Five Things We Learned, 29 September 2014

1) Is James Fowler the right man for Queen of the South?

If the appointment of James Fowler as the permanent manager of Queen of the South had seemed like a foregone conclusion in the lead up to the weekend’s match against Cowdenbeath, then the 1-2 defeat might just have made some people think again.

Before Saturday’s game, the 33-year-old was installed as the bookmakers’ favourite to replace Jim McIntyre. A draw against Falkirk in his first fixture and a win over Hibernian in his second made him logical choice for those who extol the virtues of continuity, but the result and, perhaps more importantly, the shoddy performance at Central Park has cast some doubts over his suitability for the role.

Oddly enough, taking four points from Falkirk, Hibs and Cowden would have been deemed acceptable before the club began the sequence of fixtures, but after eking out good results against two of the Championship’s more fancied teams, a loss to the division’s bottom side is decidedly underwhelming (to the Doonhamers’ more expectant fans, at least). It would be wrong to suggest that losing to Cowden immediately makes someone a bad manager – Ian Murray, Paul Hartley and Alex Neil have all experienced defeat against the Blue Brazil last season – and Fowler had the misfortune of coming up against a side that was beginning to find their form. Jimmy Nicholl’s timely return to the comfortable 3-5-2 formation has played its part, as has the contribution of their recent loan signings.

Marcus Fraser, recruited from Celtic, continued to impress in the backline while Kudus Oyenuga did likewise from a wide position and scored his first goal for the club after joining on a temporary basis form Dundee United. The game’s outstanding player, however, was Rangers’ Calum Gallagher – not only did he score Cowden’s second goal but he brought qualities the team have been lacking in this season. His pace, trickery and directness was a persistent nuisance; his presence might just be key to their survival prospects.

If Nicholl had set his team up correctly, the same could not be said for Fowler. The decision to play Derek Lyle in a more withdrawn role behind Gavin Reilly has been done before but it didn’t work this time around – their first half performance was one of their poorest in some time. Pushing Lyle further forward after the interval brought about an improvement but although the veteran forward netted a consolation and substitute John Baird spurned a handful of chances, Cowden deserved their victory.

The defeat might not be an impediment to Fowler getting the job, but it will not have done him any favours. The Queens board have taken their time to consider their options and the process seems to have created some uncertainty over Fowler’s candidature. That said, with no real expectation to win promotion and little chance of relegation this season, there would be no better time for him to take charge of the club and develop as a manager.

With the next fixture coming against a rampant Heart of Midlothian, one way or another, Fowler will learn his fate over the next couple of days. SM

 

2) Falkirk have lost a bit of their identity as well as their form

Imagine this midfield today: Jay Fulton, Conor McGrandles, Blair Alston, Craig Sibbald and Mark Millar, all playing in tandem in with another. Imagine them supported by Kieran Duffie and Stephen Kingsley at full-back; imagine the attack spearheaded by Rory Loy. That combination never started a match together, of course – Peter Houston’s predecessor Gary Holt only got Mark Millar on loan in September; he initially preferred Philip Roberts to Blair Alston to better fit into his loose two-up-front system; and Jay Fulton was soon sold to Swansea City. But what a team that could have been! Technique, power, flair and some pace from those players, most of whom would have been approaching 100 appearances together, could have had Falkirk comfortably among the Championship’s elite. You only have to look at how well the team rattled Rangers at the beginning of the season to see the potential that the side still has (albeit without McGrandles’s audacious ability in the centre of the park).

It is a just a dream, though. Players have to be sold to make ends meet in the post-SPL era; it was never likely that Falkirk would have been able to hold on to all of them at once.

But what if they did? Is it unreasonable to think that, with another year’s experience, they couldn’t have competed with the best in the country? After all, Hamilton Academical – probably the only other club in Scotland who persevered to play so many youngsters at the same time as Falkirk – currently sit in second place in the Premiership, with a recent 4-0 drubbing of Motherwell featuring seven youth graduates, the majority of whom have played nearly 100 games together. Perhaps Hamilton’s youngsters drew less plaudits individually earlier in their careers than Falkirk’s, but it has allowed them to thrive together collectively in the longer term.

