1) Inexperience is not a barrier to success in the SFL
FOOTBALL management, for so often the preserve of the older gentleman adorned in a duffle coat with years of coaching experience behind him, has become a young man’s pursuit. Current fashion dictates that clubs now must employ recently retired thirty or forty-somethings. At 40, Gary Holt is the latest novice to take charge of a First Division club, replacing Steven Pressley at Falkirk – the former Norwich academy coach takes the total number of managers in the league who had no management experience before the beginning of the season to six.
Partick Thistle’s Alan Archibald has improved Jackie McNamara’s team and guided the side to the First Division championship; Ian Murray has taken Dumbarton off the foot of the table and towards safety (such has been the Sons’ improvement, they could even finish the season in sixth if next weekend’s results go in their favour); Hamilton’s form under caretaker Alex Neil should be enough to suggest he deserves the role on a permanent basis; Grant Murray is one of the league’s most experienced managers after only taking charge of Raith Rovers last July; and despite being 51, Livingston’s Richie Burke took on the role having coached the club’s youth teams.
A cynic might wish to point out that this new wave of young managers has simply begun because of austerity, and that an inexperienced coach is more likely to demand a smaller salary. That cynic could well be correct, but a lack of acumen does not necessarily become a hindrance to success – in Division Two, Allan Johnston won a league and cup double in his first season as manager, while in recent times Paul Sheerin and Paul Hartley secured the Third Division championship with Arbroath and Alloa Athletic respectively.
It remains to be seen whether or not this trend will become a permanent convention or nothing more than a passing fad, but the only certainty is, as with everything in football, it will be dictated by results. SM
2) Gary Holt is not getting the best out of Lyle Taylor
The goalless draw between Raith Rovers and Falkirk was a typically dour end of season encounter between two sides with nothing to play for. Low on quality and industry, the match was noticeable for two things: the number of times the Starks Park stadium announcer saw fit to play Gangnam Style; and the visitors’ inability to get the best from Lyle Taylor.
Since replacing Steven Pressley, Gary Holt has failed to win any of his four games in charge – it still seems as though his side have failed to recover from throwing away a place in the Scottish Cup final after surrendering a three-goal lead to Hibernian – and although the former Kilmarnock midfielder made a number of alterations to his team, it was concerning that their traditional passing style appeared to have been eschewed in favour of a more direct approach.
Taylor had a few half-chances but the aimless balls lobbed forward towards the striker did not maximise his strengths. His team-mates seemed intent on making quick passes into the striker before flooding men upfield to feed off his knockdowns and lay-offs, but Taylor is far better when asked to operate on the last shoulder of defenders, using his pace to break into space, or at the apex of a system built to counter attack. It is disappointing to see him utilised as a mere target man.
Against Raith Rovers, Falkirk perhaps had the chances to take more than a point from the tie, but the apparent “betrayal” of their identity is a cause for concern with a new campaign looming. RD
3) Brechin City’s poor form has come at the wrong time
Brechin City’s meeting with Stenhousemuir at Glebe Park pitched a team badly out of sorts against one of the division’s form sides, and a club with very little to play for against a determined group with an outside chance of clinching fourth place. Given the context, the result – a victory for the visitors – was not unexpected but Brechin are beginning to falter at the most inopportune moment.
Ray McKinnon’s side may have already secured third place (their play-off position was confirmed following a 2-2 draw with Stranraer last Tuesday) but in their previous nine matches, Brechin have won just twice. A quick glance at the league table between 27 March and 27 April would see them in eighth place having, with a meagre points ratio of 0.78 per game. McKinnon’s tenure has been hugely successful but recent results could see his work coming undone.
Granted, Brechin have played a relatively large amount of matches in that short period of time (nine, compared to the six or seven of most other clubs in the division, which would have tired their small squad) and against Stenhousemuir, McKinnon rested a number of senior players (Alan Trouten, Ryan Ferguson and Ryan Ferguson dropping to the bench while Ewan Moyes, Gary Fusco and Johnny Brown were omitted from the matchday squad altogether – something the manager will likely repeat in their final matches with Albion Rovers and East Fife) but their poor run could ultimately cost them in their bid for promotion.
