have enough about them to avoid finishing bottom, especially against a lacklustre Mo side.

As for Queen’s Park, they looked disjointed and lacked the fluency to really get into the contest. With Darren Miller attending a wedding, Sean Burns was moved into the middle of the park alongside Vinnie Berry but he lacks Miller’s control on the ball and could not influence proceedings. Lone striker Jordan Moore also had a poor game – at the end of the first half, Connor Greene foolishly tripped Ciaran McElroy inside the area and Moore snatched the ball away from Paul Woods, the designated penalty taker, and his weak effort was slapped away by Richie Barnard. Unable to get the better of Chris Townsley or David Bates, he was removed just after the hour.

With Albion Rovers defeating Berwick Rangers and Arbroath clawing a point in an astonishing comeback against Elgin City, QP have toppled from first to third. With a demanding series of fixtures lying in wait – East Fife, Elgin and the Rovers – it might be some time before they return to the summit. 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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