The SPFL’s first edition of the Championship hasn’t yet turned out to be as exciting to observe as the most recent First Division, but there’s potential for something special to brew in the second half of the campaign.
When last year had Partick Thistle and Greenock Morton battle for supremacy effectively until April, this season’s table leaders so far cannot help but trip over themselves on the way to the finish line. However, the top three teams all play each other through the rest of this month and, if results fall a certain way, we could yet witness the best title race in years.
Twelve months ago, Ian Murray took over Dumbarton and galvanised the part-timers to a remarkable comeback, eventually keeping them comfortable from the once-inevitable prospect of relegation. This year sees Greenock Morton cast so far adrift that it is difficult to see how incoming manager Kenny Shiels can even conjure up a couple of wins, let alone an unbeaten run that would be needed for the side to escape relegation – an unfortunate position for any club who might already be budgeting for Rangers’ ineluctable arrival next season.
That isn’t a worry for Alloa Athletic, who saw the benchmark raised by Dumbarton last season and have moved past that with distinction, better than what many thought was plausible. The Wasps have known nothing but unrelenting success under Paul Hartley, so it will be fascinating to see what their medium-term future holds.
This isn’t a vintage league season so far, then, but it could still turn out to be. Be distracted from it at your peril.
Alloa Athletic (5th)
The mid-term report card: “Alloa Athletic’s next three fixtures are against sides beneath them, and they should be able to put more points between themselves at the bottom of the table over the coming weeks […] For the meantime, the priority is to build on this excellent start and ensure their survival.”
The season since then: the Wasps have doubled their points total and sit on the cusp of the promotion play-offs – finishing the year in fourth place is a real possibility.
By this juncture, everyone is now aware of Alloa Athletic’s preferred style of play – they are a compact, hard working unit that can counter with unpredictability and efficiency. That said, knowing how Paul Hartley’s side approach every match is one thing but being able to successfully counteract them is something else entirely. Given that the Wasps have collected the same number of points from the second quarter as they did from the first suggests that most teams have been unable to get to grips with them.
Hartley deserves immense credit for what his side have achieved so far. Not even the most ardent of Alloa supporters could have imagined their side would head into 2014 just a point from the promotion play-off places. This is not a surprise given their history at this level – on their last four seasons in the second tier, they have been immediately relegated. Not since 1982-83, a year where the club finished sixth in the old 14-team First Division, have they survived at this level for more than one term, something which puts this season’s feat into perspective. Barring an unlikely late-season slump, Alloa will celebrate the 31st anniversary of that achievement by repeating it again.
But can the team aim for more than just surviving? Or is challenging for promotion too much to ask from a part-time side? Whether or not a club a club qualifies for a top four place is dependent on how good they are, not their professional status. Alloa have been excellent this season, but there are a number of concerns – unless then are addressed then come May, they may have to settle for a mid-table finish.
The most obvious problem is their lack of goals. Andy Kirk leads the league scoring charts with five, while Kevin Cawley has contributed four. No-one else in the team has scored more than two. Their inability to find the net – they have gone three matches without a goal – has seen Hartley calibrate his side to play to its strengths. Scott Bain is arguably the best young goalkeeper in the country and sits behind a defence marshalled by Ben Gordon, while Stephen Simmons acts as a screening presence in the middle of the park.
Their system and its rigid organisation have seen the team keep a remarkable ten clean sheets – they have conceded just three times in their last eight league matches. While the strategy has generally worked well so far, its flaws emerge when Alloa go behind- they have lost every game this season when the opposition have scored first, and have not recovered a single point from a losing position. This suggests that the manager has yet to figure out an effective Plan B when things begin to go awry.
Of course, this has happened infrequently, and their success this season can be gauged by how many points Alloa have taken from teams in the top half of the table – Hamilton Academical have been beaten twice, while both matches against Falkirk have ended in stalemate (only the Accies and league leaders Dundee have won more points against teams in the top half of the table). Remarkably, their record against teams from the bottom five has been poor in comparison. A run of unfavourable results might put pressure on the squad for the first time this season, but a handful of victories might mean that a promotion play-off spot might not be as unrealistic as many observers first thought. SM
The mid-term report card: “With a quarter of the 2013-14 season already gone, the problems that blighted Cowdenbeath last term have not been addressed and the same mistakes are being repeated time and again.”
The season since then: Cowden have more than doubled their points total, but still sit in ninth place. That said, recent results suggest that a corner just might have been turned.
