The 2013-14 Championship season cooked slowly and methodically until the competition ended with a fascinating sizzle. By the campaign’s finish, there was a treat waiting to be devoured with both a last-match title race and the relegation play-off contender to be decided.
Dundee met expectations by winning the league but it took a nervous win at home to Dumbarton to stay just ahead of Hamilton Academical, who superbly saw off Hibernian in the Premiership play-off to gain promotion too. Falkirk flirted with the top of the table but fell just short, with a slow start to the season hindering their prospects. Queen of the South did well to recover from a difficult first half of the season to finish within the play-offs, while Dumbarton continued to win the hearts of the neutral fan with such enterprising play under Ian Murray’s charge. Livingston and Raith Rovers shared middling, occasionally disappointing seasons, even if Rovers enjoyed success in the Ramsdens Cup.
The division’s part-time clubs continued to confound expectations: Alloa Athletic’s consolidation was hugely helped by Paul Hartley’s stubbornly conservative tactics at the start of the season, while Cowdenbeath cast aside the challengers from League 1, despite a heartbreaking last-gasp mishap deciding their involvement in the play-offs. Greenock Morton, however, were atrocious almost from first to last and an embarrassing end to the season was fitting considering the lack of forward planning evident throughout the year.
With so much to play for, this was an exciting league that didn’t disappoint in its drama. With the arrival of Heart of Midlothian, Hibernian and Rangers next season, there should be plenty of excitement yet to come.
Alloa Athletic (8th)
It might have been achieved by the slimmest of margins, but Alloa Athletic’s eighth place finish was mission accomplished. It certainly didn’t appear to be the case on the final day of the season after their 1-3 loss at Falkirk – as it stood, the Wasps were certain to finish the season in the relegation play-off place until Queen of the South’s 95th minute equaliser at Cowdenbeath condemned the Blue Brazil to ninth instead. Recreation Park would host Championship football for a second consecutive season.
Alloa’s campaign was one of contrast. For the first four months, they were a disciplined, obdurate outfit with manager Paul Hartley setting them up in a system that most opponents found immeasurably difficult to break down. Never prolific in front of goal, nine clean sheets in the opening 16 games helped lift them into fourth place as the festive period approached.
Much of that was down to goalkeeper Scott Bain, whose performances over the year will almost certainly earn him a return to full-time football over the coming weeks. Bain was abetted by a solid defensive unit and the impressive Ben Gordon played an important role in marshalling the backline. They were given protection from midfield courtesy of Stephen Simmons, while Ryan McCord and Kevin Cawley looked unfazed by stepping up into the second tier. Alloa struggled in the final third, however – their 34 goals was the second lowest in the division – and neither Hartley nor his successor Barry Smith were able to address the lack of creativity or firepower within the squad.
Pinpointing what exactly catalysed their slump was difficult – did the players’ level of performance decline, or had opposition managers become wise to their tactic of contain and counter? – but the team’s form from mid-December onwards was terrible. Hartley knew the game was up and in Janury he resigned to charge of Dundee. Smith persisted with the cautious approach but it did nothing to improve results – they won just three of their final 20 matches, scoring 15 goals in the process. The new manager did his best to strengthen his arsenal by bringing in Derek Riordan but his short spell was hampered by injury and his appearances were limited.
Alloa’s rise through the divisions has been extraordinary but their survival in the Championship has been their biggest achievement to date, and with two other part-time sides in the league they have another realistic chance of remaining in the second tier for a third term. Much will depend on whether or not Smith can convince his key players to stay and how well he augments his squad through the summer. SM
Around 12 months ago, Grant Adam made a bold prediction: Cowdenbeath could spend the 2013-14 season jostling for a position at the top of the Championship. It didn’t come to pass – how could it have? – but the climax to the Blue Brazil’s season was surely the next best thing.
