1) Heart of Midlothian have enough goals in them to win the Championship
It was the 87th minute at Tynecastle where the sun-kissed countenance of the announcer beamed with pride. He exclaimed that Heart of Midlothian were winning 5-1 for the first time since 19 May 2012, after Dale Carrick struck for the second time in his 20-minute cameo.
Carrick ought to have grabbed a hat-trick and he wasn’t even playing up front. He was Hearts’ most prolific forward during the latter third of the previous season but with Osman Sow and James Keatings currently ahead of him in the pecking order, rookie manager Robbie Neilson is finding it difficult to find a place for him. Gary Oliver even arguably had a more prosperous pre-season than Carrick, but such is the wealth of attacking options available to Neilson that he could afford to punt the youngster on loan to Stenhousemuir until January.
Replacing Jamie Walker just after 70 minutes, Carrick didn’t particularly look like he could leave an impression on the match. He’s not a winger in the vein of Billy King, nor is he a wide playmaker in the mould of Walker – who only occasionally flirted his quality during the match – or the hitherto outstanding Sam Nicholson, who was unavailable due to injury. In truth, Carrick looked a little awkward, with fellow substitute Soufian El Hassnaoui looking to steal the limelight from a more central area on his home debut.
Yet Carrick is such a phenomenal finisher that he can start in any position in the final third and pose a sincere goal threat, and so he proved with three accomplished strikes against Cowdenbeath – one of those curled against the crossbar just before his second goal. The first came when he took a diagonal pass from across the box into his feet and thumped the ball inside Robbie Thomson’s right-hand post, all while pivoting; the second came when he took the initiative from a loose ball to shoot early and crash the ball beyond the goalkeeper from 25 yards.
Comparisons with Inverness Caledonian Thistle’s Billy McKay might be a little superficial but he could clearly be starting for a number of teams in the Premiership right now – the fact that he can’t find a place in the Hearts side only highlights the relative strength of the top end of the Championship this season. Neilson’s squad might not quite match Rangers’ bloated excess, but that should not matter when the manger can successfully devise a strategy and a style that mostly makes the best use of his players.
Keatings might now not have scored now since his hat-trick against Raith Rovers three matches ago, but he complements Sow well: Sow’s pace and power at the apex of the attack allows Keatings to drop short and link with others. El Hassnaoui looks a ready-made replacement for Sow when the latter becomes unavailable (and he tried so hard to impress coming off the bench in this match, but will get his chance at some stage).
A special mention for one of Cowdenbeath’s forwards is also deserved. Sean Higgins had a terrific match in trying circumstances and has now been Cowden’s best player in successive weeks against opposition in Edinburgh. For the second match in a row he played the most delicious first-time reverse pass to split the defence, while his general holding up of the ball when outnumbered has to be commended. Higgins must be Jimmy Nicholl’s best chance of creating enough for the team to get out of the winless run since the start of the season.
Saturday’s thumping of the Blue Brazil means that the Jam Tarts have scored 13 goals in four games, including a goalless draw at Dumbarton (which can still be viewed as a good enough result). They sit three points ahead of Rangers at this early stage of the season but they have the quality throughout the squad to keep the favourites for the championship at arms’ length. With the luxury of being able to take someone like Dale Carrick off the bench, they should just be able to do so. JAM
2) Alloa Athletic are beginning to look the part
It seems a little absurd to think that everyone connected with Alloa Athletic will have been disappointed to emerge from the weekend’s contest with Rangers with only a point. Having led the match courtesy of Jonathan Tiffoney’s excellent header after 35 minutes, to concede a scrappy, preventable goal with just six minutes remaining was hugely deflating (particularly when Greig Spence – never the most decisive of forwards – fired straight at Steve Simonsen when one-on-one with the goalkeeper with the score-line at 1-0). Even so, the draw takes the Wasps’ total for the season to seven points – a damn fine return so far given the circumstances.
The aberration at Livingston aside, Alloa have performed above expectation in their last four matches. They have beaten direct rivals Cowdenbeath by a handsome margin, defeated Hibernian and have now taken a point from Rangers – the latter two will have been very satisfying given they were games they were not expected to take anything from. But while Hibs have their obvious deficiencies, Ally McCoist’s team (for the last five weeks at least) have looked focused, purposeful and coherent; Alloa stopped them in their tracks.
At the Indodrill Stadium, Barry Smith’s side were able to expose a number of Rangers’ shortcomings. After Lewis Macleod’s removal through injury after 13 minutes (and Lee Wallace absent with a calf complaint), there was a creative void that went unfilled and the visitors resorted to sending a series of long balls towards Kris Boyd; when Jon Daly replaced Nicky Clark after 47 minutes, the shelling increased in its frequency. It was all a little too easy for Ben Gordon and Kyle Benedictus to deal with.
