1) Hamilton Academical just can’t get ahead
Friday Night Lights, a dramatised television series adapted from the HG Bissinger novel, was based around the high school American football team from the fictional town of Dillon, Texas. In five seasons between 2006 and 2010, the show examined the trials and tribulations of various characters but perhaps the most fascinating was Coach Eric Taylor, portrayed by Kyle Chandler, who managed the Dillon Panthers. Before each match, Coach Taylor would recite the same mantra to his players: “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.” It may have sounded a little schmaltzy but his point was simple – recognise your goals and then aspire to achieve them.
There are, of course, a number of differences between Taylor and Hamilton Academical manager Alex Neil (for instance, Taylor has never received Mansfield Town’s Player of the Year award) but the biggest contrast between the two is that while Taylor preached the benefits of clear, rational decision-making, Neil loses his temper far too often – on Saturday, he was red carded for head-butting an opposition player.
In the wake of his side’s dismal 1-4 collapse at Dumbarton, Neil made a poor attempt to deflect attention elsewhere. First, he claimed Mark Gilhaney had made a meal of the altercation that had seen him sent off. Then, he said his dismissal had no bearing on the match. These were strange words because at the time, Dumbarton only held a one-goal advantage – this season, the Accies have scored 12 of their 59 league goals in the final ten minutes of matches. The game was up for Hamilton at the precise moment their manager’s forehead made contact with Gilhaney’s face, not before.
The red card was Neil’s fifth in two seasons – a fairly miserable record, but Accies fans might attest he should have been dismissed with greater regularity. He has started ten Championship matches this season, with his side winning six, drawing two and losing two. Both defeats have coincided with his dismissal. Neil plays with reckless abandon, a characteristic that suggests that not only does he want to win the game, but that he’s also attempting to use the 90 minutes to purge himself of a series of frustrations accrued over the course of the week. But even if he has spent the last seven days with his wife nipping him about the half-finished artexing of the spare room, there can be no excuses for his behaviour on Saturday.
It wasn’t the sole reason Hamilton lost the match. They were grossly profligate throughout the first half and should have gone into the interval with more than Jason Scotland’s 41st minute strike to show for their efforts. Instead, Colin Nish added to Scott Agnew’s opening goal while Mitch Megginson and Jordan Kirkpatrick finished the game off within moments of Neil’s indiscretion.
Even if Hamilton had tied the match it would have been enough to put pressure on Dundee. Now, Paul Hartley’s side just require a point against Dumbarton to win the title at the weekend, while the Accies need to beat Greenock Morton and hope the Sons can do them a favour. Alex Neil will not feature against Morton but when considering his record, that might not necessarily be a bad thing. SM
2) Falkirk have spurned a golden opportunity
Dundee’s win at Alloa Athletic meant that Falkirk couldn’t have finished the weekend top of the table regardless of their own result, but the 1-1 draw against Greenock Morton at Cappielow was a huge opportunity missed to put pressure on the division leaders going into the final league match of the season.
It’s not that they didn’t have their chances to win the match. Conor McGrandles’s back-post side-footed finish a few minutes from half-time, from Mark Beck’s knock-down and Rory Loy’s lay-off, was probably the least that the Bairns deserved going into the break. They really ought to have been no dispute about the result by the time that half-time arrived but Rowan Vine’s equaliser couldn’t be responded to again.
That was a tale of Morton’s own nervousness in their own half as much as it was down to Falkirk’s creativity. With home manager Kenny Shiels insisting that the goalkeeper and backline passed the ball into midfield on the grass, Fouad Bachirou and Scott Taggart took it in turns to split the centre-backs and offer a different passing option. Yet Gary Holt knew exactly what to expect and encouraged his defence to play a high line to shorten the time that Morton would have the ball in their own half – the tactic had worked in Shiels’s first match in charge of the club after all.
The tone was set early in the first half when Morton’s left-back Mark Russell played the ball backwards towards Rory Loy, who anticipated the play and attempted to steal the ball for a shot. Goalkeeper Nicolas Caraux did well to put Loy off who had to settle for laying the ball off to Blair Alston towards the side of the 18-yard box, but with Caraux stranded Alston wasted an overhit effort that went over the crossbar when team-mate Mark Beck was unmarked at the far post.
Among the missed shots and slips by Falkirk’s forwards, Morton allowed as many as seven good opportunities for Falkirk to attack the goal just from substandard back-passes and Caraux’s distribution; Falkirk’s profligacy was as inexcusable as Morton’s stubborn tactics. The worst moment in both respects fell when Dougie Imrie – penned into the right-back position – passed the ball along his own bye-line, into his own packed penalty box and towards Darren Cole who was immediately sacked by Loy, but whose perfectly weighted cut-back was side-footed beyond the far post by Alston from near the penalty spot.
