1) Heart of Midlothian are champions
So the inevitable happened. Having led the table since the third week of the campaign, Heart of Midlothian were declared winners of this season’s Championship division yesterday. Hearts won with a comfortable 3-0 win at Falkirk the previous day to ensure they got to just one more result of winning the tile, but Hibernian – who else – faltered against Rangers to guarantee the outcome.
The match against the Bairns was typical of the season in many respects. Another sell-out away crowd witnessed their favourite team cruise through a match that posed little trouble to them once Jamie Walker put them in front just before the half hour mark. Unlike Falkirk’s win at Tynecastle eight weeks ago, Hearts had the time to play out from the back in pivotal moments and that allowed a measured ball for Osman Sow behind Falkirk’s defence, to get to the byline for the cut-back to Walker. It took until a couple of minutes into the second half to extent the lead, with left-back Adam Eckersley producing a back-heel into the penalty area that took three Falkirk players out of the play before the ball eventually fell to Genero Zeefuik to smash in. James Keatings impressed in a cameo appearance and finished off a counter attack by curling a shot into the far corner from 15 yards with accomplished technique. Three goals, all quintessential Heart of Midlothian under Robbie Neilson.
Hearts’ level of professionalism throughout the season is a lesson to the rest of the division and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them soon break Hibs’ second-tier points record from 1999 (89). Neilson had the squad in for training before the Hibs-Rangers fixture took place, so it would be unlike what has been observed thus far for him to allow his players to take it easy for the last seven matches. Indeed, Neilson has the luxury of reserves ready and capable of proving themselves good enough for a regular first-team place, as he has had all season – there won’t be any favours available to the rest of the division for the last clutch of matches.
There are only so many ways of stating that Hearts have been the best lower league team in decades, so this will be brief: congratulations to exemplary winners. JAM
2) Rangers are back in the hunt
Rangers have been roundly rubbish this season. They’ve looked unfit, unmotivated and uninterested throughout the campaign and many supporters had resigned themselves to a second successive term in the Championship. Before the weekend’s match with Hibernian at Easter Road, Rangers had drawn their last five matches, with each performance more dispiriting than the last. There were even doubts about the club even finishing in the play-off places altogether – with Queen of the South in good form and Falkirk not far behind, their position in the top four was coming under increasing scrutiny.
Many onlookers expected their miserable winless run to extend to six matches against the Hibees. Alan Stubbs’s side have got Rangers’ number this season, prevailing in the last three meetings. Hibs’ 4-0 victory at the end of December was one of many low points of the Gers’ year so far – Kenny McDowall’s dismal team were destroyed by Hibs and torn apart time and again. The win propelled the Edinburgh club towards a 13-matchunbeaten run in the league; all signs pointed towards them extending it further yesterday afternoon.
That notion was only enhanced when Rangers published their team sheet. Their starting line-up featured five defenders, including the unpredictable Bilel Mohsni and the woeful Lee McCulloch, while Tom Walsh – one of the few forward-thinking first-team players – was not even part of the matchday squad. It looked like Stuart McCall was shaping up his team in a 3-5-2 formation – what on earth was he thinking? The last time Rangers used the system was towards the beginning of the season but it had almost no success; it was as if Ally McCoist had seen it in the World Cup and decided he fancied giving it a bash without fully understanding its function.
But McCall is a far cannier manager than McCoist and there was method to his madness. His version of the 3-5-2 was proactive, expressly designed to contain Hibernian’s midfield diamond and exploit the vacant space on the flanks. Rangers were not spectacular but their strategy was effective – they were the better team throughout and merited their win.
McCall was able to blunt Hibs’ creative threat. Scott Allan and Fraser Fyvie were under constant supervision from Andy Murdoch and Nicky Law and both players failed to make a significant impact. On the rare occasions they escaped their attentions, they were let down by the lack of movement from forwards Dominique Malonga and Franck Dja Djedje – both strikers were subdued and Rangers, with their additional man in defence, kept the pair at arms’ length. Such was the poverty of their attack that Hibs did not record a single shot on target.
