Name: Shane Sutherland
Club: Elgin City
Match: Elgin City 2-0 Montrose (27/7/2013)
IT was with some anticipation that this report was to be carried out, at least on the writer’s part. If it didn’t just give an excuse to take in the summer’s first round of competitive football, it also presented an opportunity to witness Shane Sutherland in his natural habitat: in a central striker’s position with a front line built around him.
For so many years, Sutherland had been on the cusp of breaking into Inverness Caledonian Thistle’s first XI. At one point he was regarded as one of the Highlands’ brightest talents, but his career development has slowed in recent times. Despite making over 20 league appearances in the top flight in each of the previous three seasons, the vast majority of those were from the substitutes’ bench and typically on one of the flanks, in the band of “3” in a 4-2-3-1 formation. The player who finished his spell in Inverness seemed less confident and voracious for the game than when he first graduated from the youth system. Having recently signed a one-year deal to play with Elgin City, he clearly feels that he has a point to prove.
Sutherland began the Ramsdens Cup first round tie against Montrose up front alongside Craig Gunn in an orthodox 4-4-2 formation, a system mirrored almost exactly by Stuart Garden’s side. In terms of conventional football theory, Sutherland and Gunn together have the potential to be a successful striking partnership. Sutherland is a tall, strongly built figure who is comfortable in playing with his back to goal; Gunn has a short centre of gravity and has a game built on turning defenders around. That is a simplistic view of course, and for the first half of cup tie it was Sutherland who led the line with Gunn, more often than not, dropping short to find space between the lines of Montrose’s defence and midfield.
Neither forward could get involved in the opening stages of the match, with City failing to gain control of midfield. The first hint of a threat from Sutherland was after seven minutes when central playmaker Paul Harkins sent a cute chipped ball beyond the defence into the inside left channel, but the pass was slightly overcooked (as many of Harkins’s passes were in the match) and there was little Sutherland could do before Montrose goalkeeper Stuart McKenzie swept up. Four minutes later, Sutherland had his first attempt at goal, with the ball coming his way just outside the penalty area; the low snapshot was safely smothered by McKenzie.
It would take until the 23rd minute – a quarter of the way through the match – for Sutherland to have any notable involvement in an attack. Was that because Montrose’s midfield pairing of Jamie Winter and (especially) Ross McCord were keeping Elgin in their own half, or was it because Sutherland and Gunn couldn’t get into the game due to their own actions? The answer was most probably somewhere between the two: McCord has shown in successive trips to Moray that he can dictate a midfield essentially by his own, but Elgin’s forwards weren’t doing enough between them to get involved in the match.
Thus, Sutherland’s involvement on the 23rd minute was at the end of Elgin’s best move of the first half. A perfectly weighted diagonal ball found Bryan Cameron behind Montrose left-back Ricky McIntosh, and although it seemed like he miscontrolled the football, Cameron managed to prod a cut-back to the central area 12 yards out towards Sutherland. With the path of the pass slightly behind his run, Sutherland conjured up a touch to get the ball out from under his left foot and away from his marker to shoot across goal. It was almost magical, but for the fact that by doing so it put the forward off balance – he slipped as he stretched for the second touch of the ball and the attack was dissolved.
That was it for the opening period. While Paul Harkins continually attempted the back-spun ball behind the defence, on too many occasions Gunn and Sutherland together made defending easy for Montrose centre-backs Colin Wilson and Alan Campbell. One of them ought to have been running the channels to drag the centre-backs apart, with the other occupying the central area for a chance to arrive, but for too long both were static and did not appear to fit as a partnership at all. It would not have been a surprise to have seen veteran striker Dennis Wyness replace one of them at half-time, to bring at least a modicum of craft to the attack.
The pattern of the match changed just before the break. Sean Crighton clattered through the back of Scott Johnston, leaving McCord with the chance to put Montrose one-up into the interval from the penalty spot. However, City goalkeeper Raymond Jellema made a spectacle of saving a shoulder-height shot that appeared to be well placed inside the left-hand post. Elgin took confidence from that and with minor tweaks to the team, they looked the better side in the second half.
With Elgin in the ascendancy after the interval, this was the ideal time to assess Sutherland. As the central striker, this should have been his opportunity to shine; to dominate the opposition defence and act as a foil for a rampant Craig Gunn. It didn’t quite work out like that, even if both forwards managed to score by the end of the match.
Elgin’s first attack in the second half was a promising three versus three scenario, where Sutherland made an intelligent run on the inside left of the trailing centre-back. Unfortunately for Sutherland, Paul Harkins did not release the pass in time and was shepherded towards the other side of the pitch. In any event, whether by team-talk or collective motivation, there was more movement up front and the team seemed to have more urgency.
