1) The Fife derby highlights the differing fortunes of Raith Rovers and Cowdenbeath
Raith Rovers and Cowdenbeath may have shared six goals in the weekend’s Fife derby, but it wasn’t quite the thriller that the score-line suggested. It was a slow burner that eventually bloomed into something far more exciting and perhaps more than anything, the game highlighted what both clubs must improve on if they are to meet – or exceed – their Championship aspirations.
With Rovers missing wingers Grant Anderson and Joe Cardle (through injury and suspension respectively) and with Cowden playing with a bank of five across the midfield, it was little surprise that the middle of the park was stuffy and congested. Rovers began the match with a 4-3-1-2 formation with Lewis Vaughan sitting behind strikers Greig Spence and Calum Elliot and for the best part they looked ponderous, failing to get to grips with an unfamiliar system.
Cowden were initially unable to take advantage of their host’s listless start, but they eventually managed to exploit the defence. Roves’ backline has been substantially weakened by Paul Watson’s injury, but they also seemed uncertain in front of young goalkeeper Ross Laidlaw, deputising for the stricken David McGurn. Laidlaw is unlikely to look back on the game with too much pride and he should have done better to prevent all three Cowden goals. The goalkeeper was not solely culpable for their concession – on occasion, the entire defensive unit looked exposed and the team have now lost seven goals in their last three matches and 23 for the season, the highest amongst the top five sides in the division.
A growing injury list is also becoming an increasing concern, with the small squad doing little to help matters. Grant Murray could only select six substitutes, and while this isn’t necessarily a major anxiety, four of them had yet to play a minute of first team football with the club. With Spence and Laurie Ellis replaced due to injury, Rovers could conceivably begin their next match against Livingston with a bench consisting of outfield players without a single minute of first team experience.
If there was only one positive to take from the contest, it was the performance of 18-year-old Vaughan. His second half showing in particular was generally impressive and his sumptuous backheel assisted Elliot’s goal. Vaughan is likely to have a greater number of first team opportunities over the coming weeks, more so because of his fine form rather than his club’s injury crisis.
As for Cowdenbeath, the point – gleaned after Kane Hemmings’s last minute strike – was very welcome, but Dumbarton’s victory over Hamilton Academical will now see them finish 2013 in ninth place. If they are to improve and chase down Queen of the South in eighth, they must address their lightweight midfield. Despite enjoying a man advantage in the middle on Saturday, they failed to impose themselves – with Nathaniel Wedderburn absent through injury (and mostly playing centre-back these days), Jon Robertson failed to show the form that earned him a move to the top tier with St Mirren, while Kyle Miller and Lewis Milne both worked hard. However, to succeed at Championship level, players require more strings to their bow than just honest endeavour.
The January transfer window will give Jimmy Nicholl a chance to supplement his side and, of course, he will no doubt be delighted with four points from six from difficult away encounters with Dundee and Raith Rovers. Encouragingly, in both fixtures the team fought back after conceding first, something that would have probably seen them capitulate a fortnight ago. If their new manager has alleviated their worrying tendency submit with such ease, then Cowden might just have a real chance of extending their stay in Championship beyond May. SM
2) Kenny Shiels has his work cut out
With less than a handful of days with his latest charges, Kenny Shiels has already attempted to put his stamp on a Greenock Morton team that is finding itself more adrift at the bottom of the league with every passing week.
Shiels wasn’t shy in making changes to the side that lost to Alloa Athletic in the previous week. Nacho Novo was dropped, having shown very little in his eight league appearances to date, while Reece Hands and Joe McKee started in an attacking midfield triumverate with Dougie Imrie. Michal Habai was returned to the centre of defence beside Thomas Peciar, with Craig Reid re-deployed as a right-back, under a mandate to pass the ball out from the back – at all costs.
From the beginning of the match, Nicholas Caraux, the Morton goalkeeper, was put under tremendous pressure, with split centre-backs passing across the width of the 18-yard line to ensure possession of the football. Stephen Stirling regularly dropped deep to become an auxiliary sweeper in possession, but on each occasion that he received the ball he did so facing his own goal, meaning that he could only pass back to those under-pressure defenders or the goalkeeper, who eventually either had to beat the press or put the ball out of play to prevent being dispossessed in a critical area. Caraux and Stirling together were fortunate that a couple of their passes out of defence didn’t result in a goal for Falkirk in the first half.
Morton were enterprising enough in moments during the match. Hands did well to intercept a Falkirk counter and his bending shot narrowly missed the inside of Michael McGovern’s post. Imrie showed flashes of ingenuity, including a cute reverse pass for Hands that was eventually called for offside. David McNeil’s effort to chase down defenders was encouraging, but he offers little goal threat – his shot from 20 yards was always comfortable for McGovern and there is a suspicion that if Archie Campbell was offered the same opportunity he might have better tested the goalkeeper. Campbell lacks stature, which probably precludes him from being the first-choice sole striker, but he scored 13 goals last season and with good enough service can probably do a better job than the other forwards, at least until the January sales.
