1) Falkirk continue their hold over Dundee but remain unconvincing
Gary Holt’s Falkirk are a strange beast at the moment. They have won two matches in a row and now lie only six points behind Hamilton Academical and Dundee, but with only five games left (and no fixtures against each other among that after this Saturday) it seems inconceivable that they can overtake both clubs at the top of the Championship table.
Could they win five more matches on the bounce to claim the title? Given that they have never gone longer than three matches in succession before capitulating this season, probably not, and even then it might not be enough with the other two teams currently able to hold the rest of the competition at arms’ length. Hamilton’s manic injury time goals scored and conceded against Cowdenbeath at Central Park means that nothing changes: the Championship title is contended by two teams on the same points and goal difference; this could be as close as 2006-07 when Gretna were promoted ahead of St Johnstone on the final day. Saturday’s fixture at New Douglas Park between the league leaders could be as exciting as it will be important.
At this stage, Falkirk can only dream of those consequences and they will reflect on what has gone wrong over the last couple of months. Only four wins in nine since the turn of February have resulted in the Bairns consolidating in their perennial bronze medal finish (although there might be as much to worry about Queen of the South’s late ascension than on troubling the clubs at the top). There are probably a few reasons for this happening, notably the unavailability of some of the first XI from one week to the next and also Mark Beck’s inclusion into the team.
Beck’s 6’5″ stature brings something different to the side, a purebred target man who is at his most effective in open play around the 18-yard line. His winner against Dundee was a tremendous finish, coming off the goal-line at a set piece to contort his neck and divert a header beyond Kyle Letheren. Yet something has changed since his inclusion and there is a tangible difference to the side’s effectiveness going forward. Coming into 2014, Falkirk looked the strongest team in the division and even if they didn’t earn automatic promotion, this writer thought that they had enough pace, technique and diversity in their attack to be a serious worry for a Premiership team in the play-offs – but that feeling isn’t as prominent as it once was.
It would be facile to say that Falkirk miss Phil Roberts. Rather, they might miss Roberts who focused a mercurial spirit into tormenting defences down the channels when playing as a supporting forward next to Rory Loy; they do not miss the frustrating, self-imploding character who was recently released after his stunning display of petulance in the 0-3 defeat at Alloa Athletic. Falkirk miss Roberts because he allowed Loy to concentrate on being the chief striker. A run of three goals in nine league matches was immediately followed a patch of seven in ten and it is obvious why: Beck patrols the central area and with no natural wingers in the senior squad this season, Loy has had to resort to doing the job that Roberts – at his best – excelled at.
The lack of a genuine, foot-on-the-ball number 10 also affects the side. There probably isn’t space for one up front beside a target man, but in the absence of Jay Fulton – who was sold in January to Swansea but who has yet to make an appearance – this was Craig Sibbald’s time to revel in the spaces between the lines. The midfielder with the number 10 on the back of his shirt has operated on the left of the middle four for most of the season, but his performance against Dundee suggests he still has a lot of development before he can consider a move afield like Fulton: he was hurried and for the most part, couldn’t get rid of the ball quick enough in a congested midfield area. Sibbald’s size doesn’t work against him so much as his bravery to take a clattering immediately after releasing an effective pass; it didn’t affect Stefan Scougall, who a couple of years ago was probably the only other teenager in the league talked about in the same vein as Sibbald. With either Joe Chalmers or Stephen Kingsley willing to overlap, this team is set up to allow Sibbald to command matches, but at the moment he is being usurped by Blair Alston and Conor McGrandles.
Dundee themselves had a similar problem against Falkirk. With Craig Beattie starting for the first time in over three months, there was no genuine partnership between him and Peter MacDonald – it was MacDonald who had to drop to link with the midfield more often than not, which didn’t play to his strengths. Beattie had three excellent opportunities to score and was arguably unlucky not to finish a couple of them as his side took the game to Falkirk as much as they could, but simply resorting to sticking on the big guy as a target man (Christian Nadé in this case) as a Plan B will only get teams so far. Beattie’s fitness issues probably preclude him from being the more natural number 10 that could complement both players, but Hartley’s summer recruitment might improve this area of the team in this area, whichever league that might be for.
