It’s been an interesting couple of months in League 1, and the division has become the most competitive in the country. Eight points separates the top five sides, while there are as many as seven teams legitimately eyeing promotion. Recent managerial changes have also added intrigue to the relegation battle; there is drama to be found everywhere.
It is curious that two part-time teams lead the division. Both Stranraer and Forfar Athletic were expected to challenge for the play-off places but their general excellence has seen them climb to the summit. Steve Aitken deserves immense credit for maintaining the Blues’ good form over the course of the season and it can only be a matter of time before he moves on to better things. The Loons, meanwhile, lurk closely behind having benefitted from a number of intelligent summer signings.
Greenock Morton and Dunfermline Athletic – both full-time, lest we forget – lie in third and fourth respectively. Given the quality of the squad and the calibre of their manager, a play-off place is probably about right for the Ton but Pars supporters have every right to be dismayed by the current state of affairs. A championship title was the expected outcome and to find themselves adrift by such a margin at this stage of the season is unacceptable.
Brechin City and Airdrieonians linger on the cusp of the play-off places and, on current form, have every reason to believe they can finish in the top four. Peterhead in seventh are just as like to march up the up the table as they are to stay exactly where they are.
Stenhousemuir and Stirling Albion have been the season’s only real constants – the former have been largely mediocre while the latter just don’t look good enough to compete in the division (although performances have improved over the last four weeks). Ayr United’s decline, meanwhile, has been as severe as it has been alarming; new manager Ian McCall faces an unenvious task in leading his team away from the foot of the table.
Between now and May, anything can happen.
It has been a damn fine couple of months for Airdrieonians. Having put their underwhelming start to the season behind them, the Diamonds are on a good run of form and have taken 17 points from their last ten games to jump from ninth into sixth. Undefeated in their last five matches, there is no reason to suggest they can’t carry it on into the play-off places.
Indeed, recent results have been excellent and Gary Bollan’s side have really hit their stride. The 3-1 home win over Dunfermline Athletic was arguably their best display of the season (and particularly satisfying for captain Paddy Boyle, a former Pars player who beat off chants of “reject” with two neat assists) while they took full advantage of Ayr United’s ineptitude in a 3-0 victory – Airdrie were very decent but the opposition’s generous defending has to be seen to be believed. The weekend’s 1-0 win over Greenock Morton was achieved with little fuss.
The current season is playing out in a remarkably similar fashion to the last – a poor opening gave way to gradual improvement before blossoming into something outstanding. Like the previous campaign, their upturn has come around through Bollan’s clever use of the transfer market. Scott Fraser, brought into the club on loan from Dundee United, has been superb. The 19-year-old midfielder scored three minutes into his debut against Brechin City and has gone on to become a dominant force in the middle of the park. His goal in the 2-0 win over Stenhousemuir was a stunning hit.
Centre-backs Ben Richards-Everton and Luca Gasparotto, signed on a temporary basis from Partick Thistle and Rangers respectively, have added security and stability to the backline. Although Richards-Everton can sometimes be a little flamboyant for his own good, the pair are far better than David Proctor and Marc Fitzpatrick in the middle of defence. With Fraser and Richards-Everton set to return to their parent clubs in the coming weeks and with Gasparotto absent until February, Bollan will have to replace them with care.
Whoever the manager does bring in will join a solid group of players. Andy McNeil has looked assured in goal (although there is a feeling that a calamity is just around the corner), while Nathan Blockley is a livewire presence in midfield. In attack, the returning Bryan Prunty has formed a strong partnership with Jim Lister. Lister has been an important player this term – although he has only scored five league goals, he facilitates so much more and has brought out the best from those around him.
The squad is a little slender in places, more so with the outgoing loanees, and Bollan will be required to repeat last season’s trick. If he can source a handful of quality additions whilst maintaining the form of his existing options, then Airdrieonians can go one better than last year’s sixth place finish. CGT
Ayr United (9th)
Amateurish. Abject. Awful. Abysmal. Ayr United.
It would be difficult to exaggerate just how bad the Honest Men have been in recent months. Their downward trajectory has been sharp: Ayr were top of the league after six games; third after the first quarter; and then ninth at the mid-point of the campaign. Five consecutive league defeats (and just one win in nine) made Mark Roberts’s position untenable; three games under caretaker Andy Millen (a draw, courtesy of a last-minute Craig Beattie goal against Stirling Albion and two further losses) exposed a massively inadequate squad and their complete crisis of confidence.