At first glance, two wins and eight points doesn’t seem all that impressive a return from the second quarter of the season for Cowdenbeath – it’s only a fractionally better statistic than their first nine fixtures, which yielded the same number of victories but one draw less. Perhaps most salient of all is that seven of the eight points were collected from their last four matches, concluding with an excellent win at Alloa Athletic – Cowden fans are beginning to believe that Jimmy Nicholl might just be the man to lead the team to safety.
Prior to Nicholl’s appointment, the Cowdenbeath squad looked bereft of confidence after losing nine league games out of a possible 14. Any show of strength from the opposition and they would almost always capitulate – for example, in his first match in charge, Nicholl watched his side take a two-goal advantage against Livingston before tossing it away to lose 2-3. The new manager has not immediately alleviated all the team’s woes (he oversaw an insipid 0-2 home defeat to Queen of the South) but their current run is their finest spell of the season – a 2-1 victory over Dundee at Dens Park ended John Brown’s unbeaten home record, while Kane Hemmings’s last minute goal ensured a fine 3-3 draw with Raith Rovers. This squad have rediscovered their sense of purpose.
Earlier in the campaign, previous manager Colin Cameron alternated between a 4-4-2 and 4-5-1 formation, but Nicholl has preferred to utilise a 3-5-2. The strategy allows the team to retain their strength in numbers in the middle of the park and prevents Hemmings from becoming isolated up front (Greg Stewart’s injury in the loss to Queens might see Nicholl fine tune the system over the coming weeks). What his back three have not improved on, however, is their defensive record – the concession of 40 goals is the joint-worst in the division. Nicholl’s team lost nine goals in his four matches and the rot was only stopped when Thomas Flynn was recalled for their New Year trip to Recreation Park. The 1-0 victory over Alloa was their third clean sheet of the season and while Flynn’s two shut outs compared to rival Grant Adam’s one is hardly enough evidence to suggest that the former is more deserving of the number 1 berth on a permanent basis, their respective statistics make for interesting reading.
Flynn has conceded 13 goals in his nine league appearances, an average of 1.4 per game. Adam, meanwhile, has been beaten 27 times in his 11 matches, a rate of over 2.4 per game. (Flynn’s statistic is slightly skewed – one of his appearances included a one-minute cameo in the season’s first Fife derby. Adam was red carded after felling Gordon Smith in the final minute, and Flynn’s only involvement in the match was picking Greig Spence’s penalty from the net.) While there are many different factors that can influence how well or how poorly a team defends, it would be remiss to overlook just how much tighter Cowden look with Flynn in goal.
Key to Cowden’s success this season is Hemmings, and retaining his services until the end of the season will be paramount. After a reasonably productive loan spell from Rangers last season, he has been quite excellent since joining on a permanent basis in the summer and has scored 12 league goals; to underline his importance, the rest of the squad have managed 13 between them. Elsewhere, Nathaniel Wedderburn has impressed but they have looked weak and disjointed in the middle of the park, even when equipped with three midfielders. Jon Robertson has failed to live up to his star billing since returning from St Mirren while Kyle Miller flatters to deceive all too often.
If Nicholl can utilise the loan system to same effect that Cameron did 12 months ago, then there is a chance that Cowden could extend their stay in the second tier for a third season (something the club have never achieved since the football league moved away from the two league system). The forthcoming fixture against Dumbarton will be vital if they are to clamber out of the relegation play-off spot. SM
The mid-term report card: “There is still plenty to work on but if they can at least double their points total by Christmas, they should still be on track. The full-time teams beneath them should improve and Dumbarton must stockpile for when the expected upturn occurs.”
The season since then: the Sons have more than doubled their tally and look reasonably comfortable in mid-table.
Ian Murray should be very content with the manner in which Dumbarton’s 2013-14 season has played out. The second quarter in particular will have been pleasing, with the Sons sitting in seventh place after collecting another 14 points, taking their tally to 24. Automatic relegation should no longer be a concern – Greenock Morton’s wretchedness should spare them of that dishonour – but the spectre of ninth place might just linger in the back of their minds.
Dumbarton have done well against their league opponents, beating six of their nine rivals (Dundee, Raith Rovers and Cowdenbeath have all kept the Sons at bay, although the latter were felled in the Scottish Cup), but it is their inability to put together a consistent sequence of results which is preventing them from climbing the table further. Dumbarton are yet to record back-to-back victories, and the positives are almost always followed a negative. A number of factors have played their part, some that Murray can address, and others that are outwith his control.
