1) Alloa Athletic have nine matches to define their season
Alloa Athletic’s latest single-goal defeat ended with Barry Smith surprising a few with his sudden resignation. The Wasps’ 0-1 loss away to Dumbarton keeps them in ninth place in the Championship and they’re now a point behind rivals Cowdenbeath after the Blue Brazil held Rangers to a goalless draw at Central Park. Goalless is a term that Alloa supporters will be well versed with now and the lack of potency up front must be one of the main factors in Smith quitting with a quarter of the season to go.
Alloa didn’t help themselves by failing to make the most of circumstances that went in their favour. They could have been a man down very early on after Dumbarton’s Partick Thistle loanee Chris Duggan got goal-side of Ben Gordon when chasing a loose header behind the defence – Gordon’s shirt was being tugged by Duggan in the process, but the centre-back had both arms on the forward to push him off balance. The foul certainly seemed to be at the deprivation of a goal-scoring opportunity that the referee refused to acknowledge, leaving his assistant to flag in vain.
Beyond that, the Wasps could have been several goals up before Dylan Easton skinned a couple of Alloa players to win a penalty for Garry Fleming to convert minutes before the interval. Liam Buchanan is comfortably Alloa’s top scorer this season on only eight goals, but in a riper seam of form the ball might have fallen more kindly to him when presented with clear-cut opportunities to score. The second half had the football spending a disproportionate amount of time in Dumbarton’s last third of the pitch, with the Sons’ on-loan goalkeeper Danny Rogers under increasing duress with high balls into his area in swirling wind. Rogers was impeccable throughout and saved the points for his side with an outstanding tip onto the bar when the ball seemed beyond him.
That was Alloa’s tenth goalless finish in 13 league matches, which is an unsustainable statistic over the course of the season. It seems that Smith would rather fall on his own sword and allow Alloa the opportunity to bring in a different manager who might entice more success in front of goal. It seems a risky strategy to force onto club chairman Mike Mulraney and time will soon tell if it is the correct one. They are, after all, only a point behind Cowdenbeath who were battered by Heart of Midlothian just last week – would the time taken to bed in a new manager be time better utilised with the outgoing one? In any event, with a Challenge Cup final to look forward to as well as a good enough chance of pulling away from the relegation places, there ought to be plenty interest in the vacant position.
Dumbarton themselves now appear to be relatively safe from the drop, but will probably need a couple of wins from the campaign’s last quarter just to be sure of it. The Sons haven’t been at their most fluent this season but have done enough to date to be in the second tier for another year, which is still a big overachievement in the circumstances. With just nine league matches to go, we will soon see if Alloa will continue to overachieve with them. JAM
2) Greenock Morton have failed to seize the advantage
Saturday was a big opportunity for Greenock Morton to grab the League 1 title race by the scruff of the neck and cement their position as championship favourites. The Ton ascended to the top of the table in midweek with a thumping 4-0 win over Stirling Albion and, with Stranraer’s weekend trip to Forthbank falling foul to a waterlogged pitch, their match with Forfar Athletic presented an opportunity to open up a five-point advantage over Stephen Aitken’s side. Eight games unbeaten and with persuasive attacking options – Peter MacDonald, Declan McManus and Ross Caldwell – it was beginning to look ominous for their part-time challengers.
Forfar, of course, are still in the mix but have been inconsistent of late, unable to put together a sequence of positive results: their form going into the match read as W-L-W-L-W-L. Furthermore, ahead of the jaunt to Cappielow, the Loons had won just three of their 14 fixtures on the road this season and were insipid in defeat at Ayr United in their previous outing. In an attempt to correct his side’s away-day blues, Dick Campbell picked a conservative line-up, with Omar Kadar, Dale Hilson and Stephen Husband replaced by Mark Baxter, Gavin Malin and James Dale. Jim Duffy made two changes in midfield, with Ross Forbes and Joe McKee dropping out in favour of Conor Pepper and Jamie McCluskey.
Heavy rain on the Clyde riviera initially put the game in some doubt and would contribute to a scrimmage. Campbell fashioned his side into a compact and narrow 4-2-2-2, which against Morton’s 4-4-2, with Pepper and Thomas O’Ware playing deep and the McCluskey brothers charged with linking to Caldwell and McManus in attack, made for an obstinate encounter. Morton created the best chances of the opening skirmishes but McManus (thrice) and Stefan McCluskey found 42-year-old Rab Douglas in fine form.
The critical moment was always likely to be the opening goal and when it arrived in the 25th minute, it neatly encapsulated the difference between the two sides. Having initially screwed the ball out of play for a corner, Sean Crighton was adjudged to have fouled Chris Templeman in the penalty area. Templeman, 34, is streetwise and awkward – he invites contact and is adept at, well, making the most of it. Crighton, ten years Templeman’s junior, made a naïve challenge and was punished by referee Craig Charleston. Iain Campbell’s spot-kick was expertly saved by Derek Gaston but Dale was on hand to net the rebound.
