The League 1 End of Term Report Card

It wasn’t the most memorable of seasons, but the 2013-14 League 1 campaign had just about enough intrigue to hold the passing interest. There wasn’t really much for the casual observer to invest themselves with. The presence of Rangers rendered any hopes of a title challenge completely fanciful, while Dunfermline Atheltic’s resurgence in the second quarter – coming not long after their long-term financial footing had been guaranteed – ensured a second place finish. Stranraer, meanwhile – little Stranraer! – exceeded all expectations by climbing into third in early December and would stay there for the remainder of the season.

The only real allure came in the battle for the final play-off place with a number of teams competing for fourth, but Ayr United would claim it (despite their best efforts to throw it all away). Stenhousemuir tried to keep pace but were hampered by poor form over the winter months and hamstrung by too many draws, while Airdrieonians recovered from an appalling start to record a superlative 2014 (indeed, had the season been several matches longer, they might have even gatecrashed the top four). Forfar Athletic were too good to get involved in a relegation tussle but not good enough to battle for a promotion place, and there was disappointment for Brechin City, who failed to live up to their pre-season billing as play-off contenders.

The trapdoor swung open as two clubs were relegated into the basement league. East Fife’s early bluster and braggadocio amounted to nothing more than hot air, and they dropped out of the division via the play-offs; and Paul Sheerin endured the worst season of his professional career as his Arbroath slipped into League 2 after enduring a dismal campaign.

But all-in-all there was little drama as teams fell into established patterns too quickly and, with some exceptions, the season played out more or less as expected. Let’s hope that next term offers more magnetism than this.

 

Airdrieonians (6th)
C

If this report card graded Airdrieonians on their form throughout 2014 alone, then the Diamonds would surely have been awarded an A. Alas, the whole season must be taken into consideration and a reasonable C grade has been bestowed upon them instead. It has been a remarkable campaign, one that began with unutterable tumults before blossoming into something unexpected and spectacular. Nothing else in the SPFL this season has matched Airdrie’s turnaround – the only relative comparison is Dumbarton’s transformation under Ian Murray last term.

The last time we checked in on Airdrie’s progress, the outlook was dire. Jimmy Boyle had pieced together a misshapen squad that lacked any balance, direction or gumption. Players like Martin Hardie and David Sinclair were expected to form the cornerstone of a solid side but their absence of personality was reflected in their results – after two wins from their opening ten matches, Airdrie propped up the division.

In many respects, they were fortunate to have drawn Rangers at Ibrox in the third round of the Scottish Cup and the subsequent cash windfall that allowed them to pay off Boyle and replace him with Gary Bollan (where would they be had they drawn, say, Peterhead instead?). The new manager was unable to immediately rouse his side and between him and his predecessor, oversaw an appalling eight-game losing streak. The penultimate match of the run, a 3-4 loss at Brechin City in mid-December that saw them recover from a three-goal deficit only to concede again with seconds of its close, convinced Bollan that his team had something about them. “It was a disappointing end and of course the goal was avoidable,” Bollan said several months afterwards. “There is sometimes a lot to be said in saying we will settle for a point and clearing your lines as opposed to leaving yourself open and getting beaten. However the togetherness and team spirit that we showed that night showed that we were progressing.”

It looks like a coy understatement. Airdrie’s form exploded after the New Year and the side went on a superlative run of form: in 2014, Bollan’s side won nine and drew six of their 18 fixtures, losing just thrice (two of which came against Rangers) and collecting an average of 1.83 points per game. It is unfortunate the season ended when it did, as the Diamonds could have steamrollered their way into the play-offs had they been given more time.

Bollan will deservedly take the majority of the plaudits for the dramatic upturn. He began by weeding out the worst of Boyle’s summer recruits and instilled a greater sense of pride and fitness within his players. The manager’s canny recruitment also played its part. After working their way through six different goalkeepers – Colin Stewart, Andy Duncan, Scott Gallacher, Tony Bulloch, Jonathan Grier and Danny Rogers for those keeping count – the capture of Grant Adam from Cowdenbeath infinitely improved not only the position but the entire backline too, with his confidence and communication bringing out the best of those around him. It is not an understatement to say his signing was the major catalyst in their good form.

