Five Things We Learned from the SFL

1) Allan Moore is the king of the half-time team talk

UNLIKE the country’s other three professional leagues, this season’s First Division has given its audience a genuine title race. The number of contenders might have dwindled by one recently (Dunfermline’s problems both on and off the park have since precluded their participation), but the destination of the title trophy is still anyone’s guess. However, it did not look like this would still be the case at 3.45pm on Saturday. With second place Partick Thistle already four goals to the good and out of sight against Livingston at Firhill, Morton found themselves two goals down at home to Cowdenbeath. Faced with the prospect of falling a point behind the Jags despite having played two games more, Allan Moore must have known that his team talk during the interval was his most important of the season so far.

Whatever was said during the break worked a treat, as Motron’s stirring second half performance was in stark contrast to their impoverished showing throughout the opening 45 minutes. The Ton were back in the game with a goal just six minutes into the second half thanks to a Peter MacDonald penalty, and when the same man bundled in a wind assisted equaliser only thre minutes later it was apparent that the game was up for Cowdenbeath. Scott Taggart’s fantastic strike from distance along with Martin Hardie’s back post header sealed the comeback.

Although it is the case that Morton took advantage of the gale force wind at their back during the second half, they are indeed a team who regularly come from behind to win. Saturday’s victory now means they have picked up 13 points from losing positions at half-time – the ability to turn a game around is one of the key factors as to why Morton are still sitting at the top of the pile at this stage of the season.

Everyone has one eye on the calendar for the last head-to-head with Thistle at Firhill, in what has the potential to be a title decider on 10 April. The Greenock side are unbeaten against Partick this season, despite falling behind in their last two encounters. They will probably have to preserve such a record to give themselves a chance of lifting the trophy come May. SM

 

2) Alan Archibald has proved himself as the man for the job

83%.

Statistics in isolation mean nothing, but Alan Archibald’s win rate as caretaker was impressive enough without the knowledge the sample is from only five wins and a draw in six league matches.

Archibald has overseen the kind of form which saw Thistle race to the top of the league at the beginning of the season. Then, the Jags opened the campaign with six straight victories followed by a draw and loss. Now, Archibald has celebrated the first match of his permanent stewardship alongside Scott “Shaggy” Paterson with the club’s sixth win on the bounce – a resounding 6-1 thrashing against a lost-looking Livingston side.

Statistics not only complement the manager, but they can be used through the team as well. The quintet of goalkeeper Scott Fox and defenders Stephen O’Donnell, Aaron Muirhead, Conrad Balatoni and Aaron Sinclair conceded shortly after the interval from an indirect free-kick knocked down perfectly for Paul Watson to lash home. Watson’s goal was the first against Thistle as a club in over five matches, but it was the first in 651 aggregate minutes with the five players on the pitch at the same time.

Going forward, it is remarkable to note that Thistle recorded their second match this season where they had six different scorers. Even more notable is that Kris Doolan can still not find a way into the first XI, despite maintaining a 33% strike rate for his Firhill career which is skewed by arguably too many substitute appearances. Thistle, like Morton, have been able to spread their goals throughout the squad – Muirhead converted another penalty to continue his centre-back scoring rivarly with Balatoni (both have four each), but having a player with the exceptional calmness and precision of technique in Doolan to come off the bench is a rare quality in the SFL.

There is, of course, one player who defies all manner of subjective and objective analysis. Chris Erskine continues to amaze in almost every game in which he plays. It was clear from the match’s earliest moments that he was up for causing typical chaos in the opposing defensive midfield. He drove beyond Burton O’Brian and Kyle Jacobs with the ball before setting up Sinclair to drill a cross to Steven Craig, only for the striker to be denied by a sharp save from Andrew McNeil. Thistle’s fourth goal benefited from an outrageous Erskine run around the circumference of Craig Barr to latch on to his own pass, before setting up Steven Lawless for his goal.

The highlight, however, was the team’s fifth goal, where Erskine plays keepie-uppie to knock the ball beyond the helpless Kevin McCann, before dragging it back to Doolan with a back-heel and then poking the return beyond McNeil. Erskine does not control a match for a 90 minute duration – he is not that type of player – but when he is inevitably given the chance to illuminate the SPL (at Partick Thistle or elsewhere), Scotland’s top flight will be a better place for it.

Archibald has lots to be proud of in his team at the moment, but the difficult fixtures still lie ahead. With the form that Erskine and the rest of the team are in at the moment, though, he has nothing to fear. JAM

 

3) Alan Trouten is a strong candidate for Division Two’s Player of the Year

Alan Trouten’s 13th goal of the season proved to be decisive as Brechin City narrowly defeated Ayr United by two goals to one on Saturday. The victory – played at Forfar Athletic’s Station Park due to the ongoing travails with the Glebe Park pitch – extended City’s unbeaten run to 11 games and neatly tees the club up for their double-header with Queen of the South, the only side to have defeated Ray McKinnon since he took charge in October. Trouten’s goal, a stooping back-post header, was his seventh in eight matches and established the 27-year-old as one of the Second Division’s outstanding players this season.