In Scott Agnew, Hugh Murray and Chris Turner, Dumbarton boast a dynamic, intelligent midfield but only Turner has been available throughout the whole season. Agnew and Murray have made ten appearances each, with various ailments keeping them sidelined for indeterminate periods of time. Murray has since returned from a longstanding ankle complaint but has failed to recapture his early season form. The 35-year-old can still be an important presence in the middle of the park and following his release from Partick Thistle, it is likely he will join Dumbarton on a permanent basis.
Goals haven’t necessarily been a problem – 26 over the course of the season is respectable compared to the rest of the division – but the lack of firepower must be addressed. The popular Bryan Prunty has six, but his fellow strikers have not pulled their weight. Kevin Smith has been a disappointment (he is yet to score in the league), while Colin Nish’s influence has been acutely limited – the big striker has collected as many red cards as he has scored goals. A coach at the club, one would hope he brings a lot more to proceedings than just his contribution on the pitch. The short-term loan signing of St Johnstone’s enthusiastic striker Chris Kane has been greatly welcomed, and the 19-year-old scored on his debut against Morton.
Elsewhere, Mark McLaughlin’s recruitment should go some way to offsetting the loss of Aaron Barry, who returned to parent club Sheffield United. McLaughlin enjoyed a fine debut against Morton at the weekend, but there is a concern about the lack of pace in defence – he and centre-back partner Andy Graham are highly capable when facing the play but if the pair are turned by speedy attackers, there is a worry that goals will likely follow. Another defender, capable of playing in the middle and on the flanks, would be a welcome addition.
Dumbarton’s next match, an away tie with Cowdenbeath, could be decisive in the manner in which the season plays out. A victory would lift them nine points above their hosts and firmly establish them in the comfort of mid-table with a handsome insurance policy; a defeat would draw them uncomfortably close to the relegation play-off place. If Murray can figure out a way to address his side’s baffling inconsistency, they should be able to enjoy a successful year. CGT
The mid-term report card: “With three wins on the bounce and the opportunity for revenge against Queen of the South to come this weekend, Dundee look as if they are just finding their rhythm – an ominous sign for the rest of the division.”
The season since then: Dundee top the league as the form team, but they cannot be complacent.
Dundee, eh? They’ve done what is expected of them so far, but there is still plenty room for improvement in their performances. They have won more and lost the joint fewest games in the league, which makes them two points clear on merit, but there is a suspicion that things might not be as good as they seem.
Dundee have beaten everyone but Falkirk, so what is there to complain about? They have, after all, lost by only one goal in three of their four league defeats. If the squad is strengthened during this transfer window, they should be able to keep themselves at arm’s length from the opposition and return to the top flight for the second time in three seasons.
However, if the Championship was a motorised race, it would be competed in a round of Mario Kart. It seems like every time Dundee manoeuvre through the pack to put themselves in a strong position, they cock up. Either banana skins from middle-to-top sides like Livingston and Falkirk slow their momentum for a while, or they find themselves with the blue shell sucker punch from the back of the grid. Nothing ever goes smoothly and just as you think that Dundee have turned the corner into clean air, progress is halted again.
There are reasons for this. Firstly, there is not enough genuine width in the team. For instance, Ryan Conroy is a very useful player at this level with his ability to strike a ball with his left foot, but he won’t beat players on the outside nor stretch the pitch when needed. Meanwhile, manager John Brown often deploys the club’s only orthodox right-winger in the centre or the left, which should encourage over-lapping, but Dundee are particularly weak in full-back areas this season. Gary Irvine is becoming increasingly error-prone and his lack of communication with his goalkeeper has cost the side some embarrassing moments. In the middle of the pitch, Gavin Rae isn’t the player he once was and offers too much of the same thing as Kevin McBride et al.
Although Dundee are arguably over-reliant on Peter MacDonald’s goals, there are match-winners elsewhere. Jim McAlister’s ability to drive forward and shoot from range off either foot can quickly alter the pattern of a game, but his versatility sometimes counts against his ability to put in consistent performances. Craig Beattie gives glimpses of his technical – certainly not physical – superiority, and Craig Wighton might only be 16 years old but has a good career ahead of him. Brown will undoubtedly be looking to strengthen the squad further during January, but he should look at providing competition in defence and some more wide options rather than adding more one-paced central midfielders and strikers.
