The Championship Mid-Term Report Card

This has been a reasonably entertaining inaugural Championship season so far, but the suspicion is that the excitement will only increase as the season unfolds.

Hamilton Academical have been the surprise title contenders so far, having only lost once in nine fixtures. After a stodgy start resulting from some unorthodox team selections by Bomber Brown, Dundee have won three-in-a-row and could soon overtake the Accies at the top – now they have Craig Beattie to partner Peter MacDonald up front, the league should be theirs to lose.

The part-time teams are holding their own, although the winter might be long and arduous for a Cowdenbeath side who are finding a regular source of goals to be a chore. Dumbarton’s captures of Colin Nish and Hugh Murray looked as if they could be season-defining, but with both having become unavailable for selection, the Sons’ form has worryingly slumped. It is Paul Hartley’s Alloa Athletic who continue to confound expectations with their tactical flexibility and capacity to win by slender margins.

Last of all are Greenock Morton, who have been worse than mediocre from back to front. Will Nacho Novo be the player to boost their prospects? Only time will tell…

 

Alloa Athletic (5th)
A

Pre-season expectations: finishing the season in eighth place.

The season so far: the Wasps have continued on their upward curve and sit comfortably in mid-table, much closer to the top than the bottom.

You have to go back a long way to find the last time Alloa Athletic survived a season in the second tier. Since the 1982-83 campaign, the Wasps’ five seasons in the First Division have all ended in immediate relegation. This time, however, it would be foolish to be so dismissive. Not only do Paul Hartley’s side look like the best of the league’s three part-time clubs, they’ve also performed significantly better than Queen of the South, Livingston and Greenock Morton. They sit in fifth place with 14 points – the past three months have played out superbly.

The season has seen Hartley adjust his tactics and adopt a more pragmatic approach in order to negate their full-time opponents. The team’s key players – largely unchanged from the side who won the Third Division in 2011-12 – have adapted well to the necessary defensive retooling. With four wins (they are the only side to have beaten Hamilton Academical so far), the reconfiguration has been successful.

In goal, Scott Bain is showing why a host of full-time clubs were keen to secure his services over the summer. In front of Bain, Darryl Meggatt has excelled in a defence which has kept seven clean sheets in 12 league and cup games this season and last season’s Player of the Year Ben Gordon has also maintained his fine form.

The defence is protected by a midfield diamond, with Stephen Simmons stationed at its base. After disappointing spells with Raith Rovers and Queen of the South, he looks comfortable at Recreation Park. Ryan McCord is still his swashbuckling self, while Kevin Cawley has arguably been one of the Championship’s best players this season. Playing as a striker last term, Cawley has dropped into an advanced midfield position and looks equally as comfortable, despite the role diminishing his scoring threat.

Alloa do look slightly short in attack and after nine league games, only Morton have scored with less frequency. Andy Kirk has done a reasonable job of leading the line but at 34, the forward has seen better days. With two goals, he is the team’s top scorer alongside Simmons and McCord and should the defence lose their solidity (the 2-4 defeat to Raith Rovers last month was fairly chaotic affair), there could be legitimate concerns for their safety.

The club’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. Good results come with caution, however, and should the club maintain their fine form then Hartley will no doubt be headhunted to fill vacant roles in Scotland and England. For the meantime, the priority is to build on this excellent start and ensure Alloa’s survival. SM

 

Cowdenbeath (9th)
C-

Pre-season expectations: repeating last season’s eighth place achievement was the target, but a finish in one of the bottom two positions was more likely.

The season so far: the campaign has played out as expected, but seven points from nine is a decent achievement.

The biggest challenge facing anyone reporting on Cowdenbeath is trying to come up with as many ways as possible to describe the same old scene. With a quarter of the 2013-14 season already gone, the problems that blighted Cowden last term have not been addressed and the same mistakes are being repeated time and again.

It has become tedious to state that this team struggles to perform in the second half of games. Cowden have lost six of their nine league matches, despite only being behind at the interval on two occasions. Eight points have been carelessly ceded from this position. Against Livingston, a 1-1 half-time score-line eventually finished as a 1-5 thrashing after some atrocious set-piece defending.

