1) All is not well at Dumbarton
There is little doubt Dumbarton will chalk up this season as a success. Although their Championship safety was secured with six games to go, the Sons never looked like joining Livingston, Alloa Athletic or Cowdenbeath in a relegation stramash at any point. They will now take their place in the second tier for a fourth consecutive campaign, a feat they haven’t matched since the high watermark of the early 1980s. With all this in mind, it might seem peculiar to suggest there’s something amiss at the club, but beneath the shiny veneer there’s a feeling that things at the Rock aren’t running entirely as they should.
Saturday’s 1-3 loss to Rangers was no great surprise; indeed, it was probably to be expected. That it was the result of another substandard performance, however, is what rankles. It’s been pointed out elsewhere that some players had looked like they’d downed tools after their league status was confirmed last month (and, to some extent, that would be understandable) but it would be wrong to suggest their malaise was recent: in 2015, Dumbarton have taken just 11 points, the joint-fewest in the division. In short, they’ve been underperforming for months, not weeks.
Despite their poor form, the Sons started the weekend’s match well and took the lead in the second minute when Mark Wilson clattered an angled shot beyond Cammy Bell. Any hopes they would take their first points from Rangers, however, were dashed after Ryan Hardie, making his debut for the club, equalised eight minutes later and then put them ahead just after the interval. A howitzer from Haris Vuckic put the seal on a comfortable victory.
That Rangers didn’t win by a greater margin was largely down to Danny Rogers in the Dumbarton goal and a strong showing from centre-back Stuart Findlay (unlike their team-mates, the pair have continued to impress in recent months). Without them, one can only wonder if Dumbarton would have enjoyed such an easy ride this season. It creates something of a quandary for Ian Murray going into the summer, as Rogers and Findlay will be returning to their parent clubs in May (Aberdeen and Celtic respectively).
It’s just part of the rebuilding process the manager will be required to undertake in the close season, and while Murray has used the loan market to his advantage this year (St Johnstone’s Chris Kane can also be considered a success), his permanent acquisitions have been more miss than hit. Archie Campbell and David van Zanten have failed to improve the team while Lee Mair, frozen out of the squad since January over a clause in his contract, made some scathing comments about the club and the manager last week. Murray chose not to respond.
It can be foolish to make a judgment based on one side of a story, but if the rumours of a falling out with Colin Nish are also to be believed, it would appear the manager might have difficulties dealing with older, more experienced players. Toss in the criticism of the squad after last week’s shellacking at Alloa and there is sense that Murray is becoming increasingly frustrated with his lot.
It will be interesting to see if he has the willingness to oversee the restructuring over the next few months, or if he feels as though he’s taken Dumbarton as far as he can. Murray’s stock is probably a little lower than it was 12 months ago and might decrease further if his side make a poor start to the new season. Whatever happens, it will be a summer of upheaval for the Sons of the Rock. SM
2) A point is good, but not good enough for Alloa Athletic
A point against one of the Championship’s most in-form sides would normally be considered a good result, but a point isn’t enough for Alloa Athletic, not at this late stage anyway. The 2-2 draw with Queen of the South has moved them a little bit further away from Livingston at the bottom and a little bit closer to Cowdenbeath in eighth, but the Wasps are still stuck in the relegation play-off place. They were probably the better side over the piece, particularly in the second half where they enjoyed long periods of dominance – they just couldn’t turn their good play into something more tangible.
On days like Saturday, there is no finer ground in the country to watch football than Recreation Park. The sky was a deep, luxurious azure and the Ochil hills rolled lovingly behind the Railway End. It is a pity the quality throughout the first half was not befitting of the gorgeous weather. After ten minutes, nothing happened. After 20 minutes, nothing happened. After 30 minutes, nothing happened. After 40 minutes, something happened. Alloa won a corner in questionable circumstances – Iain Flannigan’s swirling kick was met by Ben Gordon and the big defender flicked the ball into the net with a swish of his forehead.
