1) Rangers can – and probably will – win promotion
They might have had to form a guard of honour before the match, but it was the only point yesterday afternoon when Rangers showed Heart of Midlothian any veneration. Their 2-1 victory over the Jambos at Ibrox was their finest performance of the season – they attacked with verve in the first half and, following Lee McCulloch’s dismissal before to the interval, defended stoutly in the second. Rangers look like a sound bet to finish the Championship in second place and, on current form, will make a positive impact in the play-off contest.
Having secured the league title a fortnight ago, Hearts came into the match with nothing to play for other than maintaining their excellent recent record against the Gers. They looked out of sorts from the off, none more so than when Morgaro Gomis played a careless straight ball to Nicky Clark, 35 yards from goal. The Jambos’ stodgy performance wasn’t helped by Robbie Neilson’s decision to leave Genaro Zeefuik isolated up front until Rangers scored – the head coach clearly didn’t want to drop either Zeefuik or Osman Sow from the line-up, but also wanted the security of having a bank of five midfielders away to a resurgent Rangers side. Neilson wanted the best of both worlds but it only resulted in Sow looking uncomfortable out of position on the left flank, Zeefuik short of pace to worry the Rangers defence, and Jamie Walker patrolling where Sow ought to have been effective.
It made Hearts look a distance from what made them such a potent attacking presence earlier in the season, when their strengths were getting Billy King to combine with Walker and Sam Nicholson to turn passes around corners, to get to the byline and to force the opposition defenders to face their own goal. Pummelling defenders with power alone works well enough against the rest of the division but against the better full-time sides, even the best team needs some craft to open up chances. With hindsight, perhaps Zeefuik could have made an impact from the bench, with Sow starting on his own up front but supported by Walker, King and Nicholson.
Rangers, meanwhile, were generally excellent and continue to develop under Stuart McCall. Lee Wallace tore up and down the left flank and his attacking raids were particularly eye-catching; Nicky Law turned in his best display in more than 12 months, particularly when dovetailing with Wallace; Dean Shiels, disregarded for so long by Ally McCoist and Kenny McDowall, looks like the capable playmaker the club recruited from Kilmarnock; and Kenny Miller and Nicky Clark made for a potent attacking combo. Their opening goal was quite sweet – Wallace, bursting down the wing, latched onto Law’s neat pass and sent in a loss cross for Miller to sweep home as he strode into the area.
Hearts came into the match and enjoyed their best spell midway through the first half. Sam Nicholson, Jamie Walker and Aliz Ozturk all tried from range but their efforts were wayward. It was unfortunate they were unable to turn their possession into something more tangible, because Rangers doubled their lead shortly afterwards – Haris Vuckic gathered the ball on the edge of the area, danced inside Kevin McHattie and curled a lovely effort into the net. It was one of the very few moments where McHattie left just enough space for Vuckic to capitalise on and it proved to be pivotal.
The home side should have seen out the rest of the half but Lee McCulloch’s red card could have cost them badly. Challenging Sow for a high ball, he led with his arm and clattered it across the striker’s jaw. For a player who seems to get away with this kind of thing on a weekly basis, it was surprising as much as it was just to see McCulloch finally reprimanded for his cynical behaviour.
At half-time McCall replaced Vuckic with Bilel Mohsni and shifted Kenny Miller into midfield, leaving Nicky Clark as a lone forward. Rangers sat deep with two organised banks of four and were content to allow Hearts to come onto them. The Jambos certainly saw a lot of the ball but they were never able to really test Cammy Bell in the Rangers goal and swept play from side to side with little penetration. For all the Gers’ defensive organisation there were one or two moments of concern – Darren McGregor was blindsided by Sow and allowed the big forward to power a header on goal; Bell did well to block but Zeefuik tapped home the rebound. And, as good as Mohnsi played after his introduction, a lack of communication between him and Bell could have easily seen Hearts equalise.
Rangers held firm and secured a deserved victory. They now sit three points ahead of Hibs with a game in hand against Queen of the South – Queens have been a peculiar nuisance this term but should McCall’s team vanquish them, they must surely be favourites for promotion. The squad looks completely reinvigorated – where would they be if they had a competent manager from the beginning?