Elsewhere, Serbian defender Stefan Milojevic arrived in January and formed a commanding partnership with the excellent Gregor Buchanan – it might too simplistic a statistic but before Milojevic’s arrival, the team had lost 42 goals in 19 league matches; in his 17 appearances, they conceded just 15. Craig Barr, meanwhile, returning to Scotland after an indifferent spell in Sweden with Ostersunds, linked well with Darren McCormack in midfield and roamed across the pitch, acting as both a screen and a playmaker.

Securing Bollan on a two-year contract has been a major achievement and should allow the club to progress further next term. The losses of Barr (Raith Rovers) and Buchanan (Dunfermline Athletic) have a damaging potential but with refined approach to recruitment, Airdrie should be looking to make inroads on a play-off place. CGT

 

Arbroath (10th)
E-

In mid-January, our regular Five Things We Learned column recalled an early scene from The Dark Knight in which Harvey Dent discusses the nature of justice, public perception and mortality: “You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” Arbroath had lost at home to their local (and, at the time, their relegation) rivals Brechin City and Paul Sheerin’s side were toiling badly. Four months later and while Sheerin might not be a villain amongst the Gayfield support just yet, the heady days of 2011’s Third Division title must seem like an age ago. Sheerin’s fourth season in charge has concluded with relegation into League 2.

An inauspicious start, crashing out of both cup competitions and losing heavily at home to Ayr United in their opening league fixture, was offset by four victories and a mid-table placing after the first quarter. Inconsistent (each win was immediately followed by a defeat) but free-scoring, the recruitment of Lee Erwin on a short-term basis from Motherwell proved to have been a superb boon. The 19-year-old marked his debut with two stunning goals in a win over Brechin and took his personal tally to six in his first six games. With Alan Cook and Bobby Linn abetting the attack, the team had scored 18 times in their opening nine matches.

But that was mid-October. Three months later and after the defeat to Brechin, the Lichties had collected just two points from 11 games. Erwin had returned to Mothewell (and had been expected to break into Stuart McCall’s first team until a serious knee injury curtailed his season); Steven Milne abruptly announced his retirement, with a single league goal to show for his season’s contribution; and Steven Doris’s return to on loan from Dundee was restricted to just two appearances. Goals suddenly become a rare commodity.

It wasn’t just finding the net that proved Arbroath’s undoing; keeping the ball out at the other end was equally as problematic. The concession of 75 goals was the worst record in the SPFL this season. Although Sheerin was able to ease their offensive concerns by signing Paul McManus from Forfar Athletic and coaxing Kenny Deuchar out of retirement, he was unable to strengthen his defence and missed out on the experienced Mark McLaughlin and Stewart Greacen (who joined Dumbarton and Stenhousemuir respectively). The unit of Alex Keddie, Michael Travis, Colin Hamilton and Dave Banjo and goalkeeper Scott Morrison all endured terrible seasons but largely remained intact due to the lack of options. Sandy Wood joined from Montrose, Ryan McGeever signed on loan from Falkirk and Ricky Little returned after a lengthy injury lay-off but they made little improvement.

It wasn’t until March when Arbroath doubled their points tally from the first quarter but by this stage they were bottom of the table. Back-to-back wins over Brechin and East Fife at the beginning of the month and victories against Stranraer and Forfar in April gave some hope that a ninth place finish could be achieved but the club finished the season in tenth, a point behind East Fife.

The conclusion of The Dark Knight sees Batman convince Jim Gordon to frame him for Dent’s murders – the district attorney had been hailed as Gotham City’s “White Knight”, but whose battle against the criminal underworld left him disfigured and bent on revenge. Batman kills Dent in order to save Gordon’s son but wants to ensure that Dent remains a symbol of hope for the city. “Sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded,” he says.

Paul Sheerin has reached the stage where he needs to repay the support he retains amongst the Arbroath directors and fans. If he is to be a hero again, his side’s journey in the basement league must be a brief one. AG

 

Ayr United (4th)
C

In the aftermath of Ayr United’s Championship play-off semi-final defeat at Cowdenbeath, it was announced that manager Mark Roberts had agreed new terms with the club to keep him at Somerset Park for a third season. “The club’s aims were to avoid relegation and make a challenge for the play-offs,” Roberts said. “I was delighted we got there.”

