The League 1 Half-Term Report Card

In many respects, 2013-14 League 1 campaign is progressing as expected since we last observed the division. Rangers sit on top of the pile having won 55 of the 57 points available and already look on course to breaking the records set by Queen of the South last term. The probability of Ally McCoist’s side going through the entire season unbeaten is also a distinct possibility. Dunfermline Athletic lead the chasing pack and, with the exception of some infrequent anomalies, have performed with distinction over the last six months.

There are a number of teams who are performing far better than predicted. Stranraer are experiencing a fabulous campaign and under the management of the dynamic Steve Aitken, they have developed a reputation as one of the most exciting sides in the lower leagues. While expectations for the season were low – they were the immediate favourites for relegation – the Blues might legitimately have one eye on promotion to the Championship. Brechin City are also confounding their own expectations but far from repeating last season’s charge up the table, they are concerning themselves with staying in the division.

The rest of the league is a much of a muchness with everyone capable of beating everyone else. Ayr United hold a handsome advantage in fourth place but they must be wary of Stenhousemuir and Forfar Athletic beneath them. The remaining sides, particularly Arbroath and Airdrieonians who are both badly out of form, will be aiming to consolidate their third tier status.

 

Airdrieonians (10th)
F

The mid-term report card: “Airdrieonians are in a deep malaise. For the moment at least, it appears as though Jimmy Boyle has the backing of chairman Jim Ballantyne – until something changes, a long, hard year beckons.”

The season since then: recent performances have hinted at some sort of recovery, but the 2013-14 campaign has been utterly appalling.

It’s remarkable how quickly the Airdrieonians’ expectations for the season have altered as the campaign has progressed. Originally seen as an outside shout to compete for fourth place, any such notions of promotion can be forgotten. Jimmy Boyle ignominiously departed from the club in October and was replaced by Gary Bollan, but there has been little upturn in form – until last month’s 1-1 draw with Stenhousemuir, the Diamonds had lost eight games in a row and have collected just four points in the second quarter.

At their worst, Airdrie have brought new meanings to the word atrocious. The Airdrie and Coatbridge Advertiser’s Colin Paterson described Boyle’s final match, a 0-2 defeat to Forfar Athletic as one of the worst he had ever seen, while their 1-3 loss at Stranraer had to be seen to be believed. Airdrie’s approach at Stair Park was utterly pathetic, with every player turning in a feeble, half-hearted performance. A fine, battling display at Brechin City, where the team recovered from a three-goal deficit, ultimately ended in defeat – 34 seconds after Nathan Blockley’s 90th minute equaliser, Alan Trouten scored and a deserved point suddenly disappeared.

Over the course of the year, Airdrieonians have used six goalkeepers, tried out 12 – 12! – back four combinations and fielded 33 players. When Bollan took charge, he was reportedly aghast at the poor levels of fitness throughout the team and has already begun to reshape his squad. A number of players have been brought in on a short-term basis, while David Sinclair has recently left the club. Much was expected from Martin Hardie but the midfielder last appeared at the end of November and it looks as though he will be moved on too.

It may be a little early to suggest that a corner has been turned, but recent results have gone some way to lifting the gloom around the club. The draw at Stenhousemuir, the very least the team merited, was immediately followed up by an excellent win over Arbroath, their closest rivals. They also held their own against Rangers and deserved praise for the manner in which they acquitted themselves against the league leaders; summoning the same level of performance for the remainder of the season will be critical.

Airdrie have a series of unenviable fixtures looming: they play Ayr United and Dunfermline Athletic away before concluding January with a home time against Stranraer. It’s difficult to imagine the Diamonds taking anything from the three matches, and time is running out for them to pull themselves away from the foot of the table. Relegation, completely unthinkable six months ago, is now a very real and increasingly distinct possibility. CGT

 

Arbroath (9th)
E

The mid-term report card: “Arbroath’s defensive record has been a major disappointment but if Paul Sheerin can harden their resolve (and, of course, hold onto Lee Erwin), then their focus can legitimately shift towards a play-off place.”

The season since then: the club are plummeting down the division and have been statistically the worst side over the second quarter of the season.

