1) The First Division is the most exciting league in Britain
IT can sometimes happen that Sky Sports’ aggrandising rhetoric regarding the English Premier League and its title of the “best league in the world” can ring hollow – at the moment, it isn’t even the best league in Britain. Indeed, that particular mantle, on current form at least, surely belongs with the Scottish First Division. In terms of pure entertainment and unpredictability, there is nothing else that can quite touch it.
Scotland’s other three divisions have played out in a predictable fashion, with the pre-season favourites having all seemingly secured their respective championships as early as December, but at both ends of the First Division, it is proving to be a wonderful spectacle. There are three teams, all equally balanced, who can win the title; there are as many as four who could finish the season at the bottom of the table. Even a mid-table side like Livingston could conceivably mount a bid to challenge for the championship, if results continue to turn in their favour.
It is the “anyone can beat anyone” nature of the league which makes it so fascinating, and the weekend’s matches between Dumbarton and Partick Thistle, and Dunfermline and Airdrie United perfectly encapsulated its topsy-turvy brilliance. It was only a couple of months ago that we thought of the First as the least competitive, when the top three teams had 100% records against the bottom three, but the league season has come a long way since then. This weekend, at the Bet Butler Stadium, the result was surprising, but not shocking. The Sons’ 2-0 victory – their third in four games under new manager Ian Murray – was just reward after a determined, spirited performance and has allowed them to keep pace with the teams above them. As for Thistle, their recent slump in form (they have failed to win any of their last four matches) will be of some concern. If they can win their two games in hand, they can return to the summit of the table, but their current run has given them little margin for error.
Airdrie United, meanwhile, last enjoyed victory in October and had looked shiftless and completely unable to rouse themselves from their slump; their 3-1 victory at Dumfermline was hugely unexpected and probably the biggest surprise of the weekend. In a clutch of exciting fixtures next week, their meeting with Dumbarton is surely the game of the day. Dunfermline have now ceded first place to Greenock Morton and their visit to Cowdenbeath will be watched on with interest.
We must savour this 2012-13 campaign. With an unpopular reconstruction set to be put in place next season, one which is likely to dilute the quality and competitiveness of the league, this could be the last time we enjoy such a thrilling second tier. CGT
2) Sometimes players can carry on for too long
Between them, Alex Neil and Colin Cameron have enjoyed more than 35 years in professional football. Their experience of playing in England and in Scotland’s top flight should (in theory, at least) give them a significant advantage over their First Division opposition. However, in Saturday’s match between Hamilton Academical and Cowdenbeath – a game contested by two poor sides both lacking in ambition or incisiveness – the veterans were two of the worst players on the pitch.
Given time and space on the ball, Cameron can still shine, but at 40, his intelligence and skill is no longer enough to get him through games. The 31-year-old Neil, meanwhile, played as if he was also entering his fifth decade. At his best, he was calm and composed with the ball, and combative and industrious without it; he was none of those things on Saturday.
Both players’ performances could be compared to the old(er) men playing five-a-side football: quite clearly they were clever players in their time, but their descreasing physical capacity against sharper, quicker, younger opponents often led to bursts of frustration. Cameron struggled to cover the space in front of his defence on the big pitch, and failed to find his range with his ambitious passing from deep towards the isolated Kane Hemmings. Neil, on the other hand, seemed uninterested in playing football – his only contribution was to foul and bully younger opponents.
By the time the match was brought to a close, neither player was anywhere near the pitch. Cameron was substituted before being dismissed to the stand for bickering with the officials; earlier in the half, Neil had rightfully been sent off for a collecting a second caution. The player has now been red carded on three occasions this term.
Cameron could have had a greater influence on the match as the spare man after Hamilton were reduced to ten men. As the Accies sat back and allowed Cowdenbeath to have the ball in the midfield, Cameron’s quality in possession could have been the key in opening up Hamilton but it never transpired. For the fifth time in a row, the Blue Brazil failed to hold on to a first half lead and their negative approach inevitably invited Hamilton to score twice in quick succession – the side lacked the gumption to reverse the deficit. There is even talk as to whether or not Cameron’s tenure at Cowden is up, with strong rumours of unrest within the squad.
Despite playing poorly, Hamilton deserved to win the tie. In Stevie May and Louis Longridge, they had the game’s two best performers. Reduced to long range efforts in the first half, they continued to be positive in possession, and May’s winner in particular was quite sublime. JS
3) Armand Oné’s size is no laughing matter for Stranraer
Last week, it was wryly noted that although Marvin Andrews’s diet is not the most nutritious for a professional sportsman (in recent weeks, the Albion Rovers centre-back has taken to Twitter to regale his 6000-odd followers about his predilection for Haagen Dazs, Ferrero Rocher, and pizza), he is still capable of performing to a very decent standard. The same cannot be said cannot be said of Stranraer striker Armand Oné.
It would be pure speculation to discuss the minutiae of Oné’s diet, but judging by the sheer size of his gut, one would have to imagine the Frenchman does not need to be asked twice if he wants to “go large” at his local Burger King. The player is so badly out of condition, he arguably looks in poorer shape than Mark Yardley did in the twilight of his career.
