1) Raith Rovers come out on top in the Fife derby
What a difference a fortnight makes. On 20 December, as Raith Rovers succumbed at home to Hibernian to fall to their seventh defeat in nine matches, Cowdenbeath recorded a fine win at Queen of the South. The victory lifted the Blue Brazil into eighth place, just four points behind a plummeting Rovers side. Fast-forward to Raith’s 1-0 win in Saturday’s Fife derby at Central Park and a significant ten point chasm has opened up between the clubs. It would be erroneous to suggest that the Rovers support are looking up, but they can at least stop peering down with that anguished look plastered on their faces.
The winning goal arrived late – very late, in fact – with Christian Nadé’s header coming in the 88th minute. Mark Stewart took advantage of Jon Robertson’s mistake and tossed in a cross for the big striker to nod home and while Rovers were worthy winners, the match illustrated both sides’ shortcomings.
It has been pointed out in the past that Raith are lacking a predatory goal-scorer, with their three main forwards often looking too busy with other things to actually score any goals. Cowden, meanwhile, look even more deficient – Sean Higgins, playing up front all on his lonesome, was certainly willing but not necessarily able. The five-man midfield behind him gave him little to work with and, crucially, lost the battle against Raith’s four.
As such, the flow of the match was mainly directed towards the Cowdenbeath goal, but neither side really created much. For the majority, it looked as though neither side had the capacity to damage the other – it was like watching two UFC fighters whose main attributes are tickling and name-calling.
That’s not to say it was a terrible encounter – it was engaging and absorbing in patches and featured a number of good individual displays. Darren Brownlie was Cowden’s standout performer (a curious thing given that he’s struggled to earn his place in the side this season) and his defensive partner Nathaniel Wedderburn repelled everything in the air during the opening stages. It was further forward, however, where their problems lay.
Jordan Halsman, nominally a left-back, was pushed upfield but failed to provide any offensive width or adequate protection for the floundering Iain Campbell behind him. In the middle of the park, Kyle Miller – a player who appeared to be coming on leaps and bounds last term – has regressed and looks frustrating and anonymous once again. Given how they toiled, it was strange that Jimmy Nicholl waiting until the 80th minute to introduce new signing Declan Hughes.
The Rovers fans were also anxious about the late arrival of a substitute and the 75th minute change of Calum Elliot for Christian Nadé managed to provide the game with its definitive moment. The man who once put Arsenal to the sword met his header with gusto but in truth, Robbie Thomson could have done better to keep it out.
With Calum Gallagher returning to Rangers, it’s clear that Cowden are lacking in the forward areas – the club have generally been adept at addressing their problems during previous January transfer windows. They’ll need to do so once more to ensure they remain ahead of Alloa Athletic and Livingston. SM
2) Stenhousemuir have found a new bogey side
History is repeating itself. In the 2012-13 season, Stenhousemuir’s bid for promotion was perennially undermined by Albion Rovers, who took seven points from their four encounters over the course of the year. The Coatbridge club spent the majority of the campaign cut adrift at the foot of the table but, for whatever reason, they always sufficiently roused themselves when it came to playing the Warriors – at one point, Rovers ended a nine-game losing streak with a comprehensive victory over Stenny.
Two years later and it looks as though Stirling Albion have taken on the mantle of Stenhousemuir’s bogey side. The Binos triumphed in the first meeting between the teams, winning 5-4 in an absurd encounter at Ochilview on 23 August, before embarking on a miserable run of 15 matches without success. The sequence was abruptly halted, however, with their second victory of the season at the weekend – once again, Stenny were toppled by a club at the bottom of the league.
Stirling have shown a marked improvement under Stuart McLaren but a brittleness has negated their recent efforts – Martyn Fotheringham netted an 80th minute winner in the 1-2 loss at Forfar Athletic; three points suddenly became one when Craig Beattie scored at the death in the 2-2 draw with Ayr United; and a 3-1 lead over Greenock Morton inexplicably turned into a 3-4 defeat in the space of six minutes. Stenhousemuir should have provided hardier opposition – the previous weekend, they had turned in their finest performance of the season in a 2-0 win over Stranraer.
It mattered little what had gone before: Stirling were worthy winners. The first half was an even affair – the Warriors had the better of the play and strung some nice passes across the midfield but the Binos had the better of the chances. Their two goals were well taken but had as much to do with some poor Stenhousemuir defending as it did with their own ingenuity. Craig Comrie’s 20-yard strike was precise but he should never have been afforded the time and space to gather Angus Beith’s short corner and pick his shot. Gordon Smith, meanwhile, was just too strong for Robbie Duncan and held him off with little fuss before poking the ball into the net.
