Five Things We Learned, 25 August 2014

1) A dodgy team sheet is the least of Cowdenbeath’s problems

“Amateurish” seemed to sum up every aspect of Cowdenbeath on Saturday afternoon. The 0-3 home defeat to Alloa Athletic was bad enough, but even shoddier was the club’s failure to correctly fill in their team sheet and then sticking an unlisted substitute on their bench.

When striker Craig Sutherland fell injured after seven minutes, Jimmy Nicholl removed him in place of Craig Johnstone. But Johnstone was not listed on the team sheet and within minutes of the 19-year-old’s introduction, Nicholl realised his blunder and swapped him for Danijel Jurisic. Too late: the damage had already been done. At best it was negligent; at worst it was downright incompetent. After the match, Nicholl avoided fielding any questions on the matter, and it is still unclear who was responsible for the administrative error. The oversight will no doubt be costly, not just in terms of Saturday’s match, but if the authorities deem the affair worthy of punishment.

Filling in sheets of paper wasn’t Cowden’s only problem. Nicholl organised his side into the 3-5-2 formation that had served his side well last season, with Darren Brownlie restored to centre-back alongside Nat Wedderburn and John Armstrong while Kenny Adamson and Dean Brett filled in at wing-back. Thomas O’Brien, Lewis Milne and Jon Robertson started in the middle and Sean Higgins partnered Sutherland in attack. The system and the starting XI were, before the game at least, both considered to be Cowden’s strongest but they were comfortably bested by an Alloa side expected to be one of their main rivals this term.

The furore surrounding the substitution aside, the first half was a reasonably balanced contest (although both sides were poor). Alloa’s first goal on 38 minutes was fortuitous in its nature, with Kevin Cawley’s shot deflecting off Brownlie and spinning into the net, but from that point onwards there was only likely to be one winner. Greig Spence added a second three minutes after half-time and Liam Buchanan’s tap in shortly afterwards gave the match the score-line it probably deserved.

The victory will have been hugely satisfactory to Barry Smith, and so too will the performances of his summer acquisitions. Mark Docherty returned to the club a better player than one who left and the full-back created the second and third goals. Further forward, Spence and Buchanan are beginning to form an effective partnership.

There will be much for Nicholl to reflect on. The controversy over Johnstone’s introduction and subsequent removal might have played its part on Cowden’s lethargic second half showing but it’s difficult to tell – they have performed poorly on a number occasions already this season. Other than the League Cup comeback against Clyde, they have yet to out-score a team after the interval and although it’s only three league games into the new season, questions are being asked about Nicholl’s recruitment. Sutherland and Jurisic are yet to prove themselves and two unidentified loan signings have been promised for over a month but are still yet to materialise.

What the SFA makes of the ineligible substitution will become clear in the immediate future. On the park, things look equally as perplexing– with two of their next three league fixtures coming against Hibernian and Heart of Midlothian, it’s hard to imagine too many points will come Cowden’s way in the next few weeks. SM

 

2) Thomas O’Ware is developing into a decent striker for Greenock Morton

It is perhaps fair to say that Tell Him He’s Pelé hasn’t been the kindest to Greenock Morton’s Thomas O’Ware over the last couple of years. A fringe player in the Ton’s 2012-13 squad, he became a minor concern towards the latter part of the season when he attempted to use his Twitter account to lampoon Partick Thistle’s self-reassuring yet ultimately tedious #WeGotThis movement. And how we all laughed when the whole thing came back to bite him on the bottom – at the crucial First Division title decider between the clubs, it was O’Ware’s terribly misplaced pass that allowed Chris Erskine to centre for James Craigen to win the match.

The hilarity continued into the current season and O’Ware was held up as emblematic of Jim Duffy’s lack of preparation for the year ahead. Such were the lack of offensive options at the club that O’Ware – nominally a defender (and, when called upon, a goalkeeper) – was planked up front while Andy Barrowman recovered from injury. In the opening games of the season, the player looked unsure of himself in his new role– his positioning was uncertain and there were doubts as to whether or not he had the intelligence to perform in attack – but O’Ware has since developed into a very decent offensive option for Morton.

