1) Livingston are staying up
Livingston had only won four times from their first 30 league matches. At the end of March they were rooted to the bottom of the table, six points behind Alloa Athletic in eighth place (albeit with a match in hand). Livi had six matches to gain as many points as their rivals. Alloa and Cowdenbeath were always likely to notch a few wins between them in their own bids to avoid the drop, so in essence Livi were going to have to win as many games in the campaign’s final month as they had in the previous eight months.
And they did it.
It started with the comprehensive 4-0 win against the Wasps in the Challenge Cup final, but even then it seemed as if the Lions would follow Ross County’s 2006-07 team by winning the cup while meekly falling out of the second tier. Mark Burchill’s side, however, showed in that match that they had plenty grit about them and there were already some signs – in the draws at Rangers and Alloa – that they could keep up with their relegation rivals, even with the five-point deduction threatening to curtail their season.
Burchill has been helped by a timely spread of goals across the squad in the last six or so matches. Daniel Mullen’s instinctive close-range goals in the recent wins against Falkirk and Raith Rovers have shown how he has added to his inconsistent but wildly brilliant play from earlier in the season, but Jordan White and Miles Hippolyte have each pitched in with priceless efforts along with the defenders from set-pieces (as Rovers found to their peril).
Livi needed the result between Alloa and Cowden to go the right way for them and perhaps the anxiety of the occasion meant that they didn’t play as well as they had done recently in their pivotal win against Queen of the South on Saturday. Queens themselves certainly lacked some of their recent intensity, which is understandable given they were already sure of the imminent play-off against either Rangers or Hibernian, and rested a few players including Kevin Holt and Gavin Reilly. Livingston’s defence wasn’t under serious threat – the back four of Craig Sives, Callum Fordyce, Declan Gallacher and Jason Talbot, have improved in their performance immeasurably along with Darren Cole, before the latter his place in the team through suspension. Yet neither did they look like certain winners in the match before Daniel Mullen earned the Lions a penalty.
Being generous, Mullen attacked Queens right-back Lewis Kidd with pace and needed to take evading action for a slight lunge by the defender that was never going to get the ball; being cynical, Mullen went to ground quite easily and has kept his club up by making sure the referee had to make a judgement. In either case, there was no uncertainty in Kyle Jacobs’s penalty and, with little over ten minutes remaining, Cole came on to shore up the defence and see out the last win needed to avoid relegation.
Four wins from the last six matches, with a Challenge Cup trophy to boot. It has been a pretty grim season for Livingston, but it ended in remarkable form. JAM
2) Cowdenbeath have gone down with a whimper
It was billed online as “The Rumble at the Recs” by a wily Alloa Athletic supporter on Saturday morning but for Cowdenbeath, this win-at-all-costs fixture could be more accurately described as “Insipid at the Indodrill”. Their 0-3 defeat to the Wasps was a 90-minute manifestation of their campaign – a season that’s been more thud and a blunder than blood an thunder and has concluded in their relegation.
It started poorly for Jimmy Nicholl’s side and quickly went downhill from there. Alloa were on the front from the off and the sense of foreboding was palpable when the roly-poly figure of Michael Chopra nudged them in front after 12 minutes. It was surprising the Wasps hadn’t extended their lead further before the interval, but that was quickly rectified shortly after the break when John Armstrong knocked a free-kick into his own net.
A third, knockout blow seemed likelier than a Cowden comeback and it arrived with 15 minutes remaining when Liam Buchanan scored his 16th goal of the season – it has been an excellent year for the veteran forward. Colin Marshall made Cowdenbeath’s bad day even worse when he lashed the ball into the visiting support before bellowing a bellicose “Fuck youse!” and waving a single digit in their direction. Remarkable stuff indeed.
It’s hard to pick out a particular element from the match that galled the most – throw whatever negative adjective you wish at this time and it’ll probably stick, because this side have shown they’re more Blue Bumff than Blue Brazil this season. There is a case that all three relegation candidates have deserved to go down but it’s easiest to argue the case for Cowden.
