The Championship Mid-Term Report Card

It has been a pretty interesting Championship season so far. Heart of Midlothian, at this stage, look like running away with the title in a near-flawless campaign thus far. Their unbeaten run is a testament to the (albeit necessary) trust put into the numerous youth graduates who began to blossom into a competitive team in the second half of last season’s Premiership campaign. Adding an exotic dose of flair and power with foreign players through the spine of the team and Neil Alexander’s experience in goals, Hearts have a side that could go a long way into the year unbeaten, although there are mild concerns that some of the club’s promising young footballers are becoming marginalised. Their first quarter has only been bettered by Rangers’ League 1 season in 2013-14.

The Ibrox side currently lie nine points behind, albeit with a game in hand. With Rangers’ ascension through the lower leagues never truly being convincing, there was always a niggling suspicion that when faced with a clutch of full-time clubs in the same division they could falter. That was a small worry that has grown into something more problematic now, with Ally McCoist’s lack of acumen being exposed against the better teams in the Championship. The manager’s short-term view of getting out of the division at any cost – epitomised by recruiting the likes of Kenny Miller and Kris Boyd – is the polar opposite of Hearts’ strategy of the last couple of years; and isn’t it obvious on the football pitch?

Elsewhere, Hibernian have struggled to find an identity post-Terry Butcher. Alan Stubbs has lately come up with a 3-5-2 formation that he was familiar with in his playing days and while it has been used to effect when his side haven’t been expected to play on the front foot (for example, away to Ross County and Rangers), they are really struggling to break opposing teams down without a creative player feeding the strikers from the final third. Hibs are still expected to finish in the play-off places, but Queen of the South, Raith Rovers and Falkirk might have something to say about that.

Queens looks best equipped to finish in the top four. Jim McIntyre’s sudden departure to Ross County hasn’t de-stabilised the team as much as player injuries have, but they still find themselves in fine fettle and we look forward to seeing if the continuity-influenced appointment of James Fowler as manager brings rewards in the medium-term. Grant Murray’s Raith Rovers have started strongly enough, but the statistics partly hide the fact that they can be both good and awful, sometimes in the same match. Falkirk look like they are still coming to terms with the sale of Conor McGrandles, while Dumbarton are doing just fine in the circumstances by keeping up with the rest of the pack.

That leaves Livingston currently scrapping with Alloa Athletic and Cowdenbeath to avoid the bottom two positions. It will be a surprise to not see those clubs finish in the bottom three, but with full-time status and John McGlynn’s considerable experience of the division Livi seem like the best bet to avoid relegation. We will have a better idea if all of that will ring true by the next report cards after Christmas.

 

Alloa Athletic (9th)
C-

It can’t be easy to follow in the footsteps of a popular and successful manager, but there’s a feeling that Barry Smith is making the whole thing look a little difficult. After replacing Paul Hartley in January and then subsequently avoiding the relegation play-offs by the narrowest of margins, Smith’s task over the summer was to cultivate a team capable of surviving in the league (and ideally in a far more comfortable manner than last term).

With goalkeeper Scott Bain the only key player to depart from the snappily titled Indodrill Stadium, Smith was able to build a side around a decent spine of Ben Gordon, Stephen Simmons and Kevin Cawley. After a horrendous run of form over the second half of last season – Alloa collected just 13 points from a possible 60 – the manager needed his team to perform immediately. And initially, it looked as though he’d struck a fine balance after a series of excellent results and performances, with six wins from their opening league and cup fixtures.

Arbroath were comprehensively dismantled in the Challenge Cup while local rivals Stirling Albion were satisfying dismissed from both cup competitions within a fortnight. Although the Wasps were defeated by Raith Rovers and Queen of the South in their opening league fixtures, Cowdenbeath and then, more impressively, Hibernian were conquered.

Since that victory on 30 August, the club have picked up plenty of plaudits for their performances against Rangers, Falkirk and Heart of Midlothian, but points have become a rarity. Replacing Bain, one of the Championship’s best goalies last term, was never likely to be an easy task and none of the alternatives have inspired confidence. John Gibson was expected to assume the number 1 jersey but he has struggled with form and a thigh injury. Craig McDowall, his understudy, has looked nervous and hesitant when called upon, particularly during the 0-4 hammering at Livingston. A move for Grant Adam was scuppered at the final moment after it became clear he’d already been registered with two clubs during the transfer window.

