1) Hamilton Academical could be the real deal
Four matches; 12 points; nine goals scored; and only two conceded. Hamilton Academical have to go back to 2007-08 to find an equivalent record – that year, the Accies went on a six-match winning streak (including five clean sheets) before securing the First Division title ahead of Dundee.
The transformation in the team’s outlook compared to Billy Reid’s last couple of seasons cannot be overstated, but fundamentally not much has changed. Crucially, Alex Neil has introduced two simple concepts to the team: stability and familiarity. Reid had a tendency to flit among 5-4-1, 4-5-1, 3-4-3 and 4-4-2 formations on a weekly basis and suddenly drop players who sometimes, unsurprisingly, looked short of confidence or underperformed; Neil’s selections, however, have been consistent.
Thus Ziggy Gordon – one of the most promising defenders in the lower leagues – is getting a regular run out on the right of a flat back four. Michael Devlin is coming of age as a centre-back beside the 300+ league game experience of Martin Canning, while even left-back Stephen Hendrie has accumulated nearly 50 league appearances after a solid run under the new manager. Elsewhere, Neil no longer picks himself as a third centre-back and concentrates on supporting a midfield containing grit (although in Saturday’s win over Falkirk, Darian MacKinnon was perhaps lucky not to receive a punishment for effectively headlocking Stephen Kingsley at a bye-line tussle) and guile (with the luxury of Tony Andreu on the bench).
Hamilton probably blend the zest of youth with the proficiency of experience better than anyone else in the Championship. When left one-on-one with Philip Roberts, Kevin Cuthbert’s maturity in goal to line up the angle for an instinctive paw at a passing strike was as much of a match-winning moment as Ali Crawford’s 20-yard banana shot into the far corner.
Falkirk may have been winning one-nil from an outrageous Jay Fulton free-kick that skimmed around a one-man wall at a deceptive angle by the time centre-back Jonathan Flynn was brought on, but it was Kieran Duffie who was mostly culpable for Falkirk’s conceded goals. The right-back was caught by a counter-attack and found out of position by at least ten yards as Mickael Antoine-Curier latched on to a MacKinnon ball over the defence, while for the second he was at fault for not blocking Crawford’s speculative effort. Even so, Hamilton’s goals were very well executed and the team should be commended for withstanding typically strong home pressure from Falkirk.
With recent signing Antoine-Curier looking as dangerous in front of goal as in his previous spells at the club, there is less pressure on James Keatings to single-handedly emulate Stevie May’s success of last season. With a settled and stable defence married to a potent goal threat, Hamilton Academical should be among the candidates for promotion. JAM
2) Raith Rovers lack of options could cost them
With just a solitary defeat from the opening four league fixtures, one could argue that Raith Rovers have made a solid start to the season. However, having recorded only one victory, “unspectacular” is perhaps a more fitting description of their campaign so far. Even at this early stage, parallels with last season can be made: in 2012-13, Rovers recorded 13 draws, the joint-highest in the SFL.
The weekend’s 1-1 draw with Greenock Morton was indicative of the season so far. It was not necessarily a bad result (a point at Cappielow is an immediate improvement on last season’s two defeats) but the performance was scrappy and disjointed – aside from a late flurry, Morton looked the better side throughout.
Rovers’ starting XI is certainly an upgrade on last year’s, but the squad looks thin, a point highlighted by the team which started the previous weekend’s draw with Dundee. Injuries to Greig Spence and Liam Fox forced Grant Murray to deploy Calum Elliot in midfield and give 17-year-old Lewis Vaughan his first start, playing just behind striker Gordon Smith. Vaughan’s performance was encouraging but if two absences already constitutes an injury crisis, it does not bode well for the rest of the season.
Other than the slipshod 4-3 win at Cowdenbeath, the defence has looked reasonably competent – Dougie Hill and Paul Watson look to have developed an understanding at centre-back (the side have conceded just two goals in their last four matches, both of which came from the penalty spot). It is further forward where the team have lacked spark. Joe Cardle looked outstanding in the opening fixtures, but lately, the winger has only produced the same level of performance in fits and starts. On the other flank, Grant Anderson has gradually shown signs of last season’s form, with his looping header earning his side a point against Morton. If the pair can click, then in theory they should be able to both produce and score an abundance of goals.
