1) The pressing game works for Gary Holt
Going into the weekend just past, Falkirk found themselves in a position where a result one way or another could set the tone for the remainder of the season. With two matches in hand to league leaders Dundee but ten points behind them, there was a feeling that the Bairns had to win away to Livingston to keep up with the pack. However, having scored only eight goals away from home all season, it appeared that John McGlynn’s Livi were not going to make it easy for them.
As things happened, Falkirk were good value for their lead in the first half, primarily due to their pressing game. Livingston attempted to pass the ball out from the back when they could – a method that is a far cry from what is typically remembered of McGlynn’s last time in management in the second tier – but their slow tempo only invited their opponents up the pitch. With Falkirk’s back line squeezed up to the half-way line, Rory Loy et al pushed right up to the edge of Livingston’s penalty area when the home side had the ball in defence. Loy himself was deeply unfortunate to not capitalise on goalkeeper Darren Jamieson’s dallying with the ball at his feet, but he was to redeem himself shortly afterwards.
One recurring theme in McGlynn’s short reign at Almdondvale is the switching in positions between Col Donaldson and Callum Fordyce in defence. At the weekend, Donaldson was preferred at centre-back and Fordyce at right-back, and it appears that McGlynn is unsure who is better where. It seems that both are better suited in the middle, but with the captain Simon Mensing a certain pick in the other centre-back slot, one of them has to play out of position. Following the Sir Alex Ferguson textbook of deploying too many central defenders, there is a strong argument for having the less experienced and more mobile of the players defending the flank with the more seasoned defender inside. In this particular instance, Donaldson felt he had to put in a challenge against an onrushing Conor McGrandles, with Fordyce not close enough to cover him during a Falkirk attack and Simon Mensing already beaten – Donaldson’s tackle was slightly too clumsy and with McGrandles only eight yards out from goal, referee Kevin Graham had to send him off. Loy converted the resultant penalty.
Despite Falkirk’s dominance until then, they didn’t have it all their own way. Mark Burchill made his first start for the Lions in the league in place of the absent Andrew Barrowman, and he was presented with a good chance from a whipped diagonal ball from Stefan Scougall that arrived from the left side of midfield and delivered behind Falkirk’s high defensive line. Later, Marc McNulty inadvertently cleared a headed shot towards the Falkirk goal when he was loitering at the back post from a corner kick. In the second half, Will Vaulks made a terrific intentional clearance from the goal-line in the middle of a stramash.
Indeed, Falkirk struggled to impose themselves on the rest of the match, despite having the extra player. Their aggressive but fair pressing in the first half gave way to more passive counter-attacking as stamina dropped, but it didn’t seem to suit them as Holt’s team turned over possession with concerning regularity in the chase for a second goal. Ollie Durojaiye’s introduction in place of Jay Fulton after the hour further invited Livingston forward, but Falkirk couldn’t exploit any space behind the defence.
In the end, it doesn’t really matter for Holt because the three points were gained and Falkirk still remain unbeaten since Mark Millar’s arrival on loan. If they are in for a shout of the title, then every match from now on will be as regarded as crucial as the last – next week’s fixture at home to Hamilton Academical will be unmissable. JAM
2) Kenny Shiels’s honeymoon period is over before it even began
“The honeymoon period” or “new manager bounce” – call it whatever you like, but it’s reasonable to say that the installation of a new coach will not necessarily bring about an immediate upturn in a team’s performance and results. This has certainly been the case in the Championship, with none of the season’s mid-term appointees winning their first league games in charge. But while John McGlynn (Livingston) and Jimmy Nicholl (Cowdenbeath) have so far shown enough evidence to suggest that their respective clubs are progressing as they would have hoped, Kenny Shiels’s restructuring at Greenock Morton might actually be making their current plight worse, not better.
Shiels has taken little time to reshape his side. Four new recruits – David Robertson, Barrie McKay, Darren Cole and Jamie McCormack – have been drafted into the club and while they have been brought in to stabilise the defence and add incision up front, it was Dumbarton, the weekend’s opponents, who immediately benefitted from a player Shiels discarded.
Mark McLaughlin left Morton on Christmas Eve alongside Nacho Novo and the 38-year-old centre-back quickly transferred to Ian Murray’s side, slotting straight into the heart of the Sons’ defence for Saturday’s match. McLaughlin is a like-for-like replacement for Aaron Barry, who returned to Sheffield United following a successful loan spell, and although he lacks the younger man’s pace, he delivered a capable performance against his former club as Dumbarton kept their first clean sheet since late October. Their perfunctory 2-0 victory lifts them 15 points clear of the foot of the table and barring a radical change in their fortunes, their main concern should be avoiding the relegation play-off place, currently occupied by Cowdenbeath. The pair meet at Central Park on Saturday and the encounter should play a major part in who will finish the season in ninth.
