Five Things We Learned, 7 April 2014

1) Greenock Morton are down, but not out just yet

Greenock Morton’s wretched season should really have been over. The campaign has caused more head-scratching than even the most aggressive of lice outbreaks, but the past week has been, by their own standards, downright outlandish. Until Tuesday, Morton had won as many games in the League Cup as they had managed in the league and had defeated just two full-time teams all season – one of which was Celtic. They began last week 17 points from safety with 18 left to play for.

And this was all before chairman Douglas Rae opened his mouth. The 83-year-old gave two acerbic interviews to the Greenock Telegraph on Tuesday and Thursday, tearing into every aspect of the club from the management and the players to the supporters. Rae’s comments became more controversial as the week went on, and the newspaper serialisations were laced with more scandal than George and Lynne and Deirdre’s Photo Casebook combined. The interview even had hints of Billy Brown’s infamous “strugglin’” rant of last season.

Many felt that it was the final straw – how could a group of players who had contrived to win just one of their previous 18 league fixtures manage to rally themselves after their chairman’s outburst? And here we are, one week later: two games, two victories, five goals scored and none conceded. After thrashing Dumbarton on Tuesday and cruising past Livingston at the weekend, Morton are now 11 points from ninth with four matches remaining but with their final three fixtures coming against Dundee, Falkirk and Hamilton Academical, supporters would have to have the unwavering positivity of a children’s TV presenter to believe avoiding automatic relegation is possible.

There have been a number of factors for their recent upturn. Kenny Shiels’s side look like they’ve accepted their fate and have begun to play without inhibition, but recent changes in personnel might have had a bigger impact. Garry O’Conner, who bore the brunt of Rae’s comments, has been removed through injury and replaced with Rowan Vine. It is little coincidence that in O’Connor’s absence the team have been more adept in pressing their opponents further up the park, with Vine leading the line with greater aplomb than the former Scotland international has managed at any point this season.

Although he didn’t score against Livingston, Vine has netted three goals in his last five matches and has begun to find the kind of form expected from him when he joined the club in January. In contrast, O’Connor has one goal in 11 – considering how many packets of Buchanan’s Toffee would need to be sold to fund his wages, it’s little wonder that Rae has been wholly underwhelmed by the striker’s efforts. Those feelings, however, are probably best kept off the record.

It hasn’t been the attacking alterations which have facilitated their recent improvements, however. The team are playing well in every department, particularly in defence. In previous matches, the back four would neatly pass the ball amongst themselves before launching it upfield for Dougie Imrie or Barrie McKay to chase; now, the play goes through the midfield. McKay has come into form and has scored two goals in his last two games, including a stunning solo strike against Dumbarton. Although like the rest of his team, he is peaking too late this season.

The win over Livi was not as straightforward as the victory against Dumbarton. Goalkeeper Derek Gaston won the man of the match award after a series of outstanding second half saves and his team hung in there to end an extraordinary week in a positive fashion. Morton’s upsurge is only delaying the inevitable but considering how the past week has unfolded, their descent into League 1 will not be done quietly. SM

 

2) Brechin City ease their nerves at the cost of Ayr United’s

With just one point from in their last seven fixtures, Brechin City went into Saturday’s home game with Ayr United looking nervously towards the League 1 relegation play-off spot. Over the same period, Stenhousemuir and Forfar Athletic usurped Ray McKinnon’s side in the league table while Airdrieonians extinguished a 14 point disparity between the teams. As a result, City found themselves just a point ahead of East Fife in ninth. Ayr, in the final promotion play-off position, held a more substantial advantage over the teams below them, but defeat to Stenhousemuir last weekend saw a six point swing in favour of the Warriors and the gap cut to four points: the narrative was set for an important fixture at both ends of the table.

Any nerves amongst the home side – who began the match without Garry Kenneth, Paul McLean, Ewan Moyes and Andy Jackson (the first three were unused substitutes, while Jackson was in hospital after an emergency operation to remove seven teeth after a nasty mouth infection) – were eased in just the sixth minute. Darren Petrie, on loan from Dundee United and playing on the left in a fluid formation, played a one-two with Bobby Barr and crossed to the post where Robert Thomson was able to net unchallenged. It was the sixth goal in ten appearances for the tall striker since signing from Dunfermline Athletic in January.

