1) Morton have sailed too close to the wind once too often
IT was only last week that we were full of praise for Allan Moore’s Morton team and their powers of recuperation. Their ability to overturn a half-time deficit has been key to their lofty league position, and it seemed only correct to point it out after another comeback win against Cowdenbeath. However, with the Greenock side once again starting poorly at the weekend before losing 1-2 to Raith Rovers, supporters are justified in questioning why it takes the Ton 45 minutes to begin competing.
It could be argued that Saturday’s performance was an exception to the rule. Rovers began the match with a formation which caught everyone by surprise – without the suspended Eddie Malone, it was expected that youngster Reece Donaldson would start at left-back. Instead, Grant Murray started with three centre-backs and two wing-backs in Jason Thomson and Joe Hamill. Whilst Thomson is familiar with the role, there was a suggestion the position was unfamiliar to Hamill, even if he has played at left-back and left-wing during his career. Hamill took to the new role promisingly by diligently sticking to the task, rarely giving the ball away and intelligently bringing the midfield into play. On the other side, Thomson was instrumental in the second goal, with his cross inadvertently being diverted into the visitors’ net by Michael Tidser.
As for Tidser and the rest of the much lauded midfield of Martin Hardie, Fouaid Bachirou and David O’Brien, it was a day to forget. Only Bachirou made any impact against a middle three of Grant Anderson, Stuart Anderson and Allan Walker, with Grant Anderson playing with a freedom which suggested he had specifically been granted a licence to roam as he covered ground all over the final third in the pitch to provide overloads on the Morton defence. Rovers’ 3-5-2 was more than a match for Morton’s 4-4-2 and that was no more obvious than in midfield.
Up front, only Peter MacDonald made any headway against Rovers’ defensive unit, with Colin McMenemin in particular looking out of sorts. It might well have been simply a bad day at the office for McMenamin, but with only one goal in nine league games under Moore and two in 29 appearances combined for Ross County and Morton this season, we could be witnessing the beginning of the end of a great SFL career.
For Moore, Saturday’s match wasn’t a failure to second guess how Raith would line up – after all, the 3-5-2 was a surprise even to Rovers supporters. Where he did come undone was the fact that, unlike last week, it took him far too long to react to the problem. The introduction of Archie Campbell and Kyle Wilkie for the ineffectual O’Brien and McMenemin respectively could have been made sooner than the 60-minute mark. The final throw of the dice arrived only five minutes later when Peter Weatherson came on for Mark McLauchlan, which provided Morton with a greater ofensive impetus. Although Campbell and Wilkie combined for the latter’s exquisite 20-yard finish to bring the away side back into the match, the anxiety in the home stands stemmed more from Raith’s unwanted predisposition of squandering leads, rather than anything Morton could create during the closing stages on the park.
The most worrying aspect for Morton supporters was that the opposition played with a greater intensity from the outset. Their laborious tempo could not compete and Rovers won the majority of 50/50 challenges during the match.
Morton have now been behind at the break 11 times in the last 30 league matches. Despite a recent run of good results, this was one comeback too many. This time last week, Morton were two points top of the league but they now find themselves four behind, despite having played a match more than Thistle (who, by contrast, have only been chasing a match from the interval four times in the last 29). It’s not impossible for Morton to yet win the title, but without a vast improvement for their trip to Firhill next midweek it could be quite unlikely. SM
2) Queen of the South are impressive Second Division champions.
The destination of the Second Division title has long been inevitable (Queen of the South were 11 points clear at the turn of the year) but it was confirmed this week in some style. After seeing off Alloa Athletic’s challenge with a hard worked win at Recreation Park last weekend – avenging their only league defeat of the season – the Doonhamers travelled to Station Park on Wednesday and simply blew away Brechin City, racing to a two goal lead after just three minutes. The final score, 6-0, was as emphatic as the campaign success that it confirmed.
The statistics speak for themselves: 82 points from a possible 93; only four points dropped in 16 home games; 82 goals scored and only 19 conceded; and 16 clean sheets. This has been a thoroughly professional job well done by Allan Johnston and his squad. It’s a squad which perfectly blends experience (including Ryan McGuffie, Derek Young, Stephen McKenna, Paul Burns and Derek Lyle) with exciting young talents, particularly the attacking triumvirate of Nicky Clark, Gavin Reilly and Danny Carmichael. Twenty-one-year-old Clark and 19-year-old Reilly have been the star performers with 37 league goals between them. Queens’ full-time status has arguably been of secondary importance to the general quality at Johnston’s disposal.
Attention now turns to the Ramsden’s Cup Final, a hugely intriguing fixture with First Division leaders Partick Thistle on Sunday, before Queens can look to prepare for life in the First Division next season. It seems certain that, under Johnston, the Dumfries side will be a much tougher proposition that the team led by Gus McPherson that was relegated a year ago. AG
3) Alloa Athletic are proving themselves to still be genuine promotion contenders
Alloa Athletic added some breathing space between themselves and third placed Brechin City to take a step closer to a guaranteed spot in the Second Division play-offs with a 2-1 victory at Stranraer.
