1) Keith Watson is an excellent understudy at Hibernian
It is telling that Hibernian are now making routine home wins out of fixtures they had such difficult time of in the first quarter of the season. Hibs’ 0-0 draw with Dumbarton in the middle of October said much about their ability to hold on to the ball but do little threatening with it. The midfield diamond was still bedding in at that point, even a few weeks after the infamous 3-1 win over Rangers at Ibrox that arguably kick-started the Hibees’ campaign. And while the same formation – and to a large extent the same personnel – was used against the Sons, Alan Stubbs has the gameplan more finely tuned to tip the balance in their favour.
It helps that there is such strength in depth now. Last week, when Hibs went 3-5-2 in the 2-0 win against Rangers, Keith Watson played as the third centre-back inside wing-back David Gray, but against Dumbarton was preferred as the right-back as Gray had to settle for a place on the bench. The decision was justified as Watson was Hibs’ best player. When teams use a midfield diamond they rely on their width so much from their full-backs, which can be a double-edged sword: it allows greater numbers elsewhere but also allows the opposition to double up on the full-back and penetrate on the flanks.
Hibs have rarely had their full-backs pinned back this season as Lewis Stevenson enjoys arguably the best form of his career to date on the left flank and Gray and now Watson excelling on the right. Most of Dumbarton’s attacking play went down their left and Hibs’ right-hand side, with Scott Agnew standing off the midfield to spray passes to Scott Linton and Mitch Megginson, but Dumbarton’s left-sided players generally weren’t good enough to make Hibs worry about Watson going forward so often.
Going forward was what he did with aplomb, assisting Hibs’ first two goals in quick succession and starting the move from which Dominique Malonga completed the scoring, to kill the contest with less than an hour gone. Watson was so often positioned parallel to the opposition 18-yard line that he resembled a winger – Fraser Fyvie and to a lesser extent Dylan McGeouch always had the out-ball to the right-hand side and there must have been half a dozen dangerous crosses into the penalty area before the first goal was scored after half an hour.
Dumbarton looked quite good in possession in spells but they never had an out-ball themselves at any time. Garry Fleming became more and more frustrated with the long punts that were booted over his head to meekly hand possession back to Hibs. Archie Campbell never got going on the right wing with and not enough was seen of Mark Wilson’s experience at right-back, with Agnew so often looking to spread the ball wide behind Watson. When Dylan Easton wasn’t watching it go over his head, he showed ingenuity to pass the ball around corners – Campbell did make the diagonal run inward and if Easton can be given space against weaker opposition 30 yards out from goal then the St Johnstone loanee could bring out the best of Campbell’s pace and finishing.
Dumbarton are only five points ahead of Alloa Athletic and Cowdenbeath so are by no means safe from relegation yet, especially now that they’ve lost six and drawn one of their last seven matches. The creativity from Easton and Agnew should see them safe, but they need a lot more quality from their forwards if that’s to happen. For Hibs, the fact that they can rest one of their best players and have his understudy perform to such an exceedingly high level (which can be applied to either David Gray or Scott Allan) bodes well for their promotion prospects through the play-offs. There is absolutely no doubt that they are a better side than those scratching for form at the bottom of the Premiership and they certainly look good for going up with Heart of Midlothian at the end of the season. JAM
2) Jimmy Nicholl is running out of time
Aside from the thorny issue of a relegation battle, there was another matter of lesser importance (but no less fascinating) concerning Saturday’s encounter between Cowdenbeath and Alloa Athletic. The fixture brought together two under-fire managers in Jimmy Nicholl and Barry Smith, men who are no doubt appreciated but mostly unloved at their respective clubs.
Nicholl helmed the Blue Brazil during last season’s swashbuckling play-off triumph over Dunfermline Athletic, while Smith oversaw Alloa’s dismantling of Rangers in the Challenge Cup semi-final, one of the finest results in their recent history, but these instances have been pinpricks of light in an otherwise hard and testing campaign. Before the weekend, both Nicholl and Smith had recorded just eight wins from 47 league games between them; unless there is a serious upturn in fortune, one of them – maybe even both – will finish in the Championship’s bottom two positions come May.
Based on Saturday’s evidence, Cowden are the side in the most disarray. Disjoined, misshapen and downright confusing performances have been standard this season and their display against the Wasps was no exception. They looked short of inventiveness and spirit and the lack of creativity was hardly helped by Nicholl’s team selection, top heavy with defenders and holding midfielders. With only on-loan Celtic midfielder John Herron offering some attacking thrust behind strikers Colin Nish and Kudus Oyenuga, Cowden toiled again.