It was Lee Wallace who was the game’s outstanding player. Fielded at left wing-back, Wallace rampaged up and down the flank with menace and opened the scoring on the cusp of half-time – Nicky Clark gathered Cammy Bell’s quick free-kick on the touchline and played a teasing ball into the penalty box. Hibs failed to clear and Wallace, darting into the area, gathered the loose ball and fired it into the roof of the net. He was occasionally careless in possession and his decision-making was a little wayward, but it was his finest performance in months.
Ten minutes form time, Wallace made his way forward to chase Kenny Miller’s pass but appeared to clatter into Paul Hanlon, sending the defender sprawling on the turf. Everyone stopped and turned towards referee Willie Collum except Miller – he waddled into the area and finished beyond Mark Oxley. Hibs should have been awarded a free-kick but the old adage “play to the whistle” has never been more appropriate.
Alan Stubbs had no answers and his side just could not break Rangers down. Martin Boyle replaced the ineffective Dja Djedje but he couldn’t get into the match while Sam Stanton’s introduction probably came too late. Having outclassed the Gers so many times this season, it was Stubbs who was outdone by McCall here.
Tactics is a funny word that hasn’t really been used around Ibrox over the last three years, but McCall’s set up and execution worked to perfection and both he and his players deserve credit. They have now set a standard and they must work to maintain it between now and the end of the season. They trail Hibernian by three points but they have a game in hand – before today, Rangers’ promotion aspirations looked utterly moribund; now there is something to be a little optimistic about going into the final few games. CGT
3) Same outcome, same old story for Alloa Athletic
As Michael Chopra ambled onto the Stark’s Park turf on Saturday night, Michael Caine’s famous line from Get Carter immediately sprung to mind: “You’re a big man, but you’re out of shape”.
Chopra is a man of many clubs, most recently the Kerala Blasters of the Indian Premier League, and his arrival at Alloa Athletic last week was the latest in a series of strange events at the club. It’s been a peculiar season in Clackmannanshire – the Wasps have lost one of their five fixtures against Rangers and they’re looking forward to the Challenge Cup final next month, but they’ve won just two league games since August.
That they aren’t rock bottom of the Championship is largely down to the wretchedness of the two sides beneath them, while their signing policy, especially since January, has looked haphazard and ill-thought out. Players such as Calaum Jahraldo-Martin and Greg Rutherford have arrived without making any kind of impact.
Despite their deficiencies, those connected with the club seem reasonably sanguine about their prospects of survival, particularly when compared to Livingston or Cowdenbeath. The Central Park regulars are understandably riven with displeasure over Jimmy Nicholl’s latest escapades: he has begun to assist Michael O’Neill with the Northern Ireland national team and will combine these duties with managing Cowden. Although the Blue Brazil are level on points with Alloa, there seems to be an air of rancor surrounding the Fife outfit.
The same levels of despair are absent from Recreation Park, but for all their fans’ glass-half-full outlook, their latest defeat might leave them a little fearful about their prospects of avoiding the relegation play-off place. Saturday’s slender defeat to Raith Rovers came about in similar circumstances to most of their others since this term – of the 19 league games Alloa have lost, 12 of them have been by a single goal. This might suggest they’re a team capable of digging in and frustrate their opponents, it also gives the impression they’re too limited to ever really hurt them.
And that’s what happened in Kirkcaldy. Alloa enjoyed reasonable possession but Liam Buchanan spent most of the match up front on his own. Ryan McCord did his best to scamper forward in support but with no cross balls from Mark Docherty or the risible Philip Roberts, Buchanan was often fighting a losing battle.
Raith scored midway through the first half when Mark Stewart took advantage of Michael Doyle’s weak defending to poke the ball past Craig McDowall. Their lead didn’t last long and Buchanan restored parity five minutes later, turning Rory McKeown inside the penalty box and stabbing home, but the Rovers secured the win almost immediately after the interval when Grant Anderson teed up the livewire Lewis Vaughan to finish. They never really looked like squandering the lead for a second time.
