1) Falkirk could become more than part of the supporting cast
A contrast in the recent fortunes of Falkirk and Raith Rovers has seen both clubs now sharing third place in the table (with Alloa Athletic still capably keeping up with the pace for the last play-off spot). As the sides met on Saturday, however, given the superior quality of a 30-minute spell by Falkirk and their relative ease afterwards, if there is to be any challenge for promotion outside the top two then it might realistically come from the Bairns.
There was a different perspective only four matches ago. Rovers were just two points off Hamilton Academical at the top of the table, with Falkirk seven points behind their contemporaries, having lost as many as they had won. Currently, only a better goal difference for Gary Holt’s side splits the two teams as three wins in four coincides with Mark Millar returning to Falkirk on loan and clear improvement in the team’s consistency as a consequence. Grant Murray’s three losses in four, however, represents a disconcerting run of form that, if not arrested, could see Rovers stumbling further down the table.
Could it be that David McGurn really is such an important player that he becomes the difference between drawing and losing? His deputy Ross Laidlaw was in goals for Rovers’ first win since McGurn’s injury, a 1-0 win at home to Livingston (who had a player sent off after 35 minutes) and also kept goal in the 2-1 win at home to Queen of the South, but in six weeks he has experienced three times as many defeats as McGurn had after the first quarter of the season. Not that the result at Westfield could be attributed entirely to McGurn’s absence, but Laidlaw should have got a stronger right arm to Craig Sibbald’s early header and could have coped better with Stephen Kingsley running across him at a corner kick for Falkirk’s third.
Goalkeeping errors were not exclusive to Raith Rovers, with Michael McGovern uncharacteristically letting a shot in at the near post from Greig Spence, with the contest all but over. Had Rovers managed to score from only a two-goal deficit, the second half might have played out differently, but it wasn’t to be: Calum Elliot’s shot was cleared off the line by David McCracken with aplomb, but when the ball came back to him after a save from McGovern, only half a yard away from the far post, Elliot only contrived to scoop the ball up in the air for Joe Cardle to instinctively snatch a left leg at. Cardle could only connect the ball with his knee and with his standing foot planted at the goal-line, the winger somehow managed to miss an open goal as the ball squirmed away to safety after rebounding against the post. Even considering the small amount of time that he had to shape for a low volley, it was an extraordinary miss.
Nevertheless, the suspicion is that Falkirk could have improved upon their performance if they needed to. Their front six were difficult to contain and they were ably supported by left-back Kingsley. Each of the four starting midfielders were exemplary, but Conor McGrandles’s composure in the penalty area to spin and find the far corner of the net with conviction was the least that he deserved for the quality in his play, surging from deep. It is no mean feat to keep Blair Alston and Ollie Durojaiye out of the side – Holt can currently count his blessings for such strength in depth in the team’s strongest area, but if Mark Millar returns to Dundee United in January and Jay Fulton is headhunted before the end of his contract, momentum could be quickly lost.
Holt’s counterpart would certainly appreciate the luxury of having quality in reserve. With Paul Watson having a broken toe, McGurn out until the new year and Liam Fox missing from the club’s last three games, Rovers’ squad is almost at breaking point. How they fare from here might tell us something about Grant Murray’s strategy-making, but for now Falkirk are only looking upwards. JAM
2) Jimmy Nicholl knows what the most dangerous score is for Cowdenbeath
At the beginning of his second spell managing Cowdenbeath, Jimmy Nicholl’s eyes will have been opened to the challenge of keeping the club in the Championship. Saturday’s 2-3 loss at home to Livingston was the their fourth successive defeat and with away fixtures at Dundee and Raith Rovers to follow, Nicholl could conceivably see his side bottom of the table at Christmas.
In all competitions, the Blue Brazil have wasted a winning margin as much as five times, losing in four of those occasions. Most alarming of all is the fact that they have had two-nil leads in the last two home games, but have vanquished their lead to eventually lose late on in matches. Against Hamilton Academical, a two-goal advantage at half-time had Colin Cameron’s side completely comfortable against the league leaders at the time, but as soon as Jesus Garcia Tena scored with a remarkable strike from his first touch in the match, it seemed inevitable that Cowden would capitulate.
A similar failure to hold on to a lead against Livingston unravelled Cowdenbeath’s good work once again. Two goals from Kane Hemmings (giving him eight in the league this season already) put them well on top against a Livi side who have reverted to an archetypal John McGlynn 4-4-2 in recent weeks and who have subsequently found it difficult to regularly involve their central midfielders, with the ball being hit from defence into an out-of-touch Andrew Barrowman up front. This played into Cowdenbeath’s own style, no more so typified by an impromptu game of head tennis between the teams resulting in the ball landing at Greg Stewart’s feet, who played it through for Hemmings’s second goal.
