1) The Son of Joe has still got it
IT will be three years in April since Steven Craig scored the famous goal at Hampden in Ross County’s celebrated 2-0 victory over Celtic in the Scottish Cup semi-final. Dribbling with the ball from the outside-right channel (with the aid of a lucky bounce of the ball from his shin), he tore through the deserting defence before expertly slotting the ball beyond goalkeeper Lukasz Zaluska. Craig’s contribution towards Celtic’s capitulation will forever render him a hero in Ross-Shire.
Craig started that match in a wide-right position to accomodate the specific tactics used to stifle Celtic’s midfield. However, that relative success proved to be part of Craig’s downfall in Dingwall, as his manager never saw him as a sole centre-forward; more often than not, the player ended up being part of Derek Adams’s “Plan B” on the right flank. Unable to displace the prolific partnership of Michael Gardyne and Colin McMenamin in Ross County’s title-winning season, Craig bore the unwelcome statistic of his team not winning a league match which he started.
A year later and things could not be more different for the son of Partick Thistle legend Joseph Craig. Steven was heavily involved in Thistle’s rout of Dunfermline at the weekend, scoring a hat-trick to bring his goal tally to 11 from 15 starts. Despite the Pars’ own understandable shortcomings, the result disproved a number of things. Firstly, Craig can hold his own up front in the First Division – keeping out a striker with the calibre of Kris Doolan (one of the league’s more prolific forwards in the previous two seasons) is no mean feat.
Secondly, Thistle are well equipped to transfer their outstanding home form to their travels. It remains to be seen exactly how good Alan Archibald’s credentials as a manager are, but his more pragmatic, less idealistic approach towards remaining possession of the ball, compared to that of Jackie McNamara, arguably suits playing away from home better.
Thirdly, Archibald’s reluctance to pick himself in the team appears to have inadvertently allowed the central defensive partnership of Aaron Muirhead and Conrad Balatoni to blossom. The Jags have not conceded a goal when Muirhead and Balatoni have been flanked by Stephen O’Donnell and Aaron Sinclair – a stat that now officially extends beyond 400 minutes (despite the midweek aberration at Cowdenbeath).
Lastly, the result justifies the presence of Ross Forbes in the team. With other talented, forward-thinking midfielders in the squad, some supporters question the need to have a player who finds it unnatural to press and to track back. What Forbes gives though, is an immaculate set-piece technique that is worth its place in the team alone, never mind the occasional long range goal from open play and his invariable quality to find and execute through balls for the forwards.
Now only two points behind Morton, with the Cowdenbeath match to the replayed, Thistle continue to maintain the First Division title race as unmissable. JAM
2) This season’s unsung heroes are rising to prominence
Frenchman Anthony Andreu has been praised on this site in the past, but two goals on Saturday against Airdrie United ensured that everyone will be taking notice of his consistent performances for Livingston.
Airdrie found themselves with an early advantage in the match, with top scorer John Boyle primed to score form the penalty spot. However, Boyle shot chose power over precision and his shot flew wildly over the bar into the stand behind.
Wearing the number 9 shirt, Andreu flirted somewhere between a central and outside-right position on the day, supporting Iain Russell who played on the shoulder of the last defender for the majority of the match. With Russell keeping Airdrie’s defence deep, it allowed Andreu to drop deep twice to leave Robbie Thomson with little chance to save in either occasion – Andreu’s goals came from each foot highlighting his outstanding shooting ability. And yet, it is the angles that he finds in his passes and the crispness of his execution which excites the most – his more measured style of play, compared to the high-speed dynamism of Russell, Stefan Scougall and Kyle Jacobs balances the team’s attacking phases. With five goals in his last ten league matches since the turn of the New Year, Andreu is settling into Scottish football just fine.
Meanwhile, another possibly underrated player scored a brace at the weekend. Falkirk won at Hamilton Academical to reach the semi-final of the Scottish Cup thanks to a superb performance from 20-year-old Blair Alston. As one of Steven Pressley’s many promising young midfielders, Alston has had to bide his time to earn his place in the team and despite being a couple of years older than some of his peers, he has probably been protected as much as any of the regulars in terms of how much football he plays – now having been featured in nine of ten matches in 2013, Falkirk have won in five of those with Alston regularly being one of the better midfielders.
Not necessarily known for his scoring (Alston now has three goals for the season), the player showed exquisite composure in front of goal, coming in from the left flank to connect to a Thomas Grant cut-back. This was followed in the second half with a deceptively accurate half-volley from a cleared corner-kick, a goal worthy of winning the tie for his team.
Although Stefan Scougall and Lyle Taylor often hog the spotlight for Livi and Falkirk respectively, Andreu and Alston are proving themselves to be terrific supporting acts. JAM
3) The 2012-13 season has been dismal for the two Monklands clubs
One only needs to glance at their respective league tables to see how poorly Airdrie United and Albion Rovers have performed this season. The Diamonds, who have collected five points since the New Year, capitulated 1-4 at Livingston on Saturday, while the Vers’ 1-5 home defeat to Alloa Athletic – their ninth consecutive loss – has left them marooned at the bottom of the Second Division, 12 points from ninth place Stranraer. In short, it has been an utterly wretched year for the two Monklands clubs.