The statement was accompanied with little fanfare, tucked away towards the end of a match report on the club’s official site, and greeted with even less enthusiasm by the support. After an “unacceptable” first season, 2013-14 has been little more than adequate.

Ayr’s league campaign started with a six-match unbeaten run and provided them with the platform to remain in the play-off places for the whole year but like so many aspects of their season – and, indeed, Roberts’ management – it was only a qualified success. Going into their seventh match, an away tie with Dunfermline Athletic, they were without a win in four games after consecutive draws. United were comprehensively torn apart by the Pars, losing 1-5 despite taking the lead. The match encapsulated Ayr’s season – they performed well against the league’s lesser lights (it wasn’t until the middle of January before they lost to a side beneath them in the table) but results against Dunfermline and Stranraer were desperately poor: a 2-4 reverse in the return fixture against the Pars; and dismal 3-6 and 0-4 defeats home and away to the Blues.

The failings against both sides highlighted the side’s shortcomings and did nothing to dispel the persistent doubts over Roberts’ credentials. His rigid 4-4-2 struggled against the division’s more fluid opposition; a cast of makeshift centre-backs shunted alongside Alan Lithgow contributed to a poorer defensive record than last term (although they kept clean sheets in a quarter of their matches); and the side continued to drop points from winning positions – 22 in total – much in the same manner as 2012-13.

And then there was Kevin Kyle. Signed in September after two trialist appearances, the former Scotland international failed to make a positive impact on the side. Before he joined, the team’s work-rate, shape, discipline and attitude looked immeasurably better than the previous season and although Craig Malcolm had failed convince in front of goal, his endeavor and link up play complemented the excellent Michael Moffat. When Malcolm was dropped in favour of Kyle, the side’s focus changed to playing long balls up towards the big striker. Kyle’s focus, in turn, seemed to be on haranguing referees; the side’s performances regressed with him in the starting XI.

Ayr lost twice as many games, ten, in the second half of the season as they did in the first, including four-in-a-row between February and March (a run which coincided with Moffat’s suspension). Although many considered finishing in a play-off spot a reasonably decent bet at the beginning of the season, United ended up stumbling into fourth after taking just four points from their final six matches (and became the first team to qualify for the second tier play-offs with less than 50 points).

Ayr might have finished three places and eight points better off than last term but there is still an agitation for change. To claim that avoiding relegation was an impressive achievement is an insult to a club that have never played in the country’s basement tier in their history; four years as a yo-yo club between the First and Second Divisions was frustrating, but now Ayr are also-rans in League 1 and go into the new season without Moffat, who has joined Dunfermline. Mark Roberts was revered as a player at Somerset Park but now shares a fractious relationship with the support. It is not a sound bedding for future success. AG

 

Brechin City (8th)
D

Brechin City started the season as favourites to finish as the “best of the rest” but it ended in a scrap to avoid relegation instead. Last term, Ray McKinnon was able to transform Jim Weir’s directionless side into an organised, fluid unit that crashed into the play-off places; this time around, with McKinnon having shaped the side in his own image, they haven’t come close to reaching the same heights. Brechin won just 12 matches all season (which contrasts with 12 victories in McKinnon’s first 16 in charge) and garnered 19 fewer points. It has been a frustrating season at Glebe Park.

The campaign started with cup defeats to Peterhead and Stranraer (a game in which they found themselves three goals down before half-time) and set the scene for a disappointing opening quarter in which they took just nine points. Despite the manager’s meddling – the starting XI and shape were both frequently altered and a number of short-term loan deals were brought into the club – there was no immediate improvement.

Their biggest concern? The defence. At the turn of the year, they had let in 36 goals in 18 league matches; by the end of the season, they’d conceded 71 (only Arbroath had lost more and kept fewer clean sheets). City’s backline was consistently undermined by individual errors, indiscipline and injury: captain Ewan Moyes was restricted to 17 appearances; Graham Hay failed to dominate matches in the same way he did last season; and Paul McLean was sent off twice, taking the team’s total to eight for the season (the League 1 record).