The team look disorganised in defence and toothless up front, a combination which sees their goal difference sitting at -10; at this stage last year, it was +1. Most concerning of all, the team are four points worse off than they were 12 months ago. The back four are not solely culpable for the poor defensive record, however, and the midfield has not provided them with the requisite protection. The returning Jon Robertson was expected to remedy their condition (his arrival coincided with consecutive last minute wins against Dumbarton and Falkirk) but the standard of performance since has not improved. Wingers Andy Russell and the inconsistent Jordan Morton have also brought little to the squad.

The uncertainty surrounding the team’s goalkeeper has also hampered progress. Grant Adam has spent the majority of the season as number 1 but his performances have fluctuated wildly. In their last two fixtures, Adam has been replaced by Thomas Flynn and Cowden subsequently collected their first away point of the season at Queen of the South.

The goalkeeping situation is emblematic of Cameron’s selection policy and at times, the manager appears unsure of what his strongest starting XI is. In players like John Armstrong, Robertson and Kane Hemmings, there is a decent spine to work around and if they can build on last weekend’s showing in Dumfries, Cowden can begin working towards safety. He must find a settled side soon, with three crucial fixtures (Greenock Morton, Alloa Athletic and Dumbarton) ahead. If the club fail to collect a handful of points from these meetings, the outlook will begin to look bleak down at Central Park. SM

 

Dumbarton (6th)
B-

Pre-season expectations: survival, but perhaps casting upward glances towards mid-table.

The season so far: a lack of consistency and defensive solidity has hindered progress but the Sons look reasonably sound in sixth.

To understand the level of improvement at Dumbarton, one must compare their current mid-table position to last year’s travails. After nine matches in 2012-13, the Sons were firmly anchored to the foot of the table with just two points; this year they sit in the relative cosiness of sixth place with ten. Although just four points from Greenock Morton in tenth, Ian Murray’s side seem to be on target to meet their objective of consolidating their league status for a third year.

On the whole, it’s been a thoroughly decent season. The victory over Morton in week three was an assured performance, and it was bettered five weeks later by the 2-1 win over Queen of the South at Palmerston – Garry Fleming’s 87th minute winning goal has been the highlight of the campaign so far.

The players have impressed in fits and starts. When available, Hugh Murray has operated diligently as the team’s screening midfielder (two of the team’s three victories occurred when the Partick Thistle loanee featured) and has provided Scott Agnew and Chris Turner with a base to push further forward. Colin Nish has done a good enough job as the side’s lone striker but there is a growing case for Bryan Prunty’s inclusion on a more regular basis. A return of 15 league goals is entirely respectable, with the scoring shared around the team.

There are, however, major concerns with the side’s defensive capabilities. Dumbarton have conceded the league’s highest total (22) and lost eight goals in their last two matches. They have yet to keep a clean sheet all season – the Sons were dogged by the similar frailties last year and Murray has yet to solve the problem. A lack of consistency has also undermined their campaign and between mid-August and the end of September, their form read as L-W-L-W-L-W. Results at home have also been poor, with three of their five matches ending in defeat – recent performances against Raith Rovers and Dundee at the Rock were both dreadful and, despite the close score-line in the former, the team barely landed a punch in either fixture.

Given the progress made under Murray, it must be remembered that Dumbarton are still a part-time club and such potholes are always likely to appear over the course of the season. 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. CGT

 

Dundee (2nd)
B-

Pre-season expectations: simple – winning the league title.

The season so far: a slow start has turned into four wins from the last six, and the momentum is with them.

Given the strength of Dundee’s squad, having held on to a strong core of last season’s SPL squad (Jim McAllister, Ryan Conroy) and having also recruited upper-level Championship talent (Peter MacDonald), supporters should settle for nothing less than a title race. However, nothing is ever straightforward at Dens and John Brown’s erratic managerial skills not only raised some eyebrows, but also appeared to needlessly hamstring the team’s prospects early in the season.

