Allan Moore’s dismissal from Arbroath on Sunday evening was both surprising and yet unsurprising. Surprising because he had enjoyed a wonderful campaign between July and December, taking the Lichties to the top of League 2 and more or less securing their play-off place for the end of the season; and unsurprising because he has overseen a disgraceful run of results in 2015 – his side recorded just one win and five draws in 15 league matches this calendar year.
Before the New Year, Arbroath sat atop the division, six points ahead of Albion Rovers in second. They had won 14 of their 18 league games and finished the year with a ruthless decimation of East Fife. Their 5-1 victory at Bayview on 27 December might just have been the best performance of any team in League 2 this season. The Lichties thrilled time and again, tearing through the opponents at will – every time they broke forward, they looked like scoring. At the time, Arbroath seemed to be a fantastic, unstoppable proposition.
They’ve been dreadful ever since. If the league table was calculated based on 2015’s results alone, Arbroath would be bottom. Even Montrose, beleaguered in tenth and facing the basement tier’s first-ever relegation play-off, have collected more points over the last 14 weeks. It has probably been the biggest collapse in Scottish football since Greenock Morton’s infamous implosion in 2003-04.
John McCormack’s side were expected to cruise through the Second Division that year and, for the first half at least, certainly looked capable of doing so – before the New Year, they held a ten-point advantage over second-place Berwick Rangers. But a subdued 0-1 loss at Dumbarton on 3 January 2004 triggered an astonishing dip in form and the Ton tumbled down the table; they would eventually finish in fourth, some distance behind eventual winners Airdrie United. Morton’s season was undermined by rumours of dressing room dissent, a laddish booze culture and allegations that members of the squad had bet on the Diamonds to win the championship.
Arbroath’s fall hasn’t been from as great a height, nor has it been as scandalous, but Allan Moore will never have experienced anything like this in his managerial career. There may have been a couple of sour spells – the beginning of 2005-06 with Stirling Albion; the Binos’ difficult campaign of 2007-08; his final season with Morton last year – but nothing quite as extraordinary. Moore didn’t know how to stop the rot; with promotion to League 1 still possible, he had to make way for someone who does.
How did the decay start? What are the root causes for Arbroath’s decline?
But how did the decay start? What are the root causes for Arbroath’s decline? There are a number of factors – poor transfer business over the winter, injuries to key personnel and the failure to figure out and implement a successful strategy on the pitch have certainly contributed. Intangible, ethereal reasons – the squad’s very sudden loss of confidence, for instance – have almost certainly played their part too.
Arbroath’s season began to unravel on 3 January – 11 years to the day after Morton’s fitful surrender at the Rock, as it happens – in a 2-2 draw against Montrose at Gayfield. Until then, the Lichties had enjoyed a fine record over their local rivals, winning the two previous league encounters and prevailing in the Scottish Cup second round after a replay. Their last meeting with the Gable Endies, October’s 5-1 win at Links Park, was notable for goalkeeper David Crawford scoring with a clearance; Lucas Birnstingl, his opposite number, fled the country in embarrassment.
For the best part, it was shaping up as another rudimentary Arbroath win. Adam Hunter scored towards the end of the first half and Simon Murray doubled their advantage nine minutes after the interval to put them into a commanding position. But Scott McBride’s unfortunate own goal and Stephen Day’s quickfire equaliser won the Mo an unlikely point. Paul McManus squandered the opportunity to win his side the match when he blazed a 78th minute penalty over the bar.
The following day, Dundee United announced they had signed Murray on a two-and-a-half year contract for around £50,000. It looked like shrewd business by the Arabs – Murray had scored 14 goals in 19 league matches, including nine his last seven – and the striker was loaned back to Arbroath for the remainder of the season. United had recruited well from the basement division in the past (mostly Queen’s Park’s hyper-talented youngsters) but at 22, Murray was a little more mature than what they’d been used to. Perhaps it was the adjustment from part-time to full-time training that affected him but the player has looked jaded ever since. His goal return has dropped off considerably (he has netted twice in his last 15 games) and his overall contribution has diminished to such an extent that he’s been dropped to the bench in recent weeks.
Murray’s strike partner, Paul McManus, has also been badly out of sorts since his penalty miss. Before the New Year, he had scored 17 times in all competitions; since then, he’s got just one. McManus and Murray were lethal together – the former’s wrecking-ball tendencies in and around the penalty area complemented the latter’s predatory instincts – but with the pair out of from, the whole team has suffered and the alternatives like Kevin Buchan just aren’t good enough. Arbroath’s 14 goals in 2015 is the joint-worst record in the division.
At this point, the squad could have done with reinforcements, battle-hardened pros capable of carrying the team through the second half of the season, but only a troupe of development loans from Falkirk and Heart of Midlothian arrived to fill up the numbers without every really making them any better. Not that it seemed to bother the manager. “The board and the chairman have backed me substantially,” Moore said after collecting the League 2 Manager of the Month award for December. “They’re actually throwing money at me and trying to get me to bring players in to strengthen.”