It is the absence of Spence, however, that has contributed to the lack of attacking flair. Smith, his deputy, has performed well at this level before, scoring 11 goals during a loan spell with Stirling Albion in 2010-11, but is yet to impress at his new club. The forward has started three league matches, but Rovers have only scored once – without the impish Spence, the team look short of mobility and guile. Unless Murray’s side can create and, more importantly, convert their chances, the campaign could be hamstrung by a double-digit number of draws once again. SM
3) Airdrieonians are going nowhere under Jimmy Boyle
Ayr United and Airdrieonians may have shared the points, but they did not share the honours. Saturday’s match at Somerset Park was a typically rambunctious affair between two old adversaries and it finished with nine-man United leaving the pitch to a thunderous applause; Airdrie, meanwhile, will have wondered how they somehow passed up the opportunity to overcome their slump and relieve the pressure on manager Jimmy Boyle.
The Diamonds had travelled to Ayrshire sitting at the bottom of the table and following on from four consecutive home defeats in all competitions, during which they failed to score. The latter statistic was addressed after only four minutes when left-back Paddy Boyle netted from range, but once again their fragility was quickly exposed. Michael Moffat has begun the season in excellent form and equalised eight minutes later, breezing past the lumbering Mick O’Byrne before slotting beyond Andrew Duncan (the young goalkeeper started following the termination of Colin Stewart’s contract the previous day). Moffat doubled his tally shortly afterwards, finishing the good work by Anthony Marenghi and Michael Donald. Later, Ayr lost centre-back Martyn Campbell to injury and his absence might have been a contributory factor to Airdrie’s equalising goal, with Nathan Blockley, unchallenged, nodding home a Willie McLaren corner.
An entertaining match became a tempestuous one after the interval. In the 51st minute, Gordon Pope was adjudged to have stamped on O’Byrne in the penalty area; a spot-kick was awarded and Pope was dismissed. McLaren’s penalty, however, was blocked by David Hutton. The save appeared to galvanise Ayr, but young Alan Forrest seemed to get caught up in the occasion – he was sent off for a mistimed lunge four minutes later.
Despite their numerical advantage, Airdrie offered little and often looked stilted, doing nothing to adjust their approach. Ayr – driven by the outstanding Moffat – continued to attack and created the game’s best chances. They were unlucky not to win, with manager Mark Roberts describing their performance as the proudest moment of his 22-year career. His side are still unbeaten in four league games and their exertion in such trying circumstances should hold them in good stead as the campaign progresses.
Speaking after the match, Jimmy Boyle said: “To miss a penalty and not win against nine men is really disappointing. The players have had a tough time and looked jaded out there”. While playing four fixtures in 11 days (as well as the hullabaloo that surrounded their match with Rangers) may have left Boyle’s side weary, it was the complete lack of invention on the park and in the dugout that saw the Diamonds unable to make their advantage count. It was almost a repeat of their match with Stenhousemuir from earlier in the season – despite playing against ten men for the final half hour, Airdrie could not get the better of the opposition and it was the Warriors who collected the victory with a 90th minute goal.
Under Boyle (who will soon celebrate three years in charge of the club), Airdrieonians are in the doldrums. Despite signing a host of new players, the same problems that dogged them throughout last season – dreadful defending and an inability to score – have not been eradicated. According to Colin Paterson, Boyle’s side have gone more than 12 months without winning at home. The Diamonds have also recorded just two victories in 2013, have already used 23 players this season and delpoyed six different defensive combinations in their eight matches.
The point at Ayr at least doubles the campaign’s total and lifts them from the foot of the table, but so much is still required to reinvigorate this squad of young players. The international break will certainly be welcome. AG
4) Clyde’s appalling record against Elgin City continues
It is eight matches and almost two years since Clyde recorded a victory over Elgin City; maybe this time should have been different. Although Clyde manager Jim Duffy has been known to play a conservative team when taking his squad to matches in the North East (Clyde have never beaten Peterhead away from home), in Saturday’s 0-1 loss they went toe-to-toe with Elgin and can feel hard done by for leaving without a point.
Duffy set out the same team that won comprehensively at home to Queen’s Park last week, which was a win earned by solidity in the middle and penetration from the flanks. Clyde started the match in the same way at Borough Briggs, with both wingers Scott Ferguson and Stuart McColm attacking the home full-backs at every opportunity. They were ably supported by trialist Harry Monaghan in midfield but particularly by captain John Sweeney, who commanded the centre of the park and beyond in the opening period. Duffy had a clear gameplan: feed the ball down the flanks; get the wingers involved as early as possible; and cut the ball back to the strikers Michael Daly and Kevin Watt.
