1) Rangers should expect more from their senior players
RANGERS’ first competitive match of the season against Brechin City at Glebe Park was a thorough test and if nothing else, it served as an indication of the level of quality to come from the SFL’s newest entrant across their imminent league campaign.
Brechin might be a projected mid-table Second Division side, but with the international and top-flight experience to be found within the visiting club’s line-up, perhaps it would not have been absurd to think Rangers could and perhaps should have won in a more convincing manner, instead of finding the winning goal in extra time to secure a 2-1 victory.
Indeed, some of those players with international experience appeared to be the least impressive in comparison with the club’s emerging youth players. Granted, some looked tired and a lack of match fitness showed, but roaming full-back Kirk Broadfoot somehow managed to appear one of the most technically inept players on the pitch, while Dorin Goian fared not much better as a physical defender without much physicality. The Romanian’s strongly rumoured move to Kuban Krasnodar might be a blessing, both in terms of his own attitude towards the competitiveness of the SFL and also for the wage spared.
Meanwhile, “tralists” Andy Little and Ian Black will have important contributions to give over the season. Little’s two-touch set-and-slot at the edge of the penalty box was an accomplished finish and he will do well with that kind of presence. Ian Black looked nowhere close to his best football compared to his man of the match performance in the Scottish Cup final in May 2012, but he will prove to be the key signing to Rangers’ Third Division title aspirations. JAM
2) Partick Thistle’s fluidity will make or break them
Partick Thistle overcame Clyde by a solitary goal at Recreation Park. The result was perhaps more comfortable than the score-line might suggest, but what was of particular interest was the continuation of fluidity in Thistle’s shape, from defence through to attacking midfield.
One of the concepts that distinguishes Jackie McNamara’s Thistle side from other SFL teams is its capability to convert a back-four to a three-man defensive system with ease, even during the course of a match. This can be attributed to two fundamental reasons: firstly, the athleticism of the wing-backs, and secondly, the intelligence of new signing Hugh “Shug” Murray as the pivot behind the midfield, giving the wing-backs the confidence to break forward.
Being able to switch formation on an ad-hoc basis can be a huge asset to a manager, who instantly has the capability to outmanoeuvre the opposition in different ways at various points in the match. However, one potential draw-back to having such a fluid playing system is the lack of a definitive identity and stock purpose to fall back on in testing moments.
Nonetheless, Kris Doolan might now finally emerge as the outstanding forward in the SFL. If Doolan can continue to score decisive goals for the majority of the league campaign rather than in patches as he has shown previously, this will benefit greatly in two ways: firstly, it will earn him a move to the SPL in the medium term at the latest, and secondly, it could well take the Jags to the title. JAM
3) Ayr United may have to reconsider their title as “Second Division favourites”
There were a number of upsets over the weekend. Forfar’s 3-2 victory over Dunfermline was entirely unexpected, as was Annan Athletic’s defeat of Livingston (more of which later). But perhaps the most remarkable result from the first round of Ramsdens Cup ties was East Stirlingshire’s success against Ayr United at Ochilview.
Both sides begin the season with vastly differing expectations: Ayr United are widely expected to make an immediate return to the First Division, while East Stirlingshire’s main concern is to simply avoid finishing the campaign propping up the SFL. For the Shire to not just defeat their Second Division opponents, but comprehensively outplay them, is an exceptional achievement.
Several weeks ago, United manager Mark Roberts declared his side would play an entertaining brand of slick passing with an emphasis on ball-retention – none of this was on display on Saturday. With the Shire’s midfield pressing high up the park, the Ayr United defenders were forced to lob balls into the channels for Michael Moffat to chase, to little success. Ayr were overrun in all areas of the pitch, particularly on the flanks where full-backs Austin McCann and Jonathon Tiffoney were exposed time and again as Shire’s Nathan Shepherd continually found space behind them. Only the 17-year-old Mark Shankland’s performance merited praise after the forward scored a fine consolation.
