Five Things We Learned from the SFL

1) Queen of the South will be competitive in the First Division

ALLAN JOHNSTON’S Queen of the South showed they were made of the right stuff after persevering – and ultimately proving themselves – as victors against Partick Thistle in the Ramsdens Cup final yesterday.

The match didn’t come to life until well into extra-time. With Nicky Clark opening the scoring after 101 minutes, it looked as though Queens would just about hold on to a well-earned win. Yet with a minute to go before full-time, Thistle managed to win a dubious penalty, have it saved, have a man sent off, score an equaliser with the next and final attack of the game, then eventually lose after Queens’ ‘keeper Lee Robinson made his third penalty kick save of the day in the resultant shoot out.

The first half was a slow, uneventful period of the match where both goalkeepers had to deal with the ball at their feet much more than in their hands. Apart from a deflected Stuart Bannigan drive which Robinson prevented from going behind for a corner kick, a sequence of corners at the beginning of the match, and a five-minute spell of possession before half-time, Thistle contributed very little in the first 45 minutes. The Jags played into Queens’ strategy, chipping the ball forward from centre-back and full-back positions, sometimes with little thought – Aaron Muirhead was a particular culprit in needlessly wasting possession. Bannigan was the only player who got his foot on the ball and showed ambition to play short passing in a match affected by strong wind and a dry-looking pitch.

Queens enjoyed the best opportunities in the first half, although those were also few and far between. While they defended with two banks of four (marshalled by captain Chris Higgins and former Ross County left-back Marc Fitzpatrick), they occasionally threatened in attack as well. Nicky Clark headed the ball down for Derek Lyle to half-volley over the bar from 19 yards, while Clark himself will have embarrassed by his glaring miss at the far post of a deep set-play. Neither team could get their best dribblers into play, with Queens winger Danny Carmichael spending most of the match watching his team attack on their opposite flank through Michael Paton, while Thistle’s Chris Erskine looked on as the ball went over his head more times than he had it played into his feet.

Clark did begin to get into the match in the second half and forced an excellent save from Scott Fox, who extended a left hand from a shot which was curling into the corner from 20 yards. At that point, Thistle offered little penetration and it took Kris Doolan (who had replaced Steven Craig with a quarter of the game remaining) for the Jags to create chances. As the game stretched, Queens showed glimpses of one-touch football in Thistle’s half and the tie was evenly poised. However, just before the whistle signalled extra-time, Doolan spun beyond the flailing (but otherwise commanding) Mark Durnan where his snapshot squirmed just beyond the wrong side of the post after Robinson’s left hand altered the line of the ball.

The first period of extra-time turned into a procession of long balls and direct, vertical play that was dealt with comfortably by both defences. The game looked like it was going to be settled by a set-piece, wondergoal or defensive error rather than as a result of tactical changes. Queens started to fall away from the match and Thistle gained more possession as Ross Forbes replaced the tiring Bannigan.

The scoring was opened from Carmichael dribbling inside from left flank for the first time in the match. With the winger overloading the left, he was fed with a short pass by Paton and took the ball towards the box before trying to curl the ball into the far corner. Carmichael arguably opened his foot up too much – the ball arced towards Scott Fox rather than towards the corner of the goal – but Fox was deceived by the trajectory and couldn’t stop the ball from crashing off the underside of the bar and right into the path of Clark, who nodded it over the goal-line.

At this point Johnston was brave in swapping Clark for another forward in Kevin Smith, but Reilly certainly dropped further back towards the right flank, inviting Thistle to pass out of defence and exert considerable pressure on the creaking Queen of the South back line. Christie Elliot (who had quite a poor match after coming on for Steven Lawless after the first hour; it is clear from the last couple of season that Elliot plays at a level below his peers) fired wide when he would have been better served drilling the ball across goal to Doolan. Ross Forbes encouraged a good save to Robinson’s left from a free-kick; Queens were penned in and resorted to clearing the ball anywhere, which simply invited Thistle to come at them again.