Elgin, in contast, didn’t appear to have much of a strategy. Dennis Wyness and Shane Sutherland started up front in an almost identical 4-4-2, but with Craig Gunn as an inverted winger on the left flank and Georgian trialist Dachi Kutsishvili on the right (who, apart from one excellent first-half cross, lost his duel with Clyde left-back Kiearan MacDonald). Although David Niven enjoyed less responsibility to hold any particular position on the pitch after his reckless calamity from centre-back at the Shire a couple of weeks ago, there was no creative presence in the middle of the park at all for Elgin – for the most part they resorted to chipped balls towards the forwards to conjure something from nothing.
As the first half progressed, Clyde pushed up the pitch and Elgin had to withstand some tangible pressure. McColm attacked Graeme Beveridge at every opportunity but his crossing was poor throughout the match. On the other flank, however, Ferguson was relishing his match against Ross McKinnon, so much so that the Elgin full-back was substituted at half-time. One moment late in the second half saw the right-winger take on Gunn and McKinnon in succession, but he failed with the final ball (as he and his colleagues did at almost every opportunity presented). Off the ball, Ferguson would hover around the edge of the box to pounce on any loose balls from long throw-ins and corners – he was almost rewarded but coaxed a photogenic Ray Jellema two-handed save that kept Ross Jack’s team level at the interval.
Clyde looked the better side until Jack brought on teenager Ali McKenzie ten minutes into the second half. His presence on the left wing released Gunn to the right and all of a sudden Elgin looked a more balanced unit. There were precious few clear-cut opportunities for either team, but Elgin managed to score with half an hour remaining. City’s best play arrived from the left flank, due to combinations by new left-back Paul McMullan and McKenzie, and it was little surprise that Wyness’s winner arrived initially from an advance and cross down the left.
Beyond that, the match probably offered even less opportunities to score. Jack moved Gunn up front as City shelled balls behind an increasingly nervous Bully Wee defence, while Duffy couldn’t conjure up anything to affect the pattern of the match. Ferguson did look threatening on the counter-attack, but continued to snatch at half-chances (one particular sliced shot when a through ball was a better option brought the unreasonable wrath of Sweeney at full-time; if the 18-year-old winger’s confidence was once high but precarious, then it might still remain shattered on a Borough Briggs dressing room floor).
In the end, Elgin’s double-substitution to better protect and attack from their left flank was able to change the outcome of the match. However, if they have aspirations of a top half-finish again this season then they still need to find some more creativity from midfield. JAM
5) Chris Smith looks like a new player at Stirling Albion
During the second half of Queen’s Park’s match with Stirling Albion, a gust of wind caught a bundle of papers from the home dugout and blew them across Hampden’s vacant plastic seats. The papers – adorned with intricate tactical doodles – were scattered in the stand in an incoherent manner: a fitting metaphor for Gardner Speirs’s general approach throughout the season so far.
Four games, four defeats. The Spiders’ poor start to the campaign continued after late goals from Sandy Cunningham and Mark Ferry gave the visiting side a deserved victory. It was a tedious contest between two poor teams but on the balance of play and the chances created, Albion were the better side. Other than a brief spell at the beginning of the second half and the general performance of goalkeeper Mark Brown, Queen’s Park offered nothing.
With injury precluding David Anderson’s participation, Speirs began the match with Tony Quinn and Mick Keenan in central midfield – such a partnership must be seen to be believed. Think of the Bash Brothers from The Mighty Ducks but with slightly less finesse and you’re in the right ballpark. QP’s flaws have been discussed elsewhere, but they bear repeating – once again, without Anderson’s dynamism, the side simply lobbed long balls towards Joao Vitoria, a tactic that failed to pay dividends. Keenan was shunted up front in the second half but the reconfiguration did little to improve the team’s play. When Vitoria was removed in 77 minutes, QP did not have a recognised striker on the pitch.
It wouldn’t have mattered anyway. On the rare occasions the Spiders did threaten, Chris Smith expertly repelled their attacks. In the air and on the ground, the centre-back strolled through the match, continually cajoling and organising his team-mates. Both player and club seem suited to one another – 12 months ago, Smith was struggling to impress at Falkirk and made only error-strewn six league appearances before joining Ayr United on loan. Despite his success in a previous spell at Somerset Park, Smith toiled and was unable to recapture his form as the side finished the season in seventh. This year, however, Smith has refocused and looks comfortable in Greig McDonald’s team. His presence has seen his new side keep two clean sheets in four league matches.
Stirling Albion’s return of nine points out of 12 is commendable, and their ability to win whilst not playing particularly well will serve them well over the course of the season. Meanwhile, Gardner Speirs must drastically rethink his approach. With the transfer window closed, the manager will not be able to source a Russ Tyler, or a Ken Wu or a Luis Mendoza; he must not abandon the principles on which the modern Queen’s Park side have been built. CGT