Elgin City (5th)
What we said: Ending the first quarter of the season joint-top of the division with Rangers must be seen as a task well accomplished thus far. However, having been in winning positions in the last two league matches to finish with successive 2-2 draws, one can only wonder “what if”. B
Things were going brilliantly for Elgin until just before Christmas. Before the heavy 2-6 loss at home to Rangers, City were unbeaten in nine matches and sitting comfortably in second place in the league, four points ahead of Queen’s Park. They were difficult to beat, keeping their nearest rivals Peterhead and QP at arm’s length in scoring draws, while exploiting the defences of teams further down the league (scoring an aggregated total of 15 against Montrose, Berwick, Stirling and Clyde).
The Rangers defeat seems to have had a debilitating effect, as Elgin lost twice more in succession, including a resounding 0-3 loss at home to Peterhead. A late equaliser at Ibrox at the weekend was of mild relief to Ross Jack’s team, who are now taking stock of a difficult and, for many, emotional festive period.
City have great promise in the understated elegance of Mark Nicolson’s footwork in central midfield; Jamie Duff’s experience in defence; Daniel Moore’s craft on the wing; and Stuart Leslie’s controlled aggression in the final third. However, finding the correct balance in defence has been an issue – Nicolson has occasionally been deployed in central defence, while team captain and natural defender David Niven has been curiously been utilised in midfield at times. Niven’s lack of height for a defender can sometimes be an issue, but his leadership qualities are indispensable to a team fighting for their first promotion since joining the SFL.
Elgin City are certainly still candidates to finish between second and fourth in the league. However, with the emergence of Montrose as a surprise rival alongside Queen’s Park and Peterhead, nothing can be guaranteed. JAM
What we said: Peterhead still have plenty time to improve their long-term form over the season, but needless red cards must be avoided to keep up with the pack. C
Had this review been written less than a week earlier, when Peterhead were second in the league with a point over Elgin, would we have given the Blue Toon a B+ rather than a C+? Probably not, because their league season has thus far been too inconsistent – in relation to expectation – to merit an above-average score.
The period from the beginning of December 2012 to date has typified Peterhead’s season, where they have won as many matches as they have lost. Although Jim McInally’s team might be expected to beat East Stirlingshire at home (as they did quite comfortably before the New Year), they followed it up with an emphatic 3-0 victory away to Elgin City. The successive wins arrived for the first time since September and suggested the beginning of a renaissance to consolidate second place. However, Peterhead thereafter contrived to lose 0-1 at home to Montrose last weekend (in a match which the away team all but dominated), leaving us to wonder if they can cling on to fourth place.
They surely should. Rory McCallister might only have half of the goals of the league’s top scorer at the moment, but on a number of occasions, he has uncharacteristically curled a number of clear-cut chances beyond the far post that one would normally bank on him finishing. As long as Martin Bavidge can stay fit and on form, opposition defences will have enough to contend with to give McAllister the space needed – it is very feasible that he will score 15 or more goals this season. There is still quality in the squad elsewhere, with the recent signing of David Cox until the end of the season a boon for the club – the tattooed anatomy, low centre of gravity and ability to snapshot from anywhere around the penalty box reminds this writer of Ryan Stevenson. Meanwhile, Ryan Strachan occasionally shows an invaluable quality to bring the ball out of defence to provide service to the front line and more of this will be needed if Peterhead are to win more matches than their play-off rivals.
Would a fourth place finish be good enough for Peterhead? The vagaries of the play-off system are such that it might be beneficial to finish fourth and face a theoretically easier semi-final, but as long as a play-off finish was obtained then it would almost certainly be good enough. Nevertheless, for the talent contained in the squad, even their current position might suggest they would not have enough momentum to achieve promotion to the Second Division. Only time will tell, but they could certainly benefit from Scott Ross being sent off less often, which is an issue that continues to undermine the team’s progress.
With margins between second and mid-table as fine as they are, Peterhead cannot afford to be so reckless. JAM
Berwick Rangers (6th)
What we said: Berwick’s current form is certainly promising. If they are able to maintain their performances at home whilst improving results away from Shielfield Park, Little’s side have the potential to barge into the play-off places. B
Berwick Rangers finished 2012 with a whimper – in the final four matches of the calendar year, the club collected a solitary point. Form has improved in the New Year, with victories over Montrose and East Stirlingshire, but a lack of consistency has precluded the club from genuinely challenging for a play-off position thus far.
