The Championship Half-Term Report Card

A little over half the season remains in the SPFL Championship, but we can already be sure about some of the outcomes. Heart of Midlothian are exercising control over the rest of the division, still maintaining an unbeaten run as the only club in Scotland and England to do so. The 13 point gap over Rangers is greater than expected, but with hindsight the signs of it happening were there all along. Few could have imagined that Ally McCoist would no longer be manager at Ibrox at this point of the season (if only for economic reasons), no matter how unconvincing they have been in the preceding years under his helm.

Hibernian are coming along as expected, their slow start to the season seeming like a long time ago now, and Alan Stubbs is finding his best selection for now. But they are in good company for the remaining play-off places, with Queen of the South and Falkirk threatening and capable of keeping up with them. James Fowler has done a terrific job since taking over from Jim McIntyre until now, but with Mark Kerr and John Baird leaving as well as plenty of interest in the rest of his squad (and some below-par form since beating Rangers), Fowler’s biggest challenge of the season lies ahead. Falkirk, meanwhile, are thriving under Peter Houston just now and his clutch of signings could potentially improve them further.

Elsewhere, Raith Rovers appear to specialise in doddling along in mid-table, grinding from mediocre performance to surprise result and getting nowhere as a result, but at least they will be safe from relegation. You never know quite how high up the table Dumbarton might finish and no-one should discount them from ending closest to the aforementioned clubs. Cowdenbeath and Alloa Athletic are likely to be fighting for who will finish in the play-off spot, assuming Livingston don’t turn around their position at the foot of the table. There might not be much to choose among the bottom three at the moment but Livingston’s five point deduction might prevent them from recovering.

The second half of the season might not turn out like that at all, of course, which is why we keep coming back. The stage is set for the rest of the campaign, but will the actors follow the script?

 

Alloa Athletic (9th)
D

The last few months of the season have been a little peculiar for Alloa Athletic. The magnificent Challenge Cup semi-final victory over Rangers was the undisputed high point of the campaign so far – trailing by two goals, they rallied and prevailed 3-2. It was a stunning, otherworldly performance and gives them a good chance of finishing the year with a trophy. However, unless Barry Smith is able to harness the same spirit they’ve shown in the cup competition, there is a very real chance has team could slide into League 1.

The Wasps’ recent results have been wearingly similar to the efforts at the beginning of the season, with a handful of positive performances punctuating an otherwise glum slump. A run of three unbeaten games between October and November looked to have righted their course – a decent 1-1 draw at Raith Rovers and a victory over Livingston was followed by an unlikely (but nonetheless welcome) point against Rangers, with Liam Buchanan’s opportunistic strike cancelling out Lee McCulloch’s opening goal. The five points moved them from ninth into eighth but a rotten sequence since – one point from a possible 18 – has seen them return to the relegation play-off place.

That said, peer beneath the surface and there are slivers of comfort to hold onto. The Championship fixture threw up a difficult run of matches between the middle of November and the New Year – no wins in seven sounds bleak but they came up against Rangers, Heart of Midlothian, Hibernian, Queen of the South and Falkirk (twice), the division’s top five side; as such, their poor form becomes a little easier to understand. There will be no respite – three of their next five games see them take on Rangers, Hearts and Queens.

As well as their Challenge Cup success, Alloa have a fine record against Rangers in the league and have drawn their two meetings but they’ve only taken an additional 11 points from their other 17 fixtures. It is a worrying trend, and more should be expected from this group of players.

Kyle Benedictus and Ben Gordon would make a formidable centre-back pairing for most Championship sides, while Mark Docherty has impressed at left-back since returning to the club from Stranraer. Ryan McCord and Kevin Cawley have shown they can trouble teams at this level and generally, Alloa’s best performances have come when the pair are on form but this has been in fits and starts than on a consistent basis this term.