Roberts insisted that, at full strength, his side was a match for anyone in the league but even with key personnel all available the whole set up appeared increasingly disjointed and incapable. Belief drained from the players with every defeat – goalkeeper David Hutton in particular has been culpable for some dreadful errors – and the team and their manager looked like beaten men in the end, simply just going through the motions.
Notwithstanding Roberts’s managerial shortcomings, Ayr’s whole season has been entirely undermined by inadequate options in defence and in this regard, the former manager shot himself in the foot. First choice centre-back pairing Martyn Campbell and Peter Murphy have endured predictably injury-strewn seasons, completing 90 minutes alongside each other just five times. Kevin McKinlay, Scott McLaughlin and even Craig Beattie have all been deployed at the back this season, forming a particularly fragile foundation. It is hard to give any player pass marks but when he’s not been injured, McKinlay has been especially poor and, like Hutton, has been liable for a number of lost goals in recent matches.
Charged with sorting out this sorry mess is Ian McCall, appointed on Monday evening. The former Dundee United and Partick Thistle manager impressed chairman Lachlan Cameron with his hunger for the role, after almost becoming the forgotten man of Scottish football (McCall has been out of work since leaving Thistle in April 2011). He is under no illusions as to what is required. “This is a clean slate for all the players, they will have the chance to show me what they can do,” he said, adding, “However I will be looking to bring players in quickly to improve the squad.”
McCall has also talked about making Somerset Park a fortress once again: “Somerset was always a horrid place to play and the fans behind the goal were really passionate. We need to try and get that back.” It will take some doing– it is only six years since the Honest Men went a whole league campaign unbeaten at home; this season they have picked up just seven points from a possible 36. It is 138 days since United last won at home.
The extent to which McCall can turn things round will depend on the quality of the players he can recruit in the short-term and what he can salvage from the wreckage of the first half of the season. There are reputations at play: McCall’s, the club’s and those of their underperforming players. Ayr can pull away from relegation trouble – but it can’t be assumed. AG
Brechin City (5th)
Ray McKinnon can be satisfied with thoroughly productive two-and-a-half months as Brechin City have quietly put together a fine run of form which has seen them finish 2014 as the side best placed to challenge the established top four. The Hedgemen recovered from a stumble between late September and early October (they suffered four defeats in five) to put together an 11-match unbeaten run that culminated in Saturday’s superb victory at Forfar Athletic (it was also the Loons’ first home loss of the season). They have finished the first half of the season level on points with Dunfermline Athletic in fourth.
Brechin’s good form has its foundations in consistent team selection, particularly at the back. During the summer, McKinnon overhauled a defensive unit that conceded, through a combination of injuries, ill-discipline and poor form, 71 goals in 36 games. This term, City have let in 11 fewer goals than at the same stage as last season – only table-toppers Stranraer a better record. Recent months have seen Gerry McLauchlan partner Darren McCormack at centre-back, Colin Hamilton play out on the left, and Paul McLean revert to right-back (Jamie McCormack didn’t quite work out); the same back four has lined up consistently in front of the influential Graeme Smith.
Expect McKinnon to use judiciously the loan system over the coming months – Jamie Masson and Kyle McAusland have provided a robust presence in the midfield over recent months but have returned to Aberdeen and Rangers respectively. Of all the promotion play-off contenders, Brechin’s squad looks the thinnest and the departure of Masson and McAusland weakens their midfield (albeit McAusland is expected to return before the end of the month).
Craig Wighton has already joined on loan from Dundee. The prodigious talent has signed until the end of the season and could prove to be a real coup. The 17-year-old striker was impressive at Station Park, showing signs that he can combine with Alan Trouten, Bobby Barr and Andy Jackson to form one of the division’s most dangerous attacking units. His quick feet, touch and intelligence exactly fit City’s offensive modus operandi.
Brechin have been a fixture in Scottish football’s third tier for nine seasons now, finishing in the top four more often than not. Previous promotion attempts have come unstuck by injuries, suspensions and fatigue and to avoid a repeat, the club my need to speculate to bolster Ray McKinnon’s roster. With a little good fortune, however, it would be foolish to bet against their season extending into mid-May. AG
Dunfermline Athletic (4th)
To say that Dunfermline Athletic’s season hasn’t quite played out like expected is a quiet understatement – it has been a very disappointing campaign so far. In the summer it was predicted that the Pars would conquer all who stood before them on their march towards the championship; instead, they’re duking it out in the final play-off place and sit as many points from the to of the table as they do from Stenhousemuir in eighth. Dunfermline are in a malaise that shows now sign of stopping just yet.