Their opponents were a lot more adventurous. Alloa partnered Liam Buchanan and Isaac Layne up front while the midfield quartet of Philip Roberts, Kevin Cawley, Ryan McCord and Mark Docherty bristled with intent. It was Docherty who opened the scoring in the 65th minute, starting and finishing the move himself – after picking up possession on the edge of his own area, his break forward appeared to be halted by Thomas O’Brien, but he connected with Layne’s clever backheel to majestically sweep a volley into the top corner of the net.
The contest was effectively ended with ten minutes remaining when Cawley was able to gather possession on the halfway line and advance unchecked into the penalty area before picking his spot past Robbie Thomson. The 2-0 score-line was a little flattering to Cowden and they could have lost by a greater margin – an uncomfortable truth given how much Alloa have struggled to break down their opponents this season.
Cowden and Alloa have now swapped places, with the former dropping into ninth. A quick glance at the fixture list suggests it’s going to be a tough ask for them to extricate themselves from the play-off spot – their next six games are against the division’s current top five sides and they start by travelling to Heart of Midlothian before matches with Rangers and Hibernian.
Barry Smith might have found some wriggle room after a very welcome win but Jimmy Nicholl and his team are lurching from one shambolic performance to the next. Questions are being asked – how much longer can his tenure last? SM
3) Three points for Forfar Athletic, #high5forcafu
It has been a difficult month for Forfar Athletic.
Two weeks ago, the tragic news that the body of 20-year-old Jack Syme had been found at Kinnoull Hill near Perth rocked the club. Tributes poured in for the defender, a member of the Loons’ development squad and the U-19 team that reached the final of the League Cup in 2013; high-profile players including Darren Fletcher, Steven Naismith and Kris Boyd showed their support on social media by showing a #high5forcafu.
Such heartbreak reminds us all football is just a game, but it didn’t lessen the anger following Forfar’s defeat at the Excelsior Stadium a week ago. Dick Campbell raged, in endearingly familiar fashion, at referee Greg Aitken’s decision to award Airdrieonians a penalty in the 22nd minute and send off midfielder Gavin Malin. “I cannot believe he gave a penalty kick,” grumbled Campbell. “Nobody at the game can believe he’s given a penalty kick. But he is so abrupt and right away up to the boy’s face with the red card. I think that’s why they boys are refereeing at our standard…” The defeat, the Loons’ fourth in seven games, saw them cede second position in the table to a resurgent Greenock Morton.
A testing week saw a club statement seeking an end to the personal abuse of players and staff from the terraces, the appeal against Malin’s red card dismissed, and, on Friday, Jack Syme’s funeral. The visit of Dunfermline Athletic to Station Park on Saturday was therefore a welcome opportunity to get back to business. Ex-Par Stephen Husband replaced the suspended Malin and it is perhaps fate that his was a poor but keenly contested game’s decisive act – with almost an hour of the game gone, Andy Geggan dispossessed Gavin Swankie in the right-back position but played the ball staight to the feet of Husband. He knocked it onto his right foot and from 35 yards sent an unstoppable, looping shot into the top corner of Ryan Scully’s goal. Husband’s emotion appeared to be one of disbelief as he put his hands to his mouth. It was a goal worthy of winning any game, especially this one.
With each passing week, the League 1 promotion picture is afforded added intrigue: Greenock Morton’s 2-0 victory over Stranraer saw them close the Blues’ advantage over Ton and the Loons to just one point and, ominously, extended their unbeaten run to six matches. Brechin City, who usurped Dunfermline into fourth place are themselves unbeaten in 13 league matches and, with two games in hand, cannot be discounted despite their seven-point disadvantage. Meanwhile, the Pars are in danger of missing out on the play-offs altogether, something that was unthinkable at the start of the season. They host the Hedgemen on Tuesday night in a must-win game for John Potter’s side.
Much has been made of Forfar’s experienced squad but that nous has been invaluable in recent weeks and they remain in a strong position for a genuine title challenge. In the words of Rab Douglas: “Yes I’m old fat passed it useless has been I’m in the house with clean sheet and win bonus thanks”. AG
4) No-one wants to win League 2
Just what on earth is going on at the top of League 2? The tremendous three-way title race between Queen’s Park, Arbroath and Albion Rovers is shaping up to be the fourth tier’s most hotly contested since Cowdenbeath, Berwick Rangers and Stenhousemuir duked out a fierce scrap in 2005-06. The trouble is, none of the sides are in good form and they seem unable to put together a convincing sequence of results. No-one has taken the initiative; it is a championship no-one wants to win.
Arbroath and Albion Rovers have both been dire of late. The Lichties, who have sat atop the league for the large majority of the campaign so far, are yet to win in 2015 and Allan Moore’s team have taken just three points from their last six matches. There have been a number of embarrassments along the way – they tossed away a two-goal lead in the draw with Montrose, they were overrun and out-thought in the defeat at Queen’s Park, and they were obliterated by Berwick on Valentine’s Day. Moore’s use of a midfield diamond has come under scrutiny while Simon Murray, their prolific striker, has drawn ire from the more quarrelsome elements of the support. “You’re no’ in the Premier League now, Murray!” is heard at Gayfield with increasing frequency.
