Five Things We Learned from the SFL

1) Partick Thistle are champions

PARTICK THISTLE ensured promotion to the SPL after beating Falkirk 2-0 in Grangemouth, with another nervous opening half giving way to a comfortably win. What more can be said about the Jags at this stage? By securing the title with two games to spare, they are worthy champions.

As Alan Archibald took over the management of the first team at the end of January, Thistle had only scored eight goals in nine league matches away from Firhill; the team’s away form mirrored the part-time sides they were beating so comprehensively at home. However, “Archie” banished any sense of insecurity within the squad – not only are Thistle on an unbeaten run since McNamara left, they have earned as many points away from home under Archibald’s short tenure as they did on their travels in the whole of the 2011-12 season.

Thus, Saturday’s match eventually played out as another routine Jags victory. There was another clean sheet for a back five who – if kept together – will almost certainly hold their own against SPL opposition next season (Scott Fox’s comparative clean sheet record is worthy of some praise); another game which Thistle have been judged to have the majority of the possession; another opening goal by a centre-back; and another sublime dribble and finish by Chris Erskine.

Thistle’s performance throughout the season is best epitomised by the form of Erskine. Despite the fitting alliteration, the “Maryhill Messi” does bear some comparison to the world’s greatest footballer: just as the Argentinian makes the extraordinary look routine, Erskine’s unerring ability to drive at and over-commit players then finish impeccably quite so often makes him a unique talent.

Falkirk have found it difficult to defend the space between the lines and midfield all season, with Stewart Murdoch often being outnumbered (if not caught out of position) as the rest of the Bairns’ midfield lose shape higher up the pitch. Erskine’s counter-attacking ability allows him to pierce a back four on his own, so when Doolan played a simple pass to Erskine still inside his own half, but with only an extremely high back four to beat, the resulting goal wasn’t all that much of a surprise.

Thistle will miss Erskine, and team captain Paul Paton too. Although Paton is one of the SFL’s most improved players over the last five years, and Dundee United have a space in midfield ready for him to prove himself, it is Erskine’s maverick qualities that will be the most difficult to replace.

Until then, Archibald and the rest of his staff can enjoy the occasion. The adventure is only beginning. JAM


2) Stenhousemuir are strong candidates for the final play-off place

It ain’t over till it’s over. Stenhousemuir’s 4-0 thrashing of Ayr United – their third win in a row – has seen the Warriors emerge as unlikely candidates for the final play-off place in Division Two. For a side who, until three weeks ago, looked as though they were happy enough to gently play out the remainder of the season, it has been a remarkable transformation, with victories against East Fife, Queen of the South and now Ayr putting the club three points behind Arbroath in fourth place. On current form, there is a reasonable chance the Warriors might just usurp them.

Saturday’s victory was as straightforward as it was emphatic. After five minutes, Sean Dickson opened the scoring with a diving header, crashing home Darren Smith’s fine cross with all the aplomb of Roy Race, before John Gemmell added a second, nodding in Ross McMillan’s centre after Jamie Reid’s corner.

Their third goal arrived in controversial circumstances. Nicky Devlin charged into the penalty area, appearing to overrun the ball but as goalkeeper Graeme Smith stooped to collect, Devlin was tripped by Chris Smith. It was debatable whether or not Devlin actually had control of the ball, but referee David Somers saw fit to dismiss the centre-back and award a penalty kick; it was dispatched into the bottom corner by Gemmell.

The capitulation was soon complete. Ten minutes after the interval, a patient build-up began with the ball shuttled between the defence and midfield before Gemmell and Smith swapped a series of passes. The former fed in the latter who scooped a delicious finish over Smith and into the net – it was a worthy contender for the goal of the season.

The rest of the half was a tepid contest. The ball rarely left Stenhousemuir’s half, with centre-backs Ross McMillan and Kevin McKinlay content to pass the ball between each other unchallenged. Ayr rarely mustered a tackle and appeared satisfied to contain their hosts and bring their sorry performance to a close. The defeat concludes a miserable season for the Honest Men – for a club who expected an immediate return to the First Division, to finish in mid-table is quite abject.