Rangers saw most of the ball but were unsure of what to do with it, while Alloa perhaps looked the more resolute in possession. Midway through the first half, Mark Docherty was given room to manoeuvre down the left flank and swing in a fine cross – such was it’s arc and power that all Tiffoney needed to do was glance it towards goal, and the ball moved past Simonsen and into the net.
The goal didn’t sufficiently stir Rangers and they continued to menace sporadically. Boyd looks far less potent this season than he did with Kilmarnock the previous year but has founded a decent partnership up top with Clark – the pair combined on several occasions but were thwarted by some wayward finishing. When Clark was substituted because of a shoulder injury, the lumbering Daly was unable to make a telling impact.
Having coped with Rangers’ threat for the best part of the afternoon, to lose such an ugly and avoidable goal was frustrating. Darren McGregor’s long throw into the area was flicked on by Daly but the back line was unable to hack the ball away. It broke to Lee McCulloch, whose drive spun off the back of a covering defender and fell neatly in front of David Templeton to poke into the net from four yards.
Despite their strong displays against the Championship’s bigger sides – their last four points will have been seen as bonuses more than anything else – Alloa are still likely to be judged on their results with the division’s part-time teams and a win against Dumbarton on Saturday would go someway to strengthening their credentials. The Wasps must make hay when the sun shines, and all that. CGT
3) Hibernian’s poor start to the season continues apace
It says a lot about just how far Hibernian’s stock has fallen that their defeats away from home – even in the Championship – are no longer a surprise. The latest loss, a 0-1 reverse at Queen of the South, was their third consecutive away defeat this season. Taking the last campaign into consideration, the Hibees have now lost their last eight away matches; their last victory on the road came in 2013 against Ross County on Boxing Day.
Alongside from Rangers and Heart of Midlothian, it was expected that Hibs would finish the season in one of the Championship’s top three places (and over the course of the year, this might still prove to be the case) but with every defeat and every disappointing performance, it is beginning to resemble a big two rather than a big three.
Saturday’s vapid display at Palmerston laid bare the current side’s biggest weakness: a lack of creativity. Other than Matthew Kennedy’s excellent chance after seven minutes, goal-scoring opportunities were few and far between. It was a similar story in their 1-2 loss to Alloa Athletic and, to a lesser extent, the 3-2 victory over Cowdenbeath. Teams can often overcome their lack of incisiveness by defending solidly and stifling their opponents in the hope of nicking a win, but even this appears to be beyond Hibs.
Of their eight league and cup matches this season, Hibs have fallen behind first in seven of them. They’ve also yet to keep a clean sheet. The comebacks against Dumbarton and Cowden were cited as examples of the squad’s attitude and desire but it could be argued that, given the winning goals in both matches were scored in injury time, good fortune and superior fitness over their part-time opponents should also be factored in.
There was to be no comeback against Queens, however. The Doonhamers went ahead in the first half after Ian McShane nudged them in front; the lead was rarely threatened, despite Hibs enjoying the majority of the possession.
The results and performances appear to be aligned to Alan Stubbs’s increasingly scattergun approach to team selection. In the last four league fixtures, the manager has made 14 changes to his starting XI – while injury might have forced some of the alterations, there is a growing feeling that he is yet to work out what his best side is, or how to set them up accordingly.
For all the chopping and changing, Stubbs appears unwilling to start Jason Cummings, an attacker who has a knack for creating something out of nothing, or left-back Callum Booth who got forward with great effect during his only league appearance of the season against Falkirk. The pair have only started two games between them this term, despite possessing the attributes that the side are currently lacking. On the evidence so far, some of the current squad aren’t good enough for a club looking to challenge at the top of the league.
Hibs now sit as many points from Cowdenbeath at the bottom of the table as they do from Queens in fourth. They will be expected to piece together a decent run together at some point but nothing can be taken for granted after such a disappointing start to the year. Perhaps a return to Dingwall might be the very thing – tomorrow’s night’s League Cup fixture against a Ross County side in rotten form could be the catalyst for an upturn in form.
If it doesn’t happen there, things could get worse before the get better – Hibs play Rangers at Ibrox in seven days. SM
4) Brechin Bad!
Brechin City started Saturday’s match against Ayr United as the only unbeaten side in League 1 but ended it ruing a familiar failing. Last season, Ray McKinnon’s side were undermined by a woeful disciplinary record; a record that saw them accumulate 105 yellow cards and nine red. At the weekend, they threw away three points with the recklessness of a spoilt ballot paper, eventually succumbing to a 2-4 reverse.
The first half was an engaging but goalless affair. Buoyed by their five-star performance at Stirling Albion last weekend, Brechin created the better of the chances but were profligate in front goal, with Andy Jackson the main culprit. Ayr, meanwhile, saw the majority of the ball but were often too careless in possession. Their offensive strategies of the two sides became increasingly apparent – Brechin sought to get in behind United’s rearguard, while the visitors preferred to attack down the flanks. A robust last-ditch challenge from Greg Cameron on Alan Forrest in the box also set the tone for a physical encounter and forced the young winger’s withdrawl after just 14 minutes with a shoulder injury.