Murray was dropped for the weekend’s match at Annan Athletic, his one goal in his previous six matches and overall contribution deemed unsatisfactory. His team probably could have done with him, as only outrageous profligacy prevented them from taking a handsome lead into the half-time interval. By the time Murray was introduced to the action, Arbroath were a goal down – Steven Swinglehurst had directed Andy Mitchell’s free-kick into the net on the hour mark – and as they pressed for an equaliser, Annan countered and Peter Weatherson struck a crucial blow at the death. Jim Chapman’s side are now beginning to look snug in the final play-off place; Arbroath just look forlorn.
Albion Rovers appear dejected and down in the dumps too. After putting together four consecutive wins between December and January, they’ve slumped to four back-to-back defeats, the latest a poor 0-1 home loss to East Stirlingshire. They look like a stodgy, unimaginative side at the moment, lacking in craft – they’ve scored just two goals in their last four games (and one of them was a penalty). Something seems amiss at Cliftonhill in recent weeks, culminating with the popular and long-standing Ciaran Donnelly being put out to pasture at Shotts Bon Accord (in his testimonial year too, no less). How manager Darren Young corrects their course remains to be seen.
While Arbroath and Albion Rovers have faltered, Queen’s Park have taken advantage to lead the division for the first time this season after goals from Ross McPherson and Paul Woods secured a 2-1 win over Berwick in Saturday’s late kick-off. The Spiders have overcome their own difficult spell – four straight draws either side of the New Year – but are yet to find a level of consistency that suggests they’ll stay in first place. Securing Jordan Moore on loan until the end of the season will go some way to addressing their issues in front of goal but a nasty looking injury to Shaun Rooney could be a setback.
Two points separate the top three sides. It might come down to who can win their games in hand – Queen’s Park have played their full complement of fixtures, while Arbroath have two to spare and Albion Rovers one. The teams must also play each other one more time. Arbroath’s third- and second-last matches of the season are against QP and the Vers and they could prove to be crucial. Take your eyes of this division at your own risk. CGT
5) Montrose are staring into the abyss
The titanic struggle to avoid becoming the first league club to face a relegation play off has clarified in the last fortnight. East Stirlingshire, stranded at the bottom of League 2 since a resurgent Elgin City overtook them at the turn of the year, have ground out two very welcome wins in recent weeks. Last Saturday’s home triumph against Elgin at Ochilview was perhaps a shade fortunate, with David McKenna’s late penalty coming at the end of a game where the Moray side passed up several clear goal-scoring chances. But yesterday’s away victory against an imploding Albion Rovers was both surprising and welcome for Craig Tully’s side.
It’s hard to believe that the Rovers were considered genuine title candidates a few weeks ago; they are now in a flat spin and the Shire, desperate for points, faced them at exactly the right time. With David Greenhill commanding in the midfield, the Shire scored another late goal through Ross Gilmour and their win took them off the bottom of the league.
They’ve been replaced in the ejector seat by Montrose. The Gable Endies finally parted company with George Shields last weekend, but the new management duo of Paul Hegarty and John Holt had only one session with the players before yesterday’s vital game at Borough Briggs. The newly installed coaches changed the team around, with Paul Harkins returning and the fading talisman Marvin Andrews dropped from a completely re-modelled defence.
Sadly for Montrose, they came up against an Elgin side determined to make up for last week’s disappointing result. Although Harkins and Garry Wood threatened early on, the Black and Whites took the lead from a corner; Montrose then had to absorb the successive hammer blows of a missed penalty by Wood, and a very harsh red card for Euan Moyes after what seemed to most as a perfectly harmless challenge for a 50-50 ball. The visitors were unable to recover, leaked two more goals before half-time, and were on the wrong end of a 0-4 defeat.
The Links Park side now really are staring into the abyss. With only ten games left of a rotten season, they have conceded 60 goals and are low in confidence. In that sense, Hegarty and Holt’s arrival hasn’t come too soon; even if there aren’t enough games for them to avoid finishing bottom, the hope is that a stern, disciplinarian approach in training, and trying to shore up a leaking defence, will set Montrose up as best as they can be for a relegation play-off. Avoiding finishing last, from this position, would be a major feather in the cap for Hegarty.
The coming games against Clyde – far from safe themselves – and against the Shire at Ochilview in April are the critical encounters for Montrose. Victories are probably necessary in all of them if they are to negotiate an unlikely path to safety. Overall, five wins from the last ten games are needed as a minimum to guarantee survival. Given that the club has only won six times in the season to date, that may well be too much of an ask. JB