In Brechin’s defence, Gerry McLauchlan, Graeme Hay and Steven Jackson offered little encouragement to the dangerous Michael Moffat and the lacklustre and uninterested Kevin Kyle. Moffat came under close attention throughout the match, his best opportunity coming off the upright in the second half after he latched onto a long ball out from the back that Hay could only head into his path. By that point, Kyle had already been replaced at half-time and the side looked far better after the introduction of Alan Forrest (Roberts was to later bemoan the fact his side were reliant on a school kid to give them any attacking verve).

But it was Brechin who extended their advantage: Ayr twice failed to clear their lines in the right-back position and on the second occasion Greg Cameron fed Alan Trouten, who turned Michael McGowan and headed towards goal only for teammate Craig Molloy to take control and send an unstoppable shot past David Hutton from the edge of the area. There was a consolation for United, Forrest showing composure in the area to evade a McLauchlan challenge and drill the ball past Graeme Smith, but it was Brechin’s day – the gap over East Fife was extended to three points.

Ayr’s last victory over Brechin came in Jim Weir’s last match in charge. Since then, Ray McKinnon has overseen five wins and two draws over Mark Roberts’s side. With last weekend’s performance against Stenny still fresh in the mind (United have just one win in eight games against the Warriors), Roberts’s rigid 4-4-2 appears to struggle when countered with a different, more sophisticated formation. The Honest Men were unable to cope with Stenhousemuir’s fluid and unselfish front three of Josh Watt, Ben Greenhalgh and Sean Higgins. On Saturday, they once again found Brechin’s movement ahead of their back three difficult to contain: Ryan Ferguson on the right and Petrie on the left got forward from the wing-back positions; Craig Molloy patrolled the area in front of the defence; and Thomson was ably supported by Trouten and Barr. For Ayr’s part, the inclusion of Kyle saw Craig Malcolm withdrawn to right midfield and with Scott McLaughlin stationed on the left, the side had limited width in the first-half.  Defensively, Martyn Campbell struggled without an orthodox target man to go up against and United looked vulnerable when the ball was played behind him.

Results elsewhere were kind to Ayr and, despite not playing next weekend due to Rangers’ involvement in the Scottish Cup, they will remain in the play-offs when they kick-off at home to faltering Dunfermline Athletic in a fortnight. There will be a lot of work and serious thinking to do before then if United are to maintain the play-off spot they’ve held onto all season. AG

 

3) John Beaton might have helped to relegate Arbroath

It has been a dismal campaign for everyone connected with Arbroath. The club are languishing at the foot of the League 1 table, seven points adrift from East Fife in ninth and with four matches remaining, they look increasingly likely to plummet into the basement division. Most of their misfortune has been entirely of their own doing – Paul Sheerin’s transfer policy and tactical approach must come under scrutiny – but, at times, external forces have conspired to bring about their downfall. The weekend’s match against Stenhousemuir at Ochilview must surely come under this category, with referee John Beaton turning in a bizarre performance, and one that might have dire ramifications for the Lichties’ season.

The 2-2 draw – a fair outcome on the balance on play – hinged on four crucial decisions, two of which went in the visitors favour, two which went against them, that drastically altered the outcome of the match. The Stenhousemuir defence was in a state of disarray after the sudden departures of Sean Lynch and Kevin McKinlay (both players were injured within minutes of each other) and failed to clear an innocuous pass into the box. The ball eventually found its way to Paul McManus, perhaps a yard offside, who cracked a shot beneath Chris Smith and into the net. His celebrations were briefly halted by a linesman’s flag, but Beaton chose to overrule his assistant and award the goal. Parity was restored nine minutes later when Ben Greenhalgh scored his second goal in as many games, weaving between two defenders and drilling a stunning shot from 20 yards.

