Five Things We Learned, 27 January 2014

Before we examine the weekend’s talking points, Tell Him He’s Pelé feel it only appropriate to pass on our condolences to the friends and family of the supporter who tragically passed away during the match between Greenock Morton and Queen of the South at Cappielow. As mawkish as it might sound, no football fan should ever go to a game and not come home. We also want to pass on our best wishes to medical staff who tried in vain to save his life, and to both sets of supporters who behaved exemplary in such difficult circumstances.

At times like this, football and everything else seems quite insignificant.

 

1) You can win things with kids

Midway through the second half of a convincing victory for Falkirk over Championship rivals Dundee, there was a moment when the latter were ready for the counter attack. With Dundee down to ten men just before half-time, due to goalkeeper Kyle Letheren felling Rory Loy when through on goal, Falkirk enjoyed plenty of space in midfield – the Bairns’ Mark Millar and Craig Sibbald were able to pass the ball between themselves before Sibbald shuffled his feet and fired a shot at goal from 25 yards out, without getting much of his unexceptional weight behind the ball. Dundee’s back-up goalkeeper Dan Twardzik followed the flight of the ball well enough with a dive to his right and, using two fists, coerced it away from danger, with Jim McAlister able to collect the clearance at the edge of the area. Sending a lofted ball over the head of Johnny Flynn, the break was on.

Except it wasn’t. Peter MacDonald brought the ball out of the air expertly with the laces of his right boot and played the ball into the open space behind Millar, expecting the runner from midfield to collect the ball and advance the attack. However, in this instance the support came from Gavin Rae, who didn’t have the pace to beat Keiran Duffie. Dundee were simply not quick enough on the counter, but it is no wonder when the combined age of the two players involved in the attack was 69.

The Dees were outplayed and outran for the whole match. Gary Holt has instilled a pressing game into his side’s midfield and they played in the opposition half of the pitch for the majority of the first quarter of the match. They took the lead through Phil Roberts’s pace down the right channel opening up an opportunity for Conor McGrandles to chest and stroke the ball inside the post (Roberts did just the same on the left flank for the other goal in the second half and was arguably the man of the match, despite not scoring himself). Dundee couldn’t settle with the pace and directness of Roberts and Falkirk’s attacking midfielders, with McGrandles and Blair Alston repeatedly finding space behind Dundee’s midfield, despite being outnumbered on paper.

Indeed, Falkirk made the best out of their strengths and their opponents’ weaknesses. With an average age rounded to 22, Falkirk’s energy levels facilitated the high intensity work-rate in midfield needed to win the ball back high up the pitch. The mobility and flexibility of the four midfielders made up for the numerical disadvantage when placed next to Dundee’s initial 3-5-2. John Brown’s team’s aggregate age of the starting XI totalled nearly 100 years more than Falkirk’s, and it showed: Cristian Nadé could only play with his back to goal, Stephen Hughes was ineffective, and Matt Lockwood looked every month of his 37 years. Despite having three central defenders, Kyle Benedictus was dragged high and out of position too many times until Brown reverted to a 4-4-2.

It was only a couple of weeks ago that this column stated that Dundee were too one-paced to hold on to the league’s top spot indefinitely, if Brown couldn’t improve the squad. So it has proved thus far, with Falkirk now pipping Dundee on goal difference and threatening to pull away amid an unbeaten streak that goes back to the end of October, with Michael McGovern recording five consecutive clean sheets. Brown has exacerbated his problems by making the team even slower than before – he must be held accountable if his team allow an excellent opportunity to win the title whiz beyond them. JAM

 

2) Cowdenbeath’s victory is not the shock that some might think

At the beginning of the season, League 2 was the country’s most unpredictable division. After the opening quarter, eight points separated the top from second bottom, while two of the clubs in the top four had a negative goal difference. Throw in ninth place Berwick Rangers’ positive goal difference and the whole competition took on something of a footballing curio. Three months later, and the fourth tier has a more settled narrative as Peterhead begin to nudge in front while the chasing pack challenge for the play-off places. Now, further up the SPFL, the Championship is Scotland’s most erratic league with the top three separated by a single point, while just two points divides the sides from fourth to eighth.

The latest round of fixtures managed to produce an unexpected result once again. It was arguably the division’s most vacillating participants, Cowdenbeath, who pulled it off with a remarkable 4-3 victory over an out of sorts Hamilton Academical at New Douglas Park. Only the Blue Brazil can race to a four-goal lead and fail to convince that the three points are quite secure, and their propensity for capitulation almost saw them carelessly toss away the win – when Tony Andreu scored the home side’s third in the 86th minute, Hamilton were perhaps unfortunate not to push on for an equaliser.

Taken at face value, a team battling at the foot of the table triumphing at the home of a side challenging for promotion would seem like a shock. However, a closer examination of both teams’ recent form suggests that it wasn’t quite the upset that some bookmakers might have you believe. Cowdenbeath had won two and drawn one of their last three away matches, and after Saturday’s victory, they have now beaten the Championship’s top three sides. If they can address their home form (they have lost their last five matches at Central Park), then usurping a faltering Alloa Athletic and moving into safety is certainly achievable.