Even the most optimistic of supporter must have feared the worst when Bob McHugh’s 95th minute strike tied the match with Queen of the South to resign the club to the relegation play-off place. Even for a side who have experienced as many lows this year as Cowden, McHugh’s equaliser must have been sore to take: a poorly defended corner, a ricochet off a knee, a stricken goalkeeper, and a hooked effort from a player already lying on ground – all within the last minute of injury time as well!
The goal, particularly its timing and its context, left many wondering how it would impact Jimmy Nicholl’s side as they approached the play-off contest. Going on to factor in Dunfermline Athletic’s lofty status – of the four participants, they were the only full-time club – and relegation to the third tier appeared to be the likeliest outcome. That view, however, failed to consider Cowden’s indomitable spirit and more importantly, the attacking talent within their ranks.
This ability wasn’t on show at the start of the season. An appalling opening to the campaign suggested that manager Colin Cameron had failed to address any of the issues that had undermined his side over the previous year. Once again, leads were squandered and goals were lost at an alarming rate. Perhaps the low point was the 1-5 loss at Livingston in September in which the team capitulated after taking the lead. Cowden rallied briefly but a feckless 0-4 to Falkirk brought Cameron’s tenure to a close.
Jimmy Nicholl, his replacement, didn’t have long to wait to understand the full extent of Cowden’s problems and in his first match against Livingston, his players contrived to turn a two-goal advantage into a 2-3. Under the new manager, however, this proved to be the exception rather than the rule and their turnaround in form in 2014 has been remarkable. Although the league campaign ended in despair, two wins and a draw in their final three matches gave them the perfect platform on which to enter the play-offs: Ayr United were casually dismissed in the semi-finals before a rampant performance in the final’s second leg against Dunfermline consolidated their Championship status.
Of course, having a striker as magnificent as Kane Hemmings helped, but Nicholl engineered the change through making better use of the available personnel than by instigating wholesale changes. It is notable that of the 14 players who featured in the victory over Dunfermline, ten had played some part in the opening day defeat to Greenock Morton. It seems difficult to believe that Greg Stewart – a player whom so much of their attacking play was based around – was considered little more than an impact substitute in the season’s opening, or that the excellent Thomas Flynn was second fiddle to Grant Adam and then Sebastian Usai. The manager’s success appears to have been placing square pegs into square holes.
Nicholl now faces a challenge over the summer. Although wholesale changes are not required, he has a major problem in replacing one of Cowden’s greatest strike partnerships. Stewart has already agreed terms with Dundee and Hemmings admitted the Dunfermline game would be his last and has already trialled elsewhere. It looks an onerous task but if Nicholl can recruit astutely over the next few weeks (something Cameron often found difficult) then Cowdenbeath can think about keeping their heads above water once again next season. SM
Lightening has struck twice: who could have imagined that Ian Murray’s Dumbarton would enjoy another stellar campaign? Last season was remarkable for the manner in which the manager transformed the club’s fortunes and turned an abject shambles into something willful and coherent – before Murray’s arrival, the Sons had collected five points from 13 matches; by the end of the year, they were comfortable in mid-table after a sterling run of form throughout 2014.
This year has been far less dramatic but on almost every level, it has been an improvement on the previous term. Dumbarton punched well above their weight throughout – relegation was never an immediate concern – and almost changed the perceptions of what part-time clubs can achieve. They finished four points from the final play-off place – what would have happened had they defeated Queen of the South on 19 April? – and to have contested fourth place until the penultimate weekend of the season was quite extraordinary.
While Paul Hartley was acclaimed for Alloa Athletic’s cavalier start to the season, Murray unfussily went about his business and arguably proved himself to be the better of the two (if ever there was a competition). The Sons were inconsistent – they recorded back-to-back wins only twice – and had a tendency to concede far more frequently than they should have done (they lost an average of 1.85 goals per match and kept two clean sheets all season) but when they were good, they were thrilling.