In the same interview, Moore went on to discuss his experiences during his disappointing final year at Morton: “We didn’t invest when we should have. We finished second but then we went backwards.”
The defeat to Queen’s Park at Hampden on 17 January had been Arbroath’s poorest performance of the season, until that point anyway. They were shellacked throughout the first half by their vibrant opponents, and Bobby Linn’s late consolation gave the score-line a gloss it did not deserve. The players were jeered at the end of the match by a small section of the travelling fans, probably out of anxiety more than anything else, as QP reduced the gap at the top of the table to three points.
Colourless draws with Clyde and East Fife (the latter of which was particularly disappointing after the concession of Jonathan Page’s late equaliser) took their winless run to four games. Moore’s use of a midfield diamond was beginning to draw criticism (Kevin Nicoll’s absence blunted its effectiveness and anyway, when has such a system ever suited a pure winger like Linn?) and it looked as though rival sides had sussed them out. Albion Rovers, meanwhile, had drawn level of points after winning four consecutive games, including a thrilling 4-3 ding-dong at Montrose. “They say a sign of champions is the ability to grind out results when not playing very well at all,” this site wryly noted.
Maybe Arbroath were saving their reserves for the fifth-round Scottish Cup tie against Hibernian on 7 February. They gave a decent account of themselves at Easter Road – Kieran Stewart’s angled drive gave them the lead after 17 minutes – but they eventually ran out of puff and succumbed 1-3. “I thought the fitness, effort, shape, everything was there on Saturday,” Paul McManus said bullishly afterwards. “We gave it a good go and we can be proud of the whole performance, from back to front. I thought we did well; we’ll take the positives from it and hopefully next week get back on the winning track again in the league.”
They travelled to Berwick Rangers on Valentine’s Day and were toppled 1-3. Once again Arbroath took the lead, with substitute Thomas Grant scoring with his first touch after the hour, but they were immediately pegged back by Lee Currie’s equaliser four minutes later while Paul Willis and a late Andy Russell strike put the game beyond doubt. Moore encouraged his players to dig deep and asserted that only hard work would rouse them from their slump. “We were scoring with a lot more ease at the start of the season but things are not happening as easy for us now and our strikers need to get back to form,” he said.
Simon Murray was heckled by elements of the Arbroath support. “Yer no’ in the Premier League noo!” they yelled
The manager’s response was to relegate Murray to the bench for the trip to Annan Athletic the following week. The forward had recently been heckled by elements of the support (“Yer no’ in the Premier League noo!” they yelled) after a series of flat performances but his team could have used him from the start at the Galabank. “The first half was the best we’ve played in a long while but when you get opportunities like that, you’ve got to put them away,” bemoaned Moore after he watched his side pass up a number of very handsome chances to open the scoring. Annan’s Steven Swinglehurst headed home on the hour-mark and as Arbroath chased an equaliser, they were hit on the counter and Peter Weatherson finished the tie.
It would be the last time Arbroath would top the table. Queen’s Park’s 2-1 win over Berwick saw them overtake the Lichties while Albion Rovers, in the midst of four consecutive defeats, dropped to third.
Midway through the match against Elgin City at the end of February, it looked as though Moore had reached his nadir. His side were trailing 0-3 – Shane Sutherland netted twice either side of the interval and Brian Cameron’s neat finish after 62 minutes – and they were heading towards their fourth successive loss. The fact that they were trailing to a side managed by Jim Weir (regarded as an out-and-out failure at Gayfield during the terrible 2009-10 season) made the situation even more unpalatable.
Paul McManus’s strike shortly afterwards looked nothing more than a consolation but two goals from Bobby Linn saw them complete a remarkable comeback. They might have even won it two minutes from time had McManus’s close-range effort not been disallowed for offside. Moore was furious after the match, saying: “It was diabolical. It was a good comeback and we might just have nicked it at the end, but we can’t give ourselves a pat on the back just because we came from 3-0 down.”
By this point, Arbroath had slumped to third after Albion Rovers’ 2-0 victory over Berwick lifted them into first. No matter – the resurgent showing against Elgin would act as a platform which to galvanise the season and a midweek tie with a decent East Stirlingshire side at the beginning of March provided the ideal opportunity to reassert their credentials. And the Lichties hammered their opponents, laying siege to their goal, but they just could not score. And then the inevitable happened – oh, the inexplicable irony! – the Shire made one of their rare excursions upfield and scored with their first, and only, shot of the whole match. After the game, Craig Tully admitted the outcome was “robbery”. “That’s the biggest steal of the season,” said the gleeful Shire manager.
Given the nature of the defeat, commiserating with the players should have been in order but Moore barricaded them in the dressing long after the final whistle and splattered them with sustained invective. His rant was probably born out of frustration but it was hopelessly misguided: it alienated players and wore down their brittle confidence even further. It was one of the final times the side functioned as a cohesive unit.
