Five Things We Learned, 21 April 2014

1) Dundee’s slip could cost them

“He who Koops and runs away lives to Koop another day.”

The saying’s origin spans several centuries but came to this writer’s attention from King Bowser Koopa’s hackneyed catchphrase in the animated spin-off of the classic Super Mario Bros. 3 video game. It seemed apt for Dundee a few weeks ago, when they earned a point at New Douglas Park against Hamilton Academical after going ahead but then hanging on for a draw. It felt especially resonant when Hamilton could only draw with a late equaliser against Livingston last week, which handed Dundee the initiative with three matches to go.

However, Dundee’s loss at Cappielow to Greenock Morton has put any presumption for a title win into check. The Dees are now two points behind the Accies with as many matches to play for – anything less than six points from the remaining matches is likely to allow Hamilton automatic promotion.

Maybe it shouldn’t have been that way, but Dundee simply didn’t put the ball in the net when it counted. Registering 20 shots with 15 of them on target and as many as 16 corners, Morton were able to manage the pressure exerted on them before Rowan Vine’s cut back for Dougie Imrie’s sucker punch decided the outcome.

With the same line-up that battered Cowdenbeath 4-0 at Dens Park the previous week, Paul Hartley would have been foolish to change the winning team. Cammy Kerr’s exuberance from right-back and Craig Wighton’s opening goal against Cowden saw them keep their places in the visit to Inverclyde, but whereas the teenage forward found space to attack and contort John Armstrong before scoring, Morton didn’t offer the same area for the quicker players to attack into – all of Morton’s defenders were teenagers and were mobile enough to keep up with Dundee’s attacks for the most part. Hartley was unfortunate that one of the best opportunities to get behind Morton’s defence fell to Wighton’s substitute Christian Nadé shortly after coming on, but while he managed to get around the goalkeeper he didn’t have the agility nor composure to get his shot on target.

The result leaves Dundee in some kind of purgatory. They can only give their best at this stage in the knowledge that their fate is outwith their control. Having said that, Morton still have to face Falkirk and the current league leaders before the season finishes, so Vine and Imrie could still have a big say in who the Championship title goes to. JAM

 

2) Queen of the South have consolidated fourth place

It has been argued that the second tier has lacked quality this season and that either of its two most recent winners, Partick Thistle and Ross County, could have won the division in relative ease. Whether or not this would indeed be the case is nothing more the speculation but the 2013-14 Championship is making up for the lack of pizzazz with entertaining drama in its own right. Before the weekend’s matches, nine of the league’s ten participants still had something to play for. Although Livingston’s shellacking from Cowdenbeath Central Park might have reduced that figure to eight, it’s clear that as far as the Championship is concerned, the introduction of the promotion play-offs has helped to revitalise an all-too-often stagnant competition.

With the league’s top three fighting among themselves for automatic promotion , the final play-off spot is yet to be decided. Queen of the South’s fine 3-0 win over Dumbarton at the Bet Butler Stadium, however, makes them the out-and-out favourites to challenge the others for promotion. The majority of the background noise surrounding the Doonhamers has centred around Jim McIntyre, a man who seems to have a compulsion to tinker with his line-up even when it appears to be to the detriment of the team. That, together with the observation that his Queens side have something of a safety-first approach, means that he’s had a hard time winning over supporters during his first campaign as manager.

On Saturday, there was little evidence of those foibles as a clinical Queens team put a huge dent in Dumbarton’s top-four aspirations. The Sons were heavily fancied to win at the weekend, something that highlighted both clubs’ form going into the encounter – Dumbarton had closed the gap after convincing wins over Alloa Athletic and Raith Rovers, while Queens’ wavered between poor and mediocre during consecutive defeats to Falkirk and Raith.

