Five Things We Learned, 27 October 2014

1) Heart of Midlothain maintain their unbeaten record… just…

This wasn’t exactly a pulsating Edinburgh Derby full to the brim with quality, but the second such fixture of the season contained just enough drama to keep the viewer captivated throughout. Hibernian enjoyed the better of the match, but it seems you can never rule out this Heart of Midlothian side when under the cosh and on the verge of losing their unbeaten streak in the league.

The tactical circumstances landed in Hibs’ lap. Hearts continued with the same 4-4-2 that trounced Dumbarton 5-1 at home in the previous match, apart from Danny Wilson returning at the back (before being replaced again by Jordan McGhee with less than an hour played). That meant that Osman Sow and Soufian El Hassnaoui were partnered up front together again. Despite concerns about how effective they could be together after judging the latter’s home debut, it didn’t seem to be too much of a problem against part-time opposition and head coach Robbie Neilson was confident to start them together again.

But the strike partnership didn’t suit the match. Neither forward dropped off to link with the midfield and make life easier for Morgaro Gomis and Prince Buaben (who were excellent in the circumstances but over-run by Hibernian’s midfield quartet). Hearts are at their most potent when getting Sam Nicholson and Billy King playing intricate passes behind the opposing midfield and around the periphery of the penalty area, but there was none of that in this game, one superbly executed scooped ball by Nicholson to Buaben aside. The wide midfielders had to come infield too often to find the ball and as a result, the whole team’s attacking approach became too predictable. Neilson made the correct decision by replacing El Hassnaoui with Jamie Walker after 55 minutes to balance up the attacking midfield, but Hibs held the grip on the game for most of the 90 minutes and only let it slip at the very end.

Hibs’ prosperity was very much down to how well Dylan McGeouch dictated the tempo of the match, as well as the energy of his colleagues in closing down their rivals. Alan Stubbs’s side seemed quite content with Hearts being funneled into the centre of the pitch and when the Jambos tried to play a patient game, Scott Allan and Scott Robertson helped Danny Handling and the forwards close down the opposition defenders and Gomis. Hearts looked quite square in their shape at times and had to rely on their full-backs for getting service into the box, which, generally, wasn’t good enough. Similarly, Hibs’ narrow diamond shape asked a lot of David Gray and Lewis Stevenson driving up the flanks from defence, but the latter shaped some excellent crosses into the box that deserved to be attacked maybe better than they were. Nonetheless, Dominique Malonga capitalised on a goalmouth stramash and had Hibs deservedly ahead at half-time.

Hibs carried on with more of the same in the second half and it seemed increasingly likely that they would puncture their opponents’ unbeaten run. When Callum Paterson tackled Malonga from behind to get a red card with just over ten minutes left to play, the situation seemed set for Hibs to stick with their narrow midfield and hold on to the ball while waiting for spaces to appear. Instead, the side seemed to at first open up and then retreat into its shell, with the defence sitting deeper and deeper while Walker looked for a killer ball behind the defence. Nevertheless, in spite of inviting Hearts to play high up the pitch almost too readily, it looked as if Hibs would hold on for the win.

Alim Ozturk had something else in mind. He had been threatening to score a 40-yard screamer since he joined Hearts in the summer, much in the same way that Lorenzo Amoruso used to step out with the ball for Rangers and would clatter it needlessly into the stand in just about every game, until the law of averages would be kind enough to allow him to score. Ozturk made his own fortune in this instance, with a shot that moved laterally in the air and dipped beyond Mark Oxley’s outstretched arm – with the goalkeeper off his line, it was a difficult save to make. Why Ozturk was allowed to carry the ball forward unopposed against a team with a numerical advantage is a question that Stubbs must be asking himself.

So a draw was declared, which flattered Hearts, but they were never truly out of the game at any point. It only takes one moment of brilliance to change the outcome of a match in the circumstances, and that’s just what we witnessed. JAM

 

2) Raith Rovers’ poor form continues

On Saturday afternoon, it was difficult to ascertain just what was the source of the most froth in Kirkcaldy – was it the Firth of Forth, whipped into white peaks by a buffeting wind? Or was it the home crowd at Stark’s Park, generating a cacophony of boos and invective following another insipid showing?

A casual observer might think this an over-reaction – after all, a 1-1 draw with Alloa Athletic (bottom of the table going into the match) is hardly the most chastening of results and the point allows the team to keep pace with the other play-off contenders – but Raith Rovers have won one home league match all season and, perhaps more damningly, just three this calendar year. For some, a tipping point has been reached.

Grant Murray’s side are an odd bunch – never quite bad enough to get relegated but just not good enough to entertain a title challenge; to use the Fife vernacular, they just “hing aboot”. Raith appear to be stagnating, something that is manifesting itself in tepid performances and an apathetic support. Before the weekend’s match, an entertainer attempted to cajole the crowd into a Mexican wave but given that only half of them were bothered enough to stand up and clap the team onto the park, it failed to spark much interest.

