1) Dundee are champions
So Dundee won the league. With both Hamilton Academical and Falkirk also winning, the Dees had to win at home to clinch the Championship title, which is precisely what occurred with an apprehension-tinged 2-1 score against Dumbarton.
Dundee seemed to be cruising to victory and went into the break with a two-goal lead. Their deliveries into the penalty area were dangerous and preyed on the Sons’ weakness of dealing with crosses into the box. McBride’s freekick found Christian Nadé, whose header looped towards Jamie Ewings’s goal, with the goalkeeper spooning the ball on top of himself and into the back of the net, while Peter MacDonald broke the offside trap to head the ball inside far post from a deep left-footed Gary Irvine cross. With just over half an hour gone, the best part of near-11,000 supporters were jubilant.
Of course, Dundee, being Dundee, couldn’t just settle for that. There is no worse cliché in football than 2-0 being the most dangerous score-line to a winning team, but there was certainly the capability for Dumbarton to still cause an upset. Before half-time, last season’s Dundee striker Colin Nish lobbed Kyle Letheren with a bouncing ball at the edge of the box but the football ricocheted from the crossbar, against the back of Letheren’s shoulder and away to relative safety. The bounce of the ball is sometimes all the difference between winning and not winning and Dundee found some fortune in that regard.
The second half naturally brought more nerves as Dumbarton carried the match to their hosts. Manager Ian Murray brought on St Johnstone loanee Chris Kane to go with three forwards and eventually resorted with three at the back to put the pressure on Dundee, with midfielder Scott Agnew particularly enjoying the match with a superb range of passing. Agnew scored a penalty and the second penalty shout had Kane pulled down at the edge of the box, but the forward’s awful attempt to dive over the 18-yard line was probably enough for referee Bobby Madden to dismiss the whole incident.
On a day that a Chestnut Gelding named Dundee finished first over the line at Uttoexeter for the first time in its short lifespan, just quarter of an hour before the match at Dens kicked off, it did seem as if it would be the Dees’ day. Letheren’s late tip around the corner from a Bryan Prunty header was every bit as important as the two first-half goals before then.
Dundee began the campaign as heavy favourites but plaudits must go their way for securing the title. Peter MacDonald’s scoring rate was better than one in two by the end of the season and his strike partner Christian Nadé was beginning to come on to a game – his hold-up play from a good touch and peerless strength earned made him the man of the match against Dumbarton and he could be an asset to the club in the Premiership, so long as he isn’t relied upon to score a dozen goals. Gavin Rae can hang his boots up with pride after a worse-than-indifferent start to the season under John Brown, while Declan Gallagher performed to an exceptional standard nearly every week.
It would remiss to omit a comment about Paul Hartley. From a distant observation, it might seem that he has done little more than stabilise the first XI and provide a little more balance to the side, but that was all that was needed and he did his job. With Dundee’s fan-base ensuring that the club can at least match the bottom of the Premiership’s clubs’ resources, Hartley has an exciting opportunity ahead to consolidate Dundee in the top flight for the first time in ten seasons, after beating their nearest rivals who banked on approximately a third of the gate receipts.
This is an exciting time for Dundee; the future looks good. JAM
2) Hamilton Acaemical will 10-2 the play-offs with confidence
The final league fixture of the season at New Douglas Park brought the most outrageous performance and scoreline imaginable, as Hamilton Academical crushed a terrible Greenock Morton side 10-2. Not since 1967 has a Scottish league fixture thrown up that score-line, which was also the last time any club scored ten goals in a league game. Over 46 years have passed since then. Forty-six bloody years! Scores like this don’t happen any more, or at least they shouldn’t when two full-time clubs of similar stature face each other.
The catalyst to the event was the Accies’ need for an eight-goal improvement to their goal difference if Dundee were only to draw against Dumbarton; anything less would have guaranteed that the SPFL’s chartered helicopter would land at Dens Park.
It wouldn’t take long for Hamilton to build a lead. With Jason Scotland recently falling out of the match squad, the creative and goal-scoring threat lay largely with Anthony Andreu and Mickael Antoine Curier and both players scored within eight minutes. Dougie Imrie’s long range effort made the score 2-1 with quarter of the game gone, but the excellent Louis Longridge got a goal and Andreu completed his hat-trick before half-time.
Teams have gone into the break 5-1 down (or worse) before in the second tier, but not since the advent of the Scottish Football League has a losing team capitulated to such an extent. Yet it’s understandable to a degree: Hamilton decided to risk attacking just as heavily in the second half to eat into Dundee’s goal difference advantage. Morton had taken four points from Dundee and Falkirk in the matches beforehand, but with an inexperienced, teenage defence and no obvious leader on the pitch beyond Imrie, they were presented with a test in character that they either didn’t want to or couldn’t overcome.
