Five Things We Learned from the SFL

1) We might have witnessed Partick Thistle’s red letter day

WHEN fans reminisce over a season just past, a handful of games will linger longer in the memory than most. It could be for a number of reasons – maybe a performance, or a particularly important score-line in isolation which might have minor consequence, but in the context of other results, it can mean everything.

In a title-winning season – particularly a keenly contested one – there is normally one match which stands out as the one where fans begin to understand that securing the championship is a real possibility. It’s never normally a game which goes smoothly – it tends to be one where adversity is stared down and overcome. When Partick Thistle supporters look back on this season come May, there is every chance that “that” match was Saturday’s victory against Raith Rovers.

Thistle have ticked a lot of boxes already this season: they have a 100% home record; there is plenty evidence of attractive football; there are lots of goals (at home); and they have the most parsimonious defence in the division. Nevertheless, other than the 5-4 victory over Queens Park in the Ramsdens Cup in August, the team had failed to win a game where they had conceded first. It was a trend which was just a few minutes away from continuing over the weekend, as Brian Graham deservedly drew Rovers level with just ten minutes left. However, Steven Craig’s 87th minute winner was enough to award three points at Firhill and rectify the irregularity which was beginning to become a cause for concern.

As manager Jackie McNamara alluded to after the game, the match was certainly entertaining, even although the home side’s performance wasn’t one of their best, while Raith Rovers ended the day with a feeling of injustice that their performance didn’t merit a point. McNamara might have been serving the first of his first game touchline ban, and while he bemoaned his more withdrawn viewpoint in the stand, it did little to diminish his decision making skills – the introduction of substitute Mark McGuigan for Chris Erskine with 20 minutes remaining helped to swing the match back to Thistle’s favour when the momentum was firmly with the Kirkcaldy side.

The importance of Craig’s strike was underlined when the news came through from East End Park that Dunfermline had drawn 1-1 with Hamilton, a result that puts Partick two points clear having played a game less. The Jags have been praised for their eye-catching football this term, and rightly so, but this latest win shows that they can also dig deep when required. It is shaping up to be a fascinating title battle. SM

 

2) Queen of the South are unperturbed by their last defeat 

There was a point in time when it seemed as though Queen of the South might have gone the season unbeaten in the Second Division. After last Tuesday’s 0-1 loss to Alloa at Recreation Park, eyes were on the Doonhamers to see if they would allow their victors to mount a credible challenge thereafter.

With immediate hindsight, the midweek loss appears to be something of an anomaly. Even in that match, Queens had the majority of possession; Queens had 11 corners to Alloa’s three; they hit the woodwork twice; and had an obvious handball appeal turned down late in game. It was only a justifiable, but ultimately soft penalty award in the home side’s which separated the teams. That is not to say that the Wasps fluked the result – they made enough chances to win outright – but Queens certainly should have felt hard done by in the circumstances.

The visit of Ray McKinnon’s in-form Brechin City was the perfect test of Queens’ reslilience: City have two formidable forwards in Andy Jackson and Kurtis Byrne – their speed of thought around the box ahead of the inconsistent but occasionally brilliant Alan Trouten would have been something of concern to the home side. And so it proved, with Brechin causing Queen of the South more problems than any other team at Palmerston this season.

With little to decide the two teams, Derek Lyle’s ability to bring the wide forwards into play made the difference. Lyle fed Nicky Clark into the channel on the right with a header and Carmichael’s finish was just reward for being a constant attacking thread from either flank throughout the season. Their midweek defeat might have threatened to turn the Second Division championship into an interesting contest between Queens and Alloa, but the weekend’s results have perhaps dashed any such notions. JAM

 

3) Ayr United lack resolve 

Saturday’s Second Division encounter between Ayr United and East Fife was a classic “game of two halves”. The Honest Men were 2-0 ahead at half-time and, admitted East Fife boss Billy Brown, could have scored five in an opening 45 minutes that saw them turn in their best performance of the season. However, come full-time, it was Brown’s men who left Somerset Park with all three points and a 3-2 victory.

It is an all too familiar story for Ayr. Mark Roberts’s side have now ceded sixteen points from winning positions this season – the worst record in the SFL and twice as many as any other side in the Second Division.

