1) The First Division still has more to offer
THAT wasn’t how it was supposed to go. Not according to the bookmakers at least.
After Dunfermline Athletic’s unexpected victory over Greenock Morton, manager Jim Jeffries was quick to point out that one bookie had offered odds as long as 9/1 for his side to win at Cappielow – something which underlined the turmoil the club are currently experiencing.
As for Cowdenbeath, they too were predicted to struggle against a Raith Rovers team who had taken seven points from a possible nine against Morton, Partick Thistle and Dumbarton. The Blue Brazil had won once in their previous ten matches but Colin Cameron’s side upset the form book with their own 1-0 victory.
While most of the focus has been at the top of the First Division table and the tussle between Thistle and Morton for the championship, the battle to avoid relegation has been equally as thrilling. By some distance, the second tier is Scotland’s most exciting league.
Rewind to the final weekend of October and this wasn’t the case, certainly as far as demotion was concerned. Dumbarton conceded two late goals to Airdrie United to leave them marooned at the foot of the table after ten games while on the same day, Dunfermline crushed Cowden 3-0 and overtook Thistle to move to the summit of the division. The Sons looked as though they were heading straight back to the third tier while the Pars looked convincing and seemed to be on course to make an immediate return to the SPL.
Six months later, however, and Dumbarton have climbed away from the foot of the table into eighth while Dunfermline sit three points behind them in ninth position, shorn of points and players after being placed into administration. Athletic’s points deduction has also handed Cowden a lifeline and afforded them the chance to move away from the play-off position. Airdrie United, meanwhile, have been relegated.
After three consecutive defeats, Dumbarton require three points to stay out of the mire and their game in hand against Falkirk (a team deflated after their outstanding efforts against Hibernian in the Scottish Cup semi-final) could be the ideal opportunity to ensure their safety.
As for Dunfermline, their most experienced players might have moved on elsewhere but on paper at least, they still have a competitive, albeit youthful side. Missing Callum Morris, Andy Geggan, Ryan Wallace and Stephen Husband through injury and suspension, their victory at Morton was achieved with a starting XI with an average age of 21. With their better players available, Dunfermline should have enough about them to clamber away from the foot of the table. That said, recent form suggests they lack the ability and the force of will to react to this adversity like the Dundee side of 2010, but they are better than the final Gretna team from 2008, who capitulated and wilted when faced with similar circumstances in the SPL.
Their next match against Cowdenbeath at East End Park should be another fascinating encounter. It will be the last and most important Fife derby of the season and should be played out in front of a large crowd.
While the league title might be all but over, this division still has many more twists and turns to come. SM
2) Stevie May is the SFL’s in-form player
Just as it looked as though the only punt which this writer had any prospect of being a success this season was coming home, Lyle Taylor’s position at the top of the First Division scoring charts is under serious threat. After netting nearly a goal per game for Alloa Athletic in Division Three last season, Stevie May has now scored 40 league goals in his last 51 appearances. Having opened his account this season against Airdrie United at the beginning of October, the St Johnstone loanee has since failed to go more than two matches without scoring. May has an incredible eight goals in his last three league matches, including two consecutive hat-tricks to take his total to 21 – only one goal behind the widely acclaimed Taylor.
May’s hat-trick away to Livingston was probably a surprise on the balance of probabilities – at least from the early stages of the match. Although he looked threatening with the ball at his feet on the counter, it was his team-mate Kevin Cuthbert who had the most important say in the first 40 minutes – Cuthbert parried expertly from close range as Iain Russell attempted to scramble the ball home, while a vicious Anthony Andreu strike from a short corner kick was diverted beyond the far post.
The forward’s first goal was a simple shot down the centre of the goal from the 12-yard spot after Jon McShane was felled in the penalty area. His second, only a moment after, was more definitive: after being played into the left-hand side of the 18-yard box by Ali Crawford following a clever outside-in run, May feigned then cut beyond Paul Watson before clinically curling the ball inside the far post.
Hamilton should have had four or five goals by the time that May got his hat-trick, with the player himself hitting the post with an opportunistic header before Livi ‘keeper Andrew McNeil could collect. Crawford had an early half-volley from the edge of the box to completely confuse McNeil as the ball bounce off both posts, which was proceeded by May benefiting from a cheeky, early free-kick by Crawford to allow him the time to power a shot at McNeil’s near post.
At this moment in time, May looks to have everything: power, pace, a venomous snapshot off both feet and a wonderfully retro Jake The Snake tribute ‘do. If he doesn’t make a success of himself in the SPL next year, it will be a great surprise and St Johnstone’s loss. JAM
3) East Fife’s Billy Brown has lost the plot
Remember a few years ago when a tanked up Delia Smith snatched a microphone, ambled her way onto the Carrow Road pitch, and screeched at the Norwich City support to get behind their team? Remember just how silly the whole thing was?
In a season full of troughs, Saturday was the nadir for East Fife and Billy Brown. Losing 1-2 to Stenhousemuir was bad enough – the Fifers have failed to win in 14 games – but it will be the events at half-time and after the match which will perhaps be remembered as the most bizarre episodes of the year.
Trailing to a fine headed goal from Scot Buist, Brown and his players trudged from the pitch at the interval to jeers and boos from a pocket of fans. Incensed, Brown grabbed the microphone from the stadium announcer and directly addressed his dissenters: support the team or get the fuck out of the ground. His invective was met with a mixture of laughter and astonishment.
