NOW that we are half-way into the First Division campaign, clear patterns of form are emerging. In what is arguably the most exciting development in domestic Scottish football this season, we now have a clear three-horse race for promotion to the SPL. Morton have recently won against Partick Thistle and Dunfermine to show their intentions, but they have since dropped points against teams at the bottom of the division.
Indeed, at the foot of the table, Ian Murray seems to have transformed Dumbarton’s prospects of avoiding automatic relegation from “definitely” to “almost certain” to “probably” – given their woeful run of form throughout the first quarter of the season, that is no mean feat. It is certainly possible that, on current form, the Sons could catch up with and overtake Airdrie United who are currently aping Tom Petty – they’re free fallin’.
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.
Greenock Morton (2nd)
What we said in the mid-term report card:
If Morton cannot quite keep up with the pace set by Thistle and the Pars over the whole season, they are certainly good enough to consolidate themselves as “the best of the rest”.
It was all going so well for Morton at the end of 2012. Having just about doubled the first quarter’s points total with a game in hand, Allan Moore’s team had laid down the proverbial gauntlet to title rivals Dunfermline and Partick Thistle post-Christmas. An aggregate score of 6-3 against the two, amid a sequence of five wins and a draw from six fixtures, seemed to be the perfect statement that Morton would not settle for simply being “the best of the rest”.
The New Year brought a change in fortune, with a shock 0-3 loss at home to Dumbarton followed by a point gained at Central Park when Cowdenbeath were one-nil up. What might have been classed as a couple of “gimmies” has since let the other teams back in the title race. Morton are still only an inferior goal difference from leading the table, but upcoming fixtures against Raith Rovers and Livingston now seem more challenging than on first inspection.
It is the endurance of the challenge which will test Moore’s squad more than anything in the quest for promotion. Although there are many advantages by including veterans Martin Hardie and Mark McLaughlin in the first XI, their aging bodies may lack the necessary levels of fitness required if asked to play in every match. The defeat at home to an improved Dumbarton team can at least partly be blamed on the intensity required by the whole outfield unit in wins against Thistle and Dunfermline; four wins in ten days was probably too much to ask for.
Morton will now be back to playing once per week until the season end (unless, of course, they are affected by adverse weather). This is good news for Moore, who will be aiming to rely on a settled XI which has balance in most areas. Hardie, McLaughlin, Kevin Rutkiewicz and David Graham have all won the First Division in recent years and their mental fortitude will be invaluable to the rest of the squad. Michael Tidser and Fouad Bachirou are both only 22 yet seem to have been one of the SFL’s most promising midfield partnerships for aeons – their midfield triangle with Hardie has a balance of skill and strength which is often beyond their competitors this season.
To the neutral observer, it is incredible to think there is still half a season to go in what could be one of the most dramatic season conclusions to the First Division in recent memory. 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. JAM
Dunfermline Athletic (1st)
What we said:
If Dunfermline can maintain the form which saw them win 20 points from their opening nine matches, only an exceptional side will prevent them from securing the title.
To fully appreciate just how well Dunfermline have performed this season, results must be placed within the context of the bigger picture. Almost every story to have emanated from East End Park over the last six months has been, broadly speaking, negative. The debt burden, tax issues, delayed payment of wages and the mass resignation of a number of board members have added to the sense of growing despair surrounding the club. There were even plans by some players to strike, a report which Jim Jefferies dismissed by suggesting that players couldn’t even afford the petrol money to come into training. Whatever the correct version of event, it was just the latest in a long line of insidious tales.
Even the most positive of Dunfermline supporters must have known that the perpetual drip-feed of bad news meant there was a fractious atmosphere at club. Turmoil behind the scenes will eventually start to affect what happens on the park, something which seemed to be the case during December – in four league matches, the club accrued a solitary point. Last-minute defeats to Falkirk and Livingston, coupled with a harmful home draw with Hamilton and a heavy loss at Greenock Morton put them five points behind the league leaders.
However, only two weeks later and Dunfermline had climbed back atop the division after consecutive 1-0 victories, with title rivals Morton and Partick Thistle both losing ground. The last time the Pars were in a similar position (2010-11), they invested heavily in the January window, bringing in key players such as Martin Hardie and Kevin Rutkiewicz who eventually helped secure the title. This option will not be available this time; the current squad must finish the job themselves.