Arbroath were the better side throughout the second half, but their second goal was abetted by a miscalculation on Stenhousemuir manager Scott Booth’s part. In an attempt to take all three points from the match, Booth introduced striker Ross McNeil at the expense of full-back Nicky Devlin and reconfigured his side into what appeared to be a snazzy 3-1-3-3 formation. Arbroath immediately capitalised on the changes, with the impressive Alan Cook squaring for Bobby Linn to slide the ball into the net.

When Stewart Greacen tussled with substitute Kenny Deuchar as he bustled his way into the box, Beaton was only too keen to halt proceedings to award a freekick, even although the striker had broken free, the whistle coming seconds before the ball was passed into the net. Minutes later a cross was swung into the box from the right and caught Greacen on the hand. But instead of awarding a clear penalty, the referee waved play on. Both decisions were incorrect and had even one of them gone in Arbroath’s favour, there is little doubt they would have gone on to win the match. It wasn’t to be. Over the last few months, Stenhousemuir have proved themselves to be one of the country’s most determined sides and with four minutes remaining, Sean Higgins flicked Josh Watt’s corner beyond Scott Morrison.

Beaton was to play another controversial role as the game drew to a close. McNeil broke through on goal and as he flicked the ball past Morrison, the goalkeeper appeared to haul him down. Instead of awarding a penalty, Beaton saw fit to book McNeil and award Arbroath a freekick. Was it a dive? A foul on the goalkeeper? Who knows. This was not the first time the referee has drawn the ire from the Ochilview crowd.

A point is not necessarily the worst outcome for Stenhousemuir – they extended their unbeaten run to 11 league matches and gained precious ground on Ayr United in fourth place. Their inability to beat teams towards the lower reaches of the table, however, has derailed their play-off chances over the last two years. Arbroath, meanwhile, will rue the intervention of the match officials. Should they drop out of the division at the end of the season, this match will surely be looked back on as decisive. CGT

 

4) David Weatherston is proving his worth for Stirling Albion

It has taken a good few months, but it feels as though David Weatherston has finally hit his stride at Stirling Albion. After joining the club in September from Falkirk, the forward has sometimes struggled to impose himself with some perceiving a lack of expression as laziness, or an unwillingness to work hard and muck in. Yet the 27-year-old is beginning to emerge as a key component in his side’s bid for promotion. He scored twice in their impressive win at Annan Athletic the previous weekend and on Saturday, his 89th minute equaliser helped his side achieve an unlikely victory over Berwick Rangers at Forthbank. The result consolidates the Bino’s play-off place and increases their advantage over Berwick in fifth to five points.

In some respects, it seems difficult to believe that Weatherston is playing in the basement tier. He was the most electrifying talent of Billy Stark’s outstanding Queen’s Park side of 2006-07 and fully merited his move to St Johnstone the following season. His progress under Owen Coyle was curtailed for numerous reasons: a change in position from a protean forward into a pure winger; loss of form; and a series of niggling injuries. Weatherston moved onto Queen of the South the following season and spent three relatively successful years at Palmerston before joining Falkirk in 2011. The player maintains his own blog and in a thoughtful, intelligent article, he admitted that while he can look back on his career with pride, he might not have fulfilled his early potential. When more prosaic, functional players like Paul Paton and Stuart Kettlewell, two of his former Queen’s Park team-mates, are featuring in the Premiership, it can perhaps be difficult to disagree with his assertion.

In another article written last September, Weatherston wrote about the difficulties in adjusting from full-time preparation to training twice a week. In some ways, this explains his sluggish start with Greig MacDonald’s side but he appears to have found form at the most opportune moment. The major talking point from his team’s victory over Berwick was the dismissal of Paul Currie. Darren Lavery had opened the scoring on the 39th minute and amid the celebrations, referee Nick Walsh believed the Currie had gestured and swore at the home support. As it happened, the Berwick fans were housed in the same part of the grandstand as a group of young Albion upstarts; what was a fist-pump of solidarity was misconstrued as something offensive and inflammatory and the player was sent off, much to his disbelief. Both teams huffed and puffed before Weatherston’s late equaliser; the mercurial Sandy Cunningham then went on to score the winning goal in injury time.

