Over the course of this season, Tell Him He’s Pelé will be looking in depth, once a fortnight, at a game in the SPFL’s lower three divisions. In the nine months that lie ahead we will try to cover all 30 clubs in and provide a detailed match report. By the end of the season, we will have built up a composite picture of the variety of matchday experiences that the country has to offer (and maybe even some of the more unusual stories that emerge from it). If you enjoy the feature, do feel free to e-mail us with suggestions for forthcoming fixtures to cover.
And so to Station Park for the first encounter of the season between the two Athletics, Forfar and Dunfermline. Since the Pars’ demotion in May 2013, these clubs have developed a keen rivalry and mutual respect, based on being very closely matched. Indeed, in Dunfermline’s relegation season they were perhaps a tad fortunate to overcome Forfar in the play off semi-finals; last term, as league rivals, they shared five points apiece from their four encounters.
But, of course, on paper, these sides should not be on even terms. Dunfermline are one of only two full-time teams in League 1 this season and, determined to put last year’s callow humiliation at the hands of Cowdenbeath in the play-offs behind them, have invested heavily in new players this summer with the aim of bidding seriously for the title. With perhaps less fanfare, Forfar have kept the core of a squad that has really grown together in the last couple of seasons, with just a few additions to strengthen the developing mix. And there will not be a battle of two more experienced managers than that between Forfar’s Dick Campbell, and Jim Jeffries of Dunfermline.
Forfar have undergone a renaissance of their own in recent seasons. After the humiliation of finishing bottom of the old Third Division in 2008, the Loons have progressed very steadily under Campbell’s leadership. His teams aren’t always pretty to watch, but their effectiveness – leaving that dreadful wooden spoon season behind and progressing to becoming an established, upward-looking team in the third tier – is hugely satisfying. On Saturday, with the artificial pitch gleaming like newly brushed baize, the club opened their new 1984 hospitality lounge, which is already largely booked out for the season ahead. This is a prudently run team with genuine hope of progressing further, trying to emulate the example of Cowdenbeath, Alloa Athletic and Dumbarton in the league above.
Summer is fighting a losing battle with autumn; the game started under scudding low Angus clouds, which were broken up by pleasant sunshine until the last ten minutes when a hideous squall of rain persisted and soaked everybody leaving the ground at full-time. There was a significant breeze sweeping across the ground too, tousling the players’ hair and holding up high balls more and more as the game went on.
The first half was a fiercely competitive one with both sides coming close to scoring. Dunfermline, trying to organise their play through the centre of midfield with Josh Falkingham and Lewis Spence seeking control, passed the ball prettily but Forfar mixed their play up more. Fiercely committed in the tackle, they used both wings effectively and the visitors really didn’t convince at all at set-pieces. Forfar can be deadly from freekicks and corners and they had seven or eight alone in the first half hour, which laid bare the brittleness at the heart of the opposition defence for all to see.
Chris Templeman’s running style was like a giraffe dancing on hot cobblestones
As early as the five-minute mark, the gangling Chris Templeman headed over from a freekick that Dunfermline didn’t deal with properly. Although he did not score, Templeman’s physical presence was a thorough annoyance for the Pars; the Forfar centre-forward’s running style, like a giraffe dancing on hot cobblestones, caused more than the occasional alarming moment. The ball got caught under his studs shortly afterwards when a quick turn would surely have seen him score; then, on ten minutes, a diagonal ball across the box from the impressive Michael Dunlop landed just out of reach of the lurking Tempelman and Gavin Swankie.
That said, the two clearest chances of this even, absorbing half fell to the visitors. As the Dunfermline defence enjoyed a respite from Forfar’s probes, the ball broke to Falkingham half way inside the opposition territory. He fed Michael Moffat, who played a telling lofted ball over the Forfar backline, catching them unawares. Goalkeeper Rab Douglas raced out as the sprinting Gozie Ugwu got there first; his weak shot beat Douglas but also just sneaked past the base of the right-hand post. Moffat’s lovely ball – the pass of the day – deserved at least a shot on target.
Referee Des Roach generally had a good game, although he faced two very valid penalty claims at either end of the park in successive minutes. Dunlop, backtracking to cover an attack down the terracing touchline, was very lucky to have got away with handling the ball inside the box; the view from the stand was clear but the referee must have been unsighted. And, from the resulting break, the ball rapidly found its way into the Dunfermline area, when Stuart Malcolm was clumsily bundled over when trying to control the it. That decision was less clear-cut, but penalties like this have been awarded many times before. Roach, however, quickly turned his head away from the Forfar players’ protests.
After this incident the home side had a spell of good pressure: Templeman stung the impressive Ryan Scully’s palms with a rising shot at his near post; Swankie rode a couple of challenges and put in a well weighted lofted ball that just eluded his team-mates; Forfar won more corners; and once again the Pars back line looked far from comfortable at the dead ball artillery barrage. Dale Hilson, who had a fine game, shot just wide from the edge of the area. For a dozen or so minutes Forfar were on top, grinding down Dunfermline through sheer hard work and a good variety of attacking play.