Brown carried on with his 3-4-1-2 from the end of last term, which in itself was no calamity. The system didn’t match up particularly well against a buoyant Queen of the South side as the Dees lost their opening match of the season, but it wasn’t disastrous. Of more concern was Brown’s eye for deploying players in positions outwith their comfort zone – a trait that has been around since his time at Clyde. Using the division’s best flying right-winger Nicky Riley as a central attacking midfielder was strange, especially considering the other talent available for the role (selecting McAllister, Gavin Rae, or Jamie Reid would have been far more appropriate).

However, Brown eventually reverted to a more orthodox 4-4-2 which has balanced the side and has facilitated some authoritative performances. The introduction of Craig Beattie to the squad was a risk worth taking if his 35-yard opener against Cowdenbeath was anything to go by. With three wins on the bounce and the opportunity for revenge against Queens to come this weekend, Dundee look as if they are just finding their rhythm – an ominous sign for the rest of the division. JAM

 

Falkirk (3rd)
B

Pre-season expectations: finishing in the top three again and challenging for promotion via the play-offs.

The season so far: Falkirk have ended the quarter in joint third place – five points off the top is just about fine so far.

Gary Holt’s first full season has started as good as any as one of Steven Pressley’s near three years in the First Division – Elvis managed the same 15 points in 2010-11 and 2011-12 with better resources. Falkirk’s losses to Hamilton Academical and Cowdenbeath have slightly tainted what has otherwise been a pretty decent season so far.

Rory Loy and Philip Roberts have unsurprisingly shared the plaudits between them. Falkirk have been fortunate to rely on sole strikers to carry the team’s attacking threat in recent years in Farid El Alagui and Lyle Taylor respectively, something which allowed the workload in midfield to be shared by an extra teenager. But with the team’s growing maturity, Holt’s twin-striker 4-1-3-2 system has reaped ten league goals so far for the forwards between them. Loy’s eye for finishing in the penalty area has been a good foil for Roberts’s finesse around the edge of the box.

Behind them, the average age of the midfield is still only in the late teens. Olly Durojaiye’s fixture at the base of midfield had previously been commended on this site for his positional discipline which lets the rest of the team to take part in supporting the attack with slightly more abandon than they could afford under Pressley. However, Durojaiye’s broken metatarsal in the middle of September has brought a surprise replacement in Conor McGrandles – the 17-year-old looks like he’s still only taking his first awkward steps towards puberty, but has generally looked a tidy and accomplished player in the middle of the park. In the Nigerian’s absence, McGrandles and others have to ensure that the space in front of the defence is adequately protected against counter-attacks, because it remains Falkirk’s weak spot. Going forward, however, the youth in midfield really excite: McGrandles, Craig Sibbald, Jay Fulton and Blair Alston average over 40 league appearances each – if they can be kept together for another full season beyond this, we might begin to witness something special in the vein of Partick Thistle’s success last campaign.

Further back, the recruitment of David McCracken could prove astute and his experience will guide Will Vaulks and others better than Jonathan Flynn’s occasional eccentricity. Otherwise, Falkirk arguably possess the league’s best goalkeeper and set of full-backs – on paper, the Bairns are a very competent team.

As well as their inability to deat the division’s part-time side’s, Falkirk’s away form is one of the few concerns at this moment in time. The next fixtures outwith Westfield are visits to Hamilton Academical and Dundee and 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. JAM

 

Greenock Morton (10th)
E

Pre-season expectations: to bounce back from last season’s disappointment and challenge for promotion through the play-offs.

The season so far: terrible – the team sit bottom of the league and two points adrift of safety.

It has been a miserable first quarter of the season for Morton. A 2-0 victory over Cowdenbeath on the opening day of the league campaign aside, Allan Moore’s team are winless in eight and have as many as 12 fewer points from nine matches compared to the same stage last season.

Any team in the circumstances would have suffered from the loss of important players such as Michael Tidser and Martin Hardie, but it didn’t take long to become apparent quite how indispensable some of the outgoing players have been. Morton have been culpable of dropping points from poor defending on a weekly basis, but their troubles particularly lie in goalscoring.

