Five Things We Learned, 20 January 2014

1) Blair Alston could be the answer to Falkirk’s transfer blues

At a time when most managers will be looking externally to boost their squads, Falkirk’s Gary Holt might just have found the solution internally. Prior to Saturday’s fine 2-0 victory over Cowdenbeath, last season’s Scottish Cup hero Blair Alston had been a peripheral figure for the best part of the season. However, with Jay Fulton having turned in a series of lackadaisical performances (the young midfielder has perhaps looked distracted of late, his head turned with all the recent transfer speculation), Alston was brought into the Bairns’ starting XI for the first time since October and his clear ability to make a telling difference was central to their finest display in over six weeks.

Against Cowden, Alston’s direct presence appeared to lift the players around him. Craig Sibbald, so often jaded over the course of the season, looked to have returned to his creative best while the deep-lying Conor McGrandles produced a series of exquisite touches. The lack of dynamism which had tainted recent matches (most notably the 0-0 home draw with Alloa Athletic) was gone, and Alston could have even scored on the 62nd minute only for his fierce drive to be superbly turned around the post by Thomas Flynn.

Alston’s recent absence from the first team drew questions from the Falkirk support. Was there an issue with his attitude? Or was it ignorance at management level of his ability to produce? If the player can maintain the same level of performance for the remainder of the season, he can play a key part in his club’s bid for promotion to the Premiership. Equally as crucial will be their outgoing transfers. As well as Fulton, defenders Stephen Kingsley and Will Vaulks have been linked with moves elsewhere, with the latter having spent a period on trial with Blackburn Rovers. The three players could even depart before the weekend’s home tie with Dundee. The match should provide an indication as to how Falkirk’s season will develop – a win could lift them to the summit of the division, but defeat might see them having to settle for a play-off place. RC

 

2) Raith Rovers SAD continues

There appears to be something about the onset of winter which brings about a destabilising effect on Raith Rovers. It has become a longstanding joke amongst the Rovers support about how the team, regardless of personnel, always seems to struggle as soon as the clocks go back; after the latest loss, a 0-1 defeat to Queen of the South, it is a gag that has started to wear thin.

Grant Murray’s side began November in second place, two points behind Championship leaders Hamilton Academical and two ahead of Dundee in third. Since then, however, a run of two wins from ten matches has seen them slip into fifth and fall some distance behind the division’s top three sides, all of whom each have a game in hand.

Seeing a promising start sullied by a winter slump has now become expected. During the 2009-10 First Division campaign, Rovers sat in third at the beginning of November but won just five games thereafter and eventually finished the season in seventh. A good start in 2011-12 was undone after the club collected six wins from November onwards and ended the season flirting dangerously with relegation. And last term, Rovers had clambered into fourth midway through – yes! – November but ended in sixth after winning six times in their remaining 25 league matches.

Of course, these slumps have little to do with falling temperatures or the dwindling daylight. The club tend to have a relatively small squad and often struggle to cope with injuries and suspensions during the most hectic period of the season. When the team loses momentum – that great footballing buzzword – they can find it something difficult to regain and the worry for Murray is that history, yet again, is repeating itself.

Saturday’s match at Palmerston was a microcosm of Rovers’ recent malaise. While the side’s strikers have understandably come under scrutiny for a sequence of four wins without a goal, the rest of the team are failing to create chances and are leaving Calum Elliot and Greig Spence with little to work with. A case in point is the current form of the left flank – at the beginning of the season, Callum Booth and Joe Cardle were one of the division’s most potent attacking combinations, generating six goals and 15 assists between them. Against Queens, however, the pair struggled to cause any distress amongst the opposition defence and it wasn’t until the 65th minute when Booth overlapped Cardle to supply a cross. For whatever reason, the pair have badly lost their spark and ingenuity. Elsewhere, Kevin Moon is lacking the guile he started the season with while Spence is visibly lacking in confidence – he may have nine goals to his credit this season, but eight of them were scored by October.

In contrast, Queens are starting to generate the impetus that Rovers are lacking and their victory was the first time this season they won back-to-back league matches. It wasn’t pretty, and their second half tactic of ceding territory to their opponents and sitting deep might have been exploited by better opposition, but it was enough to ensure the win. Jim McIntyre is yet to convince all of his doubters but his side have now won six and drawn one of their last ten games. Over the last eight Championship games, only Falkirk have collected more points that the Doonhamers.