Dundee’s three consecutive wins puts them in a position where people expect them to falter again. January could represent a crucial month to the outcome of the title, with fixtures against Livingston, Hamilton Academical and Falkirk in succession. There should be no way that the quality of Dundee’s squad (warts and all) ought to relinquish the lead from now on in, but we know that it doesn’t always work like that at Dens. JAM
The mid-term report card: “As well as their inability to defeat the division’s part-time side’s, Falkirk’s away form is one of the few concerns at this moment in time […] We might soon find out whether Falkirk have the mettle to fight for the title or simply be content with being precocious wildcards for the play-offs.”
The season since then: two successive defeats preceded the return on loan of Mark Millar, with the side unbeaten since.
Falkirk’s season can thus far be split in two: a time before Mark Millar arrived on loan and the unrelenting success since he joined the club for the second time. While they were able to beat any team on their day, there just wasn’t enough consistency to put together a respectable run of results. Hamilton Academical seem to be the Bairns’ bogey team so far, but they have a chance to avenge the 1-4 aggregate score from the previous two matches as soon as this weekend. Falkirk couldn’t be meeting the Accies at a better time, as they go into the match on a seven-match undefeated run since Millar signed.
It is not that Falkirk are a one-man club; anything but. Millar is, however, a player with experience of competing towards the top of the table and in the top flight. Most importantly, he is a footballer who reads the game well enough to balance an already accomplished midfield. Having now retained the player’s services on loan for the rest of the season, Gary Holt can look forward to extending the club’s seven-match winning streak and indeed towards the rest of the season – so long as they do not lose too many players during the transfer window.
It was two years ago that Murray Wallace and Kallum Higginbotham were sold to Huddersfield for handsome six-digit sums, but while Wallace was loaned back to the club for the rest of 2011-12, Higginbotham’s departure ripped a hole in the team’s creative unit, just as they were challenging Ross County for first place in the league. Holt’s team is set up so that even if, say, Jay Fulton was to be headhunted in the next couple of weeks, then there are other midfielders in the squad such as Blair Alston and Ollie Durojaiye who could do an effective job.
Beyond Millar, there are arguably two players who are just as important to the team’s prospects: David McCracken and Rory Loy. McCracken has proved to be an invaluable partner to Will Vaulks in the centre of defence, but is increasingly injury prone – Jonathan Flynn has replaced him mid-game on a number of occasions to preserve the fitness of the former St Johnstone centre-back and Holt has managed that potential problem quite well so far. Loy, meanwhile, has excelled in leading Falkirk’s pressing game from the front of the team – his hard work and natural finishing complements Phil Roberts’ mercurial nature.
After playing Hamilton, their following home match is against Dundee and these two fixtures will be the acid test of the Bairns’ credibility for posing a title challenge. Finishing third is the least they should be looking for in the circumstances. JAM
Greenock Morton (10th)
The mid-term report card: “To be bottom of the table after a full round of fixtures, below all three part-time teams, is not good enough for Greenock Morton. Given that Allan Moore has been able to turn over the squad substantially for several seasons in succession now, in a quest for promotion to the top flight, where does that leave him?”
The season since then: Moore got his jotters soon after, but immediate relegation still looms. It has been an utterly dreadful campaign.
As if being bottom of the table with just one win after the first quarter wasn’t bad enough, Greenock Morton have collected merely 50 per cent of the those points from the proceeding ten matches. It just isn’t good enough and the Ton now seem a certain bet for relegation at this point.
Allan Moore eventually got the sack after the second chastening 1-5 defeat in five matches, yet Morton haven’t won since. A run of seven straight defeats sees the Inverclyde club as many as nine points adrift of Cowdenbeath for the relegation play-off spot and a daunting 13 points away from Queen of the South’s position of safety. Worryingly, there has been little improvement in the team’s performances in Kenny Shiels’s couple of matches in charge.
Morton’s most recent 0-2 loss at Dumbarton put as many as 15 points between them, but it was interesting to see that only three players who started the match also appeared their first defeat of the season. Maybe Reece Hands and Scott Taggart haven’t been wholly awful, but the permanence of Marc Fitzpatrick’s role arguably symbolises the team’s fall from grace since last season. Fitzpatrick arrived from Ross County via a brief spell with League 1 winners Queen of the South as an ordinary but generally dependable midfielder who had been converted to full-back, but in his short spell at Cappielow his confidence on the ball has been obliterated.