There have been a number of positives for Ian Little’s side over the course of the season. Dougie Brydon has been the division’s outstanding defender and has reportedly attracted interest from Hibernian, Sunderland, Stoke City and Leeds United – while it may be a little far-fetched to imagine the 25-year-old centre-back joining a Premier League club, it is certain his future lies away from Berwick. Dylan Easton, recruited from Livingston, has proved to be a canny addition and has brought pace and trickery to the flanks, while Lee Currie continues to impress from central midfield, particularly from dead ball situations.
New transfers are required if the club are to mount an assault on the division’s upper echelon. Although Darren Lavery is an instinctive goal-scorer, a physical presence is needed to augment his clever play; Brechin City’s out-of-favour striker Scott Daziel has been mooted as a possible transfer. The goalkeeping position is also a source of consternation. Youssef Bejoaui’s performances have veered from the slightly haphazard to the downright comical – his last appearance for the club was in the atrocious 3-6 capitulation to Stirling Albion where he was directly culpable for at least three of the Binos’ goals. Ian McCaldon has since been installed as first choice, but Little has stated he plans to bring in competition over the next few weeks. Away form must also improve – Berwick have only won away from Shielfield on three occasions (although they have beaten Montrose at Links Park twice).
Regardless, Berwick Rangers are still within touching distance of the play-off places. The next month will be crucial for Little – if he is able to correct the club’s defensive tics and build on their attacking brand of play by freshening the squad, a third or fourth place finish could become a realistic possibility. CGT
What we said: Despite a strong start to the season, Clyde’s form has dipped badly and the club appear to have lost their early season momentum… Clyde look like the only side in the division unwilling or unable to play football. C
Clyde are almost exactly in the same place as we found them previously: just ahead of the bottom two and without much hope of threatening to infiltrate the play-off places. In fact, the Bully Wee’s points-per-match ratio has dropped from 1.25 to 1.05 since the last review, which suggests their four-point margin over East Stirlingshire is down to the latter’s failings more than Clyde’s success.
Clyde probably should be better than they currently are. Three wins in the last ten matches (with seven losses) is not a terrific record, but in those victories Clyde’s attacking talent has shone. The club have only drawn one game all season and yet have lost six matches by just the odd goal. There are of course a multitude of reasons why any team loses goals, but there appears to be two recent themes in this case: goals conceded from crosses due to a lack of experience in central defence, and goals let in from drilled shots around the edge of the penalty box “D”. As a former defender himself, manager Jim Duffy needs to work on these issues.
One would expect a positionally aware and tidy defensive-minded midfielder would improve Duffy’s team exponentially, to provide the balance to the sometimes excellent attacking talent in the squad. Paul Hay has his critics but he does create a lot of chances from his uniquely chipped corner kicks (even if Sean Fitzharris is equally adept).
Further forward, Kevin Watt has proved himself as a quality finisher when given the chance mano-a-mano with the goalkeeper, but the problem has generally been providing good enough service to him. Stuart McColm and Fitzharris on the left and right flanks respectively have been too inconsistent – whereas the latter can be accepted to have variations in form as a traditional winger as conditions suit, the former should pose more of a physical threat on a regular basis as a six-foot-plus wide midfielder. There is still not enough football being played through midfield, a problem worsened by having full-backs who do not provide enough of a supporting role going forward.
The potential prize player in the squad is Stefan McCluskey, who has had no more than ten appearances in the league but has shown enough promise to be a regular starter as Clyde’s Number 10. McCluskey has an ability to wrap his right foot around the football like few others in the league – his whipped shots and crosses will hopefully provide a consistent source of goals and assists in the near future.
Jim Duffy might continue to do what he is doing quite comfortably, and eighth place could even be considered an improvement on last season. However, third bottom of the SFL might not be good enough for some supporters who still remember Clyde as a force in the First Division. Even if those achievements now seem a distant memory, Duffy’s team should be looking to the play-offs, rather than settling for mediocrity. JAM