McIntyre (as expected) made changes for the weekend’s match, not just in terms of personnel but also to the dynamic of the side. Chris Higgins sensibly made way for Kevin Holt at left-back, Mark Kerr replaced Steven McKenna in the middle of the park and Michael Paton was brought in at the expense of Gavin Reilly further forward. Perhaps the biggest surprise was Iain Russell starting a three-pronged attack alongside Paton and Derek Lyle. While McIntyre had resisted the urge to play Russell as a central striker this season, his deployment through the middle was a sound move. Dumbarton’s centre-halves Andy Graham and the ageing Mark McLaughlin struggled to contain the elusive, pacy striker and it was the former’s mistake that allowed Russell to nod the ball over Jamie Ewings to open the scoring.

The match swung on one pivotal moment in the second-half. After Chris Kane’s shot was well blocked by Zander Clark, Queens marched straight down the other end to double their advantage after good work again from Russell and a tidy finish from Lyle. It was 18 seconds from Clark’s save to Lyle’s strike; in that time, Dumbarton’s play-off hopes went from feasible to fanciful. Kevin Holt’s excellent half-volley finished off the match and with a three-point advantage and a superior goal difference over Dumbarton, Queens could cement their fourth place finish this Saturday at home to Livingston.

While McIntyre’s decision to move Russell into the middle may have been the game’s biggest talking point, the return to the team of Mark Kerr was also a significant boost to the away side, and his signing at the start of February appears to be an astute piece of business from McIntyre. Kerr was absent against Falkirk and Raith Rovers due to injury, and that may go some way to explaining Queens’ poor performance in both fixtures. With Kerr in the side, the Doonhamers have lost on only three occasions, all against the division’s top two sides. Kerr was much derided at Dundee and Partick Thistle but he appears to have found his level in the Championship. If the 32-year-old can remain fit he could have a major say on how well the Dumfries club fare in the play-offs, should they confirm their place over the coming weeks.

McIntyre might have come under fire for some of his more curious decisions this season but it appears that by hook or by crook, Queen of the South are going to end up where most fans felt they would be. Whether or not that’s enough for the the manager to win over his doubters, however, remains to be seen. SM

 

3) Cowdenbeath are still just about gasping

Cowdenbeath came off 0-5 and 0-4 thrashings from two of the division’s top three to deliver a resounding 4-0 win of their own at home to Livingston. The result leaves them still needing two wins from their remaining matches to have a chance of leapfrogging Alloa Athletic out of the play-off spot. As Alloa have been plotted against the top three in the season’s remaining games, the opportunity for Cowdenbeath to escape the clutches of relegation for the second consecutive season still seems just about real.

Cowden were led by example in two goals each from John Armstrong and Kane Hemmings. Armstrong’s opener at the stroke of half-time from a header was matched by another with under 20 minutes to play to bookend the scoring, but “Chopper”‘s goal-scoring would have extended to the defender’s first senior hat-trick but for expert goalkeeping from Darren Jamieson. Hemmings’s double means that he has averaged a goal every other match in the Championship this season, which is staggering form for a forward playing for a club in the league’s bottom two – he has been rumoured (but not confirmed) to be joining Dundee along with strike partner Greg Stewart in the summer, but he might be wise to keep his counsel until he has the occasion to showcase his qualities in high-pressure matches.

Jimmy Nicholl appears to have found a balanced side at the moment and it would be foolish to tinker with the existing combination for the run-in. The midfield combination currently does not include Jon Robertson, who Nicholl appears to find difficult to get the best out of – Robertson’s play is at its best when he has the licence to burst forward, but with Lewis Milne currently operating a similar if not slightly more creative role from Robertson’s best position, trying to shoehorn him into the team could be foolhardy. As it is, there is balance to the team with pace, strength and a little craft that should help towards scoring the goals needed to win the last couple of games.