Alloa’s success last season was built on a frugal defence that kept 13 clean sheets. With just one so far this year, strengthening the backline was a priority. The arrival of Kyle Benedictus on loan from Dundee has helped stem the flow of goals but although his first start coincided with the 1-1 draw with Rangers, his three subsequent appearances have all ended in defeat.

Scoring goals has proved equally as bothersome and only Cowdenbeath (who have played one game fewer) have netted with less frequency. The arrival of Greig Spence from Raith Rovers in the summer was greeted enthusiastically but he has looked like a flat-track bully so far. Spence has eight goals in all competitions to his credit, but seven of them came against lower league opposition in the cups; his solitary league strike came against Cowdenbeath. Liam Buchanan has been Alloa’s most impressive forward so far but with three league goals, Smith might need to bolster his attacking options in January.

Alloa have done well against the division’s more fancied sides, with four of their seven points coming against Hibernian and Rangers, but they haven’t quite got to grips with the lesser lights. The second quarter begins with a more favourable run of fixtures including games against Cowdenbeath, Raith Rovers and Livingston, and Smith must work to redress the balance before coming under internal and external pressures. With four defeats in their last five matches, the momentum is slowly ebbing away from them. SM

 

Cowdenbeath (10th)
D

Having taken just five points from eight matches, this has been Cowdenbeath’s worst start to a season since 1997-98 – a campaign that saw them finish in eighth in the old Third Division. They might be sitting just two points behind Livingston and Alloa Athletic (and have a game in hand over the Wasps) but there is no doubt about it: immediate improvement is required if they are to extricate themselves from their current position.

Losing players of the calibre of Kane Hemmings and Greg Stewart is unavoidable for a club of Cowden’s stature but the scattergun approach in attempting to replace them has been both curious and counter-productive. Jimmy Nicholl has made a number of signings but barely used them. Perhaps Pat Scullion, the 28-year-old last seen struggling to involve himself with Clyde in the basement tier, is the most obvious example but imports like Danijel Jurisic, Anthony Higgins and Craig Sutherland have all had limited exposure to the first team. For a club that almost certainly has the smallest playing budget in the division, squandering it on squad players seems like a waste.

It isn’t all doom and gloom. The Blue Brazil have picked up four points from the previous two outings, turning in admirable performances in both encounters. The 2-1 win over Queen of the South was particularly heartening and Cowden dominated the first half – no mean feat against one of the league’s better sides. The 0-0 draw at Dumbarton, meanwhile, yielded a useful point but it was probably a missed opportunity as they were the better of the sides and passed up on a number of fine chances to score.

The recent triumphs suggest that Cowden are tentatively finding their feet. There is little doubt that the reversion to last season’s trusty 3-5-2 formation has helped matters, but equally as crucial has been Nicholl’s use of the loan system (which has been far more successful than his permanent transfers). Marcus Fraser, brought in from Celtic, has added rigidity to a backline that conceded 18 times in their first six league games, while Calum Gallagher (Rangers) and Kudus Oyenuga (Dundee United) have both provided pace, directness and flair to a side badly lacking in attack. The strikers scored a goal each in the victory against Queens, and their presence has added a new dimension to the side’s forward play.

If Cowdenbeath are to survive another season in the second tier, they must improve on their away form – they’ve recorded just one victory on the road since the New Year. It is an area they will need to address quickly, with fixtures at Alloa and Falkirk before taking on Rangers and Hibernian. They will hope their recent upturn continues – if not, they could quickly find themselves detached at the foot of the table. SM

 

Dumbarton (7th)
B-

Ian Murray is making this management malarkey look fairly easy. Dumbarton were never really anticipated to repeat last season’s fifth place finish – with Rangers, Heart of Midlothian and Hibernian in this year’s Championship, how could they? – but here they are, rattling cages and bloodying noses all over again.

The campaign didn’t start quite so impressively, and they conceded 11 goals in their first three league matches. There was even a concern they had regressed to such a level that might lead them into trouble. The direct, back-to-front tactic that worked so well last term appeared to have been altered and replaced with a slow, ponderous approach based around ball retention. In theory, it was a sound idea, but it looked as though Murray was attempting to impart a style of football ill-suited for his players.