It wasn’t apparent what Duffy was hoping to achieve with his team selection and his approach to the game. Once the Ton went behind, the ball was sent from back-to-front, posing little trouble to centre-backs Darren Dods and Stuart Malcolm. Peter MacDonald and Ross Forbes replaced Conor Pepper and Tuesday’s hat-trick hero Stefan McCluskey just after the hour mark, and Jon Scullion was thrown on further supplement the attack while full-backs Kilday and Lamie were pushed forward. It had little effect and Morton didn’t create a chance of note in the second half; the Loons picked them off on the counter in the 78th minute when Gavin Swankie playing in Malin to finish.
Amid the Inverclyde squall, Morton had blown it. They might go on to win the league but don’t expect them to do so convincingly. Jim Duffy’s side will look to cling onto top spot when they travel to Airdrieonians next weekend. The Loons, meanwhile, visit Peterhead tomorrow night in the knowledge that a victory will see them draw level with the Ton on points and games played. Stranraer and Brechin City also have a game in hand on Morton (Stranraer’s trip to Stirling is still to be arranged, and City will host Peterhead next month). All three are breathing down Ton’s neck – can they handle the pressure? AG
3) Stenhousemuir’s new-found resilience can see them to safety
A lot can happen in a week. Around seven days ago, after watching their side job to Brechin City, Stenhousemuir supporters had quietly resigned themselves to contesting the relegation play-off come May. The loss at Glebe Park was their seventh defeat in eight games and, with Ayr United recording a surprise victory over Forfar Athletic, it consigned them to ninth place, four points from safety. If results were poor, then so too was the level of performance – the spunky display against Dunfermline Athletic looked increasingly anomalous compared to the capitulation to Airdrieonians the following week, or the final days of Scott Booth’s dire tenure.
Two games and two victories later, however, and the Warriors can cautiously tilt their heads upwards. Tuesday night’s unexpected triumph over Stranraer and the weekend’s 2-1 win against Peterhead has lifted them out ninth and nudged them just ahead of Ayr; remarkably, it is the first time since August 2013 that Stenny have achieved back-to-back victories.
It was something Brown Ferguson’s predecessor could not do. Ferguson appears to have found a settled, balanced XI with a clearly defined strategy – no longer are centre-backs paired together at random, or players haphazardly deployed at right-back, or players strewn across the middle of the park with little reason: there is a method at play here. The manager fielded the same starting line-up in both matches and tellingly, with the exception of the wonderful Paul McMullan, not one of Booth’s January transfers featured.
Stenhousemuir have shown an sudden resilience of late. They overcame a difficult 20-minute opening spell against Stranraer before scoring the decisive goal and then taking control of the match. The Blues are a hard side but Stenny contained them and could, and maybe should have won the game by a greater margin. The last time they took on Peterhead their performance was so alarming that the board dismissed Booth the following day, but this time around they were far more steely.
With a gale billowing at their backs, the Warriors took the lead after six minutes when Colin McMenamin connected with a corner to send a spinning effort high into the net. Given the horrible conditions, there was a feeling they would need to go into the interval with at least a two-goal advantage but they were never really able to test Graeme Smith – Ross Meechan shot wide after bursting into the area and Kris Faulds blasted an effort over the bar. Josh Watt should have scored when played in by Faulds by Smith blocked the effort with his legs. When Jamie Redman capitalised on some wonky defending to crash home from close range just before half-time, there was an anxiety that Stenny would capitulate again; it has happened all too often over the campaign.
But the expected onslaught didn’t really happen and Peterhead did not use the wind to their benefit. In fact, it was Stenhousemuir who restored their lead when McMullan broke upfield and teed up Watt to shoot low beyond Smith – it was his second winning goal in as many matches. The Blue Toon had a flurry of corners at one point, putting sustained pressure on their opponents’ goal, but the defence held firm and ‘keeper Greg Fleming was able to keep them at bay. Rory McAllister, Andy Rodgers, Jamie Stevenson, David Cox and Nicky Riley – surely one of the division’s most fearsome offensive units – would only threaten sporadically.
Saturday’s meeting with Ayr is now shaping up to be decisive. Before then, United have the small matter of tomorrow night’s match with Airdrieonians. A win would see them return to eighth place but nothing can be taken for granted, particularly given their miserable midweek record at Somerset Park – the last time the Honest Men won a midweek fixture at home was almost five years ago to the day when a Steve Bowey goal secured a 1-0 victory over Partick Thistle on 10 March 2010.
It is now quite simple: the weekend’s encounter is a game neither side can afford to lose. CGT
4) Arbroath are in free-fall
The only people not surprised by Arbroath’s demolition by bottom side Montrose in the weekend’s Angus derby were the Arbroath fans themselves. The miserable 0-3 defeat at Links Park was the Gayfield outfit’s ninth league game without a win; their last victory was a 5-1 success against East Fife in Methil on 27 December. How long ago that all must seem now, as since then the Red Lichties have only managed four points.
