1) Heart of Midlothian are due to drop points
It’s sensationalist and it’s not quite true, but it has to happen at some point. Hasn’t it?
Heart of Midlothian initially went four league wins in a row before drawing at Dumbarton. They won five-in-a-row before Alim Ozturk’s last minute equaliser at Hibernian. They’ve won five-in-a-row once again and face a straightforward-looking trip to Central Park. Could Cowdenbeath present themselves to be the side who knock the Jambos out of their rhythm? On this evidence it seems unlikely, as Hearts continue to run through the Championship campaign as a procession.
Hearts won 2-0 over Alloa Athletic and had the fixture won in the first half hour, with goals from James Keatings and Callum Paterson ensuring that they remain an opulent nine points ahead of Rangers with a game to spare. Paterson’s was a fine goal, with Miguel Pallardo spreading the ball across the pitch to the full-back, who benefited from anticipating Jamie Walker’s near-post cross after the winger got to the byline. But it was Keatings’s goal that marked Hearts out as being a class above the rest of the division.
It all came from Craig McDowall’s goal-kick, which was inconspicuous in itself, with Hearts’ captain Danny Wilson winning the second ball and promptly chipping it behind Alloa’s left-back Daryll Meggatt, as if kicking the ball into touch high up the pitch in rugby union. Wilson’s lob had the equivalent effect to the other sport in that it allowed the pack to move up the pitch to force an error on their opponents defending their territory. Meggatt was harried into the corner by Keatings and probably made the wrong decision in risking a back-pass from the touchline all the way back to McDowall, when there would have been less risk in pivoting on the ball and sending it down the line away from danger. But he didn’t, putting pressure on his ‘keeper and McDowall got the ball out of his feet to pass to his centre-back Ben Gordon. The pass didn’t find Gordon, but Graeme Holmes won the loose ball with a sliding tackle and the Wasps had safe possession again. Crisis averted.
It wasn’t, though. Alloa appeared quite smart with the ball, playing intricate passes down the left channel as they methodically moved up the pitch in spite of Hearts’ high line. From a team that has been sitting in the relegation places for the last few weeks, it was perhaps surprisingly cute play. But it was undone by Mark Docherty’s lay-off falling a yard short, allowing Pallardo to nip in and launch a counter attack within the Wasps’ half. It left Alloa unorganised, with too much space between Gordon and Kyle Benedictus – by the time Pallardo collected the ball a second time to play in Keatings on the edge of the box, Gordon was isolated against the sponsors’ man of the match.
Keatings’s finish was a thing of beauty. The forward let the ball roll along the width of his body while producing a shimmy that purposely misled Gordon into defending with the wrong side of his body. At Keatings’s increasing speed, it didn’t take long to find enough space to compose a low shot into the corner beyond McDowall. It only took eight seconds from the point of Pallardo first intercepting to Keating’s shot and there are few teams in the country who could cope with the swiftness of that attack.
That shows the difference between the top and bottom of the league. Docherty’s sloppy pass might not have been punished by most teams, but Hearts need little encouragement to score opportunistic goals. There’s a ruthlessness about being able to score like that which makes the prospect of losing points after their fifth straight win difficult to believe. There might be a vague pattern somewhere there, but it’s really not worth the gamble. JAM
2) Queen of the South have been brought back down to earth
Like most terrace chants, the shout of “Can we play you every week?” is fairly ill conceived. Just imagine – the repetitive nature of a two-team division would become wearing and, if the sides in this duopoly were, say Queen of the South and Cowdenbeath, fans would be faced with a fair old trek every fortnight as they followed their team. Ebullient supporters can sing the chorus as much as they like but all in all, it’s a non-starter.
And that’s probably just as well for the Doonhamers. They were beaten by Cowden for the second time this season and it appears as though the Fife side have something of a hex over James Fowler’s side. The 1-2 loss at Palmerston was certainly unexpected – Queens had lost just once in their previous eight league fixtures with their excellent form culminating in the devastating victory over Rangers, while Cowden had lost five in their last six Championship games and scored just three times in the process.
It should be noted that Fowler was forced to make a number of changes for Saturday’s match. Andy Dowie and Iain Russell were both absent through suspension, so Lewis Kidd was drafted in at right-back and Greg Kiltie, on loan from Kilmarnock, began the match on the left of midfield. Cowden’s Jimmy Nicholl was forced to shuffle too and Thomas O’Brien was brought back into the starting XI after Marcus Fraser returned to Celtic following an impressive loan spell. Furthermore, and as has happened so often this season, they were forced into an early change when Calum Gallagher was removed at the interval with an ankle injury.
