1) Hibernian need to be careful
When David McCracken collected a loose ball at the edge of the Hibernian penalty area in injury time, few would have predicted how expertly he would power the shot beyond Mark Oxley. The ball skidded off the surface but continued to accelerate beyond the goalkeeper, winning the match for Falkirk with just moments left.
And not many could argue with the result, with Falkirk edging Hibs on the balance of play. The Bairns made more goal-scoring opportunities but were almost left to rue some uncharacteristically wasteful finishing by Rory Loy. Hibs, meanwhile, only threatened Jamie MacDonald’s goal a couple of times, with Danny Handling not clinical enough when given the opportunity to get a shot in behind the Falkirk defence.
The result leaves Hibs in fourth place, three points behind Queen of the South but only two in front of Falkirk, who have beaten them home and away this season. The Hibees might be expected to finish in third place behind Heart of Midlothian and Rangers, but they continue to make very difficult work of doing so. On the evidence of this match, Hibs aren’t any better than their direct rivals and need to both step up a level and begin to win consecutive matches if they want to keep up with Queen of the South at the very least. Indeed, Hibs haven’t won two league matches in a row all season, despite McCracken only recently putting an end to a reasonably impressive eight-match unbeaten streak (but which contained as many draws as it did victories).
Losing Dominique Malonga doesn’t help. The powerful Congolese forward has so often been a focal point of Alan Stubbs’s team and is the top scorer with nine goals in all competitions. He was suspended for the trip to Westfield after a sending off in the Scottish Cup, but Hibs’ lack of cutting edge up front doesn’t bode well for an expected absence due to the African Cup of Nations. In his place, Paul Heffernan did very little – he is almost 33 years old now and very much appears to be in the twilight of his career at this level. Jason Cummings started his senior career brightly but was far too complacent against Falkirk and was taken off at half-time. While it was encouraging to see Sam Stanton play some key passes in a central role, Stubbs doesn’t have much of a balance to his team at the moment.
Falkirk, meanwhile, have now won two league fixtures in a row for the first time this season, which is three in all competitions including the 1-0 win over Cowdenbeath in the Scottish Cup. Peter Houston has much to be positive at this moment in time: Luke Leahy has made the left-back position his own and is getting better with every game; Kieran Duffie has slotted in at right-back as if he hadn’t been away; Craig Sibbald is relishing the responsibility of skinning people through the middle of the pitch, which opens up space for others; and Botti Bia Bi’s partnership with Loy is blossoming, but arguably at the cost of Loy now taking up the kind of positions that Blair Alston enjoys running into – Loy laid off Alston for the winning goal at Alloa Athletic a fortnight previous, but there is a suspicion that Alston’s natural bounding into space from midfield is being suppressed by Houston preferring two up top.
That’s just a very small detail, however, that might not have much of a bearing for the race for the play-offs among Falkirk, Queens and Hibs. The latter ought to be favourites for third place on the basis of their stature alone, but that doesn’t mean anything when they haven’t beaten their direct rivals in four matches. JAM
2) Ross Perry sums up Raith Rovers’ defensive woes
“You could take all of them, put them in a bag and hit them with a stick. Whoever got hit would deserve it.”
Franz Beckenbaur has never been one to mince his words, but considering this was his take on the 2002 German World Cup team – runners-up to Brazil, lest we forget – his condemnation seems a trifle harsh. If you were to apply the same criticism to this season’s Raith Rovers team, however, you’d pretty much be bang on the money.
Saturday’s miserable 1-5 home defeat to Livingston was the latest debacle to befall the club in 2014. The calendar year has seen the side concede 78 times – they’ve let in three goals on four occasions, four on seven, and, after the weekend, have lost by five- and six-goal maulings. It’s an appalling statistic and one that hints at a deep-lying problem with the players at the club and the system in which they’re deployed. The famous Challenge Cup victory over Rangers looks like some weird anomaly in context.
There are anxieties with the Raith defence that go all the way back to the summer. Craig Barr, signed from Airdrieonians, was expected to address their fragilities but an injury sustained in pre-season has prevented him from making an appearance just yet. Coupled with Dougie Hill’s long-term absence (he required surgery over the summer) and it was obvious that another centre-back was required.
Eyebrows were raised, then, when Ross Perry was brought into the club. After a series of shaky showings in the lower leagues with Rangers and a maligned loan period at Falkirk, there were concerns as to whether or not he was the right man to plug the gaps at the back. And they have proven to be founded – Perry has struggled throughout and looks like the weakest link in a flimsy chain.
