1) Heart of Midlothian have lost, but they’re still in a commanding position
This season’s Championship has given us some entertaining matches so far, but Heart of Midlothian’s narrow home loss to Falkirk can be viewed as one of the most riveting. The 3-2 score-line in favour of the visitors only hints at part of the story, and either team could have have justifiably had three points at the end.
Tactically, the game was a bit messy and then hinted at regressing into anarchy as the contest wore on. Both sides played with slight variations of 4-4-2: Genero Zeefuik’s might was partnered with Osman Sow’s pace and strength running the channels, while Falkirk’s Rory Loy and John Baird made up for a lack of equivalent power with cunning movement. Each team had wide midfielders who wanted to contribute inside and attacking full-backs, as well as central midfielders who weren’t solely focused on protecting their respective defences. It all made for a perfect storm of attacking football between the teams and it was a surprise that the score was just 1-1 at half-time.
Falkirk were, perhaps surprisingly, keen to get both full-backs high up the pitch at the same time. That has always been Kieran Duffie’s trait but he was caught out very early on in the match, with Sow working the space into the left channel behind Falkirk’s right-back to lay up a cut-back that Zeefuik couldn’t miss. Falkirk’s defence was badly skewed with Will Vaulks – who returned to the backline in David McCracken’s absence – and Peter Grant having to move right to cover. By that time it was too late with the space already opened and it was a sign of the haphazard defending and incisive passing to follow.
There was little to differentiate the performances of the two teams. Some smart interchanging by Hearts’ forwards gave Sam Nicholson a good chance on his left foot that he scuffed, but Falkirk had several chances of their own before got back into the game with a clumsy challenge from Jordan McGhee on Rory Loy to earn the visitors a penalty. McGhee is a terrific prospect but is still only 18 years old and, like any defenders of his age, will learn more from his mistakes than by cruising through matches. In this instance, Loy was running at a shallow angle away from goal and not posing an immediate danger – McGhee’s lunge was unnecessary in the circumstances. Baird took the penalty to make up for his wastefulness in the previous week’s draw with Queen of the South.
The game only opened up more in the second half, with both sides fond of driving forward with the ball and equally guilty of not tracking midfield runners. It was Falkirk, however, who took the lead through an exquisitely worked goal by Loy as he took a short pass into his feet just outside Hearts’ penalty area. As Blair Alston played the ball inside, Hearts’ central midfielders Prince Buaben and Morgaro Gomis were parallel to their centre-backs but at least five yards ahead of play, meaning that McGhee had to step out of defence to challenge the forward. McGhee had too much to do, however, with Loy taking him out of the move with a first touch that scratched the ball with the studs away from the oncoming marker and which invited the striker to open up his body for a snapshot with his left foot – Neil Alexander had absolutely no chance with the drive that ended up in the goalkeeper’s very top right-hand corner. In one sense, it was a goal of the highest calibre not often seen in the second tier, but in the other it was preventable by Hearts and was probably a good symptom that the team was too open.
Hearts pushed on for the equaliser and it was largely made by Zeefuik’s strength and touch. MacDonald’s goal kick was chested down under pressure like Cristian Nadé at his finest, and when the low cross from Buaben eventually went into the box, Zeefuik’s first-time cushioned pass into James Keatings’s path gave the substitute a clear cut opportunity that was taken with just over 15 minutes left.
That wasn’t the end of it though, and Falkirk were still looking for a winner. Peter Houston has been criticised in this column for opening up the team’s shape late on to allow high-calibre opposition to win, but he didn’t close the team down to settle for a point. There was a smart reverse pass by Alston to get Loy to the byline and his cut-back was shot on the bounce by Craig Sibbald but was blocked, allowing Callum Paterson to break away with the ball. Hearts countered, phasing the attack from right to left before working a half-chance for Zeefuik that went over the bar – it was just an example of the frantic finish to the end of the game.
Sibbald had a telling influence on Falkirk’s attacking play through the match. It was fitting that he won the points for his club with a piece of elegance that bettered every other moment in the game. Gomis was caught by a well-timed tackle by Vaulks when the midfielder attempted to carry possession out of danger following a Falkirk set-piece and the loose ball kindly fell for Sibbald. Sibbald’s first touch gracefully took him past the onrushing Danny Wilson before a couple of lateral rolls of the ball under his foot left McGhee and Buaben falling over, opening up the space for the playmaker to caress a shot into the far corner from 20 yards. It was the least Sibbald deserved for consistently bold, enterprising play and he is very much coming of age this season.
