Six months into the season and the Third Division has taken the shape that many imagined it would. As expected, Rangers sit atop the division with an unassailable lead; teams like Queen’s Park and Peterhead compete for the play-off places; and Clyde and East Stirlingshire continue to toil. Only Montrose have truly confounded their gloomy pre-season predictions with a series of excellent performances.
In many ways, the presence of Rangers has spoiled what would have been an otherwise hugely interesting championship. Instead of challenging for the title, the remaining teams must contend with competing for the three play-off places. Most sides are capable of finishing in second, third or fourth – such is everyone’s ability to beat everyone else, it would be foolish to discount Annan Athletic or Berwick Rangers, despite their current league position. A handful of positive results can quickly propel any team upwards; only East Stirlingshire and Stirling Albion appear destined to spend another season in the league.
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.
What we said in the mid-term report card: At long last, Rangers have finally clambered to the top of the Third Division – it’s just been so bloody difficult getting there. Much, much more than a total of 15 points was expected from Ally McCoist’s side. C-
Only at Rangers could a 12-game winning streak be so critically analysed. While the club are cruising at the top of the table, there is a nagging feeling that Ally McCoist could perform better with the resources at his disposal: simply put, the club are expected by many to rout their opponents on a weekly basis. Handsome victories are met with little more than indifference, but every squandered point is ruthlessly scrutinised. In many ways, McCoist is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t.
Indeed, it is the manager’s tendency to over-think and complicate his side’s tactical approach which some find frustrating. Walter Smith’s apprentice can still appear overly cautious in the face of modest opposition, when a more straight-forward approach is perhaps required. His side’s inability to break down organised, well-drilled sides is also concerning – for example, it took Fraser Aird’s decisive 93rd minute strike to break Queen’s Park, and the club were held at Ibrox for the first time by ten-man Elgin City.
There are also worries over personnel. Neil Alexander is beginning to look complacent in the Rangers goal, blundering twice in as many games, while centre-backs Ross Perry and Emilson Cribari are yet to convince. Ian Black, one of the club’s marquee signings, has still failed to adapt to the division – the player may complain about the roughhouse treatment he receives from opponents, but the truth is that Rangers look more purposeful in his absence.
Although they struggled through their opening round of matches, Rangers have now amassed a 17-point lead over second place Queen’s Park, and there is a good feeling around Ibrox. More than a decade ago (and particularly under Dick Advocaat’s reign), many would pitch up on matchdays with a “hurry up and score so we can all go home” attitude, but supporters are now genuinely relishing following their team. In players such as Aird, Lewis Macleod and Barrie McKay, the Gers boast some of the most exciting young talent in the country – as they advance through the divisions, their development will be fascinating. Captain Lee McCulloch has excelled, while David Templeton has shone since his deployment as a trequartista.
Although Rangers are now unable to surpass Gretna’s record points total of 98 set in 2004-05, it is of little consequence. In the coming weeks, McCoist will expect to bolster his squad and the club will begin to cast glances towards the Second Division (or indeed, a brand new league); after some uncertainty, promotion and the Third Division championship is now all but guaranteed. CGT
What we said: A total of 11 points from a potential 27 is perhaps not the greatest achievement in the history of football, but the definition of success must have its own context… their form is more than enough to consolidate a respected mid-table finish in the circumstances. B+
If Montrose supporters were contented with their team’s progress after the first quarter, they will be delighted with their season at the half-way point. Since Elgin’s 6-1 trouncing of the Gable Endies in mid-October, Stuart Garden has achieved a 60% win rate in the league. Montrose have already accumulated 29 points and are joint-second with Queen’s Park. Considering the expectations on the team at the beginning of the season, it is a pleasant surprise.
What has been the recipe of Garden’s relative success? There has been a gradual evolution to the team since the start of the campaign (only five who started in the weekend’s fine win away to Peterhead played against Clyde in the season opener), but generally speaking there has been a settled team. Seven players have played at least 16 out of 19 matches and Leighton McIntosh has been a regular since he joined on-loan from Dundee. Montrose get good value from their full-backs in an attacking sense, with Steven McNally and either Paul Watson or Richard McIntosh offering some assurance in possession of the ball – this can be advantageous in a league where 4-4-2 is predominant and full-backs can find precious free space deep on the flanks. On the flip-side, Montrose can be attacked behind their full-backs – this currently represents their biggest weakness, as Berwick Rangers realised in a recent 3-1 win at Links Park.
As the division’s third-most prolific scorers, it will be re-assuring to Garden that the goals are spread throughout the team. The recent extension of Leighton McIntosh’s temporary transfer was important because it has allowed the burgeoning forward partnership with Garry Wood to continue to prosper. Both strikers are big men who hold the ball up well – they have scored ten goals between them but more importantly, they act as a double-foil for midfielders to become involved in attacking play. Lloyd Young is currently top-scoring with seven goals; Jamie Winter has four, while David Gray and Scott Johnstone have three each from wide areas.
It will be fascinating to see if Garden can coax a similar win ratio for the rest of the season. Having beaten Peterhead twice in a row, Montrose will be confident they can surpass their peers’ performance on the park. Montrose have a heartening clutch of fixtures (Rangers away excepted) against the bottom four teams leading to Elgin just after Valentine’s Day – if they can improve their win ratio until then, we could see Montrose take one of the play-off spots at the end of the season.
One thing is certain: Martin Boyle is not missed anywhere near as much as it was anticipated. JAM
Queen’s Park (2nd)
What we said: While their form away from home has been creditable, it is at Hampden where QP appear to be struggling… When the side finally hit their groove, Queen’s Park should be able to pull away from the teams beneath them to consolidate a play-off position. B
It has been a distinctly mixed, yet ultimately satisfying season so far for Queen’s Park. The club began the campaign strongly, taking advantage of Rangers’ travails to climb to the summit of the league. Their outstanding form culminated in a 4-0 win at Elgin – their finest performance of the season – but following the victory, the Spiders slumped and collected a paltry three points from five matches. During this period, the club briefly dropped out of the play-off places and also ignominiously exited the Scottish Cup after a 0-4 rout at home from Stranraer.
Tony Quinn’s 90th minute penalty in the 2-1 victory over Stirling Albion in mid-November arrested their worrying run of results. Since defeating the Binos, the club have picked up ten points from a possible 15, with Rangers the only club to have defeated them during this time. In the current standings, QP are sitting in second place on goal difference, but they have two games in hand over their rivals.
Outwith Rangers, Queen’s Park have arguably the strongest starting XI in the division. Andy Robertson – yet another highly promising youngster – is one of the most enterprising full-backs in the division and a regular source of creativity. In midfield, the sublime David Anderson has developed a strong understanding alongside Tony McParland, while forwards Lawrence Shankland and Aidan Connelly are continuing to develop into fine players.
However, there are some concerns about the manner in which Gardner Speirs configures his attack. Tony Quinn is regularly selected despite offering very little, while Jamie Longworth – last season’s top scorer – is often overlooked and relegated to the bench. Speirs’ preference in playing with a burly target man has even seen midfielder Michael Keenan pushed into an advanced berth. Despite scoring seven times in the previous two matches, goals have been difficult to come by – until the New Year, the club were the fourth-lowest scorers in the division. Home form also continues to be something of a problem, with the Spiders only recording three victories in nine matches (two of which were customary wins over Clyde).
Over the next month, Speirs requires a handful of reinforcements to add ballast to the squad, but Queen’s Park should maintain their form to secure a play-off position come May. CGT