The nadir was a 1-5 home defeat to Forfar Athletic, described by McKinnon as “totally unacceptable”, who also labelled the defending as “horrendous”. Calum Antell, signed on loan from Queen of the South after Graeme Smith injured his hand in a dressing room incident in the aftermath of defeat to the Loons in the Scottish Cup the previous month, took most of the blame for the heavy loss.

A new look midfield duo, so important in McKinnon’s 4-2-3-1 formation, also played its part by failing to adequately protect the defence. Stuart Anderson and Allan Walker, both recruited from Raith Rovers, were disappointing and did not provide the required graft from the middle of the park – by January, Anderson had moved on to Formartine United, while Walker was placed on the transfer list. Striker Ryan Donnelly was also moved on in the New Year after failing to reinvigorate a once-promising career.

Can Brechin challenge for a play-off place next season? Although they were not as prolific as last year (both were absent through injury at points), Andy Jackson and Alan Trouten were reliable attackers, while Robert Thomson, signed from Dunfermline Athletic in January, added seven goals in 14 appearances. All three have been kept on for next season, but it is the defence which requires immediate surgery. With Hay, Moyes, Jonny Brown and Steven Robb all released, McKinnon must sign a completely new unit. His record in the transfer market so far, however, has been unimpressive. A big summer lies ahead. AG

 

Dunfermline Athletic (2nd)
B-

Dunfermline Athletic’s season reads like a mathematics problem in which all the working is perfect, but the final answer is wrong. Unlike a mathematics problem, however, there are no marks awarded for getting just the working right. Having spent almost three quarters of the season in second place, never good enough to challenge Rangers at the summit of the table but far superior to the rest of the division, their failure to win promotion was bitterly disappointing and as such, has coloured what went before.

Could it ever be described as a successful year for the Pars? In some ways, yes. Away from the pitch, their CVA agreement secured the club’s medium-to-long-term future and was, perhaps more than anything, their greatest achievement of the season. On the field, their core of young, callow talents have been given precious game time, something that can only benefit them going forward, while more senior players like Andy Geggan and Ryan Wallace have arguably improved over the past 12 months. At their best, the calibre of their performances was devastating (the manner in which the team comprehensively tore apart Ayr United 5-1 was ruthless in its execution) and their ability to transition from defence to attack was particularly eye-catching.

Perhaps the most impressive facet of their season was their ability to glean points from matches after going behind. Over the course of the year they collected 22 points from losing positions, winning seven times and drawing once. Their willingness to push teams to the end was also noteworthy – in three of their four meetings with Stenhousemuir, their victories came courtesy of goals scored after 90 minutes. In their first win over the Warriors, a rambunctious 5-4 at Ochilview, they trailed by two goals with six minutes remaining.

There were the occasional aberrations along the way but for the best part, Jim Jefferies’ side played like a full-time team should be expected to. But for whatever reason, Dunfermline effectively shut down with two months of the season remaining, and the team recorded just two wins in their final ten matches. Had the side lost their competitive edge? Had their players become jaded after a difficult season? Had other sides sussed them out?

Their poor form had come at the worst possible time and the Pars stuttered into the play-offs. In these moments, a team cannot rely on simple being there to compete – they must play their way into form. A leggy extra-time victory over Stranraer in the semi-finals was perhaps to have been expected – the Blues had entered the contest in similarly indifferent circumstances – but their performance against Cowdenbeath was abject. After an even first leg, the Pars reserved their worst display of the season for the second, conceding after 27 seconds before going on to lose 0-3. Jefferies must take the blame for their abject showing, with his questionable team selection and approach abetting Cowden’s prospects; he had no answer to the movement and the intelligence of Greg Stewart and Kane Hemmings.