In the grander scheme the defeat means little to Hearts, but it was curious to see them look so one-paced and lacking in craft – for a team of their quality, a lot more was expected. Having enjoyed a stellar league campaign where almost everything has gone in his favour, this was Robbie Neilson’s first real test and one he faltered in. You learn more in defeat than you do in victory, runs the old adage, and Neilson will certainly have something to think about after that. CGT
2) Cowdenbeath might just avoid relegation
It must have been quite a happy coincidence for Cowdenbeath supporters that, on the Easter weekend, appeared to go through something of a resurrection. It would be safe to say the rangy forward hasn’t exactly set the heather alight since joining the club on an 18-month contract at the tail-end of January – he hadn’t scored a single goal.
Until the weekend, that is. Nish’s performance in Cowden’s surprisingly straightforward 3-0 win over Dumbarton caught the eye – he held the ball up well, he won his fair share of headers and proved to be quite the nuisance to a struggling Sons backline. He even had the decency not to celebrate against his former club (although every fibre of his being probably wanted to indulge in some GIRUY-type behaviour, if the rumours about his acrimonious departure are to be believed).
Maybe Ian Murray’s team, whose place in next season’s Championship was secured after Falkirk’s midweek win over the Blue Brazil, felt as though they had nothing left to play for or were too reliant on absent personnel (Stuart Findlay and Chris Turner were both missing) but the paucity of their performance was so poor that the score-line arguably flattered the Central Park side.
Dumbarton went into the match in good form with three wins in their last four fixtures but their reversion to a 3-5-2 formation – so often problematic this term – backfired once again. Admittedly, Murray’s options were limited – with so many players unavailable, he could not fill his bench with its full quota – but Nish and Kudus Oyenuga enjoyed a productive afternoon together.
It was the on-loan Dundee United winger who set up the opener – just before half-time, his shot from the edge of the area was parried by Danny Rogers and Lewis Toshney reacted quickly to poke his side in front. It was a disappointing way for the Sons to end the half but the conceded a very similar goal almost immediately after the restart when Rogers failed to adequately deal with another Oyenuga effort and allowed Sean Higgins to steal in and double his team’s advantage.
With ten minutes remaining, Nish’s header sealed the victory and with Alloa Athletic and Livingston squaring up to one another in yesterday’s Challenge Cup final, Jimmy Nicholl’s team took full advantage of their rival’s inactivity to move up to eighth. The onus is now on the Wasps to play catch up – a difficult task for a side with just four league wins all season.
Just two points separate Cowden and Alloa. The teams are scheduled to meet on the final day of the season but the fixture could be rendered academic if the Blue Brazil can take the same kind of performance into their next two games – a midweek derby with Raith Rovers, a team with nothing left to play for, is not the most arduous of tasks, while Saturday’s game with Livingston is certainly doable. The Wasps, meanwhile, face a trek to Tynecastle before facing off against Dumbarton, a side they have a terrible record against – they’ve failed to beat them in their last 15 meetings.
As unlikely as it might seem, Cowdenbeath – a team who have lost 78 goals in 32 league matches – have a very real chance of extending their stay in the second tier to a fourth consecutive season. SM
3) The League 1 title is Stranraer’s to lose
A month ago, it looked as though Greenock Morton had edged ahead of Stranraer in this season’s brobdingnagian League 1 title battle. A 2-0 win over the Blues at Cappielow was the first of three defeats in four games for Stranraer, a mini-slump which saw Morton usurp them at the top of the table. The only full-time squad in contention for the championship, it looked to be the start of a successful sprint to the finishing line. The Ton, however, found front-running an uncomfortable burden and back-to-back defeats saw them relinquish top spot after just three weeks. Now, they have fallen behind and are relying on Stranraer (and Forfar Athletic, who defeated both title rivals last month to keep the pace) stumbling in the closing stretch.
With the Blues and the Loons taking on eighth-place Ayr United and ninth-placed Stenhousemuir respectively, it was Morton who looked to have this weekend’s most challenging fixture as they hosted play-off chasing Brechin City. And so it proved to be – the Ton were unable to record their first win against Ray McKinnon’s team this season and fell to their fifth league defeat at Cappielow (only the table’s bottom three sides have lost more games at home than Morton), seriously puncturing their title aspirations in the process.
The Hedgemen’s victory was adroitly schemed by McKinnon; albeit he had goalkeeper Graeme Smith – in imperious form of late – to thank on a number of occasions. Against obliging opponents such as Dunfermline Athletic last week, Morton, with Declan McManus’ pace, Peter MacDonald’s nous and Stefan McCluskey’s trickery, can pose a relentless attacking threat. But, without an early goal, their fragile heart can be vulnerable to exploitation.
