Five Things We Learned from the SFL

1) Steven Pressley’s cautious approach doesn’t endear himself to many

IT was only on Friday that Falkirk’s manager Steven Pressley was accused on this site of being a reactionary manager who often focuses on preventing the other team’s progression, sometimes to the detriment his own team’s ambition. A dull nil-nil draw at home to Partick Thistle, where the visitors enjoyed 74% possession but precious little incision, will not have helped any argument in his favour.

One could argue Falkirk had started the match with five natural defenders, four midfielders and only one forward. However, that does not tell the whole story. Indeed, neither does stating the fact that the Bairns lined up in a nominal 4-4-1-1. With two banks of four behind the ball at all times, Pressley had clearly set his out-of-form team to prevent the Jags from scoring as a priority after Thistle put seven past Airdrie United last weekend. It worked, with Thistle being limited to only two shots on target; Falkirk, meanwhile, did not force Scott Fox into a save at all.

There is, of course, no “correct” way of playing football. Ask Chelsea (even if they are dramatically more fluid this season, the 2011-12 Champions League campaign was a triumph in rigid doggedness). As long as the corresponding teams play within the laws of the sport (which Saturday’s match was for the most part, even if this tackle by Ryan McGeever on Stuart Bannigan merited a red card), it does not matter how much possession of the ball a team has. Pressley is clearly making sure his team is building some momentum into an otherwise stagnant season – a draw against the title favourites at home is surely better than a more open but utterly worthless match if Thistle were afforded the chance to carve the home defence open.

Nevertheless, Falkirk’s style of play at the moment will eventually have an affect on home attendances, who will probably settle for dour victories but not a succession of uninspired nil-nil matches which keep the Bairns in the bottom half of the table. Even if Pressley’s budget has been reduced by 70%, he will have to eventually give the supporters something to come back to, otherwise his own salary may be reviewed. JAM


2) Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose for Dumbarton

Seven days ago, Stranraer dismissed manager Keith Knox following a rotten run of results. Despite having performed generally well during his tenure at Stair Park, it was felt that a change would arrest the club’s decline and stave off the threat of relegation to Division Three. Caretaker Stevie Aitken took charge of Saturday’s match against Forfar Atheltic, and in the immediate aftermath his side’s emphatic 4-1 win, he was given the job on a permanent basis.

Two hours before Knox’s sacking last week, Dumbarton had terminated Alan Adamson’s contract. In a scenario remarkably similar to his counterpart’s at Stair Park, Adamson’s two years in charge of the Sons had been successful, but this campaign’s return of two points from a possible 27 was well below even Dumbarton’s modest expectations. Jack Ross took charge for Saturday’s match against Airdrie United.

The Diamonds are seen as Dumbarton’s immediate rivals in their bid to avoid automatic relegation: both sides are part-time; both were unexpectedly promoted to the second tier; and both have unassuming squads which lack the quality to survive within the First Division. Furthermore, the fact that Airdrie had collected one point from their previous seven matches made them the prime fodder for Dumbarton.

And so it seemed in the opening exchanges. Goals from Bryan Prunty and Jim Lister appeared to give Dumbarton an unassailable lead, and the possibility of securing the first win of the season seemed so close they couldn’t have failed to grasp it.

Alas, when you’re down, you’re down. The removal of injured midfielder Chris Turner on the hour-mark appeared to be the game’s turning point. Until his substitution, Dumbarton had held their visitors at arm’s length; without his poise and control, they folded cheaply, immediately throwing away their two-goal lead. Stephen McDougall’s 75th minute strike may have put Dumbarton back in front, but with minutes remaining, Ross Forsyth’s own goal and a late, late intervention from Nathan Blockley secured a remarkable victory for Airdrie.

It matters little about the shocking defending, the tactical ineptitude, and the obvious lack of quality on display from both sides; the bottom line is Airdrie won, and Dumbarton lost.

It is difficult to say where Dumbarton go from here. While Airdrie have arrested their alarming dip in form and kept pace with the division’s mid-table sides, the Sons remain cemented to the bottom of the division, a position they appear unlikely to rouse themselves from. It has been an utterly wretched campaign so far for Dumbarton and Jack Ross has done little obvious thus far to amend his side’s mental fragility. The match bore a resemblance to their match against Hamilton on 22 September when they carelessly seceded another winning position to tie the match. As the worn-out adage goes, if it wasn’t for bad luck, they’d have no luck.