Now Dunfermline will cast enviable glances at the excitement of the Championship, like Charlie Bucket pressing his nose up against the sweet shop window, as they spend a second year in the limbo of League 1. Retaining the bulk of last season’s squad was a sound move, as was the recruitment of Michael Moffat (the division’s best striker) and Gregor Buchanan (one of the league’s most underrated centre-backs) and both players should go some way to improving on this year’s achievements. Jefferies will go into the new term under some considerable pressure, however – one season without promotion is not acceptable; two would be unthinkable. CGT

 

East Fife (9th)
E-

It began with great promises and grand gestures, and it ended with relegation and recrimination. East Fife’s season has been one long cavalcade of disappointment – a disappointing manager working with disappointing players grinding out a series of disappointing results. Looking back at the snazzy promotional video, released almost 12 months ago to coincide with Lee Murray’s takeover, it seems surreal, like the whole thing was meant for a different team at a different time.

Willie Aitchison was a decidedly left-field appointment to replace Billy Brown last summer – the former Heart of Midlothian youth coach was virtually unheralded beyond Riccarton – and he boobed almost immediately by bringing together a hodge-podge of players: exotic imports from France; a handful of outcasts from Brechin City; the remnants of Cowdenbeath’s Second Division 2011-12 title winning side; and one or two members of last season’s underwhelming team. There was also talk of Christian and Raphael Nade, Ismael and Adam Bouzid, Darren Dods and even Nuno Gomes signing on at various stages, but nothing materialised. At least they got a new club shop instead.

Whether or not Aitchison was fully in charge of the recruitment process is another matter, but he was unable to fashion the team into anything resembling a cohesive unit and they were never to make inroads on the upper echelons of the table. In an interview with The Terrace, Murray appeared to undermined the manager by admitting he wasn’t necessarily his choice; it seemed only a matter of time until his dismissal. And so it proved – despite a handful of good results, most notably a remarkable 2-1 win over Dunfermline Athletic, one point from the subsequent four matches was not good enough and he was replaced by Gary Naysmith. Initial results were promising – four wins in seven was a decent enough return – but that was as good as it would get for the former Scotland international.

Airdrieonians improved in manner that East Fife could not match and two points in eight games between the beginning of February and mid-March saw them drop into ninth. The squad was turned over but it made little difference. Stephen Hughes, who had joined Dundee in the January transfer window only to return almost immediately on loan, was expected to help lift the team upwards but his impact on the second half of the season was negligible. With the exception of Liam Buchanan and maybe Gary Thom, too many players were uninterested, indifferent or just not good enough; the team lost their final four games and were fortunate to finish in ninth.

Overcoming an upwardly mobile Clyde in the play-off semi-final was unexpected; beating Stirling Albion in the first leg of the final was downright astonishing. Could the club repeat last season’s feat? No. They were badly exposed in the return fixture and there was a sense of inevitability about Sandy Cunningham’s winning goal nine minutes from time. There was something quite tender Naysmith’s post-match interview – a summer of contemplation has begun, and the manager and the chairman will both have learned a cruel lesson over the past few months.

The exorcism has already begun, with 14 players released over the past fortnight. An immediate return to League 1 must be seen as the priority – another season of indolence will sorely test the patience of East Fife’s disillusioned supporters. CGT

 

Forfar Athletic (7th)
C-

It has been an underwhelming campaign for Forfar Athletic. Finishing in seventh with 11 points fewer than last term, there has been little sign of progress on the field and, for a second consecutive year, the grumblings over Dick Campbell’s anachronous approach and erratic team selections remain.

The 60-year-old, now the longest serving manager in Scottish football after over six years at Station Park, spent the summer strengthening his side’s defence (which had conceded a dismal 74 goals over the previous campaign) and brought in the experience of Marvin Anders, Darren Dods, Stuart Malcolm, Mark Baxter and goalkeeper Rab Douglas. A pragmatic approach perhaps, but alongside left-back Iain Campbell, the manager was able to build a functional, competent backline and lost 12 fewer goals than last term. While the defence tightened up, however, there was an unfortunate and almost identical reduction seen in the “goals for” column.

Despite the relative lack of action in attack, the season was not without its moments. Rangers (albeit still under the restriction of their transfer embargo, if you wished to be kind to them) were caught cold in the first round of the League Cup and defeated in extra-time; a 4-0 victory over Dunfermline Athletic in October was ruthless and truly kick-started their league campaign; and the 5-1 win over Brechin City at Glebe Park in the New Year was simply devastating. Yet these highlights were all to brief and the side failed to gather any sort of consistency, both in terms of results and performance.