With Hill fit enough to make the bench on Saturday, even the combined deductive reasoning of Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple and Columbo would fail to get to the bottom of exactly how Perry retains his place in the starting XI. The 24-year-old always looks ill at ease and makes panicky, poorly judged decisions – and he was at his very best against Livi when he was dismissed two minutes into the match.
When Paul Watson inexplicably misjudged a long punt, Perry allowed Mark Burchill to outmuscle him and then compounded the whole mess my tugging back the striker as he made his way in on goal. Jordan White slotted home the resultant penalty and Raith found themselves both a man and a goal down – the fixture looked like dead rubber with 87 minutes left to play.
What followed was an odd spectacle. Despite having ten men, Rovers gave as good as they got but their admirable attacking intentions, most of which came from the impressive Grant Anderson, were undermined by more diabolical defending. Wingers were given time to cross in the ball, players weren’t closed down, runners weren’t tracked, and forwards weren’t marked – the most basic tenets of defending were not being adhered to. The final four-goal cushion might have been a little flattering to Livi but they were clear and worthy winners after further strikes from Gary Glen, Burchill, Danny Mullen and Michael McKenna gave them their first away win of the season.
Livi’s victory was badly needed and wiped away three-fifths of their points deduction – they now trail Cowdenbeath in ninth by just four points, but they must show the same ruthlessness over the rest of the season if they’re to claw back the deficit and avoid automatic relegation.
Meanwhile, Ross Perry’s short-term contract expires in January and with Craig Barr seemingly only a few weeks away from contention, it might just be the last time he’ll be seen in a Raith shirt. If the jeers that followed him down the tunnel on Saturday, then few in Kirkcaldy would care. SM
3) Ayr United are under par (once again)
It is fair to assume that under-fire Ayr United manager Mark Roberts would not have handpicked Dunfermline Athletic as his side’s opponents for Saturday. After a weekend of inactivity owing to their exit from the Scottish Cup, struggling United travelled to East End Park with just three points from their last nine League 1 matches and after four consecutive defeats to boot. What’s more, Ayr had failed to beat the Pars in the last 11 meetings between the sides. On Saturday, that run was extended to 12 games after the home side triumphed 4-2. Despite the predictable result, however, there was no shortage of talking points.
With only Peter Murphy absent for previously injury-hit Honest Men, Roberts reconfigured his side into a 5-3-2 formation for the first time this season. If he hoped the additional man in defence would help keep it tight, his best laid plans were undone after just 19 minutes when Andy Stirling burst off the right-hand touchline onto Andy Geggan’s pass before drilling a low shot through David Hutton’s legs.
Three minutes later, Hutton dallied on a Kevin McKinlay back-pass and saw his clearance blocked by Allan Smith at close range, who was then able to run on and tap the ball home to double the Pars’ advantage. Chairman Lachlan Cameron recently pledged his support for Roberts stating, “We have players who are big supporters of Mark and are dying to play for him”. But mistakes like Hutton’s are killing the manager, week after week.
Ayr managed to find the net twice but on both occasions the response from Dunfermline was almost immediate. Scott McLaughlin volleyed home his eighth goal of the season on the 27th minute; Shaun Byrne – the game’s star performer – responded in equally spectacular fashion three minutes later. Ten minutes into the second half, substitute Alan Forrest popped up in the box to reduce the deficit and Ayr were briefly in the ascendancy, but all hope of a comeback was scuppered a minute later by further defensive calamity from the visitors and Smith capitalised again to make it 4-2.
From that point on there was only going to be one winner. The Ayr players became increasingly and demonstrably frustrated with each other, with the referee, and with the coaching staff. Harsh words were being said and reacted to, hands were thrown up in the air in exasperation, and challenges became increasingly tempestuous. Roberts could only look on, hands in his pockets. There is an air of inevitability about his departure now; this regime’s attempts to turn things round appear futile. There is a sense that Roberts, more than anyone, will be relieved when it’s all over but there is no sign of Cameron acting.
So Roberts soldiers on and if the manager could select who his discombobulated charges play next, Ayr’s next three fixtures might not be far from his thinking; United face the bottom three sides before the end of the year with ninth place Stenhousemuir next up at Somerset Park (where the Honest Men haven’t won since August), followed by bottom side Stirling Albion. They conclude the calendar year with a trip to Airdrieonians. Ayr’s advantage over the Diamonds and Stenny is just two points – a return to winning ways is vital if the they are to avoided being dragged for eighth. AG
4) Scott Booth is under pressure
Stenhousemuir are in big trouble. Their latest defeat, a miserable 0-2 home loss to Forfar Athletic, was arguably their poorest performance of the season. Forfar played well enough but they were never once required to fully exert themselves on the match – the Warriors were haphazard in defence, shapeless in midfield and powder puff in attack. With Airdrieonians collecting a point from their trip to Brechin City, Stenhousemuir now sit in ninth place; the situation looks unlikely to change any time soon.
