1) Hibernian must get back to basics
Just over a week ago, most people would have regarded Hibernian to be a shoo-in to finish in second place. All they were required to do was dispose of Rangers to surge nine points clear of them in the Championship table; two games and two defeats later, however, and the momentum has swung from Leith to Govan – Hibs sit above the Gers on goal difference, having played a game more. Of course, this is the Hibees we’re talking about – a club that’s got capitulation stamped through it like a negative stick of Blackpool rock – but their turnaround after seven consecutive wins has been stark.
Alan Stubbs certainly gave Raith Rovers plenty of respect on Saturday by packing the park with five midfielders and starting the game with just one forward. With four strikers on the bench, including the returning Farid El Alagui, the manager certainly had plenty of attacking options and his decision to field Dominique Malonga as a lone forward seemed a little odd. Malonga is a fine player for the second tier and has scored a decent number of goals but he looks ill-equipped to lead the line on his lonesome. Like someone taking part in a tricky multiple-choice quiz, he often chose the wrong option while his wayward first touch led to the breakdown of some promising passages of play.
Hibs certainly had plenty of possession, particularly in the first half. David Gray was free to gallivant up and down the right flank as he wanted, Scott Robertson and Dylan McGeouch both kept things ticking over and Scott Allan, although far from his imperious best, probed and cajoled the play. Gray was the first player to go close, his shot striking the post, while Malonga fired against the crossbar. For all Hibernian’s endeavour, however, they were unable to force David McGurn into a significant save – their play was simultaneously incisive and wasteful.
The Rovers gave them a lesson in ruthlessness, gobbling up the first opportunity that came their way. In the 53rd minute, Jason Thomson arrowed in a cross towards Mark Stewart and the forward caught the ball on the volley, sending it beyond Mark Oxley to open the scoring. The goal was against the run of play and Hibs countered immediately – Scott Allan’s shot deflected in a looping arch and fell for Fraser Fyvie to poke home.
The Hibees continued to look the more likely winners but there was a sense of foreboding when Christian Nadé sauntered onto the scene with nine minutes remaining. If Hibs do end up finishing in third, few will have contributed as much to their downfall as Nadé, their perpetual slayer. The big striker has netted two crucial goals against them this season and this time turned provider, setting up the winner. After replacing Stewart, he cut in from the left and teed up Ryan Conroy – Conroy’s shot forced Oxley to parry and the ball broke to Lewis Vaughan; although the goalkeeper appeared to make another save, it squirmed through his grasp and tumbled over the line.
Alan Stubbs spoke after the match and seemed perplexed as to how his side lost the match, but the answer was probably pretty simple. Hibs could not stand up to cross balls as manfully as the Raith defence did – Craig Barr has only been utilised since overcoming injury earlier in the month and given the way he threw his head onto everything, it’s a wonder how on earth he’s preserved his film-star good looks. Hibs also did not have a striker who could work from scraps like Mark Stewart or Lewis Vaughan. The pair have scored seven goals between them in the last three matches and Vaughan in particular is beginning to catch the eye. The 19-year-old is slightly built and waif-like, but his recent performances have hinted that he could be a vital player for Raith next term – he has more tricks up his sleeve than Penn and Teller combined.
Since Christmas, only Heart of Midlothian and Hibs have collected more points than Raith Rovers and while they’re only five behind Queen of the South in fourth with six games remaining, there is a feeling their season will end a little to quickly before the play-off ambitions can be realised.
For Hibs, meanwhile, second place and the avoidance of an additional play-off match seem to be slipping away. Perhaps Stubbs needs to revert to the same system that won him so much success just a few short weeks ago, rather than over-thinking and tinkering with a strategy that didn’t have a lot wrong with it. If not, he might have a few more defeats between now and the summer to rumenate over. SM
2) Falkirk fluff their lines
Falkirk’s 1-0 victory at Cowdenbeath last Tuesday set up the weekend’s fixture against Dumbarton quite handsomely for them. With Queen of the South the reluctant guests to Heart of Midlothian’s title party, this was a plump opportunity to overtake their rivals into the division’s last play-off place. Having only lost to Hearts in 2015, with an unbeaten record away from home since the turn of the year, the Bairns had to be fancied against the Sons. With Falkirk, however, it doesn’t always work like that.
With strong winds from the river through the Bet Butler Stadium eastwards, conditions were difficult for everyone. Neither side made the most of the wind blowing from goal to goal until Archie Campbell’s scorching shot with ten minutes left. Dumbarton started the match facing the gale and found it a struggle to carry the ball out of their half for large portions of the opening 45 minutes. Falkirk could afford to keep players high up the pitch, but there was too much of a temptation to shoot from range instead of working the ball across goal. Shots with any kind of backlift would soar over Danny Rogers’s crossbar and the goalkeeper was excellent in getting low to those efforts that were kept on target. Blair Alston got some unfeasible whip on his inswinging corner kicks, but he failed to trouble Andy Graham and the precocious Stuart Findlay who marshalled the defence in front of Rogers. When Dumbarton did get forward it was mostly from a combination of Mitch Megginson, Mark Wilson and Campbell down the left, but on the whole Falkirk were in control without threatening much.