Forfar’s best run of the season came in March with wins over Stranraer (twice) and Ayr United, as well as a draw with Brechin, all coming within the space of 11 days. It allowed them to close the gap over the Honest Men in fourth to three points, but a chastening 1-5 reverse to Airdrieonians in the following match and one point from the subsequent four fixtures dampened any aspirations of promotion.

The Loons entered the final game of the season – Stranraer at Stair Park – with an outside shout of making the play-off places and they did their chances no harm with an early strike. It was pure Forfar: a long punt from the goalkeeper; a flick by Chris Templeman; confusion in the opposition defence; and Gavin Swankie sent clean through on goal to score. It didn’t affect the outcome of the match and the Blues put the setback behind them to swagger their way to a 3-1 victory. Speaking after the match, Campbell reflected on the year and looked forward to next term. “We have achieved what we said we would do, and that’s stay in the league,” he said. “Next year, I’ve got a lot of exciting things happened and some good young boys coming through.”

Enthusiasm and youth – two things badly needed at Station Park. AG

 

Rangers (1st)
C

What to make of Rangers’ season, then? Based on nothing more than their league campaign, it must be marked as an unqualified success. The Gers coasted through the season unbeaten, collecting 102 points from a possible 108 and scoring 106 goals along the way. The expression “you can only beat what’s in front of you” springs to mind and in that respect, both the players and the management should be satisfied with their efforts. “It has been a terrific league campaign and I thought we finished it well,” said Ally McCoist after their trophy presentation at the beginning of the month.

Yet Rangers’ season is judged on much more than their league form. Given their vast budget – the second highest in the country, lest we forget – there are a number of factors to take into consideration: the quality of their signings; their standard of performance; results in cup competition; and, given their financial travails, the emergence of youth and its integration within the first team. On almost every level, the club failed to reach these targets. McCoist may have been proud of his hard work over the course of the year (he sounded as though he was trying to convince himself most of the time) but his team achieved the bare minimum once again; for the sums of money tossed in the direction of the playing squad, it just hasn’t been good enough.

McCoist recruited well enough over the summer and strengthened a number of problem areas. Cammy Bell was an upgrade on Neil Alexander and enjoyed a fine season; Bilel Mohsni, for all his carelessness, could be a solid centre-back; Nicky Law’s early performances set the standard impossibly high and although his form tailed off as the conclusion approached, he was generally excellent throughout; and Jon Daly, run into the ground by the end of year, provided an additional dimension to the team’s attack, even if he wasn’t always the easiest on the eye. But players like Arnold Peralta, Stevie Smith and Ricky Foster failed to successfully augment the squad, with the latter in particular failing to convince at any point.

Flushed with the excitement of the new season and a new group of players, Rangers turned in their best performances at the opening stages of the campaign. Brechin City, Airdrieonians, East Fife, Arbroath and, in particular, Stenhousemuir were all soundly thrashed. At this point, the Gers looked exactly like what they were supposed to be – a full-time side mucking about against the country’s unambitious social clubs.

But the good times didn’t last and by around November, a malaise appeared to envelope itself around the club. The team were still winning – they dropped their first points of the season on Boxing Day against Stranraer – but they played without direction or conviction. There were a number of factors for the decline – McCoist’s lack of tactical acumen was the most obvious hindrance to his side’s progress and the manager often set up his team incorrectly without the foresight to make the necessary changes. Players were often deployed our of position for no discernable reason – Peralta arrived as a pugnacious anchor man but was played on the flank, while Andy Little, on the occasions he was selected, was stationed out wide rather than through the middle. A lack of motivation could have also played its part in their mediocre displays but when the manager is rewarded with a salary of more the £400,000, maintaining the players’ interest should never have been a concern.

Rangers reserved their poorest performances of the season for the cup competitions. A defeat to Forfar Athletic in the first round of the League Cup was almost immediately forgotten after McCoist rounded on former chief executive Charles Green who, ironically enough, had suggested that winning the league and nothing more would not constitute a successful season. The team failed to deal with Gavin Swankie’s clever movement in attack and eventually lost out in extra-time.