Yes, their defending might have been a little slipshod but who cares when the spectacle is this exciting? Their total of 65 goals was second best in the division and on ten occasions they netted three or more times (including 5-1 victories over Alloa and Cowdenbeath). Scoring was shared around the team – Mitch Megginson and Chris Kane had ten each, while Brian Prunty and Colin Nish contributed seven and six respectively. The signing of Kane in January was the catalyst to their excellent run of form over the New Year and the St Johnstone loanee scored six times in his first five matches (including consecutive 89th minute equalisers in the draws with Hamilton and Livingston).
Elsewhere, Chris Turner and Scott Agnew performed soundly in the middle of the park, while Mark McLaughlin, carelessly discarded by Greenock Morton before Christmas formed a solid – if not always reliable – defensive partnership with captain Andy Graham. The team’s outstanding player, however, was full-back Paul McGinn and the 22-year-old impressed with his raids down the flank; his Player of the Year award was thoroughly deserved. A return to full-time football seems inevitable.
Murray has allayed fears about his immediate future by agreeing a two-year contract a fortnight ago. It is a sound move for both parties – the manager still has plenty to learn and will no doubt relish testing his mettle against the Championship’s heavyweights next term, while Dumbarton will continue to benefit from his excellent stewardship. It can only be a matter of time before bigger and better things present themselves to Murray but for the meantime, the club can approach the new season with confidence. CGT
Dundee did what was asked of them, but it wasn’t always pretty.
Hamilton Academical might have been top of the league for a longer period in the season (the Accies led for 17 rounds of fixtures compared to the Dark Blues’ 15) but despite the occasional mishap, it is difficult to avoid the impression that they just about deserved to win the division. With comfortably the best defence in the league and – but for Hamilton’s anomalous thumping of Greenock Morton on the last day of the season – a comparatively potent frontline, there is little argument in the numbers.
Dundee don’t score higher in this report card because they were capable of doing more. With the largest home attendance in the league and a investment-boosted budget to fit, they should have held the division at arm’s length. Not since 2008-09 has a title-winning club failed to penetrate the 70 point barrier but even then, St Johnstone won the league with a ten point margin and didn’t cede first place after taking control at the beginning of November. That three teams finished within three points of the total this season is evidence of an exciting season, of course, but it says a lot about John Brown’s bungling management from pre-season onwards.
Brown inherited a strong and highly experienced squad who, under his early tenure, made a reasonable fist of surviving the SPL against the odds. Nonetheless, he had inherited a side that were relegated after only previously being promoted. It was a team that had its issues, with concerns of underperformance in the full-back positions, a lack of width and pace in the team beyond Nicky Riley and too many similar-minded central-ish midfielders.
Brown initially seemed to be making the correct signings in Willie Dyer and Peter MacDonald from the previous season’s title-challengers Greenock Morton among others, but the problems were exacerbated with a mild obsession in repeated experimentation with an unsuitable 3-5-2 formation and a keenness to force so many one-paced midfielders into the team. Dundee climbed to the top of the league towards the end of 2013, but never with truly convincing displays on the pitch; when the results began to slip, the club’s hierarchy acted and appointed Paul Hartley as manager at the beginning of February before the league title slipped from their grasp.
Hartley didn’t appear to do much but stabilise the team, but given the undisputed quality in the squad perhaps that was all that was needed. Brown had toyed with the idea of having Martin Boyle on the right flank out of desperate necessity, but Hartley made him a fixture in the team and was immediately rewarded by definitive performances from the forward. A 0-2 loss to Cowdenbeath was a hiccup that brought about the same concerns as before and they still couldn’t get the upper hand on Falkirk but generally, Hartley restored balance to the side and they became the team to beat through the last quarter of the season – the manager had even got the best out of Christian Nadé by the last couple of matches.