Falkirk held on for the last ten minutes and recorded Hearts’ first loss in the Championship this season. Given how well John Baird and Mark Kerr have integrated with the existing cast, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Bairns hold on to third place now that they have a slim margin over Queen of the South. Hearts, meanwhile, still have too much quality for the rest of the division and their comfort at the top of the table is such that they could lose all of their remaining matches against Rangers and Hibernian and still hold a lead over their rivals.
Nothing is perfect, least of all the second tier of Scottish professional football, but in matches such as this the spectacle is all the better for it. JAM
2) When Dumbarton go down, they go down with a whimper
The Championship is beginning to throw up more dramatic plot twists than a Christmas episode of EastEnders. While Falkirk’s unexpected victory at Heart of Midlothian and their subsequent move into fourth place was the weekend’s most eye-catching result, there was similar fascination at the bottom of the table – Dumbarton’s dismal 1-5 home loss to Livingston suggests that all is not well at the Bet Butler Stadium.
The sense of unease was palpable as soon as the team sheet was made available. Colin Nish’s name was nowhere to be seen – the big striker might not be to everyone’s taste but with the productive Chris Kane having already returned to his parent club, it was a blow to such a thin squad of players (such is their current poverty, Ian Murray was only able to list four substitutes). Nish’s departure from the Rock was confirmed yesterday.
Such scant options forced Murray into making do with the best he had available but it brought about the return of the unheralded 3-5-2 formation, a tactic that has brought limited success whenever it’s been deployed. The 3-5-2 seemed to be the plan at least, but with Garry Fleming the only recogniseable striker, the system was a mess. Dumbarton’s cause was not helped after losing a goal after just five minutes when the defence failed to protect the near post during a corner and allowed Jordan White to bullet home a header. Despite the setback, the opening period was a much of a muchness and neither side able to make an impact on the match. As is the Sons’ way, however, the concession of a second goal midway through the second half brought about another dispiriting capitulation.
Murray’s team conceded four goals within 20 minutes, with White grabbing a second, Danny Mullen adding a brace and Keaghan Jacobs scoring a stunning effort from 25 yards. Every goal was preventable and should have been defended far better. Donald McCallum’s strike with three minutes remaining proved to be nothing more than a consolation. Although Murray felt that playing with wing-backs was his only option, David van Zanten and Scott Linton often appear ill at ease out on the flanks while Scott Agnew and an out-of-sorts Chris Turner were outplayed in the middle of the park, particularly after Livi shifted to a five-man midfield of their own.
Indeed, the Lions’ victory was a hugely welcome fillip that brings them within touching distance of Alloa Athletic and Cowdenbeath above them. Their meeting with the Wasps at the beginning of February is shaping up to be a crucial encounter for both sides.
Dumbarton, meanwhile, might have banked enough points already to keep themselves away from immediate trouble but the manner of their losses is a cause for concern. They’ve now conceded five times on three occasions, as well as six against Hibernian and lost four to Rangers and Queen of the South – the 51 goals they’ve let in so far this season is a real eyesore. Ian Murray’s star has continued to rise throughout his short managerial career but, with his team having lost their last four matches in a row, this could be his biggest test to date. Without the addition of new faces in key positions over the course of the week, it could be a difficult few months ahead for the Sons. SM
3) Dunfermline Athletic will not win League 1
Dunfermline Athletic are in some state. The past few months have been fairly disastrous and the Pars have tumbled down the table – they currently find themselves flailing in fifth place, about as close to the relegation play-offs as they are from the top. The latest setback, a meek 0-2 surrender to Greenock Morton at Cappielow, means Dunfermline have collected just three points from their last six matches, the joint-worst record in the division. How on earth did this happen?
If Jim Jefferies’ early retirement was supposed to excise the club of its funk, then it has not worked. John Potter has made little impression since his promotion from assistant manager and there has been no real alteration from his predecessor’s team selections or strategy. Against Morton on Saturday evening, Potter’s side had their opportunities to take something from the match – Andy Geggan should have netted with a header, Michael Moffat dragged a close-range shot wide, and only a fine stop from Derek Gaston prevented Andy Barrowman from scoring – but they were unable to capitalise when on top and were subsequently punished.