It is the effectiveness of players using the pockets of space between centre-backs and midfielders that sets the lower-order Premiership teams apart from the higher-end Championship sides. St Mirren have quality in abundance in that area with Paul McGowan, Kenny McLean and Paul McGinn; Kilmarnock have Alexei Eremenko, Chris Johnston and Rory McKenzie; Partick Thistle have Chris Erskine and Kallum Higginbotham; and Ross County have Graham Carey and Melvin de Leeuw. The top Championship sides are not used to having to cope with attacking quality in transitions in the manner that Roberts and Fulton could kill teams with. That, more than anything, could be the telling factor as to whether or not two Championship sides gain promotion this season. JAM
2) Paul Watson’s timely return can help guide Raith Rovers to safety
It wasn’t exactly a winner-takes-all contest at Recreation Park on Saturday, but more like a winner-puts-some-vital-breathing-space-between-themselves-and-the-relegation-play-off-spot (not the snappiest of titles, it must be said). The biggest surprise from the encounter between Alloa Athletic and Raith Rovers was that it actually produced a winner, with Calum Booth’s 49th minute freekick the difference between the sides. Before the weekend, both teams had recorded three wins in 28 league matches between them, with two of them coming against a dreadfully inadequate Greenock Morton.
Alloa’s fine victory against Falkirk last weekend appears to have been an anomaly, especially given how they followed it up with two defeats without scoring. Against the Rovers, the absence of Daryll Meggatt and Stephen Simmons was sorely felt and the return of both players will be crucial for the club’s final matches of the season – their final three fixtures see them take on Hamilton Academical, Dundee and Falkirk.
Raith Rovers, meanwhile, collected the rarest of treasures: a win and a clean sheet (it was only their third in 31 league matches and their first since the end of October), and both coincided with return to fitness of centre-back Paul Watson. With Watson in the starting XI, Grant Murray’s side have conceded 19 goals in 17 matches, an average of 1.1 per game; without him (he missed three months of the season with a broken foot), they’ve lost 31 in 14, 2.2 per game. There have been other factors for their shabby defending, such as the injury to David McGurn and the recent change in goal from Ross Laidlaw to Lee Robinson, but Watson’s presence appears to be vital to Rovers’ prospects of survival; how a whole defence can fall to pieces in the absence of one centre-back is certainly troublesome.
Watson also appears to be a calming influence on Dougie Hill. Hill has enjoyed a reasonable season but seems far less comfortable when expected to lead the defence. His “kick it up the park and ask questions later” approach is not necessarily a bad thing but when paired alongside someone similar like Laurie Ellis or Reece Donaldson, possession is often squandered when both centre-backs want to boot the ball upfield as quickly as possible. The former Livingston player is far more proficient at bringing the ball out from the back.
Rovers’ victory leaves them six points clear of Cowdenbeath in ninth, and with a favourable flurry of fixtures ahead, survival looks increasingly likely. They have played both Hamilton and Dundee four times each and with three of their final five matches coming at home (they have a sound record at Stark’s Park this term), a win and a draw should be enough to guarantee their safety in the second tier for next term. Of course, nothing can be taken for granted in such an unpredictable division, especially given that nine of its ten participants still have something to play for (poor Morton!) but Paul Watson should bring the steel that will help nudge Rovers over the line. SM
3) Momentum will be key in the battle for the League 1 play-off places
At 4.40pm on Saturday, Stenhousemuir’s season looked to be over. Despite taking a first-half lead over Ayr United through Ben Greenhalgh, signed on loan from Inverness Caledonian Thistle the previous day, goals from Michael Moffat and Alan Forrest saw the Warriors sitting ten points behind the Honest Men in the final promotion play-off place, an insurmountable advantage with five games remaining. At 4.49pm, however, the race for the play-offs had been wholly altered.
