1) Falkirk are beginning to play with confidence
IT is remarkable how perspective can change after a few wins. Steven Pressley’s Bairns have recorded three league wins in a row and four in all competitions. Even if it was clear from the Scottish Cup win over Stenhousemuir that Falkirk can still resemble less than the sum of its parts, the Grangemouth side are improving – their upturn in form might even have a significant impact on who wins the First Division title in 2013.
The most obvious aspect to observe on the reason behind the winning streak is Lyle Taylor’s goal-scoring form. Taylor netted a hat-trick against Airdrie United at the weekend in a 4-1 victory, bringing the former Bournemouth striker up to ten league goals for the season. His finishing was sharp – his first was reminiscent of Highbury-era Thierry Henry, where Thomas Grant slipped a through ball between centre-back and left-back for Taylor to knock further beyond the defence, before crisply finishing from the edge of the box into the bottom corner. Nevertheless, it was Taylor’s off-the-ball movement which was most promising – he ran the channels to link up with Grant and the other midfielders with passes into their feet, and the timing of his run towards the box thereafter was exquisite.
With more confidence, Falkirk do look an inherently better side than they were earlier in the season. Despite a lack of distinguishable shape across the midfield, in both defence and attack, the quality of an on-from Kieran Duffie as a wing-back can compensate for a multitude of sins. Of the teenagers among the current starting XI, it is Jay Fulton who looks to be benefiting the most from the increase in space created by Duffie’s runs forward. Fulton scored the opener with an outrageous 180-degree pivot-and-prod on the six-yard line after Duffie’s surge on the flank allowed the midfielder space elsewhere to break forward beyond Taylor. Otherwise, Blair Alston continues to promise in his substitute appearances and must now be worthy of challenging Craig Sibbald for his place in the team.
Boxing Day takes Falkirk to Dunfermline Athletic for the acid test – for both teams. JAM
2) Ryan Donnelly is back from his goal-scoring wilderness
It is difficult to believe that just 12 months ago, Airdrie United’s Ryan Donnelly was the most coveted player in the SFL. By Christmas 2011, the young striker had scored 17 times in the Second Division, including seven goals in three games between November and December. Although not the quickest of players, his intelligence, movement and positioning in and around the penalty area made him one of the league’s most predatory forwards. Such was his prowess, the player was even invited to train with English Premier League side Wigan Athletic for a week in February.
By the New Year, however, Donnelly began to look jaded and his influence had diminished to such an extent that he only scored four more times in the league. In the final match of the season, the second leg of the play-off final against Dumbarton, much was expected from the striker in his side’s bid to overcome a 1-2 deficit; instead, he was substituted after 56 minutes and his side were comfortably thrashed 1-4.
The final result, ultimately, was inconsequential as Airdrie were unexpectedly promoted to the First Division in the summer. While the Diamonds began the new season relatively well (the club won their opening two matches), recent form has been poor, particularly at home where Jimmy Boyle’s side have only secured four points from eight matches. Like his teammates, Donnelly has also struggled to adapt to the division. His goal against Falkirk – an equaliser in what eventually concluded in a 1-4 defeat for his team – was his first goal since a 4-1 victory over Brechin City in April, and while the player worked hard, there is the feeling he can still contribute more.
A move to a full-time club – either in January or at the end of the season – would probably be the best move for Donnelly at this stage in his career. The player requires the requisite training to allow him to enhance his talents and develop into a genuinely fearsome striker for a First Division or lower-table SPL side. Without it, Donnelly is in danger of stagnating and becoming a six-month wonder. CGT
3) David Templeton is key to Rangers’ resurgence
Of all the Third Division sides, Elgin City were perhaps the most likely to stop Rangers’ recent resurgence, particularly given their good form this season at Borough Briggs. However, despite a relatively bright first half showing, they had little chance of curtailing their rampant opposition, who eventually triumphed 2-6.