It has been a wretched two-and-a-half months for Paul Sheerin’s Arbroath. Since October’s mid-term report card, the Red Lichties have picked up just two points from ten games and from the fringes of the promotion play-offs, they are now in a dogfight for survival. Defeats away from home either side of New Year’s Day to relegation rivals Airdrieonians (which halted the Diamonds’ own nine-game run without a win) and East Fife have only exacerbated their predicament.

Arbroath’s defensive record is a continuing concern and it now stands as the worst in the division, with 44 goals conceded in 19 games. Sheerin has limited options in terms of personnel and his back four has remained almost constant, despite its rickety and porous nature. Only Alex Keddie has any senior experience of any note, while Ricky Little, signed from Queen’s Park in the summer, injured his foot seven minutes into his debut (a first round Ramsdens Cup tie against Stenhousemuir on 27 July) and has not played since. Behind them, goalkeeper Scott Morrison has played in every match, despite his recent performances coming in for criticism.

The team have also stopped scoring goals. Arbroath scored 18 times in the first round of fixtures, but only eight in the second quarter. A meagre return of three goals in their last six games has coincided with the departure of Lee Erwin. The 19-year-old was outstanding during his 11-match loan spell and scored eight goals, but any hope of him returning from Motherwell until May were extinguished after the striker underwent knee surgery that will sideline him for the remainder of the season. Steven Milne – a contender for the worst signing of the SPFL season – has also departed to pursue a career with the police, leaving Sheerin bereft of credible attacking options. Steven Doris has returned on loan from Dundee, initially until 26 January, but his goal against Stranraer was his fourth in a full calendar year and injury has precluded his involvement from the last three games. Elsewhere, Alan Cook (nine goals for the season) has not scored since November and Bobby Linn, one of the side’s better performers, has failed to reach the same levels of potency he did during previous spells at this level with Peterhead and East Fife.

Sheerin has spoken of the need to strengthen his squad but has already been thwarted in his bids to recruit centre-backs Stewart Greacen and Mark McLaughlin who have moved elsewhere. Both targets reflect the requirement to bring more physicality to the defence but with both quality and quantity required, bringing the squad up to standard will be difficult. The manager faces a vexatious task in reinvigorating a team devoid of confidence and with a testing series of fixtures in forthcoming weeks, it is hard to see where their next win will come from. AG

 

Ayr United (4th)
C+

The mid-term report card: “Between now and the end of the year, Ayr United will welcome their main rivals to Somerset Park at various points. If they can get the better of Stenhousemuir, Dunfermline Athletic and Arbroath, then they will have proved themselves as much more than just an outside bet of being involved in the promotion play-offs.”

The season since then: mild improvement on the first quarter has seen Ayr climb into fourth place with a tidy advantage over the teams beneath them.

Ayr United remain ensconced in the promotion play-off places – and therefore continuing to surpass some pre-season predictions – but their failure against the league’s stronger sides has threatened to sully a season which has been significantly better than the last. The Honest Men secured three more points in the second round of fixtures than they did in the first, but they were soundly thrashed by Rangers, Dunfermline Athletic and Stranraer. It is United’s failings against the Pars and the Blues in particular that have served to highlight the shortcomings within the squad and fuel the persistent doubts over Mark Roberts’s managerial credentials.

In mid-November, Ayr were demolished 3-6 by Stranraer at Somerset Park, and their makeshift defence and midfield was constantly overrun by the visitors’ high tempo approach. At the beginning of December, having already lost 1-5 at East End Park earlier in the year (a result for which Roberts culpability was discussed elsewhere on this site), United were torn asunder when Jim Jefferies’s persistent young side overcame a two-goal deficit to claim the victory – losing points from a winning position again represents another unwelcome hangover from last term. And Ayr began 2014 with a second heavy defeat at Stranraer, losing 0-4 at Stair Park. On each occasion, the team’s shape (which had looked immeasurably better compared to last season’s) looked utterly ragged in the face of opposition pressure; Roberts’s failure to respond when the momentum shifts away from his team has added to the suspicion of his tactical nous.