One expected less from Falkirk in the second period in an attacking sense, but ironically they created their best opportunities playing into the wind. John Baird’s link-up play was intrinsic to getting passes behind Dumbarton right-back Scott Taggart – one such move saw the centre-backs turned, but the ball flashed across goal narrowly evaded contact from Taylor Morgan and Alston as Rogers stretched a boot to clear. Later, Baird’s deft footwork at the edge of the box between Taggart and Graham allowed him to shoot at either side of the goal; his driven shot to the near post looked a certain goal but was thwarted again by Rogers. A well-worked move started by Mark Kerr to Alston, laying off to Morgan who played a teasing through ball between Taggart and Graham saw Baird play it across goal again, but Findlay blocked. This kind of pressure was needed in the first half if Falkirk were going to win the match, but there were too many mediocre performances from the visiting team. Apart from that pass to Baird, Morgan swung between looking in the way of things or being completely anonymous; Alston’s form has stagnated in 2015; and Craig Sibbald’s moments of quality were few and far between.
After numerous overhit clearances got caught in the wind, Dumbarton eventually managed to work the ball to Campbell 25 yards out. His shot kept down just enough to crash into Jamie MacDonald’s goal with the wind-assisted velocity leaving the ‘keeper with little chance to get to it. It leaves Dumbarton 14 points ahead of the relegation play-off spot with just 18 left to play for, which is realistically an unassailable margin for Cowdenbeath. Having the Sons so comfortably mid-table with a month to spare is an achievement of itself.
Falkirk’s day was best summed up after the goal when a late corner was only cleared to Kerr. His delicately chipped ball to the far post had Baird with a free header six yards out. With the ball holding up in the wind, Baird could only cushion the header within Rogers’s reach for an unworried save, when the striker should have done much more with the glaring chance. Rory Loy’s cunning in the final third was most certainly missed and when he returns from injury could have a big part to say in who finishes fourth this season. Falkirk have three league fixtures in the next week-and-a-half – two of which are at home – before facing Queen of the South for what could be a crucial fixture in the calendar. JAM
3) John Potter is not the right man for Dunfermline Athletic
This is all getting a little embarrassing down at East End Park. Dunfermline Athletic’s latest defeat, a harrowing 0-4 loss to Greenock Morton, was perhaps their most humiliating of the season so far. The Pars were dreadful – once Morton found their rhythm early on, they had no answer to their relentless attack and boundless energy. Stefan McCluskey, Lee Kilday, Declan McManus and Mark Russell all scored fine goals but they were abetted by Dunfermline’s passive, static defending on each occasion.
Morton made their mark on the cusp of the interval. Kyle McAusland’s slack pass was gathered by Ross Forbes and as Stefan McCluskey bounded ahead of him, Gregor Buchanan was left in an unpleasant two-on-one situation – Forbes played in his team-mate and the winger curled a fantastic effort into the net. McAusland’s carelessness was the catalyst for the goal but Andy Geggan’s half-hearted attempt to tail Forbes played its part too.
Five minutes after half-time, Morton doubled their advantage. Mark Russell’s surge down the left flank might have looked impressive but the failure of Josh Falkingham, Faissal El-Bakhtaoui and especially Ross Millen to put in a challenge was disgraceful. Russell sent a bobbling ball across the face of goal for Lee Kilday to rifle home from close range. Declan McManus added a third 16 minutes later, gathering Ross Forbes’s pass and swiveling and then shooting from just inside the area.
Russell’s goal at the death was a marvelous effort – the full-back gathered the ball inside his own half, sprinted forward, then scooped a lovely shot into the corner of the net – but once again, he was aided by appalling defending. Not one player attempted to close him down as he strode upfield in the last moments; it was the culmination of a dire showing.
Since taking taking over from Jim Jefferies in mid-December, John Potter has brought about no improvement in Dunfermline’s form. Jefferies had taken an average of 1.69 points per game in his 16 fixtures; Potter has taken just 1.13 in 15. He has won just four matches, the games against the relegation-threatened Ayr United and Stenhousemuir (bottom side Stirling Albion have held out against them twice). Potter’s tactics and in-game management have been found wanting and his transfers have made little impression so far.
This is not a lament for Jefferies – he was right to step down when he did – but on the evidence so far, Potter is not the right man for Dunfermline. Regardless of whether or not the team finish in the play-off places (an increasingly remote possibility, particularly given their upcoming fixtures), it might be best all parties to separate. There is a number of factors in their decline over this incomprehensible aspect of a season and replacing Jefferies with the cheap option of John Potter has certainly been a major one. CGT
4) East Stirlingshire’s midfield trio can take them into the play-offs
Whisper it, but Craig Tully’s East Stirlingshire might just finish the season in the play-offs. Their recent run of excellent form continued after the weekend’s very decent 1-0 win over a faltering Arbroath, which moved them into fifth place and within touching distance of East Fife in fourth. Kevin Nesbit’s stunning goal might have been the difference between the sides but the Shire were the better team throughout – if they are able to maintain their current level of performance over the final five games of the year, they can extend their campaign that little bit further.