It is difficult to understand just how Raith Rovers can reclaim their early season form. The team need to rediscover the zest which marked the first quarter otherwise the campaign could fizzle out long before winter turns to spring. SM

 

3) Barrie McKay shone beyond Stefan Scougall’s shadow

Well, they finally did it. They finally won a game. Away from home, as well! The comeback is on for Greenock Morton!

In Saturday’s match against Livingston at Almondvale, Morton restricted their hosts to shots from range in a thoroughly meek performance – especially compared to the dynamism in midfield that helped usurp Dundee in their previous match. When before they had an extra layer of richness to their midfield that had the potential to make it stand out from the rest of mid-table, now you only need to peel away at the icing to see the deceptively plain flavour in the middle.

It’s remarkable what one player can do to the prospects of a team. Coll Donaldson was also absent from the team that won against Dundee due to a likely transfer to England, but it was Stefan Scougall’s presence that was missed the most. It wasn’t too long ago that we mused on Scougall’s influence under John McGlynn, despite his undeniable ability, but the defeat at home to Morton showed that it was the small details that make him such a good player that gave Livi enough quality to create chances around the penalty area.

Not that Morton made it easy for them. Kenny Shiels is instilling a sense of organisation at the back that saw his side collect a second consecutive clean sheet, which happened to be only their fourth of the league season. Shiels is rebuilding the previously shattered confidence of left-back Marc Fitzpatrick to the point where it seems unfeasible that he played so poorly (and so predictably) only a month ago. His gamble on refashioning Darren Cole’s career appears to be paying off and Thomas Peciar has finally settled down to become a respectable defender in the Championship.

It helps that the defence is screened so well. Scott Taggart and Fouad Bachirou have designated roles in the team to sit in the middle of the park, break up the play and to stop the opposition from getting in to the box. Although Taggart has converted from his previous full-back role well enough, neither he nor Bachirou are particularly equipped to dictate play from deep midfield positions, but as long as the front four are capable of taking goals for themselves then that shouldn’t matter as much. Without Scougall to beat a player and open up angles, Livi were never much of a trouble to Morton.

Indeed, for the remaining few weeks that Shiels has Barrie McKay to play off Garry O’Connor, Morton must make the most of his ability to play the attacking midfield role in Shiels’s 4-2-3-1 set-up. Getting him to stay until the end of the season from Rangers would be a coup, because with he, Dougie Imrie and David Robertson, Morton now seem to have something of a competitive attacking unit behind O’Connor, even if the latter is still nowhere near as sharp as he ought to be.

Ultimately, Morton are still 15 points and a significantly inferior goal difference from eight place in the league, with only 15 matches left to play for. If Shiels can cultivate an unbeaten run then who knows where they will end up, but we now know they won’t go down without a fight. JAM

 

4) Brechin City’s new approach could lift them into the play-off places

It was a day of upsets in League 1, with all three fixtures ending in victory for the unfancied, lower ranked sides. A first clean sheet since November 2012 and a stunning strike from Caolan McAleer earned tenth place Airdrieonians a 1-0 win at Dunfermline Athletic (remarkably, the Diamonds’ last three away wins have all come at East End Park); ninth place Arbroath ended an 11-game winless run after coming from behind to beat Stenhousemuir 2-1 with goals from Chris Scott and Dayle Robertson; and Brechin City defeated Ayr United 3-1 at Somerset Park.

The results saw Airdrie and Arbroath move within five and three points respectively of East Fife, inactive as a consequence of Stair Park’s waterlogged pitch, but they both still remain embroiled in a relegation tussle. Brechin, meanwhile, joined Stenhousemuir and Forfar Athletic on 25 points (five ahead of East Fife) and, at long last, they can start to look towards the promotion play-off places. Key personnel are gradually returning to form and fitness, new recruits are widely expected to join before the transfer window closes, and it seems as though Ray McKinnon is beginning to turn things around after a hugely disappointing first half of the season.

Against Ayr, Gerry McLauchlan, Jonny Brown and trialist Ryan Ferguson came in for Steven Jackson, Steven Robb and Derek Carcary as McKinnon elected to begin the match with a conservative line-up. McLauchlan slotted in alongside Ewan Moyes and Graham Hay to form the fulcrum of a back five, protected by an energetic midfield four who each took turns to break forward to support the hardworking Andy Jackson. As the game progressed, it was the perfect approach – once again, Mark Roberts was tactically outsmarted, but the manager could not have legislated for the appalling defending that afforded the opposition a two-goal advantage before half-time.