Their progress in the first quarter was satisfactory but since their 1-0 victory over Ayr on 10 October, the Pars have won only two of their last nine league matches (both of which came against the division’s bottom two sides) and slithered down the table. A four-game run without a victory highlighted their shortcomings: in the 1-1 draw at Balmoor, the Dunfermline had the chances to win the game several times over before Jamie Stevenson’s 88th minute equaliser; against the Warriors, meanwhile, they saw plenty of the ball but were unable to do anything telling with it before Kris Faulds’s decisive strike. Their lack of ruthlessness is a major weakness.
The disappointing Scottish Cup defeat at home Stranraer and a dismal surrender at Airdrieonians convinced Jim Jefferies that the game was up and he brought his retirement forward by six months (although it is unclear if the decision was entirely his own). John Potter, his intended successor, assumed charge of first-team affairs but there has been no upturn in form and the team are yet to win under his management. Potter had coached the club’s U-20 side with distinction but has struggled to repeat his success with the senior team.
Dunfermline are not getting value for money from this group of players. On paper at least, they have the personnel to beat any side in the division but the side increasingly looks less than the sum of its parts, particularly in midfield: Ross Forbes is a tidy ball player but he tends to decorate games rather than dominate them and often looks like a luxury; Josh Falkingham provides lots of huff and puff but little else; Andy Stirling seems unable to repeat last season’s form; and Andy Geggan’s only major contribution has been avenging the good people of Fife in last weekend’s home draw with Peterhead.
And then there is Michael Moffat. By this stage last season with Ayr United, the striker had netted 17 goals in all competitions; this year he has just four, and 15 games have been and gone since he last scored. Yes, he still works hard for the team and always looks to involve himself but he looks completely bereft of confidence in front of goal. The harder he tries, the worse it gets – his miss in the defeat at Stenhousemuir was quite astonishing. Drafting in another forward in the transfer window might not go amiss.
What cannot be faulted is Dunfermline’s defending. They are a solid unit and the concession of 16 goals is the best record in the league. Ryan Scully is arguably the best goalkeeper in the division, while centre-back Gregor Buchanan is always a commanding presence. Right-back Ryan Williamson has also looked the part but injury and a strange preference for Ross Millen have limited his game time thus far.
Potter has already strengthened his defensive options by bringing in Jim Paterson and more players might follow over the coming weeks. They need something to pull them out of this rut – there is still the belief that Dunfermline will pick up and climb the division but results must improve quickly if they are to keep up with the sides above them and beat off the challenge of Brechin City below. The club require automatic promotion from the league – another fraught play-off contest just simply will not do. CGT
Forfar Athletic (2nd)
No side has held top spot in League 1 for longer than Forfar Athletic this season – eight weeks – but the turn of the year finds the Loons in something of a funk. On Saturday, their unbeaten home record was surrendered to Angus rivals Brechin City with little more than a whimper. Manager Dick Campbell admitted City were well worth the victory, saying: “I’d say the last six performances, we’ve not been firing on all cylinders”. Indeed, in their last ten matches Forfar have only overcome the division’s bottom three sides.
The Loons reached the summit of the division at the end of September in the midst of an eight-game unbeaten streak. Their experienced backline was dependable as ever and in attack, Gavin Swankie, Dale Hilson and Danny Denholm formed a lively, intricate combination (with Omar Kadar and Chris Templeman supplementing Campbell’s options). Perhaps crucially, and unlike in previous seasons, with Stephen Husband and Derek Young in the side – well established in relative terms – they had an effective midfield that would allow the Loons to dictate affairs.
It is perhaps no coincidence that Forfar’s slump coincided with Derek Young’s absence with a knee injury picked up in training. The 34-year-old former hasn’t featured since the Loons’ 3-1 victory at over Brechin (the game which sent them top) and his understudies, including Scott Smith on loan from Dundee United, have not had the same influence. The frontline is also going through something of a collective lean period: Swankie, Hilson and Denholm scored a total of 16 goals in the opening 11 games of the season; they have just three between them in the ten matches since.