Of course, even poor teams can grind out points if they’re equipped with an effective goal-scorer and Liam Buchanan has certainly earned his keep over the season. Alloa are the division’s scorers with just 16 goals and Buchanan has netted half of their total since arriving from East Fife in the summer. Greig Spence might have scored twice against Rangers but his two league goals – both of which came against Cowdenbeath – is a poor return.

With the top of League 1 looking robust, Alloa’s odds of navigating their way through the play-off contest look a little diminished. On paper at least, they have the players to pull away from ninth place but as Barry Smith approaches his first anniversary as manager, his record stands at just six league wins in 33 attempts. Their chances don’t necessarily look favourable. SM

 

Cowdenbeath (8th)
C-

Your take on how Cowdenbeath’s season is progressing is dependent on whether you’re glass half-full or glass half-empty kinda guy. After all, if the league was suddenly brought to a close then it’d be job done with an eighth-place finish and another season in the second tier under their belts – surely that indicates that everything’s just swell at Central Park?

Well no, not quite. Although the Blue Brazil are one place better off than they were at the same stage last season, there’s a feeling that the early part of the campaign has been something of a missed opportunity. Jimmy Nicholl has put together a relatively large squad but given they’re only a point ahead of Alloa Athletic and seven clear of Livingston, it seems an inauspicious gain on the club’s outlay. That fellow part-timers Dumbarton are some distance above them only heightens the angst.

While Nicholl’s permanent signings have all underwhelmed, his loan acquisitions – many of whom joined the team after the season was underway – have made a positive impact. Kudus Oyenuga, Calum Gallagher and Marcus Fraser have all impressed over the last five months but, curiously, Cowden picked up fewer points in the second quarter than they did in the first. Concluding the calendar year with two wins and seven losses is a meagre return and beginning 2015 with a derby defeat to Raith Rovers, it will be interesting to observe how they fare now that Gallagher and Fraser have returned to their parent clubs.

At least Oyenuga is sticking around. The fleet-footed winger, on loan from Dundee United, agreed an extension of his temporary agreement, while Declan Hughes has signed on a permanent basis following his release from St Mirren, Hughes will bolster Nicholl’s midfield options but of the four players who arrived on loan, the 19-year-old has made the least impact.

If the manager has any room left in his budget then he would be wise to use it, but which area of his team he prioritises is anyone’s guess. Cowden have lost 42 goals, the worst record in the division and Iain Campbell, out of his depth at left-back, probably needs replaced. Only the teams beneath them have scored with less frequency and Sean Higgins is in dire need to support up front, more so since Gallagher’s departure. The midfield, meanwhile, could do with beefing up – the well-travelled Colin Marshall looks like a decent addition but there are too many players unable to spot a pass or make a tackle. A lack of confidence seems to be running through the squad and the support too.

As has been the case over the past few years, the January transfer window has been key to Cowdenbeath’s survival prospects. If Nicholl is able to bring in the appropriate players then they should be able to stay ahead of Alloa and Livingston. A failure to do so, however, and it could bring about the end of their Championship status. SM

 

Dumbarton (7th)
B-

They might not have received the same level of acclaim as they did last season, but Dumbarton’s achievements this time around are every bit as praiseworthy. The Sons reside in seventh with 22 points – their total might be two fewer than at this stage 12 months but given the level of their opposition in this year’s Championship, it’s a pretty impressive feat.

Ian Murray’s side’s second quarter shares similarities to the first, where three heavy defeats have been followed by a solid run of form. There hasn’t been a repeat of the six-match unbeaten sequence between August and October but nonetheless, a decent return of 12 points from 21 has seen them emerge as favourites to finish the season as Scotland’s highest ranking part-time side.

That’s not to say there haven’t been some concerns. Dumbarton’s defence is still porous and only Cowdenbeath have lost more goals (although remarkably, the Sons have kept five clean sheets this year, more than double 2013-14’s total). The tendency for the floodgates to open might hamper their chances of moving further up the division – over the course of the last five months they’ve lost 0-4, 1-4, 1-5 and even 3-6; when Dumbarton lose, it tends to be by a handsome margin.

