1) “Alan” McMenamin could make the difference. One way or another…
GREENOCK MORTON recorded their third straight league victory to keep them at the top of the table by five points (having played two matches more than their nearest rivals). However, their 1-0 home win over Raith Rovers was not a vintage performance. Rovers registered more shots than the home team and if it were not for Derek Gaston continuing his recent run of strong form, as well as solid organisation from the defence (including one last-ditch clearance from Kevin Rutkiewicz on the goal-line), Morton’s advantage at the top might not have been as commanding as it currently is.
The first half was a relative non-event, with Morton’s right-winger David Graham replaced at half-time by new signing Colin McMenamin (mistakenly introduced to the crowd by chairman Douglas Rae as “Alan McMenamin“). The team shape changed as a result, with McMenamin partnering Peter MacDonald up front and the lop-sided midfield forming a 4-4-2, with Fuoad Bachirou tucking in to the right side and David O’Brien continuing on the left. When MacDonald couldn’t distract the Rovers defence on his own in the first half, the new centre-forward partnership allowed the ball to stick in Rovers’ own third of the pitch, facilitating the defence and midfield to creep forward. Martin Hardie’s knock-down at the edge of the box allowed Michael Tidser to show excellent technique to marry precision with power beyond David McGurn – it was only the second league match in which Tidser has score, but as Morton chase promotion he will likely contribute further. It was after the goal when Raith Rovers began to attack with intent – Brian Graham and Pat Clarke could have had three goals between them, but the Ton held on to match Partick Thistle’s one-goal winning margin.
Whether or not Morton continue with a 4-4-2 is now Allan Moore’s conundrum. Displacing the midfield trio of Tidser, Hardie and Bachirou on a permanent basis would seem like folly. Keeping Bachirou on the right side of midfield worked against Rovers, because most of the attacking play for both teams was focused on the other flank but doing the same against teams like Thistle and Dunfermline – who would look to dominate the centre of midfield and who work their own left flank well – could be a recipe for disaster.
McMenamin is certainly good enough to hold his own in a 4-5-1 in the First Division. To say that he cannot make the step up to the SPL is probably harsh – with Ross County, he struggled for mobility with a hip injury earlier this season and never got a run of games in the starting XI he needed, despite clearly the side’s best attacking option at the time. With an ability to play side-on to centre-backs when the ball is played into his feet, bring midfielders into play in the final third, and to make blind-side runs in the penalty box, McMenamin has plenty to offer. Yet, with three other quality forwards in MacDonald, Peter Weatherson, and the irrepressible but currently rehabilitating Archie Campbell, finding a place for the new signing as well as the others could be a problematic balancing act – it could either improve an already dangerous Morton team, or change the course of momentum altogether. JAM
2) Livingston have exorcised their demons at East End Park
On Pie and Bovril’s First Division forum, a thread titled “Worst Team of the Season so far (in an individual game)” appeared around a fortnight ago where supporters were encouraged to offer their opinion on the poorest performance they had witnessed over the course of the campaign. At a glance, there were two matches which stood out: the first was Airdrie United’s dismal capitulation at Partick Thistle; and the other was Livingston’s error-strewn shambles against Dunfermline in September.
The Lions’ performance at East End Park that afternoon – which finished in a 0-4 defeat but could have easily reached double figures – was a cavalcade of individual and collective mistakes which verged on slapstick. The match was perhaps most notable for featuring then-manager John Hughes’s misguided pursuit of total football: when goalkeeper Andy McNeil was in possession, either from open play or from a goal-kick, the full-backs would move high up the pitch while the centre-backs split and moved into the wide positions to receive the ball. Dunfermline quickly realised the way to capitalise on this tactic was to press high up the pitch; the inevitable thrashing followed.
However, since Hughes’s defection to League One side Hartlepool in November, the club have steadily improved. While new manager Gareth Evans has continued with Hughes’s nuanced passing approach, his young side are no longer prohibited from playing longer balls forward or adopting a more direct style of play. Their performance at East End Park on Saturday was a complete contrast to the dismal showing from earlier in the season and their 1-0 victory was entirely merited.
Granted, Dunfermline played poorly but it would be foolish to dismiss Livingston’s input out of hand. It has been noted on many occasions, but in Stefan Scougall, Livi have one of the best young midfielders in Scotland and the 20-year-old’s composure and intelligent on the ball was central to his side’s strong display – a move to a bigger club is inevitable. Frenchman Anthony Andreu has adapted well to the division and his goal – assisted by Mark McNulty’s fine work – was exceptionally well taken. Meanwhile, centre-back Jesus Tena’s goal-line clearance midway through the second half was nothing short of outstanding.
One can only wonder just how well the club would have performed over the course of the season had they not been dogged by Hughes’s rigid, unbending tactical approach at the outset. Fourth in the table, Livingston are 15 points behind league leaders Morton with three games in hand, but it might just be too little, too late for Evans’s talented young side to offer a genuine challenged for promotion. CGT
3) This is the time for Elvis
Falkirk’s Steven Pressley seems to be a popular man at the moment. Firmly in the running for the Dundee United job (with an interview likely to happen this week), the former Scotland international is also subject to speculation of being appointed manager at Huddersfield Town.
Articulate, opinionated and possibly even urbane when he wants to be (the shoes are often a target for ridicule, but the sartorial choices are undermined by a desperate need for a haircut and/or shave), it is no wonder that directors of other clubs see Pressley as the image of football management that they want to be connected with. The manner in which Pressley comes across in the media suggests that he would interview quite strongly and it would be no surprise if Dundee United offered him the manager’s job at Tannadice. However, a closer inspection on Pressley’s performance in his first job in first team management leaves a lot to be desired.