Before the match, there was a collective anxiety over Scott Booth’s team selection. With Stewart Greacen absent through injury and Ross McMillan suspended, the Stenhousemuir side looked like little Gulliver wandering through Brobdingnag in comparison to their opponents. This is not to denigrate Forfar – they’re a far more progressive group of players this time around than in previous years – but the Warriors were routinely outmuscled and outfought throughout the encounter.
Stenny have found defending set pieces a particular nuisance this season and it was inevitable the Loons would score from a corner kick at some point. And so it proved when they won their first of the match after 11 minutes – Michael Dunlop, a man so ugly his body looks as though it’s been constructed entirely from shoulders, rose uncontested to head home Stephen Husband’s centre, and from then on, every time they won a set piece within range of Stenhousemuir’s goal, they looked like scoring. Indeed, Husband added the second 60 minutes later when his free-kick flew past everyone inside a crowded penalty area and into the corner of the net. The Loons have now returned to the top of League 1 in what is becoming a fascinating title tussle; anyone dismissing their championship aspirations based on their part-time status should think again.
Stenhousemuir were lacklustre and second best in most departments – only Jamie Reid’s close-range shot towards the end of the first half gave Rab Douglas something to do. Their makeshift centre-back pairing of Alan Lithgow and Ross Meechan did what was asked of them and Kieran Millar impressed at the base of midfield, but everything else was just dreck.
At the final whistle, Booth was subjected to a torrent of invective from a small section of the Stenhousemuir support keen to see the back of him. “I thought there were times during the game where we more than matched them,” said the manager after the match, but he will find few who agree with him. Patience with Booth has worn thin and there are serious doubts about his ability to move the side away from the foot of the table. The players he brought into the club over the summer are just not good enough and for every positive result – the wins against Dunfermline Athletic and Greenock Morton – there are three or four lamentable performances. Something decisive needs to happen.
At the recent AGM, the club’s board claimed they that the prospect of relegation had never once been contemplated; after the weekend, they might just want to reconsider. CGT
5) Jim Weir has his work cut out for him
Elgin City’s recent decision to hire Jim Weir as manager has been one of the most bewildering episodes of the season so far. The 45-year-old’s managerial record has veered somewhere between underwhelming and downright failure, and tasking him with moving a mediocre club away from the foot of the basement division seems beyond his capabilities. The City support, chilled after Barry Wilson’s poor stewardship, were dismayed by the appointment.
At Montrose, Weir was afforded a handsome budget and performed as was expected of him by finishing in the play-off places before a drop-off in form and machinations behind the scenes brought his tenure to an unsavoury end. His spell at Arbroath was uniformly dreadful and, despite some initial success with Brechin City, he piloted the side down the Second Division table and alienated players and fans alike along the way.
However, his first game in charge ended in a surprising 1-1 draw with Arbroath. The Lichties had looked rampant in their previous two matches, scoring nine goals, but Elgin limited them to a handful of chances before Craig Gunn’s deserved equaliser. Going into the weekend’s match with Albion Rovers, another daunting task, there was a belief they might just record another upset.
Not so. Elgin gave a decent account of themselves throughout the opening exchanges but their failure to defend with any sort of cohesion – so often their major malfunction this season – allowed the Rovers to take control of the game. Shortly after the half-hour mark, Liam Cusack stole down the right and cut the ball across goal for Scott Chaplain, who made a late, unchecked run into the area, to slam it into the net from six yards. Chaplain extended Rovers’ lead early into the second half, breaking along the penalty box – unmarked once again – to turn in Ross Davidson’s low corner. Marc McKenzie added a third at the death, latching onto Gary Phillips’ superb through ball and stroking it beneath Michael Fraser. The defending in all instances, particularly the second goal, was disgraceful.
Elgin might only sit four points behind Clyde in ninth but they are looking increasingly forlorn. They haven’t won in the league since 23 August and have only taken five points from their last 12 matches – Weir faces an enormous job to turn this team into a competitive entity again. The fixture list between now and the New Year is reasonably favourable – they face Berwick Rangers and East Stirlingshire at home before travelling to Montrose after Christmas. Can the manager prove he has the ability to guide Elgin away from the table? Or is history likely to repeat itself for Weir? CGT