Money Changes Everything: The Championship Preview

On the balance of things, the Championship could very well be more competitive than last season. For example, it took until after Christmas 2012 for any of the part-time teams to take points from Partick Thistle, Greenock Morton and Dunfermline Athletic (who, at that point, were still considered as viable promotion candidates) but given the resurgence in the New Year by Cowdenbeath and Dumbarton, Paul Hartley’s ability to get the best out of Alloa Athletic and Queen of the South’s better-than-average squad (relative to other newly promoted teams), the bottom of the table should be much more combative.

Nevertheless, there is still probably some predictability in the order of the establishment. Dundee should aim to return immediately to the top flight, but they are likely to be their own worst enemy. Morton have had another huge turnover of players, but have a strong enough squad to possibly challenge for the title. Falkirk’s prodigious quality in midfield means they could be there or thereabouts (although replacing Lyle Taylor’s goals won’t be easy). Otherwise, the middling-to-bottom teams could take so many points from each other that it would be facile to predict who will finish where.

The advent of the “all through” distribution model benefits the top four finishing teams in the Championship more than the rest of the SPFL’s lower league clubs, but every side but for the bottom two should receive extra prize revenue close to or over six-figure sums. Whether or not the top flight should be subsidising lower league full-time clubs to continue to pay more overheads than their income justifies is an issue for another place, but there is now at least a platform and a real incentive for teams to continue playing to the best of their abilities to the very end of the season.

Above all else, it is the feasibility of promotion to the top flight via the play-offs which excites the most. If mid-table teams can raise their game to aim for something great, the SPFL is a better place for it.

All previews and transfers are correct as of 8 August.

 

Alloa Athletic

Players in: James Creaney (Dumbarton); Iain Flannigan (Falkirk); Andy Kirk; Declan McManus (Aberdeen – on loan); Willie Robertson (Dundee United); Jonathan Tiffoney

Players out: Mark Docherty (Stranraer); Calum Elliot (Raith Rovers); Martin Grehan (Stranraer); Ross McCord (Montrose); Kevin Moon (Raith Rovers); Blair Munn

Alloa Athletic are riding on the crest of a wave. The previous two seasons have seen unprecedented levels of success under Paul Hartley, with a Third Division championship and promotion to the second tier for the first time in 11 years just reward for a fearless, high-tempo brand of offensive football. Equally as important, the manager has fostered a strong mentality at the club; it will serve them well again this year.

After dismissing Dunfermline Athletic in the play-off final, some suggested that the Alloa team was good enough to bid for the promotion play-offs to the Premiership. Let’s get real here – the Pars game should be treated in isolation. Alloa faced off against a beleaguered team of youngsters and, as Jim Jeffries pointed out, despite their part-time status it was Alloa who actually had the greater SPL experience in their side. Their ambition is admired but in the country’s most testing division, the Wasps’ first priority is to survive.

Keeping hold of their key players has certainly given them a strong chance. The wonderful Ryan McCord has agreed to stay on for 2013-14, as has Scott Bain and Ben Gordon. All three enjoyed excellent campaigns last term and will look to impress at a higher level. The departures of Kevin Moon and Calum Elliot were expected, but Iain Flannigan (if afforded an extended run in the team) and Andy Kirk should be adequate replacements. Hartley boasts some of the best contacts in the lower leagues and will no doubt furnish his team with young talent from the Premiership at some point if necessary.

The team held their own in their Ramsdens Cup tie against a fancied Dundee side, with a Carlo Monti penalty the only difference between the teams. If his team can maintain the same level of performance, and perhaps add creativity and flair to a rather stodgy attack, Paul Hartley can hope to enjoy a third successful season at Recreation Park.