Hartley has some work ahead of him to mould the side into a competitive Premiership unit, but he is a resourceful manager building on some pretty solid foundations. It wouldn’t be a huge shock if we didn’t see them in the lower leagues for a couple of seasons yet. JAM
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose for Falkirk. No matter the circumstances within the club or in the division, the Bairns are always a certain bet to wind up in third place and they didn’t disappoint this season. Finishing only three points and a couple of goals from the top represented as strong a finish as they have had since relegation from the SPL in 2009-10. Indeed, they came so close to gaining automatic promotion but ultimately, the challenge of overtaking the top two clubs in the last quarter was too much to achieve.
Had the campaign started when Mark Millar joined the club then Falkirk would have won the league. The side had played 11 games by then but were already nine points behind Hamilton Academical and even trailing Raith Rovers. The midfield quartet of Blair Alston, Jay Fulton, Craig Sibbald and Conor McGrandles were prodigious but the oldest among them was 21 at the point of Millar’s return from Dundee United on loan. At times, the lack of experience showed, particularly in the defeats to Hamilton Academical and Dumbarton that immaculately preceded Millar’s signing (although their cause wasn’t helped by the woeful Rakish Bingham deputising for Philip Roberts in both matches).
The younger players all danced to a different beat to each other but Millar provided the rhythm from the back of midfield that allowed the them to express themselves, which brought the best out of McGrandles in particular. Fulton’s play was slightly marginalised as a result of Millar’s arrival, but the team certainly missed his deft touch and eye for a through ball in the second half of the season after he was sold to Swansea.
The spell of two league wins from eight from the beginning of February coincided with Mark Beck’s inclusion in the squad (on loan from Carlisle United) and Roberts’s cognitive implosion culminating in his swift departure from the club after a second sending off in as many matches. Had he managed to remain focused then things might have finished differently for the club: his running of the channels was the perfect foil for Rory Loy who could focus on the predatory aspect to his game; with Beck in the team, Loy had to become the number 10 and his own impact suffered. Although Falkirk adapted their style to suit playing with Beck as the target man and their collection of 19 from the league’s final 21 points was quite remarkable in itself, the effectiveness of the team on the whole suffered, which ultimately showed in the play-offs. Falkirk just about scraped past Queen of the South but were short of ideas against Hamilton, who won four of six contests between the clubs during the season.
That as many as five of Falkirk’s players were included in this site’s Championship Team of the Year (without even considering Loy), despite finishing third in the league, shows the levels of performance that the Bairns could achieve during their runs of winning form. In that sense it was a missed opportunity to gain promotion to the top flight, when they will have a fight to hold on to third place again next season. JAM
Greenock Morton (10th)
Abject; lamentable; sometimes craven but certainly not piteous, Greenock Morton’s woeful season was precisely what the club deserved for continued short-termism in their transfer policy. It is unfortunate that these report cards cannot be graded below an F – the whole affair warranted far, far less.
If the Ton were originally aspiring to finish around the play-offs under Allan Moore’s tenure (with the impression being that, with cut-backs, another title challenge probably wasn’t realistic), then their squad should have been comparable to their full-time peers. Yet even considering Dundee’s perceptively bloated numbers, Morton’s options were stark. The top three clubs generally had a consistent team through the campaign and, by the end, each of the sides had a core of 16-to-18 players who had made more than five starts for their respective clubs. If continuity breeds success then the opposite definitely applied to Morton – they had a whopping 26 begin more than five matches through the league season.
Moore had turned over 27 players in the lead up to the 2012-13 season where his side finished second behind Partick Thistle and followed this with a recycling of another 19 in and out of the club in the summer of 2013. On the whole, the calibre of his imports was not as high as those who departed, but it was the repeated unfamiliarity of the team that undermined the side’s prospects as much as anything else. There were only so many times that Moore could gamble on signings without it backfiring and he eventually paid the price, with the team winning only two of the season’s first 14 matches and sitting bottom of the league since September to the point of his sacking late in November after a 1-5 thrashing from Livingston.