With Peter MacDonald gone, the Ton have really struggled to pose a goal threat in open play. A tap-in that even Kabba-Modou Cham couldn’t miss and another from Archie Campbell represent the sum total of Morton’s goals from their forwards this season. With no-one to adequately keep possession of the ball higher up the pitch and force defences backwards, further pressure is placed on to the backline to shut out the opposition, with the cycle sometimes appearing never ending.

Reece Hands is the club’s top scorer and has replaced Tidser’s goals from midfield to some extent, but he has missed a third of the league games and at 20 years old should not be wholly relied upon to carry the team. Nonetheless, Hands does offer a creative foil for Fouad Bachirou in the middle of the pitch and it seems absurd to think that a team with the calibre of players they have could face a relegation battle.

There are some hints of a recovery. The League Cup victory over Celtic was a wonderful achievement and Saturday’s draw at home to Hamilton, partly inspired by the recent signing of Spanish vagabond Nacho Novo, was even better. Even if it is blatantly obvious that he would philander with Rangers at the first opportunity, Novo’s experience at a higher level can offer the Ton some ability to danger opposition defences that they have rarely posed to date. Otherwise, moving Michal Habai closer to the striker seems to be troubling his marker more and as he settles could prove to be a decent acquisition.

To be bottom of the table after a full round of fixtures, below all three part-time teams, is not good enough. Given that 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? JAM

 

Hamilton Academical (1st)
A

Pre-season expectations: building on the good run at the tail end of last season; an unfancied shout for a play-off place.

The season so far: the campaign has been excellent and the team sit in first place with a three point advantage over Dundee in second.

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. Their supporters might have had a point.

Perhaps their excellent start to the season shouldn’t really be all the much of a surprise. The Accies have turned in a number of excellent performances since Alex Neil replaced Billy Reid at the beginning of April, winning five of their final seven fixtures of 2012-13. With six victories from nine this term, Neil has made the transition from player to player-manager look relatively straightforward.

There is much to admire about this Hamilton side. At right-back, the nature of the wonderfully named Zygmunt “Ziggy” Gordon’s recent displays suggest he will be the next academy player to move on to a higher level. Further forward, Darian MacKinnon has reveled in a central role that brings out the best of his ability to drive the team forward, and Anthony Andreu is reproducing the same standard of performance which made him so popular at Livingston last season. The whole midfield – Neil in particular – does a wonderful job of screening the back four, something underlined by the concession of four league goals. Only Rangers have lost fewer in the lower leagues.

A criticism of the side is that they do not score enough goals. The problem seems more acute away from home, with only four goals from five games scored (an inconvenience, it should be noted, which dogged Jackie McNamara’s Partick Thistle last season) and it is something that Neil may have to address if the club are to sustain their title ambitions.

Indeed, the squad lack depth in attack. James Keatings has started the season well but the returning Mikael Antoine-Curier has been less assured, while Jon McShane has yet to impress since joining the club on a permanent basis following a successful loan spell. Defensive solidity can go some way to make up for offensive shortcomings but Neil will be hoping Antoine-Curier can recapture the form that made him such a hit during his two previous spells – if he put away a couple of his chances against Livingston, for example, then a confident MAC would have been a scary proposition going into the next round of fixtures. The manager has been praised for the team’s more offensive approach but his players have only scored three mores goals than at the same stage last season. Crucially, they’re also 14 points better off.

Hamilton’s position at the summit of the Championship looks even more impressive considering their matches against Dundee, Falkirk and Raith Rovers have come away from home. Their record at New Douglas Park faces a stiff test over the coming weeks, with consecutive matches against Rovers and Falkirk. If Neil can navigate their way through the fixtures unscathed and hold off the expected challenge from Dundee, the Accies could easily repeat the feat of 2007-08. SM

 

Livingston (8th)
C-

Pre-season expectations: consolidating a mid-table place in the division and maybe surprising with a play-off finish.