The nadir – and maybe the lowest point of McCoist’s tenure as manager – was the failure to overcome Albion Rovers in the Scottish Cup quarter-final at the first attempt. Moving the centre-back Mohsni into attack may have yielded a controversial equaliser but for the best part it was desperate, ugly stuff and as with so many other occasions throughout the season, they were unable to counter opposition who sat deep an invited pressure. They eventually triumphed courtesy of a replay and progressed to a semi-final with Dundee United – that the Rangers players ran about a bit and showed a level of effort sorely absent from the past few months belied the fact the United were the superior for the large majority of the contest. It was described as one of the team’s best displays of the season but it highlighted just how impoverished the support had become.

The Ramsdens Cup final defeat to Raith Rovers was equally as disappointing. It was a poor spectacle between two unimaginative sides, but Rangers were bereft of craft and guile and, as they had done for long periods over the season, shelled long balls towards Jon Daly again and again and again with no success. When John Baird scored in extra-time, three minutes from the end, it was unexpected but not shocking. Rangers deserved nothing from the match.

The failure to develop youth players was another cause for concern. In 2012, McCoist had spoken about the club’s need to adopt a similar structure to Ajax’s model but this term, only a handful of players have assimilated into the first team. Lewis Macleod and Fraser Aird are have established themselves but beyond that, other academy graduates appeared only fleetingly. As McCoist pursued an unbeaten season, the long-term development of the club’s youngsters was cast asunder (something which drew the ire of the support) – if they’re not going to feature in dead rubber matches in League 1, then when will they? That the talented Charlie Telfer is expected to decamp to Dundee United in search of regular game time is both frustrating and entirely understandable. More will likely follow eventually.

All of this criticism might sound unreasonable but given the context, much more than just the league title should have been expected from Rangers. With no long-term strategy in place, both in terms of a playing style and in youth development, McCoist will need to throw more money at another group of players to ensure a third consecutive promotion (something the club’s hierarchy should do with extreme caution, given the gloomy financial forecasts). Progressing to the Championship is one thing but once again, this has been another squandered opportunity for Rangers. CGT

 

Stenhousemuir (5th)
C

For the third consecutive season, Stenhousemuir have come within touching distance of a play-off place only to falter with the finishing line in sight. The campaign has been decidedly mixed, with infrequent highlights entangled alongside numerous lows; on reflection, more could have been achieved than another fifth place finish.

Despite finishing the first quarter in second, there were several concerns about the form and function of Martyn Corrigan’s side. The defensive unit lacked coherence and looked routinely haphazard (the 0-8 defeat at Rangers and the astonishing 4-5 home loss to Dunfermline Athletic – a match in which they held a two-goal advantage with six minutes remaining – both had to be seen to be believed) but they were exposed time and again by a system that offered them no protection. They were well-served further forward though, with John Gemmell and Sean Dickson contributing with reasonable regularity and even progressed to the semi-final of the Ramsdens Cup.

After winning three league matches in as many months, Corrigan’s position was brought into question, and the manager was eventually dismissed in January after four consecutive defeats (his final match, a 1-2 capitulation at Arbroath highlighted his tactical inadequacies). Brown Ferguson brought the club back onto an even keel after overseeing five consecutive draws – including a fantastic 3-3 draw with Rangers at Ibrox – and a superb win over Forfar Athletic. During this time, the Warriors developed an excellent habit of scoring late goals (four of his six matches featured equalisers scored in the final five minutes of matches) but his tenure was blackened by a dismal 0-2 loss at Albion Rovers in the Scottish Cup, a highly presentable tie in which not one player emerged with any credit.

Scott Booth, the former Scotland U-17s coach, was appointed manager in March and built on Ferguson’s good work, encouraging a fluid, possession-based approach built around team ethic and self-sacrifice. Although the approach yielded 12 points in six matches, it was the penultimate match of the season, a 1-2 home defeat to Airdrieonians that effectively ended Stenhousemuir’s chances of a play-off place. Booth was not to everyone’s taste and number of players could not integrate, most notably John Gemmell who publicly (and cryptically) expressed his disdain on a number of occasions. Despite having agreed terms for 2014-15, Gemmell left the club and has since attempted to convince other players not to join.