The return of David McGurn, making his first appearance in 12 months, was greatly welcome but even a goalkeeper of his calibre would struggle behind a defence that’s conceded 22 times in 11 games. Ross Perry toiled against the likes of Queen’s Park and Elgin City when he played with Rangers and he’s done little to suggest he’s capable at Championship level so far. Former Kilmarnock left-back Rory McKeown is also experiencing a difficult spell – it was his comedic clearance that seemed to spin upwards and backwards rather than away from goal that allowed Liam Buchanan to open the scoring with a looping header after 14 minutes. The capers continued midway through the first half when Perry clattered a clearance against a Pratt Street roof – after being exposed to gale force winds for two days, the grey slate tiles were under more threat from the centre-back than anything else.

It was Perry’s former Rangers team-mate, Barrie McKay, who created the equaliser. McKay may frustrate onlookers with his apparent air of insouciance and his tangerine boots but his cross was a fine one – it hung up at the back post and allowed Grant Anderson to plonk a header past Craig McDowall on 34 minutes.

The goal was not the catalyst the home support was looking for, however. With Liam Fox and Kevin Moon doing the same job in the middle of the park – keeping the ball moving (or squandering possession) – there was little in terms of creativity. Further forward, Martin Scott reprised the role of the “false 9” but a player of his tenacity lacks the nous and the vision to succeed in the position, while Mark Stewart cannot hold up the ball or take on a back four on his own. Stewart was once described as looking like “a speedboat without a driver” and it looks increasingly accurate with every passing week.

As a consequence, Raith barely troubled McDowall again. Even after the dismissal of Kyle Benedictus on 81 minutes, they were unable to stretch the visitors. Murray’s decision to bring on Lewis Vaughan and play him out wide rather than as a striker saw the manager receive another barrage of forthright, potty-mouthed opinions. If it is possible for one performance to sum up the last two-and-a-half years at Raith Rovers, then this was probably it.

The shrill toot of Euan Anderson’s whistle brought the match to a close. With Raith Rovers on a run of five games without a win, next week’s Scottish Cup tie with Linlithgow Rose is now beginning to resemble the slippiest of banana peels. Nothing less than a win and a good display will placate the travelling support. SM

 

3) Now is the time for Craig Sibbald to shine

It has often been remarked upon in this column that Craig Sibbald hasn’t hit the heights of some of his outgoing contemporaries at Falkirk. After consolidating a spot on the left of a midfield four or five, Sibbald has always had the grace to briefly light up matches. Not being a natural winger, however, and previously contending for the spotlight with other playmakers (Jay Fulton and Conor McGrandles, for example), Sibbald’s role was always just as part of the supporting cast. His potential probably deserved more, but not at the expense of the others. His game didn’t seem to be improving that much beyond what we saw a couple of seasons ago. With Peter Houston signing Alex Cooper as competition for his place, there was an uneasy feeling that Sibbald might not develop into the player we hoped he might be when he first broke into the team.

With nearly 100 second tier games on his C.V., however, Sibbald surely now has the experience to take charge of the creative duties in the centre, and Houston has trusted him with exactly that in the last couple of games. The exceedingly dour 0-0 midweek draw with Livingston didn’t do much to suggest that placing Sibbald next to Will Vaulks at the base of the midfield in a 4-2-3-1 would turn out to be a thrilling partnership, with the ball spending more time in the air than anywhere else, but something clicked in the 6-0 thrashing of Cowdenbeath.

Sibbald has all of the technical attributes to relish playing as a central midfielder, but his slight build suggests that he might be bullied in a scrap when up against a clutch of physically imposing opponents. So why not partner him beside a natural centre-back who has the guile to play as a defensive midfielder? The third goal against the Blue Brazil was fitting, with Vaulks winning the ball in Cowden’s half, before simply passing sideways to Sibbald who was free to slide an intricate pass into Cooper’s stride, tempting Marcus Fraser into lunging for and missing an interception before Cooper stung the net with a swerving shot.

On an artificial pitch where the pass is true and the spin of the ball can be logically anticipated, it makes perfect sense to play someone with Sibbald’s touch and vision as a central playmaker. With some space away from the touchline to open up his body – and consequently his vision of the pitch – there were some glimpses of quality in his passing that suggested he can make the central playmaking role his own. Having someone of his ability on the ball to play passes into feet or with angles behind opposing markers can make all the difference in breaking down a stubborn defence, which is something that Falkirk have struggled to cope against sometimes this season. Cowdenbeath certainly made things easy for Falkirk, with an over-ambitious 3-4-1-2 set-up that exposed the left flank to David Smith’s irrepressible wing play.

It is early days yet and Sibbald is still in his teenage years, but Houston’s recent tactical change could have a positive impact on both Sibbald as an individual and the team as a whole. JAM

 

4) Dunfermline Athletic’s first home defeat puts Jim Jefferies under pressure

A bumper crowd of 3342 saw League 1’s full-time teams go head-to-head at East End Park, but it was the majority who went home disappointed. It was an all too familiar story for the Dunfermline Athletic support as Jim Jefferies’ side succumbed to Greenock Morton for their first home defeat of the season. There was the usual profligacy in front of goal and some nervous defending that required goalkeeper Ryan Scully to be at his best but, unlike against Forfar Athletic last weekend, he could do nothing to prevent the Ton earning all three points.