Whether or not the manager does any transfer business in January remains to be seen. The team’s right flank would benefit from strengthening (even if Kyle McAusland’s loan agreement with Rangers is extended) and the requirement for a solid centre-back has become vital. A decision also needs to be made regarding Kevin Kyle, as the former Scotland international’s short-term contract expires later this month. Three goals in 16 appearances is a disappointing return and it’s still unclear if he has been a positive influence on the team. Brian Gilmour has quietly impressed since joining in November and the midfielder has tried to encourage his team-mates to play a shorter, possession-based game rather than lumping long balls towards Kyle, a tactic which was threatening to become predominant.

Ayr currently hold a four point advantage over Stenhousemuir in fifth and remain in pole position for what is increasingly looking like the one remaining play-off spot. They are yet to lose to a side beneath them in the table: Airdrieonians, Arbroath, East Fife and Forfar Athletic have all been dispatched in recent months with the concession of a goal. With forthcoming fixtures against Airdrie, Brechin City and Stenhousemuir, Roberts will be looking for his side to increase their advantage over the teams beneath them. However, for the sake of his own career, the manager needs to ensure his side show greater resolve when his side face tougher tests. Their match against Dunfermline in February would be a good place to start. AG

 

Brechin City (8th)
E

The mid-term report card: “Two wins from nine games – both at home to the division’s bottom two teams – is not the start to the season expected from Brechin City. At this stage, it’s difficult to believe this side were ever expected to finish behind Rangers.”

The season since then: consecutive wins have kept the teams beneath them at arm’s length, but Brechin’s season so far has been utterly underwhelming.

Ray McKinnon’s difficult second season continues. Brechin City began the year as the favourites to finish as the best of the rest but find themselves in eighth position after suffering their biggest defeat of the campaign, a 1-5 obliteration by Forfar Athletic at home. Back-to-back wins before Christmas against fellow strugglers Airdrieonians (where they did their very best to throw away a three-goal advantage) and East Fife provided some breathing space at the foot of the table, but fourth place Ayr United’s ten point advantage looks insurmountable.

A bewildered McKinnon blasted his side in the wake of the Forfar defeat, describing their performance as “totally unacceptable” and singling out the standard of their defending, calling it “horrendous”. Brechin’s soft-centredness has been a source of complaint for the majority of the season – they have conceded three or more goals on eight occasions in the league and kept just one clean sheet (against East Fife in August). The personnel remain the same as last season, with Ewan Moyes and Graham Hay forming the regular centre-back partnership, but the defensive unit has been undermined by individual errors. Moyes has not looked like the same player since returning after a car accident.

Further forward, the players brought into the club over the summer have disappointed the most of all. Stuart Anderson and Allan Walker, both signed from Raith Rovers, have failed to convince in the important deep-lying midfield role (such is McKinnon’s loss of confidence in Walker, the player has made just one appearance since mid-October) and Ryan Donnelly has frustrated with his lack of application. Short-term loan agreements for Hamilton Academical’s Andy Ryan and Dundee United’s Aidan Connelly have done little for continuity, while Calum Antell, deputising for the injured Graeme Smith, has only furthered an unfortunate reputation as a liability between the posts. Only Andy Jackson has performed with any distinction.

Changes to the squad over the next few weeks are to be expected, and McKinnon has hinted that he has been “too loyal to some players” in his post-match comments at the weekend. Donnelly is set to be released (where now for the former Airdrie striker once so coveted?) and Anderson and Walker are also rumoured to be leaving. Realistically, McKinnon must ensure his side remain in the division before rebuilding for next season. He must exercise greater caution in the transfer market if he is to prove his first season in charge was more than just a flash in the pan. AG

 

Dunfermline Athletic (2nd)
B+

The mid-term report card: “Jim Jefferies must preserve his side’s focus and ensure his players maintain their level of performance […] Finishing in a play-off place is the season’s target, something the club are more than capable of achieving.”

The season since then: as expected, Dunfermline have reached the season’s mid-point in second place and look all but assured of ending the year in a play-off position.

