Five Things We Learned from the SFL

1) Greenock Morton are the real deal

WHAT a difference four months make in football. At the end of August, Greenock Morton had only played three matches, but had failed to win any of them. With another sizeable turnover of players in the summer, there was a sense of growing pressure on Allan Moore to not only improve on years of mediocrity at Cappielow, but to challenge for promotion. With Partick Thistle beginning the season emphatically and with Dunfermline Athletic not far behind, it seemed as though Morton would have to content themselves with third place or below.

Now, having won away to Thistle (2-1) and at home to Dunfermline (4-2) in succession, the Ton are two points clear at the top of the league with a clutch of generous fixtures to follow. It became apparent at the beginning of the month that Morton’s post-Christmas fixtures could be a defining moment in the 2012-13 season, and so it may prove to be.

What is certain is that Morton have a strong enough squad to maintain the title challenge relative to their rivals. Whereas a lack of experienced cover in defence meant that Jim Jefferies once again had to place Andy Geggan – arguably the First Division’s most improved midfielder in the last 18 months – at right back for the Pars’ match with Raith Rovers, Martin Hardie’s inclusion in the Morton team has mitigated the loss of Stephen Stirling and (more recently) Archie Campbell to injury.

Indeed, Hardie’s influence in the centre of midfield in place of Campbell further forward has inadvertently been a blessing to Moore – there is now no debate about whether or not Morton should be playing 4-4-2 to suit the chairman and possibly some supporters. Hardie’s strength and experience of winning the First Division makes up for his lack of mobility and his five goals in nine appearances (six of them from a starting berth) have been important to providing balance to the team in a 4-5-1 set-up.

Not only are Hardie’s goals of relevance, but his presence deep in the midfield has allowed the Michael Tidser-Fouad Bachirou axis to move further forward – Bachirou was Morton’s best player in the win over the Pars and even contributed with a rare goal. It is remarkable that the “Tidserou” partnership is still in the First Division – whether or not Morton win the league, it must be expected that one or both players will be featuring at a higher level in the summer.

There is a great feeling at Cappielow just now. We must wait to see if it lasts. JAM


2) Raith Rovers’ tactics are too reactive

The relegation of Dunfermline to the First Division, coupled with Cowdenbeath’s promotion, had the Raith Rovers support thrilled by the prospect of eight Fife derbies over the course of the 2012-13 season. However, had they known that they would have found themselves two goals down at various points in the first four of those fixtures, their excitement might have been somewhat tempered. After the 4-4 draw at Central Park in October, Saturday’s game against Cowdenbeath at Stark’s Park followed a similar pattern as the Blue Brazil raced to, and then relinquished, a two-goal lead – but for Rovers, falling behind and coming back is becoming the norm.

Rovers have conceded first in eight of their last 11 fixtures, and yet they have only went on to lose twice (one of which was against Dunfermline when they played the entire second half with just nine men). While the usual clichés of a “fighting spirit” and “never-say-die attitude” could be applied to their recent performances, a more important factor is how novice manager Grant Murray reacts and adapts to situations on the pitch as they unfold.

One of the biggest criticisms levelled at former boss John McGlynn was his steadfast refusal to change his tactics, even when things began to go awry for his side. Murray has a different approach, and Saturday was another example of how he adapts to changes in play. After watching his side overrun in the middle of the park for the first 45 minutes, Murray altered his team from an orthodox 4-4-2 to a 4-4-1-1. David Smith moved infield from wide left to play behind Brian Graham, while Greig Spence moved out to the flank.

The result was almost instant and Raith restored parity after only eight minutes of the second half. Both teams will probably feel that they could have won the game, although a point apiece was probably a fair reflection – the mixture of boos and claps at the end of the match perhaps suggested the home support could not agree on if it was a point gained or two squandered.

Murray must decide if he should begin his side’s next game with what was Saturday’s “Plan B”. He knows he must get it right for the fifth Fife derby of the campiagn – Dunfermline are not a side which can be afforded a head start. SM


3) Ian Murray has had a terrific start at Dumbarton

Dumbarton’s second win of the season – a remarkable 4-3 victory over Falkirk in Grangemouth – will live long in the memory of the travelling support. New manager Ian Murray, taking charge of the Sons for the first time, saw his side absorb long periods of dominance from the hosts, but was able to spring several surprises himself along the way. Post-match, Murray revealed he has given his players extra training sessions during the festive season and has been delighted by their response.