While Stenhousemuir still require Arbroath and Forfar Athletic in fifth place to falter, they are peaking at the right time: the momentum – that wonderful footballing buzzword – is with them. Their final two matches see them travel to Brechin (their last visit to Glebe Park ended in a 2-7 defeat) and Stranraer (a team whom they have failed to beat in their last three meetings). Both fixtures look bothersome but they are not insurmountable.

It might be a case of too little, too late for Stenhousemuir, but the Warriors are still in contention. CGT


3) Billy Brown deserves no credit for East Fife’s win

East Fife’s 2-1 victory over Alloa Athletic saw the club arrest a horrid run of form and pick up their first win in 15 matches, allowing them to keep pace with Stranraer immediately above them in eighth place. The result was even more impressive given the context of Billy Brown’s astonishing post-match interview where he railed against the lack of support from the East Fife fans and the poor quality of his players, whom he claimed that “not even a mixture of Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho” could manage.

Naturally, Brown was far more sanguine as he basked in the glory of victory. “When things go for us, and we get everything together, we’re not that bad a team,” he beamed when speaking to The Sun. “I thought we were pretty resilient, defended well, and were dangerous.

“Alloa are a good team, with good movement. They’re as good a team as there is in the league. I always knew they would get one. These games never end 2-0, that’s why I’ve not got a lot of hair! But we deserved it. We matched them most of the time, and probably edged it.”

What nonsense. Last weekend, Brown had effectively given up on the players and absolved himself of any responsibility for East Fife’s current league position. He continually referred to the players as “they”, drawing a clear distinction between himself and his charges. It’s all their fault; it’s nothing to do with me! One positive result later, however, and he seems delighted to take a share in the credit for East Fife’s deserved win. It is disappointing that no-one from the assembled press saw fit to question Brown about his own role in the club’s poor season. His hubris and hypocrisy is staggering.

It is clear that Brown is more concerned with protecting his own reputation than improving the club’s fortunes. Should East Fife survive relegation and maintain their Second Division status, he deserves no credit – it is their beleaguered players who should receive all the praise. CGT


4) Rangers are a shambles on and off the park

Rangers might have already secured the league championship several weeks ago and in the context of their season, their defeat to Peterhead meant very little, but there should really be no excuses for Saturday’s loss: to lose one match at Ibrox to part-time opposition may be regarded as misfortune; to lose two looks like carelessness.

Despite taking the lead through Lee McCulloch’s 17th league goal of the season on 12 minutes, the Gers were unable to build on their advantage. They hit the post twice before the nature of the match swung irrevocably in the favour of the visitors – their inability to defend set-pieces was once again exposed as Scott Ross rose to nod home David Cox’s corner and tie the contest. On 56 minutes, Rory McAllister crashed Andy Rodgers’ pass into the far corner of the net; the host’s expected resurgence did not materialise and Peterhead celebrated a famous victory.

It is unfortunate the Blue Toon’s triumph will be overlooked. The win, their sixth consecutive victory, has guaranteed they will finish the season in the play-off positions and the club must surely be favourites to gain promotion into the Second Division. They deserve immense credit for their endeavour, McAllister in particular. By his own standards, the current campaign has been relatively indifferent but he, like his team, have hit form at the most opportune moment.

Rangers, meanwhile, continue to toil both on and off the park. Once again, Ally McCoist’s side lacked the organisation and motivation of their opponents and, once again, the manager must field some uncomfortable questions about the direction of his team. There appears to be no coherence to his tactical strategy and no logical recruitment process in place for next season’s campaign. The uncertainty in the boardroom following the departure of CEO Charles Green and the re-emergence of Craig Whyte cannot be ignored, but it would be wrong to say it has affected on-field matters. For the umpteenth time this season, a club with Rangers’ resources should not struggle against such modest opposition.