The play-off semi-final will pair Brechin against Alloa Athletic (who have collected 2.4 points per match in the same timeframe). City have enjoyed a solid record against the Wasps this season (winning twice, drawing once and losing the other) but with Paul Hartley’s side in such relentless form, a repeat of the disappointing conclusion to the 2010-11 campaign might just happen again. CGT
4) The Second Division will be a poorer place without Albion Rovers
It has been coming for a number of weeks, but Albion Rovers’ relegation to Division Three was confirmed following their 1-4 surrender to Alloa Athletic at Recreation Park. Despite Pat Walker’s neat finish cancelling out Kevin Cawley’s opening goal, Stephen Simmons and Jonathan Tiffoney gave the hosts an unassailable lead at the interval before Cawley’s late second added a gloss to the score-line.
Anything other than automatic relegation would have been an incredible achievement for Todd Lumsden’s side. The club enjoyed a reasonable start to the campaign and sat in sixth place after the first quarter, but following an excellent 4-0 victory over Arbroath they embarked on a horrendous run, winning only one of their next 16 games. Recent wins against Stenhousemuir and Brechin City only prolonged their inevitable slide back into the basement league. Their demotion is doubly unfortunate given the club will also miss out on the bounty from the visits of Rangers and Airdrie United next term.
In many ways the league will be a poorer place without them. While Rovers often lacked quality, they could never be accused of being anything less than supremely competitive. Although never the most entertaining side to watch, their dogged performances provided a tricky challenge for opposition managers and players (most notably Stenhousemuir, from whom they collected seven of their 24 points). It is unlikely their league replacements will match their spirit and enthusiasm.
Cliftonhill will also be missed. Many complain about the rustic environs and the bobbly, bumpy pitch, but few grounds in the SFL can match its character. There is a childlike excitement in clambering up the steps towards the grandstand, the chipped blocks giving way to the rough turf and the dilapidated terracing on the far side of the pitch. On a winter’s evening, with the cold air lit up by floodlights, the ground looks particularly splendid, like a relic placed in a time it does not belong in.
Even although Lumsden has started to prepare for next term, it seems unlikely that Albion Rovers will make an immediate return to the third tier. Their two years in the division should be warmly remembered. CGT
5) Peterhead are favourites for promotion to the Second Division
With a combination of a ruthless defence and prolific attack, Jim McInally’s Peterhead are heading into the play-offs as the team to beat. The Blue Toon won comfortably at the weekend, with forward partners Andy Rodgers (twice) and Rory McAllister scoring against Clyde with no reply.
Rodgers made only his second start since his team’s loss to Elgin City at the beginning of March, but will be content with his contribution, despite a couple of other missed half-chances. He scored shortly before and after the half-time interval, with his first a particular delight – having had a long through ball cleared only to the edge of the box, Dean Cowie delicately hooked a half-volley to the far post, where Rodgers used his signature volleying technique to redirect the ball to his far corner of the goal from six yards.
His second goal was a simple header from the same distance, with the chance created by the bullishness of David Cox. Peterhead’s attacking midfielder chased a loose ball to the outside-left channel but as it seemed he was about to be out-paced to the ball by Clyde defender Iain Gray, Cox slid by the touch-line to regain possession, taking Gray out of the play. That left Clyde with a player less in a crucial moment, with Cox able to dribble to the edge of the left-hand side of the box before pinging a low cross to Rodgers’s head.
The third was perhaps unfortunate for Clyde, but with McAllister bearing on goal from a lofted Bryan Gilfillan through ball, Stephen Bronsky’s last-ditch tackle didn’t connect with the pass, but instead clipped the striker’s ankles. A red card and McAllister’s confidently dispatched penalty killed the contest.
The result gave Peterhead an incredible 17th clean sheet for the league season (the only goal Graeme Smith has conceded in their seven-match winning streak was against Rangers at Ibrox last weekend). Having the best defensive record in the whole division is something to be proud of but most encouragingly, it has been recently married to a goal streak: Peterhead have averaged three goals per game over the last seven wins.
The last game of the season is a relatively meaningless “play-off” against Queen’s Park to decide who will finish second in the league. However, with both teams guaranteed a place within the promotion play-offs, the only practical significance will be who plays home or away first in the imminent play-off semi-final. As the other play-off candidates struggle to put two wins together in succession, McInally will be confident that his team can go up. JAM