In the wake of Morton’s first loss at Cappielow last weekend against Ayr United, of which this website pointed at a lack of experience within Jim Duffy’s squad, utility man Thomas O’Ware demanded more from his team-mates. “We need to roll our sleeves up. I’ve said it so many times, we need to become men,” he cried. His side weathered a superb start from the Pars but it quickly fizzled out. O’Ware was, quite literally, at the centre of things – Sean Crighton’s return from medial ligament complaint allowed the 21-year-old to move into a holding role in midfield and he levelled the contest in the 79th minute when he bulleted home a Joe McKee corner (the first goal the Pars had conceded at home this season) after Faissal El-Bakhtaoui had opened the scoring seven minutes into the second-half with his third goal in four games.

The final ten minutes of the contest were engaging: Jefferies withdrew Michael Moffat and then Josh Falkingham in favour of like-for-like replacements Allan Smith and Ross Forbes in an attempt to disrupt the visitors’ momentum but in the end Dunfermline’s callow rearguard could not hold out – on loan striker Declan McManus found space in the penalty area to pivot and send a snapshot just inside the left-hand post. In six away games this season, Morton have led for less than six minutes but they have picked up six points with stoppage time goals at Peterhead and now Dunfermline; it was their second, deserved, victory over the title favourites.

Dunfermline have now started the second quarter of the season in the same manner they did the first, with just one point from two games. Forfar’s draw at home to Stranraer meant the Pars ended the day just two points off the summit of the division but there is increasing unrest with Jefferies’ management. Fans are beginning to examine his two relegations (although the off the field circumstances in 2012-13 played their part in the second) and the botched play-off campaign last term – and the failure to live up to expectations this season – and coming to the conclusion he isn’t the right man for the job.

By the club’s own volition, Dunfermline have stretched themselves financially this year. A trading loss that will diminish the club’s capital is anticipated and promotion to the Championship “is the required minimum… to ensure we can then develop a sustainable platform for [the] club for future generations”. Saturday’s impressive crowd means the average attendance at East End Park this season, 2812, is far greater than the budgeted figure of 2300 and season ticket sales also exceeded expectations, but the windfall may well be required to strengthen the squad – or recruit a new manager. The Pars cannot afford to fail this season; Jim Jefferies might have a wise old head but has he got a safe pair of hands? AG

 

5) Nicky Riley is too good for League 1

Peterhead maintained their reasonable start to the season with a 2-1 win at Stenhousemuir on Saturday. Despite going behind to Colin McMenamin’s delightful looping header on the hour-mark, two goals from Rory McAllister – the first a well-placed shot, the second a controversial penalty in stoppage time – secured the win. On the balance of play, a draw would have probably been the right result but Gavin Duncan’s decision to penalise Ross McMillan for a perceived foul on Jamie Stevenson (the Warriors captain claimed the midfielder had tripped himself up before falling over) proved to be the game’s decisive moment.

Nicky Riley made his third appearance for the Blue Toon. The 28-year-old has joined on a month-long loan from Dundee, with Jim McInally citing a change in his personal circumstance as the only reason he was able to bring him into the club – it would seem remarkable that a player of Riley’s quality (ranked ninth on this site’s Top 25 Superstars of the Lower Leagues feature almost 12 months ago) would slum it out in League 1 otherwise.

Despite having played as a winger for majority of his career, Riley began the match partnering McAllister in attack. While McAllister operated as an orthodox centre-forward, Riley had licence to roam out onto the left flank and would sometimes drop into midfield when necessarily. His movement, particularly in possession, proved to be a threat all afternoon and Stewart Greacen struggled to contain his bursts from deep; the defender was booked for a crude tug on the player before half-time.

It was probably just as well that Riley was keen to create space and work off the ball, because McAllister had little interest in moving from his set position 20 yards from the goal. It might seem a little cruel to debase the performance of the striker after two goals (and he continued his excellent scoring record against Stenhousemuir) but a lot more should be expected from him. When he left the division in 2011, McAllister was probably the best forward in the lower leagues – fit, athletic, selfless, a perpetual source of goals – but the one that returned three years later is a far more cynical proposition. He is torn-faced and petulant, bickering with officials and looking for fouls where there are none. Previously, McAllister would contest for every aerial ball lobbed in his direction; now, there is an apparent preference to tumble to the ground and await the referee’s whistle. He can still be a capable force – on Saturday, he played well in spells and has netted some fine goals over the course of the season – but he is not as good a player as he was with Brechin City.

If Peterhead can secure Riley’s future beyond the end of October, they will have one of the division’s most enterprising forward lines (Andy Rodgers came off the bench to assist the equalising goal with his first foray forward). They sit one point behind Ayr United in fourth place, but better performances than the weekend’s will be required if they are to gatecrash the play-off positions. 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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