There is a good feeling around Dunfermline Athletic right now. After eight months, the club exited administration in December, with the Pars United consortium taking charge of administrative affairs. With their long-term future secure and with the team currently sitting as the best of the rest, an immediate return to the second tier seems to be a likely outcome in May.

And boy, they’ve doing it in some style. A little stutter at the beginning of October aside, Jim Jefferies’s side have been largely excellent throughout the campaign. They are an exciting side to watch – victories are either achieved through large margins (Ayr United, Airdrieonians and Arbroath have all be dispatched with relative ease) or breathtakingly snatched from the jaws of defeat.

Indeed, Dunfermline’s willingness to fight their opponents to the final whistle has been astonishing and has been the most eye-catching aspect of the campaign. Stenhousemuir, more than any other club in the division, have learned just how ruthless a side the Pars can be – in their three meetings this season, Dunfermline have triumphed on each occasion by virtue of a 90th minute goal. Their hold over the Warriors is like the Hood tormenting poor Kyrano. Dunfermline’s mercilessness doesn’t just extend to Stenhousemuir – it has been discussed elsewhere on this site bears repeating once again: they have collected 19 points from losing positions, winning six times and drawing once after going behind.

Dunfermline will have been disappointed with their inability to give Rangers more of a contest.  They were seen as the team most likely to give Ally McCoist’s side something to think about, but in two matches they have conceded seven goals and scored just one in reply. The forthcoming Scottish Cup tie between the sides offers the chance to make amends.

Captain Josh Falkingham has continued to be the club’s best player this term, with his industry and tenacity crucial to driving his team forward. Not that Falkingham is all just blood and thunder, of course – he has matured into a fine playmaker and has contributed four league goals already. He is abetted by the talented Andy Geggan and Stephen Husband and no other side in the division outwith Rangers can boast a central midfield of such depth and quality. Behind them, Callum Morris is still doing an admirable job of holding a leaky defence together but his task has been made easier by the excellence of goalkeeper Ryan Scully, on loan from Partick Thistle. The concession of 38 goals is a concern and strengthening the backline (and maybe bringing in another forward) is a priority but for the meantime, Jefferies and his charges should be very proud of their efforts so far this year. CGT

 

East Fife (7th)
D+

The mid-term report card: “The revolution will not be televised, and it’s probably just as well – it’s been a dire campaign for East Fife. Despite a complete overhaul in every department over the summer, the club are actually in a worse position than they were at this stage last year.”

The season since then: Willie Aitchison’s dour tenure has been brought to an end and his successor, Gary Naysmith, has lifted the side from ninth into seventh.

Things are beginning to look up for East Fife. Since replacing Willie Aitchison with Gary Naysmith, the former Scotland international has gradually overseen the side’s gradual move away from the foot of the table after three victories in five matches. There is still a lot of work to do – the Fifers’ glaring deficiencies were exposed in the recent defeats to Brechin City and Ayr United – but a handful of positive results should see the team fix themselves in the safety of mid-table.

Aitchison – surely one of the season’s more bizarre managerial appointments – was never really wanted at the club and chairman Lee Murray intimated as such, admitting that Aitchison had been awarded the job before his arrival at New Bayview. The former Heart of Midlothian youth coach had his moments, most notably the excellent 2-1 win over Dunfermline Athletic, but his team’s approach was often bleak and unimaginative. His departure at the end of November following three defeats in four matches was inevitable, and at the time the club sat in ninth place with 11 points.

Naysmith hasn’t necessarily altered all that much, a handful of loan signings excepted, but the team have benefitted from his organisation and experience. Having a fully fit Stephen Hughes at his disposal has also helped matters (he was a fleeting influence under Aitchison), while Liam Buchanan has emerged as the season’s outstanding performer and is arguably in the best form of his career. Many of the foreign imports recruited over the summer have either left the club or found themselves marginalised.