Kenny Shiels came in with a mandate to avoid relegation and finish as high up the table as possible; many believed it was still possible. But with every passing defeat drew more and more desperation. Come the January window, last-gasp signings Nacho Novo and Jake Nicholson were let go and players such as David Robertson, Rowan Vine and Garry O’Connor were drafted in. Mark McLaughlin was released so that Shiels could deploy a high defensive line in which the veteran’s complete lack of pace would have been found out, but nervous back-passing and a lack of leadership from an alarmingly inexperienced and brand new backline hindered the team more than McLaughlin might have done. Meanwhile, Vine, when he could be bothered, showed that he could still have been playing in the top flight and O’Connor was never, ever fit enough to properly compete. Only a handful of players escaped the season with any kind of credit and Dougie Imrie and (to a lesser extent) Barrie McKay consistently showed the fight as well as the quality to remain in the Championship.
Douglas Rae’s public outbursts helped no-one, but the candid comments at least puts the club’s performance into context: they would still have had the fourth-largest budget in the league despite the cost reductions. That the team were bottom of the league from September through to the end of the campaign shows the failings of a lack of long-term strategy. Shiels was proven to be the wrong manager for the job, as his stubbornness in trying to have the team use short passing from defence and to attack no matter the circumstances was the wrong approach to salvage an increasingly perilous situation. It was no better typified than by the gung-ho approach to the utterly embarrassing 2-10 defeat to Hamilton Academical at the end of the season, with the club already relegated.
The chairman now has Jim Duffy on board, who appears to be a safe but uninspiring choice, if safe is defined by merely keeping within League 1. With full-time resources in the division below, Duffy will be tasked with immediate promotion but with Dunfermline Athletic remaining in the division and strengthening already, and Duffy’s dismal managerial record outwith a surprisingly excellent spell at Clyde in the last 12 months, it might be a while before we see Morton in the second tier again. JAM
Hamilton Academical (2nd)
To think that we ever doubted the veracity of the Hamilton Academical fans who chanted “we’re going to win the league!” after winning their opening game of the season at Raith Rovers… Of course, the Accies would fall just short of the title but to gain promotion via the play-offs is outrageously commendable and completely unexpected: from likely Championship also-rans to Premiership gatecrashers, it has been a stunning season.
Hamilton’s penalty shoot-out victory over Hibernian was entirely warranted – they were the better side over both legs, particularly in the return fixture – and it was fitting that the vital equaliser, scored deep into stoppage time, was created by the Accies’ three best players. Ziggy Gordon’s driving run, Jason Scotland’s cut-back and then Tony Andreu’s adroit finish was a wonderful example of everything good about this team.
Gordon’s performances, both defensively and offensively, have long suggested he will be playing at a higher level sooner rather than later. That the full-back can now achieve this whilst playing for the club he first represented in 2011 can only be a bonus. Scotland’s arrival transformed Hamilton from a side accustomed to winning games by single-goal margins to swashbuckling free-scorers. His tally of nine in 19 appearances was impressive in itself but his all-round game – the strength, the touch, the link up play – brought the best out of a team who appeared to be flagging after their initial surge. Andreu, meanwhile, was one of last summer’s most important signings and his intelligence, his creativity and his 15 goals from midfield were crucial (none more so than his late strike at Easter Road on Sunday).
Hamilton’s success this term was built around more than just three players and others enjoyed stellar campaigns. Player-manager Alex Neil revelled in the belly of the midfield at the beginning of the season before succumbing to injury (his absence threatened to derail their promotion charge), while centre-backs Michael Devlin, Martin Canning and Jesus Garcia Tena all impressed at centre-back at various stages. However, if one player should be marked out as the best of the rest then perhaps it should be Darian MacKinnon. Plucked from Clydebank two years ago, MacKinnon has been converted from a forward into an all-action midfielder and his form over the season has more than justified the faith shown him by Neil and by Billy Reid, who brought him to the club. Aggressive, assertive and industrious, McKinnon has been fabulous.
