1) A point highlights differing concerns of Hamilton Academical and Raith Rovers
It was two points dropped for Hamilton Academical and one gained for Raith Rovers. Their 1-1 draw at New Douglas Park highlighted issues for both teams that, if not properly addressed, could ultimately upset their progress this season.
Hamilton really should have put the game beyond the visitors long before the interval. James Keatings’ goal on 31 minutes, his eighth of the season, gave them a deserved lead. However, they were unable to capitalise on their numerical advantage after Rovers’ Dougie Hill was sent off shortly afterwards and eventually succumbed to a Calum Elliot penalty with 20 minutes remaining. The result means Hamilton have only won twice in seven games – something which is either a blipor which hints at a deeper malaise.
Poor finishing, particularly in the final 15 minutes of the first half, cost Hamilton victory, and their lack of goals is fast becoming a real concern. Keatings generally did well and although Mikael Antoine-Curier did his best to unsettle the makeshift Rovers defence, he was nothing more than an infrequent nuisance. Faced with limited alternatives, manager Alex Neil will presumably be hoping that 19-year-old Andrew Ryan, who joined Brechin City on a month-long loan last week, will return a better player and provide competition in attack.
Furthermore, the Accies’ inability to create any outstanding chances suggests that Neil doesn’t have a plan B when things aren’t going in his favour. In many respects, this isn’t surprising – he is a young manager who has been entirely successful during his short career, but it is something he will have to develop in order to maintain Hamilton’s – and his own – upward curve.
Rovers, meanwhile, deserve credit for the manner in which they played out the second half. It was a fine performance, but it points to the impact that injuries and suspensions will have on one of the smallest squads in the league. With Paul Watson (injured against Annan Athletic) and Reece Donaldson (red carded at Dumbarton) unavailable, Hill and player-coach Laurie Ellis were drafted in at centre-back. Hill has enjoyed a very decent season so far but the dismissal was his second of the season and his fifth in the last 11 months. Although most of his misdemeanors have been naive rather than reckless, it’s still a poor record for a player of his experience.
It is something of a theme developing for Grant Murray’s side: once again, they have collected points despite finishing the match without their full quota of players. Last season they were reduced to ten men on four occasions, and nine in a tempestuous derby with Dunfermline Athletic. This term, as well as the aforementioned Dumbarton match, they had a player dismissed in a League Cup tie with Heart of Midlothian (a game in which they ultimately lost after a penalty shoot-out). In those six league games, however, Rovers only lost twice, something which suggests that Murray had instilled organisation and steel into his team.
Regardless, nine red cards in a season-and-a-quarter is an appalling disciplinary record. Murray has performed admirably with a limited budget but he must drive home to his players, especially Dougie Hill, that unnecessary dismissals will have a major impact on a small squad.
Both Hamilton and Rovers have difficult issues – how Alex Neil and Grant Murray deal with their respective concerns will be hugely fascinating as the season continues. SM
2) Attack is the best form of defence for Dumbarton
Before a ball had been kicked in Falkirk’s match with Dumbarton in Westfield, the outcome should have been easy enough to predict: home win. The Bairns were unbeaten in their previous four league games (a sequence that included fine victories over Dundee and Queen of the South), while the Sons’ decent start to the season appeared to have stalled. Ian Murray’s side were comprehensively beaten in their last two games, losing eight goals in the process and taking their goals against for the league campaign to 22. Furthermore, their squad was greatly depleted through injury and suspension – they could list only three outfield players as substitutes, including assistant manager Jack Ross who last played over three years ago.
Against the subtle probing of Phil Roberts and Rory Loy, the Dumbarton defence was expected to buckle; instead, it became their strongest asset. Murray’s team were compact and organised and were set up to contain their hosts, limiting the Falkirk midfield’s ability to thread passes through to their strikers. But when in possession, the Sons looked to play the ball out to the flanks for their full-backs to bring it forward. Paul McGinn in particular benefited from such an approach.
McGinn, who had spent the tail end of last season on loan from St Mirren, rejected a contract offer from the Paisley club in the summer in the pursuit of regular football and his decision to return to Dumbarton on a permanent basis has been soundly vindicated. The full-back has played in every match this season and reserved his finest performance of the campaign for Saturday. In the seventh minute, his cross caused consternation in the Falkirk penalty box and Jordan Kilpatrick’s scuffed shot was turned in by Garry Fleming. Fifteen minutes later and another McGinn cross was deftly graced into the net by Mitch Megginson. Such was McGinn’s threat that Gary Holt shunted his team into a 4-3-3 formation and moved Roberts out wide.
