AT the midpoint of the season, little has changed at the top of the table. Queen of the South sit atop the division and appear to be cruising towards the title, and in many ways, the league is beginning to resemble the Third Division – the summit is occupied by the league’s only full-time team, leaving the other part-time clubs to scramble for the three play-off places. What could have been an interesting contest for the championship became a one-horse race as early as October.
However, as the year progresses, the battle for the final play-off position is likely to be fascinating contest. With Alloa Athletic and Brechin City having pulled away in second and third place respectively, there are five clubs who could conceivably finish in fourth. Forfar Athletic currently occupy the position on goal difference, but only five points separates them from Ayr United in eighth place – a handful of differing results could teams quickly change places.
Indeed, some discrepant results in succession could pull Stenhousemuir or Ayr United into a relegation scrap alongside Stranraer and Albion Rovers. Unless reconstruction proposals go ahead next year, demotion to the Third Division must be avoided at all costs because of Rangers’ inevitable promotion and the windfall it will bring – a more cynical observer might even comment that remaining in the league is better for some clubs than promotion.
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 form over the course of the year so far.
Queen of the South (1st)
What we said in the mid-term report card:
[They] will have likely secured the championship long before they face Partick Thistle in the Ramsdens Cup final in April… Coupled with cup victories against Hibernian and Rangers at Ibrox, last season’s misery appears to be a distant memory.
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. The Doonhamers have already collected 50 points from 19 matches and have amassed a 14-point advantage over second-place Alloa Athletic. The team are not infallible – Alloa beat them 1-0 at the start of December – but they are currently on a five-match winning streak, having scored an average of three goals per game.
Queens look excellent across every area of the pitch, but it is perhaps their strikers which have the been most impressive. Nicky Clark is the nation’s top scorer with 24 goals, while his partner Gavin Reilly has 12 – both players are destined for better things. Clark in particular looks to be an outstanding footballer: quick, intelligent, technically gifted and a sublime finisher, his performance in the 5-1 demolition of Arbroath was one of the best of the season so far. As well as a remarkable scoring record, Queens boast the best defence in the SFL, having conceded a miserly 14 goals in 19 games.
Indeed, complacency might be the only barrier in preventing Queens from securing the championship before April’s Ramsdens Cup final against Partick Thistle, but there has been little to suggest their high standards will drop just yet. In the 2005-06 season, Gretna achieved a record points haul of 88; on current form, it is a record Queen of the South are likely to break. AG
Alloa Athletic (2nd)
What we said:
If Hartley is able to address his side’s inconsistency, it is possible that Alloa could finish the season as “best of the rest”.
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. After an inconsistent start, the team have grown in confidence as the campaign has progressed and their high-tempo, fluid brand of football is some of the most attractive in the league; when on song, Alloa are a pleasure to watch.
Quality runs throughout the squad. While the experienced Darren Young and Stephen Simmons bring experience and composure to the team, they are augmented by a clutch of outstanding young players: Scott Bain is arguably the best goalkeeper in the division; Ryan McCord is an energetic presence in midfield; and Nicky Low brings pace and drive to the wide areas. With Martin Boyle having joined on loan from Dundee, Hartley has a fearsome player at his disposal – the young forward scored 22 goals in 38 appearances with Montrose last season.
It is difficult to find a weakness within the squad, but there are times when their inexperience has been preyed on by their opponents. Despite overcoming Queen of the South, they contrived to throw away a two-goal lead in a 2-2 draw with Brechin, while their 2-3 defeat at Stranraer was one of the most surprising results of the league so far.
Supporters must surely be concerned with Paul Hartley’s future. While many are pragmatic enough to appreciate his ambitions lie beyond Recreation Park, it would disappointing to see him leave the club midway through the season – his name is likely to be linked with any managerial vacancies which may arise within the SPL. In the event of Hartley’s defection, the post is likely to be highly sought-after. Alloa are one of the best run part-time clubs in the country and in their strongest position for a decade. CGT
Brechin City (3rd)
What we said:
After earning a miserable six points from their opening eight league fixtures, Weir’s position became untenable and he was rightly dismissed. His rotten management of the club, and Brechin’s general play so far this season, means their lowly D ranking is fully merited… If McKinnon can instil a greater resolve away from home (they have lost their four matches on the road), a play-off position may be a distant, yet not unlikely possibility.
Just imagine where Brechin City would be if they had appointed Ray McKinnon at the beginning of the season. Since replacing the maligned Jim Weir in September, McKinnon’s record has been exemplary, winning 25 points from a possible 30, and the club have climbed away from a potential relegation battle to challenge for promotion to Division One. Such is the upturn in fortunes at Glebe Park that supporters may be forgiven for thinking their manager has more than just a passing resemblance of José Mourinho.
Perhaps most impressive of all is the manner in which McKinnon has achieved the club’s transformation. With exception of centre-back Graham Hay, recruited on a short-term loan agreement from Lochee United, the squad is virtually unchanged from the one Weir assembled over the summer. The new manager is coaxing the very best from his charges, in particular Alan Trouten – the midfielder had underachieved since joining from Ayr United but is now in arguably the finest form of his career.
McKinnon has also addressed City’s defensive frailties (under his tenure, the club have only conceded 12 goals compared to the 14 in Weir’s seven league games) but it is their attacking prowess which is most impressive. Until Weir’s departure, Andy Jackson had been their only goal-scorer in the league (an astonishing statistic) but now the burden is being shared elsewhere, with Trouten, Derek Carcary and David McKenna now contributing; the side are now scoring an average of three goals per game.
The transfer window will allow him to strengthen his squad and dispose with the remainder of Weir’s dreck. With a five-point advantage and a game in hand over Forfar in fourth place, a play-off position seems assured come May. AG