Dunfermline’s record against the four teams above them this season has been dreadful. In their eight matches with Stranraer, Forfar Athletic, Morton and Brechin City, they’ve won just once (a victory at Stair Park at the end of August). For a club whose summer transfer activity involved signing the division’s best players, it is simply unacceptable. There is a belief that Dunfermline will eventually steady themselves and climb the table but, on current form, it seems increasingly unlikely. Surely they’ll finish in the play-offs at the very least? A third season in League 1 would be appalling for the club.
Saturday’s result will have been a major relief to Morton at the end of a vexing week. The return of Michael Tidser was greeted with much fanfare, but the failure to check his eligibility prior to his signing was acutely embarrassing and unless the club can get special dispensation from FIFA, the midfielder will be unavailable until the beginning of next season.
At least their other new recruits are pulling their weight. Regardless of Peter MacDonald’s advancing years and questionable fitness record, the striker is simply far too good for the division. MacDonald already looks as though he has formed a sound attacking partnership with Ross Caldwell, and the pair have two goals in three matches each after teeing up each other to score on Saturday. It was also little coincidence that the team looked much more purposeful after Conor Pepper’s introduction – he replaced the prosaic Michael Miller shortly after the hour and he combined superbly with MacDonald to set Caldwell up to open the scoring. Only Jim Duffy will know why Pepper has not been starting of late.
Morton’s fixtures between now and the end of February – four of their next five matches are against Forfar, Brechin, Stranraer and Peterhead – should act as a strong barometer as to how their season will progress. Recent signings (setting aside the debacle surrounding Tidser aside, of course) indicate that winning the division is the club’s priority. Chairman Dougie Rae has certainly given Duffy his support, but does the manager have the nous to take this team back into the Championship? CGT
4) Stenhousemuir and Ayr United are stuck in a relegation battle
On the weekend Scotland celebrated the Bard’s birthday, Robert Burns’s hometown team, the Honest Men of Ayr, travelled to Stenhousemuir with the aim of kickstarting their lamentable season and climbing out of the relegation play-off spot at the expense of their hosts. However, like five of the previous ten meeting between the sides, the match ended in a 1-1 draw – with Stirling Albion unable to capitalise, the battle to avoid the play-offs at the foot of the table increasingly looks like a two-horse race.
Wednesday saw word emerge from the Ochilview boardroom of a challenging financial outlook. Quite how the Warriors have found themselves in this position is uncertain, but the message was stark: “The next few months will not be easy” and belts will be tightened and decisions taken for fiscal reasons alone. The implications of a new (still to be finalised) financial plan, aimed at ensuring the club can see out the remainder of the season, have not prevented Scott Booth strengthening his squad, however – journeyman striker Craig Sutherland was brought in from Cowdenbeath and Scotland youth international Paul McMullan was signed on loan from Celtic. The pair made their debuts at the weekend, with McMullan replacing Sean Dickson – Dickson was absent from Saturday’s matchday squad and Booth confirmed he expects the midfielder to move on later this week.
Ian McCall stuck with the system that saw Ayr earn a point against Greenock Morton last weekend but dropped captain Scott McLaughlin and replaced him with new signing Adam Blakeman. The contest between Stenny’s 4-4-2 and United’s 3-5-2 was of enduring intrigue for the 90 minutes but the opening goal owned more to uncertain defending from the Honest Men than anything else. Twenty minutes into the match, Morgyn Neill let Jon-Paul McGovern’s pass run by him and as Michael Donald dithered, McMullan nipped in front of him and slid the ball into the net.
The Warriors’ lead was not to last long. Alan Forrest, that wee, sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beastie, has been shifted by McCall from the wing to the centre to support Ryan Donnelly and 13 minutes after McMullan’s opener, he caused a panic in Stenny’s breastie: receiving the ball from Brian Gilmour just inside the Stenny half, Forrest advanced unopposed before checking onto his right foot and drove a wonderful shot into the top right-hand corner of the net from 25 yards; it was a moment of quality quite incongruous with the rest of the game.
