Five Things We Learned from the SFL

1) Craig Reid has developed into one of the SFL’s best defenders

WHILE Archie Campbell celebrated his first league start for Greenock Morton since the middle of November with the opening goal in a comfortable 2-0 win against Falkirk, the plaudits are probably best deserved elsewhere in the team.

There was a danger Morton might have had to field a make-shift defence at Cappielow against a Falkirk team (who of course were without the recently departed Steven Pressley). Regular starters Mark McLaughlin and Willie Dyer were both ruled out with injury, while Craig Reid and Thomas O’Ware were possible doubts. As it happened, O’Ware was fit enough to deputise for Dyer at left-back and Reid partnered Kevin Rutkiewicz in the centre of defence.

Reid’s presence beside Rutkiewicz was one of the game’s important features. With the division’s top scorer Lyle Taylor always looking to feed off balls played in behind defences, Reid’s mobility and reading of the game ensured that Taylor was never left one-on-one against goalkeeper Derek Gaston. Reid has always been a classy player, but his strong technical attributes as a defender has often led to him being played out of position in one of the full-back areas, until more recently when McLaughlin has been unavailable. With a continued spell in the centre, Reid has capably shown he can defend better than anyone on the ground, while the division’s more imposing forwards can be picked up by Rutkiewicz. To finish last season in a relegated team cursed with countless defensive mistakes, Reid is proving that little of it was down to him.

However, the player is not immune to mistakes and he will be grateful for David Weatherston not capitalising upon a volleyed clearance which sliced up and back over the defender’s head, leaving the forward to lob a bouncing ball over Gaston’s bar. Even the best defenders have trying moments, but it’s the clean sheet which Reid will remember the most when looking back in time to come. JAM


2) Livingston’s dominance over Raith Rovers continues

In an almost-relentless calendar year in the world of football, among the regular sporting season, spurious rumours over summer and prolonged pre-season, March is often seen as just another month. For Raith Rovers, the month has at least some minor resonance as it was in March 2001 when they last won a match against Livingston. Although this is only the second league campaign involving the two clubs since then, Livingston have won five and drawn two league matches and have an aggregate scoreline of 13-2 from those fixtures.

Despite being the visiting team on Saturday, Livingston played the game on the front foot without making many chances before Iain Russell’s penalty after 20 minutes. Goalkeeper Andrew McNeil committed his obligatory howler early on with the ball at his feet, but he would have been thankful that his defence shielded Grant Anderson away from goal. Livi showed a good variety at their corner kicks and it was a short corner that was flicked on at the front post which was deemed to have hit an illegal part of Eddie Malone’s body – despite the protestation of the Rovers crowd, referee David Somers was in a prime position to make the call and Russell duly converted the penalty.

The proceeding 14 minutes could have turned the scoreline into a rout, but David McGurn did well to parry a succession of shots away. A defensive stramash in the penalty box allowed THHP favourite Stefan Scougall to pull a curling shot which looked destined for McGurn’s right-hand post, but Laurie Ellis’s head got in the way to deflect the ball into the opposite direction, leaving McGurn with no chance to keep the ball out. Livi were good value for their win by virtue of their first half chances alone and despite second-half pressure by Rovers while shooting towards their favoured south stand, the away team held strongly enough for the clean sheet.

Off the field, it remains to be seen what direction Livingston will take. Since Gareth Evans, then Director of Football John Collins leaving the club in surprising and possibly controversial circumstances, Richie Burke has guided the team to two successive wins and third place in the league, with a similar (if not exact) style used by previous manager John Hughes. Despite anything else, the club need stability at first team level and if Burke has had a strong influence in developing the talent, the board could do worse than giving him the opportunity to see out the rest of the season in permanent charge. JAM


3) Where do Rangers go from here?

It was only a matter of time. Given their recent wretched performances, it was inevitable Rangers would eventually succumb at home to league opposition. To even the more cynical of supporters, although the club might have been expected to toil at some of the Third Division’s more rustic environs, they were never likely to have been beaten at Ibrox. A club with Rangers’ resources to lose at home to a side like Annan Athletic – a team who had failed to win in their last seven matches – is simply quite unacceptable.

Saturday’s 1-2 defeat to Annan was the nadir in a season full of troughs. The Galabank club deserve enormous credit for their endeavours – they were organised, disciplined and supremely motivated throughout, all the qualities sorely lacking from their hosts’ bloodless performance. Jim Chapman’s first victory since taking charge of Annan was richly deserved, but they were abetted by a colourless Rangers showing.

