1) Rangers need to mind the gap
It was during the 80th minute on Saturday when the home support at Tynecastle spontaneously opened up with a chant of “Championées!” At once it felt mildly inappropriate – Heart of Midlothian were only beating Rangers 1-0 and it is still only in November, with six months of the season ahead.
But was it inappropriate? On reflection, probably not. Hearts’ eventual 2-0 win over the Gers has widened the margin between the two clubs to nine points. It isn’t an impossible deficit to turn around if one just studies the numbers: a ten point swing from 66 available is nothing. Rangers over history have been able to make up ground on their opponents to win titles but not this team, and not under this manager. Considering that Hearts have only dropped four points all season and have already played and won against their title rivals home and away, it would take an extraordinary change in circumstances for Rangers to win the league now.
For the first 20 minutes of the match, it seemed like Ally McCoist’s side might have been able to get within three points of their opponents. They were undoubtedly the better team in terms of gaining territory, putting pressure on the Hearts defence and creating half-chances. There was a lot of spirit in their play, epitomised in the way that Billy King was swarmed and robbed of the ball inside his own half on the 18th minute, leading to a quickly taken free-kick to turn the defence, from which a corner kick was only just about dealt with in a nervous fashion.
It wasn’t pleasing on the eye, but until that point it was reasonably effective. McCoist’s strategy of keeping the tempo high and getting the ball forward as early as possible was causing problems to Hearts’ ability to play from defence through to midfield, with Morgaro Gomis not anywhere near as influential as he would have liked to have been during the first quarter of the match. Miguel Pallardo’s class in possession was apparent when the ball got to him, but there weren’t any chances created and Soufian El Hassnaoui was stranded on his own with long punts upfield only vaguely played in his direction.
If McCoist was getting the better of his counterpart Robbie Neilson in the early stages, then it could be argued that his successful approach was the only way he knows how to make his team play effectively. Indeed, when it came to the crunch, McCoist reverted to type and gave Jon Daly his first league start of the season, after nine substitute appearances, purely as a battering ram against a defence missing their captain Danny Wilson. There were seven instances in the first half where the Rangers defence shelled the ball long to Daly when there were easy passing options nearby, with Darren McGregor particularly keen to use the diagonal up to the big man. It was entirely reductive and only served Rangers well up to a point, because when Steven Smith was sent off Hearts were able to open up and sweep up Daly’s second balls much better.
As soon as Rangers went a man down, Gomis was allowed to build from the back, Pallardo was afforded more touches and, more importantly, Jason Holt was given space to influence the play. To their credit, Rangers defended astutely for long-enough spells, keeping a compact midfield bank of three on top of their own backline to minimise the amount of space that Hearts could get in a central area 20 yards out. But they didn’t look like posing much of a threat Hearts in an attacking sense.
With the man extra, Hearts could afford to have King cut in from the right flank, which encouraged a fascinating contest between Lee Wallace and Callum Paterson – two of the country’s best young full-backs sparred up and down the length of the pitch and Wallace came out on top for most of the match, which played a part in Rangers still remaining competitive with a man less.
However, Paterson was once allowed the space to swing in a dangerous cross on 56 minutes and a headed clearance fell short to the edge of the box, straight to Holt who controlled a low, volleyed shot into the corner of the net. An immediate rally saw Nicky Law – comfortably Rangers’ best midfielder on the day – have a shot saved from an identical position, with the rebound deflected against the woodwork. But apart from that, Rangers were blunt and could still only resort to lumping balls up and hoping that the knockdown would fall kindly to a team-mate. It didn’t happen.
The visitors kept the temperature up, but McCoist wasn’t able to stop his team from simmering over. Smith’s late, stud-showing lunge that saw Craig Thomson reach for the red was much more about trying to keep pressure on the hosts high up the pitch than a wicked recklessness, but it should have been an example of what not to do for McCoist’s men. Shortly after the break, Kenny Miller launched into an even worse challenge that put Kevin McHattie out of the match, which should have seen red, while Kris Boyd did something similar at the very end of the game when two goals down.
McCoist couldn’t alter the pattern of the game when either a man down or later a goal down. Neither could he keep his side’s emotions in check when he needed to most of all. Those downfalls, together with an utterly uninspiring squad that relies far too heavily on moments of quality from Lewis MacLeod, are just further examples of Rangers’ manager being out of his depth. A nine point lead isn’t impossible to overtake, but with this manager it could well be. JAM
2) Hibernian show their best – and their worst – against Dumbarton
There was probably little sympathy for the journalists sent to cover Dumbarton’s match with Hibernian on Saturday. Sure, they might have got in for free and took in a nine-goal thriller, but to try and describe it all (as well as shoehorning in some sort of comment on Hibs’s performance, which flip-flopped from sublime to fretful and back again) to a deadline must have made for a pretty challenging evening.