Just as the final, full-time whistle appeared to be imminent, Fitzpatrick was incorrectly adjudged to have fouled Elliot inside the high-left corner of the 18-yard box. Muirhead had 60 seconds to forget, as he saw his penalty kick saved by Robinson before being goaded into butting Queens’ captain Chris Higgins. Robinson then saved again, only for the following attack to be prodded into the goal at the far post by Doolan. The embarrassing pitch invasion following the equalising goal proved to be premature – Robinson lucked out in the resulting penalty kick roulette, with the highlight being the stand-off between Fox and Robinson before the latter scored in the fourth round of kicks.

With an attritional 90 minutes preceding occasional magic and some poor discipline, this wasn’t the archetypal advertisement for SFL football. However, it was solid evidence that if Queen of the South can keep a hold of the majority of this team, they will hold their own in Scotland’s second tier next season. JAM

 

2) Falkirk are showing there is life after Elvis

Alex Smith enjoyed a win in his final match as caretaker manager of Falkirk. The 4-0 result over Cowdenbeath at Westfield not only redressed the shameful 1-4 defeat at Central Park a couple of months ago, it also gave us a selection of notable points.

Despite the gloom which has occupied the mood over Falkirk’s league campaign this season, having now won four matches in a row they are remarkably two wins and two points better off than at this stage last season with four matches left. Indeed, they are only one win and three points worse off than in the 2010-11 season when Steven Pressley’s team – arguably still on a mid-level SPL playing staff budget – should have contested the First Division championship far better than they did.

With new manager Gary Holt set to take charge for a Scottish Cup semi-final against Hibernian at Hampden next week and with the club reaching third place in the league again, there is a renewed optimism around Falkirk at the moment. The Bairns will certainly be classed as second favourites going into the cup tie – their second major cup semi-final in successive seasons – but with an eager, technical midfield supporting the irrepressible strike-rate of Lyle Taylor, Holt’s team should not be underestimated.

What might have been surprising about Falkirk’s win over Cowdenbeath was the fact that the team still scored four goals in Taylor’s absence. With perhaps only Darren Dods, Johnny Flynn, Jay Fulton and Connor McGrandles the only outfielders who would have previously been considered as regular starters, it was left for Dods and Sean Higgins to pull rank and provide three of the four goals scored.

Having picked up two points per match since Pressley’s departure – compared to 1.42 this season under his helm – and as the only SFL club still in the final stages of the Scottish Cup, Falkirk have plenty to look forward to in the short-to-medium term. JAM

 

3) Jumping the shark does not make someone a bad manager

Jumping the shark: the term relates to the infamous scene from Happy Days where Fonzie quite literally jumps over a shark whilst water-skiing (all the time wearing his trademark leather jacket). The term has since entered the popular lexicon to denote the precise moment when something great has peaked and has started to lose its quality and popularity.

It is not often that Billy Reid will be compared to The Fonz but jumping the shark seems entirely appropriate to describe his eight-year tenure with Hamilton Academical, which abruptly ended last week following a 2-1 victory over Dumbarton. The announcement itself may have come as some surprise, but the shock was more in Reid’s timing rather than the act itself.

Whatever the reasons behind his departure, there are some Hamilton supporters who are adamant that Reid should have walked away long ago, citing the club’s poor form over the last three seasons and a dour style of play which has certainly been more Roundhead than Cavalier since their demotion from the SPL in 2011. While there is little doubt the last few years have been hurtful to Reid’s reputation (as was the picture The Sun used to accompany the article describing his departure), history will surely look favourably upon his reign.

His eight years with the Accies made him Scottish football’s longest-serving manager. Under his charge, the club won the First Division in 2008 and enjoyed two years in the SPL, their best spell in top tier since the mid-forties. Reid also led them to three Scottish Cup quarter-final appearances and two Challenge Cup finals. He was awarded the Scottish Manager of the Year in 2008.

It could be argued that Reid was fortunate to take charge of Hamilton at a time when emerging talents such as James McCarthy and James McArthur could be called upon. But by the time the players left the club (both would leave for Wigan Athletic, McCarthy in 2009, McArthur the following summer), the party was over and they were relegated back into Division One at the end of 2010-11.