The small squad almost managed to win promotion as champions but two dips in form hamstrung their progress. The first, a run of two wins from ten games between November and February, saw them surrender a six point lead at the summit of the division to Dundee. Up until then, their miserly defence had conceded just five goals in their first 12 games but had suddenly begun to look porous and haphazard. Their forwards were also scoring with ever-decreasing regularity and James Keatings and Mickael Antoine-Curier looked unsatisfactory against stronger opponents. Scotland’s signing reinvigorated the team once again but the second lull undid them. Two wins from their final six games – including the astonishing 10-2 win over Greenock Morton, one of the most remarkable results in recent Scottish footballing history – was not enough to win the league. Any disappointment was alleviated by the exultant scenes at Easter Road.
How well will Hamilton do next season? Good? Bad? Few had the Accies tipped for anything more than a mid-table finish this term but they confounded expectation – they will be looking to do the same next time around, only this time as a Premiership club. It is a status that is richly deserved. SM
Mid-table is a pretty respectable position for a Livingston side who fared so poorly in the first four matches of the season under Richie Burke, but it hasn’t been a memorable campaign for the Lions. With a sizeable turnover through the course of the season (29 different players were used in total in the league, from first choices through to teenage cameos), the team suffered from inconsistency throughout the year and never won more than two matches in a row at any given time.
When John McGlynn took over from Burke it was clear that he had the credentials to keep the club in the league and, to his credit, dropping out of the division didn’t seem much of a worry after his first six matches. Livingston went as high as fifth in the table and drifted down to eighth a couple of times under the new manager, but spent half the season in the sixth place where they comfortably finished, safe from relegation with three matches to spare.
There were some sterling performances but those were invariably bookended with mediocre showings. Goalkeeper Darren Jamieson could often put in remarkable showings but had his frailties, typified by going to ground way too early against Jason Scotland in their last fixture against Hamilton Academical. Callum Fordyce seemed to be the most reliable centre-back but was frequently shunted to right-back to accommodate others, including the increasingly error-prone Simon Mensing. Burton O’Brien had safely inherited Liam Fox’s passive, likeable but rarely prominent role in the middle, while Martin Scott could be technically excellent on his day but was too often undermined by questionable decision-making. Keaghan Jacobs remains a talent but still played on the periphery of matches and probably could have done with facing a new challenge at a different club to test himself in another environment, so it was a slight surprise (although a boon to Livingston) to learn that he will stay at Almondvale for another year. Marc McNulty probably didn’t have a vintage season but still managed to hold Livi’s attack together while recording a one-in-two goal ratio.
Almost everything about the 2013-14 season seemed unavoidably middle-of-the-road: too good to go down; not good enough to challenge for the play-offs. With McNulty now having joined Stefan Scougall at Sheffield United and Coll Donaldson already having gone to Queen’s Park Rangers, Livi’s policy of developing talented youngsters to sell will have to start another cycle. A clutch of players from the region have been signed up and might impose themselves on the Scottish game in two or three years, but until then supporters might have to be grateful for holding on to a mid-table position next season when the middle of the league could get squeezed from both sides. Unless McGlynn trades well through the rest of the summer, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them finish bottom of the Championship’s full-time teams next term. JAM
Queen of the South (4th)
The Championship terraces played host to a swathe of dissatisfied fans over the course of the season and only a handful of managers seemed to avoid criticism. Not all boards remained stoic in the face of fan pressure and like a particularly bloody episode of Game of Thrones, almost half the teams gave their manager the chop at some point.
Midway through the season, it looked as though Jim McIntrye’s name would be marked alongside Richie Burke, Colin Cameron, Allan Moore, John Brown and Kenny Shiels. On 4 January, his Queen of the South side were defeated 1-3 at Hamilton Academical and left floundering in eighth, far closer to the relegation play-off position than the promotion spots. Although a top four finish might have been a lofty aspiration for the Doonhamers support, it was achievable with McIntyre’s squad of players. Queens went on to finish the season in fourth; just getting there was so bloody frustrating.