An early warning in the second-half was not heeded by Ayr when a long ball by on-loan Aberdeen midfielder Jamie Masson over their back four found Jackson, but the striker miscued his volley; just a minute later, Craig Molloy chipped the ball forward to Jackson who showed greater composure to play in Alan Trouten to open the scoring with United’s defence optimistically claiming for an offside. But the lead didn’t last long – a strong run and cross from full-back Nicky Devlin found Martyn Campbell at the back post and his header struck the flailing arms of Brechin’s right-back Jamie McCormack, who was lucky to escape a booking (referee Gavin Duncan and his assistants appeared unable to identify the culprit). Greg Cameron did go into the book for dissent before Scott McLaughlin stroked the penalty home.
Brechin went back in front before the pivotal moment in the game. Trouten intercepted a poor pass from Michael Donald and played to ball forward to Bobby Barr who neatly laid it off to Masson. He drove forward, jinked onto his right and sent a wonderful curing shot passed David Hutton. It should have provided the home side a platform to grasp control of game but any momentum was undone by a moment of aggression from midfielder Cameron. His late lunge on Dale Shirkie was not commensurate with the position on the park, out on the touchline, or the context of the match, and the referee had no option but to show the midfielder a second, needless, yellow card.
United’s responded well to the challenge of facing ten men – stretching the play and attacking City’s beleaguered full backs, who by this stage were being given little protection. The red card was the catalyst for Craig Beattie’s arrival and he netted his first goal for Ayr – and the equaliser – in less than ten minutes: a quickly taken short corner was missed by Masson and Beattie’s header looped into the net. The visitors then went ahead for the first time in the match when McCormack handled the ball for a second time in the box and McLaughlin made no mistake from the spot once again.
Ayr’s fourth, and Beattie’s second, sealed the victory in the final minute and was the pick of the goals. With City tiring, United stroked the ball about with ease, putting together 11 passes before Nicky Devlin played the ball into the Beattie. The big striker briefly grappled with Darren McCormack, easily rolling the defender, before controlling the ball with a couple of clever touches and drilling it under Smith; United fans will be hoping this is a sign of things to come.
After the game, McKinnon’s displeasure at both penalty decisions seemed a little one-eyed and, privately, he must have been furious with Cameron. Brechin can ill-afford a repeat of the poor discipline that undermined their campaign last season if they are to make a challenge for the play-offs. AG
5) Queen’s Park are defying expectations
The Tell Him He’s Pelé League 2 predictions were unkind to Queen’s Park and claimed that Gus MacPherson and his plucky troupe of unheralded juniors would struggle through the season and probably end up finishing in tenth. At the time, such an outlook was based on nothing more than the fact that many of their new recruits had no experience of the senior leagues, but such has been their fine start to the season, the Spiders are already confounding expectations. A return of seven points from six matches is a reasonable return; to put it into context, the club didn’t reach the same total until mid-November last season, 11 games into the campaign.
Any anxieties about how this gang would acquit themselves to League 2 have proven to be unfounded – Queen’s Park’s current side look like a very decent outfit. Wins against Annan Athletic and Elgin City showed promise but a visit to East Fife was expect to offer a tougher test of their credentials. The Fifers are yet to fully impose themselves on the division but they have the players to propel them to success; to emerge with a 2-2 draw is a credible achievement.
It is perhaps important to study the goals conceded first. On both occasions there was a naivety to their defending and the strikes could have been prevented. Kevin Smith and Caolan McAleer’s quick exchange of passes on the edge of the penalty area appeared to mesmerise the QP defence and as cute as Smith’s lay-off was, tighter marking could have prevented him from finding the winger in space. Willie Muir, meanwhile, should have got a stronger hand to push away McAleer’s shot. Liam Smith’s strike, which tied the score-line at 2-2 was another well-struck effort but Ciaran McElroy allowed him to drift towards the ball unchecked and afforded him the space to attack.
But when Queen’s Park found their rhythm, they were an enterprising proposition. Before Darren Miller equalised with a wondrous freekick, the manner and speed at which the Spiders broke upfield was something that hasn’t been seen from the team for some time. Paul Woods, the bouffant forward with a penchant for classic rock, has struck up a sound understanding with Chris Duggan (signed on loan from Partick Thistle for three months) – his rasping drive was very well taken and was the third time in two matches where they’ve combined to good effect; their performance in the previous week’s clash at Elgin was quite fantastic.
Elsewhere, Miller and his midfield accomplice Vince Berry are arguably the best pairing at the club since, dare I say it, David Anderson and Martin McBride, two soul mates whose candle flickered all too briefly in 2011-12. There is promise in this side and in, say, a couple of months, they might just make something of themselves.
Exactly what that is remains to be seen. Queen’s Park are probably not good enough to upset the sides challenging at the top of the table but they’ve probably shown that they’re above scrapping it out at the bottom. MacPherson deserves credit for his summer recruitment (and for proving this particular author wrong). CGT