The outlook is far more grim for Morton. Although they enjoyed the better of the possession against Dumbarton, they created minimal opportunities (something which should be little surprise – they have scored twice in their previous seven matches, all of which ended in defeat). The match was laced with irony: a player Shiels deemed not good enough kept them at bay, while another player he was keen to recruit – St Johnstone’s Christopher Kane – scored the game’s decisive second goal.
Of the last ten teams to be bottom of the second tier by the middle of the campaign, only three have survived relegation. Livingston’s demotion to Division Three following a second administration spared Airdrie United’s status in 2008-09, while Dundee eventually recovered from a 25 point deduction in 2010-11. The most recent example is, of course, Dumbarton last term, but they had almost double Morton’s current points total by this stage.
If there is such a thing as a new manager bounce, then Shiels must quickly harness it before the rest of the pack disappear over the horizon. SM
3) Ally McCoist’s big talk does him no favours
On Saturday morning, the eve of Rangers’ match with Stenhousemuir, a series of comments from Ally McCoist bemoaning his team’s hectic schedule over the festive period appeared in the tabloid press. The manager raged against a “fixtures farce” and complained that his side would play four matches in 11 days, before suggesting the game’s governing bodies had some sort of sustained dark agenda against the club.
“The game shouldn’t have been played on Sunday, it should have been played in midweek,” grumped McCoist. “Again, different initials, but the same old story, the way our club has been treated. It’s just not on, absolutely not. I just think there’s something not right about that. We had our say, but it shows you how much they listen to us. There was no point raising it afterwards because they knew we weren’t happy with it. We asked them beforehand.
“We made our feelings absolutely clear; we did not want to play on a Sunday, we wanted to play on the midweek when everybody had a free midweek.”
His comments were quickly debunked as nonsense. Twelve other SPFL clubs played four times in 11 days, while Ross County and St Johnstone played four in ten (Motherwell and Inverness Caledonian Thistle would have competed the same number of games in the same period until their match was postponed). The clubs in the lower leagues had the option of moving their Boxing Day fixtures to Saturday 21 December, but Rangers and Stranraer were the only teams to play on the original date. The club have also postponed three fixtures due to international commitments – something they are entirely entitled to do – but which will inevitably lead to congestion later on in the calendar. That no-one from the assembled press saw fit to question his statement is disappointing.
McCoist went on: “At this time of the year, when money is scarce for everybody, to ask our fans to travel a third away game and go to a fourth game in 11 days… As I’ve said, it’s different initials, same old story. I just feel sorry for our supporters.
“It’s incredible, Dunfermline on a Monday night, Airdrie on a Thursday, Stenhousemuir on a Sunday. Our supporters are again not being treated well.”
One has to wonder why McCoist made the comments in the first place. Was it an attempt to deflect attention away from his team’s turgid performances over the last few weeks? Or was it an attempt to curry favour with the more excitable and cantankerous elements within the Rangers support?
If it was an attempt to draw the focus away from their recent performances, it failed to work. Stenhousemuir striker John Gemmell suddenly became a national concern after criticising McCoist in a series of tweets, claiming that Rangers’ players or staff had no right to complain about a busy schedule given their obvious advantages over every other team in the division. It was unfortunate he prefaced his first message with the words “McCoist is a prick”, because they detracted from a very pertinent point (and one which was met with almost universal agreement, give or take one or two detractors). Both the Sunday Mail and the Sun on Sunday led with similar back page headlines (“the real story”, apparently) and Gemmell locked his Twitter account before subsequently closing it. It remains to be seen whether or not he is censured for his comments. (It also begs the question – why does Gemmell hold a season ticket for Ibrox when he plays every Saturday afternoon?)
If it was an attempt to hold sway with the fans, then it was a poorly conceived effort. The Rangers support is the biggest in the country and boast pockets in every province. They are not some small enclave of fans from, say, Stranraer who are being blown around Scotland at the behest of some remote and indifferent governing body’s fixture list – they could easily fill grounds like the Excelsior Stadium and Ochilview several times over. Furthermore, it must be pointed out that no-one is being forced to travel to watch these games. They are a luxury – if watching four matches in 11 days is too much or outwith budget, then don’t do it.
McCoist’s comments do not him or his club any favours. They paint him as ignorant, oafish and out of touch with the concerns of the rest of the SPFL. The transformation is now complete: from cuddly everyman to one-eyed curmudgeon in just 18 months. CGT
4) Ayr United need to shape up for a play-off push
Stranraer continued their remarkable run of form with Saturday’s resounding 4-0 victory over Ayr United, and a crowd of 1097 (with the exception of Rangers’ recent visit, Stair Park’s largest attendance for a league match in over eight years) witnessed Steve Aitken’s side record their biggest win of the season and their ninth in 11 games. Ayr travelled back along the A77, lamenting their poor defending and a number of missed opportunities as they rued their failure to overtake their hosts in third place.