The remainder of the match was without clear-cut goal-scoring opportunities and a draw was the most appropriate outcome. Both sides passed the ball well enough and enjoyed periods of dominance but they lacked the craft to find a winner. McMullan was a bright spark for Stenny – his pace and directness on the right exploiting the space between Ayr’s centre-back Neill and wing-back Michael Donald, and he linked up well with trailist right-back Jamie McCormack – but the 18-year-old tired as the game progressed. Meanwhile, defenders Ross McMillan and Alan Lithgow easily dealt with Ryan Donnelly and his replacement Craig Beattie – McCall’s priority over the coming days is surely to recruit a striker.
Burns’s epic poem “Tam O’Shanter” tells the story of the feckless Tam’s late night return from Ayr (“Auld Ayr, wham ne’er a town surpasses / For honest men and bonnie lasses”) after market day and much revel in a local hostelry. Upon his horse, Meg, he flees witches and warlocks dancing and the devil playing the bagpipes at Alloway Kirk, heading for the River Doon. The witches come so close to catching Tam and Meg that they pull Meg’s tail off just as she reaches the bridge, beyond which lies safety (and Tam’s indomitable wife Kate).
Ayr and Stenhousmuir, like Tam, are now in a race to safety. And like Tam, neither team is in great shape. AG
5) Albion Rovers are shaping up for the League 2 title
They say a sign of champions is the ability to grind out results when not playing very well at all. If there is any truth in the old cliché, then current League 2 leaders Arbroath, in something of a mini-slump, should be worried by Albion Rovers’ 4-3 win over Montrose at Links Park.
Victory seemed a remote possibility after 15 minutes of the game, with the Gable Endies two goals to the good and having had a third disallowed for a foul. Stephen O’Neill, the former Aberdeen U-20 captain, had drilled in the opener via the inside of the right-hand post, and debutant midfielder David Banjo started as he meant to go on by finishing with a crisp volley from just in front of the penalty spot. Rovers, having gone without a game for a few weeks because of various postponements, looked lethargic and ring-rusty.
That changed midway through the half after the goal of the game – a delightful compass-pivot of passes up the park saw Marc McKenzie slice open the Montrose defence like a tin of Tesco Value Spam and Mark McGuigan finish the move by sliding the ball under Stuart McKenzie to reduce the deficit. Some awful hesitation from the Montrose goalkeeper, standing on his line, saw a header from McGuigan loop over him for the equaliser. At 2-2 at half time, this was the most entertaining half of football seen at Links Park in years.
Montrose are a brittle side and cynical diehards in the home end expected a second half landslip, with the Rovers having countered in such a deadly fashion at the end of the first. And things seemed to be moving in that direction when an early second half strike from Ross Davidson – with McKenzie again at fault – gave them the lead for the first time in the game.
However, the Gable Endies now have Marvin Andrews in their ranks and if nothing else, the charismatic Trinidadian has instilled something of a sense of fight in the team. Andrews is no longer very mobile (was he ever?) but his effect on the opposition at set pieces is obvious. He is wheeled forward like an artillery piece at the Battle of Borodino, and caused chaos. However, Montrose’s equaliser again came from David Banjo – a crisp, low drive under Neil Parry after a buccaneering raid on the Rovers area had not been cleared.
Punches continued to be traded, and a 3-3 draw would have been a fair reflection of a game in which neither defence had really performed to standard. In the last attack of the match, with Albion Rovers deep in the Montrose half, Bobby Love fed TJ McCluskey, whose shot was half-blocked by McKenzie. The ball continued to trundle goalward, and despite a desperate last minute attempt by Andrews, falling like a collapsing bookcase, the ball rolled over the line for a sickening winner. There was barely time for the restart.
Albion Rovers will be both relieved and delighted with a rather fortunate win, which sets up the critical forthcoming encounter with third place Queen’s Park very nicely. They are now just two points shy of the Smokies with a game in hand, and yesterday demonstrated the necessary strength of character required of any table-topping side.
As for Montrose, the agony goes on. With just eight points in 16 games, manager George Shields’ observations in the media last week that his side are still in the hunt for fourth place seem, at best, misguided. This is a club now embroiled in a desperate relegation struggle and, with their three nearest rivals (Elgin City, East Stirlingshire and Clyde) all having played less games and having a better goal difference, it is a battle they are currently losing. Unless there is radical change at Links Park in the 14 remaining games of the SPFL campaign, Montrose are now in genuine danger of dropping out of the senior game altogether. JB