1) Alloa Athletic are on the cusp of Championship safety
After two-and-a-half years of unanimous praise and plaudits, it appeared as though the Alloa Athletic bandwagon had run out of puff. The club may have appointed Barry Smith as their new manager in January, but the problems that had dogged the final months of predecessor Paul Hartley’s tenure were proving persistent.
Their contain and counter approach had been described as many things from pragmatic to “anti-football” but with one win from 12 matches before the weekend’s encounter with Falkirk, it no longer appeared to be an effective tactic. The lack of an alternative strategy had not been addressed, even although Alloa had only won one Championship match in which the opposition scored first. Furthermore, the players’ usual half-time routine of aerobic exercises and resistance training had begun to look gimmicky, particularly when considering that only Cowdenbeath and Greenock Morton have poorer second half records this term.
The 3-0 win over Falkirk – Alloa’s first victory over the Bairns since 2000 – might not have answered all of their recent criticisms, but the performance and the result has taken them to the brink of survival. Smith made a number of changes, most notably by moving away from the 4-1-4-1 system and deploying Kevin Cawley behind lone striker Andy Kirk. With Falkirk lining up in a similar formation, it made for a reasonably engaging midfield contest (something familiar to both sides, with both their previous meetings this season finishing 0-0).
Saturday’s match might have ended with a similar score-line had it not been for Falkirk’s largesse and, more pertinently, Phil Roberts’ stupidity. The forward was sent off for the third time this season, with his latest dismissal coming after 62 minutes for a crude tackle on Michael Doyle. Roberts’ petulance was a welcome fillip for Alloa’s cause, as was the introduction of Eddie Fearns with 25 minutes remaining. While Kirk led the line with reasonable success, Fearns’ pace put pressure on Falkirk’s disorganised backline. His wonderful strike opened the scoring and went some way to galvanise a side that had spent the majority of 2014 sliding inexorably towards a relegation play-off tussle. Further goals from Cawley and Ryan McCord sealed an unexpectedly comfortable victory.
Until Saturday, Alloa had scored just ten goals at Recreation Park this season. Perhaps Smith might consider approaching their next matches with the same attacking intent – with eight points separating the Wasps from Cowdenbeath in ninth, it seems as though Smith’s team need one or two more wins to guarantee their position within the second tier for a second season. With a trip to Livingston tomorrow night followed by a home tie with a poor Raith Rovers side on Saturday, they might even ensure their safety by this time next week. SM
2) A lack of leadership and organisation is Greenock Morton’s undoing
It was a match that both encapsulated just what an incoherent failure Greenock Morton’s season has been. Their latest defeat, a 3-4 home loss to Hamilton Academical, was yet another example of Morton beating themselves. Despite their appalling league position – they sit at the foot of the Championship table with 16 points from 28 games and trail closest rivals Cowdenbeath by 13 – rarely have Morton been thumped this term, and have even given the top three sides a decent contest on occasion. For the best part, however, they have conspired to toss away points: on days when their defence has been solid, their attack has no penetration; and on days when they score three goals, their backline cedes four.
On Saturday, every one of Hamilton’s four goals was abetted by dreadful defending. Kenny Shiels – who has overcome his medical condition and is speaking with the media again – defended the concession of the fourth goal by stating that his side had been pushing for a winner because a single point was of little use in their struggle to avoid relegation. Had the Accies sprung them on the counter, Shiels’ excuse might have been plausible but when Louis Longridge cut the ball back for Mickael Antoine-Curier to prod home in the 87th minute, there were five Morton players in the penalty area.
Hamilton manager Alex Neil stated his team’s best chance of winning the Championship title is by playing expansive, attacking football, and Morton continually found space in advanced positions (had the Accies been taking on more capable opponents, they would likely have been breached more than thrice). On several occasions, the hosts were afforded time and space but either chose the wrong option or misplaced a simple pass. Before their second goal, they had appeared to squander the opportunity under Grant Gillespie’s poor clearance knocked the ball away from Kevin Cuthbert and straight to Marc Fitzpatrick to side-foot home.
As well as perpetual errors, Morton’s performance was beset by bickering amongst the players. Minutes before his goal, Fitzpatrick and Rowan Vine were involved in a visible argument, and Vine and David Robertson became embroiled in some sort dispute elsewhere. At one point, Shiels advised two of his players, with all the condescension of an overly strict schoolteacher, that if they both stood over a freekick they would have a two-on-one situation with an opposition player.