Saturday saw Falkirk’s first win in 2013, having been thumped by Partick Thistle the previous weekend and failing to win against Morton and Hamilton before that. The previous year had a league win ratio teeter somewhere between a fifth and a third of all matches. The first half of this season saw Pressley’s team struggle to find any kind of form, with the manager’s reactive, counter-attacking tactics often to blame.
Possibly with the prospect of having his team watched by suitors at the weekend, Pressley’s attacking aspirations broke free. Falkirk won 4-3 at home to Airdrie United, but the score-line did flatter the visiting team to a considerable extent. Falkirk had a three-goal advantage at half-time, but it is no exaggeration to suggest that it could have been much larger by the time that Airdrie put pressure on the home defence in the last five minutes of play. Jay Fulton’s feet cavorted with the ball in uncomfortably tight spaces; Sean Higgins played the perfect supporting role for Lyle Taylor, apart from blasting his own shot straight at Kenny Arthur (although a few players, including Taylor, were thwarted by the goalkeeper); and Stewart Murdoch improved on the previous week’s dismal performance and thrashed the ball into the net from the edge of the box. Some foolish defending and an exquisite free-kick from Willie McLaren ensured that the result was ultimately not a forgone conclusion, but it really should have been. This was arguably Falkirk’s best performance since the beginning of the season.
Even if there are now some signs of progress with the current squad, Pressley must take one of his opportunities now, before they disappear completely. He only needs to look to Billy Reid‘s comparative decline at Hamilton, after Swansea came calling, to realise that staying for too long can jeopardise future prospects. JAM
4) Forfar Athletic’s good work is being undone
After beating Ayr United 3-2 at Somerset Park on 25 August, Forfar Athletic climbed into third place in the league. The club then went on an extraordinary run of form, picking up ten points from their following four fixtures but since October, results have been decidedly mixed. Victories over Stenhousemuir, Ayr and East Fife have been tempered by thrashings from Stranraer, Queen of the South and Brechin City to the point where the club were in danger of relinquishing their lofty status. Indeed, Saturday’s defeat to Arbroath at Gayfield – a rudimentary victory for the home side – has seen the Loons finally topple out of the play-off places and into fifth.
It would be unfair to discredit Arbroath, who played well throughout (and with new recruitments Ross Chisholm and Graham Bayne, are beginning to look at their most purposeful), but the outcome of Saturday’s contest was entirely expected. Forfar’s decline over the course of the season has been decremental, and there have been a number of factors for their recent negative results.
Unsure of what his best starting XI should be, manager Dick Campbell has routinely chopped and changed his squad with little rhyme or reason. Inevitably, this has led to a lack of cohesion and a series of disjointed performances. For instance, Martyn Fotheringham, a player who had been in and out of the side of late, was often too eager to impress and carelessly ceded possession on a number of occasions. A lack of assurance also runs throughout the squad, particularly in defence and Campbell’s inability to choose an established number 1 has cost the side of a number of occasions. Darren Hill, recently signed from Arbroath, is the fourth goalkeeper to have played for the club this season and the ever-changing ‘keepers at the club is often an unsettling presence for the defence. Although there was little he could have done to prevent the goals, his poor distribution put his side under unnecessary pressure on several occasions.
Earlier in the season – and during their excellent series of results – it had been suggested that Forfar were the league’s dark horses and were capable of maintaining their challenge on the play-off places for the remainder of the season. On current form, the club are likely to finish the season as also-rans. CGT
5) Cammy MacDonald is the right answer in the wrong place for Ayr United
With the last three matches between East Fife and Ayr United at New Bayview all finishing with a score-line of three goals-to-two, it was little surprise that the sides played out another high-scoring encounter in Methil on Saturday. Also of little surprise was the fact that the Honest Men were unable to hold onto the two-goal lead they had established after 17 minutes – their lack of resolve has been discussed elsewhere in this column. To the disbelief of manager Mark Roberts – and, indeed, the ire of the travelling support – his side went into the interval having squandered their advantage after conceding three goals. It took a decisive strike five minutes from time to salvage the point.
Roberts has recently been handed a cash windfall and has moved to strengthen his squad by recruiting former Cowdenbeath, Partick Thistle and Dunfermline striker Liam Buchanan. After returning from the League of Ireland, Buchanan disappointed in a brief spell with Airdrie United but he performed assiduously on his debut for Ayr. Paired in attack with Michael Moffat, the two strikers showed glimpses that they could develop a genuine understanding as the season progresses. Moffat, who has toiled in recent weeks, looked relieved to have been unburdened as his side’s main source of goals and benefitted from playing with a partner – his assured finish to open the scoring was his first from open play since November.
Defender Cammy MacDonald also made his debut for the Honest Men as a trialist following his acrimonious departure from Airdrie at the turn of the year. MacDonald is generally considered to be an assured performer in the third tier but his integration into the Ayr squad may some time – Saturday was another comical defensive display. Neglected by opposition players five yards from goal, David White casually nodded in East Fife’s first goal; the second came after Paul McManus breached a malfunctioning offside trap; and the third saw two East Fife players easily outsmart the entire Ayr defence. MacDonald might not have had the impact Roberts was hoping for, but his final contribution to the match was as spectacular as it was vital – with the full-time whistle approaching, he struck an unstoppable drive from distance to tie the game.
Billy Brown labelled East Fife’s performance as their worst since he took over but the draw – their third in a row – extends their unbeaten run to four matches. Brown was vexed by his players’ failure to adhere to his instructions and maintain the standard set in recent weeks, but he should take solace in the fact his side competed well throughout, despite missing a handful of first team players through injury. With three points separating them from Arbroath in fourth place, the Fifers are still an outside bet to finish the season in the play-off positions. AG