With Hamilton in equally abject form, the sides’ meeting at New Douglas Park on 8 December could be a deciding match in the division’s relegation battle. CGT


3) Paul Hartley’s loan signings continue to pay dividends for Alloa

Alloa Athletic secured their third consecutive victory, thrashing a hapless Albion Rovers side 5-1 at Recreation Park. Paul Hartley’s side were in the same imperious form which saw them cruise to the Third Division championship last season and while Martin Grehan’s hat-trick will inevitably be the main focus of attention, it would be churlish to ignore the contribution of loan players Mitch Megginson and Nicky Low.

Both players have joined Alloa from Aberdeen, one of Hartley’s former club. This is perhaps one of his strongest attributes as a manager – his ability to plunder the very finest youth talent on loan from the SPL. Hartley is well-respected in Scottish football with a wealth of experience from a host of clubs, and his strong relationships with his counterparts has allowed him to increase the quality of his squad for short periods with precocious young players.

Last term, Hartley augmented his squad with a number of loan players from SPL clubs: Kevin McHattie was recruited from Heart of Midlothian between December and January to bolster Alloa’s options in defence, while Ross McKinnon and Stevie May were drafted in in the New Year to devastating effect – the latter scored 19 goals in 22 appearances. All three players – May in particular – were central to the club’s tremendous season.

Hartley seems to have been equally astute with the signings of Megginson and Low. The two players are unlikely to be the last loan signings seen at Recreation Park this season. RD


4) Rangers have finally removed the “hump on their back”

Finally. They’ve done it. Rangers have done it – they have won a match away from home. Yesterday’s 2-0 victory over Clyde – their first win in the Third Division in five attempts – consolidated their position at the top of the table and allowed them to pull away from Elgin City in second place. With both City and Queen’s Park failing to win at the weekend (Elgin in particular would have been furious in the manner they threw away a two-goal lead to tie with ten-man Montrose), Rangers sit two points clear at the summit.

Speaking before the match, young winger Fraser Aird described the club’s inability to perform outwith the environs of Ibrox as a “hump on their back”, but Rangers have now exorcised that particular little annoyance. With the players and management coming under increasing scrutiny for the inability to dismiss such modest opposition, the victory is one of their most important of the season.

Yes, it was entirely in keeping with their previously dour, stuffy, unimaginative away performances, and until John Neill’s thoughtless red card, Clyde competed well (and should have equalised had Stefan McCluskey been more precise with his finishing), but it matters little. For Rangers, the ultimate destination is far more important than the journey.

The long, inevitable ascent through the SFL and back to the top tier of Scottish football begins today. CGT


5) David Hopkirk is becoming Annan Athletic’s key performer

Annan Athletic were the Third Division’s big movers of the weekend, rising from seventh place to fifth with a comprehensive 5-2 home win over East Stirlingshire. Impressing for a second consecutive week was on-loan Queen of the South midfielder David Hopkirk, who added a hat-trick to his brace last week against Elgin City. His total for the season stands at five goals in three games for the Galabank club.

Last year, Hopkirk was reputably a wanted man. After leaving Hamilton Academical in September under recondite circumstances, the midfielder was reported to have attracted the interest of West Brom, Bolton, Birmingham, Cardiff City, Ipswich Town and both sides of the Old Firm. Fast forward 12 months and the 19-year-old had signed a one-month loan deal with Annan Athletic, just two months before the end of his contract at Palmerston Park.

Instead of feeling sorry for himself – he has fallen from from the SPL with Hamilton to playing against Elgin at Borough Briggs in just two years afterall – Hopkirk has relished his opportunity of sustained first team football. A pacy, bright, forward-thinking midfielder, Hopkirk looks to enjoy his football with Annan and has demonstrated a calm head in front of goal. Whether or not Hopkirk’s form will be enough to force his way into a Queen of the South side running away with the Second Division remains to be seen, but his current form should ensure the offer of a contract extension.

If Allan Johnston is unwilling to do so, Harry Cairney should make his permanent signing a priority; Hopkirk could play an important part for Annan in their bid to reach the play-offs. AG

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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