Chronically unfit, immobile and lazy, Oné offered virtually nothing during Saturday’s 0-0 draw at Stenhousemuir. The forward replaced the stricken Michael Moore (who bizarrely started the match wearing the number 16 shirt) on 67 minutes and lumbered purposelessly around the pitch, his every touch the source of ridicule from the stands. If his hulking presence was designed to unsettle the Stenhousemuir defence, it had little effect – Ross McMillan and Scot Buist kept him at arm’s length, with the former offering a withering put-down of his opponent:
If a don’t see Armand one again in ma life ill be happy!!!!!#manmountain#atehiskids#personalhygienemustbelookedinto
— ross mcmillan (@roscoaj) January 12, 2013
Oné’s issues with hygiene and McMillan’s difficulty in getting to grips with hashtags aside, it is difficult to see just exactly what the player brings to Stranraer. He may have been a cult hero with former clubs Partick Thistle and Cowdenbeath, but in a team like Stranraer, who rely heavily on kicking the ball upfield to their frontline as quickly as possible, he badly tested the patience of his teammates and management. There are a handful of talented players at Steve Aitken’s disposal – most notably goalkeeper David Mitchell, who performed solidly throughout – but it is difficult to believe the manager is unable to source better, fitter players than Oné.
Regardless, with Albion Rovers and Ayr United having both lost, Stranraer will view the weekend’s result as a valuable point gained in their bid to avoid relegation. The club have an unenviable fixture list, with forthcoming ties against Arbroath (h), Alloa Athletic (a), East Fife (h), Brechin City (a) and Queen of the South (h). When on form, the Blues are capable of upsetting the division’s more formidable sides and they must channel the same spirit which saw them beat Forfar and Alloa earlier in the season to take something from their upcoming games. CGT
4) Rangers’ inability to handle pacey forwards is a concern
A hat-trick from Andrew Little and an acrobatic strike from David Templeton secured Rangers’ 4-2 victory over Berwick Rangers at Ibrox. Although the result extended their lead at the top of the Third Division to 19 points, the Gers side once again lacked spark – it was the second match in as many weeks where they turned in another drab performance in front of their home support. Following on from last week’s 1-1 draw agianst Elgin City, Rangers toiled against a side who looked to play an expansive, enterprising brand of football.
Ian Little’s side looked to quickly shift the ball from left to right with the aim of exploiting the space behind the opposition full-backs, while their short, neat passing in the middle of the pitch looked to tease players out of position. Central to the Wee Gers’ fine performance was 18-year-old Dylan Easton, recruited after his release from Livingston. Depolyed in a trequarista role, his quick feet, guile and awareness of space caused difficulties for Rangers all afternoon; simply put, they were unable to deal with his pace.
With his side three-nil down, Little reconfigured his front pairing and within minutes, Ross Gray – who had replaced Dylan Easton – reduced the deficit after being afforded space on the edge of the Rangers penalty area. Berwick played impressively throughout, but Rangers’ inability to conteract their pace, enthusiasm and incisive play will be another concern for Ally McCoist. RD
5) Elgin City do things the difficult way
If Elgin City’s 3-4 loss at home to East Stirlingshire were to take the form of song, it would most certainly be Pulp’s “Pencil Skirt“. There is something quite lascivious about the way that City are going about their league campaign at the moment, which draws parallels with the album track from 1995’s Different Class.
Elgin were physically embarrassed during they match – they suffered the kind of chagrin experienced by a single man almost caught with his trousers down on the chaise longue in someone else’s fiancé’s bedroom. Stuart Leslie and Dennis Wyness couldn’t keep the ball in their area of the pitch, while Kevin Turner dominated Elgin’s centre-backs Sean Crighton and Jamie Duff with the sort of effortless power which makes one wonder why East Stirlingshire are at the bottom end of the table. Turner set up midfielder Michael Hunter twice for Shire to take the pleasure of a two-goal advantage in the first fifteen minutes, but Turner could already have had plundered a couple for himself if it wasn’t for goalkeeper Joe Malin’s fine stopping.
It seemed as if Elgin enjoyed making the circumstances difficult for themselves. The forbidden fruit of returning to the play-off positions would be all the more libidinous if they could impose their authority on East Stirlingshire after being punished first, if only their visitors could be lulled into a false sense of security.
A sudden key change almost half-way through the event brought a different pattern to the occasion. City manager Ross Jack had initially continued with his perverse experiment of using playmaker Mark Nicolson in defence (this time at left-back), while captain David Niven, with his strong jaw and alpha-male leadership qualities, was deployed in the centre of midfield. With the eventual reverse of roles shortly before half-time came a glut of goals: Daniel Moore whipped a salacious free-kick which Hunter scored into the wrong goal, before Turner teased Duff into drawing the foul for a penalty kick. Stuart Leslie reacted first to a rebound off the crossbar from a Dennis Wyness header for Elgin to finish the half at 2-3.
Wyness continued his impotence in front of goal in the second half and ended up hitting the woodwork three times during the match. Elgin had enough opportunities to level and possibly lead in the fixture, but by the end they were trying too hard to impress upon Grant Hay’s goal, and indeed, left themselves exposed two-on-two so often that the losing margin could have been much bigger than 3-4.
Elgin remain outside the play-off places, having flaunted themselves to a suggestion of what they could have, before eventually being found out. The depravity of the situation – with the range of emotions therein – is somewhat addictive, but City must realise that they will only have so many opportunities in the league this season to get what they want. The sooner they stop playing around, the better. JAM