Colin McMenamin’s effort five minutes later was supposed to precipitate a comeback but it never came. The second half was more or less played out on Stirling’s terms – they were able to vary their play, looked purposeful in possession and won the majority of first and second balls. Stenhousemuir’s midfield quietly vanished and they did little more than lump it towards McMenamin’s general direction but more often than not, Chris Smith and Craig Wedderburn dealt with the high balls in a straightforward manner. The pair are limited centre-backs and can be beaten on the ground with direct running but they were rarely troubled. Stenny didn’t have the smarts or the personnel to unsettle them.
Stirling have reduced the deficit at the bottom of the table and sit five points behind Ayr in ninth. Avoiding relegation still looks like an unenviable task and a difficult series of fixtures lie in wait but the team is on an upward curve – they finally have the result their recent performances have merited.
Stenhousemuir might have been distracted by recent events – before the match, spectators impeccably observed a minute’s silence in memory of Kyle Doherty, the youth player who tragically died on New Year’s Day – but it was a bitterly disappointing outcome, particularly after the win at Stair Park. The Warriors missed the chance to move away from the teams around them and are looking increasingly suckered towards the bottom of the table. The wait for elusive back-to-back victories goes on. CGT
3) Ayr United’s new manager has a job on his hands
One centre-back (Craig Beattie, no less!) wore number 9; number 3 played in central midfield; and a 17-year-old striker, making his first senior start, donned number 5 to lead the line. They might only be shirt numbers but the personnel at caretaker Andy Millen’s disposal (and the desultory order of the starting line-up) go some way to explaining why Ayr United slumped to another defeat against Stranraer at Somerset Park. The Honest Men haven’t enjoyed a home victory since August, and they have gone eighth league matches without a win.
The league leaders travelled north along the A77 with six former Ayr players in their ranks and much braggadocio amongst their support, but Stephen Aitken’s team selection arguably showed the home side a respect they didn’t deserve: Steven Bell and Jamie Longworth dropped out from the side that lost to Stenhousemuir – the Blue’s first defeat in 14 league games – and in came left-back Barry Russell and midfielder Stephen Stirling, with the latter supporting lone striker Craig Malcolm. Jackson Longridge moved forward to left of midfield.
A less compact, less conservative Stranraer might have exploited Ayr’s makeshift central defensive partnership of Beattie and Kevin McKinlay sooner, but Aitken’s men didn’t have to wait too long to made the breakthrough and went ahead five minutes before the interval. McKinlay was dismal against Airdrieonians the previous week and didn’t cover himself in glory here – neither he nor Beattie attacked a long ball out of defence by Scott Rumsby, and allowed Malcolm to collect. McKinlay bounced off the striker in his attempt to challenge and Malcolm turned on to his right foot and shot low past Hutton. A struggling Beattie could barely keep up and was replaced by Josh McArthur before the break. The 18-year-old is a rare commodity at Somerset Park: a fit centre-back, albeit one that Mark Roberts and subsequently Millen have shown little faith in.
The match was actually one of Ayr’s better performances of recent weeks but they were undone by poor defending once again. In the second half, Stranraer doubled their advantage when substitute Jamie Longworth was left unmarked at the back post and headed home a free-kick played into the box from the halfway line. Otherwise, it was Ayr that threatened the most. A corner count of 12 to two in favour of the home side hinted at the balance of play but although they were least committed and industrious – qualities lacking all too often recently – United could not beat David Mitchell. Stranraer had been far from their best but moved three points clear at the top of the table.
United are expected to appoint a new manager this week, with chairman Lachlan Cameron previously expressing his preference for an experienced candidate – Billy Stark is the bookmakers’ favourite, with Jimmy Calderwood and Ian McCall also in the frame. Whoever it is, they have a significant job on their hands. United have provided limited resistance for months now and need to find a defensive resilience from somewhere – two new centre-backs are an absolute must and the manager will need to install some belief in a shell-shocked group of players.
Ayr are in a relegation battle – there needs to be an awakening at Somerset Park. AG
4) Simon Murray has become a Premiership superstar
Arbroath might have slumped to a 2-2 home draw with Montrose but their disappointment was quickly overshadowed by the news that Simon Murray had joined for Dundee United. The striker has transferred to Tannadice for a fee of £50,000 with add-ons but he will remain with the Lichties on loan for the remainder of the season. Although Murray’s contract was set to expire in June, United were stirred into action after reported interest from Aberdeen and Heart of Midlothian; they have signed the most prolific attacker in the country.
