I Know It’s Over: The League 2 Preview

The 2013-14 season will see the basement division revert back to some sort of normality, for this year at least. After Rangers crashed into the division last season and with the introduction of the relegation play-offs with the Highland and Lowland Leagues in time for the 2014-15 campaign, this is the last time the fourth tier will resemble a “closed shop”, with teams finishing towards the bottom of the table breathing their final sighs of relief.

Last season, a full-time, expensively assembled Rangers team denied an intriguing tussle for the title. Not this year. Without the Ibrox club, the lamentably titled League 2 has the potential to be one of the country’s most interesting divisions. By and large, the difference in quality across the league is negligible and any one of a number of teams could legitimately see themselves finishing the year as champions. Whether or not the division reaches the same level of competitiveness as last season remains to be seen – the presence of Rangers saw other sides significantly raise their standards; now the Gers have won promotion, one would hope the ten teams remain as driven.

On paper at least, Peterhead and their fearsome striking options, the resurgent Stirling Albion and Albion Rovers, replete with a new-look team, should finish the season well. At the other end of the table, Queen’s Park and Clyde could struggle. In truth, anything could happen between now and May.

All previews and transfers correct as of 6 August.

 

Albion Rovers

Players in: Scott Chaplain (Annan Athletic); Mick Dunlop (Stranraer); Josh Flood (Stirling Albion); Mark McGuigan (Partick Thistle – on loan); Martin Maguire (Greenock Morton); Darren Miller; Kevin Nicoll (Dumbarton); Neil Parry (Queen’s Park)

Players out: Marvin Andrews (Forfar Athletic); Chris Boyle (retired); Kieran Brannan (Annan Athletic); Steven Howarth; Simon Marriott; Connor Stevenson

After last season’s disappointing campaign, there is an air of cautious optimism surrounding Cliftonhill this time around. With a sizeable budget, new manager James Ward has worked diligently to build his squad and had recruited the large majority of his players by the end of May. The calibre of his signings – many of whom have enjoyed success at this level before – suggest that Albion Rovers are well equipped to make an immediate return to the third tier.

Neil Parry, Mick Dunlop, Kevin Nicoll and Scott Chaplain (entering his third spell with the club) are good, experienced players, but it is the loan signing of Mark McGuigan from Partick Thistle that excites the most. The forward enjoyed a brief, profitable loan spell at Cliftonhill last season and it is somewhat surprising to see the player of his obvious talent join a club in the basement tier. McGuigan is the complete striker – strong, powerful, intelligent and clinical – and it is conceivable that the 24-year-old could reach double-figures this term.

Of the players retained, winger David Crawford should star in League 2, while the long-serving Ciaran Donnelly looks slimmer and more purposeful now than at any point in his career. Barry Russell and Gary Phillips will also look to build on last season’s performances and will offer solidity on the flanks.

Throughout their recent history, the typical Rovers team marries blood and guts to occasional moments of nuanced football. It is tricky to know what to expect from Ward as he takes charge of a club for the first time in his career. Attendees at recent supporters’ assemblies have been impressed by his rhetoric, but it is worth pointing out that his last two posts were marked by failure – he assisted Alan Maitland during Alloa Athletic’s disastrous 2010-11 campaign and acted as Todd Lumsden’s number two during the Rovers relegation last season.

Ward will have learned a lot during his time as an assistant manager but it remains to be seen whether or not he is capable of taking sole charge of a team. He certainly has the players at his disposal to make Albion Rovers have a positive impact on the division, and anything less than a top four finish would be a disappointment. CGT

 

Annan Athletic

Players in: Greg Anderson (Glencaple); Kenny Arthur (Airdrieonians); Steven Black (Queen of the South); Peter Bradley (Queen’s Park); Kieran Brannan (Albion Rovers); Iain Chisholm (Arthurlie); Scott Davidson (Stirling Albion); Matt Flynn; Kenny McKay; Peter Weatherson (Greenock Morton)

Players out: Jonathan Blake; Scott Chaplain (Albion Rovers); Michael Daly (Clyde); Andrew Donlay; Lewis Hawke; Michael McGowan (East Stirlingshire); Jordan McKechnie (East Stirlingshire); Harry Monaghan (end of loan); David Murray; Graeme Ramage; Kieran Roan (Threave Rovers); Craig Summersgill

It is difficult to judge how well Annan Athletic will perform this term. Indeed, since joining the SFL in 2008, they have continually defied expectations – for example, after beating Livingston in the Ramsdens Cup last season, the team were predicted to enjoy a stylishly successful season; instead they suffered their poorest campaign in the senior leagues. Who knows how the year will play out.

