Forfar Athletic (4th)
What we said:
Despite finishing the first quarter with two defeats, Forfar have surprised many. Unfancied and rarely mentioned in discussions about the play-off positions prior to the beginning of the season, the Loons’ 2012-13 campaign has so far been an unqualified success.
After an outstanding start to the season, Forfar’s good form has stalled. Dick Campbell’s side dropped only four points from their opening seven games, but have won only three of their last ten fixtures. 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.
Forfar’s recent malaise has led to Dick Campbell coming under pressure from some sections of the support. The manager has struggled to address the numerous defensive deficiencies which have dogged his side all term, and the Loons have conceded 41 goals, the highest in the division. His response to the 1-4 home thrashing from Brechin City on 2 January (the second defeat to their Angus rivals by the same score-line this season) was to drop centre-backs Jamie Bishop and Michael Bolochoweckyj – it had little effect, as the club were easily dismissed 0-2 by Stenhousemuir in the following fixture. A seething Dick Campbell may have complained about how his side failed take anything from the game, but it was an opinion shared by few others.
Gavin Swankie has shown himself to be one of the best forwards in the division, and Danny Denholm – when utilised in his correct position – is an excellent midfielder. Both will perform a crucial role if Forfar are to maintain their current position, but Campbell must also find a settled XI and solidify his defence. Forfar’s next three fixtures are against Ayr, Queen of the South and Arbroath – they cannot be as generous to their opponents if they have any real aspirations of promotion. AG
What we said:
While their ability to recover from losing positions is admirable (the club have salvaged nine points despite conceding first), Arbroath will have to make things easier for themselves if they are to maintain their play-off position.
Arbroath’s 1-1 draw at Celtic Park in the fourth round of the Scottish Cup was an eye-catching result, and when put into context against the Red Lichties’ bang-average season, it was one of the most astonishing of the season. Their away form has been poor, with the club picking up a meagre six points in ten games – the only win away from Gayfield was against Alloa Athletic in August. The weekend’s 1-5 defeat to Queen of the South – who were reduced to ten men midway through the first half – was particularly abject.
Inconsistency continues to blight Arbroath. Given their travails on the road, the Angus club have been unable to put together a run of more than two consecutive wins – a four-match unbeaten run between September and October has been their best sequence of results. With Alloa and Brechin City beginning to pull away from the chasing pack, and with East Fife and Stenhousemuir close behind, Arbroath must improve their form if their season is to be extended beyond the first weekend of May.
Has Paul Sheerin taken Arbroath as far as he can? It is difficult to tell. If managerial vacancies arise at, say, Inverness Caledonian Thistle or St Johnstone, it is very likely he will find himself in demand. However, in the immediate future, he must concern himself with improving his squad. The cup replay against Celtic was played out in front of Sky’s cameras and should afford him the funding in which to strengthen his side – Ross Chisholm is his first recruitment of the calendar year. Finding a replacement to Steven Doris might also become a priority – after a stuttering start, he has scored ten goals in 13 matches since the beginning of November and attracted the attention of Championship side Birmingham City, where he has spent the week on trial.
There are some fine players at the club – Darren “Grubben” Gribben is a very decent striker, while Brian Kerr is still a classy performer in midfield – but 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. AG
East Fife (6th)
What we said:
Recent form has largely been galvanised by Livingston loanee Bobby Barr, with the winger adding pace and creativity to a largely uninspiring squad. Experienced players like Paul McManus and Gareth Wardlaw must improve their recent performances if the club are to avoid finishing the season in one of the bottom two positions.
The beginning of East Fife’s campaign was mired in uncertainty after Gordon Durie’s hospitalisation. The former Rangers forward took a funny turn after the 0-0 home draw with Queen of the South; he would not return to the dugout, leaving Gordon Chisholm and Bob Malcolm in charge before resigning at the beginning of November. He left the club in ninth position, having collected ten points from as many games.
In a league where seven of the managers are yet to reach their 40th birthday, the East Fife directors opted for experience to steer the club away from the bottom of the table. Billy Brown, who had spent a large period of his career as Jim Jeffries assistant, was offered his first permanent managerial position and since his appointment, the club have steadily risen through the table. The 62-year-old won four of his first six matches and the club now lie in sixth place, three points from the play-offs.
Brown has hardened his charges and made them more difficult to beat – no side has overcome his team by more than a one-goal advantage. However, the side are still lacklustre in attack. While Bobby Barr (who will stay at the club until the end of the season on-loan from Livingston) has played superbly, experienced forwards Collin Samuel, Gareth Wardlaw and Paul McManus have disappointed (although the latter has been absent through injury). East Fife have failed to score in more than a third of their league fixtures this term – if Brown can sharpen his squad’s attacking prowess during the transfer window, there is a very decent chance he can lead his side into the play-off places. AG
What we said:
There is little between them and the sides immediately beneath Queen of the South, and the Warriors should be looking to go one step further than fifth this term.
It is not unfair to say that the opening to Stenhousemuir’s 2012-13 was quite outstanding. Between July and August, Martyn Corrigan’s side recorded a number of impressive results, culminating in the 2-1 victory over Kilmarnock in the League Cup. However, since beating their SPL opposition, results and performances drastically declined – had the league begun in September, the Warriors would be in eighth place, averaging 1.06 points per match. With four only league wins and a handful of draws, it seemed as though the team were only capable of rousing themselves when faced with superior opposition.
There are, of course, a number of factors for Stenhousemuir’s slump. John Gemmell has been unavailable for selection after injuring himself during November’s defeat at Forfar, while fitness concerns have also precluded Andy Rodgers and Scot Buist’s participation for long spells. Key players such as Sean Dickson, Brown Ferguson and Greg Ross have all lacked form, turning in indifferent performances for several weeks, while Callum Reidford has lacked conviction in goal. The absence of Robbie Thomson is keenly felt.
It is Corrigan’s quixotic pursuit of progressiveness which has perhaps hindered his side more than anything else. Speaking at a recent supporters’ assembly, the manager denounced the 4-4-2 formation, claiming it was outdated and that the trendy 4-2-3-1 system – favoured by the likes of Mark Wotte – was how teams should be organised. A noble idea in theory, sure, but it has failed to work in practice. Without Gemmell, the system lacks a focal point; in his absence, Stewart Kean has deputised and although he is willing, he does not have the physicality or technique to fulfil the role. Other players are being asked to operate in unfamiliar positions, and as a result, the team plays without cohesion. It is little coincidence that a return to the 4-4-2 system has seen an upturn in fortunes – Stenhousemuir were unlucky to emerge from their recent match against Alloa without a point, while the weekend’s victory over Forfar was thoroughly deserved.
There are positives for the Warriors, however: Gemmell, sorely missed, should be fit by mid-January (although it remains to be seen whether or not his return will see the reintroduction of the 4-2-3-1), as will Rodgers; David Rowson, recruited until the end of January on loan from Partick Thistle, has been impressive and has performed with quiet authority in his two games for the club; after being dropped to the bench, Dickson looks to have recaptured his spark; and Bryan Hodge, meanwhile, is perhaps the finest midfielder the club have had since John Paul McBride.
Most important of all, Stenhousemuir are only four points from the play-off positions. The next three matches will be crucial to their season, with the club tied against Stranraer, Ayr United and Albion Rovers – the three team immediately beneath them. If the Warriors can emerge from the fixtures with maximum points and keep their core of key players fit and on form, 2013 could be a far more profitable campaign than the last. CGT