That said, there can only be so long a manager of his talent can remain at part-time level. Hartley’s name will be no doubt linked with any vacant full-time posts in the country, but then few should begrudge him to opportunity to move on. CGT

 

Cowdenbeath

Players in: Grant Adam (St Mirren); Kane Hemmings (Rangers); Jordan Morton (Livingston); Andrew Russell (Livingston); Nathaniel Wedderburn (Corby Town)

Players out: Lewis Coult (Airdrieonians); Liam Cusack (Albion Rovers); Scott Linton (Dumbarton); Joe Mbu (East Fife); Craig Moore (end of loan); Pablo Navas; Mark Ramsay (retired)

Last season, Cowdenbeath made their own little bit of history. By avoiding relegation, they survived consecutive seasons in the country’s second tier for the first time since the Scottish league moved away from the two division set-up in 1975. Dunfermline Athletic’s points deduction gave the club a sizeable help along the way of course, but it shouldn’t diminish the achievements of Colin Cameron and his players.

The celebrations that followed, however, have made way for sober realism. Cowden face another difficult task in staying up but with two other part-time teams in the division, consolidation is certainly possible. If they are to achieve this, the team must find a solution to the second half capitulations which blighted their last season. Only Partick Thistle, Greenock Morton and Livingston had better records during the opening 45 minutes, but a total of 17 points were squandered after poor performances after the interval. Their Ramsdens Cup tie with Dunfermline followed a similar pattern: a bright, encouraging start gave way to a meek 1-3 defeat.

While some fans are unconvinced by Cameron’s credentials, the manager does appear to be learning from his mistakes. Although last season’s summer signings were generally very poor (Zepheniah Thomas, anyone?), this year’s additions look to be shrewd business – despite being built on a limited budget, the team does have talent running through it.

The signing of goalkeeper Grant Adam will offer competition to Thomas Flynn and the pair are very capable at this level. Both have started one game each, which suggests that Cameron has yet to decide on a No. 1 for the season ahead. Outfield, the midfield looks to be strong – Marc McKenzie and Jamie Stephenson scored 20 goals between them last term, while the returning Jordan Morton averaged a goal every three games during a loan spell at Central Park in 2011-12. The three are naturally forward-thinking, and Nathaniel Wedderburn should offer the back four some protection. If the Dunfermline game is any kind of barometer, however, then it might not be enough. Concerns about the lack of quality in attack (one goal in four pre-season matches) have subsequently been addressed by the signing of Kane Hemmings from Rangers on a permanent basis.

There are, however, major doubts surrounding a defence which conceded 65 goals last season. With Scott Linton and Joe Mbu having moved on elsewhere, Cameron has already stated his need to bring additional cover; with money tight, a loan signing would surely help bolster the squad. Cameron’s temporary transfers have been largely successful, with Hemmings, Liam Caddis, Sam Stanton and Craig Moore brought in to good effect last year.

If Cameron can repeat the tirck then he might just give Cowdenbeath a genuine chance of making it three seasons in Scotland’s second tier. SM

 

Dumbarton

Players in: Aaron Barry (Sheffield United – on loan); Scott Linton (Cowdenbeath); Mitch Megginson (Aberdeen); Paul McGinn (St Mirren); Kevin Smith (Queen of the South); Scott Smith (Hibernian)

Players out: James Creaney (Alloa Athletic); Ross Forsyth (Stirling Albion); Phil Johnston (Stirling Albion); Mark Lamont; Jim Lister (Airdrieonians); Alan Lithgow (Ayr United); Jamie Lyden; Marc McCusker; Ryan Metcalfe; Kevin Nicoll (Albion Rovers); Reece Pearson; Owen Ronald (Berwick Rangers – on loan); Glenn Thomson

The big question surely is: can Ian Murray do it again? The Dumbarton manager was garlanded with immeasurable praise after last season’s triumphs, taking a bedraggled group of players and transforming them into a well-drilled, exciting team. The club concluded the campaign in seventh, finishing as the best part-time club in the country.