As it happened, Falkirk capitalised on Morton’s basic errors. Kieran Duffie looked like his enterprising best in driving forward with the ball in a move that led to a corner kick at the beginning of the second half – it was indeed Duffie, with no-one marking him just six yards out from goal, who scored the opener from the set-piece. Marc Fitzpatrick later dallied on the ball and, not for the first time this season, was punished as Jay Fulton stole possession from him before the opposition broke away to earn a penalty that Rory Loy scored.
Keeping the ball on the deck and building slowly from the back has proved successful to some teams in Scotland (Jackie McNamara’s Partick Thistle being a strong example) and there is little reason why Shiels cannot implement such a strategy in the long term. Doing so from his first match in charge of the team is bold, but with a squad short of confidence and a lot of pressure to discover match-winning form in the second half of the season, the coming weeks could be fraught for supporters of the Ton. JAM
3) More Monklands melancholy for an out of form Stenhousemuir
In February, Stenhousemuir travelled to Cliftonhill to take on an Albion Rovers team at their lowest ebb. While the Warriors were experiencing their own funk, the Vers had lost nine consecutive matches; anything other than an away victory seemed inconceivable. Instead, Stenhousemuir turned in one of their poorest performances of Martyn Corrigan’s tenure and contrived to lose 3-4 (two late Stenny goals gave the score-line an unfair gloss but make no mistake, they were thrashed). With the match still fresh in the mind, there was an uneasy sense of foreboding going into the weekend’s tie with Airdrieonians at Ochilview.
The Diamonds are in decline themselves. They had lost their previous eight league fixtures, with their latest defeat to Brechin City perhaps the cruellest of them all: despite trailing by three goals before the hour mark, strikes from Jim Lister and Lewis Coult instigated a remarkable comeback before Nathan Blockley equalised in injury time. But when you’re down, you’re down and 34 seconds later, Alan Trouten scored his second goal of the game to deny Airdrie a point.
Even so, Stenhousemuir’s current malaise – one win in six league games – was enough for Airdrieonians to seem like an uncompromising proposition. On the balance of play, a 1-1 draw was probably a fair result: Gregor Buchanan opened the scoring after heading in Caolan McAleer’s vicious corner but despite a period of sustained pressure, they were unable to build on their advantage. Stenhousemuir enjoyed the better of the second half, eventually equalising through Sean Dickson’s clever finish on 82 minutes. Airdrie weren’t necessarily very good, relying on a series of spoiling shenanigans and a handful of decent performances – goalkeeper Danny Rodgers made a number of good saves; Buchanan defended well when required; Blockley was an energetic presence in midfield; and Jim Lister made a nuisance of himself – but they were certainly abetted by their host’s curious strategy.
Corrigan appears to have abandoned his maligned 4-2-2-2 system and approached the match by lining his team up in a straightforward 4-4-2, placing four central midfielders across the middle of the park. Brown Ferguson and Bryan Hodge were flanked by Sean Lynch and David Rowson but the configuration appeared to hinder them more than anything else. The contributions of Lynch and Rowson were negligible throughout and the pair often drifted infield into crowded territories, offering little penetration on the wings (it surely begs the question as to why Josh Watt was brought to the club, with the wide player often overlooked). Furthermore, the tendency to punt the ball from back to front failed to bring any success – John Gemmell turned in another subdued performance and looked out of sorts again, but his team are failing to get the best out of them with such a reductive approach.
The manager tried to correct his error at half-time by removing Ferguson and the ineffective Ross McNeil for Sean Dickson and Sean Higgins, and both players injected a sense of urgency into their side. The introduction of Errol Douglas in place of Gemmell before the hour added a different dimension to their attack and the Warriors looked at their most purposeful when he and Higgins combined – perhaps there is a growing case for his inclusion from the start. After Dickson’s equaliser, Stenhousemuir huffed and puffed but could not blow the house down, with Rodgers easily swatting away their efforts.
While the signing of Stewart Greacen should go a long way to improving the club’s haphazard defending, Corrigan must also look to bring in wingers. With Darren Smith sidelined for an indeterminate period and Sean Dickson now seen exclusively as a central player, there is no width in the side. The play is narrow and unimaginative and, even against one of the poorest defences in the division, easy enough to keep at arm’s length. There is a real sense of apathy around the club and with difficult fixtures ahead – the Warriors round of the year by travelling to a resurgent Brechin City before beginning 2014 against their bête noir Dunfermline Athletic and then Rangers – there is a danger that by the end of January, they could find themselves adrift from the play-off places. CGT
4) Iain Thomson wins the battle of the 6s
In a pretty even match, East Stirlingshire came out on top at Elgin City, with Iain Thomson eventually having the upper hand over his counterpart Mark Nicolson.