Another problem was how to replace last season’s top scorer Chris Kane. The solution? Bring him back again, of course! The on loan St Johnstone forward brought about an immediate improvement to the Sons. Injury has prevented his recent participation but he has netted twice in three appearances, popping up with a last minute winner against Livingston and an equaliser against Falkirk. Kane also seems to bring out the best in Colin Nish. Nish has been curiously inconsistent so far this season with opinions on the big forward ranging from “stalwart” to “dumpling”, but his best form for Dumbarton came when he dovetailed with Kane last year and there is a hope the pair can rediscover the same chemistry.

Having overcome their difficult opening period, Murray’s side embarked on a six-game unbeaten sequence and have risen from the bottom of the table to seventh place, level on points with Falkirk and just one behind Hibs. Key to their resurgence has been their home form – at the Rock, they’ve beaten Livingston and Alloa Athletic and have been the only side in the league to hold Hearts. They were less impressive during the 0-0 draw with Cowdenbeath – the away side were unlucky not to have won – but eking out a point whilst playing poorly is probably useful trait.

The defensive frailties that blighted the start to their campaign has also been addressed, with four clean sheets from the last six outings – a remarkable improvement given how shabby they looked previously. David van Zanten might not be the most convincing replacement for Paul McGinn but he put in a tremendous performance in the 0-0 draw with Hibs at Easter Road. Twenty-two-year-old Scott Taggart has formed a sound partnership in the centre with Andy Graham and after initial uncertainty, Danny Rogers has impressed, justifying his recent inclusion in the Republic of Ireland’s recent U-21 squad.

The absence of Chris Turner has robbed the side of guile and energy in midfield and although results have suggested he hasn’t been missed too much, there is a nagging feeling that his inclusion might have turned their recent draws into something better.

Dumbarton’s upturn has come at an ideal time. They will be required to sustain their form with forthcoming trips to Hearts, Queen of the South and Livingtson, as well as a home tie with Rangers to contend with. Given their success under Ian Murray, it would be foolish to rule them out of defying expectations all over again. SM

 

Falkirk (6th)
C-

It’s not been a terrible start to the season for Falkirk – things could be much worse – but on the basis of finishing third in each of their previous four seasons, there were expectations that they could challenge Rangers and the Edinburgh clubs to ending the season in the top three. At this moment, it doesn’t seem terribly likely, but there is still potential in the team to do it.

The Bairns are unbeaten in their last four league matches but have only won one of them, the most recent 2-1 victory over Alloa Athletic. Before then, there was a sense that they were still adjusting to the sale of Conor McGrandles, who was rapidly developing into one of the most promising talents the lower leagues had produced, and latterly had such a big influence on Falkirk’s play. McGrandles put in a scintillating performance in the 0-2 home loss against Rangers – he looked comfortably better than anyone in the visiting team that evening – but his side were made to pay, as slack finishing kept the Gers in the game until an unfortunate deflection gave them the advantage. Alas, McGrandles has been sold along with a plethora of other emerging talents and Peter Houston appears to have found it a struggle to incorporate the remaining youngsters. Blair Alston and Craig Sibbald are still there, as are the next generation including Luke Leahy and Scott Shepherd, and the manager has tried mixing them with the established professionals brought into the squad.

The inherent problem has been a lack of a killer touch in and around the penalty area. Rory Loy has proved over the last 18 months that he is a capable finisher, but he is spending more and more time outside the box to link-up with the others. Houston seemed aware of that, for instance, in the lead up to the home draw with Queen of the South, so decided to deploy Botty Bia-Bi alongside Loy in a conventional 4-4-2 system. But the team found it very difficult to break the Doonhamers down, with the problem stemming from having Tom Taiwo and Owain Tudor-Jones in the middle of the park.

Despite the vast difference in their size, the midfielders are arguably too similar: both prefer to be passive recyclers rather than the creative force that can take the game by the scruff of the neck; nor are either of them likely to make a run beyond the frontline to present a different angle of approach. This allows teams to sit off the Falkirk midfield and soak up the pressure, knowing that their own chances will come eventually. To his credit, Houston realised that and reinstated Alston in a 4-2-3-1 system against Dumbarton, and they should have been out of sight before Chris Kane’s late equaliser.

