1) Hamilton Academical are back in the title hunt
Just three weeks ago, it looked as though Hamilton Academical’s title challenge had withered on the vine. After a fractious 0-1 defeat at Dundee (a match which saw them deploy four left-backs over the 90 minutes after Jesus Garcia Tena was substituted and both Ziggy Gordon and Stephen Hendrie were dismissed), they looked in danger of tumbling down the league table: considering their excellent run between August and November, a period which saw them win nine of their opening 13 league fixtures, it appeared as though the proverbial bubble had burst. It was certainly the most taxing spell of Alex Neil’s brief management of the club.
The concession of seven goals in the two games prior to the trip to Dens Park had some supporters wondering if the manager should have been bolstering his defence instead of adding to his attacking options – the signing of Jason Scotland was met with interest rather than genuine excitement.
Since then, however, the Accies are nine points better off after convincing victories over Raith Rovers, Livingston and Alloa Athletic. With a 12 point advantage over Dumbarton in fifth, a play-off place is becoming an increasingly likely outcome but more promisingly, they are just a point behind leaders Dundee – winning the league is now, once again, a possibility.
The most obvious factor in their upturn has, curiously enough, been the regularity in which they have been finding the net. Prior to Scotland’s arrival, Hamilton had scored 28 goals in their 20 league matches, the third fewest in the division at an average of 1.4 per game. By comparison, they’ve netted 13 times since the striker joined the club, an average of 2.1 per game. Scotland may have only contributed twice but his obvious strength and ability to hold up the ball are unequalled amongst his team-mates. While James Keatings and Mickael Antione-Curier are predominantly poachers, they have looked better alongside Scotland rather than when paired together. Furthermore, it’s little surprise that the forward-thinking midfielder Anthony Andreu has undergone his most prolific spell in front of goal since the Trinidadian signed on.
Neil’s alterations in defence have also been fascinating. Garcia Tena and Grant Gillespie retained their place against Livingston and Alloa, despite Hendrie and Michael Devlin returning from suspension. Hendrie and Devlin might be considered as Neil’s preferred left-back and centre-back respectively but the concession of two goals in the last three matches has justified their omission. Garcia Tena has brought steel and experience to the backline while Gillespie looks far more capable at left-back than he does as a screening midfielder.
In each of their last three victories, the team have started impressively: against Raith Rovers, they scored their four goals before the interval; Livingston were fortunate not to be trailing by a similar score-line at the same stage; and against Alloa on Saturday, strikes from Louis Longridge, Andreu and Keatings gave them a three-goal advantage inside 20 minutes. The importance of their good starts cannot be overstated – they have yet to lose a match this season in which they have scored the opening goal.
There also seems to be an increase in the industry of the Hamilton midfield, with Longridge, Andreu, Ali Crawford and Darrian MacKinnon quick to close down their opponents whenever possession is squandered. Rovers, Livi and Alloa fans might gripe about their own sides’ deficiencies in the recent defeats but Hamilton should perhaps be given more credit: their pressing and tenacity has prevented their rivals from playing.
Hamilton’s exceptional form could not have been timed better, with two difficult fixtures with Queen of the South and Falkirk coming up. If they can sustain their momentum and continue to press Dundee, then the meeting between the sides at the beginning of April could become the season’s most decisive and thrilling encounter. SM
2) Rangers’ underwhelming performances continue
Rangers’ 1-0 win over East Fife at New Bayview was arguably their most insipid performance of the season. Yes, yes, they were largely untroubled, kept a clean sheet and now require just two more victories to secure the League 1 championship but it was a colourless, lacklustre display against such modest opposition. It was nothing that Rangers haven’t seen before – East Fife stationed ten men behind the ball and invited their visitors to break them down (something the execrable Tom Miller, the Rangers TV commentator, found particularly frustrating) – but their play was too one-paced and too one dimensional to ever really unfix their opponents. Ally McCoist has been criticised in the past for his overly unimaginative approach, and on Saturday it was if he was playing a new game of Football Manager and deploying his team up in a standard 4-4-2 formation with all the settings left at “default”.
One would imagine that Rangers will rouse themselves sufficiently for their forthcoming cup matches – a presentable Scottish Cup quarter-final tie with Albion Rovers and a Challenge Cup final against Raith Rovers await them, and both competitions should provide ample motivation compared to a run of the mill league encounter – but after six months of torpor, these things cannot be taken for granted. On current form, a more capable side would give them something to think about. Whether or not it’s the Rovers of Coatbridge or Kirkcaldy remains to be seen.
