1) Jim McIntyre is showing his flexible side at Queen of the South
Earlier in the season, Queen of the South manager Jim McIntyre was criticised for tampering with Allan Johnston’s successful blueprint to the detriment of the team. Queens strolled through the 2012-13 campaign by using a traditional 4-4-2 formation reliant on combinations and partnerships in every area of the pitch. Instead of repeating Johnston’s approach, McIntyre deployed his own default approach, a high-tempo 4-3-3. It brought limited success – after ten games, the club sat in the relegation play-off places with nine points.
Since then, however, Queens have embarked on an excellent run of form and before the weekend’s match at Falkirk, had clambered into fourth place. There have been a number of factors for their ascension, but McIntyre’s willingness to change tactics as and when required has certainly played a part. Since the opening quarter, his team have lined up in a 4-3-3, a 4-5-1 and even that old fashioned 4-4-2. Although they lost their meeting with the Bairns – Mark Millar’s injury time penalty allowed the home side to keep pace at the top of the table – they were the better side for long spells and were unlucky not to have taken something from the match.
On Saturday, McIntyre adopted the division’s current vogue – the 4-4-2 built around a midfield diamond, with Michael Paton at the tip behind Derek Lyle and Bob McHugh. With Falkirk adopting a 3-5-2 strategy, it seemed a risky tactic given the Bairns’ prowess down the flanks, but Queens were never really troubled. Wing-backs Stephen Kingsley and Kieran Duffie failed to attack the vacant space with any great frequency; the occasions they did, their crossing was wayward and Mark Beck was unable to take advantage (a recurring theme in Falkirk’s play). When Queens sauntered forward, they were countered by two banks of three and could not break their hosts down. The sides effectively cancelled one another out.
Paton’s injury five minutes before the interval prompted McIntyre into a reshuffle, with substitute Iain Russell moving onto the left hand side of a reconfigured 4-4-1-1 system. From this point on, they were the better side without ever truly testing their opponents (Russell brought out a rudimentary save from Michael McGovern) and defended well when necessary. They were undone in the final minute when Phil Roberts’ shot was adjudged to have hit the arm of Chris Mitchell (the referee claimed he say the full-back’s hand moved towards the ball, but Mitchell argued his hand moved because the ball had hit it) and Mark Millar converted the resultant penalty.
It was a dire game of football between two sides capable of better. Queens dropped into fifth behind Dumbarton, but they have the chance to make amends with their next two matches: home fixtures with the Sons and Hamilton Academical. Both games should provide Queens with the chance to re-establish their play-off credentials. With McIntrye now prepared to change his system when appropriate, one can only imagine where they would be had he shown more flexibility at the beginning of the campaign. CF
2) Dumbarton are on a roll
Part-time clubs in the second tier should not be competing near the top of the table. Sure, they may start the season well enough and allow the media to roll out those complimentary platitudes often laced with condescension, but they aren’t really expected to last the pace. The… Well, the smaller sides are regarded, amongst other things, as part of the learning curve of an up-and-coming manager (Paul Hartley), or the stopping point for a player destined for bigger things (Kane Hemmings, perhaps); Ian Murray’s Dumbarton, however, are doing their best to change all that.
The Sons are unbeaten in 2014, a run that now stretches to eight matches following the weekend’s 3-3 draw with Raith Rovers. The sequence included two dismissals of Cowdenbeath and a celebrated 5-1 win over Alloa Athletic, a result which hastened Hartley’s departure from Recreation Park. In their last six games they have collected 12 points (topping the recent form table), scored 19 times and climbed from eighth to fourth. To a degree, they may be benefitting from the cut-throat nature of the division where anyone can beat anyone else (with the exception of Greenock Morton, of course), but their current tally of 36 points would impress at the same stage of any season.
Whereas Alloa began the season as a compact, defensively-minded unit, Dumbarton have been open and exciting – no other team has bettered their total of 45 strikes, but they do not have a positive goal difference. Saturday’s draw with Rovers highlighted the strengths and weaknesses of Ian Murray’s side.
Their upturn in form coincided with the arrival of Chris Kane, signed on loan from St Johnstone. The 19-year-old has scored seven goals in as many games since joining at the beginning of January and his cool finish to put his side 2-1 ahead was a fine indicator of his qualities – reaching double figures before the end of the season is more than achievable. His link up play with the maligned Colin Nish was impressive, and it’s perhaps important to note that the former Kilmarnock striker has three goals since Kane signed – a substantial improvement on his solitary league strike before January. Behind the forwards, Scott Agnew continues to stand out and he completed an excellent performance with a volley to tie the match at 3-3.
