1) Partick Thistle have title credentials in abundance
EVEN if Partick Thistle have not won a match away from home since the middle of September, a perfect record at Firhill is keeping the club at the top of the SFL.
And what a perfect record so far! Scoring an average of four goals per match and having conceded only three after six games is impeccable form by any standard. Winning 5-1 at home to Dunfermline Athletic, Thistle’s main championship rivals, is a significant statement of intent in a league where margins are fine and competitive fixtures are relentless.
Why did Thistle win so comprehensively? It is simple to state that the better team won, but cunning foresight and fortunate circumstance played their part. With regular left-back Stuart Bannigan and central midfielder Sean Welsh both absent, Jackie McNamara took the opportunity to make a subtle tactical tweak. Alan Archibald was drafted into the first XI in central defence, which meant Aaron Muirhead shuffled to right-back and Stephen O’Donnell moved to right-midfield in something resembling 4-4-1-1, with Chris Erskine playing off Kris Doolan in attack. From the opposition, Dunfermline were still missing regular left-back Stephen Jordan, but rather than continue with Jordan McMillan as a make-shift left-back and central midfielder Andy Geggan at the right-hand side of defence, Jim Jefferies wanted his senior players in their best positions. This meant that 19-year-old midfielder Chris Kane was asked to play out of position at left-back for the sake of balancing the rest of the team. It did not work.
While Muirhead was asked to play a relatively unfamiliar full-back role, it was with the remit of mostly supporting his fellow centre-backs and acting as the counter-balance to left-back Aaron Sinclair’s thrusts forward (Sinclair’s lack of match-time this season is due to Bannigan’s general excellence; Sinclair himself was one of last season’s best performers). With Dunfermline possessing two in-form centre-forwards in Andrew Barrowman and Ryan Wallace, Muirhead’s defensive bias was important. Meanwhile, O’Donnell could attack Dunfermline’s Kane with the assurance that Muirhead would be solid behind him.
Thistle scored a clutch of technically excellent goals (including a wonderful 20 yard effort from Ross Forbes with the outside of his laces) in a dominating performance. Two wins out of two against the Pars will give great confidence for the rest of the season ahead; Dunfermline must now reorganise themselves for an important derby at Raith Rovers this weekend. JAM
2) Falkirk’s inability to see out games is a growing concern
When Stewart Murdoch converted a penalty to give Falkirk the lead midway through their match with Livingston in early September, it seemed as though the Bairns were on course to put their difficult start to the season behind them and build on a good victory against Morton at Cappielow the previous week. However, the lead lasted only five minutes as ten-man Livi equalised before scoring two minutes into injury time. If lessons were to be learned in how to close out a game, then Falkirk certainly haven’t heeded them.
The weekend’s defeat to Raith Rovers at Starks Park was the sixth occasion in eight league matches where Falkirk had failed to win after opening the scoring. To do so once or twice over the course of a season is unfortunate, but to fritter away 14 points at such an early stage in the campaign is a major cause for concern.
Saturday’s match followed a familiar pattern. Falkirk began the match strongly and threatened to overwhelm Rovers, with Lyle Taylor and Andrew Haworth in particular pulling the opposition defence out of position time and again. They were perhaps unlucky not to add to Luke Leahy’s opening goal before half-time, but David Smith’s equaliser after 56 minutes badly dented the Bairns and the team began to wilt. There was almost an inevitability about Grant Anderson’s late winner.
Steven Pressley’s claims that his side played with an “x-factor in abundance” last term is disingenuous. Their current malaise goes way beyond a challenging start to the current season and can probably be traced to the beginning of the calendar year; Falkirk recorded a miserable four wins from their final 17 matches of 2011-12.
Pressley still remains positive and pointed out that although Partick Thistle would be difficult to catch, he believes his team have the ability to climb the table. His confidence is admirable and he will hope it can be imparted onto his players – Falkirk seem devoid of spirit and invention and unless the club can stop their worrying habit of throwing away matches from winning positions, the rest of the season may involve a battle to avoid the relegation play-off position rather than Pressley’s anticipated ascent through the table. SM
3) Things are getting interesting at the bottom of the First Division
Even at this early juncture, the First Division is beginning to divide into three distinct sections. At the top of the table, Partick Thistle and Dunfermline are competing to win the championship; Morton, Livingston and Raith Rovers have fallen into the bracket of being too good to worry about the spectre of relegation without being good enough to genuinely threaten the Jags or the Pars; and the remaining five teams appear set to spend the season attempting to avoid dropping into the third tier.