The second half, however, was a thoroughly entertaining affair. Alloa looked to build on their lead and began stringing a series of nice passes together and then all of sudden they found themselves trailing, Danny Carmichael, Queens’ best player, sashayed into the box before tumbling over Kyle Benedictus’s clumsy trip; Derek Lyle sent John Gibson the wrong way from the spot. And two minutes later, Carmichael countered after a poor Alloa free-kick, breaking upfield with pace before whipping over a superb ball for Mark Millar to chest and then drive home.
With his bandaged hand and a visible paunch, Millar looks like one of those dazzlingly mercurial talents you occasionally find on a municipal pitch on a Sunday afternoon. The way he finished the match also resembled something from the amateur leagues – two minutes from time, the midfielder reacted badly to Michael Doyle’s challenge and nuzzled his forehead into the full-back’s face. He was sent off and waddled off the pitch, gesturing to the home support. Millar looked like Mr Bean cruising down a Los Angeles freeway.
Before then, Liam Buchanan had scored a fine goal to tie the game. Latching onto Michael Chopra’s clever flick, he drove into the box, sent Andy Dowie the wrong way and then finished inside Zander Clark’s post. Chopra is another player obviously lacking in fitness but he showed class throughout his 27-minute appearance, rarely wasting possession and opening up new and unexplored avenues with his intelligent touches. He almost set up Buchanan moments after his equaliser, putting the striker through after a sequence of one-touch passes, but the effort was blocked. A draw was the fairest outcome.
(As an aside, Alloa manager Danny Lennon is tremendous value on the sidelines. “Danny! Tell him to get it in earlier than that!” shouted one fan from the main stand after Michael Doyle dithered when in a good position. “You’re right, I’m sorry,” deadpanned Lennon. “I’ll speak to him after the match and tell him to get it in quicker.” He also warned Daryll Meggat to “watch out” for Derek Lyle’s ice-white teeth at one point.)
Queens will be content with the draw – they now have a five-point advantage over Falkirk and require just one more to be sure of their place within the play-offs; it is as simple as that. Alloa, meanwhile, are shaping up for a do-or-die encounter with Cowdenbeath on the final day of the season but if they are able to take the same level of performance into the contest, they’ll have an strong chance of succeeding. The defensive unit looked solid, the full-backs were adventurous, the midfield options complemented one another, and Buchanan was vibrant up front. That said: another display of dominance without the decisive blow will not be good enough if they are to survive. CGT
3) Brechin City are dark horses
Between mid-October and the end of February, Brechin City were in exemplary form, winning nine and drawing eight of their 17 matches to put themselves into pole position for the final play-off spot ahead of League 1’s middling sides Dunfermline Athletic, Airdrieonians and Peterhead. Just four points from a possible 18 in March threatened to open the door but after bouncing back with a fine win at Cappielow a fortnight ago, the Hedgemen all but confirmed their promotion play-off spot on Saturday with an uncomplicated 3-0 victory over the Pars.
Two players were key to the result a Glebe Park: Dunfermline right-back Ross Millen and Brechin’s playmaker Alan Trouten, making his first start after a six-game absence. The duo were involved in the match’s defining moment after 13 minutes – as Ewan McNeil was readying himself to hoist a free-kick from just within the Dunfermline half into the Angus sunshine, Millen clashed with Trouten and appeared to elbow him in the back. Referee John McKendrick struggled to eventually whip out the red card from his shirt pocket but he was unmoved by the 20-year-old’s protestations.
Andy Geggan moved back from midfield to fill in for Millen as the Pars reshaped as a 4-3-2, but Brechin quickly converted their numerical advantage into dominance and it wasn’t long before they went ahead. With 25 minutes on the clock, Andy Jackson turned Lewis Spence and poked Jamie Masson’s pass forward to Trouten, who lashed the ball across goalkeeper Ryan Scully into the net from the edge of the area. Four minutes later and had Trouten doubled home side’s advantage. McNeil and Masson again linked up on the City right, Masson collecting a McNeil throw in and bundling his way forward, and the midfielder got a shot away that Scully could only parry; it fell to Trouten to knock home for his 16th goal of the season.