John Gemmell increased the Warriors’ advantage after the break before a Scott McBride free-kick reduced the deficit, but any notions East Fife had of taking something from the game were immediately banished when Darren McCormack was dismissed for collecting a second booking. At the final whistle, Brown had to be marched down the tunnel by a steward after attempting to remonstrate with another supporter. Even more incredible was his post-match interview. Pacing like a wild-eyed panther, Brown berated the fans for the abuse he and his players have endured over the course of the season. It was embarrassing and unprofessional
Despite enjoying a credible start to his management at East Fife and winning four of his first six matches, Brown’s tenure has been dreadful. The club have won once in 2013, beating Albion Rovers after the New Year, before entering their long barren run – whatever Brown is doing, it is not working. There are capable players in his team: Bobby Barr, Darren Smith and Paul McManus are sound performers at this level but their manager has been unable to coax the requisite levels of quality from them. Judging by his interview, it is quite clear he does not trust their ability and has given on them. There is nothing progressive or nuanced about Brown’s playing style, with the manager preferring an old fashioned up ‘n’ at ‘em approach instead – it is little wonder the East Fife support are fed up with the grim fare served up at New Bayview this year.
With a seven point advantage over Albion Rovers, the Fifers will avoid automatic relegation but they are looking increasingly likely to finish the campaign in ninth, especially with forthcoming games against Alloa Athletic, Queen of the South and Brechin City. If paired against an in-form team like Peterhead, for example, demotion to Division Three seems the obvious outcome.
In the summer, it would be best for all parties to clear the decks and begin again. East Fife are a club capable of much better than this and, from looking at Brown’s interview at least, a change might be coming sooner rather than later. CGT
4) Queen’s Park are looking over their shoulder
If they weren’t worried before, they should be now. Queen’s Park’s 1-4 defeat at Berwick Rangers has seen them cede second place, a position they have enjoyed since the beginning of January, to Peterhead. The Spiders have now lost five of their previous six matches and their fixture in the play-off places is beginning to look insecure.
Their loss of form has come at the most inopportune time: Peterhead have won their last five matches; Berwick’s run over the last eight weeks has been encouraging; Montrose are still looking strong; and Elgin City have finally appeared to shaken off their New Year lull. Instead of looking forward, QP are looking over their shoulder.
The loss at Shielfield was a bungling performance riddled with individual and collective errors and abetted by a bizarre tactical approach. Despite Alan Urquhart’s neat finish opening the scoring after four minutes, the remainder of QP’s first half was a minor horrorshow with Steven Notman, Darren Lavery and Lee Currie giving the home side a deserved advantage. Notman’s second goal on 50 minutes put gloss on the result.
Manager Gardner Speirs must field some uncomfortable questions about his selection and tactics. His decision to utilise a back three, held together by Mick Keenan, was ill-conceived and his defence was easily picked apart by Berwick’s forwards: Keenan has his qualities, but a centre-back he is not. That Sean Burns and Aiden Connelly, two of their better players, were relegated to the bench hardly helped matters. But while Speirs will be castigated for how he deployed his squad, the players themselves must come under scrutiny. Jamie Longworth, for instance, one of their most important performers last year, looks a withdrawn figure this term.
Queen’s Park’s remaining fixtures include a meeting with Montrose followed by a home tie with Peterhead on the final day of the season. It is these matches which will determine whether the Spiders finish the season as candidates for promotion, or wondering “what if…” instead. CGT
5) Elgin City can keep their play-off hopes alive
It was not a dominant display by any means, but Elgin City did what was required to come from behind twice and eventually win 3-2 at home to play-off rivals Montrose.
The pattern of the play rarely settled for the first quarter of the match. Elgin flirted between lop-sided 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 formations, with what seemed to be a strategy of getting Paul “younger son of current Dundee playmaker Gary” Harkins involved in the final third of the pitch. Against Montrose’s disciplined but rapid 4-4-2, City just could not get their key men on the ball when it mattered. A deceptively acrobatic overhead kick by Garry Wood sent the ball just beyond the far post early on to set the tone for Montrose, who wanted to consolidate their play-off position.
The Gable Endies certainly created the better opportunities throughout the match, despite having less of the ball in possession. City’s problem was that their hold of the ball wasn’t good possession – the defence launched the ball from towards Stuart Leslie, who spent most of the match chasing lost causes. The full-backs should have been feeding Inverness Caledonian Thistle loanee Gavin Morrison the ball at the heart of midfield to allow him to use his wide range of passing. However, David Niven and particularly Paul McMullan were guilty of wasting the ball down the channels where Montrose’s own full-backs could shepherd the ball without issue.
When this strategy didn’t work, Elgin resorted to trying to chip balls over and behind the away defence, but this also failed to yield results. The match was laced with irony, as Montrose twice took the lead by the use of excellent, ground-level through balls that Elgin aspired to. Wood’s assist for Terry Masson carved open the defence after 28 minutes and left-winger Scott Johnstone benefited from an even better pass from midfield shortly after half-time.
Until City reverted to a 4-4-2 in the second half, they could not get Harkins on the ball in the space required to cause damage. Although Elgin’s full-backs were generally poor in possession, and with Harkins not getting involved enough, it was ironic that all of the home team’s goals arrived precisely when those three players did get into dangerous positions around the periphery of the box. McMullan drove forward to shoot across goal in the first half; Harkins showed exquisite technique to curl a 20-yard finish into substitute goalkeeper Sandy Wood’s top-left corner; and David Niven won a controversial penalty at his highest point of the pitch during the match, which Harkins dispatched expertly.
City arguably didn’t create enough chances in the second half to justify the victory over their rivals, with a congested middle of the pitch manipulated by Ryan McCord‘s younger brother Ross, who looked the best player on the park after coming on for Jamie Winter.
A draw might have been a more fair result, but the home team will not have minded. Elgin now find themselves only a point behind Montrose and Berwick Rangers, who are tied for the third play-off place in the division. City are now the form club among the three and face Berwick next week – the race for fourth place will be tight. JAM