Shiels certainly has the opportunity to turn the squad over yet again in a desperate attempt to keep the club in the second tier. Players have already been and gone since the start of the season – Craig Reid, Jake Nicholson and Nacho Novo were all signed as last-ditch attempts by Moore to save his job, but Shiels has not seen enough value in retaining them beyond their short-term contracts. A clutch of players have arrived in their place and will have to gel instantly if Morton have any chance of staying up. A lot rests on the fitness of new signing Garry O’Connor, who, like Dundee’s Craig Beattie, should be far too capable a player to not play with distinction in the Championship. Yet O’Connor has been without a club in over a year and, even more so than Beattie, seems to be nowhere near his fighting weight.
Shiels needs time before being judged, but his insistence on a short passing game in trying circumstances and an already slightly peculiar want for using players outwith their usual positions might go against him. His refusal to speak to the media immediately after matches does the opposite of what was intended and simply draws more attention to his idiosyncrasies.
With over half of the season played, Morton don’t have time to waste as chairman Douglas Rae throws good money after bad. JAM
Hamilton Academical (2nd)
The mid-term report card: “And to think that some people laughed at chants of “We’re going to win the league!” after an opening day win at Raith Rovers! Eight games later and Hamilton Academical are sitting at the top of the league with 20 points and a 100 per cent home record.”
The season since then: stuttering form has seen the Accies cede first place to Dundee, but Alex Neil’s side are still in a good position to challenge for the title.
Hamilton Academical might have steadied themselves in recent weeks with wins from their last two matches, but there is little doubt that their second quarter of the season has been less exhilarating than the first. The Accies began November by exiting the Scottish Cup after a 0-1 defeat to Queen of the South before concluding the month with a damaging 0-3 loss at home to Dundee. That loss was the precursor to a run of four games without a win, a spell which saw them score just one goal and lose their position at the top of the table to John Brown’s side.
The unfortunate sequence saw Hamilton finish the second quarter of the season with six points fewer than the first. Furthermore, their goals for column stands at 26, only three more than at the same stage last term, a campaign that saw former manager Billy Reid criticised for his predilection of a safety first approach and the deployment of a solitary striker. This is not to say that Alex Neil hasn’t brought about a major improvement on the tail-end of his predecessor’s regime, but while his team boast a far stronger defence (they have conceded the fewest in the division), they lack a goal-scorer and creativity in the middle of the park.
Like other Championship sides, Hamilton have a reasonably small squad and have struggled to cope with key players losing their form or their fitness. The absence of player-manager Neil has been immeasurable. The Accies have lost just one league match in which he appeared, a defeat to Alloa from which he was dismissed after 44 minutes. Conversely, with the exception of the League Cup loss to St Johnstone, every defeat has coincided with his absence. Ruled out until mid-March after undergoing a hernia operation, Neil will need to find a way to address the situation if his side are to maintain their title charge.
As well as Neil, there have been a number of outstanding performers this season. Centre-halves Michael Devlin and Martin Canning have played well throughout and the pair have been aided on either flank by Stephen Hendrie and the superb Ziggy Gordon. Futher forward, however, a number of players seem to have lost their early vim. Darian MacKinnon is lacking the rambunctiousness that made him such a handful at the beginning of the season, while Ali Crawford remains bafflingly inconsistent.
As mentioned above, goals have been their biggest issue has been a lack of goals. James Keatings and Mickael Antoine-Curier were recruited to address the issue but their arrivals were met with hope rather than expectation. Neither of them have disappointed per se, but they have not been prolific. Keatings has scored seven league goals but has only managed one since mid-October. Curier, meanwhile, has a meagre return of three in 14, although his confidence should be boosted after scoring in each of his last two appearances. Now would be an opportune moment for the Guadeloupian to embark on a spree.
Hamilton’s next two fixtures will almost certainly define their season: a visit to Falkirk is followed by a crucial fixture with Dundee. The Accies boast a 100 per cent record against the Bairns this team but they will surely find the weekend’s clash more testing against a side who last lost a league match in late October. Dundee are also on a stellar run and although they recently lost their unbeaten home record to Cowdenbeath, ten wins from their last 13 league games outlines the size of the task in hand. If Hamilton can come through the next fortnight unscathed, then the second tier will play host to another close contest for the title. SM
The mid-term report card: “There should be little worry about relegation at this stage of the season given the quality among the senior players, but someone has to finish bottom of the heap and Livingston’s results will have to improve upon beating a couple of the part-time teams in the league.”