In Falkirk’s case, the selling of some of the players and Houston’s arrival over the summer has inevitably been followed with a change of style. No two players can be identical, of course, but it seems that the new manager is struggling to get the balance right in his team with his midfield in particular currently faltering. Gone is the zest and the suffocating pressure that Falkirk inflicted on Dundee and many other teams last season, and in its place is a more laborious procession, none best typified than by Owain Tudor-Jones and Tom Taiwo’s listless performances against Raith Rovers at the weekend.

The cycle of introducing more youngsters is already on another course, with Peter Grant and Luke Leahy getting opportunities to impress while Alston and Sibbald are still around (with the latter proving to be relishing his fight for a place in the team ahead of Alex Cooper). Naturally, time has to be given to Houston to build a bigger picture as he shapes the squad for the future, but at the moment the side seems to be as mediocre as it has looked in at least a couple of years.

Without a doubt, it is reasonable to believe that if Falkirk’s starlets stayed together for a season or so more, they could have achieved so much more. At this point, with the Bairns sitting in seventh place without having won any match in 90 minutes in their last seven games, it’s too tempting to avoid asking what if… JAM

 

3) Peterhead’s poor discipline reaches new lows

The first ever league match between Dunfermline Athletic and Peterhead was perhaps the most abnormal of the season so far – by the end of the first half, the Blue Toon had been reduced to eight men after Jamie Redman, Steven Noble and Jordan Brown were all sent off. At one point, Jim McInally was even rumoured to have been arrested for attacking the referee at half-time (something which was later debunked as nonsense). The second half was little more than a training exercise for the home side.

“I’ve never been involved in anything like that,” said Josh Falkingham after the match. The Pars midfielder was the focus of Peterhead’s ire and found himself on the end of the illegal tackles from Redman and Noble. Of the latter, Falkingham said: “To be honest, I’d have been proud of that tackle myself”. The player then hinted that Peterhead manager Jim McInally had encouraged his players’ roughhouse approach from the sidelines before stopping himself. Andy Rodgers was far less equivocal and made his feelings about Falkingham, the people of Dunfermline, and the Kingdom of Fife perfectly clear on Twitter later that evening.

Let us avoid conjecture and subjectivity and look at some statistics about Peterhead’s discipline over the last three years instead. These are simply facts – to take anything beyond this naked truth is at the reader’s own discretion.

Since Jim McInally was appointed as the manager of Peterhead on 7 October 2011, his side have collected 22 red cards in all competitions; contemporaries Queen’s Park, selected purely at random by way of comparison, have picked up 13 in the same period. During this time, three players have been red carded more than twice: Scott Ross, Rory McAllister and Andy Rodgers have been sent off on three occasions each. Rodgers’ most recent dismissal, collected during the 0-1 Challenge Cup defeat to Livingston, was for dissent; it was a straight red card.

Saturday was not even the first occasion that McInally’s team have had three men sent off – on 15 September 2012, Callum MacDonald, Steven Noble and Ross were dismissed in a 0-2 loss against Elgin City. And between 5 October and 26 October 2013, the Blue Toon had a man sent off in three consecutive matches. In the same period, of course, Peterhead won the Third Division championship by a comfortable margin and have punched their weight so far in League 1. How they continue to do so without their suspended personnel (which might include Rodgers, who could face censure following his tweets), however, remains to be seen. CGT

 

4) Sean Dickson makes the difference for Stenhousemuir

There were a number of salient aspects to Stenhousemuir’s 2-1 victory over Greenock Morton: the outstanding performances of Warriors centre-backs Ross McMillan and Stewart Greacen; the failure of referee Alan Muir to award the Ton a penalty when goalkeeper Greg Fleming wiped out Declan McManus as he burst into the area; and Ricki “The Rifle” Lamie’s tantrum when he was removed just after the hour. But it was Sean Dickson’s restoration to the starting XI that played a major factor in Stenhousemuir’s win.

The young midfielder has had an indifferent season so far. Normally a mainstay in the matchday squad, Dickson has found himself in and out of the team – sometimes he starts, sometimes he doesn’t; sometimes he gets substituted, sometimes he doesn’t even feature at all. The low point of his campaign came during the 0-2 defeat at Dunfermline Athletic – after replacing the injured Bryan Hodge in the third minute, he was substituted himself shortly after the hour. For whatever reason, Scott Booth appears unsure of what to do with him and believes that a “lack of consistency” has hindered his performances.