The switch curtailed McGinn’s participation to an extent, and five minutes before the interval Roberts cut in from the flank and crashed an astonishing shot into the net from 25 yards. Falkirk continued to press for an equaliser but on the rare occasions they got beyond Chris Turner in midfield, centre-backs Aaron Barry and Andy Graham defended well, throwing themselves in front of everything. It all got too much for Roberts, and the forward collected a second caution in injury time for inexplicably kicking the ball away.
Given the circumstances, the result was one of the finest in Ian Murray’s tenure. Although the side failed to keep a clean sheet (their only shut out of the campaign was in a 1-0 League Cup win over Albion Rovers), the victory has maintained their mid-table position and crucially, given them a seven point advantage over Greenock Morton in tenth. Falkirk, meanwhile, must be perplexed by their inability to beat the league’s part-time teams. Although the division’s three semi-professional sides are some of the finest in the second tier’s recent history, for a team of the Bairns’ aspirations to collect just two points from four meetings is an irritating habit. CF
3) Kane Hemmings and Greg Stewart pulverised Greenock Morton
Two weeks ago, this column mused that Allan Moore must find a winning forward quickly, with Greenock Morton’s crucial league fixtures at home to Hamilton Academical and away at Cowdenbeath to come. A marginally above average performance draw against the Accies spurred some on to think that a recovery could be made, but Colin Cameron’s side quickly quashed that thought.
One point from the two matches is slightly better form than six from ten over the season, but it is nonetheless very alarming and completely unsustainable – Morton’s average point scoring thus far predicts the lowest points total in Scotland’s second tier since Jocky Scott’s Stirling Albion plummeted to the Second Division in 2010-11 (coincidentally, the season after Moore left the Binos to manage at a full-time club).
Morton’s current debilitating form goes against Moore’s general record at the club, which isn’t great on the whole but with a win rate of 36 per cent would be enough to keep Morton from danger on its own merits (if a four-year average has any relevance at all). If working on the premise that winning 40 per cent of matches would provide a strong possibility of finishing within the play-off positions in most years, Moore’s record falls short of that – whether or not that would be good enough, given the opportunities he has had to refresh the squad over that time could legitimately be open for debate, but the current situation is such that it is difficult to justify his continued presence at the club regardless.
(Interestingly, by not considering last year’s moderately successful campaign – falling short of beating Partick Thistle to the title with no prize for second place – Moore’s win rate plummets to 27 per cent; form that is barely good enough to typically avoid the relegation play-off spot.)
The Blue Brazil were rampant against Morton. Kane Hemmings continues to show an improvement even on his loan spell at the club last season – the former Rangers forward previously struck four times within seven matches, but already has ten goals in all competitions this season including the hat-trick against Morton.
However, the sponsor’s man of the match fell to Hemmings’s attacking partner Greg Stewart, who provides such good work to distract the opposition centre-backs that he is worth more than his one in four strike rate for the club. Both forwards are in peak form coming into the winter, but maintaining the future performance of Nathanial Wedderburn will be just as important. At 6’1″ and with the shoulders of Julio Baptista, the midfielder managed to command within the tight dimensions of Central Park beside Jon Robertson – their availability will be key to the club’s survival in the division.
Where does this leave Moore, then? Morton have now lost to all three part-time teams above them and it is difficult to see where the next win might come from. With the League Cup quarter-final against St Johnstone to look forward to at the end of the month, the suspicion is that Moore will be allowed the chance of another upset as the underdog, but by then Morton might feasibly be four or five points adrift at the bottom of the league. Change will be required sooner or later, because with only two more matches before the season is a third of the way through, the situation could quickly turn drastic. JAM
4) East Fife’s win over Dunfermline Athletic is a diamond in the rough
Although Rangers’ narrow victory over Brechin City will inevitably prompt League 1’s biggest talking point, it would be foolish to overlook the importance of East Fife’s win over Dunfermline Athletic. Their 2-1 triumph at East End Park was the Fifers’ first since 30 August 1986 and lifted the club from the foot of the table and into eighth. Despite Jordan Moore opening the scoring, waltzing through the visitors’ defence before poking home, a fine drive from Ross Brown and a stunning effort from Liam Buchanan secured the win.
