1) Rangers show their best and worst against Falkirk
With Hibernian comfortably winning 4-1 against Alloa Athletic, Rangers’ draw at home to Falkirk has seen Stuart McCall’s side fall behind their rivals into third place. Now a point behind Hibs with one last match against champions Heart of Midlothian to overcome, it seems more likely than not that Rangers will finish in third and have to pit themselves against Queen of the South in the Premiership play-off quarter-final.
On Saturday’s evidence, the Gers are reasonably well equipped to navigate the play-offs but their frailties were just as apparent as their strengths. It is entirely feasible that Queen of the South could dump them out of the contest in the kind of manner that Falkirk created a two-goal lead at Ibrox. For all of their overlapping and ability to convert pressure into goals in front of the home crowd, their defence looked haphazard once more.
The tone of the match was set when Lee Wallace surged down the left – arguably fouling stand-in right-back Aaron Muirhead in the process – and squaring a cut-back to Ryan Hardie. Hardie’s first-time shot was parried away by Jamie MacDonald, who had an inspired match in the Falkirk goal, but it wasn’t too much longer when the Bairns brought a point-blank save from Cammy Bell after working down their own left flank. With Rangers right-back Darren McGregor out of position, Haris Vuckic filled in but couldn’t stop Luke Leahy drilling a brilliant low cross in towards John Baird. Before the ball came in Baird was tucked neatly between Wallace and the left-sided centre-back Marius Zaliukas. With Zaliukas turned to face the cross coming in from his right and Baird floating on his blind side, it was up to Wallace to make his colleague aware and, ultimately, pick the forward up. By the time the ball came in, Baird was free to open up the side of his foot but he could only redirect the shot at a right angle, straight at Bell. It was an ominous moment for the Gers.
Wallace burst forward at the start of the second half to play a dangerous a low ball just as Leahy had done earlier, but it was Leahy himself who cleared off the line. From then on, Rangers had the bulk of the play but Falkirk scored from a corner before the hour mark to put the hackles up on the home support. Craig Sibbald’s inswinging corner was completely misjudged by Lee McCulloch, who attacked the ball but got too far underneath its flight to connect, allowing the cross to land at the far post. Baird had been standing on the goal-line along with half-time substitute Robbie Crawford – in that tussle, there was only going to be one winner.
Only four minutes later, Falkirk countered to induce even more booing from the support and it was McCulloch, again, who underestimated the reach he needed to get to a ball that was hooked down the left to the halfway line. Baird isn’t a rapid striker but he showed up the Rangers captain for his alarming lack of pace to soon get goal-side of the defender – as soon as McCulloch realised he wasn’t going to get the ball while being on the wrong side of the defender, he stretched his arm upwards, in an ironically comical fashion, as a claim for a foul that quite clearly wasn’t there. It wasn’t the first and it might not be the last time that the skipper embarrassed himself as Baird sauntered down the pitch, before timing a square pass to Tom Taiwo to score his team’s second.
To their credit, Rangers didn’t give up. The strength of character to grind out a draw in front of a dismayed crowd could become an important factor for the play-offs. They probably could have won the match if MacDonald wasn’t in some of his best form – the goalkeeper clawed away McGregor’s looping header from a Nicky Law inswinging corner; he then thwarted McCulloch from a Vuckic inswinging set-piece from the other side, with McCulloch’s booming header superbly tipped over. Earlier, MacDonald watched Tom Walsh curl a low shot off the outside of his post from 16 yards that came about from a Vuckic cross; but he couldn’t keep out the Slovenian.
Law’s deliveries – in their variety and quality – were a big test to Falkirk and the visitors eventually folded on 83 minutes when Vuckic got ahead of Will Vaulks at the near post to head in. Falkirk’s central midfielder Blair Alston was on the post to defend his post but got nowhere near the shot with his attempted clearance. In injury time, another Law inswinging corner found Nicky Clark whose glancing header looked just as good as Vuckic’s but this time it was cleared off the line. The ball remained in the box and Vuckic held off challengers to shoot, but it was blocked. It spun out to Law, however, and the midfielder showed exemplary technique, in the dying moments of the game, to skid a shot low inside the far post.
Rangers got the draw and proved that they can score when they need to, but with the pace and movement offered up front by Queen of the South and others, against an increasingly wearisome rearguard, will they be able to score enough to pull through? JAM
2) Raith Rovers are already on their holidays
At the end of March, Raith Rovers had embarked on a run of three consecutive wins and had narrowed the gap on fourth-placed Queen of the South to just five points. Four weeks and five successive defeats later, however, the gap has become a chasm – Raith sit 18 points from the final play-off position. The optimism has gone; the green shoots of recovery turned out to be weeds.