Falkirk created chances by themselves – including the goal scored – and were increasingly looking to Beck with the long diagonal from the left-back area to create opportunities. However, they weren’t to have their own way all of the time and Morton were able to counter attack against a high defence. Barrie McKay was a useful outlet on either flank and when he took a switch in play on to his chest in the outside left before drilling a low ball across goal to be missed by everyone, the sign was there that Morton could get behind Kieran Duffie. That’s exactly what happened in Morton’s next raid forward, with McKay’s low cross finding Imrie at the far post – the shot was blocked between Stephen Kingsley and Michael McGovern, but the spinning ball fell kindly to Rowan Vine. The bearded striker was a menace throughout the match and his tap-in brought parity with half an hour to go.
Falkirk became increasingly desperate as the match drew to a close. Loy played a wonderful Ronaldinho-esque through ball across the width of the whole penalty area, which deserved better than the meek side-footed finish into the side net by Duffie. Craig Sibbald danced with the ball to create a couple of chances, but when he was through on goal after his one-two with Alston he smacked the outside of the post from ten yards. A waltz past three midfielders began the last serious attack, with Scott Shepherd placing his shot straight at Caraux from eight yards out, who just about managed to prevent the ball spilling over the line.
That was it though. Too many opportunities were spurned, and now the moment seems to be lost. Falkirk could still finish second – or indeed win the league – but it seems more likely that they will finish in third place for the fourth season running. At their best they will cause the other play-off candidates a lot of problems, but they must be more clinical, or at least allow Rory Loy to be on the end of some of the chances. JAM
3) Stranraer have stumbled into the play-offs, more or less
Congratulations, then, to Stranraer for concluding the season in the play-off places. Their top four place seems assured barring an unlikely sequence of events – if they are to drop out on Saturday they must lose at home to Forfar Athletic while Ayr United and Stenhousemuir both have to win, with the latter having to overcome a nine-goal swing in the process – but they are in dreadful form just now and are staggering over the finishing line. The same concerns were expressed about Dunfermline Athletic a fortnight ago but there was always a feeling that the Pars were just going through the motions until the play-off contest; Stranraer, however, are in a malaise.
One only needs to look at the club’s form either side of the New Year to understand just how badly the Blues have faltered. Between the beginning of the season and their final match of 2013, Steve Aitken’s side sat in third place after collecting an average of 1.76 points from their 17 games. They had been defeated five times, with four of the losses coming in their opening five matches, something which underlined the remarkable upturn from September onwards.
Contrast this with their form in 2014 – since the beginning of the year, Stranraer have collected an average of one point from 18 games, the second worst record in the division in this period (East Fife’s 0.88 in 17 matches sees them bottom). In their past nine matches, they have collected three points. Things appear to have come full-circle for the club – they finished 2013 with their finest result of the season, a 1-1 draw against Rangers at Ibrox; at the weekend, the two clubs met again in Govan but this time the hosts coasted to a straightforward 3-0 victory.
Stranraer looked jaded. It was, give or take, the same group of players who had pressed and stretched Rangers to great effect on Boxing Day, but on Saturday they appeared leggy and bereft of ideas. There is no real shame in losing to Ally McCoist’s team – heck, every other side in the division has succumbed to them at some point – but it must be of some concern that they were unable to even land the faintest of punches on the champions. The mercurial Andy Stirling, so often the source of sorcery at points over the season, was ineffective on the flank, while strikers Martin Grehan and Jamie Longworth were isolated and barely touched the ball (indeed, Longworth’s own form appears to mirror that of his team – in the first half of the season, the forward scored 19 goals in all competitions; since the turn of the year, he’s netted thrice).
With such a small group of players, Aitken has little opportunity for rotation and it has shown over the past two months. He must find a way to, first of all, ensure his side conclude the season in the top four and then rediscover their competitive edge for the play-offs – on current form, Stranraer would be fodder for Dunfermline or Cowdenbeath or Alloa Athletic. Having confounded pre-season predictions for most of the campaign, they are playing up to expectations at the most inopportune time. That they still sit in third place perhaps says more about the lack of gumption of the teams immediately beneath them than anything else. CGT
4) Forfar Athletic are dark horses in the race for fourth place
In the final match of the 2012-13 season, Forfar Athletic defeated Ayr United to clinch a promotion play-off spot at the expense of Arbroath. In the penultimate match of the current campaign, the Loons have repeated the same result but look unlikely to achieve fourth place again – they would have to beat Stranraer next weekend and hope that both Ayr and Stenhousemuir lose against East Fife and Brechin City respectively.