By half-time, the report would have looked fairly straightforward. Hibs were enjoying a 3-0 advantage and cruising to victory – a five- or six-goal margin looked achievable. Ultimately, they won in comfort but they allowed Dumbarton to get worryingly close, not once but twice, in a breathless second half that underlined all that is good – and all that is bad – about both sides.
If last weekend’s display against Queen of the South was limp and uninspired, then their first half performance here was the complete opposite. Dominique Malonga’s return from international duty was an obvious bonus and his hat-trick against the Sons took his tally to nine in 11 appearances. A lot has been made about his possible involvement in the African Cup of Nations with Congo in the New Year, which could keep him absent between January and early February, but his potential attacking partnership with Farid El Alagui (who is scheduled to return from injury in six weeks’ time) is a tantalising prospect.
Malonga’s contribution was pivotal but equally as crucial was Scott Allan’s showing. Speaking after the match, Alan Stubbs described the midfielder as one of the finest players in the division – based on this performance, his manager might have had a point. Allan’s signing in July caused a ripple of excitement, not because of any hard evidence of his qualities, but because of hearsay and circumspect. He had made a handful of appearances for Dundee United and jobbed around the English lower leagues before returning to Scotland, and many hadn’t even seen him play. However, Saturday’s display was a reminder of why West Bromwich Albion were so keen to sign him in 2012.
Allan was at the hub of everything in the first period, scoring with a well-placed shot after finding space down the left-hand channel and setting up Malonga’s first minutes later. It was also his excellent turn and cross from the right flank created the chance from which Paul Hanlon made it three. After just half an hour, Hibs looked home and hosed.
Of course, they were abetted by Ian Murray’s perplexing insistence of setting up Dumbarton in a 3-5-2 formation, a system that has been more of a hindrance than a help this season. Murray’s starting line-up saw four centre-backs crammed in, with Scott Taggart unwisely asked to play as a left wing-back in the absence of Scott Linton. Striker Chris Kane was relegated to the bench but his introduction at half-time coincided with the reconfiguration to an orthodox 4-4-2 system; at this point, Dumbarton started to rattle some cages.
Kane took five minutes to make his presence felt, taking advantage of some poor defending to pull a goal back. Andy Graham reduced the deficit further shortly afterwards after inadequate marking and at this stage, there was a sense that a Hibernian collapse was inevitable. An earlier incantation of the Leith club might have capitulated but this version look a little more capable of getting themselves out of a pickle. Malonga’s spectacular strike from 30 yards relieved some nerves, although Garry Fleming caused anxiety with Dumbarton’s third. Malonga’s hat-trick settled matters and Sam Stanton’s fine finish late on added some sheen to the score-line.
Hibs have now lost just once in their previous ten matches, and even then, the defeat was in a League Cup penalty shoot-out at Dundee United. Their poor form over the opening stages of the season has rendered a title challenge highly improbable but with seven points separating themselves from Rangers, a second place finish – and the avoidance of the play-off quarter-final – is not entirely fanciful. SM
3) Forfar Athletic’s title charge is still on
Forfar Athletic and Ayr United both went into Saturday’s encounter at Station Park without a win in their last five games – but there was little doubt which side would prevail. And the result was all but a foregone conclusion when Scott Smith, advancing forward unchallenged, opened the scoring after just four minutes with a long-range howitzer. The Honest Men’s dire predicament was highlighted here last week and while the Loons’ recent stumble has seen them disposed at the top of the table, there is no cause for serious concern – Dick Campbell’s side remain credible title contenders.
In truth, it seems unfair to call Forfar’s winless streak a slump. It started with a hard-fought draw with Dunfermline Athletic at East End Park and was followed up by a point against the ever-improving Stranraer. The real disappointment came in the 1-3 defeat to Cowdenbeath in the Scottish Cup and then a 0-2 loss at Greenock Morton (Campbell took the failure at Cappielow with customary one-eyed bullishness, diverting attention onto the referee. “The sending off was never a sending off in a million years,” he said. “I felt sorry for Jim Paterson, the boy went down like a venetian blind.”) Last weekend, a rambunctious Angus derby with Brechin City saw Forfar come back from a two-goal deficit to lead 3-2 before a late Alan Trouten goal saw the game end 3-3.
Saturday’s win ensures the Loons remain just one point from the top of the table going into the Scottish Cup weekend, in which they will be inactive. Forfar didn’t quite hit their earlier heights against Ayr, but they didn’t need to. There are some grumbles that, with the recall of Chris Templeman to the starting line-up, Forfar are guilty of reverting to direct football as opposed to the quicker paced, shorter passing game which Campbell has instilled in recent months. Certainly, the home side weren’t as fluid as they have been but such was the paucity of the opposition they could comfortably cruise to victory. A blank weekend will allow some aches and strains within the squad to recover (Danny Denholm, Martyn Fotheringham and Mark Baxter have all recently been missing; Derek Young is expected to out for an extended period) and regroup ahead of three matches against the league’s bottom three sides.
