Five Things We Learned, 3 February 2014

1) “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”

In his 1905 novel The Life of Reason, the Spanish-American author George Santanya wrote: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. Over the years, the phrase has been bastardised, misquoted and even mistakenly attributed to Winston Churchill (something which presumably left auld Dod in a bit of a huff). The confusion might have stemmed from a speech Churchill made in parliament in 1935, where he said: “Want of foresight, unwillingness to act when action would be simple and effective, lack of clear thinking, confusion of counsel. These are the features that constitute the endless repetition of history”.

It might seem a little churlish to apply the quotes to something as trivial as football – both were dispensed with far weightier anxieties in mind – but they can be applied to the farrago that surrounds Dundee manager John Brown.

It’s unknown just how learned Brown is on history (and in fairness, a knowledge of the Napoleonic Wars or the Industrial Revolution is hardly a prerequisite for the successful football manager) but as has been pointed out elsewhere on this site, he seems ignorant of his own legacy and primarily his failings at Clyde. The past is repeating itself, and his side’s 1-1 draw with Alloa Athletic at Dens Park was just another example.

Dundee began the match in a 4-2-3-1 configuration but while supporters are now familiar with Brown’s tendency to tamper with his strategy, it was the number of alterations to personnel, particularly concerning his January recruits, that left many bemoaning his decision-making once again. After last weekend’s soporific defeat at Falkirk, Christian Nade, Stephen Hughes and Adam Cummins were relegated to the bench, while Sean Bonnet-Johnson wasn’t even included in the matchday squad. Between them, Brown’s new signings played a total of five minutes on Saturday, something which suggests they haven’t effectively bolstered the team, let alone the starting XI.

After a dismal first half, redundant in terms of goalmouth incident, Brown spent the interval indulging in his usual party piece of tinkering and correction. Of course, this is a sensible tactic when things are not going to plan but the regularity of the manager’s half-time amendments indicates that he has failed to set up his side appropriately to begin with. Ryan Conroy’s introduction for Carlo Monti and the reversion to a standard 4-4-2 improved things to a degree, with the substitute opening the scoring from the penalty spot on 69 minutes. His endeavour was cancelled out by a last minute Ben Gordon goal, however, and the Dundee support made it very clear at the final whistle just exactly whom they held responsible for their poor run of form.

The point was a welcome one for Alloa, who ended a sequence of three consecutive defeats. Somewhat disappointingly, the match was denied an added narrative as new manager Barry Smith watched from the stands while his assistant Paddy Connolly oversaw affairs from the dugout adjacent to the one he used to frequent. With a five point cushion over a resurgent Cowdenbeath, Smith will be hoping that Alloa can maintain the spirit and industry they showed on Saturday if they’re to consolidate their Championship status.

As for Dundee, they now embark on a testing trio of fixtures against Hamilton Academical, Queen of the South and Cowdenbeath. Can Brown turn things around and re-establish his side at the summit of the table? Easier said than done for a man who foolishly fails to learn from his flawed past. SM

 

2) Greenock Morton’s passing game is beginning to make sense

Greenock Morton are currently enjoying the brightest period of an otherwise tar black season. The Ton are undefeated in their last four matches with one win a three draws and although they are still a long way from safety – they sit nine points behind Cowdenbeath in ninth and 13 from Livingston in eighth – there are signs that Kenny Shiels’ radically nuanced approach is beginning to resemble something cohesive. Although his side were rightly criticised for their failure to beat nine-man Queen of the South last Wednesday, the calibre of performance in the weekend’s 1-1 draw at Falkirk was infinitely more promising.

Morton’s game under Shiels is based around playing the ball from the back and into midfield. When in possession on Saturday, full-backs Marc Fitzpatrick and Jamie McCormack would push wide while Scott Taggart would drop from midfield to supplement centre-backs Darren Cole and Stuart Findlay to keep the ball and help drive the whole team further forward. The last time the sides met – coincidentally, Shiels’ first match in charge – Falkirk were able to press their opponents high up the park and force them into mistakes.

However, the Bairn’s 4-5-1 system left striker Rory Loy solely responsible for closing down the Morton defenders. With Taggart almost operating as an auxiliary centre-back and goalkeeper Derek Gaston frequently with the ball at his feet, Loy was left chasing four players with little or no support from his team-mates. Furthermore, Falkirk’s placid, static midfield afforded the likes of Dougie Imrie and Fouad Bachirou time and space on the ball to pick passes at will in more advanced areas. Imrie’s goal after 45 minutes was the least his effort deserved.

Morton’s second half performance lacked the same urgency as the first and their willingness to sit on their one-goal lead ultimately hamstrung their chances of winning the match. Speaking after the game, assistant manager David Hopkin admitted they had altered their strategy during the interval to contain their hosts – a strange tactic given how well they had acquitted themselves earlier in the match. They eventually succumbed to Mark Millar’s 63rd minute penalty after Bachirou fouled Loy (Gaston had already produced a remarkable save to deny Loy from the spot in the first half). Morton’s few second half chances came on the counter and Michael McGovern’s fine block prevented substitute Archie Campbell from scoring late on.