Minutes earlier at 4.42pm: David Rowson received the ball from a Kevin McKinlay throw halfway inside the Ayr half. Rowson found Sean Higgins, who lofted a pass towards the back post and, under pressure from Errol Douglas, United full-back Gordon Pope blocked the ball with his outstretched arm. The resultant penalty was drilled home by Higgins to level the scores. Then at 4.46pm: Ayr failed to clear a long throw into the box and Greenhalgh combined with Josh Watt to tee up Higgins at the edge of the area, and the forward scuffed his shot past David Hutton with the outside of his right foot (Higgins later described his goal as “shanksville“). At the final whistle the gap, between the sides was down to four points. “We’ve gone from ending their season to giving them the biggest lifeline ever,” said Ayr manager Roberts.
Stenhousemuir’s late show was no coincidence. Under Scott Booth and his predecessor Brown Ferguson, the Warriors are unbeaten in ten games; in six of those matches, they have scored a decisive goal on or after the 85th minute. While equalisers against Ayr (at Ochilview in January at the start of the run), Stranraer, East Fife, Airdrieonians and Stranraer last weekend helped avoid defeat, the victory at Somerset Park significantly changes the dynamic in the battle for the remaining two promotion play-off positions. Dunfermline Athletic confirmed their place with a last minute winner against Brechin City, but a late Scott Rumsby own goal saw Stranraer draw with Airdrieonians and leaves the Blues just two points ahead of Ayr.
At this stage of the season, momentum is key and Stenhousemuir are gathering it in abundance. Ayr were unable to cope with a fluid and unselfish front three of Watt, Greenhalgh and Higgins, and Mark Roberts was unable to influence a performance which saw a litany of failed attempts to find Michael Moffat in space behind Stenhousemuir’s high defensive line with long ball after long ball – it was in stark contrast to Booth’s approach of building from the back. The tactic worked just once, and even then Moffat still had plenty to do. The striker is carrying United towards the end of the season and, with a difficult run in including matches with Rangers, Dunfermline and Forfar, a four point advantage might not be enough; Stenhousemuir have a far more straightforward sequence, with four of the final five games coming against the division’s bottom four teams. AG
4) East Fife are back in the game
A fortnight ago, this column considered the ponderous nature of East Fife’s season. At the time, Gary Naysmith’s side had been comprehensively dismantled by Ayr United and sat in ninth place, a point ahead of a resurgent Arbroath. They had collected two points from their previous eight matches and seemed certainties to conclude the season by contesting the relegation play-offs or immediately dropping into League 2. “For all Naysmith’s achievements as a player,” wrote Alistair Gemmell, “keeping East Fife in League 1 might be the greatest of them all.”
Two weeks and two outstanding victories later and East Fife’s outlook appears to be a little more secure. Granted, their league position has not changed but they have built up a solid seven point advantage over the Lichties and pulled themselves alongside the group of teams trying to avoid the play-off place. Whether or not they can continue their fine sequence and move out of ninth remains to be seen – any positive results this season have been almost immediately followed by long periods of indolence – but the weekend’s 2-1 win at Forfar Athletic has given credibility to the notion that the club’s survival is a realistic possibility.
Despite going behind to Chris Duggan’s header – goalkeeper Jack Hamilton, making his debut after joining on a temporary basis from Heart of Midlothian, made a costly misjudgment as he leapt out to claim Martyn Fortheringham’s corner – they immediately restored parity after Liam Buchanan followed up on Nathan Austin’s parried shot and crashed the ball into the net. Austin added the Fife’s second, crucial goal before the interval, adding the finishing touch to Kevin Smith’s excellent work by poking home the forward’s cutback. The match was a fairly scrappy encounter and Forfar were missing a number of key defenders but given what’s at stake, Naysmith and his players will not care a jot.
