Brechin City (3rd)
What we said: With a five-point advantage and a game in hand over Forfar in fourth place, a play-off position seems assured come May. B
Despite another season culminating in anguish (their semi-final defeat to Alloa Athletic was the fifth time in seven years where they had faltered in the play-offs), Brechin City supporters can look back favourably on the year. Manager Ray McKinnon has sparked a renaissance, turning around a catastrophic start to the season and bringing a miserable five-and-a-half year period to a close.
Jim Weir’s largely uninspiring two-year tenure (which had followed Jim Duffy’s dour leadership) was ended after a lacklustre 0-3 defeat to ten-man Ayr United in late September. It was their fourth consecutive loss and concluded an opening period which saw the club pick up six points from seven matches.
In many ways, McKinnon was an unexpected replacement. Previously part of Mark Wotte’s regional performance school coaching team, his managerial experience had been limited to Tayside Junior sides Lochee United and Broughty Athletic. However, McKinnon was able to successfully transpose his methods from the classroom to Glebe Park and Brechin were quickly transformed from a shiftless, disorganised rabble into a well-drilled and offensively fluid unit. The upturn in results and performance was instantaneous – City earned 16 points in McKinnon’s first seven matches and went on an 11-game unbeaten run between Boxing Day and the beginning of April.
Unfortunately, this period also coincided with some extreme and persistent weather conditions that severely affected the Glebe Park playing surface. In total 13 home matches were postponed, leading to significant fixture congestion towards the end of the season. Such was the appalling condition of their pitch that two games were relocated to Forfar Athletic’s Station Park. Brechin’s revised schedule (they played their final 12 fixtures over six weeks) had a detrimental impact on their results and they lost six matches, including surprise defeats at Stranraer and Albion Rovers. Their uneven form continued into the play-off semi-final with Alloa.
The failure to achieve promotion should not overshadow McKinnon’s achievements. With very few additions to Weir’s squad, McKinnon was still able to restructure and improve his players on both an individual and collective basis. Alan Trouten in particular has been a revelation, scoring 20 goals and forming a fearsome attacking quartet with Andy Jackson, Derek Carcary and David McKenna. This is the time for McKinnon to assemble his own team (and for the club to significantly improve the quality of their pitch). Brechin certainly ended the season in far better shape then they started it. AG
What we said: The experience of Moore alongside midfielders Chris Aitken and Ryan Borris, could give Stranraer the edge over Albion Rovers in the duel to avoid relegation. The fourth and final fixture between the sides at Stair Park on 9 March could be their most important game of the season. D+
By mid-October, the Second Division table made grim reading for the Stranraer support. A fifth consecutive defeat (a 0-3 loss at Brechin City) saw Keith Knox’s side anchored in tenth place, three points behind East Fife in ninth and five from mid-table Albion Rovers, a team expected to be their immediate challengers in avoiding automatic relegation.
Their total of five points and a goal difference of minus 15 from their opening quarter suggested that change was required, but few could have imagined that replacing Knox (who had begun last summer expecting to continue his side’s steady progress in Division Three) with his assistant Steve Aitken would resuscitate their season.
While the opening months of the season intimated that Stranraer were ill-equipped for their expedited rise into the Second Division following Rangers’ liquidation, Aitken was able to draw on his squad’s experience and strong spirit and turn them into a competitive entity – his first result as manager was a startling 4-1 win over Forfar Athletic.
Although the Blues were unable to instigate sequences of positive results (nor were they able to plug an ever-leaky defence), the key to their survival was their outstanding record against fellow strugglers Albion Rovers and East Fife. Over the course of the season, they collected ten and seven points respectively from their rivals. Against the Coatbridge club, a 90th minute penalty to tie November’s meeting and a thrilling 3-2 victory in March (Stranraer were trailing by two goals after half an hour) stand out as vital results in the context of both club’s seasons.
They also relied heavily on Craig Malcom. The striker scored ten goals in the final 11 games of the season – including a hat-trick against the Rovers – and his final total of 19 across the campaign is an admirable return under the circumstances. His team-mates, however, failed to find the net with any regularity and Stranraer finished with only 43 goals, the lowest in the division. With the talismanic Michael “Mr Stranraer” Moore announcing his departure (Moore made 298 appearances over three spells for the club), keeping the 26-year-old Malcolm for next term will be a priority for Aitken, who himself was rewarded with a two-year contract at the end of the season.