What of their remaining league games? Rangers can win the title on 15 March against Dunfermline Athletic, leaving them with nine meaningless matches between then and the end of the season. They could provide McCoist with the ideal opportunity to rest his senior players, blood youngsters and test out an array of tactical innovations. Or perhaps the manager has other things on his mind: waltzing through the entire campaign unbeaten, or breaking Queen of the South’s record points total might see him continue with the current strategy of grim efficiency. For Rangers’ long-term aspirations, one would hope it is the former. McCoist was quoted last week in the Daily Mail saying: “I’d far rather be in a position to strengthen to move forward, not just for next season but for longer term as well. Without strengthening ahead of next season, it would be very tough.” Instead of throwing money at the problem, here’s a thought: why not help develop the club’s young players, make them better and assimilate them into the first team instead?
As discussed several weeks ago, McCoist’s short-termism and win at all costs mentality is ultimately harmful to Rangers. It is why every dropped point and every dismal performance is picked over and scrutinised. Rangers will win the League 1 title and will likely win the Championship next season but with no long-term strategy in place, it’s difficult to imagine what happens from here. CGT
3) Ayr United see red against Airdrieonians once again
In the immediate aftermath of David Somers’ half-time whistle, Andy Millen, the Ayr United assistant manager was required to usher a number of his players away from the referee. Somers paused at the edge of the centre circle before making his way towards the extendable tunnel, flanked by one of his linesmen and a steward, as the maelstrom of a typically tempestuous 45 minutes of football between Airdrieonians and Ayr had been brought to a close. Both sets of substitutes spilled onto the pitch to warm up and on the face of it, their half-time exercises were entirely inconsequential, but they epitomised the contrast between Airdrie under Gary Bollan and Mark Roberts’s Ayr.
Under the instruction of coach Ian Flaherty, the Airdrie substitutes engaged in a number of passing drills within a circle of cones less than ten metres in diameter; their counterparts, meanwhile, were left to their own devices and took pot-shots into an unguarded net and attempted keepie-uppies. This apparent lack of professionalism and discipline had been evident amongst the Honest Men’s starting XI in the first half, no more so than full-back Adam Hunter. In the 41st minute, Hunter was dispossessed by Liam Watt on the edge of the Airdrie penalty box and as Watt played the ball up the line, Hunter crudely barged him off the pitch. Somers dismissed Hunter, and it was difficult to argue with the decision: it was malicious and mindless and deserved a red card, if not by the letter of the law then for its stupidity.
At this point of the match, Ayr were already a goal in arrears. With five changes to the starting line-up defeated by Dunfermline Athletic at East End Park the previous weekend (three of them in defence), Airdrie were able to capitalise on their uncertainty after 30 minutes. Watt headed a poor David Hutton punch in the direction of Craig Barr, and the new signing had space at the edge of six-yard box to hook an acrobatic effort into the net. With the man advantage, Airdrie were able to comfortably see out the second half and added two further goals.
The third came via the penalty spot after Kyle McAusland – who only rejoined on loan from Rangers on Friday evening – became the fifth Ayr player to see red against the Diamonds this season. The difference between August’s fixture between the sides (which also saw United finish with nine men) was marked: this time around, Airdrie were energised, organised and defensively solid, with Barr and Darren McCormack acting as an effective screen in front of the back four in a 4-2-2-2 formation. Ayr, meanwhile, were static, one-dimensional and lacked spirit; a far cry from the team in August who were given a standing ovation for their endeavours.
The weekend’s results have seen United’s advantage in the final play-off place cut to three points (with Stenhousemuir now their nearest challengers), but it might be restored to six should they overcome Forfar Athletic tomorrow night. Indeed, the play-offs are a realistic proposition despite their recent form – Ayr have the worst record in the division over the past eight matches. Roberts, one fears, might not be cut out for management. For Airdrie, climbing out of the bottom two for the first time since mid-October is just reward for a seventh game without defeat. The Diamonds have advanced immeasurably under Bollan and have proved that his success at Livingston was not solely down to having more favourable resources than his rivals. AG
4) Garry Kenneth is not the answer to Brechin City’s defensive problems
It’s been a funny couple of months for Brechin City. Ray McKinnon’s side began 2014 with an atrocious 1-5 home defeat against Forfar Athletic (their first half showing was arguably the worst showing of the campaign) before embarking on an excellent run of form. Brechin won four of their five matches, including an excellent 3-2 victory over Dunfermline Athletic, and climbed up the table to within four points of Stranraer in the final play-off place. For all their attacking prowess, however, there were still concerns over their defensive capabilities – at the time, they had lost 46 goal; only Arbroath and Airdrieonians in ninth and tenth respectively had conceded more. Cover at centre-back was deemed the solution and Garry Kenneth was promptly signed.
