1) Dunfermline have passed up an opportunity
WITH Partick Thistle’s their match at Central Park postponed (Cowdenbeath have now not played in a fortnight), Dunfermline Athletic had what seemed the perfect opportunity to build a three-point margin over their rivals at the top of the table.
However, the circumstances did not work for the Pars. After only 19 minutes, centre-back Callum Morris was sent off for a thoughtless challenge on Livingston’s irrepressible playmaker Stefan Scougall. Whilst the match was relatively even to that point, Dunfermline once again had to change the balance throughout the team in order to restructure their deficit. Although left-back Stephen Jordan has returned from injury, he was then needed at deputise at centre-back; regular right-back Jordan McMillan had to switch to the left again; central midfielder Andy Geggan returned to right-back; and most importantly dynamic winger Joe Cardle had to make way for Ryan Thomson to ensure that the sliding tile puzzle did not leave a gap in central midfield.
On the face of it, making so many micro-changes to a side to accommodate the absence of a central defender seems ridiculous. That is, of course, the risk that Jim Jeffries took in compiling his team – despite already playing with two centre-forwards, there were yet another two on the bench alongside two central midfielders. The top-heavy squad might be a hindrance over the rest of the season unless other players are recruited (which, at this point, seems to be an unlikely scenario).
Dunfermline did well to stay in the match for as long as they did. Jefferies was brave in keeping centre-forwards Craig Dargo and Andrew Barrowman on the pitch following the sending off, but it left space elsewhere, notably on the flanks of midfield. Livi appeared well-equipped to take advantage of having the extra player, due to their ability to pass the ball horizontally and with a variety that can pull defenders out of place. Dunfermline needed their back-up goalkeeper Michal Hrivnak (Paul Gallacher being injured again is of little surprise) to be at his best and he was probably the second-best player on the day, behind Scougall.
Any complaint that the referee’s performance was in detriment to Dunfermline’s title challenge appears unfounded. On one hand, Craig Dargo might have won his side a penalty, but on the other there was some leniency shown towards McMillan for a lunge which might have deserved more than a yellow card.
Athletic have now played one match more than Thistle, who have the same number of points at the top but and will play their game in hand at the beginning of February. This sets up an enticing double-header for the Jags against Cowdenbeath in the New Year – although the top teams currently have a 100% record against the part-time sides, it would be absurd to guarantee that form to continue until the end of the season. Before then, Thistle and Athletic both have to play Morton shortly after Christmas, so there is still plenty to be excited about in the meantime. JAM
2) Morton have made their point, but still keeps them in contention
The top of the First Division table might not have opened up quite as much as Morton manager Allan Moore had hoped for over the weekend, but Morton’s 3-3 draw at Raith Rovers, coupled with Dunfermline’s defeat at Livingston, suggests that the title race might just involve more than two teams. Moore was unhappy at only picking up a point at Stark’s Park, describing the match as the most one sided 3-3 draw he had ever seen, but on reflection he must have been happy with the performance, if not the result.
Moore’s change of formation to a 4-5-1 has coincided with Morton’s recent upturn in fortunes. Over the last eight games, it is Morton and a resurgent Livingston who top the First Division form table, ahead of Thistle and the Pars. Rovers tried to match the visitors like-for-like on the pitch and started with Brian Graham as a lone front man. In truth, Rovers’ tactic never worked, with Morton dominating the majority of the match. Morton’s midfield quintet were far more impressive than the home side’s – Raith particularly struggled to contain Fouad Bachirou and David Graham. In defence, former Hibs player Scott Taggart impressed again, not just by how well he shackled Hearts loanee David Smith, but also in his eagerness to push forward.
There were some negatives for the Morton team, however. Their profligacy in front of goal meant they almost ended up losing a match that was theirs for the taking, while their defence continued its trend of leaking goals away from Cappielow (indeed only Dumbarton have a poorer defensive record in the league away from home). As a result, the distance to Thistle is still three points when it could – and perhaps even should – have been reduced to one.
However, the late-December fixtures against Thistle and Dunfermline have the potential for Morton to end the year as genuine title challengers. SM
3) Arbroath’s draw with Stenhousemuir does neither side any favours
Since Stenhousemuir and Arbroath last faced each other in a 2-2 draw at Ochilview in late September, it would not be unfair to say that both sides have fallen into something of a slump. Before Saturday’s stalemate at Gayfield, the two teams had quietly slipped down the league table. In their previous seven matches, Stenhousemuir had collected four points, while Arbroath had performed marginally better, picking up seven.