The striker’s participation might have been limited but he still had enough time to make a major impact on the game. With half-time approaching, Gallagher collected a through ball, held off Kidd then placed it beyond Zander Clark. The goal was laced with irony – while their defence held firm against Rangers last week, it looked far shakier against a player the Ibrox club had sent out on loan. Cowdenbeath’s lead was well deserved and whether by accident or design, they had exposed Queens’s weak links. Kidd looked uneasy at right-back and Kiltie offered little on the left, but there were a number of players that turned in a ramshackle performance.
Over the last few seasons, Cowden have shown themselves to be capable of playing well through the opening stages of matches but they have tended to struggle in the second 45 and it look like it would be the case once again. Derek Lyle, introduced midway through the second half for Danny Carmichael, has developed a reputation as a supersub and he rose to meet Kevin Dzierzawki’s corner to net a late equaliser. But as Queens pushed for a winner, Cowden hit them on the break. Kyle Miller split open the defence with a dainty pass for Sean Higgins to take the ball around Clark and score the decisive goal.
The victory was complemented further by a perfect series of results elsewhere – Livingston, Alloa Athletic and Raith Rovers all lost. Having clambered away from the relegation play-off place, they now have their sights fixed on Raith, who have lost their last four league matches. The bottom of the Championship is beginning to look pretty damn interesting.
As for Queens, the defeat brought them back down to earth with a bump. For all their recent acclaim, it is a little concerning they’re now sitting in the final play-off place just two points above a resurgent Falkirk – they cannot afford to be complacent. Forthcoming games with Alloa and Livingston should offer the chance to put this loss quickly behind them and consolidate their position. SM
3) Jim Duffy is feeling the heat
At the beginning of December, this author was invited to attend the SPFL’s Manager and Player of the Month awards panel at Hampden. Most of the recipients received unanimous backing from the committee – for example, Albion Rovers’ Darren Young was nominated and selected for the prize within a couple of minutes – but the League 1 Manager of the Month award proved to be a little more contentious.
Stevie Aitken at Stranraer was considered but the majority of the panel felt that Jim Duffy was a more deserving candidate. Yes, Greenock Morton might have been tossed out of the Scottish Cup by Spartans but their league form throughout November had been impeachable, with three wins in three (two of which came against such heavyweights as Stenhousemuir and Airdrieonians). And with that, the award was heading to Inverclyde.
Duffy’s accolade was met with general derision and since then Morton have been dreadful, with the defeat to Spartans precipitating three games without a win. Stranraer were the first to dismiss them, with Craig Malcolm’s brace securing a handsome win as the Ton finished the match with nine men, while a questionable penalty decision in stoppage time secured a 2-2 draw with Brechin City.
On Saturday, Duffy’s side capitulated to Peterhead at Cappielow with Jamie Stevenson (a former player, no less) scoring the only goal of the game immediately after the second half kick-off. To concede in this manner is unacceptable whilst playing FIFA 15 with a group of mates; for a group of professional footballers to lose a goal like this is just disgraceful. Only goalkeeper Derek Gaston can be satisfied with his performance against the Blue Toon – the rest of the team played poorly, with the midfield partnership of Joe McKee and Michael Miller looking particularly stodgy.
Recent results have seen Morton trickle down from the top of the table to third but given the quality of their team, they’re probably in the correct position. They might be a full-time club and Duffy might have more time to train and prepare his players but, fundamentally, they are not as good as the sides around them. Compare some areas of their squad to Stranraer’s or Forfar Athletic’s – principal centre-back Sean Crighton is not as good as Frank McKeown or Darren Dods; not one of their multitude of defensive-minded midfielders is an upgrade on Grant Gallagher or Stephen Husband; and Andy Barrowman lacks the qualities of Craig Malcolm or Dale Hilson. With the exception of Conor Pepper and Declan McManus, there are no members of the current Morton team that would get into either side’s starting XI and that is a major factor in their league placing.
A number of players’ contracts are set to expire in the New Year and Duffy must think carefully about who to retain and who to release. But can he be trusted to make the correct decisions? So far, his transfers have been largely haphazard and the side has been constructed almost entirely from centre-backs. More imagination is required in the future.
A run of presentable fixtures over the next few weeks against the division’s bottom four sides should see Morton regain some ground on the sides above them but, having lost or struggled beyond them at points earlier in the season, nothing can be taken for granted. Duffy appears to be under no immediate pressure from chairman Dougie Rae but he has work to do to convince a skeptical support of his credentials. CGT
4) Another day, another hard-luck story for Stenhousemuir
Stenhousemuir fell to their tenth league defeat of the season after succumbing 0-2 to Brechin City on Saturday. A laser-guided penalty from Alan Trouten and Robert Thomson’s late strike returned the Warriors to the relegation play-off place but they were the better side over the course of the match and, on the balance of play, probably deserved a point at least.