Any suggestions of acquiescence on Morton’s part must be disingenuous. Kenny Shiels might have been hopelessly naive to not try to limit the scoreline at 1-5, but it surely wasn’t a deliberate act to harm his own prospects at the club (although stern questions must be asked of him after such an absurd result). Following Rowan Vine’s gentle penalty kick that was saved (had he allowed Imrie to take it, there is a chance that we would have had three hat-tricks in one match), Shiels ought to have restricted any further damage by keeping the team behind the ball, but sending another forward on in Archie Campbell to open up the game further was a shameful folly.
Hamilton were superb and can feel hard done by in not winning the title after a final score like that, but it wasn’t meant to be with Dundee holding on to their win. Although Alex Neil might rue his sending off in the recent loss to Dumbarton, the club’s ambition was just to get into the play-offs and in that respect it has still been a successful season. The silver lining is that Neil now has a confident, goal-rich side that has hit imperious form heading into the play-off. They have a week to rest before facing the victors between Falkirk and Queen of the South and will be favourites to face whichever out-of-form Premiership side finishes 11th. After a rousing performance like that, it would be foolish to write off the Accies’ promotion prospects. JAM
3) Cowdenbeath couldn’t repeat last season’s heroics
Sequels can be tricky things to create. Over the years, musicians have come unstuck trying to produce that difficult second album, while the follow-up to many Hollywood blockbusters might as well have gone with the tagline: “A bit like the last one, only not as good”.
Cowdenbeath discovered how difficult it is to return with something successful on Saturday. Despite leading through Kane Hemmings, they were unable to repeat last season’s great escape after Queen of the South’s Bob McHugh scored five minutes into stoppage time, tying their match at 1-1 and consigning the Blue Brazil to a ninth place finish. It was difficult not to feel some sympathy for Cowden at that point – with safety ensured at the expense of Alloa Athletic, a poorly defended corner kick will now see them contest the relegation play-off spot.
Although Cowden warrant credit for making up the 13 point difference that separated them from Alloa at the end of 2013, they deserve to have finished in ninth. It has been a frustrating campaign, punctuated by the same deficiencies which almost derailed them last term: poor defending and the inability to hold on to leads. Both were evident at the weekend – McHugh’s goal was the 72nd goal the club have conceded this season (even Greenock Morton, who contrived to let in ten goals against Hamilton Academical, have lost fewer), while their failure to hold on for the victory saw them drop their 25th point from a winning position. In contrast, Alloa have lost just nine in similar circumstances.
Had there been a handful of games left to play, Cowden could very well have overtaken Alloa – a side who have been wretched throughout the second half of the campaign – but Jimmy Nicholl’s side were undone by their own woeful form over the opening months of the season, a period which yielded four wins from 18 games. It is to their credit that they had hauled themselves back into contention but in truth, they played poorly against an under-strength Queens XI. The match was devoid of quality and hampered by Central Park’s playing surface, which Jim McIntyre described as “a disgrace to a professional football club”, an opinion presumably fuelled by the injuries picked up by Chris Mitchell and Gavin Reilly that might preclude them for their play-off ties with Falkirk.
It was a match Cowden had to win but like so many occasions this season, their performance lacked the requisite urgency. With many Championship teams preferring to field four-man midfields, Cowden’s 3-5-2 system should see them dominate games in the middle of the park through their numerical advantage. But this wasn’t the case. Queens were the better side throughout and goalkeeper Thomas Flynn was arguably Cowden’s most impressive performer.
Their only route to survival is via the play-offs, a system that tends to end unfavourably for the side finishing in ninth. Since the play-offs were introduced in 2005-06, only John Brown’s Clyde of 2007-08 have stayed in the second tier. Furthermore, Jimmy Nicholl’s last spell in charge of Cowden ended in ignominy as his side were relegated by Brechin City in the 2010-11 semi-finals.
Cowdenbeath may have taken seven points from their last three matches, but it could be argued they were won against sides with little to play for. Against Ayr United – a side who have tumbled into the play-offs rather than arrive there triumphantly – forwards like Kane Hemmings and Greg Stewart have the ability cause major damage, but it is their soft centre which could prove to be their undoing over the next week. SM
4) Craig Malcolm is hitting form at the right time
Craig Malcolm put a season of personal frustration behind him to score a hat-trick in Ayr United’s comfortable 4-1 victory over East Fife and confirm his side’s place within the play-offs. The former Stranraer forward has rarely matched the same heights as last season but, with the Honest Men dropping out of the top four for the first time after John Gemmell’s 12th minute penalty for Stenhousemuir against Brechin City, his opening goal after 42 minutes calmed the anxiety at Somerset Park and set the tone for the rest of the match.