There is nothing to suggest that Murray and his players cannot repeat the feat and maintain their Championship status for next term. The majority of last season’s squad have been retained and with a thorough pre-season and an additional night’s training each week, Dumbarton should be looking to finish as the best part-time team in the country once again. Signing the excellent Chris Turner on a two-year contract was lauded as a fine move, and the new terms given to Garry Fleming, Scott Agnew and Mark Gilhaney were all sound business.

Jim Lister and Alan Lithgow were surprise departures, but the incoming Kevin Smith and Aaron Barry should minimise any disruption. Smith, despite his injury concerns, should be a decent option at this level, while the highly rated Barry – a physical centre-back signed on loan from Sheffield United – should enjoy the rough and tumble of the league. He will be augmented well by full-backs Paul McGinn and Scott Smith, both of whom join on permanent deals after fine loan spells.

Last season, Dumbarton were far superior away from home, with nine of their 13 victories coming on the road. In a bid to temper this, Murray has seen fit to have the Bet Butler pitch narrowed, believing that full-time opposition were taking full advantage of its generous dimensions. Whether or not these alterations pay dividends remains to be seen, but the Sons have already won their first home fixture of the season, beating Albion Rovers 1-0.

The squad looks a little short in places, particularly in defence, but Murray is working diligently to address any shortcomings. It would be astonishing if Dumbarton were able to repeat the same levels of form they enjoyed between January and May over the entire season, but then it was astonishing to think the club could enjoy a second year in the division. An eighth place finish would be a fine achievement, and will surely see Murray move on to bigger things. CGT

 

Dundee

Players in: Thomas Carberry (Hamilton Academical); Steve Doris (Arbroath); Willie Dyer (Greenock Morton); Kyle Letheren (Kilmarnock); Peter MacDonald (Greenock Morton); Carlo Monti (Pollok); Gavin Rae (Aberdeen)

Players out: John Baird (Partick Thistle); Andrew Barrowman; Don Cowan; Rab Douglas (Forfar Athletic); Brian Easton (St Johnstone); Gary Harkins (St Mirren); Davide Grassi; Mark Kerr (Partick Thistle); Jamie McCluskey; Steven Milne (Arbroath); Steve Simonsen; Mark Stewart; Lewis Toshney (end of loan); Graham Webster (Montrose)

With Dundee’s return to Scotland’s second tier, pressure will be on John “Bomber” Brown to make a positive impression on the league from the outset.

The Dees’ departure list is quite extensive, but the squad had been bulked up to contend with the rigours of top flight football in 2012-13 and could afford the cull. Among the outgoing players, Rab Douglas was always going to leave as soon as Brown replaced him with Steve Simonsen during last season; Gary Harkins was too good to return to the lower leagues; and Brian Easton deserved another opportunity at the top level after increasingly competent performances at left-back last season.

Brown still has what appears to be a very strong squad relative to the division, especially compared to other teams who lost and have struggled to replace key players. John Baird’s departure has been mitigated by the arrival of Greenock Morton’s prolific but injury-prone striker Peter MacDonald. Gavin Rae’s short-term return to Dens in 2011-12 was a boon for Barry Smith at the time, as Dundee collected two-thirds of the available points with him in the team, compared to only 42 per cent of the possible points without him – if Rae can exert that type of beneficial influence on the squad once again, despite turning 36 in November, then Dundee will do very well.

The side do have a bloated middle, with a lot of similar level, deep central-playing midfielders including Stephen O’Donnell, Kevin McBride and Iain Davidson, but it is important that ex-Hamilton playmaker Jim McAllister is given a dynamic role to provide some drive towards the forward line.

Carlo Monti’s return to the the second tier could be an exciting observation. After transforming from Greenock Morton’s left flank into a free-scoring striker’s role for Pollok, Brown’s trend for indulging in signing players from junior football continues.  However, Monti’s pre-season form suggests that he has returned to this level a much better player than when he left. Elsewhere, Declan Gallacher is quickly becoming considered as one of the best young defenders in the country that his Clyde performances hinted towards, while his sidekick Kyle Benedictus is now a much improved and more mature player than in his formative years among the first team. The only lingering doubt at the back might be Kyle Letheren’s development as a first-choice goalkeeper: after acting as understudy for the majority of his career, will he have the mental fortitude to step up to be the primary ‘keeper?

