Five Things We Learned from the SFL

1) Winning the First Division is only the beginning

DUNDEE’S 5-1 thumping of Greenock Morton at home in the fifth round of the Scottish Cup reminded us of the difference between playing at the top of the SFL and bottom of the SPL. Cup upsets often suggest that the difference between the top flight and the others is either minimal or easily bridged – this is rarely the case, certainly beyond “one-off” matches where the quality of the squad as a whole is not as important as the starting XI chosen and the other circumstances which can affect any given match.

In Morton’s case, they would have gone into the match pretty confident of overturning the odds – sitting at the top of the First Division and unbeaten away from home in every competition throughout the current campaign, they had every reason to be. Dundee would not be in the SPL in normal circumstances, but by making up the vacant “Club 12” they have struggled at the foot of the table, achieving only half the number of points as their nearest rival.

However, Dundee recorded a convincing victory over the visiting team. A relatively non-eventful first half gave way to a clutch of goals in the second. Morton’s Michael Tidser equalised for the Ton, but Dundee had the run of play throughout and the score-line did not flatter and could have been greater. Colin Nish (despite being derided in the SPL as not being good enough) caused problems with his height against a normally commanding Morton defence, whilst even John Baird – verging on prolific in the First but frustratingly impotent in the top flight – scored.

Morton are relying on tested veterans (Kevin Rutkiewicz, Martin Hardie and Mark McLaughlin) to lead them to the First Division title. If they were to beat Partick Thistle and Dunfermline to promotion, there is no doubt that Allan Moore will require a serious turnover of playing staff once again to be competitive in the SPL, or they could follow the Pars to an immediate return to Division One. However, there is a lot of football between now and the end of the season – at least all three leading teams have nothing but the league (in a sporting sense) to focus on now. JAM

 

2) Ian Murray is not invincible

Given their recent run of outstanding results, Dumbarton might have gone into the weekend’s meeting with Livingston as favourites. Under Ian Murray, the Sons have won five of their previous six matches and have been transformed from a rag-tag group of cloggers into a genuine threat. While Gareth Evans’s upwardly-mobile Livi have become increasingly resurgent in recent weeks, such was the improvement at the Bet Butler Stadium that they too could have fallen like Falkirk, Morton and Partick Thistle.

This was not the case, with Livingston securing a well-earned 4-3 win. Despite a relatively even first half with only Iain Russell’s cute finish separating the sides, the second half was dominated by the visitors who passed and moved the ball around the park with their usual confidence and aplomb. Anthony Andreu and the irrepressible Stefan Scougall were particularly impressive, while Jordan Morton’s goal on 86 minutes was quite sublime.

Two goals in stoppage time from Alan Lithgow and Bryan Prunty ensured a nervous finish (indeed, such was the dominance in the game’s closing stages that had it gone on for five minutes more, Dumbarton could well have salvaged a point). The result sees Livingston consolidate fourth place and the club are now 12 points from the top of the table with two games in hand – a challenge for the championship is unlikely but certainly not unrealistic.

Ian Murray’s hot streak with the Sons was never likely to last, but the club are now competitive with a very solid chance of staying in the division next term. With testing ties against Livingston again (a), Raith Rovers (a) and Falkirk (h) ahead, it will be fascinating to watch the side’s progress throughout February. Dumbarton’s match with Cowdenbeath on 2 March could play a major factor in the battle to avoid relegation to Division Two. CGT

 

3) John Gemmell’s return is vital for Stenhousemuir

It would be incorrect to label Stenhousemuir as a “one-man team”, but the importance of striker John Gemmell to Martyn Corrigan’s side cannot be overstated. Before Gemmell picked up an injury in mid-November, the club had collected an average of 1.25 points per game (and had also knocked holders Kilmarnock out of the League Cup); in the subsequent eight matches without him, they picked up a meagre 1.00 points per game and generally looked toothless as an attacking force. His return after a ten week absence was hugely anticipated.

Of course, Gemmell could have easily been an Ayr United player before the Warriors’ weekend match with Arbroath. The Honest Men had three bids for the striker rejected last Thursday, with Chairman Bill Darroch stating that his team were “not prepared to transfer one of our best players to a club in the same division that was in opposition to us”. Gemmell’s goal on Saturday – a superb volley from the edge of the penalty area – capped an outstanding performance and outlined his value to Stenhousemuir. The burly forward held up the ball well, linked strongly with his teammates, and brought an aggression and purpose to the Warriors forward line sorely missing in recent months.