The first match of their miserable sequence, a 0-1 loss to Falkirk, quietly extinguished any hopes of a late bid for the top four. And since then, the level of performance hasn’t just dipped: it’s plummeted. “Taking the foot off the gas” is perhaps the kindest expression to describe Raith’s loss of form, but the weekend’s 0-4 trouncing from Livingston at Stark’s Park brought new and frightening meanings to the term.
The Rovers’ display was inept and lily-livered and far worse than the 1-5 loss against the same opposition in December. Back then, Grant Murray’s side might have been excused following Ross Perry’s second-minute red card but on Saturday, everyone looked like they had more pressing things to concern themselves with – the whereabouts of their travel iron perhaps, or the correct sun protection to take to Magaluf.
Of course, it is a little unrealistic to expect the players to give their all in what was a meaningless encounter (to Raith, at least) but the boos that rang out from the home support at the final whistle suggested the fans weren’t in an understanding mood. The cheers that met Livi’s third goal, ten minutes after the interval, were almost drowned out by the collective thud of several hundred plastic seats snapping back into place as disgruntled Langtonians left for the exits. Even the lad responsible for updating the RRFC Live Twitter account packed it in with 20 minutes left.
It had been a dominant display from Mark Burchill’s team. There were concerns in the build-up to the match over Darren Cole’s absence (the centre-back was dismissed in the midweek loss to Hibernian) but the defence was rarely threatened. Livi’s five-man midfield easily contained Raith’s quartet and thus starved the frontline of service – Mark Stewart and Christian Nadé (who had replaced Calum Elliot after just ten minutes) were rarely seen.
Kyle Jacobs, Burton O’Brien and Scott Pittman created a formidable trio in the middle of the park, with Pittman in particular the stand out. The former Bo’ness United playmaker is still finding his feet in the senior game but, as most advanced of the three, his performance was exemplary. It might be stretching credulity to suggest Livi have found a successor to Stefan Scougall but the way he dictated play, rarely squandering possession, hinted they’ve unearthed a diamond from the rough.
The only surprise was that Pittman wasn’t involved in the goals. All four were the result of cross balls poorly defended – Callum Fordyce was the first to benefit, nodding home a corner after 19 minutes, while Craig Sives added a second after Kevin Cuthbert failed to handle a harmless-looking free-kick. More slipshod defending saw Danny Mullen steer in the third, and ex-Livi centre-back Craig Barr thudded the fourth into his own net via his noggin. The biggest surprise was that the margin of victory wasn’t greater.
The win moved Livingston off the foot of the table and into ninth – they’re now just a point behind Cowdenbeath in eighth. With a home tie against a Queen of the South side with one eye on their upcoming play-off contest, the Lions might just survive. It has been a remarkable turnaround for a team that looked down and out a few weeks ago.
As for Raith, their final match of the season and the deadest of dead-rubber fixtures comes against an equally uninspired Dumbarton. For fans of both sides, the sound of the full-time whistle will probably come as a blessed relief. SM
3) And then there were two…
For a number of weeks, Saturday tea-time’s fixture between Stranraer and Greenock Morton has been shaping up as a crucial encounter in the battle for the League 1 title. By the time it came around – after Forfar Athletic’s 3-1 win over Dunfermline Athletic earlier in the day – both sides knew they could not afford to lose: the scene was set for a nerve-shredding battle between Stephen Aitken’s hardy belligerents and Jim Duffy’s young bucks.
The Blues’ starting line-up showed one change from the team that bettered Stenhousemuir seven days previous, Scott Robertson replacing the suspended Craig Pettigrew at right-back while there was a return to the Morton team for Thomas O’Ware and Peter MacDonald (Jamie McCluskey and Ross Caldwell swapped places with them on the bench).
Stranraer started the stronger of the two. Their uncomplicated approach of using the flanks looked to bring in the in-form Willie Gibson and Sean Winter, making his 200th appearance for the club, into play at any opportunity; a series of corners and free-kicks caused consternation in the Ton defence, with skipper Frank McKeown attracting the ball in the manner Largs attracts day-trippers on a sunny afternoon. On one such occasion Morton ‘keeper Derek Gaston pulled off a remarkable reactive save to claw the ball from crossing the goal-line. Gaston has been making a series of important stops over the last few weeks.