The good ship Annan is sailing into uncharted waters this year. This will be the first time they have begun the season without Harry Cairney at the helm, with Jim Chapman having replaced the popular manager midway through last season. With a high turnover of players over the summer, Chapman has completely altered the squad – only a handful of the previous incumbent’s charges still with the club. As such, predicting how the club will fare is almost impossible.

It is their new signings which have prompted the greatest levels of interest. Peter Weatherson, signed as a player-coach following a ten-year spell at Greenock Morton, is an extraordinary piece of business. The striker is perhaps playing at a level beneath his capabilities and his presence will ensure the very best from those around him (it was with some irony that he scored the winning goal in the recent Ramsdens Cup meeting with Morton). Kenny Arthur performed poorly at Airdrieonians last term but his experience should encourage the development of the talented Alex Mitchell. Matt Flynn, a former Dundee United trainee joining the club following a spell in prison, and Queen of the South’s Steven Black are also fine additions.

Although Chapman is a belligerent, divisive character, few can deny his credentials at this level. The manager has won the old Third Division championship with Dumbarton, as well as taking a poor Albion Rovers side to the cusp of the play-off places. Realistically speaking, Annan Athletic could finish the season anywhere between first and ninth; their progress, and how Chapman responds to the club’s notoriously changeable support, will be a fascinating watch over the course of the year. CGT

 

Berwick Rangers

Players in: Billy Bald (Penicuik Athletic); Paul Grant (Hibernian – on loan); Ross Gray (Livingston); Stephen Tulloch (Forfar Athletic); Lewis Turner (Newtongrange Star)

Players out: Dean Droudge; Marc Lancaster; Kevin McDonald (Bonnyrigg Rose); Fraser McLaren; Andy McLean; Chris Townsley (East Stirlingshire)

Ian Little must hope that his Berwick Rangers team can improve on their consistent mid-table reputation which has been fostered in recent times. In the previous four seasons, point totals of 50, 49, 48 and 49 have had the Wee Gers finish between seventh and fourth place. However, with arguably more points available with Rangers’ promotion, Little’s team will need to win more games than they draw and lose if they want another shot at the play-offs.

The Black and Gold first XI do look like a team strong enough to improve on last year’s fourth place finish. Keeping the core of the squad will help Little, while a few of the signings have been inspired.

Berwick’s success will derive from partnerships formed within the team. The return of Stephen Tulloch is as ready a replacement for the departing captain Chris Townsley as could be hoped for – his rapport with Dougie Brydon in defence will prove pivotal if the latter can stay fit. Elsewhere, the permanent signing of Ross Gray after his loan spell last season means that between he and Devon Jacobs, Berwick might have the strongest right flank in the division.

With Darren Lavery almost certain to score more than 15 league goals this season, Berwick’s chief concern will be how to supplement these from elsewhere in the team. Lee Currie reached double figures (in all competitions) last season, but the only other player to do so was Fraser McLaren, whose mostly indifferent performances saw him released in the summer.

A top half finish should be the minimum expected from Berwick this season, but if they can guarantee goals when Lavery’s goal-scoring form dips, they might just surprise a few people. JAM

 

Clyde

Players in: Michael Daly (Annan Athletic); Ryan Frances (Vale of Clyde); Brian McQueen

Players out: Daniel Fitzpatrick; Paul Hay; Jamie Lyden (end of loan); John Neill; Kevin Nicoll (end of loan); Lee Sharp (retired)

It is difficult to imagine anything other than a long, hard season ahead for Clyde. The whole club, from boardroom level to the supporters, has been in disarray over the summer: there is a concern that the proposed move to East Kilbride could fall through (league reconstruction has given East Kilbride FC a very real chance of playing senior football in the coming years, and there is no longer as great a necessity for Clyde to relocate); a section of fans were banned until the New Year following the abuse directed towards John Brown in a recent friendly with Dundee; and Jim Duffy’s squad can, at best, be described as competent.

As well as Michael Daly and Brian McQueen (both of whom agreed terms last season) and the returning Kieran McGachie and David Marsh, the only recruitment of note is Ryan Frances. It is worth noting that Frances’s last involvement in senior football was at East Stirlingshire where he collected a 14-game suspension. With Sean Fitzharris perennially injured and Pat Scullion having ballooned in weight over the summer, there is little excitement surrounding the playing staff.