Michael Chopra made his second appearance for the club, replacing Roberts in the 65th minute. Can he be the man to keep Alloa in the second tier for another season? Possibly – he had one or two neat touches – but not while he carries all that excess lumber. Chopra looks flabby and he presumably won’t be able to shift the weight unless he’s conducting his own training regime on top of the part-time detail he’ll be getting at the Recs. How to get him fit and squeeze him into a fluent system is a quandary Paddy Connolly will have to work out over the next few days.
Alloa might sit ahead of Cowden but the Blue Brazil have two games in hand – it is not enough to hope that Jimmy Nicholl’s side lose every week. With both teams set to meet on the final day of the season, the contest may well be heading towards a climactic, winner-takes-all affair. SM
4) Greenock Morton snatch victory from the jaws of defeat
Spring has sprung, supermarkets are filled to the gunnels with Easter eggs, and the destination of the League 1 continues to be impossible to predict. Saturday’s fixtures saw contenders Stranraer host in-form Airdrieonians; an Angus derby between Brechin City and Forfar Athetic; and Greenock Morton face struggling Ayr United at Cappielow. Despite having taken just one point from the previous three meetings between the sides, Jim Duffy might have sniffed an opportunity to make a big move in the title race.
The home side were looking to bounce back from two consecutive defeats and Duffy made two changes to the starting line-up that lost at Airdrie the previous week, with Stefan Milojevic and Stefan McCluskey replaced by Jamie McCluskey and Ross Caldwell. The Ton shaped up in a 4-3-3 formation against United’s 3-5-2, who saw David Robertson forced to play up front due to the absence of Craig Beattie, Alan Forrest and Ryan Donnelly.
With the dangerous trio of Caldwell, Peter MacDonald and Declan McManus leading the attack, Morton understandably looked to hit their forwards at the first opportunity, with ‘keeper Derek Gaston and left-back Mark Russell regularly shelling the ball long. The trio, however, were well marshaled by a compact and competent Ayr side; Morton dominated possession but were largely restricted to efforts on goal from outside the box in the first half.
A tactical switch at half-time by Ian McCall turned the pattern of the game on its head. Lining up in a 4-4-2, United seized control of the midfield, leaving the home side flustered and on the back foot. Eight minutes into the second half, Ayr opened the scoring when a measured and precise break was halted with a foul by Thomas O’Ware on Robbie Crawford right on the edge of the penalty area. Up stepped Jon-Paul McGovern: his free-kick was struck over the wall, leaving Gaston with on chance as the ball clipped the crossbar and went in.
Duffy’s callow cohorts looked shell-shocked and Ayr, well on top, should have punished them. Ricki Lamie allowed a clearance from David Hutton to bounce into the path of Jordan Preston but the on-loan Blackburn Rovers striker dithered in front of goal, allowing Lamie to atone; Gaston then inexplicably played the ball directly to David Robertson 30 yards out but, caught between a shot and playing in Preston, the veteran (looking decidedly fatigued an hour into the game) could only poke the ball in the direction of an opponent. The Morton keeper then redeemed himself with a vital stop to his left from Robbie Crawford after the Honest Men had once more carved open the Morton rearguard.
Ayr’s energy, however, was visibly draining from them. McCall showed no confidence in his substitutes but, just when it looked like they had done enough to record a deserved win on the basis of their second-half performance, disaster struck. With the game clock at 89:59, Ross Forbes looped a free-kick up towards the back post; under pressure from O’Ware, Scott McKenna could only head the ball upwards to Lamie who flicked the ball onto McManus to nod home.
To their credit, there was desire from the home side to get going quickly and with United out on their feet, Michael Miller and Ross Forbes linked up and, 1:11 into stoppage time, the former Dunfermline Athletic player curled a low shot beyond Hutton to steal all three points and ignite raucous scenes amongst the players. Those 72 seconds might just end up defining their season.