On paper, Dundee’s squad should finish in first place. However, that depends on whether or not the boardroom shenanigans will have a detrimental effect on the morale of the playing staff, and also if Brown’s methods will stand up to the scrutiny of expectation. To finish outside the play-off places is unthinkable, but would a play-off place and no resulting promotion be enough? JAM

 

Falkirk

Players in: Scott Olumide Durojaiye (Norwich); Rory Loy; Philip Roberts (Arsenal);

Players out: Gregor Amos (Selkirk – on loan); Darren Dods (Forfar Athletic); Iain Flannigan (Alloa Athletic); Dale Fulton; Sean Higgins (Stenhousemuir); Stewart Murdoch (Fleetwood Town); Chris Smith (Stirling Albion); Lyle Taylor (Sheffield United); David Weatherston

Gary Holt’s first full season in charge of Falkirk will be fascinating to witness. Holt still holds the majority of the squad which sporadically looked impressive under Steven Pressley over the last two years (particularly in the cup competitions). Replacing the leadership of Darren Dods and Lyle Taylor’s goals from the first XI will be the biggest quandaries to solve, but otherwise the team must be regarded as good enough to remain in the top three as achieved in the previous three seasons.

Finding goals will certainly be the biggest poser to Holt. Philip Roberts already has experience of playing in Scotland after his loan spell at Inverness Caledonian Thistle last season, but he was deployed on the flank in the band of three in a 4-2-3-1 formation. Coming in from the left, he showed strong vision and a powerful right foot, but he appeared to play more like Steven Pienaar than Benni McCarthy. On one occasion where he was tasked with playing up front on his own, for the last half hour in a Highland derby, Roberts was out-muscled and showed little movement to cause a threat to central defenders – if he is to be used as a focal point, he has much to improve on his game. Otherwise, Rory Loy hasn’t played much professional football, despite being older than the majority of Holt’s squad, so the midfield will have to be relied upon to finish opportunities made by its own good work.

It is the midfield which is Holt’s most prized unit at this point. Jay Fulton saw his younger brother Dale released, but the 19-year-old has an extremely promising career ahead, regardless of what role is made for him. This might be Blair Alston’s breakthrough year into mainstream Scottish football’s consciousness: his guile and galvanising effect on attacking phases will present plenty chances for his team-mates, but he and the gifted Craig Sibbald will need to score at least a dozen goals between them this season if their club is going to have a prosperous campaign.  The quality of the new artificial pitch should certainly help their cause.

They will be supported by Scott “Ollie” Durojaiye – arguably a natural replacement for Stewart Murdoch – who has followed Holt from Norwich to play regularly. Durojaiye’s individual success will come from how well he positions himself behind midfield, and how diligently the others cover him – one of Falkirk’s biggest weaknesses last season came from leaving too much space behind their midfield as they carried attacks to the opposition (Murdoch seemed to miss Mark Millar’s steadying presence from the season before). If they tighten this up then the number of Falkirk’s goals conceded from open play will reduce drastically.

Another weakness could be the centre of defence. Without Dods beside him, Jonathan Flynn will need to become the leader among the back four. Alongside arguably the best attacking full-back pairing in the league in Stephen Kingsley and Kieran Duffie, Flynn’s excellent distribution can be an asset, but his erratic positioning will need to be improved upon if he doesn’t want to lose his place in the team to the relative inexperience of Will Vaulks and Ryan McGeever.