The result has had a sobering effect on the Ayr support. Installed as favourites to win the Second Division championship, the club enjoyed a series of excellent results in pre-season, and many were expecting them to dispatch East Stirlingshire with little fuss. To lose in such a disappointing manner has seen some of the more pessimistic fans slightly recalibrate their expectations. CGT
4) Arbroath must sort out their defensive frailties
Last season, Arbroath finished the year as the Second Division’s highest scorers with a total of 76 goals. So impressive was their attacking prowess, the Red Lichties scored three or more goals in 13 league matches. And yet, while the team drew plaudits for their offensive performances, their defence was often unreliable and Arbroath finished the season conceding 51 goals. The defensive frailties proved to be their undoing – after March, they won only three of their remaining ten matches and allowed Cowdenbeath to sail to the title virtually unopposed.
During Saturday’s 5-7 victory over Elgin City (a record score in the competition, beating the previous best set by Montrose and Queen of the South in an astonishing 4-7 game from the 1992-93 season), the very best and the very worst aspects of Arbroath’s game were on show. As an attacking force, they were devastating – new striker Darren Gribben and Lee Sibanda both scored fine hat-tricks and generally looked menacing – but at the back, they were dismal. It looked as though none of the lessons from last season were learned.
Only player-manager Paul Sheerin will know the reasons behind central-defender Alex Keddie’s substitution on 49 minutes. Until that point, Arbroath had repelled the majority of the home side’s attacks with little fuss, but without the former Dunfermline defender’s calming presence, the back four fell to pieces. All too often, Elgin were allowed space to manoeuvre into good, offensive positions and fashion shooting opportunities, most of which yielded goals.
Goalkeeper Darren Hill must also take a large portion of blame for Arbroath’s awful second half. His performance throughout the match was rotten and his poor positioning and indecisivness were chief in allowing Elgin back into the match – it could even be argued he was culpable for all five of the home side’s goals. For the best part, Hill is a reasonably reliable goalkeeper but over the last few seasons, mistakes are becoming more and more frequent. With the 40-year-old goalkeeping coach Tony Bullock acting as his deputy, the lack of genuine competition might have already led to complacency in his game.
For a team with apparent aspirations of winning promotion to the First Division, Sheerin must place a greater emphasis on tightening Arbroath’s defence, otherwise score-lines like Saturday’s – and disappointments like May’s – may become a permanent hallmark of his reign as manager. CGT
5) Annan are ready to shake off their “cloggers” tag
After joining the SFL in 2008, Annan Athletic were seen as the archetypal lower-league hammer-throwers. Relying on little skill and boundless physicality, Harry Cairney’s side were ugly and brutal: no brains and all brawn. Their big defenders would hit big passes for their big strikers to compete for. It was little surprise when they were nicknamed “Annan Agricultural” by some quarters.
This season, though, is different for the Galabank club. The most drastic change to their set-up is the installation of a spacious new 4G playing surface, bringing them in line with Airdrie United and Stenhousemuir and after missing out on a playoff position last term. Cairney has looked to change his team’s style of play and rely on the width and space of his pitch, rather than on how far his defenders can kick the ball. Pre-season results have been positive and performances have been pleasantly surprising.
Despite losing outstanding players Aaron Muirhead and David Cox over the summer, Cairney has recruited Scott Chaplain from Albion Rovers to provide the guile and craft from midfield. With Chaplain in their ranks, Annan are now able to play a more fluid, nuanced passing game. Balls are still shelled from defence, but with less frequency.
Saturday’s victory over Livingston – who have yet to win at Galabank – was a dull, stuffy affair with both sides’ attacking flair blunted. Graeme Bell’s 74th minute strike secured the home side’s win over their full-time guests (one of the teams expected to finish in the higher reaches of the First Division) and offered a glimpse as to what might lie ahead for Annan. It may have only been a victory in the Ramsdens Cup and the result could have gone in Livingston’s favour, but it is part of a growing body of evidence that Annan are ready to shake loose their “cloggers” tag and maintain and sustain an increasingly stylish challenge for a playoff position. CGT