With ball-players of the calibre of Burton O’Brien and Stefan Scougall in the centre of the pitch, it is a little disappointing (if not wholly unsurprising) that McGlynn hasn’t built his team around that technical strength. However, given that he had taken over at Almondvale with the club having earned only one point from 12, and also considering that they are now comfortably mid-table since then, McGlynn’s strategy deserves the benefit of the doubt.
Nicholl himself has a number of issues to look at himself in an attempt to improve their current circumstances, but the most important must be the team’s shape when defending a lead. With a two-goal lead and half an hour left to play, Cowden continued to attack Livingston with two forwards and what is proving to be a lightweight midfield without Nathaniel Wedderburn playing there. Even with the scores tied at 2-2, they committed to attack, at one point having four players ahead of the ball at Livingston’s penalty area. But as Darren Jamieson repelled them (with a two-handed scoop away from a close-range Stewart bicycle kick the best of his saves), a resurgent Livingston transformed by the introduction of Kyle Wilkie and Danny Denholm scored at the very end of the match to claim the win.
Nicholl will know that along with Wedderburn, his strikers Hemmings and Stewart represent his best players at the club. Playing the forwards together typically means fitting the team into a 4-4-2, but having failed to defend goal advantages in the recent past, re-configuring the team when in comfortable positions (and, sometimes, away from home) must be looked at if Cowdenbeath are to stay in the second tier for a third term. JAM
3) Rangers choose function over flair once again
“Comfortable”; “perfunctory”; and “…with an almost contemptuous ease”. At least two of those descriptions from yesterday’s print media accurately described Rangers’ 3-0 win over Ayr United at Ibrox on Saturday. The result was noteworthy because it extended Ally McCoist’s side run of consecutive victories to 20 and maintained their 100 per cent record in League 1, but despite the margin of their success (and let’s be clear, the win was never in doubt), there was little on the field to exercise the imagination: “scintillating”, “breathtaking” or even “exciting” are not adjectives that could be applied to a performance that was little more than functional.
A month ago, it had been noted that Rangers had been slow starters in matches and had failed to score in the first half of six of their previous seven games. This particular foible has since been overcome – against Forfar Athletic last week, the game was won by half-time as a Nicky Clark hat-trick and a fine Lee Wallace strike before the interval helped them on their way to a 6-1 victory. The match against Ayr followed a similar pattern as Jon Daly and Fraser Aird both scored after 23 minutes, but after that point – and particularly throughout second half, despite Bilel Mohsni’s late third – Rangers were lacklustre. Afterwards, McCoist acknowledged the result was better than the performance.
Rangers’ vastly superior resources gives them vastly superior players but there is a sense that they are relying on their physical attributes rather than any form of cohesive tactical strategy. The observations of McCoist and 17-year-old Ayr winger Alan Forrest after the match were interesting: while the Rangers manager stressed the importance of his side’s pressing, Forrest believed that, despite the result, the match was relatively straightforward because the home side stood off the visitors, affording them more time with the ball (indeed, Rangers ceded 50 per cent of possession to their opponents). McCoist also felt his team were not direct enough in the second half, evidence that his desire for effective football is greater than implementing an attractive, eye-catching approach.
Does any of this matter? Is it churlish to find a way to belittle Rangers’ achievements this season? Perhaps. When it does click, they can be devastating and they have scored four or more goals in over half of their league matches. Last Tuesday’s demolition of Forfar featured a number of incisive attacks and some fine efforts from range, but there are still questions about McCoist that are unlikely to be addressed by League 1 opposition.
The proposition that Rangers can go through the league campaign unbeaten is becoming increasingly difficult to argue against without employing groundless ideas of serendipity. Like their 15 fixtures so far, promotion will be job done but where Rangers and their immediate future are concerned, there will always be the demand that the job is done better. AG
4) Peterhead mean business
Five months in and it’s still almost impossible to establish any definitive trends in League 2. The division throws up oddities on a weekly basis and the latest round of fixtures was no exception, with the weekend’s results seeing early pace setters East Stirlingshire slip into sixth place and Queen’s Park – surely doomed to finish bottom – as the only side in the league with a negative goal difference.