While recent performances have been reasonably sound (Duffy is slowly encouraging his team to pass the ball with greater frequency and use Broadwood’s artificial surface to its full potential), the midfield – such an issue last season – has failed to improve. Despite a series of fine performances towards the tail-end of 2012-13, John Sweeney has yet to fully convince; Iain Gray, a limited anchorman, is the only credible alternative.

There are a number of good players at the club: Jamie Barclay is a capable goalkeeper; Gavin Brown and Kieran MacDonald are two fine full-backs of bright potential; and Daly should be a fine target man for League 2 level. On the whole, the Bully Wee’s starting XI is probably good enough to hold their own in the division but the squad looks ill-equipped to deal with any inevitable injuries or suspensions.

With every other club having made incremental improvements, Clyde are favourites to finish bottom of the table by some distance. CGT

 

East Stirlingshire

Players in: Michael Bolochoweckyj (Forfar Athletic); Michael McGowan (Annan Athletic); Jordan McKechnie (Annan Athletic); Ross O’Donoghue (Elgin City); Iain Thomson (Stenhousemuir); Chris Townsley (Berwick Rangers)

Players out: Mark Begg; Jamie Benton; Raymond Buchanan (Whitletts Victoria), Michael Hunter; Steven Jackson (Brechin City); Graeme MacGregor; Steven Tart; Philipp Züfle

Whisper it, but East Stirlingshire actually look like a decent proposition this season. After two years of dreck, the current Shire squad is perhaps the most purposeful since the halcyon days of the Spencer Fern regime. Having been afforded a very handsome budget, John Coughlin has been able to augment last season’s better players with some very capable signings; a play-off position certainly isn’t out of the question.

Indeed, it is the calibre of the new recruits which has drawn excitement from the Shire support, and both the board and the manager deserve credit for the manner in which they have conducted their business over the summer. The team were in desperate need of quality in central defence, and the deficiencies have been suitably addressed by Chris Townsley and the returning Michael Bolochoweckyj, a popular player during his first spell at the club. Elsewhere, Iain Thomson and Ross O’Donoghue will bring class and composure to the middle of the park.

They should assimilate well with the existing group of players. Nathan Shepherd, Rhys Devlin and Scott Maxwell all impressed in flashes over the course of 2012-13 and if they can marry consistency to their obvious talent, they should all enjoy bright seasons. Maxwell in particular looks likely to move on to brighter things. Kevin Turner will be expected to improve on last season’s total of ten goals but if the player is absent or denied quality service, scoring could become problematic.

There are also some concerns about the depth of the squad once again. At one point, last season’s campaign looked as though it could have developed into a serious promotion challenge but the squad were decimated by injuries and suspensions and went on to lose their final ten matches; given the levels of investment, any such repeat will not be tolerated. Also, the Shire being the Shire, a six-goal defeat is always likely at at least one point during the season.

A 0-2 defeat to Highland League side Formartine United in the Ramsdens Cup indicated that there are still a number of issues to correct before the league campaign begins, but if East Stirlingshire can keep their better players available for extended periods and if John Coughlin can shake off his overly defensive instincts, there is no reason why the club cannot enjoy a successful year. CGT

 

Elgin City

Players in: Raymond Jellema; Ali MacKenzie (Strathspey Thistle); Shane Sutherland (Inverness Caledonian Thistle); Sam Urquhart (Clachnacuddin)

Players out: Stuart Leslie (Nairn County); Joe Malin (Brora Rangers); Daniel Moore (Nairn County); Ross O’Donoghue (East Stirlingshire)

Last season’s fifth place finish was a mild disappointment for a talented squad who paid the price for a lack of strength in depth in defence. This term, despite some surprising departures in the playing staff, Elgin City can surely hope to at least challenge for a play-off place and aim for League 1.

The close season saw the beginning of what might be an alarming trend, as three of City’s best players from last season joined clubs in the Highland League. The prospect of the pyramid system coming into effect has effectively brought about an arms race beyond the SPFL’s immediate jurisdiction – Nairn County added Daniel Moore and Stuart Leslie to a squad already containing Junior Mendes and Connor Gethins, while Joe Malin joined an enclave of former Ross County and Inverness Caledonian Thistle veterans at Brora Rangers.

Manager Ross Jack seems to have adequately replaced the outgoing players. As Shane Sutherland builds on his match fitness, we will undoubtedly see a more ruthless player than witnessed in the first round of the Ramsdens Cup; he is too good to not take the division by the scruff of the neck with more experience. Most promisingly, his inclusion in the team might be a good thing for Craig Gunn, whose role was compromised last season while Jack tried to find balance among his attacking options. Gunn’s vertical runs can stretch defences and if that creates space for Sutherland, Elgin will do well; 30 goals between them is not an unrealistic target.