Murray deserves credit for the hard work and he and his board are doing. Despite the odd misfire (attempting to sign Nuno Gomes and Christian Nade, filling up the squad with inadequate signings from abroad), his subsequent attempts at improving the club, for example using crowd funding to raise the resources to build a club shop, proposing to build a new stand and to install a synthetic pitch, should be warmly received. For all their recent improvement, consolidating the League 1 status is still the priority. Naysmith should look to strengthen the squad over January while gradually phasing out the deadwood – building towards a successful 2014-15 should be his medium-term goal. CGT

 

Forfar Athletic (6th)
C

The mid-term report card: “In the current climate, five years is a long time for a manager to remain with one club. On the park and in the dugout, Forfar Athletic have a wealth of experience, but has the time come for a fresh approach at Station Park?”

The season since then: the rotten start to the season appears to have been overcome and the team sit inconsequentially in mid-table.

At the end of the first quarter, Forfar Athletic sat in ninth place, level on points with East Fife after six defeats in nine matches. Some supporters were agitating for change – having occupied the managerial post at Station Park for over five years, Dick Campbell’s long ball tactics and incessant team changes had grown wearisome. It is a mark of the man that when he celebrated his 60th birthday just four weeks later, the Loons had collected ten points to pull away from the foot of the table. Over the course of the second quarter, they have more than doubled their points tally to sit amongst the mid-table throng.

Forfar’s defence, once far too generous, is now operating in the fashion Campbell would have hoped. In their last nine games, Rangers are the only side to have put more than one goal past Darren Hill or Rab Douglas – the backline of Ian Campbell, Mark Baxter, Darren Dods and Stuart Malcolm have come to form a dependable platform on which the side can rely. Further forward, the evergreen Chris Templeman remains a pivotal player and the focal point of Forfar’s attack and the big striker is ably supported in rotation by Gavin Swankie, Dale Hilson and Paul McManus. While there is still a tendency to hit the ball long towards Templeman, this team is capable of spells of devastating football – Brechin City just could not live with their speed and directness at the weekend.

If Forfar are to make a challenge on the promotion play-offs (they are currently seven points adrift with a game in hand), they must start scoring with greater regularity. Swankie’s return of just two league goals has been disappointing, and Campbell must hope the forward can repay the faith which saw him awarded a contract extension until the end of the 2015-16 season. An Achilles tendon injury has ruled out his participation in recent weeks.

With Gardner Speirs departing Queen’s Park last month, Campbell is now the longest serving manager in Scottish football. It seems unlikely he will change his approach anytime soon but as long as Forfar continue to win more often than they lose, the Station Park support will tolerate his foibles. AG

 

Rangers (1st)
A

The mid-term report card: “For the best part, it’s been a wonderful campaign for Rangers […] It is entirely conceivable that Rangers will break Queen of the South’s record points total – even going through their 36 league matches unbeaten is not an unreasonable proposition.”

The season since then: 55 points from 19 games has given Rangers an unassailable lead at the top of the table. There is also a Ramsdens Cup final to look forward to.

When attempting to extrapolate the progress of Rangers throughout 2013-14, one could probably have imagined their level of performance across the year would have resembled something like a U-shaped graph. They started the campaign strongly with excellent victories over Brechin City, Airdrieonians, East Fife and Stenhousemuir, and new signings Nicky Law and Jon Daly provided a spark sorely missing from last term. And given the manner in which the season has played out so far, it is not inconceivable that Rangers can go through the whole year unbeaten – as they approach the final flourish in April and May, they are likely to storm towards the finishing line.

At the moment, however, Rangers are in a trough at the bottom of the U, grinding beyond opposition with no flair or fluency. This is, of course, nit-picking – Rangers sit at the top of the table, 17 points clear of Dunfermline Athletic in second, and the 1-1 draw with Stranraer on Boxing Day was the first occasion they dropped points this season. Yet recent wins against Airdrie and Stenhousemuir were achieved by doing just the bare minimum. This was perhaps expected – with the lack of credible league opposition, motivation was always likely to become an issue over the winter, regardless of their significant advantages over the rest of the division.

Only Lee Wallace and Nicky Law have continued to rise above the mire. The former is, by a considerable distance, the best player in the division and the conduit in which all his side’s best play goes through. Law’s recent performances have perhaps lacked the same excitement as they did earlier in the season, but it would have been difficult for most players to maintain the same outstanding level. Jon Daly is going through the leanest period of his Rangers career and has failed to score in over a month. Bilel Mohsni, meanwhile, is obviously a quality player but has looked a little bored of this defending lark and sometimes seems keener to play to the crowd than get on with the job in hand.