Curiously enough, their goalkeeper might have been their best player so far. Danny Rogers, signed on loan from Aberdeen has continued to impress with a number of strong performances – the 20-year-old is a fine shot stopper and can distribute the ball well. Rogers has pushed Jamie Ewings and Stephen Grindlay down the pecking order and, with the young Josh Lumsden also in reserve, one of them might be moved on sooner rather than later.

In defence, Andy Graham continues to provide a muscular presence and alongside him, the summer acquisitions have begun to prove their worth. Lee Mair has partnered Graham at centre-back in recent weeks at the expense of Scott Taggart and David van Zanten has secured the right-back slot. Mair and Van Zanten were seen as weak links earlier in the season but the pair have won their critics round with some sound performances.

Dumbarton have struggled a little further forward. Scott Agnew and Chris Turner have played well in midfield but their influence has been flickering, and a lack of real wide players is hampering them both offensively and defensively. Forwards Archie Campbell and Mitch Megginson have been tried out on the flanks with mixed results and although Jordan Kirkpatrick can provide a spark on the left, he is often let down by haphazard crossing.

On-loan St Johnstone forward Chris Kane has been lively up front but he has yet to repeat last season’s form, with injury limiting him to just four goals. He might not have been as free scoring this time around but he’ll certainly be missed when he returns to Perth. Kane will play his last game for the club against Heart of Midlothian on Saturday, and Murray has a tricky task of replacing him. The manager has freed up some funds by allowing fringe players Hugh Murray and Stephen McDougall to join Clyde and they should go some way to strengthening the side.

Even if a like-for-like replacement can’t be found, Dumbarton have shown enough already to suggest a fourth consecutive season in the second tier is within reach. SM

 

Falkirk (5th)
B

Falkirk are probably just a handful of points away from being in as good a position as we expected from them this season, yet the Bairns haven’t always been performing at an optimal level and there have been missed opportunities to already consolidate within the play-off positions.

Had Falkirk managed to grind out a home win against Raith Rovers recently then they would still be on an impressive winning streak and on the same points as Queen of the South and Hibernian. They had spent much of the first third of the season dawdling in sixth place, but the four wins in a row from the end of November onwards saw Peter Houston settle on a preferred line-up capable of beating the majority of the league.

Houston has more recently preferred a two-striker system with Rory Loy and Botti Bia Bi playing in front of a narrow midfield quartet. Perhaps the surprise of the season so far has been the emergence of Will Vaulks as a central midfielder. The first, prejudiced impression of him was of a promising centre-back who might awkwardly hold the back of midfield, hamstrung by a certain lack of finesse compared to, say, Mark Millar in a similar role last season. However, Vaulks has really grown into the position, with a commanding physique married to a capable range of passing and powerful shot. His swerving 25-yarder was the icing on the cake of a 6-0 thrashing at home to Cowdenbeath, but the way he swivelled into position to strike the post with a long-range shot away to Livingston showed a nimbleness that can be an unexpected avenue of attack. He can carry the ball forward, too, and can a difficult player to dispossess when doing so.

Just as importantly, Vaulks’s redeployment has allowed Peter Grant to blossom at centre-back beside David McCracken. Grant was probably culpable at each of Queen of the South’s three goals at the end of the first quarter, but he hasn’t been guilty of any serious errors since, even scoring a few of his own. With Aaron Muirhead – who was so good for Partick Thistle in their title-winning season but never really settled in the top flight – having just signed, it would be a shame to see Grant lose his place, but maybe Houston is planning for the long term with McCracken not getting any younger.

As things currently stand, Falkirk’s signing of Muirhead, Mark Kerr John Baird and Taylor Morgan probably make them more likely to finish fourth over Queen of the South, despite the current three point deficit. Kerr might not have as much of a positive impact on Falkirk as much as his loss could be felt at Queens (albeit he can arguably play Tom Taiwo’s possession-based role better than Taiwo on this season’s form). Given the recent signings and the current run of form, it would be a disappointment to finish fifth or below. JAM

 

Heart of Midlothian (1st)
A+

There will soon come a point where there will be a lack of superlatives to describe how much Heart of Midlothian are dominating the Championship this season.

