TO the neutral observer at least, the 2012-13 First Division was a thoroughly engaging affair. While the winners and losers of the country’s senior leagues were quickly determined, the second tier offered unrivalled unpredictability and excitement. For the best part of the year there was a genuine three-horse race for the championship (until Dunfermline Athletic’s financial travails and loss of form saw them slither down the table), while the contest to avoid ninth place would go to the final game.
It is a pity that in this division only the winners are rewarded (for the moment at least). The lack of opportunities to progress upwards tend to stifle, but the introduction of promotion play-offs will be a hugely welcome conceit. As such, this was Partick Thistle’s year, with Alan Archibald standing on the shoulders of Jackie McNamara to take the Jags into the SPL – that the novice manager would remain unbeaten throughout his 16 league games in charge was quite magnificent.
Elsewhere, Ian Murray’s revolution at Dumbarton has seen the former Hibernian captain emerge as a young manager of outstanding potential. He turned a wretched side into a hyper-competitive one and richly deserves the plaudits for his efforts. At the bottom of the table, Airdrie United meekly departed while Dunfermline swapped places with Alloa Athletic after the play-off final. Everything in between played out in the expected fashion, more or less.
This article aims to look across the division and rate each side between A and F – the scores are based on a combination of pre-season expectations and their form over the course of the whole season.
Partick Thistle (1st)
What we said: With two games in hand over Dunfermline and Morton, they are still in an enviable position – two points off the top of the league with half the season to play for is as much as any Jags fan could have asked for before the first league match of the season, but away performances must improve if they are to keep up… B
Who could have imagined that by the beginning of May, Alan Archibald would not only be a first team manager in his own right, but would also have overseen an outstanding second half of the season which took his side back into the SPL?
At the time of our last report, Partick Thistle were in a mildly precarious spot. Having won only two away games by the halfway point of the season, what initially seemed an imperious league campaign was being undermined by silly red cards and difficulties away from home. With Jackie McNamara leaving at the end of January, Archibald was left to revive a stuttering run of form which included two draws and two losses in six games. With a rookie manager and a sudden loss in momentum, he had a tough challenge ahead of him.
Thistle’s second half to the season turned out to be quite excellent, but Archibald had to be patient. With successive postponements, the Jags found themselves as much as eight points behind Greenock Morton before they would play again. The first match was a crucial fixture at Cappielow, where Thistle enjoyed the best of the first half and were two-nil up after 47 minutes, but Hugh Murray’s third red card of the season played a large part in Morton’s fight back and equaliser. Despite Murray providing a vital element of calmness and tactical organisation to the team earlier in the season, it seemed that Archibald had to balance the positives against his poor disciplinary record – the former St Mirren midfielder did not play again.
Thistle never looked back from that point, with the midfield quintet thriving in Murray’s absence. They went on to win eight consecutive matches in a sequence of 16 unbeaten games, allowing the generation of all kinds of remarkable statistics along the way. Archibald added the correct dose of pragmatism and just enough of a vertical approach to McNamara’s wonderfully aesthetic, but occasionally too idealistic, philosophy.
This was a special team in the recent history of the SFL. It is a shame to see them embrace the SPL challenge without Paul Paton or Chris Erskine – it remains to be seen whether or not those players can light up the top tier, but it is the opinion of this writer that the latter in particular could possibly have better developed his career by remaining in the conditions that helped make him the footballer he is.
With at least two (and maybe many more) key positions in the first XI requiring attention for the new season, Archibald’s biggest test has yet to begin. JAM
What we said: Points on the board are always better than games in hand, and in all likelihood, Dumbarton will still make an immediate return to Division Two. However, with Ian Murray in charge, the club have an intelligent, philosophical manager; the Sons will not go gentle into that good night. D-
What an astonishing year it has been for Dumbarton. Having begun the campaign in abject circumstances, with some even predicting the club would make a swift return to the Second Division as early as their opening match, it is quite incredible to see the team finish comfortably in mid-table. If they haven’t already, their directors should be looking into erecting a bronze statue of Ian Murray, resplendent at 20 feet tall and adorned in laurel wreaths, on Castle Street.