This callow Dunfermline side have shown little resolve this season and the match was effectively finished before the half-hour. It was definitely over in the 64th minute when Jackson’s persistence paid off and he scored Brechin’s third goal after good work by Bobby Barr, a constant nuisance to the visitors throughout the game. Substitute Faissal El Bakhtaoui twice came close to a consolation, denied by a foot of the post and then Graeme Smith, but McKinnon’s side comfortably held out for the victory. They now need just one more point from their last two matches (at Stenhousemuir, then home to Stranraer) to be assured of making the play-offs.
The result ended Dunfermline’s slim chances of escaping League 1 and saw them slump to seventh position. A statement issued by their board expressed their “deep disappointment” and hinted at further change in the summer. Certainly, John Potter’s earlier-than-expected accession to the manager’s hot seat in December has failed to spark an upturn in form: Jim Jefferies’s points-per-game record stood at 1.69 when he stood aside after 16 league games; in 18 matches under Potter, the Pars have averaged just 1.17. It was also telling that none of Potter’s six January signings started the match. The club can ill afford profligacy in the transfer market or an extended stay in Scottish football’s third tier – where do they go from here?
Where Brechin City go, they hope, is into the Championship for the first time in a decade. They have tackled the play-offs on five previous attempts but with no success. This year could be different, and Alan Trouten – who won promotion via the play-offs at Glebe Park in 2011 with Ayr United – is set to be a key figure. The 29-year-old was expected to miss the remainder of the season when he suffered broken ribs against Peterhead in March but has made a speedy recovery. Jamie Masson, a rangy midfielder who has returned on loan from Aberdeen, Bobby Barr and Andy Jackson are also finishing the season strongly. City will enter the play-offs unburdened with the mental anguish of narrowly missing out on the title (Stranraer, Forfar or Morton) or a long battle against relegation (Cowdenbeath, Alloa Athletic or Livingston) – Ray McKinnon’s side could well be the dark horses. AG
4) Albion Rovers are champions
The waiting is over – Albion Rovers are League 2 champions. Darren Young and his players might have taken the tourist’s route to get there on Saturday but their thrilling 3-2 North Lanarkshire derby victory over Clyde will live long in the memory. The old adage is that the table never lies – Rovers will end this season in first place and deservedly so. This has been a true team effort.
At 3.30pm under blue skies and warm sunshine at Broadwood Stadium, the champagne wasn’t so much on ice but being sent back to the off-licence. Clyde were 2-0 up thanks to headers from Brian McQueen, filling a gap at centre-forward these days, and David Marsh. Rovers were without influential centre-back Mick Dunlop due to suspension and he was sorely missed in defence. His younger brother Ross partnered Kyle Turnbull – moved from his usual left-back slot – in the middle while midfielders Gary Fisher and Gary Phillips were deployed at full-back. This wasn’t the unit which has helped keep 16 clean sheets this term and they struggled, particularly with aerial deliveries from the flanks. It could be successfully argued that Mick’s importance to the team became more apparent the moment he was unavailable for selection.
On-loan Motherwell forward Chris Cadden pulled a goal back just before the break with the sweetest of volleys and it prompted a momentum shift. The Bully Wee had looked comfortable (and should have been further ahead, in fact) but confidence is fragile and self-doubt a terrible affliction. Rovers were not about to leave an opportunity knocking at the front door. At half-time the favoured 4-2-3-1 shape was shelved and John Gemmell replaced Scott Chaplain to partner Mark McGuigan in attack as Rovers went 4-4-2 in pursuit of automatic promotion.
The second half belonged to the men from Coatbridge’s Main Street. Granted, there was the occasional sharp intake of breath when Clyde foraged in the final third but the industry, creativity and drive was with the visitors. “The Beast” levelled with a header from Turnbull’s free-kick which ‘keeper Alan Martin could only palm into the roof of the net, before Fisher advanced into the area and curled a beautiful shot into the far top corner to seal a dramatic seventh win in nine games.
There were a few spells of uncertainty at the final whistle before social media provided the information that Rovers’ closest rivals Queen’s Park had only drawn at Arbroath meaning the championship had been clinched. Nearly 200 travelling fans lapped it up as the players and coaching staff danced and sang in front of them. Special scenes, then, particularly for the generations who had not seen the club win a league title before.