For Hamilton, however, the defeat is the latest episode in a troubling sequence for player-manager Alex Neil. The team may be sitting just a point behind Falkirk and Dundee at the summit of the division but with only two wins in their last eight league games, only Greenock Morton, Raith Rovers and Alloa are experiencing poorer runs. Without Neil operating as the holding midfielder in their 4-1-3-2 system (he is still recovering after undergoing groin surgery), the back four have not been afforded the same degree of protection. Grant Gillespie has struggled in the position and lacks the same destructive influence as his manager. With full-backs Ziggy Gordon and Stephen Hendrie solely responsible for providing the team’s width, opposing sides have learned to exploit the vacant area down the flanks. Cowden did this time and again, with Kane Hemmings and Greg Stewart given far too much time and space to attack an unusually hesitant defence. Such was their dominance, they could have been more than four goals ahead by the time the Accies came back into the game.

If there were any positives to take from the match, it was the reappearance of Jon Routledge, who introduced as a substitute after the hour mark. Routledge has been unavailable since injuring his knee in August and the midfielder is perhaps the most likely candidate to deputise for Neil during his convalescence. Elsewhere, new signing Jason Scotland looked short of match fitness but showed enough promise to suggest he can give opposition defences something to think about in time. He will certainly need to be as despite their lofty league position, the Accies have struggled for goals throughout the year.

Although Scotland might provide some impetus going forward, Neil also has to find a way to stifle the opposition, and quickly. Hamilton play four of their next six matches away from home and in the most cut-throat of divisions, arresting their decline will be far from straightforward. SM

 

3) Dunfermline Athletic got a taste of their own medicine

At points throughout the season, Dunfermline Athletic’s campaign has resembled something from a feel-good sports movie. Think of the climax to the heart-warming Goal!, where the protagonist Santiago Munez instigates a thrilling comeback against Liverpool to ensure his Newcastle United side achieve a place in the Champions League, or the final scenes of D2: The Mighty Ducks that see a beleaguered USA rouse themselves to defeat the evil Iceland (bloody Iceland!) and win the 1994 Junior Goodwill Games.

Although the Pars haven’t had anything quite as glamorous at stake, many of their matches have been played out in heroic fashion. On eight occasions this season, they have taken something from a match after going behind. They have also scored a winning goal in the last five minutes five times. Perhaps the most famous example of them doing both this year was the 5-4 win against Stenhousemuir where three goals in the final six minutes turned a 2-4 defeat into three points.

After 54 minutes, Saturday’s match against Brechin City appeared to be heading towards a more straightforward victory. Already leading through Lawrence Shankland’s clever first half finish, a sequence of short passes amongst the defence allowed Stephen Husband the space to guide a glorious pass to Ryan Wallace, who skipped beyond Graeme Smith and then Graham Hay to crash the ball into the net. And yet, for all their offensive prowess, Dunfermline had always shown brittleness in defence and contrived to allow their hosts back into the match.

At half-time, Ray McKinnon had made two substitutions and adjusted his team from their default 5-4-1 into a more attack-minded 4-5-1. It was Derek Carcary, brought on in place of the ailing Craig Molloy, who reduced the deficit shortly after, reacting quickly to prod Bobby Barr’s rebounded shot into the net. From this point, the tie swung in their favour and four minutes later, Andy Jackson was credited with the equaliser, his low shot deflecting off a shin before bundling into the net (although from the highlights, an own goal might perhaps have been more appropriate). And in the 89th minute, Josh Falkingham ceded possession in midfield and the ball was eventually worked to Darren Petrie, who curled a fine shot into the net to win the match. Dunfermline have tasted their own medicine and it is bitter.

It would take an alarming downward turn for Jim Jefferies’ side to surrender their play-off position, but it is the second week in a row his side have played poorly and lost. During last weekend’s defeat to Airdrieonians, it was the worst their worst showing of the season with a number of players turning in their most lacklustre performances so far. Their display at Glebe Park wasn’t quite as bad, but it does highlight a number of deficiencies within the squad. Throughout the year, the Pars have defended poorly and have had to regularly outscore their opposition to ensure victory – they have kept only three clean sheets in 22 matches. The recruitment of Jonathan Page from Greenock Morton until the end of the season should go some way to stiffening the back four but after the youngster’s recent travails at Cappielow, it cannot be taken for granted.

On Saturday, the Pars resume hostilities with local rivals East Fife at New Bayview. The last time the sides met, the Fifers secured a memorable victory through Liam Buchanan’s exquisite long range strike and a similar result would have some more cynical observers questioning Dunfermline’s mettle. Three consecutive defeats is not the kind of form men of the calibre of Santiago Munez or Gordon Bombay are familiar with. CGT

 

4) Change is good for Stenhousemuir

Stenhousemuir began the post-Martyn Corrigan era with a 1-1 draw at home to Ayr United. On the balance of play, a share of the points was probably equitable in a game that was largely lacking in quality (it is no surprise that the highlight’s reel on Ayr’s YouTube channel is several minutes shorter than usual). In many ways, it was quite fitting that the Warriors’ 89th minute equaliser came about after a glaring error from United left-back Gordon Pope and that two minutes later, Kevin Kyle missed the most elementary of chances by placing a free header over the bar from six yards.

