1) The First Division title race is still on
A THRILLING 2-2 draw at Cappielow between league leaders Greenock Morton and Partick Thistle provides more questions than it does answers.
It appears, on the face of it, that Alan Archibald will continue in a similar tactical manner to his predecessor Jackie McNamara, having had his team begin the match in a familiar 4-2-3-1 formation. Hugh Murray partnered Paul Paton at the base of midfield, meaning that Thistle had an extra player in the middle of the park against Morton’s lop-sided 4-4-2. Murray enjoyed an excellent first half in a dual role of sitting off the back off midfield to ensure possession was recycled, while also engaging Fouad Bachirou when necessary. This meant that Morton’s right-sided midfielder Kyle Wilkie tucked into the centre and ceded the whole of that flank to Thistle left-back Aaron Sinclair. While the Jags bettered Morton in terms of territory and possession and led 1-0 at half-time, Morton made more clear-cut chances – Peter MacDonald and Colin McMenamin both ought to have scored.
It took the inevitable introduction of Martin Hardie after the break to change the pattern of the match. Although Steven Craig scored with a header almost immediately after the restart, Thistle were soon to be playing on the back foot due to a more direct approach taken by Allan Moore’s team. It took until Peter Weatherson’s introduction with 15 minutes remaining to seriously test the Thistle rearguard; while Aaron Muirhead and Conrad Balatoni won their fair share of aerial duels, it was the collective failure to clear the second ball after the header which hurt the team. MacDonald scored indirectly from a free-kick with a daisy-cutter, before Hugh Murray foolishly blocked a shot with his arm with several players still between him and the goal. MacDonald’s penalty restored parity, but with ten minutes to go it seemed likely that there would only be one winner. Murray collected a second yellow card for the second time at Cappielow this season and he will be glad that his team-mates held on to the draw.
Thistle now have two home matches in succession in the next week, the first against a struggling Hamilton side and the second with relegation favourites Airdrie United. Six points by this time next week will build pressure on Morton to maintain their form, who have a difficult fixture against Dunfermline (who, at ten points behind Morton, are more likely to be overtaken by Livingston than regain top spot). Thistle’s games in hand will now have a huge say in the outcome of the title.
An official attendance figure of 5,647 saw this captivating encounter. If the controversial 12-12-18 league format materialises sooner rather than later, both Morton and Thistle will prove exciting and worthwhile opponents to the top of the merged structure. JAM
2) The next few weeks will be make-or-break for Ian Murray and Dumbarton
It says a lot about the contrasting form of both sides that the majority of the pre-match speculation over Dumbarton’s trip to Raith Rovers centred on most bookmakers’ generous odds of an away victory. With six wins from eight matches, Dumbarton had risen to the lofty heights of eighth place; meanwhile, a horrid run of one win in ten had seen the Rovers support concern themselves with the results of Hamilton and Cowdenbeath, rather than Thistle or Dunfermline’s.
The Sons’ recent renaissance looks even more impressive given that they were stranded at the bottom of the league with five points from their first 13 matches with a goal difference of minus 29 just eight weeks ago. Nine matches later and not only have Dumbarton clawed back a seven point deficit to Airdrie United, they have surged five points clear of them.
Their form has earned manager Ian Murray plaudits, including January’s Manager of the Month award after collecting 12 points from a possible 15. Murray has claimed the upturn in fortunes is down to better organisation and his players’ greater sense of self-belief, but there are also a number of talented footballers at his disposal: Jim Lister and Bryan Prunty are impressive forwards (the latter has averaged a goal every other game since Murray took charge), while centre-backs Andy Graham and Alan Lithgow have formed a solid defensive partnership, conceding only three goals throughout January.
On Saturday, Murray will have left Kirkcaldy bitterly disappointed about the manner of his side’s defeat and the concession of a last minute goal. His side’s counter attacking approach relies on two things: converting the limited number of chances that fall their way, and defensive stability. While Prunty is keeping his end of the bargain in attack, Dumbarton’s defence looked vulnerable and was easily pulled apart by the Rovers forward line. This may have been understandable given the high number of injuries and suspensions, but in their other two fixtures this month (both against Livingston), they have conceded six goals. The total could have been higher had it not been for Jamie Ewings’ outstanding performance in last weekend’s 3-2 victory.
With three forthcoming home fixtures, Dumbarton have the perfect opportunity to extend the gap between themselves and Airdrie and to overtake Cowdenbeath in eighth. The Sons are yet to lose two consecutive games during Murray’s short tenure – their upcoming matches will be the barometer in indicating if Dumbarton can stay in the division, or if their outstanding run of form in January was an anomaly. SM
3) Michael Moffat can fire Ayr United to promotion
WOOAAHH! THE MOFF IS ON FIRE!