Saturday’s defeat had all the hallmarks of the flaws that have emerged in Arbroath’s play in 2015. Worst of all is a crippling anxiety in front of goal. The normally reliable Paul McManus missed two very straightforward chances yesterday, while the talismanic Simon Murray has been terribly out of sorts since his £50,000 move to Dundee United in the January transfer window, and subsequent return on loan. It was no surprise that the faded striker started on the bench yesterday.
The Smokie rots from the head, and it is clear that the demoralising lack of goals is spreading uncertainty to the rest of the team. Arbroath have conceded twice as many strikes as they have scored in this trough; the confidence the team exuded in the first half of the season has vanished. Yesterday, other than some fitful feints by Dylan Carreiro and a hard-working shift from Bobby Linn, the Lichties offered very little by way of a goal threat from open play. On Wednesday last, Arbroath somehow conspired to lose at home to fast-improving East Stirlingshire; they had 16 attempts on goal in that game, yet the Falkirk side prevailed with their solitary effort on target.
Putting one’s finger on what’s going wrong is easy; how to fix it all is much less certain. The word “crisis” is much over-used in football journalism, yet any side going through a whole quarter season without a win is approaching just that. All attention now turns to manager Allan Moore and his assistant Todd Lumsden to see if they can find a way to pull out of this tailspin. Arbroath were so commandingly in front at Christmas that the bookies must have been considering paying out on their title win; now they lie third, five points behind leaders Albion Rovers. It is lucky that League 2’s front-runners have had such a bizarre reticence in taking a lead in the table and holding onto it. Recent improvements in the form of Elgin City, the Shire and Clyde have all seen teams in the lower half of the table gain ground on the stuttering three at the top.
However Moore does it, he has to do it by next midweek at the latest; Albion Rovers visit Gayfield on 18 March. Victory for the Coatbridge side will surely turn the title race into a straight fight between Rovers and Queen’s Park, condemning Arbroath to a play-off berth. Should that transpire, Arbroath will have suffered the worst collapse of any team at this level since the notorious Stenhousemuir implosion nine seasons ago; such an eventuality would provoke much soul-searching at management level, and no doubt a high player turnover in the close season. JB
5) Jim Chapman isn’t getting angry, he’s getting even
Jim Chapman is upset. Really upset.
Two weeks ago, after Annan Athletic’s fourth win in five matches consolidated their position in the League 2 play-off places, this column complimented them on their fine run of form and suggested they looked “snug” in fourth. Berwick Rangers sat six points behind them and the teams beneath were just a much of a muchness.
Now, after three consecutive defeats, the Galabankies’ status is looking uncertain. They have been usurped by East Fife and there is considerable danger from the sides below – if, say, Clyde and Elgin City win their games in hand, they could drop as low as seventh. The first two losses, against East Fife and Clyde respectively, were narrow affairs separated by the odd goal but the weekend’s dismal surrender to Albion Rovers was something else altogether.
“If my U-13 squad defended like that I’d be embarrassed for them,” fumed Chapman after his side were beaten 1-3. “It’s not even schoolboy defending, it’s just total immaturity.”
The manager was right to be furious – the goals his side lost were quite disgraceful. Ally Love, returning to Annan after joining the Rovers in the summer, opened the scoring after 20 minutes when he raced onto a defence-splitting pass and finishing underneath Jordan Hart. Six minutes later and Love doubled his side’s advantage – Mark McGuigan danced beyond Peter Watson’s half-hearted challenged and squared for his team-mate to finish at the second attempt. “I could have scored they goals the way the team defended. Davie Love could have scored they goals, never mind Ally Love,” Chapman grumbled.
(But who is Davie Love?)
Peter Weatherson reduced the deficit but McGuigan’s header shortly before the interval settled matters. Annan were better in the second half – Chapman’s triple substitution on 52 minutes might have played a part – but it made no difference to the outcome.
“Hindsight’s a wonderful thing,” the manager continued. “We can chop and change, we can make decisions… We put players on the park who understand their job – who tell us they understand their job – but, technically, when they go out there and play the game, they don’t. They either don’t understand, or they’re liars.
“It doesn’t surprise me. This team can be anything they want. Unfortunately, it’s what they want, and not what we need. And that changes from now on.”
How the Annan squad reacts after being accused of being “liars” remains to be seen but Chapman’s words sound like a final rallying cry, an all-or-nothing call to arms. The manager will be hoping it has the desired effect and the players use the criticism to reignite their season. After all, they’re the only ones who can take them back into the play-offs.
“I know what they’re capable of, they set their targets at the start of the season,” concluded Chapman. “I think they have to be realistic but they’re more than capable – only they’ll decide where they end up this season.
“I’m not getting angry. I’m getting even.” What on earth does he mean by that? CGT