The loss was another grievous blow, and worse would follow three days later. Montrose, bottom of the table and looking increasingly downtrodden, pumped Arbroath 3-0 at Links Park. The match followed a similar pattern – the Lichties started well enough, failed to take up a handful of decent chances in front of goal, and then folded. When Graham Webster scored after 28 minutes, the rest of the game played out as expected. Ross Campbell scored twice in quick succession later on to complete an exhilarating victory for the Mo. “Days as perfect as this one are rare pleasures for the Montrose fan to savour,” beamed Gable End Graffiti.
Moore had tried and failed to get to the bottom of the malaise. “We have tried keeping faith with players, we have tried dropping players and we have tried using different formations and partnerships but the goals are not coming,” he said. “We have been saying that one win will settle us down but we have been saying that for a few weeks now. Winning the title is still in our own hands if we can start winning again starting against Clyde before meeting Albion Rovers next midweek.”
The triumph over the Bully Wee on 14 March was as welcome as it was unexpected. Bobby Linn – one of the few players to have maintained a high standard over the course of the season – scored a hat-trick in a comprehensive performance. It was the side’s first victory of 2015 and their first in ten matches.
The win-or-bust encounter with Albion Rovers was as good as finished almost as soon as it started
It set Arbroath up for a win-or-bust showdown with Albion Rovers. The teams went into the contest separated by five points: a victory would drag the Lichties right back into championship contention; a defeat would see the Rovers disappear over the horizon and out of sight. And the match was as good as finished almost as soon as it started when Ally Love’s flicked effort in the fourth minute set the Vers up for a straightforward win. Arbroath looked devoid of craft and bereft of confidence, passing the ball across the middle of the park with no real penetration; Albion Rovers were happy to soak up their harmless pressure before countering. Gary Fisher’s strike not long after the hour-mark killed off the game.
It was the same story against East Fife the following week (0-2) and against East Stirlingshire at the end of March (0-1). At Ochilview, Arbroath saw plenty of the ball but they were too sterile in possession and Craig Tully’s organised team stood firm. The lack of self-assurance running through the side was obvious – instead of shooting, players would look for an easy pass instead; instead of looking to burst in on goal, they looked to win cheap fouls. Kevin Nisbet’s tremendous goal was worthy of winning any match but had it not been for goalkeeper Marc McCallum, the score-line could have been far more severe.
The draw with Annan on 4 April did them little favours – in fact, the match was only noticeable for Simon Murray ending his nine-week goal drought – and left them stuck in third. Injuries to Ryan McGeever, Liam Gordon, Dylan Carreiro, Adam Hunter and Paul McManus (who came on and went off again) meant that Arbroath could barely fill their bench but having used up the season’s quota of loans before the end of January, they were unable to bring in anyone on a temporary basis to supplement the squad. Meanwhile, Albion Rovers’ excellent winning streak saw them pull away at the top and Queen’s Park built up a five-point advantage in second.
The weekend’s loss at Borough Briggs was their fourth defeat in five. Bobby Linn scored a fine goal after a superb piece of play, weaving by Mark Nicolson and firing a low drive into the net but, as has happened so often, they conceded straight after. Their failure to adequately defend a corner kick saw Craig Gunn sweep the ball into the net from close range, while the winner was quite calamitous – Brian Cameron sent a long pass between the Arbroath centre-backs for Shane Sutherland to chase onto and although McCallum initially blocked his shot, the ‘keeper contrived to allow the ball to bounce through his hands and over the line. As Moore made his way onto the team bus after the match, a fan approached and said: “We’re not happy, Allan.”
“Neither am I,” he scowled.
Moore was sacked the following day. Speaking to the Courier yesterday, he said he was stunned by the decision and disappointed he was not given the chance to finish the job he started. Todd Lumsden, Moore’s assistant, has been asked to lead the team until a permanent successor can be found, and last night’s AGM should go some way to addressing any uncertainties. Whether or not Lumsden is the right man – does he have any radical ideas of his own? Or will he continue to employ Moore’s methods? – remains to be seen but there is still plenty to play for. A change at this stage was the right thing.
Arbroath play Queen’s Park at the weekend before taking on champions-elect Albion Rovers on the penultimate day of the season. They finish the year by hosting down-and-out Berwick. Winning, no matter how it is achieved, is essential. Building momentum, restoring their confidence and finding a competitive edge before the play-off contest is vital.
Afterwards, the introspection can begin and everyone connected with the club can pick through the bones of this perplexing season. Who knows – it might just culminate in success – but Arbroath’s 2014-15 campaign is one of the most absurd in recent Scottish football history.
“I keep saying we are going to win the league and Todd keeps telling me not to say it,” Moore said back in January. “If we don’t win and I have egg on my face, then fair enough.”
Many thanks go to Simon Reynolds for his help and assistance in producing this article. Please take the time to follow him on Twitter.