1) Rangers get back on track as Ally McCoist lowers expectations
These are testing times for Ally McCoist. There has always been a certain level of suspicion surrounding the Rangers manager’s acumen, from his tactics to his team selection, from his preparation to his playing style, but never before has he been under so much scrutiny. Last week’s 1-3 loss to Hibernian at Ibrox was appalling and saw the culmination of the very worst aspects of his side’s approach. An outdated, rigid 4-4-2 was torn asunder by Hibs’ alternative 3-5-2, while the decision to field Stevie Smith and Arnold Peralta on the flanks was nothing more than absurd. It was a shocking performance.
Rangers have now lost to Heart of Midlothian and Hibs at home – both teams are still seen as their immediate rivals for the Championship title – and sit six points behind Hearts in the table. In the face of such rampant opposition, McCoist suitably lowered expectations for the rest of the season before Saturday’s match against Livingston.
“Winning the play-offs wouldn’t be out of the question because the most important thing is getting out of the division,” he told STV Sport. “We will take whatever way we can to get out of the division because it is so important to the club that we get back into the top flight as soon as possible.” There was also his usual magnanimity towards the division’s other sides.
It beggars belief that the Rangers manager does not think that anything other than winning league title would constitute failure, that promotion would be good enough. The Gers’ vast resources should see them outstrip almost every team in the country, not settle for finishing in second or third. Rangers fans are sometimes criticised for their sense of entitlement but given the outlay on the playing squad, the manager and his backroom staff, they are probably justified on this occasion.
Against Livi, McCoist picked a far more appropriate group of players for the occasion. He played a right-back at right-back and played wingers on the wings (although whether or not Lewis Macleod is better used in the middle than out wide is another debate); his team were functional more than anything else. Macleod’s goal, a wondrous overhead kick after eight minutes, was the difference between the sides and although Rangers had the chances to extend their lead further, the 1-0 score-line was reflective of the match.
Between now and mid-November, Rangers have a presentable run of fixtures against the Championship’s lesser lights before they journey to Tynecastle to take on Hearts. Given how devastating the Jambos have been so far, keeping pace with them will be crucial in ensuring Rangers win the division. McCoist admits he is not “bombproof” and should his team fall further behind the league leaders, the club’s hierarchy will have to be decisive. Regardless of what the manager says, anything less than automatic promotion will be unacceptable for Rangers. CGT
2) Christian Nadé gets it right up Hibernian (again)
If it had been set for Christian Nadé to take centre stage at Easter Road on Saturday then for the first 65 minutes at least, he seemed blissfully unaware of it.
The Raith Rovers striker is clearly a talented player, especially with the ball at his feet, and his close control and speed on the turn allows him to slalom beyond opponents in a surprisingly graceful manner. And yet, while he is capable of show-stopping feats of excellence one minute, he can mis-control a straightforward pass with his shin the next, much to the ire of the Raith support.
For most of Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Hibernian, Nadé’s performance was underwhelming. Admittedly this wasn’t entirely his fault, as his specific set of skills doesn’t necessarily lend themselves to the role of the loan striker – a player with his touch and technique is not suited to chasing after long balls. Even so, while Nadé was expected to hold up possession until the cavalry arrived, he would often choose to try and beat another marker or allow himself to become crowded out by the Hibs defence.
One fan offered his opinion on the player’s performance: “Get him fucking aff, Murray!” The Rovers manager chose to avoid the advice; just as well, as 90 seconds later, Nadé equalised.
With his every touched jeered by the home support, the former Heart of Midlothian forward began the move himself with a backheel to Ryan Conroy before the ball suddenly broke in front of him, and Nadé swept a shot beyond Mark Oxley and into the bottom corner. The ball had not yet rippled the net before he was off towards the home support, disrobing as he went, presumably to show the haters and the trolls who jibed him about his weight throughout the contest that they were entirely incorrect. Nadé was booked for his impromptu striptease, but he probably thought it was worth it.
Raith’s leveler had been coming. While Hibs’ revival had seen them defeat Ross County and Rangers in recent weeks, their 3-5-2 formation was ill-suited for a match in which they were expected to dictate the tempo and dominate possession. While they did see a lot of the ball and stretch their opponents, they were unable to create many definitive chances. Callum Booth squared for Scott Robertson to fire home from close range after 44 minutes but beyond that and a handful of stramashes inside the penalty area, the Rovers were able to defend in reasonable comfort. Alan Stubbs doesn’t need to rethink his strategy per se, but there is a feeling that his team is short on the nous required to bring down an organised backline.