Under Nicholl’s stewardship they’ve looked rudderless and abject, and that’s despite boasting a playing squad with almost as many names as the extras from Ghandi. Their board gambled heavily last term to ensure the club had a shot in this season’s rooting-tooting Championship but for all their efforts, the campaign has shuffled from one shambles to the next. A clear out is required over the summer – while some players might be good enough for the third tier, the team appears imbued with a defeatist spirit. They even collected fewer points than last term’s atrocious Greenock Morton. With a watered-down budget (and presumably new coaching staff) it will be interesting to see where they go from here.
Cowden’s interminable season might be over but Alloa must now negotiate the Championship play-offs in their own bid for survival. Based on Saturday’s performance, they certainly have a decent shout. Since appointing Danny Lennon – all ticks and gesticulations from the sidelines – they have shorn themselves of Barry Smith’s overly cautious approach and expressed themselves a little more (Lennon hasn’t let them off the leash exactly, but he has given them a longer leash). Alloa have often been not quite good enough but their new manager seems to have made them just about adequate. Historically, the team from the second tier rarely prospers in the play-offs but it can be done.
Just look at Cowdenbeath’s success over Dunfermline Athletic last year. That barnstorming victory at East End Park 12 months ago must seem like a long, long time ago. SM
3) Greenock Morton’s knack for a sucker punch has won them the title
And so congratulations to Greenock Morton, the League 1 title winners. A 3-1 win over Peterhead at Cappielow secured the championship and their automatic passage back into the second tier, one year after their ignominious relegation. Morton might have been unspectacular and unfashionable but they have deserved their success.
It almost came so close to never happening. Gary McDonald’s header after 17 minutes, coupled with news of Forfar Athletic’s advantage over Ayr United, gave the opening stages of the game an anxious quality. At that point, the Loons led the league, but the nature of the game very quickly shifted in favour of the home side. Four minutes later, Scott Ross was red carded after felling Declan McManus and Peterhead were compelled into a tactical shift designed to protect their lead.
The Blue Toon sat deep and created two rigid banks in front of Morton but the home side did not become frustrated. With ten minutes of the first half remaining a passage of play in which the ball was knocked from side to side concluded with Michael Miller thrashing a low drive into the net from 30 yards. And shortly afterwards, they took the lead in similar circumstances. Another patient build up saw Mark Russell gather the ball at distance and he hit a shot towards goal – it was straight at Graeme Smith but somehow it flew underneath the goalkeeper. Russell’s goal and updates from Station Park dramatically altered the mood at Cappielow.
Morton have developed a canny knack of scoring goals in quick succession, a one-two capable of knocking the stuffing out of their opponents. It began as far back in December when three goals in six minutes against Stirling Albion turned a 1-3 deficit into a 4-3 win. There’s also the tie at Stenhousemuir on 10 January where two sudden strikes swung the match onto their terms. Then there’s the late double sucker punches against Peterhead, Ayr United and Stenny again. And of course, it would be remiss to forget Declan McManus’s rat-a-tat double in the season-defining game with Stranraer last weekend. For all Morton’s perceived faults this year, their character and ruthlessness should be merited.
McManus, awarded the PFA Scotland League 1 Player of the Year last night, added a late third to put the game beyond doubt. Twelve months ago, Morton had taken a ten-goal humping from Hamilton Academical; now they were lifting the league title.
League 1 has been a competitive division this year – that the battle for the title and the bid to avoid the relegation play-off place came down the final day is testament to that – but the quality has often been lacking and no team or player has emerged as a genuinely outstanding force. In the last ten years, only Stirling Albion have finished with a lower points total than Morton’s 69 (65 in 2009-10) and outwith the Ton support and whoever (if anyone) joins them in the Championship, it is unlikely to be looked back on with much fondness.