The spell ended when Ugwu, again, missed an almost identical chance to the one he had spurned earlier. Falkingham, his mushroom bowl layers like an early-nineties Madchester raver, played a great exchange of passes with Moffat and this time the little Englishman sent a weighted ball through for the hapless number 11 to chase. Perhaps still dwelling on his earlier miss, Ugwu reached the ball and then at the critical moment fell over, allowing Douglas to pick up with much less difficulty than he might have expected. These were confidence-sapping misses for Ugwu who is quick and strong and clearly has ability, but as yet is rather naïve.
That was the last clear chance of a half that was played at a frenetic tempo. Although a crowd of just over 1000 was present, they were in the main rather quiet, bar the occasional rumbling burst of dissent at the referee.
The game continued in the same vein after the restart. One change was made at half-time, Ross Drummond coming on for Alex Whittle, but as the match progressed Forfar increased the intensity of their play. Hilson, well placed to receive a long clearance from Douglas, took the ball well and from the edge of the area sent a drive a yard wide of the right-hand post. Forfar defended fanatically, throwing their bodies in front of the ball at the other end, as a Moffat chance was blocked by a brave lunge from Darren Dods.
At the other end, Templeman, all knees and elbows, swept past a couple of challenges and put in a cross that held up a little in the wind. Just behind the penalty spot, Hilson flicked a looping header goalward that was saved acrobatically by the sprawling Scully. The decisive battle in midfield was now underway with Spence and Falkingham trying to exert a little more control and slow the game down to a tempo more suitable for their team. On 57 minutes, Dunfermline’s Shaun Byrne, released by a subtle ball from midfield, sprinted diagonally into the area and cracked a rising drive off of Douglas’s gloves; the ball broke for Moffat whose low shot was beaten away superbly by the veteran as he completed a double save. Looking back, it as one of the turning points of the game, because Forfar opened the scoring just a couple of minutes later.
After Dale Hilson’s opening goal, Forfar Athletic never looked like losing the game
They had again broken up the park but the move seemed to have come to nothing. However, a feature of this game was Dunfermline’s inability to clear their lines quickly and effectively. The ball was allowed to bobble about pointlessly on the edge of the area and fell to Hilson, unmarked, about 25 yards out in a central position. Head down, he unleashed a hissing low drive which beat Scully comprehensively and snuggled in the bottom right-hand corner. From that point onward, they never looked like losing the game.
Forfar’s forwards made Dunfermline’s centre half pairing look slow and brittle. Jonathan Page, who had a mixed game, was increasingly muscled off the ball in the second half. This was in sharp contrast to the total commitment of the home defence – Falkingham was the latest Par thwarted after 67 minutes when a shot of his was firmly blocked by bodies throwing themselves at it in the Forfar box.
The coup de grace was administered with 15 minutes to go. Jefferies had begun to use his substitutes, replacing the tiring Byrne with Ryan Thomson, but the momentum remained with the home team. When a freekick was award for a niggling foul near to the edge of the Pars box on the stand side, Forfar’s big centre-backs lumbered forward and were not picked up by the red shirted defence. James Dale’s absolutely routine floated ball, which you would expect any professional defence to deal with, eluded everyone except the on-running Darren Dods, who whacked an unstoppable header off the top of his head and just inside the startled Scully’s left-hand post. It was a decent ball from Dale but it was staggering how such an obvious ploy was not thought through by the Pars defence, let alone countered. Frustrated, Page was booked a few minutes later after sending Hilson crashing with a clumsy challenge when the slippery winger was about to burst clear again.
Too late, Faissal El-Bakhtaoul was introduced for the fading-fast Ugwu. El-Bakhtaoul is a fizzing dynamo of energy and in little more than ten minutes he had unleashed three efforts on goal – almost as many as the rest of his team-mates had managed in the entire half. Two of these were just off target and the other had to be dealt with smartly by Douglas, in a sprawling save at his left-hand post. Presumably El-Bakhtaoul wasn’t totally match fit or recovering from injury, as his brief appearance made Dunfermline seem far more threatening.
The final incident of note was an unfortunate injury to Hilson in the last minute of the game. He was caught accidentally in a fully committed 50-50 challenge and although he got up gingerly, the player couldn’t put any weight on his left foot. Hilson was carried off to a generous round of applause and Forfar will miss him if his injury keeps him out for some weeks, as looks likely.
The concluding trill from Roach’s whistle brought a huge cheer from the home fans as the visitors got to their feet in sullen and disappointed silence, and headed for the exits. Full-time and well-financed they may be, but today’s evidence showed that Dunfermline have a lot to do to justify their billing of pre-season favourites. Defensively weak, lacking any kind of creative width, and not having the guile or the nous to break down a backline as committed as Forfar’s were the main reasons for their defeat. And there is surely enough experience in this Dunfermline team not to be as comprehensively out-thought by a streetwise and motivated Forfar side.
This was a fine victory for Dick Campbell’s men who, if they can maintain that level of intensity against the smaller clubs in the league, may well finish in the top four. It is too early for Dunfermline to be panicking just yet, but their season needs to start – and soon. If it doesn’t then the veteran Jim Jeffries will find himself under a lot of pressure from both fans and the club alike.
Man of the Match: DALE HILSON (Forfar Athletic)
It was Dale Hilson who exemplified Forfar’s commitment and determination, mixing up the hard work with some deft touches and a wonderful goal. For Dunfermline, goalkeeper Ryan Scully made a few great stops as his outfield team-mates had a collective off-day.