However, Elgin do have their weaknesses. Between Bryan Cameron and Graeme Beveridge, City have players who can “do a job” on the left of midfield, but that in no way replaces the sometimes irrepressible wing-play by Moore last season; a late loan move for Ross County’s Alex Cooper might be feasible and indeed practical in the circumstances. A lack of depth in defence still exists and despite the rutting prominence of centre-back duo Stuart Duff and Sean Crighton, they do not always dominate their penalty area from cross balls – with Raymond Jellema being a ‘keeper who prefers to remain on his line and react, rather than come out for the catch, this could be a concern in the long term.

Getting the best out of Paul Harkins might be the biggest headache for Ross Jack. The playmaker is clearly talented, but to benefit from the most of his potential will require building a midfield around his sometimes erratic performances. With two central midfielders behind him, Harkins has the technique to unlock any defence in the division, but that would require either dropping one of the forwards or reverting to a bold and sometimes impractical 3-5-2 formation. However, in spite of everything else, the fitness and availability of Mark Nicolson will be the deciding factor on the equilibrium of the middle of the team and, maybe, the fate of the club’s promotion hopes. JAM

 

Montrose

Players in: Ross McCord (Alloa Athletic); Ricky McIntosh (St Johnstone); Stuart McKenzie (Cove Rangers); Graeme Webster (Dundee); Colin Wilson (Raith Rovers)

Players out: Paul Lunan; Phil McGuire; Scott Morton

Having just fallen short of reaching the play-off positions last season, Stuart Garden’s second full season as a football manager might see him cultivate a promotion-challenging team. With no notable departures through the season other than Paul Lunan, Garden has been able to concentrate on strengthening the squad, which does appear to be improved upon since the end of last year.

The coup has been in signing Ross McCord on a permanent deal from Alloa Athletic. McCord had already played with the Mo on loan in two different spells and at League 2 level, he is a quality all-round midfielder: his play isn’t always 100 per cent perfect, but generally his tidiness on the ball, willingness to track back, nip possession from forwards and ability drive into the opposition box will be a valued asset to Montrose. Otherwise, Colin Wilson will be a solid performer at centre-back and Graeme Webster’s darts inwards from the flanks will provide a different kind of approach – and indeed some competition – to David Gray’s crossing finesse.

Montrose’s forward line will probably go some way to deciding how well the club fares in the league. A confident Garry Wood can prove improbable to mark at times, but despite being as honest and hard-working as League 2 target men go, he is not enough of a goal threat on his own to propel the Gable Endies up the league. Much then will be expected of Scott Johnston to create and convert chances for himself from Wood’s physical play – he has the agility and technique to do so, but will have to prove that he is consistent if Garden isn’t going to look for another striker on loan.

There are probably too many midfielders on the books and not enough full-backs, but if Jamie Winter can keep the weight off through the season, and if Johnston and Wood between them can score enough goals to convert draws into victories, it won’t be a surprise to see the Mo compete in the top half come the end of the campaign. JAM

 

Peterhead

Players in: Jordon Brown (Aberdeen); Andy Rodgers (Stenhousemuir)

Players out: Martin Bavidge (Inverurie Locos); Scott McLaughlin (Ayr United); Ross Smith (end of loan)

This has been an ominously quiet close season at Balmoor. A settled squad who played through the first half of 2013 in such an effervescent manner will be among the favourites for winning the title.

Martin Bavidge left the club to join Highland League side Inverurie Locos. Having been at Peterhead for ten years, and with the permanent addition of Andy Rodgers from Stenhousemuir, this was probably the appropriate time for him to move on. With a strike ratio of approximately one goal in three games, his bludgeoning presence up front will be missed as a different option to break down opposition defences.

However, Jim McInally will be delighted to be able to continue the propagate the blossoming forward partnership between Rodgers and last season’s top scorer Rory McAllister. Rodgers’s technique around the edge of the penalty area is such that he regularly makes the difficult seem basic, and if McAllister can carry his late-season goal-scoring form into the new campaign then the Blue Toon’s goal difference column should be healthy through the course of the year. In midfield, Jordon Brown might offer a goal-scoring presence with runs from deep when he finds a place in the team; he will offer a different dynamic to the skill of David Cox and the bullishness of Dean Cowie.