In isolation, a draw at the home of the league leaders would be a credible result but Morton are fast running out of time to salvage their season and pull themselves closer to the clubs above. As well as improving their own form (they have yet to record back-to-back wins this year) they are relying on other clubs to falter and in a such a small division, nothing can be taken for granted. Their next two matches are crucial, as they welcome Alloa Athletic and then Cowdenbeath to Cappielow. Anything other than six points and relegation will look increasingly certain. CF

 

3) Stranraer have the blues

In some quarters, little Stranraer are still treated with a degree of suspicion. Despite an outrageous sequence of results lifting them from the foot of the League 1 table and into the play-off places, cynical observers suggested it was only a matter of time before the wavered and slithered into the mediocrity of mid-table. As was said about Dunfermline Athletic last week, it would take some terrible misfortune for Stranraer to drop out of the top four – they’re currently seven points from Brechin City in fourth place with two games in hand – but recent results have given some credence to the belief that capitulation could soon be at hand.

Steve Aitken’s side have failed to win in three matches, drawing two and losing the other. The only other time this season they have found themselves in a similar funk was the beginning of the campaign, where they collected just one point from their opening five fixtures. A 2-3 defeat at East End Park on 11 January could perhaps have been excused on the grounds that the hosts are in excellent form and that goalkeeper David Mitchell’s poor performance was grossly uncharacteristic, but a bloodless showing in the 1-1 draw at Airdrieonians the following week and a similarly sterile display against Stenhousemuir on Saturday have hinted that something is not quite right.

The weekend’s match at Ochilview was reasonably entertaining without ever bursting into something remarkable. Stenhousemuir had the better of the play and moved the ball around the pitch smartly, but they were unable to convert their possession into goals. Sean Lynch had a couple of shots from range, while Darren Smith’s effort from 12 yards was adroitly patted away by Mitchell. The Blues, meanwhile, looked cagey and with the exception of a speculative David McKenna shot that bounced off the crossbar, they lacked their usual spark, with their one and two-touch passing eschewed in favour of hitting long balls towards the final third. On the occasions their play approached fluency, it paid dividends – a flurry of passes allowed Martin Grehan to tee up Andy Stirling (who was a menace throughout) and the diminutive playmaker crashed home a beautiful goal from the edge of the area with two minutes remaining.

A Stranraer win would have been an unfair conclusion, but the manner in which the match ended will have been disappointing to Aitken and his players. Instead of protecting their lead, they attempted to add to it but Steven Bell’s crude crossfield pass was cut out and allowed Stenhousemuir to regain possession and press forward. In the 94th minute, they won a corner from which Eddie Malone headed home to tie the match. On balance, a share of the points was the correct outcome.

It’s difficult to find the root cause of Stranraer’s lacklustre performance, but the failure of strikers Grehan and Jamie Longworth to significantly impact on the match played a part in their listlessness. The pair were dominated from the first kick to the last by centre-backs Ross McMillan and Stewart Greacen, with Longworth in particular unable to get into the match. Having embarked on a stunning run, netting 19 goals before the New Year, the forward has yet to score since his famous equaliser at Rangers on Boxing Day. He has looked jaded in recent weeks – perhaps replacing him with McKenna (who started the game on the right flank) for a spell might be of benefit to both parties. Elsewhere, Stephen Stirling has yet to find form since returning to the club after a spell at Greenock Morton, while Scott Robertson looks cumbersome at right-back.

Stranraer face Inverness Caledonian Thistle in the Scottish Cup on Saturday before returning to league duty with a beleaguered Arbroath side on February 15. That match provides them with the perfect opportunity to re-establish their credentials and maintain their position in the play-off places. CGT

 

4) Arbroath and Airdrieonians are heading in opposite directions

Goal difference is now all that separates Arbroath and Airdrieonians at the bottom of League 1. The Lichties’ latest loss – a 2-3 defeat to Ayr United at Gayfield – was their 16th of the season and their sixth in their last seven games. Airdrie, meanwhile, closed the gap with a hard earned point at Forfar Athletic and have now lost just two of their last seven fixtures; it appears to be only a matter of time before they usurp Arbroath.

The conditions in Angus on Saturday were difficult, particularly with the ground so contiguous to the North Sea. Towering waves frequently breached Gayfield’s easternmost stand and at times encroached onto the playing surface. Referee Mat Northcroft assessed the situation 45 minutes before the kick-off and deemed the match should go ahead – it was the first in a number of decisions the home crowd would rue.

Equally lamentable was Arbroath’s defending. In the fourth minute, Alex Keddie stood off Michael Moffat and allowed him the space to curl the ball beyond Scott Morrison’s left hand and into the net. Later, a poor clearing header from Keddie landed at the feet of Michael Donald and he lashed the ball home from the edge of the box. And in the 29th minute, Morrison fluffed a simple kick out which Moffat controlled before rounding the goalkeeper to score his side’s third. It was his eighth goal in just three appearances at Gayfield. Arbroath had been the masters of their own downfall.