There is too much class in Falkirk’s midfield and full-back areas for the club to struggle all season, but with what seems to be a softer spine than last campaign, success won’t come easily. JAM

 

Greenock Morton

Players in: Nicolas Caraux (RC Lens); Kabba-Modou Cham (Sint-Truiden); Marc Fitzpatrick (Queen of the South); Michal Habai (FC Petrzalca); Reece Hands (Blackburn Rovers); Dougie Imrie (St Mirren); Joseph McKee (Bolton Wanderers); David McNeil (Kilmarnock); Jonathan Page (Hamilton Academical); Tomas Peciar (Budissa Bautzen)

Players out: Willie Dyer (Dundee); Martin Hardie (Airdrieonians); David Hutton (Ayr United); Peter MacDonald (Dundee); Colin McMenamin (Celtic Nation); Craig Reid; Michael Tidser (Rotherham United); Peter Weatherson (Annan Athletic); Kyle Wilkie (Livingston)

For the second successive summer, Allan Moore has been afforded another opportunity to purge the failings of the previous squad and start again. Although not wholly by design – Moore will surely have wanted to keep Michael Tidser, Peter MacDonald and arguably Willie Dyer – this is another fresh chance for Greenock Morton to challenge at the top of the league. Whether or not that happens will depend on how quickly the first team re-develops as a unit, and also if they can win more matches than draw with such shallow striking resources.

Saturday’s league opener against Cowdenbeath is likely to feature only three, possibly four starters from last season’s team: right-back Scott Taggart, veteran Mark McLaughlin, midfield dynamo Fouad Bachirou (surprisingly still in the second tier), and wide begetter David O’Brien. Goalkeeper Nicolas Caraux will probably usurp Derek Gaston, while one of the two incoming Slovaks (probably Michal Habai) might partner McLaughlin in the centre of defence. Losing Tidser to an English club was inevitable (a transfer fee of £50,000 being cheap at the price), but his drive in attacking midfield will be replaced by new signings 20-year-old Joe McKee, 19-year-old Reece Hands and Dougie Imrie’s forays infield from the right flank.

Up front, either ex-Kilmarnock forward David McNeil or Belgian Kabba-Modou Cham will be the regular starter, but both are unlikely to prove to be the goal threat Peter MacDonald was. Archie Campbell can score in flurries, but might not be regarded to be strong enough to compete as a sole striker. There are rumours at the time of publishing that Andrew Barrowman might sign on at Cappielow – a forward of his stature would be welcome, but his strike rate beyond the third tier isn’t prolific.

If Imrie can find again the form that he showed earlier in his career, Moore will have made one of the signings of the summer. However, the biggest concern is that he has never been prolific enough in front of goal, despite commanding chief attacking responsibilities wherever he has played. Unless Moore can conjure up a consistent goalscorer, then it is probable that Morton will draw too many matches to maintain a title challenge against Dundee. However, they will probably be too good to fall outside the top four and the prospect of promotion by play-offs is the least Morton should aim for. JAM

 

Hamilton Academical

Players in: Anthony Andreu (Livingston); Blair Currie (Rangers); James Keatings (Celtic)

Players out: Jordan Allan; Scott Christie (Linlithgow Rose); Gary Fraser (Bolton Wanderers); Gary Fisher (end of loan); James Martin (Partick Thistle); Stevie May (end of loan); Jack McCue; Jonathan Page (Greenock Morton)

It wasn’t just Rosenborg supporters who let out a groan when Stevie May poked the ball into their net two weeks ago – May’s involvement in St Johnstone’s stellar Europa League victory extinguished any hope that Hamilton Academical fans had of him returning to the club on loan. His unavailability begs the question: how do you replace the man who scored almost half of your league goals?

While Raith Rovers have offset Brian Graham’s departure by virtually reshaping the entire side, the Accies transfers dealings have been somewhat modest, with Alex Neil only recruiting three players so far. The goal-scoring mantle has been passed onto former Celtic forward James Keatings. He failed to impress during a loan spell with the club last term, with two goals in ten games his lean total, but since returning to New Douglas Park, the player has returned looking slimmer and fitter than before and scored four in a friendly with East Fife, and twice again in the weekend’s win over Stirling Albion.