The home side were then dealt a blow when Grant Gallagher – perhaps the division’s most underrated operator – was forced off with a knee injury in the 32nd minute, to be replaced by Chris Aitken. Gallagher has acted as screen in front of McKeown and Scott Rumsby this season, spoiling opponents advances – exactly the sort of position where he might have halted Peter MacDonald’s advance into the Stranraer penalty box in the 40th minute. Instead, Steven Bell did so, clumsily, and referee Greg Aitken had no hesitation in pointing to the spot. The infringement may well have occurred outside the area but nevertheless, it was a needless challenge with so many blue shirts between MacDonald and the goal. David Mitchell dived to his right but Declan McManus drilled the penalty straight down the middle.
Before half-time, the advantage was doubled. Ross Forbes has proved a shrewd addition to the Morton squad since joining in January and his pinpoint pass found McManus, whose clever movement saw him escape Jackson Longridge and loop a header over David Mitchell. It was the on-loan Aberdeen striker’s 22nd goal in 34 appearances this season – his contribution to the Ton’s title challenge cannot be overstated.
With Stranraer facing a mountain to climb, Morton were able to turn the second-half into a somewhat flat affair. Stephen Aitken introduced Stephen Stirling and the rapid Daniel Stoney in an attempt to make the breakthrough and the game momentary sparked into life – Ricki Lamie charged into a tackle on Stoney in front of the dugouts that earned him a red card and saw angry exchanges between opposition players and coaching staff alike. Stranraer huffed and puffed but couldn’t capitalise on their numerical advantage; their disappointing day was then concluded when Chris Aitken was shown a straight red card for swinging elbow. The frustration at defeat was palpable.
Stranraer’s players, staff and supporters woke up on Saturday morning knowing if results went their way, they could end the day as champions. Instead, they are now 40/1 outsiders for the title. Morton and Forfar Athletic – two points ahead of the Blues – will duke it out next weekend; the Ton at home to Peterhead, the Loons at home to Ayr United. It seems unthinkable that both will lose and open the door for Stephen Aitken’s side, who travel to Brechin City.
For Morton, with a three-goal advantage over Forfar, the fixture list has thrown up a happy coincidence; Ton were crowned Third Division Champions in May 2003 after a final day victory over Peterhead courtesy of a second-half Scott Bannerman goal and a 1-0 win in front of nearly 8500 fans at Cappielow. The same result this weekend would leave Forfar needing to beat Ayr – embroiled in a battle with Stenhousemuir to avoid the relegation play-offs – by five clear goals. It is advantage Jim Duffy’s men – their Stair Park triumph has put them on the brink of an immediate return to the Championship. AG
4) Scott Booth’s “rejects” are proving their worth elsewhere
Scott Booth, eh! Wow. The 43-year-old might have left Stenhousemuir in February but his legacy still haunts Ochilview. Booth is like that embarrassing one-night stand your mates still make fun of you about, an excruciating experience you are unwillingly obliged to remember – his clammy, unwelcome hands pawing adventurously at your flesh, his hot breath on the nape of your neck. He hung around your flat ’til late afternoon the next day and went through your CD collection while you hid under your duvet.
While Brown Ferguson has bravely taken the controls in an attempt to prevent the Warriors from tailspinning into the relegation play-offs, it is perhaps worthwhile examining the progress of a troupe of players Booth deemed not good enough to fit into his grand vision for the season. It is both ironic and unsurprising that the most high profile of his “rejects” have found success elsewhere.
Take big John Gemmell, for instance. When Booth took charge of Stenhousemuir in March 2014, he took an immediate dislike to the striker before maginalising him and packing him off to Albion Rovers. Booth explained to fans at a supporters’ assembly several months later why he allowed Gemmell to leave. “There were problems with his attitude in training,” he said. “At times, he didn’t try, at times he did, which is difficult for a manager to understand […] I believe John did not give the best he had. I think he is a good player but he is also a player that you couldn’t rely on. That was my opinion and it has not changed.”
Albion Rovers could certainly rely on him. Gemmell’s contribution this season might have been somewhat limited (Mark McGuigan has been preferred ahead of him recently) but he has finished the campaign with something he has coveted for years: a league winner’s medal. As sweet as the championship victory is, it’s also a gleeful two fingers to his former manager.
What about Nicky Devlin, someone who Booth described as “not my kind of player”? The full-back had the natural gifts to develop into a fine asset for the Warriors but was released and joined Ayr United. Although the Honest Men have experienced a wretched season, Devlin has performed with distinction throughout. His efforts were recognised at the club’s award ceremony on Saturday night where he won the Player of the Year, the Players’ Player of the Year and the Away Fans’ Player of the Year.