Paul Hartley was delighted with the dominant, thoughtful play of the Wasps in their 4-3-3 formation, which was at near full-strength, aside from the missing Darren Young. In attacking positions, the fluid movement between Kevin Cawley, Martin Grehan and Calum Elliott opened extra spaces in the Stranraer rearguard – the neat passing of Alloa’s midfield trio was effectively used to quickly switch the play and introduce marauding right-back Michael Doyle, who was influential in most of their transitions to attacking moves.
Yet, for all their possession, Athletic were without a goal at half-time. Hartley was prudent to make an early tactical switch and introduce Ryan McCord into a trequartista position in a 4-4-2 diamond formation. McCord’s deft passing and incisive play brought a different threat for the Stranraer defence to deal with, allowing the equally gifted Graeme Holmes to make late runs from deep. Holmes fired home the first goal after linking with Doyle to find McCord at the back-post.
This was an Alloa side high in confidence and comfortable at adapting their system to suit their needs. Aside from those on the pitch, the Wasps also have the likes of Callum Gallagher, on-loan from Rangers, to call upon. Although Brechin might have seen a strong 2013, their fixture list and lack of squad depth compared to Alloa will see the Clackmannanshire side hold a strong advantage in the play-off run-in. RD
4) East Fife’s slump continues
East Fife remain in the Second Division relegation play-off spot after surrendering a half-time lead to lose 1-2 away to Ayr United on Saturday. It was Billy Brown’s sixth defeat in seven games and extends his team’s run without a win to ten matches – form which sees the spectre of relegation loom increasingly large over the club.
After a disappointing start the season, a start mired in uncertainty following manager Gordon Durie’s health problems, the East Fife board moved to appoint the experienced Brown as manager at the start of November. In the short term, he led the side, inspired by on-loan Livingston winger Bobby Barr, to four wins in six games and the Fifers sat down to their Christmas dinner in fourth position. Subsequently, East Fife have won just once, at home to bottom side Albion Rovers on 5 January. Billy Brown’s honeymoon is well and truly over.
At Somerset Park, Brown shaped his team in a 5-3-2 formation and at half-time his team selection and tactics appeared to be working. Right-back Scott Durie arrived at the back post to slam home Bobby Barr’s cross after the winger cut along the byline and past United defender Darren Brownlie with ease. But into the second-half, East Fife, looking devoid of confidence to play out the win, began to sit deeper and deeper. With two wingers (Barr and Paul Willis) and Scott McBride making up their midfield three and the experienced but rather static Collin Samuel and Paul McManus up-front, their front five offered little respite for a rearguard that was eventually breached despite the best efforts from goalkeeper Michael Brown.
Once on level terms, the momentum was with the Honest Men but the turning point was a clash between Barr and Ayr’s Austin McCann, which referee Don Robertson adjudged as a dive by the East Fife man. Barr was disbelieving and Billy Brown was incensed, but his mood hardly improved when David Winters netted the winner with four minutes to go. At full-time, the East Fife manager marched on to the field to confront Robertson and express the perceived injustice, which was a clear symptom of the gravity of the situation East Fife find themselves in.
The six-point advantage over bottom side Albion Rovers would seem comfortable with seven games to go – and eighth place Stranraer are only two points ahead – but Brown will have to draw on all his experience to guide a rather limited squad to safety. A tough fixture list which sees them finish with three games against the current top three clubs increases the difficulty of their task. AG
5) Rory McAllister is finally firing Peterhead to the play-offs
With three wins on the bounce for the first time since August, Peterhead are finally beginning to look like they could be the “best of the rest” that many predicted they might be last summer.
Interestingly, the Blue Toon’s successive wins have come with forwards Martin Bavidge and Andy Rodgers starting on the bench. David Cox, still wearing his favourite number 7 shirt, has been starting much closer to Rory McAllister than earlier in the season and the patterned interplay between the two was a prominent aspect of the first half of the match against Annan Athletic.
Ironically, it took Bavidge’s introduction in the last quarter of the game to create the opening goal, with a long punt from Graeme Smith to allow Bavidge to knock the ball down to McAllister’s forward run. Although it was arguable that McAllister fouled Steven Swinglehurst with a strong hand-off on the way to finding himself one-on-one with the goalkeeper, the striker sold the feinted shot expertly to Alex Mitchell and rolled the ball home. Annan barely imposed themselves on the match and it took until the last ten minutes for them to get David Hopkirk running with the ball close to the home side’s goal, without creating anything clear cut from open play. Peterhead created a succession of opportunities using Bavidge as a battering ram up front, but it wasn’t until the dying moments before McAllister benefited from a rebound to score his sixth in three games.
Ryan Strachan started for the first time since his suspension for being sent off against Clyde a month ago. Strachan has been a favourite on this site this season for the measured way that he is able to bring the play out of defence, but with Peterhead not conceding a goal since losing to Elgin, he has had to wait for a return to the starting XI. Interestingly, he played on the left side of midfield where he showed his verasatility to put in a commanding performance, by driving at the Athletic defence with the ball at his feet. It remains to be seen whether or not he will remain on the bench next week with Bavidge and Rodgers, but Peterhead’s strength in depth, together with McAllister’s hot streak, are showing their worth at just the right time of the season. JAM