His winning goal in the 2-1 victory of Peterhead – a well taken shot from 18 yards in the final minute – is the most obvious indication of his progress but his all-round game is improving. In the early stages of Saturday’s match, O’Ware gathered Ricki Lamie’s long freekick and turned and made space for himself before firing narrowly wide, while throughout the match he showed an understanding with Declan McManus (who looks far more comfortable now than he did during his loan spell with Alloa Athletic last season) and the pair combined with reasonable effect. O’Ware’s goal came after the Peterhead defence failed to deal with Lamie’s long throw and he was able to touch it past his marker and thwack it into the corner of the net.

Until then, it had been an even encounter between the teams. Morton had taken the lead shortly after the interval when Stefan Milojevic slammed home Joe McKee’s corner, but Peterhead drew level after Rory McAllister converted a penalty on 66 minutes (whether or not Milojevic made contact with Andy Rodgers inside the area is debatable, however). McAllister was sent off after collecting two pathetic cautions: the first was for dissent; the second was for thoughtlessly poleaxing goalkeeper Derek Gaston. Although his dismissal came two minutes from the end, it played a crucial role in the outcome of the match – with Peterhead’s focal point gone, Morton were able to press higher up the park and eventually force the win.

With Barrowman available at some point next month and Stefan McCluskey slowly returning to contention, O’Ware might be withdrawn at their expense but Duffy would do well to build on their decent start to the season and leave things as they are in the meantime. Supporters might have despaired at their dismal showing against Ayr United on the opening day but the club are beginning to look upwards. Victory at Forfar Athletic on Saturday will indicate if their improvement is a short upturn or a sustained tilt up the table. CGT

 

3) Airdrieonians turn back time after their latest loss

This site’s preview of the 2014-15 League 1 season reflected on a summer of departures from the Excelsior Stadium, stating that it was a case of one step forward, one step back for Airdrieonians. After just three league games, that step backwards is already in danger of becoming two. Gary Bollan’s side are pointless, still to score, and propping up the table – a far cry from the team that ended last year with 33 points from their final 18 matches.

The Diamonds’ latest defeat, a 0-3 loss at Dunfermline Athletic, exposed just how badly this squad has been weakened. Around six months ago, goalkeeper Grant Adam, centre-back pairing Gregor Buchanan and Stefan Milojevic and midfielders Craig Barr and Darren McCormack had combined under Bollan’s direction to create a formidable unit that didn’t give much away. All have since moved on and their replacements, both collectively and individually, are failing to provide the same levels of quality.

Airdrie’s starting XI on Saturday showed two changes to the side that had lost 0-2 to Peterhead the previous weekend. England C international Ben Richards-Everton was a surprise inclusion, partnering David Procter at centre-back after signing for Partick Thistle on Thursday and then immediately joining Airdrie on loan until January. Marc Fitzpatrick, meanwhile, was moved into midfield where he partnered the recalled Joe Hamill. Lining up in a 4-4-1-1 formation with Liam Watt supporting Jim Lister up front, it was actually the Diamonds who created the best chances during the opening exchanges and were able to repel Dunfermline’s well rehearsed set-piece plays.

But they paid the price for their wastefulness and the Pars’ opener came in the 24th minute – from an Airdrie throw-in close to the corner flag in the Dunfermline half. Joe Hamill was dispossessed by Michael Moffat and the Pars broke forward. The ball was played to Fayssal El-Bakhtaoui on the right via Josh Falkingham and as the French Moroccan crossed the ball into the box, both Airdrie centre-backs were guilty of losing their men; Ozie Ugwa was able to fire home Andy Geggan’s knock down from close range.

Worse was to come. Dunfermline’s second goal four minutes before half-time was a harrowing compendium of errors from the visiting defence: Richards-Everton and substitute Robert Wilson (on for the injured Proctor) both rushed forward to challenge for the same ball but were beaten by Ugwa in the air; Moffat brought the ball down and played in El-Bakhtaoui, who was given far too much space to cross into the box; Andy McNeil should have claimed the cross but instead Andy Geggan beat left full-back Paddy Boyle to the ball, which bounced off the crossbar and back into play; and the coup de grâce came as Wilson hesitated in clearing the rebound, allowing Moffat to take the ball from his toe and blast it into the net.