Perhaps the following 0-0 draw at Raith Rovers is the most telling result of the season so far. In recent times, Falkirk would have gone to Stark’s Park with the ability to play the Rovers off the park, with a zest in the passing and a zeal in their pressing (almost on the same date the previous year the result was 1-1 but the point remains: Falkirk won convincingly in the next fixture in Kirkcaldy). But at the end of this September, the two teams were pretty much equal, with neither creating much in the way of clear-cut opportunities. It is hardly an embarrassing state of affairs to have to settle as being merely just as good as Raith Rovers, but expectations were much higher just recently. JAM

 

Heart of Midlothian (1st)
A

All in all, it’s been an excellent campaign for Heart of Midlothian so far. The Jam Tarts are unbeaten so far after the first quarter, having amassed 93 per cent of the points available and beating every Championship club apart from Dumbarton at the first time of asking. At this rate, records could fall but with the outside possibility of Rangers’ resurgence, and with the figurative banana skin against perpetual rivals Hibernian never far away, Robbie Neilson cannot take anything for granted.

Not that he has shown much sign of doing so. There was the 1-4 embarrassment in the Challenge Cup away to Livingston, but given that the manager played his second string he probably shrugged it off nonchalantly in the knowledge that automatic promotion is the club’s real prize this season.

Not only have they won against nearly everybody, at times they have won handsomely. The 2-1 victory at Ibrox on the opening day of the season was deserved on the balance of play, as was the subsequent win in the first Edinburgh Derby of the season. Hearts were still finding their rhythm at that point (and arguably still are, to some extent) and have since giving various teams thrashings, from the 4-0 away to Raith Rovers, to the 4-1 at home to Falkirk, and later 5-1 and 5-0 beatings of Cowdenbeath and Livingston respectively.

Relative to this level, Hearts have quality throughout their team that is probably unmatched in each position in the division, save for one or two debatable points and that is arguably being generous to Rangers. Put it this way: from a composite team among Hearts, Rangers and Hibs, how many players would represent the latter two clubs on this season’s form? Not many, most likely. Beyond the first XI, there is considerable strength in depth, with so many of the midfielders and forwards interchangeable in terms of the roles they can play and the level of quality they can achieve. Neilson has recently admitted that some of the younger players are becoming disenfranchised as his side push to maintain their current performance.

For instance, there is little doubt about Scott Robinson’s ability to hold his own in the middle of the pitch – he did so with aplomb towards the end of last season when called upon after all – but he has Jason Holt in front of him in the pecking order at the moment. And even Holt can barely get a game ahead of Morgaro Gomis and Prince Buaben, two midfielders who complement each other masterfully. Elsewhere, Jordan McGhee has to be content with being the first change in defence, in the knowledge that if Neilson needs a more conservative option to Callum Paterson at right-back then he can be called upon. Up front, Osman Sow appears to be the first choice striker with any number of goal-scoring options around him. The strength in depth really is quite extraordinary for a Championship-level club.

The superlatives should be kept until the end of the season when we can fully judge, but on present form Hearts look the best second tier side since Tell Him He’s Pelé was founded. We should enjoy them while we have them, then, because they won’t be around in the lower leagues for long. JAM

 

Hibernian (5th)
D

Two draws and four losses from nine matches should not be acceptable for a club of Hibernian’s stature in the second tier. In terms of league competition, only the 3-1 beating of Rangers at Ibrox can be seen as an achievement, with the single-goal margins in their other victories merely acceptable (and the winner against Cowden only arrived in stoppage time). It is not good enough.

Is that harsh? Slightly, yes, but Hibs need to start setting high standards and they need some tough love. It seems like the club has been endlessly meandering since the last Scottish Cup final defeat, and the further down the river they have navigated the slower and more interminable the decline has become.

Alan Stubbs probably feels he has arrested their form since the win against Rangers – his side are after all unbeaten since the victory. But the two home draws since then have been mostly displays of limp, impotent attacking, and the team is still adjusting to having to break opponents down with Stubbs’s 3-5-2 formation, a system that appears to have been used initially as a reactive measure against clubs above them in the league standings. Stubbs badly needs a creative playmaker to conjure chances between the lines, and as Sean Higgins was ripping the defence apart with through balls in Hibs’s narrow win against Cowdenbeath, it was plainly obvious what a player with his vision could do to enhance the team.