Barring a major collapse, Albion should keep their play-off place for the rest of the season but they may now have their eyes set on loftier targets that just fourth. They sit three points behind Clyde in third and with both sides having a similarly engaging run in between now and the end of the season, the match between the two teams on the final day may prove to be decisive. CGT

 

5) Garry Wood is not a centre-back

Montrose suffered their second heavy defeat in as many weeks and their third in five matches after their trip to Peterhead at the weekend. Given the Blue Toon’s unbeaten home record so far this season, as well as a string of seven successive victories at Balmoor before the visit of the Gable Endies, maybe a defeat shouldn’t have been unexpected, but the manner in which it happened ought to have been disappointing.

Such was the same in the 0-3 loss at Links Park against Elgin City on last weekend. Montrose took the game to City for the majority of the match but still contrived to concede daft goals against the run of play. There is little chance of Elgin overtaking Montrose in the league come the end of the season but by the same token, it seems unrealistic to think that Montrose will match their points total from last season on current form – with four matches remaining, they require eight points to try to claim that landmark.

The 0-4 match also featured defensive mistakes that punctuated good periods of possession and scoring opportunities from the edge of the penalty box. Playing behind the breeze in the first half, Montrose out to have done more with what they had, particularly from Bryan Deasley finding himself one-on-one against Ryan Strachan from goalkeeper Stuart McKenzie’s long ball being flicked on to him.

Even then, the danger signs were there. Garry Wood was a substitute in the loss to Elgin but found his way into the starting line-up alongside 20-year-old Colin Wilson. A long ball behind the Montrose defence had McKenzie make a smart save at the feet of Rory McAllister when a disastrous offside trap played the striker on. Wilson later naively attempted a cushioned header towards his ‘keeper but into the wind and only the post denied McAllister from opening the scoring – it will be a lesson learned for the defender, but the reprieve only lasted until the hour mark.

Not much could have been done about Strachan’s looping shot that could have been a cross (and since he does not look in the direction of the goal between collecting the ball from throw in and kicking it, it is difficult to argue either way), but a few minutes later a calamitous goal occurred. Wood found himself under the ball after misjudging the flight of the ball being carried in the wind, letting the ball bounce behind him for McAllister to latch on to. Wilson was probably just as culpable for allowing McAllister to get goal-side of him so easily, but as the senior centre-back it was Wood’s mistake to bear.

The third goal wasn’t as obvious a mistake, but when Andy Rodgers slipped a ball past Terry Masson for Steven Noble to get on to and take the ball around McKenzie, Wood should have been better protecting Masson. Instead, he was seen going through the motions of a player not fully experienced in the position – had he anticipated the most likely thing that Rodgers was going to do, he could easily have cleared the through ball into the touchline instead of reacting too late and not being in a position to do anything about the goalward shot from the narrow angle that Ricky McIntosh bundled into the net.

Therein lies the problem. Wood played a considerable amount of youth football in defence but was moved forward during his time at Inverness Caledonian Thistle and Ross County. There were always signs that he had the stature to play at the back but there is still the feeling that he has to commit to one main position to get the best out of him. Wood has been in and out of the side, occasionally up front and sometimes in defence – of those three recent heavy defeats, he has been in the backline in two of them. The player was beside the more experienced Alan Campbell in the 0-5 defeat to Berwick Rangers, and if he is to continue in the back four then he will benefit from having a senior figure beside him in the long run, but there will always be the suggestion that defence isn’t the natural place for Wood.

Montrose are away to Queen’s Park next, which is then followed by what appears to be three decidedly tricky fixtures. If Stuart Garden can settle with a backline for the rest of the season then he should be able to better evaluate what exactly he wants to do with the squad if he wants to aim for the play-offs next term. JAM

Tell Him He's Pelé

Tell Him He's Pelé

If Tell Him He's Pelé were a boy band, they would probably be the much-missed One True Voice, both in terms of appearance and musical output.

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