As well as Gemmell, centre-backs Ross McMillan and Scot Buist performed with diligence and dealt with Arbroath’s attacks with consummate ease; full-backs Kevin McKinaly and Greg Ross patrolled the flanks with little fuss; and Bryan Hodge probed and passed his way through the match.

Stenhousemuir’s victory (which also saw them record their third consecutive clean sheet) was thoroughly deserved and reduced the gap between them and Arbroath in fourth place to three points. With Gemmell now fully fit and with the recruitment of David Rowson on a permanent basis, the club might just have enough about them to clamber above their immediate rivals and into the play-off positions come May. CGT

 

4) Darren Gribben can play a big part in the Division Two relegation battle

If it’s possible to be a journeyman at the age of just 26, then Darren Gribben certainly fits the bill. Ten years ago as a precocious teenager, he made his debut for Hamilton Academical and came off the bench to score a late equaliser against Stenhousemuir. Two years later, stunted by the lack of opportunities afforded to him, Gribben left the Accies in search of regular first team football and has subsequently spent time with Cowdenbeath, Forfar Athletic, Stirling Albion, Brechin City, Stranraer, Berwick Rangers (twice), Bo’ness United, Dumbarton and Arbroath in a nomadic career which has not reached the heights expected.

The latest juncture in Gribben’s odyssey is a return to Stair Park following his release from Arbroath. In a crucial 3-1 victory over East Fife, Gribben scored twice on his second debut with the club – he took just nine minutes to stab home Grant Gallagher’s neat pass, before bundling home from close range 20 minutes later.

The win has allowed the Blues to capitalise on the inaction of the nearest rivals Albion Rovers and Ayr United. Stranraer have extended their advantage over tenth place Rovers to eight points, and they are now only separated by the Honest Men on goal difference (albeit Stranraer have played two more games than either side). Gribben could prove to be a very shrewd acquisition by manager Steve Aitken in a bid to avoid relegation – the Half-Term Report Card noted the important role which Michael Moore plays in relieving the pressure from an overworked defence, and Gribben – naturally a poacher – should be able to make the most of the opportunities offered to him.

As for East Fife, manager Billy Brown endured another frustrating afternoon. Their goal came from their only effort on target, a speculative effort from Paul Willis which goalkeeper David Mitchell should have dealt better with. Last weekend, Brown lamented the 3-3 draw with Ayr as the worst performance since he took over and described Saturday’s performance as “absolutely shocking”. A four-game unbeaten run has very quickly become four matches without a win – with the sides immediately below them carrying between one and three games in hand over them, East Fife are in real danger of being dragged back into the relegation mire. AG

 

5) Elgin City are still relatively competitive, despite their injury problems

Paul Millar might be a fireman by trade but he poured cold water on Clyde’s party by scoring Elgin City’s second half equaliser at Broadwood on Saturday. The 27-year-old took advantage of a clumsy defensive error (which saw Iain Gray taken to hospital after clashing with goalkeeper Jamie Barclay) to prod the ball into the net on 79 minutes. Apart from Millar’s goal, manager Ross Jack claimed his side were “rusty” but in truth, a number of injuries to key players disrupted their usual rhythm of play.

Suspensions forced Jack to reconfigure his side with Nicolson once again asked to play in central defence where he turned in a man of the match performance. Adopting a slightly deeper position, the player was able to sweep with relative ease and his reliability and versatility will be crucial as the season progresses.

Elgin found themselves in a bizarre situation inside the opening half hour when injuries forced them to make two changes. Dennis Wyness, who pulled his hamstring, and midfielder Brian Cameron were replaced by Millar and Graeme Beveridge respectively. Millar – who describes himself as the tallest outfield player in the UK – added a different dimension to Elgin’s attack with an enthusiastic display.

City have now gone seven matches without a victory, with inconsistency and a sporadic training schedule to blame. They have ground to make on Montrose, Peterhead and Queen’s Park for a play-off position and Jack must rely on his talented squad, despite being stretched to the limits. RD

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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