Getting 50 points at the halfway point is only 19 less than what Dundee finished with as champions last season. It also has them on course to comfortably trump Hibernian’s 89 points from 1998-99. Hearts can even equal Rangers’ total of 102 points in League 1 last season, but would have to win each of the remaining 17 games. Yet considering this season’s second tier also contains Hibs and Rangers, any finish over 80 points is still a remarkable achievement. That there are two other clubs who might ordinarily expect to find themselves in the top flight (and that Hearts are unbeaten against both of them in five matches this season) just highlights the accomplishment of Robbie Neilson’s team so far.

This is by any measure a top-flight team and one suspects that if they were competing in the Premiership this season they would be capable of ending up in the top six. That Neilson has the means to improve the squad further – the hulking Genaro Zeefuik has already arrived to provide cover for an injury-hit strikeforce – is an onimous prospect for Rangers, who despite having a greater overall budget have so badly planned their stay in the Championship that they are unable to spend further to get closer to the Jambos.

Nothing in life is perfect and the same goes for Hearts’ performances. There have been a few sticky periods before ultimately getting good results, most notably at Easter Road where Alim Ozturk’s unforgettable injury-time screamer brought an unlikely equaliser to maintain the unbeaten record. Also, in the more recent 2-0 win at home to Rangers, Ally McCoist’s side were the team most likely to score first until Steven Smith’s reckless red card, after which Jason Holt and Billy King found space to become more involved and Hearts ended up convincing winners.

For the rest of the time, things couldn’t have gone much better. The depth of the squad is such that there is genuine competition for each place: Jordan McGhee probably deserves a run in the team but cannot find a place in front of Ozturk, Danny Wilson or Callum Paterson, let alone Brad McKay or anyone else brought in. Holt’s proficiency in the final third doesn’t guarantee him a place; Sam Nicholson is such a talent yet sometimes has to be content with cameo appearances; and James Keatings’ run of form has as much to do with injuries to others as on his own merit. Any of these examples could be regulars for any other team in the Championship, and those players together with astute management makes Hearts worthy champions in waiting.

That might seem worryingly prophetic with 17 matches to go, but there’s a neglible chance of Hearts losing a 13 point advantage, given the breadth of the quality in the squad and what they have already achieved this season. There are so many players of top-divsion calibre who can change the outcome in a match, which means that even if the unbeaten run soon comes to an end, they are highly unlikely to go on a run of matches without picking up points.

From Osman Sow trapping Wilson’s clipped ball on his thigh before thundering in a shot against the underside of the crossbar for the opener at Queen of the South, to Soufian El Hassnaoui turning Craig Sives and hitting an outrageous shot from 20 yards in the opening goal against Livingston, to Ozturk’s long range goals in successive weeks, to the inevitable way that Prince Buaben powered beyond Blair Alston for Kevin McHattie’s opener at Falkirk, to Keatings’s shimmy selling Ben Gordon short after an irresistible spell of pressure on Alloa Athletic, Hearts are scoring goals that other teams in the division can only aspire to. And they’re so often great to watch with it.

It’s not a question if Hearts will win the league: it’s just a matter of how soon it will happen, how much of a distance they can keep ahead of their rivals and how good this team can be in years to come. JAM

 

Hibernian (3rd)
B

After a turbulent start to the season, Alan Stubbs seems to have found a formula that is working for his team. Hibs have lost just once in 13 matches in the league, a run that includes a couple of convincing victories against Rangers.

After what feels like years of managers at Easter Road flustering to find out what their best side might be, Stubbs has settled on a midfield diamond formation and has made very few changes from one week to the next. Stubbs seems to prefer a front two regardless – Dominique Malonga and Jason Cummings are the existing first-choice partnership – and while he previously utilised a back three to allow that to happen, the diamond now seems to be getting the best out of the rest of the side too.