On Saturday, the match was bookended with goals from the Warriors’ Darren Smith and Stewart Kean, with Steven Doris and Stewart Malcolm scoring in between for the home side. As in their previous meeting, the Lichties contrived to turn three points into one with the concession of an injury-time goal – Kean’s close-range strike was practically the last kick of the match.
The draw – the only match played in the division this weekend – does neither side any favours. Neither team were able to capitalise on their rival’s inactivity and Stenhousemuir remain in seventh place, while Arbroath failed to leapfrog Forfar and Brechin to return to the play-off positions. Perhaps both sides had their eyes focused on other things – the Stenhousemuir squad celebrated their Christmas night out in Aberdeen on Saturday night, while Arbroath are preparing to host Celtic in a Scottish Cup fourth round replay on Wednesday evening; an ordinary league match might have seemed trivial compared to such important matters.
Regardless, both managers – Corrigan in particular – will be perplexed by their side’s stuttering form. Since their remarkable 2-1 victory over Kilmarnock in the League Cup in August, Stenhousemuir have only won twice in league competition, securing 11 points. The Warriors have reserved their best performances for cup competition against loftier opposition (despite losing to Inverness Caledonian Thistle and Falkirk in the League and Scottish Cups respectively, they were the better side on both occasions), and Corrigan and his players must remain focused for their “bread and butter” matches. Otherwise, the team is in real danger of destroying last season’s fine progress. CGT
4) Elgin’s late win was in spite of an awkward 3-5-2
Stuart Leslie scored twice to overturn a 0-1 deficit at home to Clyde and his goals have make him the division’s second-top scorer behind Lee McCulloch. Even if Leslie might never remember them fondly as masterpieces (the first was a clearance which ricocheted off him; the second a more deliberate headed challenge forced the goal-keeper to fumble a cross for him to tap in), his contribution on Saturday was invaluable.
Elgin fell behind to an own-goal by Mark “Twig” Nicolson, who despite wearing the number 10 shirt started as one of three centre-backs, with Daniel Moore and Brian Cameron as wing-backs. Team captain David Niven, probably a more natural defender, started in midfield before picking up a second yellow card with half an hour to go. Nicolson was unlucky with a headed clearance which screwed off his head into the top corner of his team’s goal, but his height advantage over Niven should not be the deciding factor on who plays in a three-man defence. The awkwardness in defence and in midfield was exacerbated by having to cede the flanks, with Moore and Cameron often being doubled-up by Clyde’s wide players.
It took the sending off for the balance of Elgin’s team to work. City were much improved in the second half and Moore’s set-piece delivery became an important feature of the match, as did the direct running of substitute Craig Gunn.
Elgin now find themselves four points clear of the other play-off contenders. City are in fact only one point behind Rangers, but with the Ibrox club having two matches in hand and a 100% home record to their advantage, any thoughts of Elgin overtaking them are surely not worth considering just now. JAM
5) Plastic pitches are not the panacea for avoiding postponements
The SFL fixture card was reduced to seven matches on Saturday, as the worst of Scotland’s winter weather so far this season caused a spate of postponements. Only two games survived in the west, at Ibrox and Annan Athletic’s Galabank, while games at Arbroath, Berwick, Elgin, Kirkcaldy and Livingston survived in the east. Notable among the call-offs were three games scheduled for grounds with artificial surfaces: Airdrie’s Excelsior Stadium, Alloa’s Recreation Park and Ochilview, where East Stirlingshire were due to face Montrose. Clyde also suffered a similar fate at Broadwood last weekend.
The decision to call off Alloa’s meeting with Queen of the South – the first game postponed at Recreation Park since the 3G surface was installed in 2007 – caused particular vexation to Wasps’ Chairman Mike Mulraney, who was “totally flabbergasted” at the decision of referee Brian Colvin. Mulraney told the Sunday Mail: “Everyone thought [the pitch] was perfectly playable. The referee thought he was right, we think he was wrong”.
To prove their point, Alloa played a hastily arranged bounce game at 3pm. The frustration felt is understandable. Alloa were expecting a healthy crowd for the top-of-the-table clash with Queen of the South and had reportedly spent £2,500 to get the game on, salting the park 36 hours in advance.
Artificial surfaces bring a range of benefits, but this weekend has demonstrated they do not provide a guarantee against those dreaded postponements. Cue the inevitable calls for summer football… AG