After scoring 18 times for Stranraer last term – and 47 in 105 league matches for the Blues – Malcolm appeared to be a shrewd signing by Mark Roberts. But eight games into the league game, the striker was relegated to the bench, dropped in favour of Kevin Kyle. He eventually returned to the starting XI for his side’s match against Rangers at Ibrox in December, but was deployed in midfield instead. Although he brought his usual tenacity and endeavour to the role, his touch and passing were often found wanting. At times it seemed unfathomable how the player had managed to score so many goals with Stranraer but in hindsight, he proved a more effective attacking foil to Michael Moffat than Kyle.
Moffat’s suspension – and Roberts’ patience with Kyle having eventually worn thin – has seen Malcolm restored to the frontline. On Saturday, he turned in his most accomplished performance of the season, and it’s come at the right time. Ayr have stumbled into the play-offs after taking just four points from their last six games, but they know exactly how to get out of the third tier. Mark Roberts enjoyed play-off success with United twice as a player; a third as manager might alter his standing with many of the club’s supporters.
East Fife’s defeat turned out to be inconsequential, as bottom side Arbroath were unable to earn the point that would have granted them a stay of execution. Paul Sheerin’s side with play in League 2 next season while Gary Naymsith will be hoping to guide East Fife to a second successful play-off contest, starting with a trip to Broadwood to face Clyde on Wednesday night. It is a second chance Naysmith says his players do not deserve. In a scathing post-match assessment, the manager claimed they had given up following United’s second goal (scored eight minutes into the second half) and had let the club down.
Naysmith will be at New Bayview next season but it seems unlikely that most of the squad will be, regardless of the division they’re playing in. The clearout comes at least 12 months too late. AG
5) What now for John Gemmell?
Stenhousemuir’s 3-1 win over Brechin City at Glebe Park was as impressive as it was straightforward. John Gemmell’s two penalties and Ben Greenhalgh’s close range strike handed the Warriors the win, and completed the clean sweep against their opponents this season. At times, Stenhousemuir were fabulous – Stewart Greacen, Ciaran Summers, Sean Dickson, Bryan Hodge and the mercurial Josh Watt played superbly throughout – but they came up against a team who, more or less, had downed tools for the afternoon. With Brechin’s safety already confirmed and the club’s Player of the Year ceremony taking place later that evening, the match itself seemed little more than an inconvenience, something that was reflected in their bloodless performance.
While the Warriors can be relatively pleased with the weekend’s achievements, it still wasn’t enough for them to break into the top four. Relying on a dismal East Fife side to hold off Ayr United was always unrealistic, and the decisive match of the season will be seen as last weekend’s home to defeat to Airdrieonians, where they failed to take advantage of the teams above them dropping points. It is the third consecutive season where Stenhousemuir have come within touching distance of the promotion play-offs only to falter with the finishing line in sight. Another summer of quiet reflection beckons.
Scott Booth has already begun to reshape his squad for next term. On Saturday night, full-back Nicky Devlin and forward Ross McNeil confirmed their departures over Twitter. Devlin has experienced a haphazard season since joining on a permanent basis from Motherwell but with the correct coaching, he can become a success at this level elsewhere. McNeil, meanwhile, has shown enough spark during his infrequent appearances over the course of the season to suggest he could be an asset to most senior part-time teams.
Perhaps more pressing, however, is the future of John Gemmell. Recently, the striker has been telling anyone who’ll listen just how unhappy he is working with Booth. From a series of cryptic tweets, to comments made to fans at last week’s Player of the Year event, to quotes in today’s edition of The Sun (“I don’t think I’m the type of player the manager wants at the club” and “I was only in the team because Sean Higgins was injured”), this is a player who has his heart set on moving on. Complicating things, Gemmell had agreed terms until the end of the 2014-15 season; whether or not he’s at the club next season will be determined at training tomorrow night.
The club’s supporters were certainly unequivocal about matters. Chants of “Gemmell Must Stay” and “There’s only one John Gemmell” were sung throughout the match on Saturday. And on the basis of his performance, he certainly deserved the acclaim. It was his best display in months – he played with aplomb, battling with opposition defenders, linking well with his team-mates and moving the ball around with the speed that Booth is trying to ingratiate into the team. With the fire in his belly, Gemmell is one of the best forwards in the division and can guarantee at least 15 goals a season. On those grounds alone, jettisoning a player of that quality makes little sense.
But days like Saturday haven’t happened often enough this year. Granted, the player will point to the fact he has spent the latter part of the season injured and that opportunities have been limited under the new regime, but he has only punched his weight infrequently over the course of the season. There is also a feeling that the player needs to be indulged to bring out the best in him, something that doesn’t appear to hold much sway with Booth.
If Booth is able to recruit a player with the same attributes as Gemmell – who, at this level, is perhaps the complete striker – then it would certainly offset his departure. But in this instance, the manager and player would do well to reconcile their differences and push the club one step further next term. CGT