Until Saturday, Hamilton and Dumbarton looked in danger of being cut adrift at the foot of the table, but victories over Morton and Cowdenbeath respectively have allowed them to stay within touching distance of their immediate rivals. Both matches were turgid in the extreme: Hamilton’s win at Cappielow was briefly lit up by a crisp drive from Stevie May, while Dumbarton’s dour victory – their first of the league campaign – was ensured through Mark Gilhaney’s winning goal.
The Sons’ results has drawn Cowdenbeath closer towards the teams directly beneath them. Cowden have now failed to win a league match since the beginning of September and are in danger of undoing their solid work from the beginning of the season. Dumbarton, meanwhile, are still widely expected to make an immediate return to the Second Division, but the result might just strengthen Jack Ross’s chance of being appointed as manager on a permanent basis.
Regardless, the bottom of the First Division is becoming a fascinating spectacle. With three part-time sides on relatively meagre budgets fighting alongside the apparent ineptitude of Steven Pressley and Billy Reid, it may prove to be one of the most keenly contested battles in the 2012-13 season. CGT
4) Stenhousemuir’s shapeless formation is hindering performances
It might be a little foolish to suggest Stenhousemuir are currently in a slump, but recent performances have been decidedly underwhelming. Since the international break in mid-October, the club have failed to win in three matches. The 2-2 draw with Queen of the South was credible, but a 7-2 dismantling by Brechin City and a flat, insipid 1-1 draw with Berwick Rangers in the Scottish Cup have done little to inspire supporters.
Saturday’s draw with Ayr United was equally as stale. Both sides played poorly throughout and looked far removed from the standard expected from clubs capable of mounting a sustained challenge for the play-off positions.
Stenhousemuir’s recent form might in some part be down to the remarkably shapeless system deployed by manager Martyn Corrigan. Watching from the stands, it can be difficult to decipher exactly what formation the side are actually using. Against Ayr, it appeared to be the trendy 4-2-3-1 system, but with the exception of an orthodox back four and a lone striker in John Gemmell, everything else in between made little sense.
As the side toiled against Ayr, it was difficult to tell just exactly what Sean Dickson, Stewart Kean and Darren Smith were supposed to be doing. For the best part, their impact on the game was negligible (Smith’s equalising goal notwithstanding) and with Dickson and Smith – both nominally deployed as wingers – forced to play further infield, there was a startling lack of width in the team. Full-backs Kevin McKinlay and Greg Ross rarely pushed into attack, leaving the side worryingly narrow. Unable to play through a stuffy Ayr side, the Warriors began to play long balls towards Gemmell with moderate success. It was joyless viewing.
Despite Stenhousemuir’s toils, Bryan Hodge was quite excellent in central midfield. Signed from Brechin in June, Hodge has been one of the division’s outstanding players and the Warriors’ best player this term. Intelligent, aware and always available to collect the ball, Hodge’s playing style is reminiscent of Barry Ferguson during his halcyon days with Rangers. A heavy burden rests with the former Blackburn Rovers trainee in driving his side forward.
Corrigan must improve his side’s performances, starting with Tuesday evening’s Scottish Cup replay against Berwick. A home tie against Falkirk awaits the victor, and Stenhousemuir must ensure success at Shielfield Park. The financial implications of such a fixture would hugely benefit the club and a negative result across the border will be a huge disappointment. CGT
5) Entertainment is in short supply at Broadwood
A quick glance at the Third Division table would quickly tell you it’s boring at Broadwood. Jim Duffy’s Clyde are on a barren run of form with little sign of improvement – the club have lost five of their previous six matches, with their last victory coming in a 2-1 win over Annan Athletic on 1 September, and have only scored ten goals in the league, the joint lowest in the SFL alongside Dumbarton.
Saturday’s defeat to Montrose, a dull 1-2 reverse, was typical of Clyde’s season so far. Although the defence was reasonably solid, problems persisted elsewhere, particularly in midfield where once again there were large, spacious gaps between the centre of the park and the attack, while strikers Stefan McCluskey and Kevin Watt were both profligate.
It is getting more and more difficult to mitigate in Duffy’s defence. As well as their poor results in the league, Clyde have also been deposed from the Scottish Cup by Nairn County, while performances have been ponderous. Given the difficult circumstances surrounding Clyde – namely the lack of money available at the club – it seems unlikely that Duffy’s position is under any immediate threat, but his failure to build on their early season form is a concern. RD/CGT