The Somerset Park terraces rocked as Michael Moffat’s treble assisted in Ayr United’s 5-2 dismantling of Albion Rovers. Two years ago, Moffat’s 11 goals (one of which was a dramatic winner in a play-off final against Brechin City) led the Honest Men to promotion and saw the player immortalised in song. Could history repeat itself?
The first of Moffat’s three goals – his first senior hat-trick – came courtesy of a penalty and was dispatched with customary composure, while his second and third were also archetypal of the striker. When released into the margins of the penalty box between the centre-back and full-back, Moffat is deadly – his second goal (and Ayr’s fourth) was volleyed home after his side overloaded on the right of the Rovers defence with Michael Donald and David Winters combining with the assist, while his third saw him beat the centre-back to a lofted ball into the box before finishing on the angle.
Despite the outstanding score-line, it would be careless to read too much into Ayr’s performance. Albion Rovers look doomed to relegation and their defensive fragility typified by Marvin Andrews (who was rumoured to have been snacking at McDonald’s on Whitletts Road before the match) was ruthlessly exploited by United’s quick-moving and skilful attackers. Ayr will face a far more bothersome encounter with Brechin City at Glebe Park on Tuesday night before next weekend’s home tie with Forfar Athletic. Victory in both games will reduce will reduce the gap between fourth and eighth place (currently six points) and maybe – just maybe – manager Mark Roberts can turn around Ayr’s incontrovertibly disappointing season. AG
4) East Fife are facing a relegation scrap
It has been a fairly miserable calendar year for East Fife. Since the New Year, the club have won on only one occasion, beating Albion Rovers 2-0 on 5 January, but the last seven weeks have been blighted by false starts and inconsistency – the victory over the Vers was followed by a six-game winless run. Indeed, had the league begun in 2013, East Fife would be in ninth place with six points, having collected an average of 0.75 points per game.
In Saturday’s 1-2 defeat at Stenhousemuir, East Fife played reasonably well and were arguably unfortunate not to take a point from the game, with Bryan Hodge’s fine brace proving to be the difference between the sides. There were a number of positives the Fifers could take from the match – David Muir shackled John Gemmell reasonably well and Scott McBride played with diligence – but the bottom line is that the side failed to win, suffering their third consecutive defeat. Decent performances are one thing but they count for nothing without positive results.
After Billy Brown’s appointment as manager on 5 November, East Fife won three of his first four matches in charge, and there was a genuine belief amongst the support that the club could begin to ascend through the table but recent results have tempered their optimism. The truth is that Gordon Durie spent the summer assembling a squad unable to challenge for a play-off position and who seemed more likely to spend the season skirting around the middle of the table. The recent acquisition of Bobby Barr was warmly met but the player’s influence has waned in recent weeks and the squad seem unable to rouse themselves from their current slump. Given his contacts, it is a surprise Brown did not strengthen his squad during over January.
East Fife are now tied on points with Ayr United (with a better goal difference) and four points clear of Stranraer in ninth place, but those teams have three and two games in hand respectively. Of course, games in hand do not equal points on the board, but the Fifers are in danger of being pulled into a relegation scrap. With poor results, unhappy players and some sections of the support also disgruntled with the recent direction of the club, these are wearying times for East Fife. CGT
5) Montrose are well worthy of their play-off position
Montrose recorded an emphatic 4-1 victory at the weekend over promotion rivals Elgin City – it was a result which in no way flattered them.
Although there is a former Ross County and Inverness Caledonian Thistle enclave at Elgin, it was Montrose’s former County forward Garry Wood who opened the scoring, capitalising on a misjudgement between goalkeeper Joe Malin and his defenders. Further poor defending by Elgin, allied some encouraging passing sequences by the Links Park side, facilitated a 3-0 advantage at half-time.
Elgin have now suffered five defeats in the league from their last ten matches, despite having attacking options including Daniel Moore, Stuart Leslie, Craig Gunn and the developing talent that is Paul – brother of Gary – Harkins. Although the Moray club’s ability to play football and score goals bodes well for them in theory, it is their defence that is currently undermining them. Jamie Duff’s absence was sorely felt at the weekend and his usual partner Sean Crighton received a red card for a professional foul when all was already lost.
Nevertheless, it is with Montrose that the real attacking prowess currently stands. Among Garry Wood, Leighton McIntosh and the return of recent favourite Martin Boyle, Montrose will not be shy of goals for the rest of the season. Even more promising is the recent return of chief playmaker Lloyd Young from over a month’s absence. With such a variety of options in attack, Montrose could very well have enough to keep Elgin at arm’s length for the remainder of the season. JAM