On the way to their recent match against Arbroath, the Stenhousemuir team bus broke down; it was, in many respects, a fitting metaphor for what followed. With the score tied at 1-1, the majority of the second half was battled out almost exclusively in Arbroath territory but despite having the better of the play, the Warriors were unable to pose a serious threat to their hosts. To press their advantage, they required an additional forward to work alongside Sean Higgins and attack the infrequent balls swung into the opposition penalty area. Yet no change was forthcoming and they continued to fruitlessly huff and puff. In the 87th minute, Arbroath made a rare venture forward and in one swift move, Bobby Linn played in Dayle Robertson and the youngster finished adroitly. With the match lost, only then did manager Martyn Corrigan see fit to chuck on striker Ross McNeil to play out the remainder of the game.
There was a feeling of melancholic resignation on Tuesday when the Stenhousemuir board announced they had agreed to “part ways” with Corrigan. In a short, curt statement on the club website, the board thanked him for his time and wished him all the best for the future. The sense of disappointment was palpable, particularly from his players who united to express their disbelief on Twitter. Corrigan – or “Kaiser” as he was nicknamed – was a thoroughly agreeable figure and well regarded by both his staff and the club’s support. After each home victory, the manager would walk across the pitch from the dugout to the tunnel, raising both thumbs and smiling at the fans. The gesture was reciprocated and became known as “thumbs up for Kaiser”. It indicative of genial relationship between the two.
There hasn’t been much to give the thumbs up to recently. Stenhousemuir have been dreadful of late, falling seven points adrift of the play-off places and slipping into seventh. They have lost their last four matches and collected just four points from their previous eight fixtures. Of course, their recent cup performances had been generally good and although the results didn’t go in their favour, the swashbuckling displays against Rangers and Dunfermline Athletic gave some credence to the belief that if they could show the same application throughout the rest of the season, then success would surely follow. Any such notions were obliterated four minutes into their next match at Forfar Athletic, where a first half blitz saw the Loons triumph a comfortable score-line. In Corrigan’s final match at Abroath, the manager was unable to see events unfolding in front of him and make the necessary manipulations to turn the game in his favour.
A penny for Brown Ferguson’s thoughts: the Stenhousemuir player-coach was part of an Alloa Athletic team relegated to the Third Division in 2010-11. Having ended the first half of the season in fourth place, Alloa looked like a reasonably sound bet to conclude the campaign in a play-off place but an appalling run of form throughout 2011 saw the club sink down the table and eventually finish the season in ninth. Only then was Allan Maitland dismissed, leaving Ferguson and Scott Walker to negotiate the side through the relegation play-offs; they were vanquished by Annan Athletic in the semi-final and quietly dropped into the basement tier. With the benefit of hindsight, perhaps Maitland should have been moved on at an earlier juncture. It is unknown whether or not a similar fate would have befallen Corrigan’s side, but the chance could not be taken: where Alloa chairman Mike Mulraney dithered, the Stenhousemuir board were decisive.
Corrigan, who had previously played for Stenhousemuir before accepting a coaching role with the club, quickly ascended to manager after Davie Irons’s sudden resignation in July 2012. The subsequent Second Division campaign was unremarkable and the team spent the majority of the season skirting around outside the play-off places without ever really emerging as a genuine danger to the teams above them. There were moments of unabashed brilliance – the League Cup third round victory over Kilmarnock will surely rank as one of the finest triumphs in the club’s 130 years – but the failure to piece together a consistent run of results hamstrung their chances of reaching the division’s upper echelons. Corrigan’s side finished the season with 13 draws, the highest in the league; to put it into context, East Fife in ninth achieved the second greatest total with eight.
The current season, however, has been wholly underwhelming. After the first quarter, the team sat in second place with 17 points but have failed to build on their good start to the year. The players must take responsibility for the team’s poor form – for all their upset at the manager’s removal, not one of them appeared to show any contrition for their part in his downfall – but a large portion of the blame can be laid squarely at Corrigan. Readers of this site’s Five Things We Learned column and the recent report card will be familiar with Stenhousemuir’s shortcomings, but it is perhaps worth going over them one final time.