Regardless, they should enjoy it for now – there is a lot of work to do if Morton are to flourish next term. CGT
4) Ian McCall’s Ayr United have finally come good
Ian McCall didn’t hang around too long after the final whistle at Station Park on Saturday, stopping only briefly on the way down the tunnel to acknowledge the ecstatic travelling support. “It’s not a particularly great achievement for Ayr United to finish eighth in League 1,” he said. “So next year we’ve got to go and a try and win the title. That’s where Ayr United should be”. The majority of the 1916 crowd inside the ground had long since drifted towards the exits after McCall’s side – and results elsewhere – had scuppered Forfar Athletic’s title aspirations and secured the Honest Men’s safety.
The outlook for the visitors was not so positive after just seven minutes of the match. Dale Hilson skipped down the Forfar right and into the penalty area whereupon Ayr’s erratic ‘keeper David Hutton cleared out the forward. United claimed Hilson was offside and the Loons insisted Hutton should have walked, but there was no doubt about Greg Aitken’s award. Hilson stepped up to slam the ball home.
Some might have feared the worst for the fragile Honest Men but for the first time in weeks their heads did not go down. Instead, they grew in confidence as Forfar failed to capitalise on their advantage. In the 35th minute the visitors were level after Aitken evened things out by awarding a penalty at the other end of the ground when Michael Dunlop brought down Adam Blakeman. Dunlop went into the book and Ayr captain Jon-Paul McGovern emphatically blasted past Rab Douglas for his fourth goal in seven games. Things then went from bad to worse for the Loons and for Dunlop when just two minutes later he was shown a second yellow card for a rash challenge on Robbie Crawford. And with him went Forfar’s title hopes.
United, who had started the match with a narrow midfield diamond, were now able to stretch the game and hold onto possession; weary Forfar didn’t have the legs to change the course of the game. Just four minutes after Dunlop’s red card, Ayr were ahead. Jordan Preston, the 19-year-old on loan from Blackburn Rovers, was showing little reverence to his more senior opponents Darren Dods (39) and Stuart Malcolm (35), the pair playing as if an additional two or four games this season would have been a major inconvenience. In the 41st minute Preston peeled off his marker to head home an inch-perfect cross from Brian Gilmour on the right.
The cavalry charge Ayr might have expected from Forfar, even with ten men, failed to materialise. Perhaps the news filtering through from Cappielow had left them disheartened; perhaps there was just nothing left in the tank. In the 65th minute Ayr extended their lead, Preston laying the ball off to Alan Forrest to curl it home. Forfar looked to freshen things up in attack, introducing two members of their U-20 side – winners of this season’s Development League East – but, unlike on so many occasions this season, United held on for a deserved win, their third against the Loons this season.
In terms of relegation, as it transpired, the victory was inconsequential; history will show United finished five points clear of Stenhousemuir and the relegation play-off having done enough in defeating Stirling Albion 4-0 the previous week. But the result and performance did mean something. It was a thank you (an apology?) to the club’s supporters who had endured, until that point, a joyless season. More than that, it will define Ian McCall’s first four months in charge at Somerset Park, serving to validate his credentials.
Quite simply, McCall did not bring about an upturn in results at Ayr but the win – and scenes at the end of the game – should ensure the feel-good factor that surrounded his appointment will continue to envelope the sense of renewal at the club. McCall has had one eye on next season since he was appointed in January – he even claimed that winning the league next term would be easier than staying avoiding relegation this. Now the short-term target has been achieved, the rebuilding can begin.
Forfar’s concern is, of course, more immediate as they prepare to host Stranraer in the play-offs on Wednesday night. “Maybe we’ve went to the well too often,” pondered Dick Campbell at the game’s conclusion. He was magnanimous in declaring Ayr worthy winners, albeit questioned the game’s three key decisions. In the lead up to the game, Dick Campbell described what is happening as a “fairy story”. It is a story that might still have a happy ending but Campbell will need to draw on every inch of experience his squad possesses – and more. AG
5) Stenhousemuir are looking through the other end of the telescope
Before the weekend’s match against Stirling Albion, Stenhousemuir supporters joked about how the events on Saturday afternoon would unfold. In keeping with “The Warriors Way”, the equivalent of Murphy’s Law that applies exclusively to the Ochilview club, it was generally agreed that Forfar Athletic would obliterate Ayr United but Stenny would job to the lowly Binos and finish the season in the relegation play-off place. It didn’t matter that Stirling had lost their last five matches – they seemed to raise their performance to unnatural levels whenever they’ve taken on Stenhousemuir this year, winning two of their previous three meetings. So poor has the Warriors’ campaign been that a trip to the division’s worst side, relegated some time ago, is treated with the upmost caution.