David Templeton, Rangers’ marquee signing, has excelled when deployed as an orthodox winger, but he has shown to be even better in his latest role – a central attacking midfielder, a trequartista. The 23-year-old was outstanding and spent the match drifting into penetrative areas in the compact lines between Elgin’s defence and midfield. The former Hearts player shifted the ball from right to left with ease, dragging defenders into uncomfortable areas and thus creating large swathes of space for Barrie McKay to exploit in the inside-left channel. As expected, he had a big part to play in linking with Lee McCulloch in adding to Rangers’ victory.
It was the neat midfield triangle of Templeton, Kyle Hutton and Lewis MacLeod which was most impressive on Saturday. For Rangers – and, quite possibly, for Scotland – it is the basis of a hugely exciting young side, brimming with potential. This season at least, Templeton should be too good for opposition defences and is certain to be the Third Division’s brightest player. RD
4) Do not bet on Peterhead away from home
Tell Him He’s Pelé’s Son of Gamblor takes his gambling seriously. And so, with his favourites Partick Thistle not in action this weekend, he sought out the very unfestive surroundings of a torrentially wet Forthbank to gauge the form of Stirling Albion and Peterhead. The home side, propping up the Third Division, went into the game on the back of a remarkable 6-3 win over Berwick Rangers while Jim McInally’s Blue Toon were hoping to nudge back into the play-off positions after an indifferent run of form.
The dynamic of the match was turned on its head after just 17 minutes when Peterhead defender Scott Ross was shown a straight red card for an off-the-ball incident in which the 21-year-old appeared to elbow Brian Allison. Remarkably, it was Ross’s third red card of the season but, more than their lack of discipline, it was Peterhead’s lack of resilience (albeit on a heavy pitch) which was of greatest concern.
The away side’s tactics appeared to heavily rely on hitting long ball after long ball towards Rory McAllister. Yet with little support from midfield, it was Albion – who enjoyed two-thirds of the game’s possession – who were the better side, restricting the visitors to just three attempts on target, the best of which came from David Cox early in the match. The Binos’ pressure finally paid off after 67 minutes when Graeme Sharp, who had only been on the field for five minutes, brought down Stephen Day in the penalty box. Jordan White’s resultant spot-kick proved decisive.
It was another miserable away day for Jim McInally’s side. So far this league campaign, they have picked up just four points and scored only five goals in eight games on the road. A drastic improvement in all areas is immediately required if Peterhead are to reach the play-offs come May – the bare minimum for a club of their aspirations. AG
5) Andy Stirling is a fine short-term fix for East Stirlingshire
Before Andy Stirling’s return to East Stirlingshire six days ago, the club had lost three consecutive matches; since the talented midfielder has been restored to the team, the club have drawn their last two matches against Montrose and Annan Athletic, both by the same 2-2 score-line. While the club should have perhaps turned one point into three against an Annan side that spent the majority of the match with ten men following the dismissal of Peter Watson, Stirling was the game’s outstanding performer – the diminutive playmaker scored twice and was central to his side’s most enterprising plays.
Since the summer, Stirling has been studying in the United States and has only returned to Scotland over the Christmas period (it is also worth noting that the last time he played 11-a-side football was in July). An undoubtedly talented footballer – he was nicknamed “Magic” during his time at Stenhousemuir – a yellow streak has perhaps precluded him from playing beyond the Second and Third Divisions. Regardless, he is highly thought of by manager John Coughlin, who brought him to the Warriors and then to East Stirlingshire. Stirling is eligible to play one more game as a trialist before the club must sign him on a permanent basis and Coughlin has said he is looking to secure the player for as long as possible before he returns to America in late-January.
With bottom club Stirling Albion having secured back-to-back victories, they have reduced the gap between ninth and tenth place to a single point. The teams meet on 2 January in a match which could prove crucial to how the season progresses. If East Stirlingshire are to have any success, Andy Stirling’s presence – even for a brief period – could be vital. CGT