The season since then: despite four losses in their last ten matches, Livingston are safe from relegation and doing just fine.
When at one point early in the season Livingston looked a team in danger of flirting with the relegation play-offs, it already seems to be a long time ago. The Lions seem as likely to finish in the top half of the table as they do the bottom.
Wins at home against Dundee (2-1) and Raith Rovers (3-0) have stood out, showing that they can compete among the best in the league. Against the former, Stefan Scougall and Marc McNulty came in off the flanks of a 4-3-3 with aplomb, but it is arguable that the team doesn’t have enough attacking quality from the full-back areas for that to be a viable long-term strategy. Against Rovers, the width came from forwards running the channels in a 4-4-2 and they exploited a series of enforced errors by the away team’s defence. Livi are, however, prone to their own lapses of concentration and Falkirk recently beat them for the third time this season by pressing them high up the pitch.
On the whole, Livi have salvaged a decent season so far out of a rotten start. Indeed, they could represent the dark horse for the last play-off position if they manage to keep pace with Alloa Athletic and Raith Rovers for the duration of the season, but John McGlynn’s transfer dealings during January will be pivotal to that. With Scougall pulling out of a move to Peterbourgh United at the very end of August 2013, he may very well be destined south of the border very shortly. McNulty’s 11 goals and technical proficiency around the penalty area might lead him away from West Lothian as well. If both of those events were to happen then the creative spark of the side will be severely dampened.
That’s not to say that the end of the world is nigh. If nothing else, McGlynn is an expert at making the most of loan signings from Premiership clubs. Gary Glen has long been rumoured to be joining his birthtown club on loan from Ross County and would prove to be an industrious, John Baird-esque goalscorer beside Andrew Barrowman – he has, however, most recently worked his way back into County’s first team, so it remains to be seen whether or not that will materialise. Nonetheless, McGlynn will undoubtedly aim to use his contacts to bring in players of the promise of Jason Walker and Johnny Russell, as he used to do when in charge of Rovers.
Will Livingston be able to make a late charge for the play-off places, or will they fall too far from the pack ahead to realistically afford a sprint to the end? That remains to be seen, but it definitely beats chasing at the back, as they once were. JAM
Queen of the South (8th)
The mid-term report card: “Queen of the South might still finish the campaign strongly, but their mediocre return of nine points from as many games has been bitterly disappointing. The shadow of expectation has loomed large and they have failed to match it.”
The season since then: infinitesimal improvements on the first quarter, but Queens are one league place worse off and closer to the relegation play-offs than the promotion places.
This season, has there been a more frustrating Championship side than Queen of the South? At various points over the year they’ve earned a result that’s hinted that some sort of corner was being turned, only to follow it up the next week by going round in circles. The Dumfries club have yet to win consecutive games this season and other than beating Dundee 4-3 on the opening day of the season, Greenock Morton are the only other full-time club the Doonhamers have prised three points from.
At least the second quarter of the season has seen them eke out more wins from the division’s part-time sides. Their league position has not improved dramatically – they’ve dropped one league place since we last observed their progress – but they have picked up four more points than they did from the first round of fixtures and, hearteningly, they have kept a greater number of clean sheets.
Alloa Athletic, Morton, Cowdenbeath and Dumbarton all failed to score against Queens during the last quarter, meaning that only three teams have boasted more shut-outs than Jim McIntyre’s side. It would be easy to assume that replacing the maligned goalkeeper Calum Antell with Zander Clark has brought about an immediate improvement but their rate of concession has barely fluctuated since. In Antell’s last seven matches, Queens conceded eight goals but in the last nine league games featuring Clark, they’ve let in ten. While there is little doubt that Clark is a significant upgrade on Antell (who is currently plumbing new depths on loan at Brechin City), he hasn’t quite made the impact that supporters were hoping for.
With the exception of Clark, McIntyre’s other recruitments have failed to inspire. Antell’s brief spell with the club appears to be over already while the arrival of Andy Dowie seems to have disrupted last season’s successful defensive unit. The heralded Kevin Dzierzawski, who joined from the American collegiate side Dartmouth, has only shown in flashes what he is capable of. The manager’s misjudgement in the transfer market is not his only folly – tampering with Allan Johnston’s championship-winning side has not gone down well, nor has his insistence on fielding Derek Lyle as a lone striker every week. Lyle has laboured throughout the campaign with three league goals, none of which have come since the middle of October.
