THE 2012-13 Second Division has, by and large, been devoid of any conflict or genuine excitement. Although each of the fixtures on the season’s penultimate weekend had some form of repercussion for the majority of the teams involved (a rather impressive feat), the key elements – who would be champions and who would be automatically relegated – were more or less decided before the end of January. Queen of the South, the most devastating team in the history of the division, won the title comfortably while Albion Rovers slowly slid back into the basement league.
Despite the lack of intrigue, there were a few quirks along the way: Alloa Athletic’s remarkable progression continued to impress; Brechin City’s charge up the table after casting out Jim Weir was testament to Ray McKinnon’s assurance (and indeed, how awful a manager Weir is); the contest for the final play-off place went down to the final day of the season; Ayr United’s general wretchedness was alarming; and East Fife’s very public implosion provided the single most extraordinary off-field moment of the SFL.
Next term, with Rangers likely to sail through the division and with Dunfermline Athletic’s uncertain future, the season might even be played out in a similar fashion with only the play-off positions set to absorb. Who knows.
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.
Queen of the South (1st)
What we said: For Queen of the South, an immediate return to the First Division looks to be a certainty. Trophies are not handed out in January, but the remainder of the season could be nothing more than a procession for Allan Johnston’s imperious side. A
Flawless; perfect; unblemished; otherworldly; exceptional. In fact, any superlative could appropriately describe Queen of the South’s season. From the first kick of the ball to the final whistle, Allan Johnston’s side have been utterly clinical, cantering to the championship title as early as March, and then picking up the Ramsdens Cup shortly afterwards just for good measure. A full-time club in a part-time league, they were always likely to win the division but few could have imagined they would have achieved it in such an emphatic manner.
Their success has been written about elsewhere on this site but it is worth recounting once more. Their total of 92 points is a Second Division record, beating Gretna’s 2005-06 tally by four, and a series of historical club records have also been smashed. Queens have won more fixtures, gone more matches unbeaten and lost fewer games this season than at any other point in their 94-year history. Johnston and his players may well go on to enjoy distinguished careers there or elsewhere but it will never be like this again.
Nicky Clark, whose 41 goals equalled Jimmy Rutherford’s 1931-32 record, was their most eye-catching performer but everyone connected with the club deserves credit for their part in the season. From goalkeeper Lee Robinson and his miserly defence (they conceded just 23 league goals), to Stephen McKenna and Derek Young in midfield, to the elusive Danny Carmichael and the overlooked Gavin Reilly, they should all be immensely proud of their contribution to a memorable campaign.
This team should do well next year too. Despite playing against part-time sides for large parts of the season, their performances against weightier opposition have been greatly encouraging. They have beaten Greenock Morton, Hibernian and, of course, Partick Thistle, while cup defeats to Dundee United and Kilmarnock came only by a single goal margin. With Johnston having retained the majority of the squad for next season, a finish within the upper reaches of the First Division seems very likely. CGT
Alloa Athletic (2nd)
What we said: In many respects, Alloa Athletic are punching above their weight. In some quarters, they were fully expected to mount a credible challenge for the play-off positions, but having amassed 36 points and built a ten-point advantage on fifth place, they have confounded all expectations – Paul Hartley’s young side have been nothing short of excellent this season. A
Last summer during a filming project, this writer met Paul Hartley at the SPL Exit Trials. Hartley had just enjoyed an enormously successful debut season in charge of Alloa Athletic, guiding the club through the Scylla and Charybdis of the basement league and immediately back into the Second Division. Talking about the forthcoming year, he was upbeat and believed his team had a sound chance of comfortably surviving. When it was remarked that his side might be an outside bet for promotion, Hartley shot a cock-eyed grin and raised his eyebrows in slight disbelief.
Perhaps Hartley was deliberately downplaying his abilities. If not, he should have had more confidence: it has been a wonderful season for Alloa. There has been little drama to their campaign because, by and large, they have been excellent. After an uneven start, the Wasps quickly emerged as the “best of the rest”, fixing themselves into second place in late October (despite beating Queen of the South in December, they were never likely to offer them a genuine contest). They charged through the play-offs, beating Brechin City then a beleaguered Dunfermline Athletic before securing promotion to the Division One for the first time in 11 years.
Ably supported by the benevolence of chairman Mike Mulraney, Hartley has assembled a team with the perfect balance of experience and youth, particularly in midfield. While Stephen Simmons and Darren Young bring class and composure to the midfield, Ryan McCord, an outstanding prospect, offers drive and energy. Elsewhere, Ben Gordon and Darryl Meggat have both developed into accomplished defenders, while Graeme Holmes and Kevin Cawley are intelligent, predatory forwards.
Despite their achievements throughout the campaign, it should be remembered that the chasm between the First and Second Division and full-time and part-time football is often impossible. With the correct signings, however, Alloa should be able to consolidate their league standing and build towards becoming the best part-time team in the country.
In the meantime, their biggest challenge will be to ensure their better players do not defect over the coming weeks. Bigger clubs will have surely observed their progression and a number of their prized assets could be lured away. Hartley, for the moment at least, appears content at Alloa but should the appropriate opportunity present itself – in this country or elsewhere – few would begrudge him the chance to progress. CGT
Forfar Athletic (4th)
What we said: They still occupy the final play-off position, but with only goal difference separating them from Arbroath in fifth place, they are in danger of undoing August and September’s fine work. C
Fifty-nine-year-old Dick Campbell can appear an incongruous figure in today’s SFL. Many years senior than most of his managerial counterparts, the Fifer can cut a cantankerous, imposing character, particularly after defeat (his lack of magnanimity is often unintentionally hilarious). Campbell is probably best described as “old school” in his approach but it would be unfair to ignore the success he has brought to Forfar Athletic this season.
After finishing seventh last year, a flurry of transfer activity and a promising pre-season campaign suggested the Loons might just contest the play-off places. They would go on to achieve this feat, edging past Arbroath (a team they failed to overcome on four occasions) on the final day of the season after beating Ayr United. Their play-off semi final ended in ignominious fashion and dashed hopes of returning to the second tier for the first time in 21 years. Leading by an aggregate score-line of three goals to one against Dunfermline Athletic, they turned in a disastrous second-leg performance and lost the tie 4-7 after extra-time. Two factors, both of which were evident throughout the season, proved costly: their porous defence and their ill-discipline.
Despite opening their league campaign with three clean sheets in their first five matches, they would go on to concede a total of 74 goals, an average of two per game. Against Dunfermline, their defence fell simply apart, when Mark McCulloch’s red card after 15 minutes instigated a spectacular collapse. Full-backs Michael Dunlop and Iain Campbell were also dismissed, while Dick Campbell was sent to the stand during the rambunctious affair. The three red cards came in addition to nine picked up during the regular season.
Campbell came under fire at points over the season from disgruntled supporters. In 16 meetings with top-half sides, they collected just eight points, while his constant chopping and changing with team selection left many bewildered. Reconfiguring his defence for next term must be a priority – as well as poor discipline (McCulloch, Dunlop, Michael Bolochoweckyj and Stephen Tulloch picked up two red cards apiece), the back four were rarely offered protection by their midfield (the defensively-minded Keith Gibson suffering a season-ending injury in September did little to help matters).
The manager will be looking to maintain Forfar’s incremental improvement in 2013-14. If he is able to attract the correct calibre of player build around Gavin Swankie, Danny Denholm and the evergreen Chris Templeman, it is likely his side can challenge again. AG