It was City who enjoyed the best of the first half. As Thomson was partnered by former Elgin midfielder Ross O’Donoghue in the middle of the Shire’s 4-2-3-1, Elgin’s looser shape gave them the upper hand. With Shane Sutherland the spearhead, Dennis Wyness and recent divisional top scorer Craig Gunn linked the attack with midfield from inside, something which skewed the defensive positioning between their opponents Thomson and O’Donoghue. Further back in Elgin’s team, Nicolson had Ross McKinnon supporting him from a slightly left-of-centre position, as Ali McKenzie drove up the right-wing with a predominant left foot.
With Jordan McKechnie playing as John Coughlin’s number 10, he failed to close down Nicolson as the City midfielder was able to pick the ball up from the centre-backs and goalkeeper on occasion, and more often than not in the first half had plenty of time to lift his head and pass through midfield to team-mates. Elgin looked at their best when this happened – between that and Nicolson and McKinnon winning the majority of aerial duels from goal kicks, the Shire found it difficult to get out of their half at times, playing against the wind. Nevertheless, with McKenzie always wanting to cut on to his stronger foot and with no width on the left from McKinnon cutting in, Elgin never got behind the East Stirling defence. Michael Bolocheweckyj’s deputy Jordan Tapping was given a tough time by Wyness’s movement, but he grew into the game alongside Chris Townsley. City’s best chance came from Michael Herd allowing a Gunn cross ball to bounce up and against his elbow, but Sutherland’s penalty just before half-time was lackadaisical and well saved.
Whether the turnaround of the balance of play in the second half was due to the swing in confidence from the missed penalty, or because of Ross Jack changing shape to a more obvious 4-2-3-1, the Shire had the better of the second half and it was little surprise that they eventually grasped the win. McKechnie supported both wide midfielders to double up on the full-backs, while Kevin Turner’s organisation from the tip of the formation was more valuable than his attempted hold-up play against Jamie Duff. In the middle of the pitch, McKinnon tired quickly and probably should have been taken off sooner than with only a quarter of the match to go, while Nicolson’s preceding immaculate passing disintegrated and Elgin’s resulting directness hindered them.
Shorlty before Jamie Glasgow struck the winning volley, Coughlin changed his team’s shape to 4-1-4-1 with around 15 minutes to go and allowed Thomson to sit off the rest of midfield. By then, Elgin had flattened their midfield to 4-4-2 and the Shire’s winner therefore came at the perfect time for them – Thomson was able to control the space between the lines. Even as Elgin became more desperate, ending with more forwards than any sense of decent play could support, the Shire held on for their first league win since the end of October.
Such is the competition in League 2’s mid-table, East Stirlingshire now find themselves in third place, with Elgin second last but only five points behind their victors. One suspects that the Shire can take a lot of confidence from a difficult away win and although they lack a definitive goalscorer, can certainly win enough midfield battles to stake a claim for a play-off place. JAM
5) The #DL express can lift Berwick Rangers up the League 2 table
At the beginning of the month, Berwick Rangers were in a rut. The club had won one league game since October and following a poor defeat at Elgin City, they sat in ninth place with serious questions posed about the future of manager Ian Little. Two weeks and two victories later, however, and they now lie in sixth, two points from the play-off places and eight from the summit of League 2.
Of course, maybe all this does is highlight the tight, competitive nature of the division and that discounting any team, even as we approach the midpoint of the season, is foolish (and something this site has done earlier in the season). If there’s one side that know how a handful of positive results can affect a season, then it’s Berwick – last term, the club sat in eighth place after a 1-3 home defeat to Rangers, but five wins in six between late February and March catapulted them into third. The club would eventually finish the year in fourth and contest the play-offs.
Their victory over Queen’s Park on Saturday – the second time this season they have beaten the Spiders by a 4-0 score-line – was lit up by Scott Dalziel’s hat-trick. The striker was a dominant presence throughout the encounter and pushed around the QP defence time and again as he scored his sixth, seventh and eighth goals of the season. Dalziel joined the senior ranks in 2006, transferring from Armadale Thistle to Mixu Paatelainen’s Cowdenbeath, but he failed to make a significant impact and moved to Stenhousemuir in January 2008. Two goals on his debut against East Stirlingshire immediately ingratiated the player to the Warriors support and he played a significant part in their promotion to the Second Division in 2008-09.
Indifferent spells at East Fife and Brechin City followed but a return to the basement tier with Berwick has seen him regain his form and fitness. Dalziel is not necessarily prolific, but acts as an important focal point with his team, be it running into channels or holding up the ball to encourage others into play. Like at Stenhousemuir, he has developed a strong rapport with the Berwick support and alongside key players like Lee Currie, Steven Notman and Darren Lavery, he will no doubt have an important role as they look to pull themselves further up the table.
Whether this sequence of results is just an anomaly or the beginning of something more tangible remains to be seen, but the weekend’s home tie against Peterhead should be infinitely more tasking and offer a far sterner test of their credentials. Although the Blue Toon are unbeaten in their last seven (winning five in the process), Berwick prevailed in the last meeting between the sides, a Scottish Cup tie in October, something which should give them confidence going into the match. There is also free entry to the game, with the Berwick Rangers Supporters Trust sponsoring the fixture – a hugely worthwhile initiative that more clubs would do well to copy. CGT