The manner of the victory was almost as important as the three points themselves. Winning when not playing well, they say, is the mark of champions but – no matter the positive impact Saturday might have on the psyche of the Morton squad – they remain an unconvincing proposition. Duffy does not seem to know his best team or his best formation and, despite their comeback, questions remain about the mentality of a squad that, MacDonald apart, has limited experience of what it takes to get over the line.
Results elsewhere – victories for Forfar and Stranraer – meant the top three remains unchanged. Brechin, the day’s big losers, have fallen eight points behind the leaders. The Ton travel to Dunfermline on Saturday, a side they have already defeated three times this season, but the race is surely going to the final day of the campaign.
For the Honest Men, on the other hand, you wonder what physiological damage was done. “No wonder we are were [sic] we are, shi*e”, tweeted defender Nicky Devlin after the game. Ayr should have thrashed Stenhousemuir a week ago, but the game ended goalless; they should have defeated Morton on Saturday but left Cappielow empty-handed and broken-hearted. Where do they go from here? Ian McCall has taken ten points from his 12 games in charge and, while performances have improved, results have not. United have gone from being a team incapable of winning to one that does not know how to. They will need to find out soon if they are to avoid relegation. AG
5) Montrose are all but inked as “Club 42″
Whilst the attention of lower-league devotees was distracted by the Angus derby tussle in League 1 and the battle between Queen’s Park and Albion Rovers at the top of League 2, a game of equal significance was being played out at Links Park: tenth-placed Montrose versus ninth-placed Berwick Rangers. Montrose began the afternoon five points behind Berwick; a win would have provided a valuable psychological boost ahead of the last half-dozen games of the season. As far as the visitors were concerned, there had been rumours afoot that manager Colin Cameron was under serious pressure to deliver a win and that a change in the dugout might quickly follow defeat in this game.
Everyone seemed to grasp the significance of the occasion except the Montrose players themselves. Unfortunately, they chose this vital afternoon to turn in a dismally flat performance, the kind of display more normally associated with a meaningless end-of-season match, or a pre-season friendly.
The opening half-hour or so of the game was very poor fare indeed, and it was not hard to see why these two teams were at the bottom of the league. However, gradually, Berwick began to threaten, particularly down Montrose’s left. Andrew Steeves attacking instincts left space at the left-back position, and Stuart McKenzie in the home goal had to make a couple of smart saves before the break as Berwick began to exploit the gaps.
The home team were toothless going forward, and they sat back very deep in the second half. The game turned on two crazy minutes with 15 minutes of the game left. Firstly, Montrose right-back Terry Masson was dismissed for a crude last-man challenge on Berwick’s Blair Henderson as he bore down on goal; it was harsh for Masson who was left with little choice but to make the tackle as the attacker raced towards McKenzie. From the resulting free-kick, Lee Currie struck a sublime left-foot curler around the Montrose wall and just inside McKenzie’s right-hand post. A minute later, it was 2-0 after the Mo defence failed to clear their lines and Henderson stabbed into the roof of the net from close range.
Berwick came onto a game in the second half, and turned in the kind of performance referred to as “professional”; they did what they had to do. They would have headed back down the A90 confident in the knowledge that this Montrose team simply aren’t motivated or skilful enough to make up what is now an eight-point gap with six games remaining. But for some wonderful saves from man-of-the-match Stuart McKenzie, the score-line would have been significantly worse.
Who knows what fate now awaits the Angus club. Having been a league member for 85 years, they now face the prospect of having to beat the winner of a play-off between two dominant championship-winning sides from the Highland and Lowland Leagues in order to maintain their status. If they are relegated as a result, nobody will be able to complain that such a fate is undeserved. In the event of survival, only a mass clear-out of what has proven to be a dreadful playing squad will suffice as the club looks to avoid this awful fate again. JB