Five Things We Learned from the SFL

1) Partick Thistle’s rearranged fixtures will decide the title

THE last few weeks have been somewhat sobering for the Partick Thistle support. The loss of Jackie McNamara and Simon Donnelly was a palpable blow, while the relentless form of Greenock Morton – who have now won their last four matches – has opened up an eight point gap between the sides at the top of the table.

The deficit can be partly attributed to the postponements of Thistle’s last two fixtures. Last weekend’s tie with Cowdenbeath was called off, while Saturday’s meeting with Raith Rovers was also rearranged. The consecutive deferrals have left fans frustrated, allowing Morton to take advantage of their inaction as well as denying them the opportunity to see what tweaks (if any) the newly installed interim manager Alan Archibald will introduce into his team.

Saturday’s call-off came after a 10:30am pitch inspection at Starks Park. The pitch had been badly damaged during the previous weekend’s Scottish Cup tie with Celtic, but during the week Rovers groundsman Craig Surgeon revealed the soil had been badly affected by a condition known as “black layer“. Not only does black layer affect the drainage, but it also causes the ground to release an eggy smell.

The recent postponements mean that Thistle’s trip to Cappielow on Saturday might not be a must-win, but it is certainly looking like a must not lose. Three games in hand over the league leaders is all well and good, but games in hand do not automatically convert into points on the board. Indeed, given that two of the three fixtures are away from home, the Jags are far from guaranteed to pick up the maximum number of points available – their away form this campaign has been wretched, with the club only winning twice on the road.

The fixture pile-up means that this coming weekend will commence an arduous sequence of eight fixtures in four weeks, five of which are outwith the comfort of Firhill – it is a run that will test Archibald’s players to their limit. It cannot be overstated, but Partick Thistle’s forthcoming results will have a major bearing on the destination of the First Division championship. SM


2) Livingston’s lack of options in attack could cost them

Saturday’s meeting between Livingston and Dumbarton at Almondvale was, simply put, an outrageous game of football. The match had everything: spectacular goals, astonishing goalkeeping (and inept goalkeeping), courageous defending, rambunctious tackling and incompetent refereeing, but most all, supreme entertainment. To run out an old cliché, it was a fine advertisement for the First Division.

The contest was a clash of styles: under previous manager John Hughes and current incumbent Gareth Evans, the home side have developed a reputation as one of the most eye-catching sides in the SFL with their high-tempo, fluent passing approach; the Sons, meanwhile, rely on their collective solidity and attempt to shift the ball towards the frontline as quickly as possible while looking for their midfield to push up in support. In some ways, the match could be described as flair versus physicality.

With Livingston trailing by two goals to three, Mark Gilhaney’s sending off on 79 minutes could have been the game’s turning point. Gilhaney had injured himself some minutes prior and as he trudged unhurriedly from the pitch for substitution, he appeared to quarrel with referee Paul Robertson; a red clash was quickly flashed in the player’s direction. Gilhaney’s dismissal prompted Dumbarton to tactically reshuffle and organise themselves into two rigid banks of four to sit behind ball, with substitute Jim Lister operating as the team’s only out-ball.

Inevitably, Livingston saw the majority of the possession and moved the ball in and around the Dumbarton penalty area, but they were unable to genuinely unsettle the opposition defence. Players like Stefan Scougall and Iain Russell would pass and pass and pass the ball across the Sons defence, waiting for an opening that never came. A crude comparison would be to the Arsenal team from around 2008: all foreplay but little penetration.

How Livi could have benefitted from having someone like Lister or Garry Fleming in their team. The lack of muscle in attack – both in the starting XI and on the bench – precluded the Lions from reconfiguring their team into something more direct and threatening. With their numerical advantage, they should have looked to press and stretch Dumbarton on the flanks with the aim of getting balls into the box (and given their full-time status, they should have been capable of doing so), but they lacked the personnel or the willingness to attempt such alterations. As a result, their play was narrow and easy for Dumbarton to defend against.

Livingston’s nuanced approach is bold and often brilliant, but Evans must be willing to sacrifice his principles for the greater good when required. When it works, Plan A can be sumptuous, but a Plan B is also needed. CGT


3) Cowdenbeath might have turned the corner

It had been a long five months since Cowdenbeath last recorded a league victory. While the end of August and beginning of September saw three wins in succession to put the Blue Brazil in third place in the league, there has been a steady decline since then, with a winless streak extending to a remarkable 16 matches. If it originally looked as though Cowden could be the one of the three part-time teams to escape the mire of relegation once again, then more recently the prospect of demotion seemed inevitable.

This changed at the weekend after Colin Cameron’s team recorded a resounding 4-1 victory over Falkirk at Central Park. In a sense, the result was a shock to many, given Cowdenbeath’s recent league record, but in another sense it is not, because they were probably due a win on the balance of performances over the winter (not to mention Falkirk having only one win in five before Saturday).