New faces are promised in the upcoming weeks and the squad – one of the division’s oldest – would benefit from some freshening up. It has been a long road to get to this point for Campbell, who will reach seven years in the Station Park hot seat in May (comfortably Scottish football’s longest-serving manager) and it would be regrettable if he didn’t have at least a decent play-off campaign to show for his efforts – but have his squad grown too long in the tooth? The manager and his players will need all their vast experience in the forthcoming weeks to remain in the title race. AG
Greenock Morton (3rd)
On the whole, very little has changed for Greenock Morton over the second quarter. They’re in the same league position, they’ve more or less taken the same number of points and they still look like strong candidates to finish the season in the top four. Even so, there is a definite feeling of discontent at Cappielow, with many supporters disillusioned with recent results; it is difficult not to sympathise.
Morton’s full-time status gives them a number of advantages over the majority of their opponents – Jim Duffy has more time to prepare his players, work on specific strategies and improve their fitness – but when the majority of the squad just simply aren’t up to the task, the additional training makes little difference. For instance, how many players from Morton’s starting XI would be selected by Stranraer or Forfar Athletic? Derek Gaston, maybe? Conor Pepper? Duffy’s personnel are so inferior compared to their rivals that third place is probably just about right, all things considered.
For a little while at least, Morton were doing pretty well. Four consecutive wins between October and November – including fine victories over Dunfermline Athletic and Forfar – lifted them to the top of the table and even saw Duffy collect the SPFL Manager of the Month award. The Ton weren’t necessarily spectacular but their performances merited the results. Since beating Stenhousemuir on 22 November, however, and their form has tumbled.
Morton were embarrassed by Spartans in the Scottish Cup, and have gone on to win just one of their following five matches. Results at Cappielow had carried them through the opening stages of the campaign but their home form has dissipated – Brechin City, Peterhead and Airdrieonians have all taken something from their adventures on Inverclyde. Shunting centre-backs into various unfamiliar positions might have done the trick earlier in the season but the tactic holds no sway now and decisive action during the transfer window is required.
Finding an adequate replacement for Declan McManus will be a difficult task. The on-loan Aberdeen forward has scored a third of their league goals and brought speed and creativity to the side – given the alternatives are the lumbering Andy Barrowman and the callow Jon Scullion, another striker is required immediately. Ingenuity is also badly missing from the squad, while Joe McKee and Stefan McCluskey aren’t good enough and need upgraded. Whether or not Duffy is able to identify and address the problem areas is another matter entirely, given his recent signings.
Duffy was never a popular appointment and supporters, already disenchanted with the running of the club, are increasingly frustrated with each passing week. Forthcoming matches at Stenhousemuir and Ayr United offer the Ton the chance to correct their wayward form and as long as Morton remain in the play-off places, their grumbles will likely go unheeded. As long as chairman Dougie Rae is placated, Duffy’s position is secure for now. CGT
It’s been a funny old season for the Blue Toon so far. They should still be regarded as being too good to fall into the relegation play-off place on account of the firepower they have, but they don’t have all that much of an advantage over Stenhousemuir and the others below them in the table. They do have a couple of games in hand, however, which they might not necessarily take full points from but which should further consolidate their mid-table position. As things currently stand, they don’t look like threatening to infiltrate the higher echelons of the division, despite having being able to utilise players of the calibre of Rory McAllister, Nicky Riley (for a short spell) and Mark Millar until recently.
Millar’s presence has been a curious one. This time last year, he was in the process of influencing the transformation of Falkirk’s form, from losing as many games as they had won to winning seven games in an 11-match unbeaten streak, taking them from fourth to first place in the table. Millar was entirely pivotal to that, with his role as the senior midfielder in the side bringing out the best in others, as well as showing exemplary form himself while on loan from Dundee United.
However, at Peterhead, his impact has been nothing of the sort. In the midfield three, he tends to sit at the back in a passive role, similar to what he did at Falkirk but without ever exerting any controlling influence on the match. Partly that is due to the defenders behind him passing the ball over his head (which is no excuse, because in a three-man midfield he should typically be a free player on the pitch); partly due to Jamie Stevenson’s bearing on the team’s play; and partly due to a lack of motivation. Whatever the reason, Millar’s involvement hasn’t worked out when it had the potential to make Peterhead a force for the play-offs.
The club’s form has been very inconsistent. It doesn’t help that there isn’t an established goal-scorer this season beyond McAllister and Stevenson, who have ten league goals between them – more than half of the team’s total. That they aren’t further down the table is testament to the quality of their defensive unit on the whole, with Scott Ross, Ryan Strachan and Steven Noble stepping up from League 2 adequately.