The season so far: a terrible start under Richie Burke has been recovered by John McGlynn, but at what cost to the culture of the team in the long term?

All seemed just swell in the summer. Richie Burke appeared to be an appropriate choice to replace Gareth Evans at Livingston, even if the latter did not deserve to be punted at the end of February 2013 on results alone. Nevertheless, promoting Burke from youth coach to manager seemed to be an indication of the board looking at long term stability in the management structure. If the club were to develop and sell promising players, a strategy clearly stated in the sacking of Gary Bollan the previous season (despite him giving a chance to Stefan Scougall and Marc McNulty, the club’s prized assets), then they would have to eventually stick with one head coach to make the best of harvesting the crop.

Unfortunately for Burke, the results didn’t work out for him – three losses and a draw saw his side sit in ninth place at the point of his sacking. Including his games in charge during 2012-13, Burke’s team averaged less than a point per match. To the untrained eye, there was rarely any cohesive shape to his side as they lost marginally to Alloa Athletic on the opening day of the season, and heavily to teams expected to finish at the top of the table. In his defence, he had a considerably weakened team at the beginning of the season, with Scougall, Keighan Jacobs and others unavailable for selection.

John McGlynn took over after his brief and unsuccessful stint at Heart of Midlothian last season. To some, he seemed a good choice: he has considerable experience of managing expectations and surviving on limited resources; to others, his punt and squeeze strategy deployed at Raith Rovers and Hearts ill-fitted the Lions’ playing staff, who had been accustomed to bringing the ball out of defence slowly after being taught to do so by Bollan through to John Hughes and beyond.

There is a concern that McGlynn doesn’t know how to use a talent as avant-garde as Scougall. Livingston have shown signs of moving the ball from back to front more than supporters have been accustomed to, but in truth there is still a notable effort for the goalkeeper to spread the ball to the defence, who have recently included starlet Coll Donaldson and Connor MacDonald. The same mistakes from last year are still apparent, however, as the easiest way to cause a danger to Livi is to press high on their full-backs and Simon Mensing, who can be prone to conceding  possession in frightful areas.

McGlynn has stuck with Andrew Barrowman and McNulty up front, with the former acting as the de facto workhorse for the true striking talent beside him. Between them, Scougall’s creativity (when he gets into the final third) and the delivery at corner kicks from MacDonald and Jimmy Scott (Callum Fordyce has four goals already), Livi are generally well covered for goals.

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 results will have to improve upon beating a couple of the part-time teams in the league. Livi are still only two points ahead of Morton at the moment, but if a balance can be struck between avoiding the reckless passing in defence and launching hopeful balls for Barrowman to chase, mid-table is still perfectly achievable. JAM

 

Queen of the South (7th)
D

Pre-season expectations: maintaining last season’s outstanding form and finishing the year strongly; possible candidates for a play-off place.

The season so far: the side have lacked the consistency to climb the table, with major doubts over Jim McIntyre and goalkeeper Calum Antell.

Despite losing manager Allan Johnston, goalkeeper Lee Robinson and prolific striker Nicky Clark from last season’s Second Division title winning side over the summer, it was predicted that Queen of the South could take a play-off position – all the club had to do was keep on keeping on. They might still finish the campaign strongly of course, but their mediocre return of nine points from as many games has been bitterly disappointing. The shadow of expectation has loomed large and Queens have failed to match it.

It should be pointed out, however, that when considered against the recent record of teams promoted to the second tier, the Doonhamers’ season can be seen as bang on track. Between 2008 and 2012, 11 clubs have made the transition from the Second to the First Division, and eight of those clubs subsequently finished in the bottom three the following year. Only Livingston in 2010-11 have managed a top-half finish. The statistics highlight the difficulties facing promoted sides – taken into consideration, perhaps the opprobrium thrown at Jim McIntyre is a little harsh.

Admittedly, the former Dunfermline Athletic manager has frustrated supporters with a confusing series of team selections and substitutions, something which suggests, even at this stage of the season, he is unsure of his best XI.