Credit must go to centre-backs Paul Watson and Laurie Ellis. Ellis was only recalled to the starting XI after injury ruled out Ross Perry, who joined fellow defenders Craig Barr and Dougie Hill on the sidelines. With Ellis in the side, Rovers have conceded just two goals in four games, and his calming presence seems to bring out the best of those around him – both Watson and left-back Rory McKeown have appeared far more assured alongside him. Even if Perry regains fitness in time for Friday’s game with Queen of the South, it is doubtful he will return to the team given Ellis’s current form.
The point was a welcome one in what has been an encouraging opening to Raith’s first quarter. If the side is able to overcome Queens, they could climb as high as second place (albeit having played an additional game). It is a little too early to speculate but if Christian Nadé is able to add more goals (and potentially more partial nudity) to his game then Raith Rovers could be looking to challenge for a play-off place and not just settle for mid-table humdrummery. SM
3) Alloa Athletic are down but not out
The 1-2 defeat away to Falkirk meant that Alloa Athletic will not have won a match since the away victory at Greenock Morton in the Challenge Cup exactly one month ago. But it shouldn’t be all doom and gloom for a side who accounted themselves really quite well at the Falkirk Stadium on Saturday. It was only an outstanding left-footed half-volley by Luke Leahy that denied them a point, and they perhaps could have scored more than just Liam Buchanan’s converted penalty.
The Wasps were particularly good in the first half, with the midfield four combining well with Buchanan to make chances. For instance, Ryan McCord split the Falkirk defence wide open with a quickly taken freekick, but with only Jamie MacDonald to beat from eight yards when coming in from the diagonal, Kevin Cawley could only prod the ball at the goalie. McCord then had a sighter from outside the box with his left foot that was clutched into MacDonald’s chest after a promising move down their left.
They looked like they were defending well too, with Barry Smith drilling a narrow back four that was restricting Falkirk in open play, despite the home side trying to take the game to Alloa. The good work was undone, however, when Stephen Simmonds took a risk in staying a couple of yards off his marker Peter Grant at a corner kick, aiming to attack ball if it came their way, but Simmonds turned out to be more interested in the man rather than the ball and Grant had a simple header to put his team in front.
McCord had a hand in Alloa’s equaliser, with a superb left-footed long range pass over the head of David McCracken for Graeme Holmes to take the ball down close to goal, but McCracken pulled the forward down for Buchanan to score from the resulting penalty. It was deserved on the balance of play for Alloa to be level.
Alloa grew in the second half with the full-backs, particularly Mark Docherty, keen to get forward. With Falkirk’s midfield relatively narrow, it allowed the away side to make up the numbers with Cawley covering the left-back’s surges forward with distinction. Unfortunately for Alloa, one of blocks to the opposition’s counter-attacks eventually fell nicely to Leahy to hit a superb winner on just one of the few times Falkirk’s left-back got as high as the opposition 18-yard line.
With centre-back Ben Gordon hanging around up front by the end of the game, Alloa couldn’t get a second equaliser. But they played well enough to have confidence that they can cause their immediate rivals some difficult problems in the near future. A tricky home fixture against Heart of Midlothian precedes a likely attritional match against Cowdenbeath, and then they have Raith Rovers and Livingston to spar against. The sooner eight-goal striker Greig Spence can return from his hamstring injury, the better. JAM
4) Peterhead cool their passions but lose some of their Sharp-ness
For a second successive week, Peterhead ended a League 1 fixture without a full complement of players on the pitch. The circumstances on this occasion, however, were far more wholesome than the undisciplined display at East End Park last weekend. With the Blue Toon comfortably two goals to the good against Ayr United at Balmoor, and despite having made all three substitutions, captain for the day Graeme Sharp was withdrawn in the final minute to allow the home support to give the 30-year-old a warm ovation. The match was Sharp’s last game for the club; after almost ten years with Peterhead, he will shortly be starting a new job in Athens, Greece.
McInally had already paid the player a fitting tribute in the match programme. The manager recalled how Sharp, who had joined from Montrose in 2005, had found himself out the team but through hard work and dedication, he was able to regain his place in the starting XI. Over the last two years, Sharp has been a consistently reliable performer on the right flank, earning the Players’ Player of the Year award alongside a League 2 winners medal last season. During that time, Sharp has expertly transitioned from a dazzling winger to an attack-minded (but defensively robust) full-back, further evidence of his professionalism (a virtue that has not always been evident amongst his team-mates) that will be missed.
