Five Things We Learned from the SFL

1) Falkirk are the SFL’s third best team

FALKIRK finished the season on a positive note, with new manager Gary Holt finding his first managerial in what was an accomplished performance and result with a 4-1 victory over Greenock Morton.

Last week, the Bairns looked to Lyle Taylor to contain possession of the ball with his back to goal to allow the midfield to squeeze up but against the Ton, Holt had a considerable re-shuffle of his squad to greater effect. With Blair Alston and Thomas Grant left on the bench, some balance was found among the midfield trio of Jay Fulton, Craig Sibbald and Connor McGrandles ahead of the holding Stewart Murdoch. Murdoch won the sponsors’ man of the match award but Fulton looked like the outstanding performer in the midfield, combining play in pockets across the width of the park. Further forward, Sean Higgins was given the rare opportunity to play in his most natural role: behind a forward in Taylor who can stretch the length of the pitch.

Martin Hardie scored the winning goal in Allan Moore’s last visit to Westfield, but he had already been released by his employer after Partick Thistle were guaranteed the championship. Whether or not the other veterans whom Moore recruited last summer will remain at the club (or even if Morton retain a full-time playing squad beyond this season) remains to be seen but one suspects that supporters of the Ton will have seen star performers Fouad Bachirou, Archie Campbell and possibly Michael Tidser (who hasn’t played since the paradigm-shifting 0-1 loss to Thistle) for the last time in blue and white hoops.

In any event, Morton’s team on the day barely made an impact on the match as Falkirk searched for the win from the outset. The home side were perhaps unlucky not to have scored by the time one of Morton’s senior players, Mark McLaughlin, got a second opportunity in the penalty box from a corner kick midway through the first half. It was typical of Falkirk that they conceded against the run of play from not being aggressive enough in defending deep set-pieces, but they continued to attack and eventually got their reward in the second half. Sibbald equalised on the hour with a left-foot drive into the top corner which left goalkeeper David Hutton simply staring at the trajectory.

Higgins combined with Taylor who was clipped in the penalty box and the latter dispatched his 24th league goal of the season. The same player got the last goal after Weatherston found himself with so much time to shoot in the opposition box that the only thing he could contrive to do was scuff his shot in the forward’s direction, but the highlight of the match was the fourth goal.

In a nine-pass move, Duffie formed a triangle on the right wing, before following a missed Alston centre across the pitch – Duffie’s lateral run across the 18-yard line was unorthodox for a right-back and wasn’t picked up by any Morton player. Duffie formed another triangle with Sibbald and Taylor before the latter cushioned a pass into the full-back’s path to shoot inside the far post. From Falkirk’s perspective, it was as good a goal as they had scored all season, but it was also indicative of Morton’s lack of intensity.

Whatever happens over the summer, it will be exciting to see this Falkirk team continue to develop. Keeping a hold of players like Fulton, Sibbald, Duffie and Stephen Kingsley will bode the club well for the medium term – with the correct direction, this team can yet turn out to be something special. JAM

 

2) Life in Fife turned out to be not quite as expected

On Saturday afternoon, the post-match reactions from fans of Cowdenbeath and Dunfermline Athletic weren’t just caused by the two sides trading places and condemning the latter to the play-offs: it was every bit as much down to so few predicting that this particular scenario would unfold.

Since Cowdenbeath’s defeat by Dumbarton the previous week, there was almost an air of resignation about their fate, as if beating an in-form Hamilton Academical while Airdrie United held the Pars was an impossibility, rather than an implausibility. Indeed, even Colin Cameron’s pre-match comments suggested he believed that winning the play-offs was a more realistic route to salvation rather than some final day drama.

Cameron had also mentioned it was about time his team enjoyed the rub of the green this season. If they have at all been luckless this term, then on Saturday they quite possibly enjoyed more than their fair share. With Dunfermline squandering a succession of chances at East End Park, Cowdenbeath were already a goal down through Stevie May’s 26th of the season. However, Andrew Ryan’s dismissal for violent conduct after 30 minutes gave Cowdenbeath a foothold in the game, while Cameron’s half-time substitutions worked to perfection.

Lewis Coult’s introduction up front alongside Craig Moore gave the Cowden attack a stronger presence than before, while fellow substitute Marc McKenzie provided an assist for the equaliser and scored an important third goal himself. In between those strikes, the crucial second was grabbed by Moore, a player who has possibly done more than anyone to keep Cowdenbeath in the division since his arrival.

The on-loan Motherwell striker seems to have developed an invaluable habit of scoring vital goals at vital times. In March, he scored a 90th minute equaliser against Dumbarton, while the next week his strike against Hamilton again helped his side snatch a point in a 1-1 draw. He was at it again the next week when he scored an 88th minute winner in a 3-2 victory over Airdrie United. After a poor summer in terms of player acquisitions, Cameron has made better use of the loan market since the turn of the year, with Moore arguably his most important signing.

Cowdenbeath have secured their second tier status. Even if Colin Cameron appears to have his detractors, his team’s survival should be placed into context. This is the first time Cowden have managed to survive in the First Division for more than a single season since Scottish football moved away from the two division set up in the seventies. With Queen of the South promoted to the First Division next year, there is no doubt that they will face another struggle, but such concerns can be addressed later. Now, the club and their supporters should enjoy the moment. SM

 

3) Dunfermline Athletic’s profligacy in front of goal doesn’t mix with a points deduction

Meanwhile, at East End Park Dunfermline Athletic had somehow contrived to miss an open goal and strike the woodwork three times before eventually succumbing to an already relegated Airdrie United. Despite a generally poor season overall, the Diamonds appear to have had some sort of hex over Dunfermline this year, with seven of their 22 points plundered from the Fifers. Even if, for once, their fate was in their own hands, their best efforts weren’t enough help them avoid the prospect of relegation to the Second Division.