Soon after on 49 minutes, Elgin’s best chance of the match was a free header for Craig Gunn at the far post, where the former Ross County forward skewed his headed shot five yards over the crossbar. It was a position where Sutherland could and probably would have scored, but he was on the edge of the penalty box instead. It was the first real sign of Sutherland being conspicuous by his absence in the penalty area when it mattered.
Maybe Sutherland had been instructed by his manager to drop deep and get involved in the play more, to make the most of the space behind Winter and McCord. He certainly looked to do so on occasion, actively gesturing to the defence and back of midfield to play the ball into his feet and body, even if his dribbles were not successful when he managed to turn his marker.
However, there were further signs that Sutherland was getting himself involved in neither the build up nor the outcome of attacking moves, as much as he should have done. With 55 minutes played, he was found lingering in the outside left position, taking up Bryan Cameron’s second half role on an ad hoc basis while the rest of the midfield advanced, but it was Sutherland who should have led the attack. Elgin’s first goal came moments after, with young right back Ciearan MacLean guiding an immaculate 40-yard pass between centre-back and right-back, for Gunn to cushion beyond the defence and finish with aplomb. Sutherland’s involvement in that particular move was minimal, but at least it was indicative of him coming towards the play to distract the midfield while Gunn looked to play behind the defence.
By that point, Elgin looked dangerous every time they got forward. Switching Graeme Beveridge to the right wing for the second half was a successful tactic for manager Ross Jack, as Beveridge charged to the bye-line with the ball on several occasions. However, on the hour mark, Sutherland missed an excellent opportunity to get into the box to attack the cross as Beveridge centred the ball. Before Beveridge was in a position to cross, Sutherland deliberated between supporting the midfielder (who was almost at the point of being double marked) or trusting his team-mate and getting into the box. In the end, neither happened, and it was Cameron who arrived at the far post to fresh-air a volley. Two chances had been created at the far post; two opportunities wasted. It is not unrealistic to suggest that if Sutherland had met both of those crosses, at least one of them would have resulted in a goal.
Again, at 66 and 68 minutes, attacks down the right by Beveridge and the increasingly impressive MacLean could have resulted in goals had Sutherland been in the box. Yet again on both occasions, Sutherland was stranded behind the flow of play and was not even in the penalty box by the point of the cross being made. This continued until the 78th minute when he was as far as 30 yards away from goal by the time that the cross was bound to arrive.
It seemed bizarre: the conventional target man in a traditional 4-4-2 was rarely getting involved in the action. When he dropped short, Elgin looked for the long diagonal beyond him. When City got to the bye-line, he was no-where to be seen. Was this a deliberate ploy by the manager: was Sutherland asked to play as a pseudo-false-nine to counter-balance the attacking surges of the midfield? Was he simply low in confidence and passed the combative responsibilities to senior members of the squad? Was he being too “easy-oazy”, in the parlance of this writer’s former P.E. teacher? Or was he continuing with the traits that he picked up when played out of position at Caley Thistle?
With ten minutes to go, there were glimpses of the Shane Sutherland who forged a prodigious reputation. On one occasion, he collected the short ball from midfield, shrugged off three challenges before laying the ball off for his left-back Paul McMullan to advance with. Elgin were leading 1-0 in as comfortable a manner as the goal margin allowed, but they missed that kind of forward-line leadership earlier in the match.
Sutherland’s late positiveness brought some reward, as he scored his team’s second goal with five minutes remaining. He looked for the short ball once again from captain David Niven, but Niven launched another diagonal ball for Gunn to chase on to. Gunn broke from the defence and committed the Montrose goalkeeper, before cutting the ball back for Sutherland 20 yards from goal. At one point, it looked like Sutherland was going to miss another opportunity due to arriving late to the occasion. This time, he strode towards the ball with purpose and composed a crisp finish low into the far corner of the goal with his left foot. It was a strike which many on the pitch would not have been able to achieve from the same angle and under the same pressure while being marked, even if the goalkeeper was played out of contention from Gunn’s assist. It was a very well worked goal all round.
At this point in the report, it is usual to discuss the player’s prospects for his career ahead. Given that Sutherland has effectively replaced Stuart Leslie, who has since joined Nairn County to play in the Highland League, anything can happen. Even so, it is too early to make a definitive judgement on Shane Sutherland. He is a player of distinction when he makes things happen, but he needs to impose himself in the match much more often than he did against Montrose. If he can get 30 games as a striker this season, the suspicion is that the concerns outlined above will be long forgotten; he ought to be among the division’s top scorers by the end of the year; and he should have clubs at a higher level looking at him. Only time will tell if that happens, of course, but if he applies himself, a prosperous career is still ahead of him.