Cowdenbeath’s last two matches are against Raith Rovers and Queen of the South, two sides who will and might have little left to play for respectively when facing Jimmy Nicholl’s men. A lot still depends on Alloa not taking a couple of points from their last two games, but the thumping of Livi showed that with something more to play for, as well as one of the division’s best strikers, Cowden can be fierce opponents. Can they achieve the unexpected and record three successive wins in the league for the first time since August 2012? JAM

 

4) Ally McCoist’s short-term approach is sacrificing Rangers’ long-term progress

Rangers’ season is, for all intents and purposes, finished. After losing out to Raith Rovers in the Ramsdens Cup final, most supporters had conceded that the campaign was more or less over (although the club still had a Scottish Cup semi-final with Dundee United to contest, many believed their chances of them prevailing were slim). With six dead rubber league fixtures remaining, Ally McCoist was presented with the ideal opportunity to give the club’s younger players some valuable first team experience. The match against Forfar Athletic on Tuesday 15 April wasn’t appropriate – Gordon Durie’s U-20 side had contested a league match with Partick Thistle two days previously and might not have been in the best condition to be thrown into a league match – but the weekend’s fixture with Stenhousemuir should have been the moment to play the young academy prospects.

Instead, McCoist, as he has done in almost every match this season, selected his strongest, most experienced side for the match at Ochilview and his team, as they have done in almost every match this season, cruised to victory. They were not spectacular – they rarely are – but they turned in an efficient, clinical performance. It was a reasonably even contest for the first half hour but Stevie Smith’s low volley, hit sharply and with precision, turned the match in Rangers’ favour. Dean Shiels added a second shortly afterwards before a Lee McCulloch penalty on 65 minutes and a fine strike from Nicky Law secured the win. Stenhousemuir didn’t necessarily play badly, they just didn’t ask enough of their opponents.

Rangers are on course to finish the league season unbeaten, but many supporters are utterly apathetic at the prospect. Only Ally McCoist appears concerned with maintaining his team’s streak. While his side can only beat what’s in front of them, there is nothing impressive about a club with such handsome resources beating modest opposition. With every defeat bringing fresh scrutiny, McCoist has avoided fielding any awkward questions with his side calibrated to ensure victory, but at what cost? Players like Charlie Telfer (who replaced Shiels for the final 22 minutes), Craig Halkett and Danny Stoney are highly thought of and should have bright futures at Rangers ahead of them but if they aren’t featuring in the first team now, when will they? This manager is not interested in player development – when recruits are required for next season, why bother promoting from within when you can just chuck money elsewhere?

Rangers play Ayr United at Ibrox tomorrow night, but there is little doubt that the manager will field his strongest XI. This is another wasted opportunity for the club and their youngsters. CGT

 

5) Albion Rovers’ poor season continues

At the beginning of the season, Peterhead and Albion Rovers were considered to be the two sides likeliest to contest the League 2 championship. While the Blue Toon overcame a poor sequence of results in the opening quarter to win the division, the Rovers’ season has been toilsome. The teams faced each other at Balmoor, with the home side prevailing 2-0 courtesy of Rory McAllister’s brace. There is no shame in losing to a team of Peterhead’s calibre, but Rovers’ latest defeat hints at a deeper malaise. Yes, their Scottish Cup run was fantastic and will allow the club to prosper over the coming years but their recent league form has been rotten – they have won twice in their last eight matches, one of the poorest records in the league.

Manager James Ward recently agreed terms to extend his contract until the end of the 2014-15 season but with each passing week, it looks increasingly misguided move on the part of chairman John Devlin. That the club were out of contention to finish the season in a play-off place several weeks ago is a damning indictment of a campaign that has gone awry. It was commented on at the time but the decision to rest the entire first XI in preparation for the Scottish Cup quarter-final with Rangers backfired spectacularly as they were turned over by Queen’s Park, losing 4-0. At the time, the club were six points behind Stirling Albion in fourth; now, they will finish the season in mid-table. They were distracted and have paid the price.

Ward has signed up a number of key personnel in time for next season but there must be immediate improvement if the club are to win promotion to League 1. A repeat of this campaign will not be acceptable. Winning the next two matches against Clyde and Queen’s Park would go a little way to finishing the season on an optimistic note. 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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