The last time Stubbs deviated away from the existing set-up was in the 0-0 home draw with Queen of the South, where Alex Harris and Matthew Kennedy reprised their roles as wingers. But while that might have given the team some width, hindsight shows that the starting XI wasn’t comprised of its best players and it’s difficult to argue much against Stubbs’s current, consistent selection. With Kennedy returning to Everton after his six-month loan spell and Alex Harris sent to Dundee in a straight loan swap with Martin Boyle, it will be interesting to see if Stubbs looks to have his team play any differently in the medium term.

As long as Malonga and Cummings continue their rich form so far this season, Stubbs will have little to complain about. Cummings’s ability to hit the snapshot from his left foot at any range is a constant threat to teams, and he relishes in taking up spaces that Malonga creates with his presence. Having said that, one wonders if Cummings finds it all a bit too easy sometimes – his swagger appeared to develop into complacency in the 0-1 loss at Falkirk, where he was replaced at half-time by 18-year-old Lewis Allan to make his debut. It was a bold statement to make by Stubbs, with few attacking options other than the semi-retired Paul Heffernan (now released to find another club). It was the correct call, however, evidenced by Cummings scoring three goals in his next four appearances. With Farid El Alagui soon back after his ruptured achilles and Ivorian striker Frank Dja Djedje signed this week, self-approbation to the point of complacency won’t be tolerated.

The team is full of strong partnerships at the moment. The full-backs Lewis Stevenson and David Gray (who has been managing a deteriorating groin injury) complement one other; Liam Fontaine is a dependable presence beside the ever more assured Paul Hanlon; Liam Craig’s directness marries Scott Allan’s subtleties; and Danny Handling is beginning to thrive with the increased exposure at the diamond’s culet, with Scott Robertson protecting the centre-backs. Handling’s interchanging with Allan and Malonga in the 2-0 win against Alloa Athletic was particularly easy on the eye, while his one-two with Malonga and first-time through ball for Allan deliciously took two Dumbarton players out of the play for the opener in the 6-3 mauling. Handling has come under some criticism on this site for not being decisive enough in the final third, but he is looking a much better player now with more experience and increased confidence. As Dylan McGeouch vies for a place back in the midfield now that he is fit again, Handling will have to stay on top of his game to remain in the team.

The goal as it stands will be to maximise the chances of promotion through the play-offs. With poor records against Falkirk and Queen of the South, that might be in a little doubt, but the second half of the season should see the Hibees perform better against these teams as the side evolves further. And with the confidence gained from thumping Rangers twice and matching Hearts, they should be a decent shout for promotion. JAM

 

Livingston (10th)
D-

Among a five point deduction for not reporting a default in paying tax, a transfer embargo for undeclared bonus payments and the manager John McGlynn later resigning, it’s not been a great first half to the season for Livingston. With one win in their last 14 league matches and a six point gap to catch up with Alloa Athletic in ninth place, it seems that the Lions could be set for relegation to the third tier at the end of the season. Now that the transfer embargo has been lifted by the SPFL, there is a glimmer of hope that incumbent manager Mark Burchill might be able to work something in the coming weeks to manufacture some more wins in the second half of the season.

There are positive aspects to Livingston’s campaign, but there aren’t many. An unsettled backline, a below-average midfield and a misfiring strikeforce have all contributed to them being bottom of the league, which would likely be where they would still be even without the points deduction. Livi don’t have the worst defence by any means: even as the bottom team in the division, they have only taken two thrashings, 0-5 at Heart of Midlothian and 0-4 at home to Hibernian.

Yet since their own 4-0 beating of Alloa on the fifth match day, Livi have needed to use six different back-four combinations and it hasn’t always helped. They haven’t been able to play what this writer might consider to be the first-choice defence (i.e. Callum Fordyce for as long as Bradley Donaldson is out, Declan Gallagher, Simon Mensing and Jason Talbot), but are getting close to it again. Having not had a lot of time together, Gallagher and Mensing have been caught wandering in recent matches as they adjust to playing alongside one another.