The second half saw Dunfermline hit their stride and there was no way back for Airdrie, who might have been relieved to hear the final whistle with the loss of just one further goal. Ugwa bustled his way forward and shugged off the attentions of both Richards-Everton and Wilson and prodded the ball low past McNeil. Bollan was left to rue a familiar tale of missed chances and individual errors but defensively, this was a performance reminiscent of the Airdrie that started last season, not the one that finished it.

The Diamonds host Stirling Albion (still the bookmaker’s favourites for relegation) next weekend in a game already labelled as ”‘must win” by their manager. A victory for the Binos would see them open up a seven point gap. It took time and some shrewd additions to the squad for Bollan to transform Airdrieonians last season. It looks as though a similar job will be required in the upcoming months. AG

 

4) Clyde fail to bounce back at Elgin City

Barry Ferguson was universally criticised for refusing to accept defeat against Rangers last week and not altering his strategy at a pinch. For failing to put his team on the defensive and shore up the gaping space in front of the back four, Clyde allowed Rangers enough of an opportunity to thrash them 8-1. It was a humbling experience (or at least it should have been) but Ferguson instead pointed the finger at his players’ failings rather than accepting the blame for continuing to play too progressively against superior opponents.

Facing Elgin City at Borough Briggs, Ferguson had a chance to redeem himself. Based on last season’s form, Clyde might have been favourites and it wouldn’t have been too much of a surprise to see an away victory. The manager stubbornly kept with the same team that capitulated at Ibrox, but for Michael Daly replacing Scott McManus as the centre-forward. He persisted with the 4-3-3 system that has been prevalent so far this season and it looked to be a good decision against Elgin. With David Gray anchoring the midfield, the Bully Wee always had someone spare in the centre and they tried to use it to their advantage straight away.

The strategy was clearly to spray the ball wide to the right as quickly as possible. Scott Ferguson endured a captivating duel with Gordon Finlayson throughout the match and had the upper hand in the opening moments. Ferguson had the full-back isolated and on the back foot three times in as many minutes, but the winger’s crosses were thwarted by Marvin Andrews’s peerless presence in the 18-yard box.

Clyde were surprisingly direct from front to back. The centre-backs David Marsh and Ryan Frances spread across the width of the pitch to collect from their goalkeeper Jamie Barclay, but all three were happy to play long towards the right hand side, for Daly to flick on to Ferguson or for either of the two take the ball into their feet. When the defence played short from the back, it was to Gray who would search for the flanks, particularly to Ferguson. On the occasion where John Sweeney was in possession, he would immediately search for Ferguson to give the wide forward the best chance to get behind his marker.

Beyond the first five minutes, after Finlayson had time to realise what was going on, it wasn’t so easy to get behind the right-footed left-back. Kevin Watt on the other side brought out a reflex save from City’s goalkeeper Michael Fraser on the rare occasion that Clyde attacked down the left, but beyond that there weren’t very many clear cut opportunities for the away side. They saw plenty of the ball due to having the extra man in midfield – Gray looked at his best as the spare man, as the embodiment of his manager’s own playing style, almost with the same strut as the former Rangers captain in his pomp – but there wasn’t enough variety in the play to truly test Elgin’s defence. Any time that Ferguson got behind Finlayson, Marvin Andrews was there to head clear or slide in. With Ferguson being supported by right-back Scott Durie, it allowed the home team to counter attack.

And counter they did. With Daniel Moore and Bryan Cameron willing to get forward on either flank, Elgin were accomplished in getting behind Clyde’s full-backs. With each right-sided attack by Clyde thwarted, the Black and Whites would release the ball early to the flanks. On the whole, Elgin made best use out of attacking their former left-back Ross McKinnon, with Watt doing a poor job of tracking back to help him. The goal, however, came from a surge down the left, when Moore stood up a sumptuously inviting cross for Craig Gunn to finish in his stride from a late run into the box.