With Albion Rovers swapping places with Rangers and Dunfermline Athletic’s demotion into the third tier, next season’s Second Division looks to be a daunting prospect for Stranraer. AG
What we said: A porous defence (their 39 goals conceded is the joint-second most in the division) may see them usurped by the clubs immediately beneath them. C
It was predicted at the start of the season that the 2012-13 campaign could be a difficult one for Arbroath, and so it has proven. After pushing Cowdenbeath for the championship last term, their failure to make this year’s play-offs was bitterly disappointing.
It was the manner in which the Red Lichties were ultimately undone that was emblematic of their season. Going into their final match, all they were required to do was to beat Alloa Athletic, a side guaranteed second place and taking the opportunity to rest a number of first team players, in order to finish in fourth. Instead, Arbroath toiled throughout and conceded a late goal (scored by 15-year-old Scott Hynd) while Forfar Athletic beat comfortably beat Ayr United and moved into the final play-off place.
Following the defeat, manager Paul Sheerin reflected on where his side had fallen short and acknowledged that his summer recruits had failed to adequately replace the departed Gavin Swankie and Josh Falkingham. Sorely missing the former’s goal threat and the latter’s dynamism in the final third, their attacking potency was greatly diminished. On a number occasions, Arboath found it difficult to make a breakthrough in tight contests, particularly away from home where their form over the first half of the season was poor. The game against Alloa was the ninth match in which they had failed to score – only Albion Rovers and Stranraer scored fewer goals, and their final tally of 47 was 29 fewer than last year’s.
Steven Doris’s personal total of 11 goals earned him a trial period with Birmingham City and a nomination for the Second Division Player of the Year. His – and Arbroath’s – highlight of the season undoubtedly came at Celtic Park in the fifth round of the Scottish Cup, where his 87th minute strike earned an unlikely replay against the Scottish champions. However, Doris’s form badly tailed off as the season progressed and he scored just three goals after the New Year.
Sheerin – perennially linked with any vacant managerial roles that appear in the SPL – will remain with Arbroath for a fourth season but he must forensically search through his contacts book if he is to build a side capable of challenging for promotion. If he is unable to reinvigorate his ageing squad then his managerial stock is in danger of waning, such is the fickle nature of the game. With Doris at a similar crossroads, Sheerin might have to muddle through the new season without his best player. AG
What we said: Most important of all, Stenhousemuir are only four points from the play-off positions […] If they can keep their core of key players fit and on form, 2013 could be a far more profitable campaign than the last. C-
On reflection, it has been a disappointing year for Stenhousemuir. Despite a promising start – an unbeaten run of seven matches culminated in a famous League Cup victory over Kilmarnock – and a strong finish (four wins in five games) bookending the season, everything in between was inconsistent and frustrating. The club have performed poorer than last term, ending one league place and two points worse off.
There has been a number of factors in their mid-table finish. Despite only Queen of the South and Alloa Athletic having lost fewer matches, the sheer number of draws – 13, five more than East Fife – curtailed their aspitarions. In 3-3 draws with Brechin City and Forfar Athletic, two results which particularly rankle, the club contrived to throw away 3-1 leads on both occasions, turning three points into one. Arrogance and complacency might have also dogged them. The Warriors ceded seven points to Albion Rovers (their 3-4 defeat at Cliftonhill in March was one of their poorest in recent memory) and drew three of their four league meetings with Stranraer, losing the other.
Martyn Corrigan will have learned a lot from his first year in management. His tactical inflexibility (he steadfastly refused to operate using anything other than a 4-2-3-1 formation, despite lacking the requisite personnel to maximise the system) and his failure to address the poor performances of goalkeeper Calum Reidford proved costly. Reidford’s erratic nature and poor decision making let the team down on several occasions, yet he was only replaced after work commitments forced his retirement.
In amongst the negativity, there have been a number of positives at Ochilview, with several players performing with distinction: Ross McMillan and Scot Buist were two of the division’s most aggressive centre-backs; Kevin McKinlay matured into a dependable left-back; Bryan Hodge was consistently excellent in midfield; and John Gemmell enjoyed the most prolific season of his career, scoring 21 goals. Furthermore, as the season drew to a close, Corrigan’s vision finally began to look coherent. When the Warriors were good – the victories against East Fife, Queen of the South, Ayr United and Brechin City in the latter part of the campaign all immediately stand out – they were thrilling.
Having already signed up their better players, Stenhousemuir face an interesting summer. The club are now an established Second Division side capable of challenging for a play-off place and with the right recruitment, they should be looking to better 2011-12’s fifth place finish. Another season of decline would be bitterly disappointing. CGT