Keatings will be required to maintain this form, as goals are scare elsewhere. May finished last season with 25; the team’s second highest scorers were Ali Crawford, Jonathan Page and Jon Routledge with three apiece. The lack of goals can be mitigated by Billy Reid’s stubbornness in only playing with one striker, and Neil has since abandoned such cautious tactics, as he watched his side score 16 times in seven games towards the end of the year.

The signing of Anthony Andreu should bring some spark to the side and should help increase the goal count directly. The Frenchman cut an impressive figure alongside Stefan Scougall at Livingston last season and his acquisition is a smart piece of business on Neil’s part. Elsewhere, Michael Devlin and Martin Canning will continue at centre-back, but with a lack of credible alternatives, the decision to release Jonathan Page seems slightly obtuse.

While the Accies are one of a clutch of teams aiming for the play-offs, the side look a little short on numbers to genuinely challenge. After their disappointing Ramsdens Cup defeat to Airdrieonians, Neil stated he wants to bring in another three players before the end of August. His success in doing so could will make the difference between a push for promotion and a humdrum toil in mid-table. SM

 

Livingston

Players in:  Danny Denholm (Forfar Athletic); Curtis Jones (Bristol City); Mike Mampuya (Enosis Neon Paralimni); Simon Mensing (Raith Rovers); Martin Scott (Hibernian); Kevin Walker (Stirling University); Kyle Wilkie (Greenock Morton)

Players out:  Anthony Andreu (Hamilton Academical); Craig Barr (Ostersunds FK); Callum Booth (Hibernian – end of loan); Liam Fox (Raith Rovers); Jesus Garcia Tena; Ross Gray (Berwick Rangers); Kyle Jacobs (Kilmarnock); Kevin McCann; Andy McNeil; Jordan Morton (Cowdenbeath); Andrew Russell (Cowdenbeath); Iain Russell (Queen of the South); Paul Watson (Raith Rovers)

After consolidating a position in the top half of the table last season despite the numerous managerial changes during the course of the campaign, Livingston will hope that Richie Burke will bring stability and carry on with the philosophy of attractive, attacking football while finding a place within the lucrative play-off spots by the end of the year.

There are a few notable losses to the squad since last season. Liam Fox had played well over 200 league matches for Livi but in practical terms, his slightly passive style of play will be readily replaced by the returning Martin “Jimmy” Scott. Scott has forged a career of filling in for others across the middle of the park, but his best, most consistent play is at the base of midfield, a position where he can execute a deceptively long range of passing and make late runs into the penalty box. In that respect, he could strike a powerful partnership in the middle with sitting playmaker Burton O’Brien, but it remains to be seen where Scott will be placed in the long term. Otherwise, last season’s hit signing Anthony Andreu has been replaced by ex-Greenock Morton attacking midfielder Kyle Wilkie, who has a keen eye for an imaginative pass.

Keeping Scougall and Marc McNulty at the club is very good news and a lot can be expected of them for the season ahead, even if both are still only approaching 21. Both will undoubtedly play in the country’s top tier or beyond at some point, but they are much better served by experiencing nearly 100 games on their CV at this stage in their careers.

However, one concern could be the team’s over-reliance on these two players: although Scougall could be adequately replaced by a re-shuffle of the midfield, McNulty’s only back-up, as things stand, is assistant manager Mark Burchill, who hasn’t played in the UK since 2010. If any further signings are to be made before the transfer window then some depth up front must be a priority.