To put Murray’s achievement into context, had the league started on 29 December (the date of his first league match as manager, a 4-3 victory at Falkirk), Dumbarton would be sitting in fourth place with 38 points from 23 matches – an average of 1.65 per game. Such was the general excellence to the end of their season that the club recorded six wins in their final ten matches, collecting 19 points in the process.
The upturn in fortunes under Murray, a novice to management, has been remarkable. His predecessor Alan Adamson had performed soundly in Division Two, securing promotion via the play-offs, but he was vastly out of his depth in the second tier. Dismissed after nine matches, their total of two points saw them anchored at the foot of the table. While some bemoaned the decision to jettison Adamson so early into the campaign, it has since been soundly vindicated.
Once an incoherent mess, Murray’s high standards of professionalism and preparation turned the club into well-organised, efficient opponents while the introduction of sports psychology benefited the squad. Chris Turner, one of the division’s best midfielders, performed superbly (his new two-year contract has been roundly applauded); Scott Agnew excelled; Garry Fleming enjoyed a fine debut season in senior football; and Jim Lister developed from an ambling player in a fearsome, physically imposing striker (his defection to Airdrie United has disappointed).
There are a number of areas that must be addressed over the summer. The manager must seek to harden his side’s resolve and make them more difficult to beat, while their inability to defend set-pieces must also be corrected. Murray has intimated he is likely to play on a regular basis next season and his experience and intelligence will be a valuable asset to the back-line.
It will be interesting to observe how Dumbarton perform over 2013-14, and another seventh place finish would be an excellent achievement. Murray’s name will no doubt be mentioned should any full-time vacancies arrive over the season but in the meantime at least, the Sons can content themselves with one of the best young managers in the country. CGT
Greenock Morton (2nd)
What we said: Can Morton last the pace in the title race? With an enviable head-to-head record against Thistle and Dunfermline, the indication is certainly there. Keeping the old legs going until the end of the campaign must be their priority. B+
The benefit of observing the whole season in hindsight has let us assess the true value of this Greenock Morton team who have been very good, but not consistent enough to maintain a title challenge to the very end of the year.
Half-way through the season, Morton looked good for the championship. Despite collecting only two points from the campaign’s first three matches, a 100% record through September and the best part of October took Allan Moore’s team to third place, behind the sparring Partick Thistle and Dunfermline Athletic. The Ton got to the turn of the New Year having only lost once in 14 matches, putting them at the top of the league going into 2013 after defining wins against Thistle and the Pars.
However, they faltered almost immediately thereafter, bearing the brunt of Dumbarton’s resurgence after Ian Murray’s appointment – a 0-3 loss at Cappielow was an upset as much as it was a surprise. At that point of the season, Moore had a settled XI with Martin Hardie reinforcing a symmetrical midfield five. A knee-jerk change to 4-4-2 against Cowdenbeath only brought a point at Central Park, dropping Morton back down to second place.
The rest of January and most of February was fruitful, only drawing at home to Thistle after being two-nil down after 46 minutes, but the dropped points at the very start of the year would prove costly – by the time Morton thrashed crisis-hit Dunfermline 4-1 on 23 February, they were only five points ahead of Thistle despite having played two games more.
What proved a large part Moore’s undoing was an inability to win against Hamilton Academical, who plundered ten points out of 12 from his side. A couple of wins against the Accies would have made Morton favourites for the title but generally, Hamilton’s strategy of flooding the midfield with young, energy intensive players around Alex Neil worked well.
Otherwise, while they were experts at recovering from early deficits, it proved to be an unsustainable strategy by the last quarter of the season. Being able to make the required changes to get the required result could arguably be a sign of Moore’s managerial acumen, but on the other hand, an inability to get his team tactically and emotionally prepared from the offset pointed to a weakness that was evident by the time they lost their crucial match against Thistle in mid-April.
Now, Moore has been offered another year and an assurance he will have the resources to manage a full-time squad for the next season. This season’s significant turnover in playing staff could yet be matched again in the summer ahead, with eight players already having left and strong rumours that Peter MacDonald will be joining Dundee. The coming year could define Morton’s (and Moore’s) long-term future at this level of football. JAM