Perhaps the result shouldn’t even have been as great a surprise given that Dunfermline had barely hinted at improving on their woeful home form from last season, with nine of their last 12 home matches ending in defeat. In spite of that, the Pars have only lost five matches on the road all season.  Their poor form since November, coupled with the 15 point deduction, means they now travel to Forfar Athletic (who beat them 3-2 in the first round of the Ramsdens Cup back in July) for the first leg of the play-off semi final on Wednesday.

It should be a fairly daunting fixture and one which history is ambivalent towards. One one hand, since the inception of the current play-off system in 2005-06, only Clyde in 2008 managed to successfully consolidate their First Division status after finishing the season in ninth. On the other, nine of the last ten play-off semi final ties featuring First Division sides have been won by the team playing away from home in the second leg, which will be Dunfermline in the first instance.

In any event, they must address their home form if they want to plan for life in Scotland’s second tier next season. SM

 

4) Forfar Athletic will prove to be feisty competitors in the play-offs

Forfar Athletic usurped Angus rivals Arbroath on Saturday to clinch the final Second Division play-off berth. Goals from Chris Templeman and Iain Campbell against ten-man Ayr United put the Loons into fourth place at half-time, leaving Arbroath – with just a one point lead and inferior goal difference at the start of the day – needing to find a winning goal 16 miles away at Gayfield. When news filtered through to Station Park that 15-year-old Scott Hynd had scored for Alloa in the 89th minute, the nervousness was lifted and Dick Campbell defiantly gestured on the touchline that it was all over. Forfar now have four games in which to reach Division One for the first time since 1992.

The Loons earned the win without top goalscorer Gavin Swankie who missed the game through suspension, but his defection from his hometown team Arbroath to Forfar in the summer has proved to be significant in the final reckoning. Paul Sheerin’s side scored 29 fewer goals this season having failed to adequately replace the former St Johnstone forward – signings Darren Gribben and Derek Holmes have not supplemented Steven Doris in attack. The Red Lichties’ inability to find the net on Saturday – their eighth blank of the season – was symptomatic of their problems.

However accurate that hypothesis, Forfar certainly haven’t reached the play-offs on the back of their defensive record. Only bottom side Albion Rovers conceded more than Forfar’s 74 and again on Saturday, they looked uncertain. Ayr were unnecessarily gifted an equaliser when Michael Donald got the better of Forfar right-back Willie Robertson and Michael Bolochoweckyj, under no duress, steered Donald’s cut-back past goalkeeper Darren Hill. Hill – who moved from Arbroath in the January transfer window – was to play a notable role in the second-half: despite their numerical disadvantage, the Honest Men looked the more likely to score and Hill was sufficiently employed to warrant the Man of the Match award.

Dick Campbell’s men will now face his former side Dunfermline Athletic over two-legs, the first at Station Park on Wednesday night. The Pars, despite the departure of a number of key players, are still a better side than their ninth placed finish suggests, while First Division sides, as mentioned aboved, have not fared well in the play-offs. Although Swankie will return, it is Hill who will likely remain the key man for Forfar. Only Partick Thistle and Morton have more First Division goals than the Pars this season, who will hope to take a positive result back to East End Park. AG

 

5) History repeats itself for Stenhousemuir

Towards the end of the 2011-12 season, Davie Irons’s Stenhousemuir embarked on a run of three consecutive victories, taking them level on points with fourth placed Airdrie United and back into contention for a play-off position. On the last day of the season, the Warriors faced a lowly Forfar Athletic at Ochilview while Airdrie travelled to take on champions Cowdenbeath, a side who were undefeated at home all season.

While Airdrie and Cowdenbeath played out a goalless draw, Stenhousemuir turned in one of their poorest performances of their season. Fraught and anxious, they lost 1-2 with Kenny Deuchar, an emblem of the failure of Irons’s final months in charge of the club, squandering a very presentable opportunity in the game’s final minutes. By virtue of their one point advantage, it was Airdrie who finished the season in the play-off places.

Twelve months later, history has repeated itself for Stenhousemuir with the climax of the current season virtually mirroring last year’s. Going into the final match against Stranraer, the Warriors had won their previous four matches – their best run since the beginning of the 2008-09 campaign – to give themselves the opportunity to challenge for fourth. The task was simple: beat the Blues and hope that both Arbroath and Forfar falter.

Forfar’s victory over Ayr United ultimately rendered the outcome of Stenhousemuir’s match irrelevant but just like last season, they quietly surrendered and lost the match 1-2, with the spectacle played out in the same flat, bloodless circumstances. Only Greg Ross’s late red card for an assault on Michael Moore appeared to raise the spirits of the home support.

There is no straightforward explanation as to why Stenhousemuir’s season has petered out in such a similar fashion. There is a different manager at the club this seaon, largely using a different group of players in different formations with different tactics. The fans talks about “The Stenny Way”, an insidious condition that has dogged them throughout their recent history, an inability to grasp opportunities against seemingly weaker opposition. It is a nightmare from which they are trying to escape.

“No matter,” wrote Samuel Beckett. “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

How very apt. CGT

Tell Him He's Pelé

Tell Him He's Pelé

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