Ayr also have a free weekend and it could be an interesting fortnight at Somerset Park. Under pressure, Mark Roberts was ushered away by Dick Campbell from a confrontation with some travelling fans at the final whistle on Saturday. Ominously for Roberts, chairman Lachlan Cameron took to Facebook last week to placate irate fans with the promise of a “communication” soon. All connected with the club wait with keen anticipation… AG
4) Stranraer can repeat last season’s heroics
Even the best can get it wrong.
At the beginning of October, this author sat through an indifferent draw between Stenhousemuir and Stranraer at Ochilview and came to the conclusion that while the Blues were a decent proposition, they were not going to gatecrash the play-off places for a second time. “Stranraer appear to lack the same enterprising qualities that made them such a success last year,” ran the closing lines to the subsequent Five Things We Learned entry. “Too good to go down and not good enough to challenge the top four – a season of consolidation looks most likely.”
Almost two months later, and these words look like bunkum. Stranraer are in excellent form and look in a good position to repeat last season’s histrionics – the draw at Stenny looks like a rare lull in a fine sequence of results. Since comfortably beating Ayr United in mid-September, Steve Aitken’s side have gone ten matches without defeat. Six wins and four draws – during this period, they have been the best side in the division, collecting 22 points in the process.
At Stair Park, Airdrieonians were the latest side to come undone. The Diamonds were the not the most testing of opposition – they huffed and they puffed and could only record one shot on target – and Stranraer made heavy work of the win. The sides were ultimately separated by Stephen Stirling’s cool penalty, dispatched after Marc Fitzpatrick clumsily felled Danny Stoney in the 68th minute. The Blues had other chances to score – Craig Malcolm tested Andy McNeil, and Stoney hit the post – but it was a dull affair on the whole.
Can Stranraer win the division? Perhaps – they are just three points from the summit and, if we’ve learned anything about this side, we should never, ever discount them – but there may be anxieties with how their thin squad (Aitken has only been able to list a full compliment of substitutes in five of their 13 league fixtures) and how they acquit themselves against the division’s full-time sides. Greenock Morton (0-4) and Dunfermline Athletic (1-2) have beaten them already this season and with the pair lying in wait in the coming weeks, both in the league and the Scottish Cup, it will be a stringent test of their credentials. Defeating the also-rans is one thing; taking on the leaders is another.
Regardless, with a talented manager like Aitken at the helm and a core of talented, experienced players in the ranks, third place is a realistic possibility once more. CGT
5) Albion Rovers are in tremendous form
Albion Rovers are riding the crest of a wave. Darren Young’s side, currently second in League 2, are enjoying a six-game unbeaten streak – it’s been almost two months since they were last toppled (in context, the 1-2 home loss to East Stirlingshire at the end of September looks even more peculiar) and with each passing week they’re looking increasingly fearsome. The division’s big hitters have also been dismissed during this run – last weekend, Arbroath were defeated; on Saturday, it was Queen’s Park’s turn.
It was the third time the sides had met this season, and it was the third time the Vers prevailed (as well as August’s league meeting, the teams were drawn in the Scottish Cup third round). Like their previous encounters, the weekend’s match was equally as close with Scott Chaplain’s 55th minute header – a wonderful effort – the real difference between the sides. QP might have had the better of the chances (Neil Parry made a number of fabulous saves against his former club) but Rovers had the better of the play, particularly throughout the second half.
Young (and, to a lesser extent, his predecessor James Ward, who brought a number of players into the club in the summer) deserve credit for the calibre of the squad; there is quality across the pitch. In front of Parry, a stable, settled backline have lost just nine league goals this term, the fewest in the division, and there a number of options further forward – such is the depth of the squad that Ciaran Donnelly, Josh Mullin, Gary Fisher, Ally Love and Liam Cusack were only afforded a space on the bench against QP. They are a fit and well-motivated group of players.
At this stage last season, Albion Rovers were sitting in eighth place with 15 points; they have almost double that this time around and Young (and his assistant Sandy Clark) should be praised for how successful the team has been so far. Whisper it, but this might just be the best Rovers side since Paul Martin’s Crazy Gang of 2010-11.
The League 2 table has already fractured in two. Arbroath, the Vers and QP have pulled away at the top, with nine points separating the Spiders in third with Berwick Rangers in fourth. Given their current form, they have nothing to fear and a finish in the play-off places should be the very least Albion Rovers should aim for. Their progress over the winter months will be observed with interest. CGT