Cowdenbeath were galvanised by Jon Robertson, who has returned to Fife after impressing for the club in the Second Division last season before signing for St Mirren. Originally signed for only a month’s return, Cameron will surely be looking for Robertson to continue a blossoming rapport with Lewis Milne in the centre of midfield until the end of the season. Despite still being relatively young at 23, “Robbo” showed a strong sense of leadership on the park and drove his team forward in the manner that St Mirren supporters have not yet had the opportunity to see.

Initially, victory seemed a mild hope after Lyle Taylor scored once again. Having been forced to collect the ball in the outside-left channel, Taylor enjoyed turning Cowden captain John Armstrong inside-out with a procession of feints, before implausibly finding the inside net of the far post from a strike which goalkeeper Thomas Flynn could have probably done better with. Armstrong redeemed himself with a couple of goals in the four scored by the home team, amongst some lacklustre marking by Falkirk’s defenders. Having overturned the deficit to make the result at half-time 2-1, Cowdenbeath enjoyed energetic counter-attacks led by Robertson and Kane Hemmings and never again looked like losing.

With the welcome return to the team for Greg Stewart, Cowdenbeath will have some hope towards avoiding the play-off spot and, most probably, the automatic relegation spot entirely. JAM


4) Now is the winter of Brechin City’s discontent

Brechin City may be undefeated in 2013, but the New Year has been hugely frustrating for the Angus club. Saturday’s postponement against Stranraer was their fourth consecutive weekend without football, with a waterlogged Glebe Park precluding the match from going ahead. The last time the club played in a competitive fixture was a 2-2 draw with East Fife on 12 January, but remarkably, their enforced inactivity has not affected their league position.

After the meeting with East Fife, Brechin occupied third place in the Second Division table, three points clear of Forfar Athletic in fourth and six ahead of Arbroath in fifth. Second place Alloa Athletic, meanwhile, held a four point advantage over the club. Four weeks later, and Brechin are still in third. Although Alloa have increased the deficit between the sides to ten points, Forfar and Arbroath have been unable to take advantage of Brechin’s inertia with their inferior goal differences counting against them. The fact that Brechin remain in third place might highlight the limitations of the teams immediately beneath them, but it has been a disappointing time for everyone connected with the club.

The frustration has been exacerbated by recent expenditure – a “near five-figure sum” – on a new pitch protection system, yet since the covers were purchased, there have been five postponements at Glebe Park. Part of the rationale for the investment was the management committee’s perception that in recent years, results have been poorer in rearranged midweek fixtures. A cursory glance through their results over the last two years indicates this is a reasonable conclusion, particularly during the 2010-11 season. The club were competing at the top of the Second Division until a harsh winter which saw them play just one fixture between mid-November and the beginning of January.

Brechin ended 2010 just a point behind league leaders Livingston (and four ahead of Ayr United and Alloa), but eventually finished the season in fourth place, 25 points behind the West Lothian club. The major factor in their collapse was a punishing schedule of midweek games – they played eight games in April 2011, losing all of their three midweek fixtures at Glebe Park and picking up five points from a possible 24.

Will the same thing happen this term? McKinnon has kept his players ticking over with a friendly at against Montrose at Links Park last Tuesday but with eight games scheduled for March, he will have to manage his squad carefully to avoid a repeat of 2010-11 and ensure their games in hand allow Brechin to consolidate their current play-off position. AG


5) Albion Rovers are in big trouble

With Stranraer’s match against Brechin City postponed, Albion Rovers had the perfect chance to reduce the eight point gap between the sides and regain some ground on their relegation rivals against a stuttering Arbroath side, whose campaign has been blemished by indifference and inconsistency. The last time the sides met in Coatrbridge, the Rovers turned in their most convincing performance of the season, thrashing Paul Sheerin’s side 4-0. Given Arbroath’s wretched away form this term, there was quiet optimism that Todd Lumsden’s side could prevail once again.

What transpired was a contest between two poor sides, with one marginally poorer than the other. Albion Rovers huffed and puffed throughout but were unable to truly perturb the Arbroath defence or threaten on goal. There were also deficiencies in goal with Ryan Scully, a young loanee from Partick Thistle – the fourth goalkeeper to have played for Rovers this term – flapping at a fairly innocuous cross to allow Colin Hamilton to prod the ball home from close range for the only goal of the game. There is a decent goalkeeper concerned somewhere in Scully (he has saved two penalties in his last two matches) but he is too raw to make his mark on a side fighting relegation.

Perhaps most concerning of all was Rovers’s flat performance, played out by a group of players who seem to have resigned themselves to their inevitable return to the basement league. It has been noted elsewhere on this site, but if Albion Rovers were to avoid relegation it would usurp last season’s achievements but this seems beyond this season’s team – spirit and camaraderie is one thing, but it cannot make up for the lack of quality within the current Rovers squad. 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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