Despite winning the Third Division championship, everyone connected with Rangers will be delighted to see the back of the 2012-13 season. CGT


5) Berwick Rangers consolidate fourth place and keep Elgin City at bay

While Borough Briggs was gripped with a sequel to last year’s Ladies’ Day, a fascinating fixture between Elgin City and Berwick Rangers saw the visitors strengthen their hold on the final play-off place whilst keeping the hosts at arm’s length in their reach for promotion.

From the start of the match, Elgin looked much improved on the previous week’s win over Montrose. City manager Ross Jack must have appreciated that his team lacked balance in their late victory, when the side probably had too many forwards on the pitch. They were able to welcome back Mark Nicolson, whose elegance in protecting his centre-backs at the heart of a 4-1-4-1 gave a sense of equilibrium to the team.

With Craig Gunn benched from last week, Paul Harkins was asked to get forward from the centre of midfield to support Stuart Leslie, who was supplied with balls to his feet on the half-turn into the channels, rather than being asked to hold the ball up directly against Berwick’s centre-backs. Brian Cameron’s leggy determination got to the end of a switch in play on the right flank and as he skipped past make-shift left-back Damian Gielty, he was tripped just inside the box by the covering Kevin MacDonald. Leslie scored the penalty on seven minutes and it took at least another five before the Wee Gers posed any kind of threat in the home half.

However, Berwick’s first attempt at goal had MacDonald almost redeeming his earlier effort, with a 25-yard snapshot which deflected slightly off Harkins and boomed off the top of the crossbar. That set the tone for the rest of the half, as Ian Little’s team grew into and began to dominate the match. Little had his team set up in a 4-2-3-1, which often pitted Nicolson against MacDonald, but the fascinating duels were on the flanks as Danny Moore on Elgin’s left wing pushed Berwick’s right-back towards his own goal and vice versa. Moore often let Devon Jacobs go, allowing the South African to overload Elgin’s left-back alongside Fraser McLaren.

On the other flank, Dylan Easton exhibited an absurdly low centre of gravity and was prominent throughout as he was supplied by the tidy and efficient double pivot of Neil Janczyk and Lee Currie. Berwick’s star forward, Darren Lavery, barely had a chance during his last visit to Moray but should have had a hat-trick during this match. Elgin’s centre-backs were too often caught making poor headed clearances which fell inside their own penalty box – on the two occasions when Lavery cunningly dropped off to collect the bounce, he screwed wide and struck the post.

Janczyk brought a terrific save from Joe Malin from a glancing header at a corner kick, where the ball was tipped on to the bar and over. Shortly after, MacDonald played a wonderful 20-yard diagonal ball over City defender Jamie Duff’s shoulder for Lavery, who struck narrowly across goal and just beyond the far post. Elgin’s woodwork was still quivering as the half-time whistle rang.

The second half fell flat for nearly 20 minutes, but for occasional exciting wing play by Moore. On the balance of play, it was ironic that Berwick looked like the team in command despite still losing the match, but with just under half an hour remaining Lavery thumped a finish from close range from McLaren’s cross. Ten minutes later, MacDonald scored the winner which his earlier strike deserved and at that stage, Elgin looked lost. With Gavin Morrison leaving the pitch within the game’s first quarter (it might not be a coincidence that it was then that they lost control of the midfield), City found it difficult to involve Moore early and often.

Nevertheless, Moore managed to get the ball and attack Jacobs down the flank – Moore’s cross was deliciously served and it landed at Gunn’s feet almost too perfectly, as the substitute could only contrive to scuff a poke towards goal, which Leslie couldn’t capitalise upon. Moore hit the bar himself with a speculative shot which took a headed deflection, but overall the home side didn’t dominate the midfield for long enough, nor make enough chances to justify a result from the match.

Ross Jack will now have to think about planning for next season, as Ian Little can take pride in the balance that he has recently found. Having outplayed Queen’s Park and Elgin in succession, there is no reason why Berwick should fear the other sides involved in the race for the last Second Division placing. JAM

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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