Prior to Stubbs shifting to the 3-5-2, the majority of the playmaking arrived from Alex Harris cutting infield from the right to play passes between the lines, mostly to the left to either Matthew Kennedy or Sam Stanton. All three have been cast to one side due to the change in the tactics and, given the lacklustre recent home displays, it might not be too long until Stubbs wishes to re-introduce them.

There are goals in the team, if the service can be delivered. Dominique Malonga scored a brace in the League Cup in Dingwall with powerful headers and has another in the league, but was unfortunate to have his penalty kick against Dumbarton controversially not given as a goal. Farid El Alagui scored a sensational strike against Hearts to add to his opener against Livingston the week before, and just as he was beginning to find his stride, his achilles ruptured. His presence next to the opportunistic livewire Jason Cummings (who already has four league goals) would have been much appreciated by Stubbs but Malonga could be a capable deputy in the meantime.

The defence is sturdy enough, although a little short-staffed to the extent that Stubbs might have to ditch the three-centre-back system while Liam Fontaine – who has been excellent in the formation – is injured. (At the time of writing, Stubbs is hoping to bring in free agent Paul Quinn as back-up.) The wing-back roles seems to bring the best out of Lewis Stevenson and David Gray, but they cannot be solely relied upon to create chances for the forwards. Until the manager finds a creative player to pick holes between the lines of midfield and attack – and he might already have the player, among Harris, Stanton and Scott Allan (but probably not Danny Handling) – then his side will be functional at best and insipid at worst. Hibs fans should be demanding so much more. JAM

 

Livingston (8th)
D

John McGlynn’s Livi side are still likely to end with a lower mid-table finish, but they will need to keep an eye over their shoulder to ensure they avoid the prospect of relegation. Two wins from eight probably won’t be a good enough trend over the course of the season to consolidate for another year, but it’s difficult to shake off the suspicion that the Lions are punching their weight as things stand. Generally, or at least what can be extrapolated from the first quarter, Livingston have been adequate enough at home – with two wins and two losses – but have the worst away record in the division. One point from four matches on the road screams mediocrity and it might not be good enough if the part-time clubs can match their home form.

There is undoubtedly some quality in the squad, but McGlynn is currently having to cope with some injuries to key players in the squad. Simon Mensing might have some critics, but there is no denying that he brought some charisma and leadership to the team that appears to be lacking just now while he is recovering from injury. Similarly, Declan Gallagher’s composure from the centre of defence is missing, with Callum Fordyce and Craig Sives partnered in the three latest defeat. That probably could have been improved on due to some profligate finishing in the 0-1 loss at Dumbarton, where Gary Glen and Keaghan Jacobs really ought to have scored when the team were on top, before the Sons’ late rally and Chris Kane’s 89th minute winner.

The injuries to Mensing and Gallagher aside, McGlynn has a relatively settled team. The side seems set up to get the best out of the centre-forwards Jordan White and Gary Glen – White has five goals in the league already and seven in all competitions, with a hat-trick coming in the 4-0 thrashing of Alloa Athletic. His opportunistic finishing has finally proven that he is good enough to play at this level and he has thrived off the sometimes selfless service that Glen has given him. Glen only recently scored his first goal for the club in the Challenge Cup tie against Stranraer, helping the side reach the showpiece final set for 2015, so maybe he will find the confidence to find the killer touch that he showed on the fringes at Heart of Midlothian and early in his time at Ross County.

With Rob Ogleby, Mark Burchill and Miles Hyppolyte patiently waiting for their chance to break up the current partnership (the latter having scored four times in cup competitions), Glen will need to continue to repay McGlynn’s faith in him to both set up White and others while scoring himself. Indeed, having five strikers to choose from appears to be quite the luxury when the midfield is missing some substance, which was massively highlighted in McGlynn’s decision to start four of them in the 0-5 humping at Tynecastle. The score-line in that particular match could have ran into double figures with Hearts rampant while not being adequately tracked from deep.