And yet, shortly after the kick-off, the mood amongst the away fans was buoyant. Someone with a smartphone revealed that a Dale Hilson penalty had put the Loons ahead at Station Park and a chorus of “We love you Forfar, we do!” broke out. Minutes later the optimism blossomed into unabashed euphoria – Ross Meechan looped Paul McMullan’s corner towards an unguarded back post and Colin McMenamin clumsily nodded it over the line. As it stood, the Warriors had moved into eighth.
The glee, however, did not last long and six minutes after taking the lead, Stenhousemuir were pegged back. An appalling miscommunication among goalkeeper Greg Fleming and centre-backs Alan Lithgow and Ross McMillan allowed Phil Johnston to drive to the byline and cut the ball back for Gordon Smith to finish from close range. It was the striker’s fourth goal of the season against the Warriors and typical of the carelessness running through the Stenny team. McMullan came close to restoring the lead but his finishing on both occasions was uncharacteristically askew.
On such instances, this would normally provoke catcalling from the support but three sombre updates from Angus had rendered events at Forthbank quite useless. Jon-Paul McGovern had equalised, Michael Dunlop had been sent off and Jordan Preston had given Ayr the lead; by half-time the Honest Men had leapfrogged Stenhousemuir and returned to eighth. Resigned to their fate, the away support kept a quiet vigil over nothing in particular.
If the Stenny players were aware of what was unfolding at Station Park, it certainly didn’t stir them into a frenzy. They were passive, sat off their opponents and allowed Stirling, a poor side full of indistinct, blandly handsome young men with square faces and well-maintained haircuts, to play how they wanted. It was a surprise, then, when the Warriors took the lead again. Craig Sutherland, summoned from the bench in place of the listless Kris Faulds, swept home McMenamin’s flick on 76 minutes. With Ayr having further extended their advantage over Forfar a little earlier, the goal was met with joyless mirth.
At one point the referee fell over; it prompted the loudest cheer of the second half.
With a minute remaining, Ross Forsyth equalised for Stirling. The full-back somehow pirouetted inside the box and hooked a wonderful shot beyond Fleming and into the net. The Stenhousemuir players sunk low with their hands on their knees and swathes of away supporters headed for the exit. Andy Stirling had gone close with a long-range drive moments before and with the match petering out, the little forward was invited to move into the vacant space in from of the opposition penalty area. No-one attempted to stop him – what was the point now? – and, probably shocked by the lack of attention, he sent a rasping shot over Fleming to win the match. It was a wonderful strike but an appalling goal to concede.
Thoughts now turn to Wednesday when Stenhousemuir travel into the Kingdom’s darkest enclave to take on East Fife. “It’s now done, it’s dusted,” said Brown Ferguson after the match, choosing not to dwell on his side’s capitulation. “It’s now a play-off, there’s no external factors that can influence it, there’s not anybody else, it’s us v East Fife on Wednesday, head-to-head, and the winner goes into a cup final.”
Stenny go into the play-offs in dire form, having taken just one point from their last seven games, while East Fife enter with a spring in their step after two convincing victories. If the Warriors are relegated, at the end of this weekend or the next, it will be deserved. This shabby side has been badly lacking in almost every area and the occasional flashes of quality have not been enough to sustain them over the piece. Regardless of where they finish, the entire club – from boardroom level to the playing squad – needs a long period of self-analysis to figure out what has gone wrong this season. CGT