With Dunfermline Athletic having secured their play-off spot several weeks ago, the tussle for third and fourth has begun to resemble four drunks brawling in the streets at closing time. On Saturday at Station Park, there were flailing arms and missed kicks aplenty as the play-off competitors huffed and puffed but couldn’t land the killer blow; now, out of nowhere, Forfar have lurched on to the scene.
Last weekend, their 0-2 loss (ironically, to Arbroath) looked to have ended their chances of avenging the previous season’s play-off disappointment, and they went into the match against Ayr six points behind their opponents in fourth and with one point from their last five games. But Dick Campbell is an experienced campaigner and was able to exploit the inherent defensive weaknesses in Mark Roberts’ side. Winger Michael McGowan has been deployed at right-back in recent weeks and his naivety alongside centre-back Martyn Campbell’s immobility was an immediate cause for concern: after just 77 seconds, a ball played in behind the two found Omar Kadar who in turn fed Jamie McCluskey to open the scoring. The covering Alan Lithgow and Gordon Pope didn’t cover themselves in glory either. Two further counter attacks either side of half-time put the Loons a further two goals ahead.
United passed the ball well enough as they did against Rangers earlier in the week, but the match with Forfar was far more open and their opponents were able to use their pace to exploit the spaces that weren’t there at Ibrox. A soft penalty award allowed Michael Moffat to pull a goal back (the home side had three very strong claims of their own dismissed) but any hopes of a comeback were immediately undone when Dale Hilson intercepted Scott McLaughlin’s careless square pass and rounded David Hutton before chipping home. Brian Gilmour’s late, well-worked goal did little to alter the outcome of the match.
So what are Forfar’s prospects? Stranraer’s travails have been discussed above, but they’ve probably done enough to finish in the play-offs – this could play straight into Forfar’s hands. Ayr have blown a ten point advantage over Stenhousemuir and – like the Loons before the weekend – have taken one point from their last five matches and face an East Fife side needing to match Arbroath’s result at Airdrieonians to avoid finishing the season in tenth. And Stenhousemuir travel to Brechin City, a team they’ve already beaten three times this season but who have improved since their League 1 safety was confirmed.
The odds might be against Forfar, but that’s probably the way Dick Campbell likes it anyway. AG
5) Peterhead will have a big say on the League 2 play-offs
Before their meeting with Peterhead on Saturday, Stirling Albion may have gone into the contest with something of an inferiority complex. Their last victory at Balmoor was on 2 December 2006 when goals from Stevie Bell, Ian Cashmore and Dougie Wilson handed the Binos at 3-2 victory but since then, the Binos’ record in Aberdeenshire has been decidedly mixed – in the following eight fixtures, they’ve failed to win, drawing five times and losing three. Furthermore, Peterhead boasted a fearsome home record and had gone 20 matches undefeated at Balmoor. History was not weighted in Albion’s favour.
But this time around, Peterhead’s minds were probably focused elsewhere. The club had already secured the League 2 championship (they would be presented with the trophy after the match) and with a night out in Peterhead to look forward to, some of the players might not have approached the match with their usual levels of performance. Manager Jim McInally had even saw fit to rest a number of key players, including Rory McAllister, Andy Rodgers and Bryan Gilfillan who all dropped to the bench.
The Stirling Albion team probably needn’t have worried, then. Although abetted by their opponents’ lack of ferocity, their 4-0 victory – the Bino’s biggest away league win in almost three tears – was entirely merited. In foggy conditions, Craig Comrie opened the scoring after 35 minutes, nodding David McClune’s dipping cross into the net. David Weatherston doubled their advantage six minutes later when some terrible defending allowed the forward to run onto Phil Johnston’s speculative punt upfield and go in on goal. In the second half, Graham Weir added a third with a curling shot from the edge of the area and Comrie completed the rout later on, latching onto Jordan White’s sterling pass before prodding the ball into the net.
The result certainly makes things interesting in the battle for the division’s final play-off place. Albion currently sit three points ahead of Berwick Rangers in fifth, but have an inferior goal difference. They take on Clyde at Forthbank next weekend knowing that a win would see them leapfrog their opponents in third place and a point would be enough to ensure they finish in fourth. Could we see a collusion between the clubs similar to the infamous match between West Germany and Austria from the 1982 World Cup? Berwick, meanwhile, take on Peterhead at Shielfield and have to win. Saturday afternoon will surely be an intriguing spectacle. CGT