Sticking with the starting line-up and the 4-3-3 formation that defeated Dunfermline 4-0, Morton created perhaps the best chances of an end-to-end first half – Smith saved expertly efforts from McManus and MacDonald while Derek Gaston was also busy at the other end, tipping over a Robert Thomson drive and saving from Bobby Barr.
Barr and Aberdeen loanee Jamie Masson led Brechin’s targeted pressing of Morton down the flanks, forcing the home side to increasingly play long. As Stranraer took the lead at Stair Park against Ayr, Morton became increasingly agitated, and pushed forward with less discipline. Thomas O’Ware was lost to the midfield, having to drop back to replace Ricki Lamie on the hour mark and Brechin’s counter attacks became increasingly dangerous. In the 79th minute they were punished: Barr picked up the ball just outside the Morton box and beat two defenders as he drove into the box before his progress was halted by right-back Lee Kilday. Jim Duffy later disputed the decision but Barr made no mistake from the penalty spot. Any hopes of a comeback like the one Morton managed against Ayr a fortnight ago were ended when Jamie Masson converted a free-kick conceded for a foul on Barr by Stefan McCluskey in the 89th minute.
The defeat – Morton’s 11th of the season – coupled with Stranraer’s narrow victory over Ayr means the league title is now out of Morton’s hands, even if they defeat Stephen Aitken’s side at Stair Park in the season’s penultimate round of fixtures. Four points adrift, the Ton must hope Dunfermline or Stenhousemuir can take something from the Wigtownshire side over the next fortnight before they make the journey south; Morton also face the Warriors and then Stirling Albion before what is shaping up to be a decisive match. Forfar, just one point behind the Blues, are of course also still in the mix. The victory was vital in maintaining Brechin’s position in the final play-off spot and their three point advantage over on form Airdrieonians. City could yet do Morton a favour – they host Stranraer on the final day of the season. AG
4) Anthony Marenghi has left Stenhousemuir in a dark place
Stenhousemuir’s latest defeat, a 1-3 home loss to Forfar Athletic, was another frustrating setback in a disappointing campaign, and one entirely of their own making. For a very short while, it looked as though the Warriors might just do it – they held a one-goal advantage and were enjoying the better of the play – but Anthony Marengi’s second booking and the subsequent tactical reshuffle (not to mention some weird officiating) turned the match in the Loons’ favour. It was Stenny’s third consecutive beatdown and they look dejected in ninth place.
After a witless opening 45 minutes – inarguably the worst half of football this season – the match suddenly blossomed into life almost immediately after the restart. Paul McMullan and Martin Grehan combined in the centre circle and the latter put the on-loan Celtic winger through with a wonderful backheel. McMullan charged into the penalty area and skelped a low, angled drive at goal – Rab Douglas dived to push away the shot but only succeeded in teeing up Colin McMenamin, loitering at the back post, to score.
Stenhousemuir’s 4-3-3 formation was beginning to look coherent and Forfar’s defence was unable to contain their host’s liquid frontline. McMullan wriggled through a number of bodies and clipped a gorgeous reverse pass into McMenamin – one-on-one with Douglas, the striker really should have done far better than shooting against the goalkeeper’s feet.
Minutes later, Stenny were reduced to ten men when Anthony Marenghi collected a second yellow card after crudely chopping down Omar Kader as he tried to make his way upfield (his first booking was for a foul on the same player in similar circumstances). The jut-jawed midfielder, signed in February after his release from Stranraer, obviously has something about him – he is a clever technician and can use the ball well – but without possession he is quite useless and a luxury a team in Stenhousemuir’s position cannot afford. Marenghi is unable or unwilling to carry out the defensive functions required of him – he barely breaks beyond a light canter and routinely fails to track runners. Both yellow cards were indicative of his indolence: two lazy, needless hacks. It wasn’t red mist; heck, it wasn’t even Scotch mist – it was just pure carelessness.
Brown Ferguson, appointed Stenhousemuir’s permanent manager last week, quickly removed Martin Grehan for Gregor Fotheringham. Fotheringham was brought to Ochilview at the start of the season by Scott Booth to captain the club’s U-20 squad and his emerged as the go-to guy whenever things are needed tightened up in close encounters. In his 15 appearances, Fotheringham has yet to leave any sort of impression and looks badly out of his depth in League 1. He was overawed by the bigger, harder, more streetwise midfield of Derek Young and Martyn Fotheringham and it was no surprise that Forfar began to open up the gates of hell and dominate proceedings.