For example, can any player in light blue claim to have matched the effort or determination shown by Ally Love in making the run into the penalty area for the opening goal? Can anyone say they showed the same flair and class as the outstanding David Hopkirk?

Ally McCoist’s side have achieved the bare minimum this term. There will be no record points total, no cup run. Just a Third Division title secured through lots of huffing and lots of puffing but almost no panache. McCoist’s failings as a manager have been noted on numerous occasions on this site: the poor quality of his signings (Charles Green has claimed the current team is the worst in Rangers’ history and few would argue); his lack of tactical acumen; the attritional nature of his side’s performances; the inability to coax the best from a group of players who, on paper at least, should be cantering through the division; and the alarming lack of fitness which appears to dog his side. For a full-time group of players to tire so badly against part-times sides is deeply concerning.

Whether or not Rangers dispense of McCoist at the end of the season is a complex issue and one which has been debated at length on fans’ forums, but one thing is certain: things cannot go on like this at Ibrox. If Rangers are grinding past such modest opposition in the basement league, one can only imagine how they will struggle against better sides next term. CGT


4) Queen’s Park deserve a shot at promotion – even in the face of reconstruction

Queen’s Park’s 3-2 victory over Clyde – their fifth win from their previous six matches – extended their lead in second place to eight points over Montrose in third. With a squad replete with callow youngsters, QP’s achievements this season have so far been exceptional. Despite trailing to a Stuart McColm brace, goals from Michael Keenan, Anthony McParland and Lawrence Shankland ensured QP won their 11th consecutive fixture over the Bully Wee and virtually secured a play-off position for the club at the end of the season.

In the last three seasons, the Spiders have had bee unfortunate in their various bids for promotion, losing out by virtue of the play-offs on each occasion. The club may be denied for a fourth time, though not through their on-field deficiencies – if controversial league reforms are passed through, QP are likely to be consolidated in an 18-team division under the new SPFL banner, regardless of this season’s performance.

Any such reconstruction would deny a core of talented young players the opportunity to play at a higher level with the club. In players such as Shankland, Andy Robertson and Aidan Connelly, the Spiders boast some of the most remarkable young footballers in the SFL – whether or not the three are still with QP after the summer is debatable, but the current side are playing above themselves and are surely deserving of competing on a bigger stage.

It will bring a highly promising season to a frustrating conclusion if reconstruction blocks any potential bid for promotion. RD


5) Stirling Albion are an outside bet for the final play-off position (again)

Hang on a minute… Didn’t we learn that last week? Well, yes.

Last week, this feature (somewhat boldly) suggested that Stirling Albion could be dark horses in the unfathomable battle for the final Third Division play-off slot. On Saturday, the Binos served to substantiate that claim with a club record 9-1 league win over near neighbours East Stirlingshire.

The result – Albion’s first win over East Stirlingshire this season – belies a match which initially was an evenly contested encounter. The visitors passed up a number of guilt edge chances before Kyle Gillespie turned Phil Johnston’s centre into his own net after half hour. Ten minutes later, Jordan White’s persistence saw him finish from a tight angle before the game’s biggest talking point just before half-time. The effervescent White capitalised on a defensive mix-up to race through on goal, only to be caught by Steven Jackson. The ensuing collision was adjudged by referee Matt Northcroft to have occurred in the penalty box and worthy of a red card for the defender. To compound Shire’s misery, goalkeeper Grant Hay’s outstanding save from White’s spot kick counted for nothing as Northcroft insisted it was retaken; White made no mistake second time to make it 3-0. In the second-half, Stirling were unstoppable and Shire crumbled – White went on to claim the match ball and added a fourth for good effect, while Mark Ferry (with two), Phil Johnston and Josh Flood also netted.

Greig McDonald’s side went into the game at Forthbank – their ninth in 29 days – in good form (albeit Berwick Rangers had ended a seven-match unbeaten run in midweek). Key to Albion’s improvement has been a much improved defence, bolstered by the signings of defenders Jamie Bishop (on a permanent basis following a brief loan spell from Forfar Athletic) and Ross Forsyth. Since February, the side has conceded an average of 0.77 goals per game, compared with 2.32 goals per game before the two centre-backs arrived.

Saturday’s comprehensive win, together with the draw between Elgin and Peterhead, strengthens Stirling’s play-off aspirations – the four teams between fifth and eighth are separated by just three points. The fixture list has now handed Albion a free weekend, meaning their next match is the televised game at Ibrox in a fortnight. This could serve to interrupt their momentum, but regardless of other results they will still have all to play for as a remarkable season draws to a close. AG

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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