Jordan White’s drought since the hat-trick against Alloa was as surprising as it was concerning, with not many goals in the team elsewhere. White’s early penalty in the 5-1 win away to Raith Rovers was his only strike since September until he got the equaliser in an eventual 1-3 loss to Queen of the South at the weekend. Burchill will hope that White can start scoring regularly again now, because with the player-manager’s best days long behind him, Gary Glen’s strike rate barely improving since the start of the season, Robert Ogleby’s goal return non-existent and Myles Hippolyte often a better foil as a supporting striker, the onus is on White as the chief forward to produce more – if he can find his early-2014 form this year then Livingston will have a much better chance of staying in the Championship for next season.

Perhaps the silver lining to the ominous looking cloud is the realisation of Daniel Mullen’s potential as an attacking midfielder with the capacity to conjure something out of nothing. The quality of some of Mullen’s goals have been nothing less than outstanding and he could be the next big thing to come from Almondvale. Mullen opened the scoring against Dumbarton in a 1-2 home loss for instance, where Hippolyte carried the ball forward on the counter attack to the edge of the box before passing to and witnessing his team-mate dribble past two players and impudently shoot between Lee Mair’s legs. His running at the Queen of the South defence, leaving a couple of experienced players on their backsides, was only bettered by the thumping finish high into the net. Having now made over 70 appearances over three seasons, the trajectory of Mullen’s development appears to be spiking to the extent that he is becoming one of the best young prospects in the lower leagues. When he learns to play in others rather going for the spectacular when it is not on, he could turn out to be such an important player for them.

Until then, it’s going to be a tough second half of the season and Burchill will have done a brilliant job to keep Livingston up in the circumstances. JAM

 

Queen of the South (4th)
B

It says a lot about how far Queen of the South have progressed over the last 18 months that an unfortunate loss to Cowdenbeath and a draw with Alloa Athletic saw some overexcited parties described their season as “coming off the rails”. The dropped points were unexpected and certainly disappointing but it was no surprise that James Fowler’s team immediately returned to form in the weekend’s 3-1 win over Livingston.

Queens’ second quarter played out similarly to the first and they took 15 points from their nine fixtures. Fowler’s management career is still in its infancy but his side’s level of consistency would suggest the board were correct to appoint him as Jim McIntyre’s successor at the end of September. There is a feeling that his style of play is even easier on the eye than under the previous regime.

The apex of Fowler’s tenure was, of course, the tremendous 2-0 win over Rangers in December. It was only their sixth win of any kind of the Govan club and their first in the league since 1955 but it was the level of the performance, not just the result, that drew acclaim. Under the Palmerston floodlights and broadcast live on TV, the match had already taken on an additional dimension with the hoopla surrounding Ally McCoist’s resignation, before becoming part of the club’s folklore. Kevin Holt’s curling free-kick was good enough to win any game but Gavin Reilly’s sublime touch and finish was every bit as enjoyable. The match confirmed what most Championship observers already knew: Queens are a pretty fine side.

It’s unlikely that the Doonhamers could have imagined themselves sitting just six points from second place after 19 fixtures but they would be even closer was it not for their record against sides at towards the foot of the table. Queens have won just two of the seven encounters with Cowdenbeath, Alloa Athletic and Livingston, a lacklustre run of form that has prevented them from pulling away from fourth place.

These results are the exception and Queens have generally punched their weight. The only negative aspect is that their star performers have inevitably attracted the attention of bigger clubs – Mark Durnan, the commanding centre-back, and Gavin Reilly are both out of contract in their summer and will probably be playing elsewhere next season. Durnan has been linked with Heart of Midlothian and Reilly, who has scored ten league goals could have his pick of the clubs in Premiership or the English lower leagues. Danny Carmichael, Ian McShane and Kevin Holt have also caught the eye, while old boys Derek Lyle and Iain Russell have 22 goals between them and Mark Kerr has looked the part in the middle of the park.