It was around them where Dumbarton’s problems lay, however. Mitch Megginson was tasked with providing width down the left flank and despite his endeavour, it was not a role he was particularly comfortable with. Jordan Kirkpatrick is perhaps more tailored for the position but sat in front of the back four instead. Kirkpatrick has his qualities, but they don’t necessarily lend themselves to a defensive midfield role.
As a result, the backline were never really given adequate protection, something they badly needed with Scott Linton having a poor game. To his credit, Murray recognised this and replaced Megginson with Mike Miller who occupied a central position, and moved Kirkpatrick onto the flank – the changes added solidity and gave his side the upper hand, but they’d conceded three times by this point and two points were dropped.
Logic would suggest that Dumbarton will not finish the season in the top four. They might get distracted by their upcoming Scottish Cup quarter-final, or that tricky run of fixtures away from home might catch up with them. That said, the return of Chris Turner will supplement the squad further, and only Dundee have collected more points on the road all season. The odds are shortening with each passing week. SM
3) Ross Forbes will be instrumental in Dunfermline Athletic’s promotion bid
In September 2009, Ross Forbes was establishing himself as Scottish football’s “next big thing”. Following a successful loan spell at Dumbarton, which concluded with a Third Division winner’s medal, the midfielder burst into the Motherwell first team under the pugnacious Jim Gannon. Forbes scored three times in six Europa League matches (including a goal against Romanian cracks Steaua Bucharest) and went on to net five strikes in the Well’s first ten SPL fixtures, collecting a Young Player of the Month award and a new two-year contract along the way.
He failed to better the standard of those first 16 appearances. “Loose” Gannon departed Fir Park in December 2009 and the player would only feature infrequently under new manager Craig Brown, but it was Stuart McCall who broke Forbes’s spirit: in his final season with the Steelmen, he played just 298 minutes of first team football and was an unused substitute on 33 occasions.
Forbes’s dissatisfaction with his inactivity at Motherwell might have been in the back of his mind when he made the surprising (and arguably premature) decision to leave Partick Thistle and join Dunfermline Athletic at the end of January. He was a regular during their promotion to the Premiership but his final five months with the club were largely disappointing, with 15 of his 16 appearances coming as a substitute. At the beginning of the season, Forbes spoke of his desire to prove himself in the top tier; instead, he dropped two divisions in a bid for regular game time. So far, his performances for the Pars have indicated that he is operating at a level well below his capabilities.
Forbes has taken no time to assimilate into his new surroundings: he scored on his debut against East Fife and netted again against Ayr United at the weekend, his exquisite left-footed shot beating David Hutton after only eight minutes. Having played using a 5-3-2 system in recent weeks, Jim Jefferies configured his side into a traditional 4-4-2 formation and, with Andy Geggan and Stephen Husband dominating the central areas, Forbes and Josh Falkingham were able to exploit the areas in behind United’s wing-backs. On the stroke of half-time, another effort from range effectively ended the contest: a freekick played into the box was cleared to Forbes, who beat Brian Gilmour before cracking a shot across Hutton. The ball clipped the post, bobbled along the goal-line, and straight into the path of Lawrence Shankland to tap into the net. Shankland added the third and final goal in the second half, taking his total to four in seven appearances since joining on loan from Aberdeen.
As well as Forbes and Shankland, fellow January additions Danny Grainger and Jonathan Page have brought greater strength and experience to the first team and as such, Dunfermline’s promotion prospects look significantly stronger. A play-off place is all but guaranteed: the Pars hold an 11 point advantage over Stranraer in third and are 19 points clear of Brechin City in fifth, all with 11 games left to play. In the short-term, Jefferies’ biggest concern will be to ensure his side maintain their focus until the end of the season – even if a play-off place is confirmed with games to spare, it would be dangerous to coast into the semi-final. But with managerial nous, options to rotate and quality players like Forbes to call upon, Dunfermline are strong favourites to return to the second tier next term. AG
4) Barry Wilson must find out how to stop throwing away leads
It was the 86th minute. Stirling Albion were deep in Elgin City’s half of the pitch. With Albion striker Jordan White bearing down on him, Elgin’s right-sided centre-back Jamie Duff was forced to face his own goal with the ball at his feet; naturally he passed the ball back to his goalkeeper. Raymond Jellema wasn’t in so much of a dilemma as in need to clear the ball, quickly, because White was charging down and ready to sack him at the earliest opportunity.