The Honest Men began the match strongly and should have taken the lead early on through Kevin Kyle, but the big forward shot straight at David Mitchell. It was to be a frustrating afternoon for Kyle and his team-mates who passed up a raft of goal-scoring chances – on the occasions they were able to direct their efforts on goal (ten of their 14 attempts were off target), Mitchell proved to be a formidable opponent.
With Mitchell already exercised, Stranraer’s opening goal after 13 minutes came against the run of play. Alan Lithgow could head Andy Stirling’s corner back to its taker and, with the United defence slow to push out to Stirling and the advancing Sean Winter, the latter was afforded the space to drill a low shot that deflected beyond David Hutton and into the net. There was also an element of fortune in the Blues’ second goal – as Martin Grehan strode in on goal, Lithgow’s limited contact with the striker occurred outside the 18-yard box but referee Crawford Allan saw fit to award the home side a penalty; Grehan doubled their advantage. Stranraer were growing in confidence but with half-time approaching and with Ayr continuing to fashion chances, the result was not yet a foregone conclusion.
What was evident, however, was that the Honest Men toiled without the ball. Mark Roberts persisted with his midfield diamond first utilised at Ibrox last month and which has brought relative success since (the capitulation against Dunfermline Athletic notwithstanding). Brian Gilmour operated as a playmaker in front of the defence, Anthony Marenghi and Michael Donald played on either side, and Craig Malcolm was stationed at its tip but with Stranraer forwards Grehan and Jamie Longworth frequently dropping deep, Gilmour was often crowded out and unable to influence the play. Stranraer’s high tempo approach and quick passing increasingly put their opponents under pressure, forcing errors and showing up a lack of cohesion amongst the Ayr side.
Roberts did not adjust his team at the interval and they were punished after just 71 seconds. Their shape – praised at the beginning of the season – was badly awry and the overlapping Mark Docherty took advantage of Kyle McAusland’s uncertainty on the overload (who to mark? Docherty or Stirling?) to centre for Grehan to add the third; the contest was killed off three minutes later when Winter squared for the unmarked Stirling. The United players began to recriminate with one another, with most of the ire directed towards Marenghi. Ayr continued to create scoring opportunities but where thwarted by man of the match Mitchell.
Two comprehensive defeats to Dunfermline and now Stranraer have left Ayr vulnerable in the final play-off place. Three of their next four matches are against the division’s current three bottom sides, with the other coming against Stenhousemuir. The fixtures offer an excellent chance to extend their advantage in fourth place but after the nature of the weekend’s defeat, there is little to suggest that Roberts has the wherewithal to direct his side towards promotion. AG
5) Inconsistent Albion Rovers stutter again
Albion Rovers’ Scottish Cup victory over Motherwell – one of the greatest results in the club’s history – appeared to have instigated a revival in an otherwise unremarkable and disappointing league campaign. At the end of November, James Ward’s side sat in eighth place after an inconsistent sequence of results; after defeating the ‘Well, they embarked on a run of three defeats and two draws, climbing up into fourth place. The team finally began to look like a cohesive unit, with bothers Ross and Michael Dunlop, Scott Chaplain and Mark McGuigan all performing with distinction. Concerns remained about their defensive capabilities – draws against Peterhead and Clyde came from winning positions – but confidence was reasonably high going into the weekend’s match against Annan Athletic.
The contest at Galabank – third versus fourth – presented the Rovers with the opportunity to leapfrog their hosts (albeit having played a game more) but it was not enough to rouse them, and Annan coasted to a deserved 2-0 win. Goals either side of half-time from Josh Todd and Kenny Mackay ensured the victory – the latter, recruited from junior football, is developing into a fine striker at League 2 level and has scored five goals in his last six matches. Having won their last three games, the club now find themselves in second place with a game in hand. Saturday’s match against Clyde should make for a fascinating spectacle.
Annan were abetted by poor individual performances from their guests. Neil Parry failed to convince; Ciaran Donnelly struggled in midfield; and substitute David Crawford cut a disinterested figure during his 35 minute appearance. Perhaps McGuigan epitomised their performance by squandering a fine opportunity late on, meekly heading into Kenny Arthur’s arms. It was a poor day all round.
Ten points separate Albion Rovers from Peterhead at the summit of the table and as such, a challenge for the championship might be out of the question already. Contesting a play-off place is perhaps the priority and while finishing second or third or fourth is much of a muchness, anything less would be unthinkable. James Ward must spend the second half of the season resolving their various issues to ensure to ensure this does not happen. RC