A number of contentious refereeing decisions did not go in their favour, however. After Moffat’s first, Scott McLaughlin appeared to fell new signing Leighton McIntosh, but Northcroft signalled for a goal kick instead of a penalty (the incident’s omission from the away side’s highlights package an apparent admission of guilt). It did not improve. In the second half, Bobby Linn’s delivery in testing conditions were causing considerable problems, with one effort even crossing the line only to be ruled out after Paul McManus was deemed to have fouled goalkeeper David Hutton, and another disallowed when the referee claimed Linn’s corner had swung out then back into play. Linn and McIntosh both scored for the home side but in truth, they did not deserve anything from the game.

While Arbroath’s run of form is wretched (stretching back to October, they have collected five points from a possible 42), Airdrieonians are undergoing something of a revival. It has taken time for Gary Bollan to make his mark on the Diamonds, but only Rangers and Ayr have defeated his side in the last seven games. Paul Sheerin must look on in envy at their recent improvements: the concession of 1.14 goals in their last seven matches contrasts to the 2.57 in the seven games previous.

With East Fife holding a six point advantage (and a game in hand) over both sides, the battle to avoid relegation remains principally a two-horse race. Midway through February, Arbroath have back-to-back meetings with Airdrie and East Fife – there is a real danger they could find themselves swimming against the tide unless Sheerin address his side’s obvious shortcomings. AG

 

5) Square pegs don’t suit round holes at Elgin City and Albion Rovers

At Borough Briggs, Elgin City and Albion Rovers played out a 1-1 draw that at was at best ordinary. Neither team created much in the way of clear cut chances to score and it took a bit of opportunism by Jamie Duff to hook the ball over his shoulder and underneath the crossbar to equalise after Scott Chaplain’s penalty for the visitors. Otherwise, it was a mediocre game that must make new City manager Barry Wilson wonder if his team can genuinely improve and challenge for the play-offs.

The contest wasn’t helped by the fact that the teams’ highest profile players were on the periphery of the match. Mark McGuigan isn’t new to the right wing of Rovers’ 4-3-3 setup but other than the occasional flicker, he doesn’t look any more accustomed to the role than when he was first played there. Shane Sutherland was also on the right flank of City’s 4-4-2 and was rarely in a position to affect the match.

In a way, it kind of makes sense to have them there. With Elgin having left-winger Ali MacKenzie to get to the by-line and Paul McMullan to shell balls diagonally across the pitch, Sutherland’s preying on the shoulder of the defender at the far post might have been a dangerous weapon to use against the visiting team. As it happened, MacKenzie only put one cross of any quality from the left side, McMullan stuck to his trademark long ball down the touchline, and Sutherland wasn’t aggressive enough to do anything with the service that he did receive in the final third. What threat Sutherland posed was when he collected the ball from the defence on the counter attack and had space to dribble into but he was too predictable, with an over-reliance on his left foot coming infield allowing Rovers to break down his attacks with moderate comfort.

McGuigan, meanwhile, had David Crawford on the left to theoretically provide opportunities for him at the far post, but it didn’t really happen like that. Ironically, Rovers’ best service into the penalty area came from when McGuigan himself took up positions to cross into the box; had they had someone of his stature at the far post of those deliveries, maybe more chances could have been created. Apart from sending a couple of centred balls, however, McGuigan looked ungainly and out of his comfort zone on the right – considering the closest Ryan Donnelly got to scoring was to watch Chaplain take the penalty kick, it might be worth James Ward’s time to have a look at reconfiguring his attack.

Certainly, Elgin’s defence – without captain David Niven – looked at ease against the forwards for the most part and Albion Rovers’ best opportunities arrived when their midfielders made late runs into the box. With Chaplain doing a thoroughly competent job of holding the back of midfield, making interceptions and reprocessing the play, it gave the opportunity for Gary Phillips and Liam Cusack to take it in turn to support Donnelly. With City’s central midfielders Paul Harkins and Jamie Masson outnumbered – but more importantly extremely wasteful in possession – it seemed as if the match was only going to end one way.

It took Wilson to tweak his side’s formation for the pattern of the match to shift. With little game-changing options on the bench, he moved Sutherland up front beside Craig Gunn, dropped Dennis Wyness short of the attack, switched MacKenzie to the right flank and bunched his midfield up against Ward’s. A series of blocks by Chaplain, the Dunlop brothers in the centre of defence and Rovers’ goalkeeper Neil Parry to thwarted City late in the match, with a draw probably a fair result in the end.

Whereas Albion Rovers appear to have a settled and reasonably well adjusted team (despite having McGuigan on the flank), Wilson needs to address the balance of his own side – otherwise Elgin’s recent failings will just be as they were under Ross Jack. Returning Mark Nicolson and Bryan Cameron to midfield will be a boon for him but in the meantime, Wilson can at least take some pleasure in the performances of Sean Crichton, whose positioning and peerless distribution from the back makes even the most ordinary match worth watching. JAM

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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