The League 2 trophy and winners’ medals will be presented at Cliftonhill this Saturday after Rovers’ final home match of the campaign against Arbroath. The target when Young replaced James Ward as manager last June was promotion and that objective has been met. There is some breathing space and time to enjoy this achievement but attention will naturally turn to building for next term. Young will want to push on, recalling the back-to-back promotions secured at Alloa Athletic during his time at Recreation Park, but that success may be harder to replicate in area where the support for the club is passionate and fiercely loyal but frustratingly small. CP
5) Annan Athletic are still candidates for the play-offs
Jim Chapman’s Annan Athletic side had held fourth spot in League 2 for eight rounds of fixtures in the season, before recently sliding back into what seemed like the mid-table obscurity of seventh place. A 2-1 home win against extant play-off candidates East Fife, however, has the Galabankies sitting three points behind the Fifers with just six left to play for. Annan will be hopeful of other results going their way, but if they can win their last two matches – away to rivals Elgin City and home to Montrose on the final day – then they could well finish in the last of the play-off spots.
The win against East Fife ended a three-match winless run, but if Annan area to leapfrog both them and Elgin then they will need to do something they haven’t been able to all season: win three matches in succession. Indeed, they’ve only won twice in a row in three separate occasions during the campaign, which in itself suggests that sneaking into fourth place might be too much of an ask, but what better time is there than in the last couple of matches of the season to prove the form of challenging for promotion? The form guide itself can never be a true barometer of a side’s prospects, of course, but Annan showed in their win both the strength in character to pull through important matches and their defensive frailties that can be their undoing.
Ryan McStay had an influential match for Athletic, threading passes finely from middle to front, but he had an immediate impact in scoring from a set-piece in the second minute – Andy Mitchell gave everyone the eyes to be crossing into the box, deceiving all but McStay who strolled on to the cut back to place a shot beyond Allan Fleming from outside the penalty area. It wasn’t too long later, however, when Nathan Austin earned a penalty for East Fife by using his pace and power to surge into the box with the ball and get one-on-one against Steven Black – Austin’s fall to the turf was as sudden as it was dramatic, but Black undoubtedly infringed the striker for the spot kick to be awarded. Fraser Mullen had the opportunity to bring East Fife back into the match but wasted his penalty high and wide of the goal frame.
Austin didn’t have to wait to make another impact on the match, but it was the fine work by Julen Etxabeguren that turned defence into attack, carrying the ball forward while under pressure from Peter Weatherson, that gave Austin the opportunity to shine. Etxabeguren’s reverse pass with the outside of his right foot took Austin away from goal, but he got to the ball seconds ahead of Black in ominous fashion – Austin turned to face it and, in the blink of an eye, shuffled the ball on to his left foot before powering a short-range shot inside Jordan Hart’s near post.
Both teams had chances to win the match and neither side looked like convincing winners on the balance of play. Steven Logan came on for Annan at half-time for Mitchell and had a shot that seemed destined for inside the far post from outside the box, but Jonathan Page stooped low to divert the ball narrowly past the post for a corner kick. Page himself wasn’t far away from a header at an East Fife corner. Austin was still causing problems for the Annan defence and his work set Kevin Smith free on the left side of the box, but his shot was deflected away by Hart. Sean Dickson played a pass into Austin’s stride but the shot from a tight angle evaded the goal. Weatherson flicked over for Annan. The draw seemed the most likely conclusion from the chances missed, but Black redeemed himself on a difficult afternoon with a dangerous last-minute cross into the box for Martin McNiff to head in at the back post for the win.
East Fife’s own patchy form doesn’t bode well for the play-offs if they reach them, having failed to earn successive wins since the beginning of March. Fate is still in their hands with a three-point advantage over Annan and two on Elgin, but any more slip-ups will allow one of the other clubs to steal their place. Annan will be hoping that a couple of wins for them and a convenient draw at Bayview on the last day will see them finish in the top four for the second successive season. Don’t count against it yet. JAM