After making a host of changes to Alan Adamson’s regular starting XI, the Sons player-manager deployed a compact 4-1-4-1 formation to face Falkirk. Their defence was regimented and difficult to penetrate but on the front-foot, Dumbarton were very quick to change to a 4-2-3-1 with Steven McDougall, Gary Fleming and Mark Gilhaney supporting lone striker Jim Lister. The use of Scott Agnew as a deep-lying playmaker was a canny decision, with the talented midfielder controlling the ball and quickly shifting the play from left to right, something which punished Falkirk’s nervy defending in the full-back positions. As the second half became stretched, Murray decided to push Fleming further forward and, at times, almost created a two-on-two battle against the Bairns’ central defence.

Eventually, this proved to be an effective alteration. On 67 minutes, Darren Dods was caught out against Fleming and was dismissed for crudely felling him inside the penalty box. The incident changed the complexion of the game and the Sons cruised to a 4-1 lead before James Creaney’s red card and Falkirk’s impressive mental strength assisted in reducing the deficit to a single goal.

Perhaps more crucially for Murray, his players responded and adapted to his instructions and already, the disjointed performances under Adamson appear to be a forgotten. Sitting at the bottom of Division One with three games in hand, Dumbarton are not giving up hope just yet. RD


4) Albion Rovers are a great team – for 89 minutes…

If Albion Rovers’ league matches had concluded by the 89th minute, the club would have collected 21 points instead of their current total of 14. On five separate occasions this season, Todd Lumsden’s side have contrived to concede in the final minute: 4-4 against Stenhousemuir; 1-2 against Ayr United; 1-1 against Stranraer; 2-3 against Forfar Athletic; and 1-2 in the weekend’s defeat to Arbroath. It is also worth pointing out that on three of the five occasions (the matches with Ayr, Stranraer and Arbroath), the goals came after the concession of a penalty kick.

Why have Rovers conceded late, costly goals in almost a third of their league matches this season? While the side are not lacking in quality (indeed, against Stenhousemuir, Ayr and Arbroath, the club probably deserved to take more than a single point from those three matches), their mental fragility is concerning. Having spent large portions of matches in a dominant position, the club seem to panic in the closing stages and resort to panicky defending instead of seeing them out in a professional manner. Even their fans are beginning to expect the worst as the games enter conclusion. Lumsden must do more to work on his players’ mental fortitude and improve their concentration.

Such is their poor form that even at this relatively early juncture, the importance of Wednesday’s match against Stranraer at Cliftonhill cannot be overstated. With only a solitary point separating the sides, a home victory would allow the Vers to leapfrog their opponents into ninth place and keep pace with the clubs immediately above them; lose the match, and the side are in danger of being cut adrift at the foot of the table. CGT


5) Queen’s Park’s performance against Rangers was a “mixed bag”

Even although it was Rangers who ultimately secured victory against Queen’s Park on Saturday afternoon, the Spiders should take heart from their thoroughly spirited performance. For instance, throughout the opening 60 minutes, the midfield contest between David Anderson and Ian Black was a fascinating spectacle. One was an unpaid amateur recruited from the Junior leagues; the other was a handsomely remunerated player with a rich career at the highest tier of Scottish football. It shouldn’t have been so, but it was hugely difficult to tell who was whom.

The Spiders’ Anderson was the match’s outstanding player, shuttling the ball across the park with unfussy economy and dictating his team’s tempo. Even after Jamie Brough’s dismissal, Anderson clever use of the ball was crucial to the home side’s fine performance. Black, meanwhile, toiled until his removal on 65 minutes and seemed more concerned with involving himself in petty spats with opposition players rather than making a positive influence on the game. Indeed, Black’s performance mirrored that of the majority of his team-mates and until Fraser Aird’s delicious, curling intervention in the final minute, they laboured in breaking down their resilient hosts.

Queen’s Park were organised, highly motivated and could even have won the match themselves if Lawrence Shankland – the club’s top scorer this campaign – had shown more composure and slipped a pass into Aidan Connelly instead of tamely shooting at Neil Alexander himself. It might seem harsh to criticise QP after the match, but the lack of quality in attack undermined an otherwise strong performance. Tony Quinn, the club captain, was poor throughout and offered very little – a big, bulky attacker, he was expected to dominate centre-backs Ross Perry and Emilson Cribari (the latter is still struggling to adapt to the rigours of Scottish football, despite having played with Rangers for five months), but rarely looked to involve himself in the match, jogging around the final third with little purpose.

Quinn has scored four times this season (with two of the goals having come courtesy of penalty kicks), and his presence continues to divide the QP support. Some believe that, given his 11 years of service to the club, he merits his place with Gardner Spiers’ squad; others feel that he should be quietly put out to grass. In 15 league matches, the club have only scored 22 times – six other clubs in the Third Division have scored more – which highlights one of the problems facing the team. With Shankland – one of the most natural finishers to have played at Hampden in recent years – shunted into a wide position to accommodate Quinn, a combination of the recruitment of a new forward and allowing Shankland to play in his natural position is perhaps in the best interest of the club in the long term. CGT

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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