And then there’s Sean Dickson, the long-serving attacker jettisoned in January after falling out with Booth. Dickson moved on to East Fife and his arrival coincided with an upturn in form that propelled them into the final play-off place. Their win at Berwick Rangers, coupled with Elgin City’s defeat to Annan Athletic, has seen them more or less secure fourth. Stenhousemuir could finish in ninth and take on the Fifers in the play-off semi-final – the thought of Dickson playing a part in his former side’s relegation is quite sickening.
“Everything proven this year that Scott Booth is an absolute bellend and knows fuck all about football,” tweeted Dickson on Saturday night. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, and the success of these three “rejects” is just another indictment of Scott Booth’s poor judgement and his incomprehensible management of the Warriors. CGT
5) Montrose are shaping up for the relegation play-offs
It was a strange day at Links Park on Saturday. Weather-wise, four seasons in 90 minutes, as winter’s death rattle sounded across the North-East; on the park, a game which motivated few people to turn out, with only dignity to play for. And so, it was Clyde who left Angus with three points and pride intact, even if it comes some weeks too late to push them into the intriguing battle for fourth spot.
The game itself was almost entirely featureless, a dismal classic of the little-loved “going through the motions at the end of season” genre. Montrose passed the ball about crisply enough in the first half before the normally reliable Garry Wood had the miss of the season, leaning back and sclaffing wide, despite being unmarked eight yards from goal and with goalkeeper Alan Martin struggling to get back into position. Some of the elements of the Mo’s recent improvement, such as lung-busting commitment from nippy forward Jordan Allan, were there but it wasn’t enough to really trouble Clyde.
Matters turned for the worse after the restart. Montrose simply didn’t get going at all and a gruesome defensive blunder allowed David Marsh to force home the game’s only goal home from close range. Clyde ended the match well on top, with only some top quality goalkeeping from Stuart McKenzie keeping the score down. Clyde could realistically have won the game 4-0 and no one in the Dynamo end could have complained.
If this was farewell to the SPFL at Links Park, it wasn’t a fond one; more a brief, limp handshake at a rainy bus stop. Montrose now have one more dead-rubber fixture to complete at Galabank next weekend, but the attention of many has already turned to the play-offs. Whilst the Gable Endies shadow box through the final game of the season in Galloway, at the opposite end of Scotland Brora Rangers play host to Edinburgh City with their play off semi-final very finely balanced after the weekend’s 1-1 draw in the capital.
Both clubs will provide very tough opposition for a side that has re-discovered something of a team spirit in recent weeks and, at last, a settled line-up that is capable of being competitive – a remote and abstract concept under the George Shields regime. Alongside McKenzie in goal, Euan Moyes at centre-half has caught the eye after an unfortunate start to his career at Montrose (a red card at Borough Briggs followed by losing his place in the team to Marvin Andrews); Brechin City’s Greg Cameron is quietly efficient sitting in front of the back four; left-back Andrew Steeves and the aforementioned Jordan Allan provide a real cutting edge in attack, a youthful counterfoil to the experience of grizzled campaigners like Ross Campbell.
So, the side is in decent heart despite Saturday’s flat display. Matters off the park are also moving in a positive direction, with a new 4G surface coming in June, and talks are ongoing about the future ownership of Links Park. It is frustrating, therefore, that the team finds itself in this position in a League 2 where, top three apart, all teams have been a much of a muchness. Montrose simply were too poor too often for the first three quarters of the season to have had any realistic change of avoiding the pyramid play-off under Hegarty and Holt.
Do the current side have the stones to come through the ordeal that lies ahead? Leaving aside yesterday’s game, recent signs have been encouraging. Despite that, whatever the outcome of the play-off, there is very likely to be a mass clear out of the current squad at the end of the season; it will be surprised if as many as six survive to the beginning of 2015-16. If the unthinkable happens, that number will drop to zero.
The rather sobering conclusion to this is that, if Montrose are relegated to the Highland League, they are unlikely to return any time soon. Such a statement may produce an indifferent shrug from many fans who have long tired of their perceived status as unambitious flotsam at the bottom the national leagues – exactly the type of side the pyramid system was rushed through for – but in a small corner of North-East Angus, the pain that would accompany a relegation would last for years, and its consequences felt in the town well beyond the 300 or so diehards who take an interest in the club. JB