The most logical way to asses Reid’s management is to say he was able to make the most of what he had at his disposal and that his style of play was dictated by the talent within his pool of players. The entertaining football which defined his early days made way for a cautious, “safety first” approach as his playing budget was reduced. This is not the sign of a bad manager – it is the sign of a pragmatic one.

Until Reid takes charge of another team, it will be difficult to tell just how good a manager he is. But with declining crowds, the loss of key personnel and, most pertinent of all, a slashed budget, Hamilton’s next manager will be hard pushed to rouse the club and its supporters. Billy Reid might have jumped the shark at Hamilton, but things will not necessarily be improved in his absence. SM

 

4) Steve Aitken is leading Stranraer in the right direction

When Stranraer dismissed Keith Knox after only nine league games in October, many wondered if the club’s committee had been a little uncharitable. Granted, Knox’s side had lost six games in a row (whilst conceded 16 goals) and sat at the foot of the table, three points adrift from their nearest rivals. But just three months previously, the manager had been plotting the Blues’ steady progress in Division Three. After being expedited into the Second Division following Rangers’ demotion into the basement league, it was difficult to envisage how Knox, or any manager, could transform an ordinary Third Division side into a competitive entity to play in a league they were apparently ill-equipped for.

Stephen Aitken, the 36-year-old former Greenock Morton midfielder, was handed such a challenge and, with six games of the season remaining, he is on the verge of securing Stranraer’s safety. The team sill concede far too many goals – two in each of their last five games – but it is a testament to their spirit and their experience that they have been able to win two of those matches. The first was against Albion Rovers (despite going two goals down) and the second was on Saturday when Brechin City visited Stair Park.

Brechin had recovered from back-to-back defeats to Queen of the South to hammer East Fife 6-0 in midweek (indirectly assisting in Stranraer’s bid to avoid relegation). City led 2-1 at the interval, but an equaliser from Craig Malcolm and a stunning 30-yard wonderstrike from Chris Aitken, Steve’s brother, earned the Blues an unlikely win. They now only require four more points to avoid finishing the season in tenth place.

Stranraer travel to take on East Fife knowing that a victory will open up an eight point gap between the two sides in eighth and ninth place respectively. East Fife are without a win in 12 games and Aitken has already beaten the Methil club in his two games against them (Knox lost the season’s first fixture between the sides 2-6). However, a victory is far from a foregone conclusion with the club having only collected seven points on the road all season. With five of their remaining six games away from Stair Park, they might just need that eight point advantage. AG

 

5) One step forward, one step back for Albion Rovers

Only Albion Rovers could go on a nine-game losing streak and follow it up with a rousing 4-3 victory over Stenhousemuir. And only Albion Rovers could follow up a rousing 4-3 victory over Stenhousemuir by blowing a two-goal lead against Stranraer.

It has been an infinitely frustrating season for the Vers, with a lack of consistency precluding the club from hauling themselves off the bottom of the league table. With East Fife sliding ever-closer to the precipice, the Coatbridge club should have had the gumption to unseat them in ninth place but once again, the same old failings are proving to be their undoing.

Saturday’s defeat to Arbroath followed that all too similar pattern. Another spirited performance was undermined by the concession of a red card and a late penalty kick, followed by a last minute sucker punch. Patrick Walker’s goal on 55 minutes gave the Rovers a deserved lead but Barry Russell’s third red card of the season for crashing into Ross Chisholm suddenly turned a secure advantage into an anxious one. Sixty seconds later and the tie was level with Steven Doris equalising from the penalty spot after Ciaran Donnelly was harshly adjudged to have pulled down Scott Robertson. Alex Keddie’s winning header in the final minute rubbed salt in the wound and ensured the Red Lichties consolidated their play-off ambitions.

East Fife’s defeat to Forfar Athletic means the gap between ninth and tenth is still six points. The task in usurping the Fifers is hugely difficult – Albion Rovers’ next five fixtures include meetings with Ayr, a double-header with Brechin City and then games against Alloa Athletic and Queen of the South: a grossly unenviable run-in. Time might have run out on Albion Rovers’ bid to avoid automatic relegation.

Come May, it will be games like this, games against Stranraer, Ayr, Forfar and many more which have all followed a similar pattern that will be looked back on with regret. CGT

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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