Andrew Barrowman has been the focal point in attack but he has been helped immensely by ex-East Fife forward Ryan Wallace, a player who can hold the ball up well and link the frontline with the rest of the team. In midfield, Joe Cardle can still impress but only seems to do so in fits and starts, while Stephen Husband continues to show off his underrated passing range. Josh Falkingham, a combative midfielder signed from Arbroath, is a belligerent little upstart but there is no denying his ability, demonstrated by the perfect cross that allowed Andrew Geggan to head home the winner in the most recent derby against Raith Rovers. There is also hope for the club’s medium term future, with the emergence of a clutch of impressive young players – Shaun Byrne made his debut in the recent victory against Raith, while 19-year-old attacking midfielder Alex Whittle, a product of Liverpool’s youth system, has impressed since joining in the summer. Although Whittle is maybe not quite ready to be thrown into the starting XI, he has shown good potential when introduced late on in games.
Dunfermline might be going through a difficult time off the park, but on it they should still be expecting to challenge for the title come May. SM
Partick Thistle (3rd)
What we said:
Jackie McNamara and Simon Donnelly have transformed last season’s occasionally brilliant but often capricious side into a conquering yet stylish team… The acid test will be continuing the same level of success now that opposition managers know how they play, not to mention the inevitable deterioration of the pitches over winter.
One could be forgiven for thinking that the nature of football tends to conspire against Partick Thistle, but despite continuing to play positive attacking football and more often than not dominating teams without always scoring the goals required, the playing staff can only have themselves to blame for reckless tackles and missed opportunities in front of goal.
Thistle’s seven wins in a row at the start of the season was always going to be unsustainable. Since then, the Jags have only secured successive league victories once: 2-0 at home to Livingston and then 3-2 against Raith Rovers over November and December. Red cards, injuries to important players and countless open-goal misses have allowed points to be dropped when Thistle have been in the ascendency. Although there is little that can be done about preventing injury on a general level in competitive sport, the team’s discipline needs to be addressed if title aspirations are to crystallise to something worthwhile.
As an example, Thistle should have beaten Hamilton when they lost 0-1. They had several excellent chances in a second half onslaught and managed to pin the Accies back to the extent where they won 13 corner kicks during the match. Wayward shooting in front of goal was obviously a concern, but a two-footed tackle of frustration by Paul Paton on Stevie May undermined Thistle’s dominance.
Scott Fox was also missed in goals. He is fit enough to now be back in the match squad, but Graeme Smith kept goal until his release earlier in the week. Smith did not adjust immediately and looked particularly nervy in defending crosses from set-pieces. Sean Welsh’s eight-week injury has seen him lose match-fitness, and he is another who will serve a suspension for a red card in the recent draw at Livingston. When Welsh is back playing regularly, his quality in midfield could be the difference between making plenty of chances and not scoring, and creating an abundance of chances and winning.
Although newcomers Welsh, Aaron Muirhead and Steven Lawless were all inspired signings (Hugh Murray’s influence is diminishing with a lack of appearances in recent months), it is the now-established guard of Chris Erskine and Kris Doolan who could have the biggest impact on Thistle’s title challenge. Steven Craig can always be relied upon to burrow runs that opposition defenders hate to defend against, but his lack of composure in defining moments can allow other teams back into a match – Thistle have let a winning position go in two of their last three matches.
It is clear that teams are beginning to learn how to play against Thistle after such a domineering first quarter of the season. While many think that Paul Paton is a fine defensive midfielder (converted from a right-back earlier in his career), he can occasionally be dispossessed in front of the penalty box, which allows the opposition the chance to land a sucker punch – this might not have resulted directly in a goal being conceded yet, but it is only a matter of time. Otherwise, Paton can be out-numbered against teams who play variations of 4-5-1 formations, including Morton and Livingston – maybe sacrificing Ross Forbes’s greater technique on the ball for Murray’s tactical awareness might help improve form away from home.
Thistle are still more than capable of producing superb performances at home. 7-0 and 5-1 victories against Airdrie United and Dunfermline Athletic within three weeks of each other were emphatic. 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 with the other two. JAM