After just ten minutes, United were forced into a defensive change when the ever-fragile Martyn Campbell wad forced off with a hamstring complaint. Two minutes later, Kyle McAusland allowed McLauchlan to drift off him and expertly direct Bobby Barr’s corner into the net (McLauchlan has five career goals, four of which have come against Ayr). By the half-hour mark, Brechin doubled their advantage. Ryan Ferguson crossed the ball from the right, Alan Lithgow flailed hopelessly and the ball was deflected in off McAusland at the near post. Neither player was under any pressure from a red shirt. From this point onwards, the third Brechin goal was always more likely than an Ayr comeback.

After taking just one point from their first eight away games (at Somerset Park in September), Brechin have now won three-in-a-row on the road and four of their last six games. Deploying a five-man defence – particularly away from home – could perhaps give Brechin the defensive solidity they have not been able to find with their deep-lying midfield pairing in a 4-2-3-1 formation. In attack, Andy Jackson can be relied on for endeavour and with assistance from an enthusiastic midfield, McKinnon just might have solved his team’s shortcomings.

A home tie with Dunfermline Athletic and trip to face Rangers at Ibrox should see McKinnon adopt the same approach, and both teams could be frustrated if his side are able to repeat Saturday’s approach and resolute performance. A run of results in their favour could legitimately see Brechin’s aspirations change from simply remaining in the division to eyeing a late charge into the promotion play-off places. AG

 

5) Hey Mickey! You’re so fine! You’re so fine you blow my mind!

If Twitter and internet forums are sufficient barometers to gauge the mood of a club’s support, then the appointment of Colin Cameron as the new player-manager of Berwick Rangers was met with the same levels of enthusiasm as the reformation of a reasonably successful nineties pop band, or the birth of a minor royal. When the news was announced on Tuesday afternoon, Berwick’s official Twitter account was inundated with well-wishers congratulating the club on their business, while fans took to message boards to exclaim their delight at his recruitment. It is difficult to remember the last time a managerial appointment was met with such universal acclaim.

Cameron replaced Ian Little, dismissed following last weekend’s 1-4 defeat at Annan Athletic. In a brief statement on the club website explaining their decision, Berwick chairman Brian Porteous said: “The Board felt that they needed to act given that we are third bottom in League 2 and getting further adrift from a play-off position. We have not been able to get any consistency and feel that we should at least be in the top four and simply need to move forward quickly before it is too late”. Although Little achieved a fourth place finish last term, repeating the feat this year seemed beyond him. Berwick were never able to rouse themselves and climb into the division’s upper echelons – good results were followed by bad and for all their attractive play, they were too soft-centred to be considered a genuine threat.

There are still deficiencies within the squad that must be addressed, but the employment of a manager of Cameron’s calibre is a huge step in a positive direction. His brief managerial career has been, by and large, a successful one – he won the 2011-12 Division Two title with Cowdenbeath and then kept them in a competitive First Division the following year. His final months at Central Park were soiled by a combination of poor signings and unimaginative performances, but it should not detract from his overall achievements at the club.

Cameron’s first game with Berwick was an unqualified triumph. His side obliterated Stirling Albion 4-0 and turned in their finest performance of the season. They began the match in a 4-3-3 formation, with the 41-year-old manager selecting himself in midfield alongside Lee Currie and Paul Currie (after leaving Cowden in November, Cameron made several appearances for Burntisland Shipyard to maintain his match fitness), and it took just 14 seconds for them to open the scoring when Darren Lavery headed home from close range. Full-back Dean Hoskins added a second after 35 minutes, while a second half penalty from Lee Currie and a wonderful strike from Paul Currie completed the scoring. Cameron removed himself after the hour as his team professionally closed out the remainder of the match.

To conclude a miserable afternoon, Stirling finished the match with ten men – having made a triple substitution at the interval, an injury to Kieran McAnespie early in the second half saw his enforced withdrawal. One of the season’s most perplexing questions is just how such an insipid side have spent the majority of the campaign occupying one of the play-off positions. Should their torpor continue, then serious questions must be asked of Greig MacDonald because such negativity cannot be allowed to continue.

Is Berwick’s victory a one-off, the kind of anomaly achieved with a motivated group of players keen to impress their new manager? Or is this the beginning of a sustained run of form that will catapult them up the table? Forthcoming fixtures against Albion Rovers and Clyde should offer a greater indication of how the team will acquit themselves for the remainder of the season, but everyone connected with the club should be delighted with Cameron’s first match in charge. It could not have gone any better. 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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