According to the Airdrie and Coatbridge Advertiser’s Colin Paterson, their combined league record for the season so far reads as:
Played: 51; Won: 8; Drawn: 8; Lost: 35
It has been stated on numerous occasions but there are, of course, mitigating factors for the each club’s disappointing form. In mid-July, Airdrie were shunted into a division they were ill-prepared for and entering the most competitive league in the country with a squad assembled to challenge for a play-off place in the Second Division. Meanwhile, Albion Rovers’ best players defected in the summer, leaving their squad lacking in the quality to genuinely compete in Division Two – a repeat of last season’s ninth place finish would be an exceptional achievement.
While both teams obviously have deficiencies in their ability on the pitch, they are expected to make up for the shortfall with enthusiasm, effort and application. Both were sorely missing on Saturday, however – the level of defending show by Airdrie’s backline was appalling, riddled with careless individual mistakes which led directly to Livingston’s goals, while the Rovers’ performance was their poorest in years and a rotten display from start to finish. That manager Todd Lumsden was also involved in a bizarre staring contest with a 16-year-old fan at the final whistle did little to improve the mood at Cliftonhill.
Where does either side go from here? A change in manager might improve their fortunes – indeed, Airdrie supporters might look enviously at the marked improvement in Dumbarton’s results after replacing Alan Adamson with Ian Murray – but with Jimmy Boyle enjoying the full support of chairman Jim Ballantyne (who recently said their promotion has “set the club back three or four years” and that Boyle has been doing his job with “one hand tied behind his back”), any such notions seem unlikely. As for Albion Rovers, realistically speaking, who is likely to do a better job than Lumsden within the same budget? Has he actually done anything to merit dismissal?
With ten and 11 matches remaining of their respective seasons, the importance of the next eight weeks cannot be overstated for Airdrie United and Albion Rovers. CGT
4) Arbroath’s lack of form is a growing concern
Paul Sheerin’s anger at the end of Arbroath’s atrocious 1-4 home defeat to Ayr United was understandable. Although his side were on the end of a series of questionable decisions from referee Andrew Dallas, who awarded the opposition two penalties on either side of midfielder Brian Kerr’s red card, the manager’s fury was born out of the frustration of a second home defeat in less than a week; current form has seen the Red Lichties topple out of the final promotion play-off position and into fifth.
Since Sheerin took charge in May 2010, his Arbroath side’s success has been built on an impressive home record – they only lost three home matches in each of the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons, a remarkable feat. This campaign, while Arbroath have struggled away from home (last week’s victory at Alloa Athletic was the only their third victory on the road of the season), their home form saw them consolidate their play-off place by the end of January. However, a 0-1 home defeat to Brechin City in mid-February has precipitated a run of four defeats in five games, including three-in-a-row at Gayfield. As the season enters its final quarter, concerns are beginning to grow.
Arbroath finished last season on a whimper. After challenging with Cowdenbeath at the summit of the table for the majority of the year, they collapsed badly, winning just two of their final seven fixtures before losing out to Dumbarton in the play-off semi-finals. If they are to avoid another disappointing end to their campaign, Sheerin must address his side’s lack of form and in particular, their inability to score. Since the beginning of February, the club have scored five goals in seven games – indeed, top scorer Steven Doris (missing on Saturday with a hamstring injury) has not netted since the 1-5 capitulation at Queen of the South on 5 January.
With nobody able step up in Doris’s absence, Arbroath’s play-off aspirations are slowly slipping away. AG
5) Stirling Albion are an outside bet for the final play-off position
Stirling Albion’s 2-1 away victory over Elgin City – secured through two wonderful goals from former Babestation cameraman Kieran McAnespie – lifted the club into seventh place. After a shocking start to the season where the team won only one of their opening six league matches, manager Greig McDonald has guided his side through a seven game unbeaten run which has seen the club collect 16 points from the 21 available. Such is their current form, the club are being considered as dark horses to challenge for the final play-off position; indeed, the contest for fourth place could become one of the most intriguing in the SFL.
With Rangers’ demotion rendering any battle for the championship an irrelevance (given their full-time status and vast resources, it was inevitable the club would cast those around them asunder – in terms of results at least, even if not always in terms of performances) and with Queen’s Park and Montrose sitting comfortably in second and third place respectively, any one of the remaining teams in the division could conceivably finish in fourth – only seven points separate Peterhead in fourth and Clyde in last place.
At the turn of the New Year, any such notion would have seemed highly unlikely when it was only QP, Montrose, Peterhead and Elgin contesting the three play-off places. However, Peterhead and Elgin have both been dogged by indifferent form: the Blue Toon have only won twice this calendar year, while City have faltered badly, winning once in 12 matches. Their poor runs have allowed the teams above them to pull away unchallenged while enabling the clubs beneath them to close the gap.
A tilt on the play-off places is perhaps unlikely for Annan Athletic and Clyde – both are badly out of sorts, despite the latter’s well-deserved win over Peterhead at the weekend – but Berwick Rangers, Stirling Albion and East Stirlingshire seem the most probable candidates to mount a challenge for fourth. The play-offs have their detractors but in an uncompetitive league, such a commodity should be highly valued. CGT