A home fixture against Hibernian awaits to complete the first quarter of ties for Livi, which with Hibs’ stuttering form might be winnable. Following that they have a run of matches against “the rest” beyond Rangers and the Edinburgh clubs, which will give us a better insight as to whether or not Livingston will be threatened with relegation in the second half of the season. JAM

 

Queen of the South (3rd)
B

In the summer’s Championship preview, it was suggested that Queen of the South could reap the rewards of stability. It was with a certain irony, then, that several weeks into the season manager Jim McIntyre made the move from Dumfies to Dingwall to take charge of Ross County. McIntyre’s departure might have been a little sudden but the Queens board were anything but hasty in appointing his successor – it took them three weeks to announce a replacement, and their decision underlines the importance the club places on consistency.

James Fowler is an inexperienced man to take the club forward but the Championship’s unique line-up this year means there might never be a better time to serve his apprenticeship. Ambitions at Palmerston are realistic, tempered by the presence of Heart of Midlothian and Rangers, while the squad he has inherited are far too good to become embroiled in the lower reaches of the division. The 33-year-old has come across well in interviews, sounding articulate and knowledgeable, and it is another example of a lower league side appointing a young up ‘n’ comer instead of a grizzled veteran.

Fowler’s start has been steady (if unspectacular) with wins against Hibernian and Raith Rovers, as well as a 1-1 draw with Falkirk, helping secure third place. The 1-2 defeat to Cowdenbeath was concerning (some even questioned whether or not he was even the right man for the job) but with their considerable injury list beginning to clear, the Doonhamers look well-placed to kick on from here.

At this stage last season, a disappointing start saw the club languish in seventh place with nine points. A remarkable upturn in form over the second half of campaign saw them ascend the table but this time around, they already have the look of a side that belongs in the division’s upper echelons. Of the full-time teams expected to make up the Championship’s best of the rest, Queens have a little more quality than Raith Rovers and Livingston, while Falkirk are busy flogging the family silver, as well as adjusting to Peter Houston’s new approach.

Queens have no problems in scoring goals. Derek Lyle and Gavin Reilly have reprised their partnership in attack and with Iain Russell also contributing regularly, the three have netted 17 times between them in all competitions. John Baird might have struggled with injuries since joining but he made his first start of the season and scored against Raith last week. With midfielders Danny Carmichael, Ian McShane and Mark Kerr ensuring a steady supply, the team seem well-served offensively.

There are some anxieties about the defence, with 14 goals lost already. Injuries to Mark Durnan and Chris Mitchell haven’t helped (neither has Kevin Holt’s needless dismissal at Raith) but when they return from injury and suspension, their qualities would go some way to securing a play-off place. Queens are low on options otherwise, and it remains to be seen if Fowler will pair back his playing commitments since moving into management.

It’s been a very decent start for Queen of the South and James Fowler – there might just be more to come. SM

 

Raith Rovers (4th)
B-

Analysing Raith Rovers’ season so far – regardless of what aspect – always seems to throw up a contradiction. Fourth place in the league, three points clear of Hibernian and four of Falkirk suggests that the first quarter has progressed well. It has, sure, but the campaign has been punctuated with some awful performances. The 0-1 loss to Dunfermline Athletic in the Challenge Cup and the more recent 0-4 defeat against Rangers were appalling, and the first hour of last week’s thrilling affair with Queen of the South was an unsightly mess.

Raith have kept clean sheets in three of their nine league matches, a figure only bettered by Heart of Midlothian and Dumbarton; however, they’ve conceded 15 goals, the second worst total in the division. They’re unbeaten away from home, yet have lost three of their five matches at Stark’s Park (conceding four goals on three occasions). Sitting in fourth in a division alongside Heart of Midlothian, Rangers, Hibs, Falkirk and Queens should be a cause for celebration, but something still seems to be amiss.

There’s a feeling amongst supporters that they’ve seen this all before. It’s been mentioned on Tell Him He’s Pelé in the past but the Rovers are accustomed to starting the season well. Consistency over the course of the whole campaign, however, is elusive and a winter collapse might be an inevitability, like an X Factor contestant reaching the Christmas number one spot.

Only Grant Murray and his players can prove the dissenters wrong and, after a considerable overhaul of personnel in the summer, there is the hope it can bring about a change in fortunes. The year’s squad certainly looks a little more flexible than last’s. While 4-4-2 is Murray’s preferred formation, he has recently used Christian Nadé as a lone forward with Martin Scott playing slightly behind him. The 1-1 draw with Hibs showcased the system’s merits but neither Nadé nor Scott look particularly comfortable in their respective positions and the lack of runners from midfield might limit its long-term effectiveness.