Livi will probably be good enough for another top half finish, but with what seems to be a vastly improved Raith Rovers and the re-emergence of Queen of the South, their place among the division’s better teams isn’t guaranteed. JAM

 

Queen of the South

Players in: Calum Antell (Hibernian); Andy Dowie (Partick Thistle); Iain Russell (Livingston)

Players out: Steven Black (Queen of the South); Nicky Clark (Rangers); Marc Fitzpatrick (Greenock Morton); Lee Robinson (Ostersunds FK); Kevin Smith (Queen of the South)

Queen of the South return to the second tier following a wonderful 2012-13 season. During their year-long absence, Allan Johnston’s side were tremendous, smashing through the old Second Division and collecting the Ramsdens Cup along the way. While the manner in which they won promotion drew plaudits, far more encouraging were their performances against bigger clubs in cup competition, something which suggested Queens would not just consolidate their Championship status this year, but maybe even cast an upward glance at the play-offs.

Johnston’s sudden departure to Kilmarnock (a premature move; he would have been better served continuing his development at Palmerston for another season at least) was a disappointing blow – it would have been interesting to see how he and his team progressed over the course of the season. However, his defection was softened by the arrival of Jim McIntyre. McIntrye won the First Division with Dunfermline Athletic in 2010-11 and although he perhaps lacks Johnston’s charisma, he has the CV to make a success of the Doonhamers.

The turnover in players has been minimal. The popular Lee Robinson, a hero throughout last year’s Ramsdens Cup, has moved on to Sweden. His replacement Calum Antell arrives after a disappointing season on loan at East Fife which culminated with his release from Hibernian; he joins the club with a point to prove. It is unlikely that Iain Russell can replicate Nicky Clark’s 40 goals, but the whizzing forward is a fine player at this level.

Most importantly, Queens have retained most of last season’s outstanding squad. Chris Mitchell and Kevin Holt were excellent last season, as were centre-backs Chris Higgins and Mark Durnan; this team will not concede many. McIntyre’s preference for pure wingers should certainly bring out the best from Danny Carmichael.

Another striker wouldn’t go amiss, but this squad are certainly good enough to make a positive impact on the league. A play-off place certainly isn’t out of the question. CGT

 

Raith Rovers

Players in: Calum Booth (Hibernian – on loan); Calum Elliot (Alloa Athletic); Liam Fox (Livingston); Kevin Moon (Alloa Athletic); Gordon Smith (Heart of Midlothian); Paul Watson (Livingston)

Players out: Stuart Anderson (Brechin City); Pat Clarke (East Fife); Brian Graham (Dundee United); Joe Hamill; Eddie Malone (Stenhousemuir); Simon Mensing (Livingston); Allan Walker (Brechin City)

Although it was anticipated that Grant Murray would make a number of changes for the forthcoming campaign, few would expected anything quite as drastic – only five players who featured in last season’s opening tie with Wick Academy remain at the club. The sheer scale of the turnover in playing staff has surprised, but it has also been warmly received.

Of the seven first team departures, only Brian Graham (27 goals last season) and Simon Mensing will be missed. As for the others, four have dropped into the third tier, while Joe Hamill has yet to find a club, somewhat vindicating Murray’s decision.

Their replacements already look an impressive upgrade. In midfield, Kevin Moon and Liam Fox have forged a solid partnership and both have added steel and mobility to the side. It is on the left flank, however, where most of the excitement lies. Joe Cardle has started the season with aplomb, scoring twice, assisting four times and collecting both Man of the Match awards in the team’s recent cup ties. It would not be stretching credulity to suggest that Cardle is one of most thrilling players to have starred at Starks Park for some time, even at this early juncture. It is easy to understand why Murray patiently chased the winger over the summer.

In attack, new signings Calum Elliot and Gordon Smith have started the opening fixtures, relegating Greig Spence to the bench. The problem of replacing Graham appears to have been solved, not with a like-for-like substitute, but by spreading the goals across the side. All three strikers scored in the victory over Queen’s Park, and another three have also contributed. Six players have scored for the Rovers in their first two games; only eight scored throughout the whole of last season.

Winning the league will probably prove to be a step too far for Raith Rovers, but the gap between themselves and Dundee, Falkirk, Livingston and Greenock Morton has certainly been narrowed. A play-off place seems to be the most realistic target. SM

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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