Their patience eventually paid off 71 minutes when Dale Hilson sprinted down the right and cut the ball back to Fotheringham to finish from 12 yards. Seven minutes later, Fotheringham put his side into an unassailable lead, stabbing home from just inside the area (although he looked to have controlled the ball with his arm). Stenny huffed and puffed and did their best to come back into the match, throwing on Pedro Moutinho and sticking Alan Lithgow up front (given Darren Dods and Michael Travis had easily dealt with almost every long ball, it was a futile tactic), but Forfar killed the game off in injury time. Ross Meechan, who had been bamboozled by the bouncing ball afternoon, allowed Hilson to nudge past him and play in Gavin Swankie for the third.
The win, their fourth in a row, lifts Forfar into second place and keeps them just a point behind Stranraer. They were by no means brilliant, and they did look wobbly before Marenghi’s dismissal, but they used their advantage well and deserved their victory. Their experience and canniness, so crucial all season, sets the up nicely for their remaining four fixtures – every one looks a little trifling but Dick Campbell’s team should have the quality to prevail.
As for Stenhousemuir, well, they still remain within touching distance of safety but they cannot keep on relying on Ayr United’s general wretchedness. A testing schedule lies ahead – they take on three of the division’s top four sides in their remaining fixtures – and it is looking increasingly likely that the club will finish the year in the relegation play-off places. CGT
5) There is still plenty to play for in League 2
Albion Rovers’ convincing 2-0 win at home to Berwick Rangers puts them potentially just one fixture away from the League 2 title. The Vers visit East Fife at the weekend knowing that Queen’s Park will have to match their result if the Spiders want to delay the evil day of seeing their rivals be declared champions. QP’s draw at Montrose did neither club any favours and only goal difference prevents Montrose from being mathematically consigned to the relegation play-off.
In that respect, the top and bottom of the league is locked down but the real intrigue is in the middle of the table. East Fife fell 0-1 at Clyde to further punctuate the Fifers’ staccato rhythm since the start of March, which has opened up an opportunity for three other clubs to stake a claim on the final play-off spot. Annan Athletic couldn’t hold on to the lead after Kenny Mackay’s opener against Arbroath, but the draw brings them within an ample win of usurping Gary Naysmith’s side.
Meanwhile, Elgin City and East Stirlingshire played out a 0-0 draw at Borough Briggs that was even more evenly matched than the Shire’s narrow victory there just three weeks beforehand. It wasn’t a very pretty contest to witness but neither club could be accused of not trying what they could to claim the win within their respective strategies – it was just that the execution was poor.
If either team were likely to win then it certainly appeared as if it was going to be the home side. Perhaps if Shane Sutherland was as sure on his right foot as he is on his left then Elgin might already be sitting level with East Fife: Sutherland had three clear cut chances to score early in the first half as the Shire’s back three failed to cope with his direct running at the defence; Sutherland missed the target with all three. Elgin continued to create opportunities from a variety of angles in an attacking quartet held by Mark Nicolson and Bryan Cameron, with Cameron particularly excellent in spite of being outnumbered in the middle of the pitch. Cameron arguably had the best opportunity of the match as he came on to a loose ball inside the box, but took too much time to think about placing his shot instead of putting his laces through the shot.
East Stirlingshire continued with the 3-5-2 formation from their previous week’s win, but played with a highly contrasting style to before. With Luke Donnelly unavailable, Max Wright floated off Kevin Nesbit but neither brought the height nor stature needed to deal with the long ball artillery that their defenders and midfielders fired from deep. The aim was clearly to get Elgin’s defenders turning and chasing lost causes while facing their own goal, but more often than not Jamie Duff and Ally Gilchrist had the time to read the flight of the ball to head clear or intercept. Disappointingly, there was very little variation other than the most brief moments of ingenuity from David McKenna and David Greenhill – Craig Tully used like-for-like substitutions in the second half and the long balls only became more tired and exasperating for the forwards.
The stalemate paid little favour to either club, but nonetheless it keeps alive four clubs’ aspirations of clinching the last spot. On this evidence, one suspects that the fixture between East Fife and Elgin City on the final day of the season could prove to be definitive in the race for fourth place. JAM