The match swung in Brechin’s favour in the 31st minute when they were awarded a free-kick on the halfway line. As Gerry McLauchlan’s long punt into the box appeared to be bouncing towards Greg Fleming, Ross McMillan lightly wrapped his arms around Andy Jackson and prevented him from impeding the goalkeeper. Jackson crumpled to the ground and referee Nick Walsh awarded the visitors a penalty. It’s difficult to tell from the replays – at the time, it seemed like the correct decision but Walsh harshly punished the defender by sending him off for denying a goal-scoring opportunity.
It was McMillan’s sixth red card in three-and-a-half years, a remarkable figure (by comparison, Brechin centre-backs McLauchlan and Darren McCormack have the same number of dismissals between them in the same period). Since joining Stenhousemuir from Clyde in 2011, the 32-year-old has proven himself to a very capable third-tier defender – he is tall, muscular and imposing, good in the air and quick across short distances. McMillan might even have the abilities to perform one level higher but his tendency to behave rashly at the most inopportune moments hinders both the player and his team. His red card against Brechin was unfortunate – the ball was more or less in Fleming’s possession when Jackson fell – but the statistic still stands.
Curiously enough, Stenhousemuir were as good with ten men as they were with 11 – they were just unable to turn their play into something tangible. It was another hard-luck story for Scott Booth’s side and the Warriors still haven’t won back-to-back matches since August 2013. A difficult trip to Stranraer lies in wait before a crucial home tie with Stirling Albion in the New Year – a victory should allow them to keep pace with Ayr United and Airdrieonians and probably consign the Binos to tenth place.
Booth must keep his emotions in check (he was sent to the stands for the second time this season) and perhaps examine his own failings rather than rage at external forces. Stenhousemuir are in trouble and taking ownership of the situation at this time is vital. CGT
5) Scott Ferguson is brilliant
If it hadn’t been made clear before, then make no doubt: Scott Ferguson is going places. The teenage winger changed the complexion of the match for Clyde, who were losing 0-1 early doors and were struggling to break down an East Fife side who were looking for a second goal to put the match beyond doubt.
As a corner kick was cleared and the ball punted towards Ferguson’s general direction ten minutes into the second half, it didn’t seem as if he could do much with the clearance when competing against Lewis Barr and Ross Brown, two much bigger players than he. Yet that is the surprise that Ferguson always brings – he times his jumps so well that he can compete in the air with most in League 2. Despite being sandwiched between the pair, he comfortably won the header that Scott McManus picked up and laid off to David Sinclair. By then, Ferguson was already sprinting down the touchline and Sinclair sprayed a pass behind Barr into Ferguson’s path with aplomb. Barr was always fighting a losing battle and Ferguson stood up a cross with precision for Brian McQueen to head in the equaliser, having ran the length of the pitch to finish the counter attack off. It was a brilliant move and some vindication for McQueen, having not played in three weeks.
Ferguson’s ability to run at the defence also created a few more opportunities and he won the free-kick from which Ged Taylor scored Clyde’s third goal from. All of Clyde’s goals were worth watching, with Euan Smith’s sweetly struck low finish into the corner to put them ahead only beaten by Taylor’s audacity to power the free-kick beyond a helpless Allan Fleming. Ferguson is 19 years old, but Smith and Taylor are both only 20 and with the technique that they showed in their goals Barry Ferguson can be positive about their futures. Indeed, that was Taylor’s first game for the senior team having previously been farmed out to East Kilbride – Barry Ferguson doesn’t seem to have settled on a left-back recently but Taylor’s performance might convince him otherwise.
It was only a week ago we asked where Clyde’s next win was coming from, and we didn’t expect it to be here. Things might have been different had Jon McShane’s crisp drive across goal found the inside of the far post with the score already at 1-0 to East Fife, but the Bully Wee ended up worthy of their win and could have had another had McManus’s header not struck the woodwork – credit again should be given to Taylor for his surging run forward and a wonderfully shaped cross.
Clyde move up two places, then, seven points ahead of Elgin City and only three behind Annan Athletic in fourth. Had Ferguson not been able to change the momentum of the match, maybe the Fifers might have held on for a point. But he did, and they didn’t. Neither team looks like challenging for promotion on the face of it, but if Clyde can continue to attack as well as they did here then they shouldn’t have to worry about relegation either. JAM