Nonetheless, they probably haven’t recovered from Graeme Sharp’s departure, previously using David Cox as an auxiliary wing-back, but more recently Cammy Kerr has been brought in on loan to play at right-back in a back four. That is good inasmuch as it keeps Ross Smith as a reserve centre-back for the time being (Smith hasn’t featured in the league since the 0-5 humiliation at Stranraer, when he was culpable for all four goals which came from open play), but Kerr is still very inexperienced and will be learning through mistakes of his own. Elsewhere, the team looks solid enough and even when they are narrowly losing and being outplayed, such as at home to Dunfermline Athletic and Brechin City and away to Stenhousemuir, they have the players to change the outcome of a game. Andy Rodgers and Bryan Gilfillan have turned out to be handy subsitutes this season.
Don’t expect much of an exciting time for the rest of the campaign for Peterhead, then, at least in terms of league placing. But with marquee signings, multiple sendings off and a high-scoring game never that far away, there’s always something worth coming back for. JAM
Things have improved a little since we last checked in on Stenhousemuir’s development – they’re one league place better off than they were at the end of the first quarter and their points return is slightly superior – but it’s still been a moribund campaign overall and the spectre of relegation will not go away. Although Scott Booth’s young side have been excellent on a handful of occasions, their inability to perform with any kind of consistency sees them languishing towards the bottom of the table.
Every victory brings hope and every every subsequent defeat brings despair; the corner is never turned. Maybe there is no corner, just an infinite avenue. For example, the Warriors ended Stranraer’s 13-game unbeaten run, turning in their finest performance of the season in the process, before going on to lose at home to bottom side Stirling Albion the next week. The Binos were without a win in 15 matches but they were the better of the two teams throughout the contest and merited their win.
The last time Stenhousemuir won consecutive games was in August 2013 – why has Booth’s team been unable to achieve this feat? The Warriors are only capable of playing one way, in a compact 4-2-3-1 system that demands the ball is moved around with speed through the midfield, and the tactic has only brought limited success. Only Stranraer were convincingly dispatched, while other victories have come with caveats. Against the division’s more physical sides or teams willing to vary their play, Stenny have looked bereft of craft and home defeats to Forfar Athletic and Stirling have been particularly disappointing.
There are times where Booth doesn’t appear to know what his best back four is and a number of combinations have been deployed over the last few months. Injuries and suspensions have often forced his hand but players are in one week and then out the next, while centre-backs have been tried out at full-back and vice versa. The strategy is frustrating – a backline of Ciaran Summers, Ross Meechan, Alan Lithgow and Robbie Duncan shut out Stranraer one week then lost two poor goals to Stirling the next.
It was commented on in October but it is worth repeating again – there are too many players in the squad who lack the personality for the level. The team requires someone who, for want of a better expression, is a bit of a bastard; someone that can add grit to the middle of the park. Whether or not Booth is keen on bringing these kinds of characters into his squad is another matter but his first signing of the transfer window is Lee Gallacher, a 17-year-old diminutive technician from Partick Thistle – Gallacher looked quite tidy on his debut at the weekend but he doesn’t really add anything that isn’t there already. The manager’s recruitment over the next few weeks will be vital and a right-back, a destructive midfielder and a striker are all required. Given the club’s miserable financial situation, however, it will probably more be young loanees rather than grizzled veterans.
Despite the gloom, there are a number of players performing well. Goalkeeper Greg Fleming has probably been the Warriors’ best player and has done his level best to keep score-lines respectable; Ross Meechan looks far better at centre-back than he does on the right; and Kris Faulds continues to improve with every passing week – his display in the 1-0 victory over Dunfermline Athletic was his best since joining the club 12 months ago. Special mention must also go to Colin McMenamin, who continues to perform to a high standard despite sometimes lacking support and competition. The striker has six goals in his last four matches and his finish against Stranraer was quite lovely.
There is much to be done if Stenhousemuir are to remain above ninth and tenth place. Playing personnel and tactics are one thing but Booth has to take responsibility for his side’s deficiencies. There have been too many hard-luck stories this year – the supporters’ patience is wearing thin and the manager was even booed from the pitch by a small section of fans at the weekend. Booth appears to take the criticism in his stride and with the board of directors seemingly content with the product on the park, things are unlikely to change any time soon. CGT
Stirling Albion (10th)
It still looks like Mission: Impossible, but Stirling Albion might just do it. Avoiding relegation appears to be a tall order but after recent performances climaxed with just their second league win of the season on Saturday, there have been encouraging signs for the Forthbank faithful. The Binos ended the first half of the League 1 campaign five points adrift of Ayr United (who boast a game in hand) and a further three behind Stenhousemuir in ninth.