Over the course of the season, several players emerged as key performers. Goalkeeper Chris Smith was the team’s most valuable asset and turned in a series of consistently high displays, while Sean Dickson experienced one of his best campaigns for the club. Stewart Greacen was arguably the team’s best outfield player despite only joining in January while Josh Watt, disregarded by Corrigan, emerged under Ferguson before firmly establishing himself in the starting XI.

If Stenhousemuir are to go one step further next season then Booth must recruit carefully and sign players with the talent and the personality to buy into his methods. He must also find a way to improve the side’s consistency – they drew 12 games, more than any other team in the league for the second consecutive season. With sizeable number of good players having left the club in the last few weeks, Booth’s summer transfer activity will be observed with fascination. CGT

 

Stranraer (3rd)
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Among the machinations over who should win the SPFL Manager of the Year, it is unlikely that much thought was given to Stephen Aitken, manager off Stranraer. Queen of the South’s Allan Johnston might have been awarded the accolade last season but a third place finish in the same division is unlikely to have chimed with many. Yet Aitken and his Stranraer side have enjoyed an outstanding campaign and are perhaps deserving of greater plaudits.

Twelve months ago, this site reflected on Straraer’s eighth place finish and noted the importance of their results against strugglers Albion Rovers and East Fife, as well as Craig Malcolm’s contribution, but it cautioned that a repeat was far from certain. The departure of the 19-goal Malcolm and a stuttering start to the season gave credence to the concerns but the following months dispelled the doubts in spectacular style. Not since Neil Watt’s celebrated era has the Stair Park club experienced success at this level. Although the side’s form dipped badly after the New Year, there was no disgrace in failing to emulate 2004-05’s promotion to the First Division, not when so many had the Blues tipped for relegation.

Aitken deserves immense credit for Stranraer’s success. Not only did he recruit well over the summer, bringing in the players to specifically address the team’s deficiencies, the manager fashioned a well-drilled, balanced side that sought to play a high-tempo game. Their attractive one-touch and two-touch passing game brought around a series of impressive results, most notably 6-3 and 4-0 victories over Ayr United and the 1-1 draw with Rangers at Ibrox on Boxing Day. Perhaps even more salient was the run of form between the end of September and the beginning of March: in 21 games, they won 13 and drew five, taking an average of 2.1 points per game in the process.

Straraer are, in many ways, greater than the sum of their parts but a number of players have stood out. David Mitchell had spent the last few years quietly establishing himself as an accomplished young goalkeeper but was let down by the unreliable defence in front of him; this term, the backline improved immeasurably thanks to the colossal Frank McKeown. McKeown superbly marshaled the defence into a fully-functioning, cohesive unit and excelled alongside Mark Docherty, Scott Robertson and Scott Rumsby (brought in on loan from Aberdeen).

Further forward, the loss of Craig Malcolm was offset by the prowess of Jamie Longworth and Martin Grehan, the division’s outstanding strike partnership. Longworth’s knack of appearing at the right place at the right time was no accident – Grehan’s hold-up play brought the best out of the former Queen’s Park forward and abetted his run of 18 goals in 17 games between September and December. Grehan’s own tally of 18 for the season was a career best. Andy Stirling, an elusive presence on the left flank, had such an impact that it is likely he’ll be playing at a higher level than League 1 next term.

The good run of form couldn’t last, however. Aitken was unable to strengthen his squad during January and his side garnered just six points from their final ten matches. It would have been a travesty if they had failed to contest the play-offs, but victory over Forfar Athletic on the final day of the season ensured their participation. Stranraer confounded expectations once again, beating Dunfermline Athletic in the first leg and then taking them to extra-time in the second before eventually losing out. Regardless of the way the season ended, it would take a brave man to tip this side for relegation next term. AG

Tell Him He's Pelé

Tell Him He's Pelé

If Tell Him He's Pelé were a boy band, they would probably be the much-missed One True Voice, both in terms of appearance and musical output.

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