In 2005, Trouten emerged as one of the SFL’s most talented playmakers at Billy Stark’s Queen’s Park. Playing alongside Stuart Kettlewell, Paul Cairney and Paul Paton, he scored 35 goals in 100 appearances and won promotion to the Second Division via the play-offs in 2006-07.

After signing for John Brown’s Clyde in the summer of 2008, Trouten suffered the ignominy of three relegations in the following four seasons (each with the Bully Wee, Airdrie United and Ayr). Uncomfortable in Division One (93 appearances in the second tier yielded only eight goals) and often dogged by injury, the player has flourished since McKinnon’s arrival at Brechin with his recent performances reaching the same level of his Queen’s Park years.

Indeed, Trouten has acknowledged McKinnon’s role in his resurgence. Nominally lining up on the right side of midfield, the player has been unburdened from his defensive obligations and given the liberty to drift infield and move forward as part of a fluid attacking unit featuring Andy Jackson, Derek Carcary and David McKenna. A perceptive, intuitive player, Trouten’s goal threat will be integral to City’s promotion aspirations. AG

 

4) The coming weeks will be crucial for Paul Hartley and Alloa Athletic

Some bookmakers may have already paid out on Queen of the South winning the Second Division championship, but the title is not yet arithmetically certain. The only thing that was confirmed at the weekend was that Alloa Athletic are no longer able to overhaul them at the summit of the table. The Doonhamers avenged their only league defeat of the season by beating Paul Hartley’s side at Recreation Park, with referee Andrew Dallas’ two controversial second half penalty decisions, both of which went against the hosts.

Alloa remain in second with a 13 point advantage over fifth placed Arbroath and look assured of finishing the season in a play-off berth, especially with four of their remaining six matches coming against the teams occupying the bottom four places in the table. The apparent straightforwardness of their run in and the seemingly inevitable manner in which they will conclude the season raises the prospect of complacency creeping into the Alloa squad and blunting their competitive edge. It is vital that Hartley – whose name continues to be linked with any vacancies within the SPL – maintains his team’s focus throughout their fixtures.

Alongside Brechin, Alloa are shaping up to be the leading contenders in the play-offs – only twice in seven years have the First Division play-offs been won by a team who finished the season outwith second and third place in Division Two. Brechin’s difficult schedule between now and the end of the season – they must play 11 matches in 38 days – will stretch McKinnon’s team, but there will be little opportunity for his players to lose their focus or concentration. This could give them the mental advantage over Alloa if Hartley cannot preserve his side’s application over the coming weeks. AG

 

5) Stirling Albion are not hammer-throwers

Vindication then, at last, for Greig McDonald and Stirling Albion. Despite being the first club to beat Rangers since their demotion to Division Three, the Binos’ 1-0 victory in October was tempered by accusations that the side were dirty, overly aggressive and had deliberately deployed cynical tactics in a bid to negate their opponents’ superior talents. That Gary Thom was only cautioned for a careless, chest-high pump kick on Ian Black did little to change the perceptions of their lower-league skulduggery.

Six months later, and it was difficult to distinguish between the full-time professionals and the lower-league cloggers. At Ibrox on Saturday, a draw between the teams was probably the fairest outcome with both sides equally profligate (in particular, the hosts’ young forward Kane Hemmings experienced a miserable afternoon, passing up a trio of very presentable chances), yet Stirling Albion frequently looked the more enterprising team. They were ingenuous and decisive in possession, neatly moving the ball between one another, and compact and well-organised without it.

Centre-back Jamie Bishop, the game’s outstanding performer, dominated throughout and easily dealt with any long balls shelled in his direction. Mark Ferry and Josh Flood worked diligently in the middle of the park, while Jordan White skilfully operated as his side’s loan forward. Recruited on a permanent basis from Falkirk in January, it would be little surprise if the striker was to progress to a higher level in the summer.

As for Rangers, is there anything to say that hasn’t already been said before? Once again, they turned in another dour, one-dimensional performance, with Lee McCulloch’s lamentable attempt to win a stoppage-time penalty summing up their afternoon’s efforts. Their play was slow and ponderous, with balls often played backwards and from side to side – there was little incision and when the ball was eventually shuttled forward, Albion had the time to regroup in numbers to clog up Rangers’ play. It was dull stuff.

The official attendance was given as 44,608 but such a figure was belied by the number of empty blue seats dotted around the stadium – in truth, it was probably closer to 35,000. Every club’s attendance will fluctuate over the course of a season but given the grandiose environs of Ibrox, it is easier to notice there than anywhere else in the SFL. There are a number of explanations, of course – the game was televised, the weather in Glasgow on Saturday was bitingly cold – but perhaps it is the grim fare served up by Ally McCoist’s side on a weekly basis which is putting people off travelling to watch their team.

While Rangers continue to perplex, Stirling Albion – who have now taken five points from Rangers this season – should be immensely proud of their achievements against their full-time opposition. “We like to get the ball down and play,” said McDonald. “We did it at Forthbank on a cold, frosty Tuesday night, and we did it today as well.

“I’m delighted the players have shown that because they have got ability. We are not the hammer-throwers that people painted the SFL players out to be.” CGT

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