Stirling fell to the bottom of the league after game nine of the season; one week later, after an embarrassing 0-4 home loss to Stenhousemuir, Grieg McDonald resigned. It was abrupt and unexpected but, quite possibly, gave Albion the best chance of survival. Stirling were a grim proposition: they were organised, yes, and honest too, but lacking in the quality to make a positive influence in matches. The Stenny defeat was the sixth league match in seven where the Binos had failed to find the net.
New manager Stuart McLaren is a bold choice. The well-travelled 39-year-old, who played for the Binos during the nineties, was preferred to more than 30 candidates to land his first job in British senior football after coaching in Australia and latterly with Loughborough University. Joining him at Forthbank – and adding knowledge of League 1 – is former Stenhousemuir manager Martyn Corrigan. The pair completed the same coaching courses at Largs.
With only limited augmentation of the playing squad (Lewis Small was briefly signed on loan from Falkirk, while negotiations with Heart of Midlothian over extending Angus Beith’s temporary agreement are ongoing), the pair are slowly making their mark. Stirling are being coaxed into a more proactive, attractive approach and playing are with more ambition. Having scored nine goals in ten league matches under McDonald (with five coming in the one game against Stenhousemuir in August), Stirling have netted 12 in eight games since McLaren’s appointment.
The margins of defeat have also reduced – a 0-4 defeat at Dunfermline Athletic is the only match in which they have been beaten by more than one goal. But they should have more than 12 league points to show for their efforts and Albion remain defensively brittle. In recent weeks, their negligence has seen them drop six points: Forfar grabbed an 80th minute winner; Ayr netted an equaliser in injury time; and against Morton the Binos held a 3-1 advantage with half-an-hour remaining, only to lose 3-4 after conceding three goals in six minutes.
If Stirling are to have any hope of survival, they will need to find some solidity at the back. A difficult set of fixtures follows, with Dunfermline (H), Peterhead (A), Forfar (H), Stranraer (A) then Morton (A) up next. It’s crazy, but they might just do it. AG
Ending the calendar year on top of League 1 was a fitting accolade for Stranraer and manager Stephen Aitken. While they may have lost their final match of 2014 – an uncharacteristically lacklustre reverse at home to Stenhousemuir – it was just their third defeat of the season and followed a run of 13 league games without succumbing. Their cup form has been equally as impressive – they defeated Falkirk in the Challenge Cup before losing out on penalties to Livingston, while Peterhead and Dunfermline Athletic were knocked out of the Scottish Cup. Stranraer continue to confound the expectations of others.
The season so far has mirrored last term: a sluggish start, with just one win from their opening six games, has been shrugged off and the Blues have gone on to find a consistency unmatched by the division’s full-time sides and predicted title challengers. First and foremost, Stranraer remain obdurate, conceding just five goals in their last nine games, yet a sense that they lack a creative force going forward (particularly since the departure of Andy Stirling in the summer) has been dispelled with 35 goals – they are the league’s top scorers.
Repeating the previous campaign’s feat has caused bigger clubs to sit up and take notice. Their consistently excellent goalkeeper David Mitchell and young left-back Jackson Longridge are reportedly interesting Hibernian, while Scott Rumsby, who is developing into a fine centre-back alongside the dependable Frank McKeown, and Grant Gallagher are another two players whom scouts must be filing extensive dossiers on. The greatest speculation, however, surrounds the manager. Recent weeks have seen Aitken respectfully fend off questions about managerial vacancies at Ayr United, St Mirren and elsewhere but the 38-year-old admits his aspirations ultimately lie at level beyond the Stair Park club.
Aitken is not expected to strengthen the Blues’ squad this month but that might prove to be a mistake. Despite their goal-scoring record, the squad’s striking options are a little limited in comparison to their immediate rivals – if either Jamie Longworth or Craig Malcolm are unavailable, their reserves extend really only to 18-year-old Daniel Stoney, on loan from Rangers. The youngster is pacy and exuberant but perhaps a little naïve to spearhead a title challenge.
Last season, after ensconcing themselves in the play-off places after suffering a solitary defeat in 13 games between September and early January, the foot somewhat came off the gas and the Blues won just one of their final ten fixtures before narrowly losing out to Dunfermline in the play-off semi-final. If Stranraer are to continue to challenge at the very top of the league they must maintain their momentum. Further spotlight will fall on Aitken when Dundee United visit Stair Park at thestart of February for their televised Scottish Cup fifth round tie; just like Stranraer’s title hopes, a cup shock is not out of the question. AG