Having already conceded two goals within the previous nine minutes to allow the Binos to level the match, the low-risk option would have been to punt the ball into the stand. Jellema, however, attempted to clear the ball long into the centre of the pitch. It was a dreadful decision typical of a team shell-shocked by the rapid change of momentum in the match. White successfully closed the goalkeeper down, won the next challenge after the ricochet and passed the ball into an empty net. It was just reward for a 15-minute spell of pressure that tilted the game on its axis, through not much else but perseverance and precision in front of goal.
It was not exactly much of a surprise, though. A two-goal advantage being the most dangerous score-line in football might be the most arid cliché in the sport, but it does have some relevance to an Elgin side who have squandered an unsustainable amount of points this season. Every team gives away leads at some point, of course, but City’s tendency to disintegrate from winning positions has seriously affected their season. Had they managed to hold onto goal advantages throughout the season, they would be comfortably second in the league at the moment; instead, they lie second-bottom.
This is the first time in Barry Wilson’s brief time at Borough Briggs that his side has thrown away a lead. The lack of options available to him beyond the first XI at the moment and the unbalanced squad he inherited from Ross Jack did him no favours. When Ross County fringe midfielder Marc Klok had the opportunity to go on loan to Peterhead to play some football before declining for whatever reason (the presumption being a perceived geographical problem), with hindsight he might have benefited adding to the centre of Elgin’s midfield. Instead, City are with Ross County youth players Gordon Finlayson (who was grossly negligent in not knowing where Kieran McAnespie was before the latter headed the equaliser at the far post) and Callum MacDonald, who has played little football. With other loanee Jamie Masson out injured for a month, Wilson must hope that his team can out-score the opposition because simply holding on to a lead isn’t possible with the attacking tendencies of most of the front six players.
Stirling Albion, meanwhile, rise to third in the league and although they might be slightly unfancied for the play-offs compared to East Stirlingshire and Clyde, they have every right to consider themselves as candidates for promotion at this moment. An over-reliance on goals from the often brilliant White might hinder them in the long run (although his confidence in flicking the ball from David Weatherston’s low cross was wonderful), but with the second best home record in the league and just over a quarter of a season to play for, Greig MacDonald’s side are set for a top half finish. JAM
5) Gus MacPherson is considering his options at Queen’s Park
It hasn’t really worked out for Gus MacPherson and Queen’s Park just yet. After joining the club towards the end of January, the new manager was taking charge of a team who appeared to be on an upward curve. Richard Sinclair had advanced the side during his temporary stewardship: the Strollers coach had overseen two victories in four matches, including their most complete performance of the season in the 2-1 win over old sparring partners Clyde. While climbing up the league table was perhaps a little outlandish, MacPherson’s immediate task was to build on Sinclair’s groundwork and drag themselves closer to the teams above them.
However, Queen’s Park have yet to score under the new manager and their last five results read like binary code: 0-1, 0-0, 0-1, 0-1, 0-1. There have been a number of occasions when the Spiders might have considered themselves unfortunate not to have done better – their performance in the 0-0 draw at East Stirlingshire was reasonably promising (MacPherson beginning the match with an snazzy 3-3-2-1-1 formation), and they should have taken something from last weekend’s defeat at Montrose – but they are in a poorer position now than they were when he started. After taking over, QP were ten points from Elgin City in ninth; now, the gap is 13.
The weekend’s defeat to Annan Athletic was arguably the dourest of his spell so far, and his side never looked likely to unsettle Jim Chapman’s team (although substitute Lee Davison will perhaps feel aggrieved not to have been awarded a late penalty), but the manner in which he has utilised his players is worth discussing.
The manager seems unsure of how to get the best out of David Anderson: against the Shire he was pushed high up the pitch and unable to collect the ball from deep; against Annan, he was exclusively stationed in front of his defence and rarely moved forward – given his tendency to carry the ball into advanced positions, one can only assume he’s been instructed not to deviate from his screening role. He was later removed because of injury. At his best, Anderson collects the ball from his centre-backs before moving it upfield. Blair Spittal, meanwhile, the division’s most eye-catching player earlier in the season, has failed to reach the same heights he did in October.
Elsewhere, MacPherson appears uncertain of how to deploy his attackers. Sometimes one striker starts, sometimes two. Liam Gormley has flitted in and out of the team; Joao Vitoria has appeared infrequently; and even good ol’ Mick Keenan, the awkward defensive midfielder, has been tried out up top again.
Of course, MacPherson is in this for the long game and a series of unconvincing results at the beginning of his tenure is unlikely to cause undue concern, and with nothing to play for he is perhaps entitled to experiment, tinker, and consider his options for next year. This season should be written off, filed away, and never spoken of again. CGT