Injuries have also impacted on their progress. Central defenders Dougie Hill and Craig Barr have undergone successful operations after picking up knocks in pre-season – Hill appears to be approaching fitness after playing in a recent Development League fixture, while Barr hopes to be back for Christmas. But goalkeeper Kevin Cuthbert, who had impressed since joining from Hamilton Academical, damaged his elbow in the warm-up against Cowdenbeath and is out until January; Calum Elliot has rarely been seen; and Nadé was stretchered off during the match with Queens.

Four wins and two draws from the opening quarter is a successful start for Raith, and one that everyone associated with the club would have been content with at the beginning of the campaign. If they can replicate the same points total over the rest of the season then a play-off place wouldn’t be out of the question, but fans have been here before and have been let down in the past. Perhaps this season’s team can prove they’re made of sterner stuff. SM

 

Rangers (2nd)
D

That Rangers should find themselves nine points behind the league leaders at this stage of the season is nothing short of disgraceful. Given the quality of this season’s Championship, the Gers’ campaign was never likely to be such a straightforward affair as last term, but to have lost out to Heart of Midlothian and Hibernian already has placed them in an invidious position. The needless decision to postpone the weekend’s fixture with Cowdenbeath because of international call-ups looks even more absurd now.

As Ally McCoist’s side spent the last two years squirming past the country’s more modest sides, there was a general feeling they might cower in the face of hardier opposition. And so it has proved: the 1-2 defeat to Hearts might have been a little unfortunate (Rangers competed well enough but came badly unstuck when Richard Foster’s substitution inadvertently created the space for Osman Sow to rumble into and score) but the loss to Hibs was just pathetic. A baffling starting XI, rigid, outmoded tactics and an incredulous series of errors saw them lose three goals in 14 minutes. Absolutely everything about the performance showcased the very worst aspects of McCoist’s management so far.

Between the two matches, Rangers had actually begun to look reasonably purposeful. The 2-0 win at Falkirk might have come around because of Peter Houston’s tactical misfire more than anything else, but victories over Dumbarton, Queen of the South and Raith Rovers were all achieved in a stylish manner and Rangers scored 12 goals across the three matches. There has also been solid progress in the Challenge and League Cups, the latter of which included a fine 1-0 triumph over Inverness Caledonian Thistle.

At the time, the 1-1 draw against a stuffy Alloa Athletic side was seen as “one of those days” but subsequent results – the defeat to Hibs and an unconvincing win at Livingston – have hinted that the lack of imagination and drive that coloured most of last season is creeping back into their play.

Fielding Lewis Macleod in a central role on a permanent basis might go some way to addressing this. The 20-year-old is developing into a fabulous player, an intelligent baller with a good range of passing and a penchant for the spectacular. He is wasted on the left, but it appears that only famine or pestilence will prevent McCoist from continuing to unite Ian Black and Nicky Law in the middle of the park. Elsewhere, Nicky Clark, predicted to be a peripheral presence this term, has deputised soundly for the injured Kenny Miller and Darren McGregor has performed reasonably well in an unfamiliar position.

These players are the exception, however, and once again Rangers look far less than the sum of their parts. Perhaps most troublesome is Kris Boyd’s poor form – having almost single-handedly kept Kilmarnock in the Premiership last term, he looks sullen, frustrated and utterly luckless this season. Five goals in the cup competitions is one thing, but he was not brought into the club to score against Clyde and Queen’s Park. With every scuff, every mishit, Boyd appears to be withdrawing further and further into himself. A spell on the sidelines might be to his benefit but it seems unlikely for now given a lack of alternatives. Meanwhile, goalkeeper Steve Simonsen has been an inadequate replacement for Cammy Bell; Arnold Peralta should either be used in the middle of the park or kept as far away from the starting XI as possible; and Bilel Mohsni has become the punch-line to an infinite series of jokes.

With Hearts in rampant form, it is difficult to imagine how a limited manager like McCoist can counter them, even with such enormous resources at his disposal. He may have even acknowledged this himself – after the defeat to Hibs, he admitted that winning promotion via the play-offs would be an acceptable manner in which to conclude the season – the club’s main goal is to return to the top flight as swiftly as possible, after all. Who could have ever imagined a Rangers manager settling for second best? 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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