McInally also used his programme notes to respond to the fallout from last weekend and explain his charges’ questionable disciplinary record. “I would like to apologise to the Peterhead fans who think that we are a team of ‘hammer throwers’,” retorted the manager before opining that all three red cards were debatable, pointing out that his side had conceded just nine fouls in the whole game. Rather than being overly aggressive, McInally conceded that his side’s biggest problem overall is petulance, and promised that players who are “constantly booked for this will be substituted straight away”. It was perhaps no surprise, therefore, that there was no recall for Andy Rodgers, who spent the whole game on the bench.
In truth this was a comfortable victory for Peterhead, even without Rodgers and suspended trio Jamie Redman, Steven Noble and Jordan Brown. They could even afford to carry a misfiring Rory McAllister, who in more confident form could have helped himself to a hat-trick (the big striker’s work rate couldn’t be faulted, but his league tally of just two goals must be a source of frustration; there were some glimpses of discontent). The game evidenced the strength in depth of the Peterhead squad, something which contrasted starkly with that of the visitors who made to the trip north without a recognised centre-back.
The result and the performance was a fitting send off for Graeme Sharp. And incidentally, not a single player on either side was booked. AG
5) Mid-table beckons for Stranraer
What is remarkable about Stranraer is just how unremarkable a side they are. Their form since the New Year has been uneven – since the beginning of January, the Blues have won seven times in 27 matches, collecting 31 points from a possible 81 – and their ordinariness continued into the weekend’s match with Stenhousemuir. Given how well-matched the clubs have been over the last two years, a 2-2 draw at Ochilview might be seen as a decent result but the point is the only positive Steve Aitken’s team can take from the contest.
Although Stranraer scored two well-taken goals and could claim to have fashioned more clear-cut chances than their opponents, it was a flat performance. The midfield was frequently out-manoeuvred by Kris Faulds and Kieran Millar and forwards Jamie Longworth and Craig Malcolm were often required to drop deeper in search of the ball. There was no penetration from the middle and there was no incision from the flanks – the departures of Andy Stirling and full-back Mark Docherty are perhaps being more keenly felt then some may care to admit.
It was their prowess from set-pieces, however, that gave them a foothold in the game. Stenhousemuir have been dreadful at defending freekicks and corners this season and Stranraer took full advantage – so fearsome was their threat that they looked like scoring with every effort. On 26 minutes, a dipping corner was inadequately cleared and Longworth was able to control the ball and poke it into the net. Allowing the ball to drop inside the area was one thing; allowing a played as nimble and intelligent as Longworth the time and space to shoot as he pleases is something else.
Sean Winter’s goal, scored with 15 minutes of the game remaining, was even simpler in its execution. Malcolm flicked on a throw-in into the area and Winter stole in front of Ross Meechan to power an effort into the net from eight yards. It was another poor goal for the Warriors to lose and Scott Booth must find a solution to this curious deficiency.
But Stranraer were undone by the concession of two truly astonishing goals; in fact, they might even be two of the worst goals this author has seen. The first was an absolute calamity. Under no duress, Grant Gallagher thumped the ball high into the air and towards his own goal. Goalkeeper David Mitchell was left in a quandary – can I catch it? Is it a backpass? – and as the ball dipped, Scott Rumsby suddenly converged on him. The pair clashed like two big dumb American wrestlers, and the ball cutely rolled into the path of Colin McMenamin and into the net (but did the striker gently nudge Rumsby into Mitchell?).
Two minutes into stoppage time and an unmerited three points suddenly became a just-about-deserved one. Alan Lithgow tossed a long throw-in towards a crowded penalty box and the ball was allowed to bounce before McMenamin scored his second of the match. The striker, who had been entirely peripheral throughout, made the game’s most decisive contribution.
It was around 12 months ago that Stranraer began the thrilling run that catapulted them from the lower reaches of the table to the play-off places. They may well repeat last season’s histrionics but it looks unlikely on their current form. They’re still a solid side and have only lost to the league’s full-time teams so far but they appear to lack the same enterprising qualities that made them such a success last year. Too good to go down and not good enough to challenge the top four – a season of consolidation looks most likely. CGT