Kerr has since moved on to Falkirk, however, with rumours of a fall out between the player and the management cited for his unexpected exit. His transfer to the Bairns not only weakens Queens but strengthens a direct rival. Also defecting to Falkirk is John Baird, who was also released six months into his two-year contract. The pint-sized forward has been something of a bit-part player this season but he has his uses and will benefit his new club.

Queen of the South are set to meet with Falkirk later this month and the outcome could go a long way to determining who finishes in the play-offs. Fowler has brought Mark Miller into the club from Peterhead and if the midfielder can recapture last term’s imperious form, it might just be the Doonhamers who come out on top. SM

 

Raith Rovers (6th)
C-

It’s perhaps fitting that Raith Rovers first match of the season, a Challenge Cup tie at Dunfermline Athletic, was postponed at the minute because of a flash flood. For the majority of the campaign (and especially throughout the second quarter), this Raith side have been gently sinking.

The first nine fixtures of the campaign saw Grant Murray’s team pick up 14 points but between September and the end of December, their run of form was barren and they won just one of their 11 matches. At Christmas, the prospect of a relegation fracas looked entirely feasible.

The nadir was unquestionably the 1-5 home defeat to Livingston, where Ross Perry’s red card in the second minute precipitated a dreadful, slapstick defensive performance. The match was billed as a contest between the division’s most beleaguered managers in Murray and John McGlynn; one week later, it was ironic that it was McGlynn picking up his P45.

The Raith board, meanwhile, went down a more unexpected route by appointing Maurice Malpas as their director of football just after Christmas. Malpas’s role seems somewhat nebulous and there is a debate as to whether or not a club of the Rovers’ size actually requires such a position, but since assistant manager Paul Smith has not been replaced since leaving the club at the end of August, Malpas’s presence and his fresh pair of eyes can only be taken as a positive.

There have been early signs of his influence and since his appointment, the team have won back-to-back matches for only the second time this season and kept clean sheets on both occasions. The upturn is more likely a pleasant coincidence than anything else and a far longer period is needed to see the full benefits of Malpas’s employment.

Although the victories have lifted the malaise, there had been improvement in the prior matches against Dumbarton and Hibernian. The recovery coincided with Dougie Hill’s return to the back four – although the centre-back has his limitations, he’s several levels above the gaffe-laden Perry. Perhaps less heralded (but no less important) has been the introduction of Ross Callachan to the middle of the park. The 21-year-old began the season as a fourth-choice midfielder and was set to join Peterhead on loan only for the deal to fall through. He has gone on to start the last five games and has shown enough to suggest he should be an automatic pick. Although he is a rough diamond, Callachan provides the drive and momentum his team-mates don’t.

The wins over Falkirk and Cowdenbeath came as a relief but the shouldn’t gave come as a massive surprise. Raith have a steady record against teams outside the top four and have seven wins and two draws from their 11 games against the league’s lesser sides. Their failure to perform against the more fancied sides, particularly Rangers, has been a cause of consternation – they’ve lost ten goals in their two meetings with the Gers, turning in limp, anemic displays in the process.

Where Raith go from here will be interesting. They clearly lack a goal-scorer, with Christian Nadé, Mark Stewart and Calum Elliot only netting nine times between. Elliot’s travails neatly illustrates the problem and his last strike came in a 3-3 draw with Cowdenbeath back in December 2013. It may be a little premature to say they’ve turned a corner but they sit 11 points clear of Alloa Athletic in ninth and 17 ahead of Livingston at the bottom – they’re probably too good to get pulled into a relegation battle but, unless they’re able to sustain their form, they’re unlikely to push for a play-off place either. SM

 

Rangers (2nd)
E

Three months have passed since we last checked in on Rangers’ progress and the situation has become even more harrowing. The club, from top to bottom, are rotten. A series of traumatic defeats has seen them fall further behind Heart of Midlothian and the chasm between the sides has widened to 13 points – it looks highly likely that the Gers will have to negotiate their way through hazardous play-off fixtures come May. Given the lavish outlay on the playing personnel, the failure to implement and execute a successful, sustainable strategy to get out of the Championship is as stupid as it is unacceptable.