Where would this team be if it wasn’t for Iain Russell? The forward has scored 40 per cent of Queens league goals this term and has been one of the season’s few successes. The manager’s insistence on playing him in an unfamiliar position on the left flank has been met with confusion and, in some quarters, downright derision. Although moving him into his natural role as a centre-forward would be welcomed, there is a fear that taking him from the wide position might do more harm than good for the time being.
Queens’ recent 1-3 defeat to Hamilton Academical brought an end to a three-match unbeaten run, their best sequence of the season so far. Nonetheless, it still leaves them with four wins from their last eight and with the tight bunching of the Championship, they’re now only seven points behind a promotion play-off place with a game in hand.
Conversely, they are also just four points above Cowdenbeath in ninth, and the direction of their season will be shaped by the next matches against Alloa, Raith Rovers, Livingston and Morton. On paper at least, they’re certainly winnable fixtures but given their season so far, Queens could easily end up taking nothing from them. If that is indeed the case, then they could be facing an unforeseen relegation tussle over the last months of the season. SM
Raith Rovers (4th)
The mid-term report card: “Raith Rovers fans might have gone into the season in a cautiously optimistic mood but after only two defeats in all competitions and the first cup final appearance in almost two decades, the campaign so far has surely surpassed the expectations of even the most fervent supporter.”
The season since then: the club are still within the play-off places but a poor run of form has left them in a precarious position.
To the casual observer, the last six months have been thoroughly decent for Raith Rovers. They made an excellent start to the campaign and currently sit in fourth place, with a Ramsdens Cup final appearance in April to look forward to. But of late, something has not been right – in their last eight fixtures they have won twice, losing five and drawing the other, and their early season form has dissipated. At the beginning of October, they were two points from the summit of the table; now, they are in peril of losing their play-off position.
Their recent poor run has contrasted sharply with their opening 11 matches, where only one match (against Hamilton Academical) ended in defeat. It is easy to see where the problems lie; what is unclear is what manager Grant Murray does to rectify them. The last few months have seen a number of key players lose their form, particularly in attack. With three recognised forwards at the club, this is a worrying development – Greig Spence has scored one goal since the beginning of October while Gordon Smith, a player who has yet to convince, has netted twice in nine starts and ten substitute appearances. This dip has seen the Rovers score five fewer goals in the second quarter, albeit over a more challenging series of fixtures. Out of form strikers would not be as problematic if goals were sourced from other areas of the team but the last midfielder to score was Kevin Moon in a 2-1 win over Greenock Morton at the end of October.
Perhaps the most pertinent cause for their downturn has been their inability to field their strongest XI for several weeks. A dreadful disciplinary record – seven red cards – has done little to alleviate their troubles. Over the last 18 months, the team has seen 13 players sent off, a lamentable record that stretches a threadbare squad even further due to unnecessary suspensions.
It is the long-term absences of David McGurn and Paul Watson through injury which have had the most dramatic effect on Rovers’ season. Initially, the team seemed to be coping reasonably well without their goalkeeper, winning three of their first five matches (and keeping two clean sheets in the process) but after Watson’s injury, the defence capitulated. They have lost 12 goals in five games, while Ross Laidlaw’s performances have badly dipped, something which suggests the 21-year-old goalie has lost his confidence. Some supporters have suggested dropping Laidlaw but his back-up – Colin Stewart, a player with a calamitous reputation – hardly instills confidence.
Watson’s absence has also meant a change in Rovers’ style. The former Livingston centre-back was astute at playing the ball out from the back but Dougie Hill and Laurie Ellis are either incapable or unwilling to do the same. Their direct approach seems to have stymied the team’s attacking intent, as their midfielders and attackers are more suited to receiving the ball into feet. Whether or not the recall of Reece Donaldson from Peterhead can restore a passing game to the backline remains to be seen, but the youngster played well enough in the recent defeat to Dundee.
McGurn and Watson are unlikely to return any time soon, and it would appear that a dip into the transfer market is required if Murray wants to shore up a team that has now conceded more goals than it’s scored. Rovers have won one game against the sides from the top half of the table, one of the worst records in the league. However, with three of their next four matches taking place against sides from the bottom five, preserving their record would leave the club in a very decent position. If they can overcome their poor discipline and their injuries, a season that started so promisingly could yet deliver. SM