Elgin created a number of clear-cut chances in a similar manner, but they also had Shane Sutherland in top form. The 4-4-1-1 formation used by Barry Wilson seems to get the best out of him and he was much more proactive in his approach than at any time last season when used in various roles. When he wasn’t getting on to chances himself, he was setting up Gunn with teasing through balls. The conviction now seems to be there to match Sutherland’s undeniable ability, which bodes well for him and his team as the season moves on.

Barry Ferguson wasn’t shy in trying to change the pattern of the match in this game, but in this case he did so using the wrong approach. Clyde’s manager took off Sweeney before the hour to bring on left-winger Stuart McColm, effectively putting an extra man further forward in sacrifice of the control of midfield. When the first ten minutes of the second half saw Clyde with a substantial amount of possession in Elgin’s half, with Gray constantly probing and trying to get the ball in behind Finlayson, the substitution made things for the worse.

Clyde’s change to a 4-4-2 more closely resembled an attacking 4-2-4 for the most part, but the concession of the spare central midfielder resulted in throwing away the key source of their creativity and they floundered after that. Clyde had superiority in the middle when they had greater numbers, but when directly up against Elgin’s central midfielders they no longer had the upper hand – Mark Nicolson and especially Archie MacPhee shone in the match-ups, while Sutherland roamed between the lines and put in a masterclass of how to play the trequartista role at League 2 level.

Had Barry Ferguson simply stuck with the same formation, putting McColm on for Watt, then there would have been a basis for having direct supply to the striker from both flanks while still holding the midfield advantage. That would have represented Clyde’s best way to make more goal-scoring opportunities but the change to 4-2-4 ironically hindered their ability to involve the wingers. With the supply short from midfield, the centre-backs had to rely on lumping the ball straight and long to the forwards, which fell exactly into Andrews’s main strength.

Clyde have much to improve on, but faced a better Elgin side than last season, aided by Andrews’s imperious influence at the back but also an unequivocal sense of balance throughout the rest of the team. Based on this match, it wouldn’t be too much of a shock to see the teams finishing closely to each other at the end of the season. JAM

 

5) Annan Athletic’s poor start to the season continues

What has happened at the Galabank? In pre-season, many were tipping Annan Athletic to put the near misses of recent years, finally, behind them, and win promotion. Last season’s League 2 runners-up had a steady summer in the transfer market and were given a boost when promising striker Kenny Mackay opted to ignore interest from higher up the divisions and sign on for another season.

Results so far, however, have been the diametric opposite of the pundits’ predictions. Bundled out of the cups, predictably by Hearts, humiliatingly by Dunfermline, Annan have scored only once and failed to register a single point in any of their three league encounters. At Montrose yesterday, they succumbed very meekly at a venue where they normally expect to take at least a point.

Manager Jim Chapman will point to injuries – influential centre half Steven Swinglehurst was absent, as was his first choice partner Peter Watson. Mackay, meanwhile, not match fit after a period on the sidelines, was reduced to an ineffective 15-minute cameo on Saturday with the game already lost.

Every club suffers these bleak periods, just not usually at the start of a campaign. More worrying for the travelling support would be the fact that, despite having a comparatively big squad for the division, they lack real strength in depth. Defensively, Annan’s makeshift back four looked very vulnerable to lofted balls played in behind them; this is a team that has lost poor and cheap goals in every game it has played this season. The midfield passed the ball neatly enough but there was no end product and up top, it was near comical how many times Annan’s naïve and inexperienced forwards were caught offside; at least a dozen occasions in the second half alone.

At present, this is a team far less than the sum of its parts. The players seem quiet and demoralised; there is little of the animated chatter that always accompanies a successful side on the park. Questions are beginning to be asked as to whether the abrasive and authoritarian Chapman is the right fit for a small community club.

There is no doubting his successful track record at Albion Rovers and Dumbarton, but he will need to arrest this alarmingly poor start to the season very quickly if he is to have any hope of replicating his successful formula at Annan. Chapman will undoubtedly be given time by the club’s gentlemanly and old fashioned committee but even they will have been alarmed by what they saw yesterday. JB

Tell Him He's Pelé

Tell Him He's Pelé

If Tell Him He's Pelé were a boy band, they would probably be the much-missed One True Voice, both in terms of appearance and musical output.

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