In a competition as cut-throat as this, any side who can fashion a degree of consistency can clamber away from the rest of the pack. Clyde scrambled to the summit of the table after a seven-game unbeaten run but they have since been toppled after losing to Peterhead on Saturday, a team who have put together a fine sequence of results of their own. The Blue Toon’s form suggests that they might be more difficult to knock off the top spot than the previous incumbents.
As this site detailed several weeks ago, Andy Rodgers’s return to form has been a huge fillip for Jim McInally’s side – the striker scored twice in the 3-1 win over the Bully Wee, taking his total to six in his last five matches. However, it isn’t just Rodgers and his strike partner Rory McAllister who have made the difference: their run of 13 points from a possible 15 can also be attributed to a change in both their defensive system and their personnel.
One of their biggest concerns has been the inability to select a settled back four, an issue that led to them having one of the division’s poorest defensive records by mid-November. It was in stark contrast to last term when they conceded just 28 goals over the course of the campaign – to put it into context, they conceded fewer goals than champions Rangers. In a bid to harden their soft centre, McInally took Reece Donaldson on loan from Raith Rovers and coaxed 37-year-old coach Craig Tully out of retirement. Ryan McGeever, the young centre-back borrowed from Falkirk for the season, was quietly returned to his parent club following a series of poor performances.
Both Donaldson and Tully made an immediate impact and began the match against East Stirlingshire last month alongside Steven Noble in a 3-5-2 formation, with Graeme Sharp and Dean Richardson played as wing-backs. Only Jordan McKechnie’s 95th minute equaliser prevented them from keeping their first clean sheet of the season, while Reece Donaldson was presented with the Man of the Match award. That elusive shut out was finally achieved in the following week at Queen’s Park, and Montrose were held at arm’s length in a 3-0 win. Saturday’s victory over Clyde at Broadwood actually flattered the hosts, who were largely second best for the majority of the match.
Having netted 31 times so far, Peterhead are now the division’s top scorers (something which was perhaps expected given the prowess of their front two). With their scoring prowess now allied to a miserly defence, they are now a fearsome prospect – if they can maintain their current form, it is difficult to see beyond them as anything other than champions. SM
5) New home, same old story for Queen’s Park
In the future, whenever this author is posed the question “what is the worst game of football you’ve ever seen?”, he now has a definitive answer: Queen’s Park versus Montrose, Excelsior Stadium, 7 December 2013. Offering up a detailed analysis on the match would be pointless because there is nothing to analyse. It rained. It was cold. Montrose won and Queen’s Park didn’t.
It was a miserable way for the Spiders to begin their new life in Airdrie. With Hampden undergoing redevelopment for next year’s Commonwealth Games, Queen’s Park have decamped to Monklands until February 2015 and supporters will be bussed in from Mount Florida for each game. As the club languishes at the foot of League 2, there is a real gallows humour surrounding the QP support. One fan joked that their close proximity to the dugouts would make it easier for them to abuse Gardner Spiers; at one point during the match another shouted: “What even is this?!”
And they were right to question what they saw. Speirs, once again, moved players around into unfamiliar positions for no real discernible reason. Mick Keenan began the game as his team’s lone forward, but he lacked the nous to fulfil the role and a number of promising attacks broke down because of his poor touch and lack of awareness. Keenan has his qualities as a midfielder but it is detrimental to both the player and his team to stick him up front because he’s a bit tall. Substituted on 74 minutes for Liam Gormley, he looked mildly embarrassed as he trudged off the pitch – the tactic of hitting it long and hoping a knock-down would or flick would find its way to Blair Spittal or David Anderson didn’t work.
It was easy for Montrose to contain their hosts. Stuart Garden’s team began the match with a similar approach, lining up in a 4-3-3 formation and looking for Brian Deasley and Jamie Reid, signed on loan from Dundee earlier in the week, to make runs beyond Garry Wood. Wood was withdrawn after 34 minutes after suffering a head knock and it forced the Mo to be more thoughtful in their approach, but despite the best efforts of Ross McCord and Paul Watson they were often scrappy and unimaginative. The only moment of genuine cohesion in the match came early into the second when substitute Scott Johnston broke beyond the QP defence and shot low underneath the goalkeeper. The victory lifts Montrose into fifth place, with only goal difference separating them from Annan Athletic in fourth.
For Queen’s Park, they might be playing in a new stadium but it’s the same old junk and the same old problems that continue to undermine their season. The club are in a malaise, and the support are disillusioned and apathetic towards their manager. With the poor fare served on the pitch and a 32-mile round trip involved in watching their side, it is not inconceivable that crowds could fall beneath 300. The next 14 months could be very long indeed. CGT