Shiels and his assistant David Hopkin spent the match bellowing instructions and offering encouragement to their players but it did not translate to success on the park. At points, Morton showed they have the ability to compete with the division’s better sides but they lack leadership on the pitch. With so many enigmas in the side – Vine, Dougie Imrie, Archie Campbell, and even centre-back Darren Cole – it often appears as though the blind are leading the blind. To compete in League 1 next term, Morton will require players with character because, as Dumbarton and Alloa Athletic have shown this season, teams with organisation and personality can trump more talented opponents. CF
3) Stranraer are doing just enough to keep themselves in the play-off places
Stranraer are in a funk. Three consecutive defeats have seen their play-off credentials come into question and their status as the league’s third best team, once so inviolate, was beginning to look decidedly shaky. Their loss of composure was inopportune, with the teams immediately beneath them coming into sound form: before the weekend’s fixtures, Ayr United had recorded back-to-back 5-0 victories (one of which came against the Blues); Forfar Athletic had taken ten points from four games; and opponents Stenhousemuir were eight matches unbeaten, with seven points gleaned from their last three. Defeat to the Warriors was unthinkable, and such a result would likely see Steve Aitken’s side drop into fourth.
The 1-1 draw at Stair Park was a thoroughly engaging contest. For the first 54 minutes, Stranraer were the better side, turning in a performance that was more in keeping with the thrilling displays of earlier in the season. They had taken the lead after nine minutes when Jamie Longworth’s outstretched booth flicked Grant Gallagher’s sumptuous drive into the net (although Gallagher would still have probably scored without Longworth’s intervention) and continued to play with the one and two-touch passing approach supporters have become accustomed to. Andy Stirling may only have one trick – galloping down the left flank before deftly cutting inside to cross or shoot – but what a trick it is. There is a difference between knowing what an opponent is going to do and preventing what an opponent is going to do and full-back Nicky Devlin had a difficult afternoon against such a slippery opponent. Elsewhere, Martin Grehan turned in another robust performance in attack and provided an excellent outlet for his team. Stenhousemuir had their chances, but were largely repelled on the occasions they broke forward.
The ebb and flow of the match was irrevocably altered after Stephen Stirling’s dismissal nine minutes into the second half. The red card was debateable – both he and Ross McMillan leapt into the loose ball, with the Stenhousemuir captain came off worse as Stirling’s studs poked into his shin – and a yellow card might have sufficed in the circumstances, but the game suddenly swung in the visitor’s favour. The Warriors introduced a series of attacking substitutes and, short of attaching a kitchen sink to a catapult and aiming it towards the Stranraer penalty box, launched themselves at their opponents.
Look up the word “brave” in Roget’s Thesaurus: bold; courageous; gutsy; heroic; intrepid; resolute; valiant. All of these adjectives could have been applied to Frank McKeown and his backline, who threw themselves into every shot and cross. David Mitchell was forced into a handful of fine stops while at one point McKeown hacked the ball from the goal-line (surely the Stranraer captain, on current form, is the best centre-back in the league?). For all their fearlessness, they were undone four minutes into injury time when David Rowson clattered the breaking ball into the net from the edge of the area. The equaliser had been coming, and both teams merited something from the match.
A draw was hardly the most calamitous of outcomes, and Forfar’s defeat to Airdrieonians has seen Stranraer increase their advantage over fifth place to seven points. Stirling’s suspension does little to help such a small squad (Saturday’s was the fifth consecutive match where Aitken was unable to fill his substitutes’ bench), but their forthcoming fixtures are kind and offer the chance to re-establish their play-off credentials. Next weekend’s home tie with an upwardly mobile Airdrie aside, games against East Fife, Arbroath and Brechin City, three teams experiencing their own varying degrees of torpor, should allow them to increase their advantage over Forfar. While many connected with the club have remained magnanimous about the campaign so far, claiming that finishing anywhere above eighth place is a bonus, it would be grossly unfortunate to fritter away what has been an outstanding season. CGT
4) Dr Goals has failed to cure Arbroath’s malaise
Desperate times call for desperate measures. Last month, Arbroath manager Paul Sheerin tempted Kenny Deuchar out of retirement with the hope that the “Good Doctor” could resuscitate the Red Lichties’ survival hopes. Deuchar last started a senior match in March 2012 during a depressingly underwhelming loan spell with Stenhousemuir but having won a place in the British team in the summer’s World Medical Football Championship, the 33-year-old was offered training facilities by former St Johnstone team-mate Sheerin in January. Against Ayr United at Somerset Park on Saturday, his fifth start, Deuchar netted his first goal for Arbroath (and his first since December 2011) but it was to be another damaging day for the Lichties.