Interim manager Brown Ferguson adopted a “back-to-basics” approach for his first match in charge. With suspensions rendering defenders Ross McMillan and Kevin McKinlay unavailable and injury precluding John Gemmell’s participation, Ferguson was required to continue the trend of putting square pegs into round holes – in a more orthodox 4-4-2 formation, David Rowson dropped into centre-back and Darren Smith partnered Sean Higgins in attack.

Ferguson could not correct Stenhousemuir’s defensive shortcomings, however, and they were exploited by the visitors once again after 27 minutes. Scott McLaughlin was under little pressure beyond the halfway line when he lofted a hanging ball into Kyle beyond the penalty spot and a combination of Rowson and Eddie Malone were no match for the former Scotland international; Craig Malcolm ghosted beyond Bryan Hodge to squeeze the knockdown into the net.

The Stenny support have become accustomed to seeing the concession of cheap goals and could perhaps have been forgiven for anticipating a fourth consecutive defeat. However, their side grew into the game and were improved in the second half. The impetus for the equaliser came from the touchline, an irony unlikely to be lost on those fans who made the trip to Gayfield last weekend (with the scores level, Corrigan’s failure to supplement Higgins in attack saw his team fail to capitalise on their second half superiority and ultimately lose the match). With 20 minutes remaining, striker Errol Douglas replaced Kris Faulds and allowed Smith to take up a more familiar position on the right of midfield and on the 86th minute Ross McNeil was introduced at the expense of Sean Lynch. It was McNeil who was on hand to capitalise on Pope’s aberration to round David Hutton and finish adroitly.

Bill Darroch, the Stenhousemuir chairman is unlikely to be short of applicants for the vacant position (albeit a similar position ten miles north at Recreation Park might be more appealing to some). The new manager will inherit a capable squad and in 45 second half minutes, Ferguson showed that with the right direction they are capable of more than Corrigan was able to cajole from them in recent months. The fortnight between Stenny’s next home match to Stranraer and the visit of East Fife will be invaluable for the new manager to recalibrate the Warriors and lift them back towards the promotion play-offs. AG

 

5) Gus MacPherson can turn Queen’s Park around in time

Stenhousemuir were not the only team entering a brave new world on Saturday; so too were Queen’s Park, who began life under the management of Gus MacPherson. The pair seem like odd bedfellows – Queen’s Park are celebrated for their footballing ethos and playing the game “the right way”, while Macpherson is often viewed with suspicion and is considered to be a purveyor of a dour, constrictive, percentage-based approach. The manager is also maligned for his dismal tenure with Queen of the South, in which he navigated their relegation to the Second Division in 2011-12.

Given his failure at Palmerston, it is sometimes easy to overlook his achievements away from the first team but MacPherson did show an interest in the club’s youth academy and helped lay the foundations for Allan Johnston’s successful side. Players like Kevin Holt and Gavin Reilly were ingratiated into the first team during his time, while Nicky Clark was also brought into the squad (albeit as a wide player, rather than a striker where he would achieve so much acclaim the following year). It is his willingness to work with youth which proved decisive in his appointment at Queen’s Park.

MacPherson comes into a club with a callow, but decent core of players to work with. Their improvement under the interim care of Richard Sinclair and Tony Quinn can be highlighted by comparing their form to Gardner Speirs’s final four matches in charge: Speirs’s lost all four, conceding 13 goals in the process; under Sinclair and Quinn, they have won two and lost two, conceding just four. The pair will coach QP’s reserve side, the Strollers, who can win the Reserve League should they triumph at Ayr United this evening.

The new manager’s first test could not have been any more arduous: an away tie against league leaders Peterhead, who are unbeaten at Balmoor this season. Although the home side ultimately triumphed courtesy of a first half Scott Ross goal, MacPherson’s side gave a reasonable account of themselves without ever truly unfixing their hosts. Blair Spittal and Thomas Collins had efforts from range but they were never able to fashion any chances of note inside the box, with the exception of Tony Quinn’s sclaffed effort late in the second half. Without the experienced James Brough and Mick Keenan, they lacked organisation at the vital moment – with both players in the side, it is unlikely Ross would have been completely unmarked as he lept to meet Graeme Sharp’s corner.

The remainder of the current campaign should be used for consolidation and preparation for next year. If MacPherson is able to harness the team’s positive aspects shown over the past five weeks and bridge the gap between the successful reserve side and the first team, then with the correct organisation and players on the park they can go on to enjoy a more prosperous 2014-15.

Peterhead, meanwhile, will have been satisfied with the weekend’s events. Their victory, coupled with Annan Athletic and Stirling Albion cancelling out one another at Forthbank, has seen them open up a five point lead at the top of League 2. Their next four games – Annan, Stirling, Clyde and Albion Rovers – will be crucial in determining how their season will play out. Victory in, say, two of the four matches will likely give them an unassailable lead in their quest for the championship. CGT

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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