Before joining Brechin, Kenneth had spent an unsuccessful 18 month spell at Bristol Rovers. Originally signed from Dundee United on a three-year contract, the defender last appeared on 5 January 2013 before a knee complaint curtailed his season. After negotiating his release from the club at the end of 2013, Kenneth returned to Tannadice on trial but failed to convince Jackie McNamara he was worth recruiting on a permanent basis. He was approached by a number of clubs, including Arbroath, but opted to sign on with Brechin instead.
Brechin have played three matches with Kenneth in the starting XI and lost them all. A last minute defeat to an improving Airdrie side on his debut was unfortunate, but he was thoroughly embarrassed by Stranraer and then, inevitably, by Arbroath on Saturday. Brechin’s performance in the 2-4 loss at Glebe Park was lamentable, with the entire team culpable for their chaotic showing (some of the defending has to be seen to be believed), but Kenneth in particular was poor throughout. Slow and overweight, he cut a dismal figure before his removal at half-time through injury. A fit, conditioned Kenneth would be an asset to most teams at this level – he is a robust competitor and competent enough centre-back – but in his current shape, he is of little use. He is certainly no better than Graham Hay, Ewan Moyes or Gerry McLauchlan, players who have made way for his inclusion over the last three weeks.
Forthcoming matches against Forfar Athletic and Stenhousemuir give Brechin the opportunity to re-establish their play-off credentials but on the evidence of their last two matches, a mid-table finish seems more likely. For all McKinnon’s success last term, this season has been maddeningly inconsistent. Poor signings, a misuse of players and strange tactics have led to a campaign that has been as tantalising as it has been frustrating. Finding a way to correct their porous defence – with or without Kenneth in the starting XI – would be the best place to start. CGT
5) Michael Daly is pivotal to Clyde’s promotion prospects
Incredibly, the SPFL’s bottom tier brought us three 4-0 thrashings by home teams this weekend, with League 2’s top three sides consolidating their positions within the division. Peterhead are all but guaranteed to finish within the top four at this stage of the season – they might still only have a five point lead at the top of the table but only one loss in their last 15 matches suggests they remain favourites for automatic promotion (although let it be said that there are some supporters at the club who do not deserve to witness the possible championship title for inexcusable racist abuse towards East Stirlingshire’s Jordan Tapping at the weekend). Annan Athletic themselves have won eight of their last 11 matches and so, in part due to the tactical uprising at Galabank under Jim Chapman, seem certain at this point to finish in the top two by the end of the season.
Nonetheless, the accomplishment of the top two thus far should not undermine the success that Jim Duffy has had at Clyde this season. It has been said often enough before on this site, from the divisional season preview to the mid and half-term report cards that we expected Clyde to finish at the bottom of the league, with strict fiscal policies and political turbulence on the projected move to East Kilbride possibly affecting the prospects of the team on the pitch. However, Duffy has fashioned a remarkable season from establishing a balanced side that seems strong in all areas but in goal-scoring.
For a club sitting third in the table, there is something odd about Clyde having scored the fourth-least amount of goals in the division so far this season. Indeed, they have scored even fewer goals away from home than Queen’s Park have: an appalling rate of 0.85 goals per match is only partly off-set against having the tightest defence. Duffy has been infamous for settling on low-scoring results away from Broadwood, whichever way those fall, and if only they had a goal-scoring presence to tip the balance in the tighter games would they have been able to present a credible challenge for promotion.
As it stands, is Michael Daly the striker to fire Clyde to promotion via the play-offs? On the basis of having only scored in four of his 23 league appearances this season then probably not, but his stand-out performance against Elgin City on Saturday certainly suggests that he can be a key player for the side going into the tail end of the season. Daly gave Jamie Duff and particularly Sean Crighton (one of the division’s best defenders) a difficult afternoon, winning his headers, holding the ball up for Stefan McCluskey and at times was able to occupy both central defenders. Losing Crichton for his two headed goals in near-post runs was just reward for his importance to the team. If he can continue to prove to be a goal-scoring threat so that Clyde can benefit from Scott Ferguson supplementing the side with goals rather than relying on him, then there is no reason why the Bully Wee cannot hold their place in the top three and cause other teams trouble in the play-offs. JAM