Given the reactionary nature of this column, it would be incorrect to suggest that East Fife are out of trouble just yet (there have been a number of occasions over the last two seasons when our writers have been made to look a little foolish on the back of their assumptions in Five Things We Learned) but looking forward, their forthcoming fixtures are, for want of a better word, doable. Stranraer and Stenhousemuir will pose taxing opponents but matches against Airdrieonians and Brechin City should both be marked as “must win” if they are to keep pace with and the pull away from their rivals.
Automatic relegation is unlikely – the wretchedness of Paul Sheerin’s side should see to any of that nonsense – but Naysmith must ensure his team take the same level of performance and commitment into their remaining games if the club are to avoid consecutive seasons in ninth place. CGT
5) East Stirlingshire are slipping out of the race for fourth place
Four defeats in their last five matches (including three back-to-back losses) have seen East Stirlingshire’s play-off credentials come under serious scrutiny. The latest disappointment, a 2-4 loss against Clyde at Ochilview, was the third time in their dismal sequence where the Shire had conceded four times and their various shortcomings were exposed time and again by mobile, highly committed opponents.
John Coughlin began the match by configuring his side into a 5-4-1-cum-3-6-1 formation and with their numbers in the middle of the park, it was little surprise they enjoyed the better of the play (at times, their passing from middle to front was particularly handsome). Their problems, however, lay with their inability to defend and attack with coherence, and Clyde were only too happy to take advantage.
Little could have been done to prevent the Bully Wee’s opening goal – Kieran MacDonald’s freekick in the sixth minute was sweetly struck and swung over the wall and into Grant Hay’s net – but the second, third and fourth goals could have been avoided entirely. Only Michael Herd will know what he was thinking as he attempted to shepherd the ball out of play under duress from Stefan McCluskey instead of whacking it out of play. The Clyde forward prodded the ball away from Herd and cut into the penalty area, evading two timid attempted blocks before steering the ball goal-bound. Mick Daly was afforded too much room to head home Neil Janzcyk’s spinning freekick before half-time, and as well taken as McCluskey’s second was, Hay was badly caught out of position as the ball sailed over his head and into the net.
There were a number of occasions, particularly in the first half, when the Shire put together a series of eye-catching moves but they broke down because of a lack of quality in attack. With Kevin Turner deemed not fit enough to start, Paul Quinn began the match as the team’s lone forward. Quinn is certainly a game individual and worked hard in trying circumstances, but he was not provided adequate support and often dominated by Brian McQueen and David Marsh. Instead of introducing Turner alongside Quinn in a two-pronged attack, Coughlin simply switched one for the other with 21 minutes remaining. The failure to strengthen their attacking options in January – an area which has caused concern for most of the season – was poor, and their return of 41 goals is the third worst in the division.
Clyde’s strength lay in their ability to destroy the Shire’s offensive raids and then counter quickly. Both of McCluskey’s goals profited from this tactic and Coughlin had no answer to the transitions in play. With Daly acting as a pivot for the likes of McCluskey, Stuart McColm and Scott Ferguson to play off, the Shire were undone by their movement and elusiveness. Their formation certainly didn’t help, and neither did the performance of Ricki “The Rifle” Lamie. The young centre-back has been borrowed from Airdrieonians until the end of the season and formed part of the defensive trio alongside Chris Townsley and Michael Bolochoweckyj, but he turned in an anxious display, wasting possession and committing a series of needless fouls. With the talented Jordan Tapping on the bench (and, as mentioned above, the recruitment of a forward taking priority), Lamie’s signing doesn’t seem to make any obvious sense.
East Stirlingshire are still four points from the final play-off place but on recent form, current incumbents Stirling Albion and upstarts Berwick Rangers seem far more likely to contest it. The season has been a major upgrade on last year yet it feels as though it’s all frittering away into inconsequence. So poor have they been in recent weeks that some of the more pessimistic elements of the support believe that a repeat of last term’s inglorious conclusion – where they suffered ten consecutive defeats – is a very real possibility. CGT