That they once seemed so distant from meeting their objective was exasperating. McIntyre’s tactics, style of play and summer acquisitions were brought under scrutiny, but it all slowly fell into place. Goalkeeper Calum Antell was banished on loan at Brechin City and replaced by St Johnstone’s Zander Clark and the 21-year-old brought stability and confidence to the backline, something the former Hibernian youngster completely failed to do. Moving Iain Russell from the centre to the left flank looked absurd at first but a return of 14 goals vindicated his redeployment. Questions were also asked about McIntyre’s preference for Andy Dowie over Mark Durnan at centre-back, but the pair eventually went on to form a solid partnership.
The manager was also sometimes labelled as negative, preferring to settle on one-goal advantages rather than killing teams off. Yet the statistics proved that his approach was a success – in the 16 matches in which Queens scored first, they won 14 and drew one, the best record in the Championship. It might not have always been the most aesthetic tactic but it was an effective one.
Queens would lose six of their final 22 league matches but their defeat to Falkirk in play-off quarter-final was indicative of their season as a whole: they managed just two wins from 12 encounters with the division’s top three sides, while losing four times to the six teams that finished below them. They were good, just not good enough.
The arrival of Heart of Midlothian, Hibernian and Rangers will no doubt give the Championship a top-heavy appearance next term and the three newcomers will presumably compete for first, second and third; fourth place is perhaps the best Queens can hope to achieve. McIntyre has already brought in John Baird for the new campaign and if he is able to garnish his squad with another two or three astute signings, then consecutive play-off appearances might just happen. SM
Raith Rovers (7th)
Ramsdens Cup winners, Scottish Cup quarter-finalists and seventh place in the Championship – Raith Rovers supporters might not have bitten your hand off for such an outcome back in July, but they’d certainly have accepted it with an ample grin. And yet, although the campaign yielded the club’s second ever cup triumph, it was difficult to ascertain whether or not the season had been a successful one.
From a neutral perspective, Rovers fans might come across as pernickety, churlish or just downright ungrateful when complaining about how the year unfolded – after all, it’s a red letter day when a lower league club embarrasses one half of the Old Firm in a national cup final – but those joyous scenes were the exception: large parts of the season were an interminable grind.
Grant Murray’s team won three of their final 20 league fixtures, a sequence which included ten games without victory. Their decline was astonishing: in November, after the opening 11 matches, only Dundee and Hamilton Academical boasted a greater scoring and a better defensive record respectively. But by the season’s end, only Alloa Athletic and Greenock Morton had netted fewer and the goals against column had swollen to an unsightly bulge. It has now become a running joke that the team’s form disintegrates the moment the clocks go back but it is difficult to argue against it.
A small squad certainly didn’t help matters. Injuries to key players David McGurn and Paul Watson severely hindered their defensive capabilities but their absences were poorly handled. Ross Laidlaw and Lee Robinson both lacked McGurn’s stature in goal while neither the experienced Laurie Ellis nor the callow Reece Donaldson provided as much stability to the backline as Watson did.
Perhaps more pertinently, the overall impression was that a team boasting the talents of Callum Booth, Kevin Moon, Joe Cardle, John Baird and Calum Elliot had underperformed throughout the league campaign – they really shouldn’t have become involved in an ugly battle to avoid relegation. It all led to Murray having to field some awkward questions at points, but the manager has the full backing of his board and will be awarded a greater playing budget to take the club forward next term.
The manager has already addressed his side’s defensive issues by bringing in Craig Barr from Airdrieonians but with Cardle moving on to Ross County and Baird joining Queen of the South – two of the team’s most creative assests – he faces challenges in restocking his attacking options. Whoever Murray signs to replace them will need to integrate immediately to assuage the growing concerns amongst the support. SM