What is the reason for Ayr’s vulnerability when ahead? Experience, mainly. Their line-up on Saturday featured five teenagers with very few first team appearances among them, but arguably, it was in the dugout where United were undone. After giving his players a half-time dressing down, Billy Brown – with over 20 years of experience as assistant manager to Jim Jefferies and more recently in the same role at Hibernian – moved quickly, making a double switch on 51 minutes. Craig Johnstone and Sean Jamieson made way for Robert Sloan and Collin Samuel and both players were involved in the Fifers’ first goal five minutes later, an excellent strike by Scott McBride after a passing movement which carved open Ayr down their right-hand side.

East Fife’s final substitution was made after 62 minutes and once again, it brought an immediate response. Jamie Pollock, who came on for Paul Willis, was fouled in the penalty box by Ryan McStay and McBride made no mistake from the spot to tie the contest. Ayr had gone from dominating possession, passing the ball short with purpose and precision to a side panicked, aimlessly knocking the ball long. Mark Roberts brought himself on with ten minutes to go but could only watch in despair as Ayr’s rearguard failed to clear the ball under pressure and allow opposition centre-back David White to strike from long range, his first ever senior goal.

The inability of Ayr – and Mark Roberts – to respond to changes throughout the course of a game again proved to be their undoing, just as it was when Ayr were knocked out of the Scottish Cup at Forfar a fortnight ago. Roberts is looking to strengthen his squad in January and it is vital that the players recruited augment his options to change the shape of the team. An experienced head or two would not go amiss. AG

 

4) Free-scoring Montrose are serious play-off contenders

Montrose’s match against Rangers at Links Park on Saturday might have ended 2-4 in the visitor’s favour, but the home side certainly enjoyed a very decent showing against their full-time opponents. The Gable Endies pulled the game back to 2-3 and minutes later smacked the crossbar, before being denied a late equaliser by Neil Alexander’s right-hand post. In the end though, Ally McCoist’s side had superior quality in the attacking third and the hugely promising Barrie McKay put the game beyond doubt in the final minute.

Manager Stuart Garden can be increasingly optimistic about the development of his squad. His preferred set-up is a 4-4-2 formation which can be quickly altered to a lop-sided 4-3-3, or a more intense 4-2-4 system. Garden’s focus on attacking play means his unfancied Montrose side sit outside the play-off positions on goal difference behind Peterhead – largely due to their high number of goals conceded.

Montrose have scored 28 goals this season – only seven behind Rangers’ tally and ten from Elgin City. Despite not having a genuine goal-scoring threat, Garden’s squad is happily sharing the responsibility around the team. Leighton McIntosh – on loan from Dundee – has scored five goals from centre-forward and the energetic Lloyd Young has the same number.

Goals are also coming from the midfield positions through captain Jamie Winter, with three this season, as well as David Gray who scored the second against Rangers at the weekend. The ultra-positive mentality of Montrose is refreshing on the eye for the Gable Endies and they are more than capable of out-scoring their way to a play-off place ahead of an overrated Peterhead or a stuttering Queen’s Park. RD

 

5) Stirling Albion are “The Hammer of the Rangers”

The 2012-13 season has been an utterly dismal experience for everyone connected with Stirling Albion. Before the weekend’s match against Berwick Rangers, the club had lost their previous five matches and propped up the entire football league with seven points from their 13 matches. Their 1-0 victory over Rangers in October seemed even more astonishing given the vastly differing fortunes of both clubs since. Few expected anything other than an away win when Ian Little’s Berwick Rangers pitched up in Stirling on Saturday.

The Bino’s 6-3 victory over the Wee Gers, then, was the most remarkable result of the weekend’s SFL fixtures. The fact that the match was devoid of quality didn’t matter (the nine goals aside, Berwick’s Lee Currie’s expertise from free-kicks was perhaps only outstanding aspect to the game), nor did the fact that the home side were abetted throughout by some horrendous goalkeeping from Youssef Bejaoui – the only thing of importance was the final outcome. The result has arrested Stirling’s rotten form and with five different scorers, it has confirmed their status as “The Hammer of the Rangers”.

It sounds a little clichéd, but only time will tell if the result is a fluke or the beginning of a marked improvement in Albion’s fortunes. On Saturday, the club welcome an inconsistent Peterhead side to Forthbank – the previous meeting between the teams at Balmoor in October finished 2-2 – before away matches against Montrose and then East Stirlingshire.

If the Binos are able to collect four points from the three matches, Grieg McDonald’s side can claim to have put a horrendous 2012 behind them; a failure to build on the result, however, and the current season could become their worst since the miserable campaign of 2001-02. 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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