McIntyre’s biggest problem is with his goalkeeper. Calum Antell has proved to be an underwhelming and unpopular replacement for Robinson and the 21-year-old’s erratic and error-strewn performances have seen not only his own confidence diminish, but also his back four’s. Antell could yet develop into a fine player, but for the moment at least, withdrawing him from the squad might be the best solution for all parties. The imminent signing of St Johnstone’s Zander Clark on an emergency loan agreement might temporarily ease matters.

While the concession of goals is concerning, so too is scoring them. Queens have managed just five goals in their last seven fixtures (a strange contrast to the seven their scored in their opening two league games). Derek Lyle has been installed as the team’s main striker and his eight goals is an impressive return, but with six coming against lower league opposition in cup competitions (including a hat-trick against Annan Athletic), his influence at Championship level has been limited. Summer recruit Iain Russell has scored five, but with McIntyre fielding the player in a wide role, his opportunities have been restricted.

Frustratingly, two of last season’s most consistent performers have spent the majority of the season on the bench. Mark Durnan and Chris Mitchell would almost certainly improve the side’s defence, and their exclusion is baffling.

Queens do not need drastic alterations to improve their league position, and a number of subtle changes could easily lift them up the table. However, this is entirely dependent on McIntyre figuring out his strongest XI sooner rather than later. SM

 

Raith Rovers (4th)
B

Pre-season expectations: after their summer additions, finishing in the top four was seen as the minimum requirement.

The season so far: the league campaign is trucking along as expected and the club will feature in the Ramsdens Cup final, but there is a feeling the team are capable of more.

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.

Things certainly didn’t look quite as positive for Grant Murray’s side after an opening day defeat to Hamilton Academical (although at that point, few could have imagined how successful Alex Neil’s team would be). Since then, four wins and three draws have lifted Rovers into fourth place, five points behind Hamilton with a game in hand. After the weekend’s straightforward 3-0 semi-final win over Annan Athletic, they can now also look forward to a Ramsdens Cup final with either Rangers or Stenhousemuir – it will be their first ever appearance in the competition’s finale.

No-one is getting carried away, but a promising three months have hinted that the pre-season talk of a play-off challenge might not have been too wide of the mark. Murray was praised for the standard of his summer transfers, and each of his new recruits has immediately impressed. In central defence, Paul Watson has formed an immediate understanding with Dougie Hill, allaying any concerns as to how the pair would perform together. Despite lapses against Cowdenbeath and Dumbarton, two occasions which almost cost them victory, the two have played well.

The addition of Calum Elliot in attack has been a shrewd move and the former Heart of Midlothian player has supplemented the movement of Greig Spence. Despite a slow start, four goals in his last six games have brought Elliot’s total to six, and the forwards have scored 14 between them. The loss of Brian Graham to Dundee United was expected to severely dent Rovers’ aspirations but the whole team has been more prolific in his absence – they have scored 15 times in their eight league matches, five more than this stage last year. This can be attributed to the number for forward-thinking players brought in over the summer and the whole team is more threatening as a result. In 2012-13, only eight players contributed to their tally; at this season’s early juncture, the team already boast ten different scorers.

Perhaps the biggest boost to their season has been the radical changes to central midfield. The ponderous Joe Hamill, Allan Walker and Stuart Anderson (who have added very little to new club Brechin City) have been replaced by Kevin Moon, Liam Fox and Joe Cardle – the new players are vastly superior upgrades on their predecessors.

Although Cardle’s tendency to come inside can frustrate, his five goals and numerous assists has been vital to his side’s impressive start. The outstanding player has been Moon – a wonderful proposition, the 26-year-old would surely be operating at a higher level had injury not hampered his development.

Home form has been poor, and the team have won just one of their four fixtures at Starks Park (it should be pointed out, however, that the matches were against Hamilton, Dundee and Falkirk and Alloa Athletic, the four teams immediately around them). The second quarter will establish just how good a side this new-look team are and whether or not a title challenge or a play-off place will be the more likely outcome by May. SM

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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