It’s a criticism that could never have been leveled at Dickson in the past. Having made his debut in the Stenhousemuir first team as a winger (and an auxiliary full-back, when the occasion called for it), he was moved infield by Martyn Corrigan who used the player as a conduit between the midfield and the attack. Dickson scored 11 league goals last term, many of them coming after his timely arrivals into the penalty box, and he brings a directness and drive to the team that no-one else does.

Against Morton on Saturday, Dickson assisted with Martin Grehan’s equaliser and scored the winning goal himself. After Stenhousemuir went behind on 31 minutes courtesy of Declan McManus’s header (a calamitous goal – Greg Fleming allowed the forward’s weak header to tumble through his body and then Ciaran Summers let the ball slither between his legs and into the net), Dickson immediately charged upfield, changed his pace and his direction, then squared for Grehan to roll a first time shot underneath Derek Gaston. And shortly after the half-time interval, Gary Oliver broke down the right and hung up a superlative cross inside the Morton penalty box; Dickson, powering into the area, crashed a header home from six yards. Although the second period was almost exclusively played out in Stenhousemuir’s half, the calibre of their defending (and some generous refereeing) saw them hold on for the victory.

The Warriors, so soft-centred in recent weeks, appeared a lot hardier this time around, particularly in midfield. Alongside Dickson, Kieran Millar had an excellent match and added grit and steel to their play – for all the recent complaints about their poverty in the middle of the park (particularly in Bryan Hodge’s absence), they’re beginning to look far more enterprising. Even Kris Faulds, so often maligned, moved the ball around with quiet understatement.

There are still a number of areas for Stenhousemuir to address but this was the kind of performance they will wish to build on if the club want to pull themselves away from the lower echelons of the table. Ensuring that Sean Dickson starts on a more frequent basis would go some way to helping their cause. CGT

 

5) Airdrieonians have finally found some defensive stability

Five weeks ago, this site reflected on Airdrieonians’ regressive start to the campaign, highlighting the defensive calamities that marred their 0-3 defeat at Dunfermline Athletic and made the (admittedly glaring) observation that the loss of five key players over the summer had weakened Gary Bollan’s side. Happily for Diamonds fans, there has some strengthening and an incremental improvement since then; at the weekend, they earned their first win of the season against Ayr United.

Any win over the Honest Men is gleefully relished by those from New Monklands due to the tempestuous history between the two clubs but circumstance made Saturday’s 3-2 victory particularly sweet: last weekend Airdrie went ahead twice against Stranraer only for the Blues to find a last minute equaliser, leading Gary Bollan to call for his charges to “man up”. Seven days later and there was no shortage of character as they reversed one-goal deficit in the final ten minutes of the match, earning the victory at the death when Jamie Bain rose unchallenged to thump a header home.

And Airdrie were well worth their win against the league leaders. United defended poorly and looked disjointed in midfield (their second consecutive defeat at Somerset Park suggests that Mark Roberts needs to rethink his 4-4-1-1 formation when playing at home); the Diamonds, meanwhile, were solid if not spectacular. Jim Lister and Bryan Prunty set the tone from the front, working hard to close down their opponents and the pair combined to force Airdrie’s first half opener.

In a game lacking quality there was at least one impressive individual performance: centre-back Ben Richards-Everton. The 21-year old, who signed for Partick Thistle in August and was immediately loaned to Airdrie, put in an accomplished performance at the back alongside Luca Gasparotto, borrowed from Rangers. Richards-Everton competed well in the air but it was with the ball at his feet where his quality shone (demonstrated in this clip where he evades two United players to play a dangerous cross into the box, leading Gasparotto shooting against the crossbar).

Uniting Richards-Everton and Gasparotto – who netted the equaliser, his second goal in three appearances – in defence has allowed Bollan to deploy Marc Fitzpatrick and David Proctor in front of them in a similar manner to the second half of last season when Craig Barr and Darren McCormack screened Gregor Buchanan and Stefan Milojevic. While the foursome are perhaps not of the same quality, they should improve in time and provide a reliable platform for the rest of the team.

The victory wasn’t enough to lift Airdrieonians from the foot of the table, but it did close the gap to Stirling Albion one point and should kick-start their season. Speaking after the game, Bollan was hopeful that Richards-Everton would remain at the Excelsior Stadium until the end of season and Gasparotto, initially signed until the New Year, might develop further by not returning to Ibrox. However, like Milojevic and Buchanan, both look likely to move on to better things at some point in the future – Gary Bollan will be hoping it’s after a successful season for his team. AG

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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