The 22-year-old, brought to Gayfield by Paul Sheerin from Dundee Violet in the summer, had often shown promise in the junior ranks and was expected to make a decent impact in League 2 but it looks as though he has already outgrown the division. Murray, with his crop of ginger hair whipped up into a snazzy perm, has scored 14 goals in 19 league matches, including nine in his last seven. He is an intelligent, elusive striker, an instinctive finisher with a good burst of pace. Murray prefers to hang on the shoulder of the last defender and looks to get on the blind side of his marker. He is almost exclusively a penalty-box striker and many of his goals have come from rebounds and ricochets – his strike partner, Paul McManus, deserves credit for his part in his progression.
There are still areas of his game that need improvement but Dundee United, perhaps more so than any other Premiership club, will give him the chance to develop. They have a proven track record of bringing through personnel sourced from the lower leagues – Craig Conway, Barry Douglas and Andy Robertson became key players before moving elsewhere while Aidan Connolly and Blair Spittal are currently establishing themselves in the first team – and a predatory player like Murray offers an alternative to their existing striking options.
At this juncture, it is perhaps worth remembering the last Arbroath player to make the transition from part-time to full-time football. Steven Doris joined Dundee in July 2013 on the back of a profitable Second Division campaign but struggled to adapt to the demands of the Championship and was quietly loaned back to the Lichties before injury curtailed his participation. Doris was released from Dens Park in the summer and currently flits in and out of the Stirling Albion starting XI. He was two years older than Murray when he moved to Dundee and acts as a cautionary tale.
Regardless, the transfer represents spectacular business for Arbroath. Not only have they made a handsome sum of money, Allan Moore still has Murray at his disposal until May and, in theory, should benefit from the player’s full-time training. Murray’s rise to prominence is one of the successes of the season. CGT
5) There’s no place like home for Queen’s Park
It’s been a long time coming but Queen’s Park have finally come home. Thirteen months and 405 days have passed since the Spiders were forced to flee to Airdrie to make way for the 2014 Commonwealth Games but now they’re back where they belong, back at Hampden. A lot has happened since November 2013 – they left Glasgow a browbeaten, bedraggled side, changing their manager and turning over their squad along the way, and returned a far more potent proposition.
And Hampden looked absolutely resplendent. The ungainly athletics track has been removed to make way for the traditional markings and goalposts, and the pitch looked lush and carpeted; it was certainly dressed for the occasion. Maybe it was the romantic homecoming, maybe it was the generous pricing, but more than 2000 supporters attended the weekend’s 1-1 draw with Clyde.
Since the Bully Wee tumbled down the divisions, they have enjoyed a curious rivalry with Queen’s Park. Between 2011 and 2013, the Spiders won 11 consecutive encounters and took full advantage of Clyde’s travails but recent contests have been more balanced. Barry Ferguson’s side won the first meeting of the sides this season courtesy of Mick Daly’s 89th minute strike, while QP prevailed in a straightforward win at Broadwood in November.
Saturday’s match fell somewhere between the two. Queen’s Park enjoyed the majority of the play but were unable to turn their possession into something tangible, with strikers John Carter or Shaun Fraser unable to really get into the game. Clyde took the lead nine minutes into the second half when Iain Gray reacted to turn in a corner at the far post (the defender has been mooted for a loan into junior football but his performance might have convinced his manager otherwise). The match appeared to be sliding irrevocably towards a Clyde victory until, four minutes into injury time, QP goalkeeper Willie Muir was encouraged to venture upfield for a corner kick. Muir was tugged back by Ged Traynor to win a penalty; Darren Miller due dispatched it beyond Alan Martin to spark frenzied celebrations.
Although conceding an avoidable equaliser at such a late juncture will have been frustrating, Clyde should be content with the point. They were overwhelmed by their hosts on occasion – QP won 21 corners over the course of the match – and have been in poor form in comparison. Ferguson has already brought Stephen McDougall and Hugh Murray into the club and more recruits have been promised. The squad is vastly changed from the one he inherited and the manager will shoulder the blame if there is no upturn in form.
Queen’s Park might be a little concerned with their recent sequence of results. Three consecutive draws is not quite a terrible run but they have fallen behind Arbroath at the summit of the table and they are no longer scoring with the same frequency as before – Miller’s penalty was their first goal in three matches.
“This is a special arena,” Gus MacPherson told Sky Sports News. “The players have to embrace the experience and make it their home.”
The meeting with the league leaders in two weeks’ time would be the best time to do it. CGT