On-form Ayr took just four minutes to breach League 1’s worst defence. Michael Donald beat right-back David Banjo in the air, Kevin Nicholl mis-controlled the ball in the area and allowed Brian Gilmour to tee up Craig Malcolm to open the scoring. However, the game’s narrative was altered in Arbroath’s favour 18 minutes later when Donald was sent off, and Deuchar’s equaliser came after the big striker leapt beyond Martyn Campbell to head home Alex Keddie’s centre. Yet more dismal defending two minutes later allowed Ayr to regain the lead – another header was lost, this time Colin Hamilton overcome by Adam Hunter, and Michael Moffat got the better of Keddie and Michael Travis to score.
United saw out the second half in a comfort that belied their numerical handicap. Arbroath were devoid of ideas, energy and pace and barely created a chance of note. Ayr were happy to allow them to knock the ball along their backline, safe in the knowledge that an opposition defender would eventually be panicked into shanking the ball out of play or aimlessly punt it upfield. With both Airdrieonians and East Fife earning unlikely victories, their deficit at the foot of the table is now seven and four points respectively.
Sheerin has failed to successfully diagnose his side’s shortcomings and this is reflected in both his tactics and his transfer dealings. His aspirations for his side to play football “the right way” is admirable but without the tools to do so, relegation is becoming increasingly likely. Arbroath’s defence, which has already conceded eight more goals than they did over the entire 2012-13 campaign, is just not equipped for the division. Further forward, without the players to create opportunities for Deuchar or Paul McManus, goals will continue to be difficult to find. With Rangers paying a visit to Gayfield on Saturday, it doesn’t get any easier. AG
5) Annan Athletic might just sneak back into the title race
A fortnight ago, this column analysed Peterhead’s capabilities and concluded that the League 2 championship was theirs to toss away. Jim McInally’s side had just overcome Elgin City in testing circumstances and built up an 11 point advantage over Annan Athletic in second place; with ten matches remaining, it would have taken a collapse of cataclysmic proportions to allow their rivals back into the title race.
The league leaders travelled to the Galabank on Saturday knowing that a victory would create an insurmountable 15 point gap at the summit of the division. The sides had met at the beginning of the month, with the Blue Toon winning the contest with ease and to ensure a repeat result, the Peterhead players spent the night in a hotel on the Friday to avoid a lengthy bus journey the next day (it is difficult to recall another part-time club with such opulent habits). Their additional preparation and refreshment had little outcome on the match, however.
Despite Rory McAllister opening the scoring after 16 minutes, a fine Andy Mitchell freekick after the interval and a well taken finish from Ally Love (who had missed a penalty in the first half) minutes later awarded the home side the three points. Peterhead had chances to score, with Andy Rodgers twice hitting the crossbar, but they were unable to breach their hosts. It all became a little too much for Ross Smith and the centre-back was dismissed after illegally lunging into Kieron Brannan with three minutes remaining.
The result has reduced Peterhead’s lead at the summit of League 2 to nine points. Normally such a deficit would seem too difficult to overcome but Annan have a game in hand and travel to Albion Rovers tomorrow night. A victory in Coatbridge, and McInally (a manager who has never seemed comfortable under pressure) and his players might just begin to look nervously over their shoulders. After a quick glance at the fixture list, it is difficult to surmise which team has the more difficult run in but Annan’s form against the division’s better sides this season has been troublesome. They have been poor against the three sides immediately beneath them (the 2-0 win over Stirling Albion in September their only win in the nine matches). After their game with the Rovers, their next three fixtures come against Stirling, Clyde and East Stirlingshire – repeat performances will see the championship heading to Balmoor, regardless of Peterhead’s results.
Indeed, anything other than a Peterhead title victory still seems implausible but the remaining six weeks of League 2 will be observed with fascination and excitement. CGT