If the highlights (some of the best in the lower leagues) are a fair reflection of the game, then East Fife should consider themselves fortunate to have taken something from it. Dunfermline, playing their first match since the Pars United completed their takeover of the club, looked the more purposeful of the teams. Stephen Husband in particular enjoyed an influential afternoon and all of his side’s best play came through him. That said, he had a very presentable chance midway through the second half but mis-controlled Ryan Thomson’s centre and allowed the ball to roll over his foot.
It proved crucial. Shortly afterwards, substitute Cedric Tuta and Alexis Dutot combined to set up Brown, and three minutes later, Buchanan sent a looping shot into the net from the edge of the area. It is a pity that East Fife’s next match is against Rangers because the weekend’s win provides them with the perfect platform to ignite their season (although judging by Rangers’ first half performance against Brechin, an upset on Saturday might not be entirely unlikely). Given East Fife’s form, every other forthcoming fixture against part-time opposition looks equally as testing, but is reassuring to see Willie Aitchison achieve a positive result after a long, indifferent spell.
The result does raise some questions about Dumfermline’s play-off credentials. Before the end of September, a top four finish looked a sure thing and the team looked comfortable in second place. An impressive 5-1 victory Ayr United was immediately followed by a crass 0-4 defeat at Forfar Athletic, and mistakes were obviously not learned after the international break. A second consecutive defeat will have been concerning.
On Saturday, Dunfermline cannot afford to underestimate Stranraer, a side who have collected 13 points from their previous five games. A loss at Stair Park and the Pars go into their rearranged match with Rangers at Ibrox on the back of three defeats in a row. Unless Jim Jefferies is able to stiffen his side’s resolve, their play-off position will suddenly look precarious. CGT
5) Jimmy Boyle has lived his life like a candle in the wind
Airdrieonians slumped to the foot of the League 1 table after a 0-2 home defeat to Forfar Athletic. It was a dismal result and an equally dolorous performance, described the Airdrie and Coatbridge Advertiser’s Colin Paterson as “one of the worst I’ve ever seen”. When Paterson, mild-mannered and utterly objective, makes such statements, you know things are irrevocably grim. The match marked the end of Jimmy Boyle’s three years in charge at New Broomfield – the manager was relieved of his duties late last night.
It was a rotten way to finish his tenure. Against Forfar, Boyle made three changes to the side that lost to Arbroath the previous week. Chris O’Neill (suspended following the red card which led to the Lichties’ match winning penalty), Nathan Blockley and Liam Watt were replaced by Gregor Buchanan, Jamie Bain and Jim Lister. Lister’s return saw Lewis Coult relocated to the left-hand side of an attacking trident in a 4-1-3-2 system. The changes made little effect, and Lister and his strike partner Liam Coogans experienced an exasperating afternoon.
The Diamonds defence – which conceded 89 league goals last term, and last kept a clean sheet in a 0-0 draw with Raith Rovers in November 2012 – is a highly unconvincing proposition. After 13 minutes, Grant Evans was easily beaten by Dale Hilson who squared for trialist Jamie McCluskey to open the scoring from close range. Airdrie’s response was to ping long ball after long ball from back to front, a tactic which played straight into the hands of opposition centre-backs Marvin Andrews and Darren Dods. The strategy was symptomatic of the complete lack of confidence amongst Boyle’s players – no-one was willing to take any responsibility. The manager’s response?
“I didn’t send them out to play like that.”
Two minutes into added time and the misery was complete after Evans was adjudged to have fouled Chris Templeman in the penalty area; Ross Campbell scored from the resultant spot-kick. Chants of “Boyle must go” were unavoidable and just over 24 hours later, the supporters – showing up in ever decreasing numbers – were granted their wish.
At the beginning of the season, many observers tipped the Diamonds to make a sustained push for promotion via the play-offs, such was their seemingly astute transfer business over the summer. But after four defeats in their last five games, chairman Jim Ballantyne had no option other than to act. With Boyle unlikely to break the two-year contract extension he signed in May 2012, it was thought the club would be unable to afford a severance package but the upcoming Scottish Cup tie against Rangers at Ibrox (and the expected payday) perhaps made the decision easier.
Boyle’s successor faces a difficult task, but not an impossible one. He may wish to wait several weeks before starting, however: Airdrieonians host Ayr United on Saturday before consecutive cup and league matches at Ibrox, and a home tie against Dunfermline Athletic. Such fixtures could see the club become detached at the bottom of the table. That said, it must be pointed out that Brechin City and Stranraer both benefitted from replacing their mangers early last season and Ballantyne will be hoping for the same, ending 14 months of gloom in North Lanarkshire. AG