The biggest black mark against Corrigan’s name was the failure to recruit an appropriate centre-back to replace the stricken Scot Buist. With the big defender unavailable through long-term injury, the manager believed a partnership of Ross McMillan and Kevin McKinlay, a natural full-back, could form the cornerstone of a successful side. But a poor pre-season and the concession of eight goals in the opening two fixtures convinced him otherwise, and he was left scrabbling to source someone, anyone, to fulfill the role. Ross Smith was brought in on loan from Dundee United but his six-month spell at Ochilview was largely wretched. The team have lost 43 goals and kept just three clean sheets in 21 league games. Only Arbroath and Airdrieonians in ninth and tenth respectively have been more porous.
Although the defending has been routinely haphazard, the back four have been let down time and again by a system that offers them no protection. Corrigan favoured a 4-2-3-1 cum 4-2-2-2 formation, a strategy which brought only limited success. The width, both offensively and defensively, was provided by the full-backs and the team were often susceptible to overloads down the wings, while the lack of a screening midfielder left them exposed to the counter attack through the middle. Towards the end of his tenure, Corrigan adopted an orthodox 4-4-2 but the lack of specialist wide players saw the manager string four central midfielders across the middle of the park. The play was often constricted and unimaginative, with balls shelled from back to front in the hope that John Gemmell could create something from nothing.
There were a handful of occasions when the manager’s tactics approached something tangible – they were thoroughly organised in the narrow Ramsdens Cup semi-final defeat to Rangers, while the deployment of Ross Smith as an auxiliary forward in the Scottish Cup second round replay at Annan swung the tie in his side’s favour – but more often than not, square pegs were hammered into round holes to fit players into a system that they could not quite comprehend. There were doubts as to whether or not he knew what his best XI was.
Corrigan also presided over two of the worst results in the club’s recent history. The 4-5 home defeat to Dunfermline Athletic was gobsmacking – despite enjoying a two-goal advantage, the Warriors contrived to concede three times in the final six minutes. The clubs have played each other twice since and on both occasions, the Pars have prevailed courtesy of a last minute winner. Otherwise, the 0-8 humiliation to Rangers at Ibrox was an embarrassment of grandiose proportions.
From an external perspective, Corrigan’s dismissal seems difficult to reconcile with. The Peterhead striker Andy Rodgers, who played under Corrigan last term, took to social media to express his astonishment at the news. Whilst engaging with a number of friends and supporters, he wrote: “Stenny are a League 1 club and that’s how they’ll stay, regardless who’s in charge”. “Stenny not Barca”, wrote Warriors forward Errol Douglas, suggesting that too much was expected from this team.
Both comments provoke debate about expectations versus reality for Stenhousemuir. Is it wrong to expect this squad – a squad which includes Chris Smith, Bryan Hodge, David Rowson and Sean Higgins – to finish in a play-off place? The presence of Rangers in the division renders any hope of a title contest irrelevant, but a second, third or fourth place finish was entirely realistic at the beginning of the season. Is it wrong to enviously glance upwards at Dumbarton, Alloa or Cowdenbeath in the Championship? Stenhousemuir used to compete with these sides on a regular basis, and with the appropriate staff both on and off the pitch, they could do so again. Perhaps not this next year, but soon enough. Or are these teams, buoyed by some of the best young managers in the country, punching well above their weight? The ultimate aspiration should be to compete at the highest level possible – if the players or the supporters don’t believe they are capable of challenging at the best of their ability, then what’s the point?
Everyone connected with Stenhousemuir wanted Corrigan to turn the season around, to lift the team back into the play-off places, to compete for promotion. But with each passing week, it looked less and less likely to happen. For now, the new manager (whoever it might be) must reinvigorate this group of players and have them believe that they can rise above the norm, to achieve beyond what is expected and to accomplish what careers are defined by. That is, after all, what football is all about.