On a bright cold afternoon at Ochilview, Tully configured his side in a 3-5-2 formation against Allan Moore’s traditional 4-4-2. The merits of the 3-5-2 system were discussed last week and the Shire’s additional man in central midfield – which sometimes swelled even further given David McKenna’s willingness to drop deep and link play – allowed them to control the game. In Neil McCabe, David Greenhill and Luke Donnelly, Tully has found an excellent balance in the middle of the park.
McCabe, unfussy and economic, provided the team’s ballast and stopped Arbroath’s few ground-based attacks with relative ease while Greenhill stormed around the pitch and instigated play further upfield (he really is having a superb season). It was Donnelly, however, who was the game’s best performer. The on-loan Celtic midfielder is a dynamic, attack-minded player who always looks to move the ball forward through his cute passing or his leggy bursts forward. Donnelly’s laconic stance belies his industry and he pressed his opponents from the front.
Kevin Nesbit has been praised in this column in the past but it is worth repeating how good a signing he has been for the Shire. The Partick Thistle loanee has scored five times in seven matches and has become a key component to their resurgence. His goal was quite stunning – after Ricky Little forced him to the edge of the penalty area, he caught the ball on the half-volley and set a gorgeous shot looping over goalkeeper Marc McCallum and high into the net. Nesbit could have scored a hat-trick had it not been for McCallum’s fine performance.
Indeed, it was a pity McCallum’s team-mates could not match his effort. Arbroath briefly flickered towards the end of the first half and saw a lot of the ball in the second (the Shire, playing against the wind, sat deeper than they really needed to) but they struggled to create a meaningful chance and rarely troubled Richie Barnard. Mark Whatley was typically energetic in midfield and Bobby Linn did his best to get the side going, but there is something badly amiss with the Lichties at the moment. The lack of creativity and confidence, both born out of each other, is glaringly apparent.
How Allan Moore remedies this is anyone’s guess. Arbroath’s decline over 2015 has been remarkable and is probably the biggest collapse in Scottish football since Greenock Morton’s infamous Second Division capitulation in 2003-04. Since the New Year they have collected just seven points, the worst record in the division. Their excellent start to the season has probably secured their play-off place but given their current form, they might be nervously charting the progress of East Fife, the Shire and Elgin City beneath them. The next five games will be crucial. CGT
5) Jamie Reid is bang in form at Elgin City
It took a while for Elgin City manager Jim Weir to put Dundee loanee Jamie Reid into his starting XI, but patience has been a virtue for the midfielder who has recently been used as a forward close to Shane Sutherland. Reid has started the last three matches after numerous substitute appearances: Elgin have won twice in a row, and Reid has contributed in at least five of the six goals scored since then.
Reid made an immediate impact in Elgin’s surprise 3-0 win against Albion Rovers at Cliftonhill, curling a deep free-kick into the wind towards the far post where left-back Daryll McHardy out-jumped everyone else for a headed goal after five minutes. The win was a shock inasmuch as Albion Rovers had won five matches in a row and had secured a pretty comfortable seven-point lead over Queen’s Park at the top of the table. Yet it wasn’t so much of a shock when looking at the Vers’ recent home record, when they had won just once – against Montrose – and lost three of their previous four fixtures in Coatbridge.
That kind of mediocre form was apparent again and Reid gave City a two-goal cushion on 26 minutes, which was a crisp finish that concluded a counter attack originating from a Rovers set-piece high up the pitch. Sutherland collected the loose ball while running on the turn and had too much pace and power for Kyle Turnbull – after getting goal-side of the marker Sutherland could have perhaps driven on into the penalty area to draw Josh Mullen over to him, but instead risked a low cross to the far post that swerved then slowed perfectly into Reid’s stride.
Darren Young’s team had plenty of chances of their own, the best of which were headers inside the opposition penalty area that were either close to or straight at Ross Laidlaw’s body. Ally Love came close with an early free-kick, but he should have done much more with his free header after sneaking in off Matthew Cooper’s blind side. In addition, a Gary Fisher set-piece from a similar position to Elgin’s opener was headed back across goal – John Gemmell nodded into where Laidlaw’s momentum was taking the goalkeeper instead of back in the direction the ball came from. Reid put the score out of the home side’s reach with a jammy connection from a mistimed volley that came off his standing foot with 15 minutes left.
The result probably doesn’t mean a whole lot to the top of the table since Queen’s Park drew at Berwick Rangers. Albion Rovers have five matches to maintain a six-point lead and should be heavy favourites to win at least three of those fixtures. The result might have more significance for Elgin, however, who could be just a point away from East Fife in fourth place if they win their last game in hand on Tuesday night against Berwick, then they have an enticing fixture at home to East Stirlingshire. With Jamie Reid making the most of his good fortune in front of goal at the moment, the play-offs might be an achievable goal. Realistically, however, a mid-table finish would still be a pretty good outcome for a club who were bottom of the league for so long in the season. JAM