Away from the pitch, their financial condition is critical. Rangers are being propped up by short-term loans and are in desperate need of investment. As of writing, the board are weighing up American businessman Robert Sarver’s offer of £20m to buy the club – what are his intentions? – but it is difficult to keep up with the increasingly byzantine manoeuvres at executive level. A cast of chancers, hucksters and gangsters has flitted in and out of the club and there is a deep mistrust towards the current regime.

It was all too much for Ally McCoist. In a confusing series of events, the former manager tendered his resignation, saw his offer rejected, and was then put on gardening leave until the end of his contract (and given a pay rise to boot). McCoist was simply not up to the task – he was an acutely limited coach, a feeble tactician and a poor judge of player – but he deserved a hell of a lot better than this. The whole affair was terribly undignified.

The decision to replace McCoist with a reluctant Kenny McDowall until further notice was met with incredulity. Did the erstwhile assistant have a number of progressive on-field strategies he’d been keeping to himself? Did McCoist’s departure allow him to implement new and exciting drills and training? No. McDowall continued with his predecessor’s team and set-up and was promptly routed by Hibernian. Taking everything into consideration, it is easy to empathise with disgusted supporters who have refused to return to Ibrox unless there is decisive change.

Indeed, the second quarter has been roundly dreadful and almost every time Rangers have been required to raise their game, they have failed to perform. A 1-1 draw with Alloa Athletic at Ibrox was perhaps unexpected but it was typical of McCoist’s Rangers – they were unable to break down their obdurate opponents and then fell to a late sucker punch. The stalemate was proceeded by a second defeat to Hearts. The Gers competed well enough in the opening exchanges but Stevie Smith’s dismissal created swathes of space for the Jambos to exploit. Rangers were aggressive to the point of downright malevolence and Kenny Miller and Kris Boyd could probably have been sent off too.

Progress in the Scottish Cup was attained courtesy of a very credible 3-0 win over Kilmarnock, but it was followed by the unarguable nadir of McCoist’s management. In the Challenge Cup semi-final with Alloa, goals from Kenny Miller and Dean Shiels appeared to put Rangers into an unassailable lead and paved the way for their second final in as many years. Yet they were undone by the same complacency and arrogance that’s dogged them over the last 12 months and extraordinarily rank defending allowed Greig Spence (twice) and Ryan McCord to turn the tie in the Wasps’ favour. It is incredible to think that Rangers have not won the Challenge Cup in three attempts.

Subsequent victories over Cowdenbeath, Livingston and Dumbarton were punctuated by abject defeats to Queen of the South and Hibs. It just hasn’t been good enough and too many players have seemed happy to coast through the season. Captain Lee McCulloch looked rickety in the Third Division and his lack of mobility has been badly exposed in the Championship – his fear of dealing with pacy opposition forwards often sees the entire backline sitting far too deep and the whole team has suffered as a consequence. Lee Wallace, so often a star amongst the sludge, looks diminished this season (his performance against Hearts aside) while Nicky Law and the hateful Ian Black have been disappointing for the last 12 months.

Kris Boyd, meanwhile, has looked hopeless on occasion, so much so that he’s been relegated to the bench and Kenny Miller’s mind is certainly willing but his legs appear to have given up on him. For a player who has maximised the most of his limited ability throughout his career, the 35-year-old must be dismayed at the decline in standards at the club.

Lewis Macleod’s transfer to Brentford – the equivalent of flogging the family silver – will leave a creative void that no-one in the current squad looks likely to fill. Such is their fiscal state that reinforcements are unlikely and McDowall must make do until the end of the season. He and his players must do their best to rise beyond the off-field machinations and keep ahead of the sides beneath them, but the prospect of the play-offs will be an anxious one – who could ever imagine Rangers spending another year in the second tier? CGT

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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