Perhaps most encouraging for McInally is that, with the exception of Ross Smith, he has kept ahold of same backline who performed so consistently through the most of last term. Peterhead chalked up as many as 18 clean sheets last season – comprising half of their league fixtures – and without Rangers in the division this year to punctuate any serious run of form, then stability might breed success. JAM

 

Queen’s Park

Players in: Michael Brown (East Fife); Shaun Rooney (Dundee United); Joao Pereira Victoria (Giffnock North)

Players out: Peter Bradley (Annan Athletic); Aidan Connolly (Dundee United); Ricky Little (Arbroath); Jamie Longworth (Stranraer); Anthony McParland; Neil Parry (Albion Rovers); Andrew Robertson (Dundee United); Lawrence Shankland (Aberdeen); Alan Urquhart (Kirkintilloch Rob Roy); Craig Smith; Ian Watt (Carluke Rovers)

One only needs to look at the number of departures to see the difficulties facing Queen’s Park this season. It was inevitable that their precocious teenagers would move into full-time football over the summer, and this coupled with the loss of some their more experienced players has seen the team considerably weakened. The last time there was such a drain on talent at the club was the summer of 2008 when Paul Paton, Stuart Kettlewell and Paul Cairney amongst others departed; as such, the immediate prospect of repeating last season’s third place finish seems distinctly unlikely.

The amateurs are easy prey for cash-rich rivals. Gardner Speirs has always countered this with his canny knack of sourcing players from the junior and amateur leagues – the manager has said he intends to bring in three of four others before September and he must use all of his scouting nous to bolster his squad. Only Neil Parry appears to have been sufficiently replaced, his loss offset by the signing of Michael Brown from East Fife, but other than in goal, the squad are badly lacking in every other department.

Some fine players still remain at the club: Jamie Brough is a competent enough defender; David Anderson is still the division’s best midfielder; and Sean Burns has the potential to develop into a tricky attacker. Other experienced players – Michael Keenan and Tony Quinn, for instance – must pull their weight with greater frequency.

Their recent cup fixtures have ended in disappointment. The concession of a last minute goal against Ayr United saw the club knocked out of the Ramsdens Cup, while the weekend’s humiliation at Raith Rovers was a chastening experience. These were competitions QP were unlikely to win, and a greater indication of how the club will fare will come against East Stirlingshire on Saturday. For the moment at least, Speirs faces a troublesome season. Queen’s Park’s unbroken run of four consecutive play-off appearances is in jeopardy. CGT

 

Stirling Albion

Players in: Chris Smith (Falkirk)

Players out: Scott Davidson (Annan Athletic); Sam Filler; Josh Flood (Albion Rovers); Richie Kirwan; Daly McSorley; Gary Thom (East Fife)

Stirling Albion’s 2012-13 season was utterly peculiar. Until January, the club were the worst in Scotland, languishing at the foot of the division after a dreadful series of results. But a handful of new recruits in the transfer window and a canny tactical reshuffle saw the Binos embark on an outstanding run of form (only bettered by Rangers) and finish the season strongly. So impressive were their performances in the latter half of the previous campaign, some fans believed that – with the correct signings – winning the league was a distinct possibility.

That optimism has since evaporated somewhat. Manager Greig McDonald has only brought one player into the club, publically stating his contentment with his squad. His unwillingness to draft in any other additions, despite the club having made a substantial income on the back of their two matches with Rangers, has supporters worrying about the depth of talent for the forthcoming season.

The club’s only signing of the summer is centre-back Chris Smith, a direct replacement for Brian Allison who is likely to miss the entire season through injury. With Gary Thom having moved on to East Fife, youngster Jamie Clark will be given a more prominent role in the first team. In attack, Jordan White will be expected to continue last season’s excellent form and with only Bradley Coyne (returning from a long-term injury) and Sandy Cunningham (talented but callow) for competition, a heavy burden will fall on his shoulders.

There are also issues about the quality of the midfield, however. The squad are well-stocked but lacking in requisite quality. Mark Ferry is good for nine or ten goals a season and Jamie McCunnie and Kieran McAnespie are solid, unspectacular players, but there is a distinct lack of creativity within the squad – the need for an intelligent ball-player has not been addressed. The lack of transfer activity is a concern.

Stirling Albion’s starting XI is one of the best in the division and certainly good enough to win promotion, but without strengthening the squad, it is unlikely they will last the course of the season. Furthermore, without Rangers in the division, the Binos are denied at least a guaranteed five points. CGT

 

Once again, many thanks go to Stewart McIntyre, David Worton and Craig Brown for their insight and assistance with this article.

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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