Rangers are the only club in the lower leagues who will be judged on their cup performances. A forthcoming Scottish Cup fifth round tie with Dunfermline provides them with an excellent opportunity to progress, and it will be interesting to see how they acquit themselves when paired against a higher calibre of opponent. There has been little to suggest they are capable of beating, say, Dundee United or Aberdeen, but there are myriad factors to consider when it comes to these contests. The Ramsdens Cup final against Raith Rovers in April will be observed with interest.

Away from the park, the club’s internal wrangles and Ally McCoist’s bizarre media appearances continue to fascinate (in 50 years time, the recent “prickgate” debacle will no doubt be looked back on with fondness) but on the field, there is little to complain about. As long as the club are still winning and still climbing through the divisions then the majority will be placated and at the moment at least, winning and nothing more is all the manager is interested in. CGT

 

Stenhousemuir (5th)
C-

The mid-term report card: “If Martyn Corrigan can correct Stenhousemuir’s defensive frailties and show a little more tactical flexibility when required, then they should be able to maintain a play-off position through the season […] Anything less than a top four finish for a squad of this calibre would be unacceptable.”

The season since then: poor form and a lack of consistency have seen the Warriors slide out of the play-off positions, closer to mid-table than fourth place.

Having spent the majority of the season in the play-off places, Stenhousemuir now find themselves in a precarious position. With a four point gap opening up between themselves in fifth and Ayr United in fourth, there is a danger that a couple of results against their favour will see the Warriors cut adrift from the play-off places. In truth, this scenario has been coming for some time.

A good spurt of form at the beginning of the campaign allowed the club to finish the first quarter as the best of the rest with 17 points from nine matches. Ten games later and the club have only collected an additional eight points – the minor niggles that dogged them throughout the first round of fixtures very quickly developed into a full-scale crisis. Stenhousemuir’s inability to defend as a cohesive unit – not just across the back four but as an entire team – has been their major malfunction (the recent clean sheet against Brechin City was their first shut-out in almost five months). The 0-8 defeat to Rangers at Ibrox and the concession of three last minute winners against Dunfermline Athletic are just some examples of their brittleness.

Furthermore, it had been noted in the mid-term report card that as long as their strikers continued to score goals then the Warriors would have a reasonable chance of competing, but this is no longer happening – three goals in the last five matches is not an acceptable return. John Gemmell is badly out of form, Sean Higgins is only just returning from a longstanding groin complaint and reserves Errol Douglas and Ross McNeil are maybe better as impact substitutes than members of the starting XI.

Martyn Corrigan has replaced the misfiring 4-2-2-2 formation with a traditional 4-4-2, but a lack of width has blunted its effectiveness. With four central midfielders stationed across the middle of the park, their play has a tendency to be narrow and frequently ugly as the ball is booted from back to front with little composure. Only Kevin McKinlay, once a maligned figure, has played to a high standard throughout the season but many other senior players are failing to pull their weight.

There are some positives for Stenhousemuir. While the recent results against Dunfermline and Rangers didn’t necessarily go in their favour, the nature of their performance was of a sound calibre. The signing of Stewart Greacen should go a long way to resolving the team’s defensive ailments and the former Greenock Morton centre-back already looks to have formed a sound understanding alongside Ross McMillan. A couple of wingers (or the return to fitness of Darren Smith) certainly wouldn’t go amiss either. February’s Scottish Cup tie with Albion Rovers will provide a welcome distraction, but the Warriors’ next four games – away trips to Forfar Athletic and Arbroath, followed by home matches with Ayr United and Stranraer, should go some way to determining how the rest of the season plays out. Will that be a challenge for fourth place or a third successive campaign of mid-table disappointment? CGT

 

Stranraer (3rd)
A

The mid-term report card: “Steve Aitken has the numbers within his squad to allow for rotation and cover in the event of injuries or suspensions, something which will serve Stranraer well over the coming months. He will be looking to build as big an advantage as possible over the sides at the bottom of the table before the New Year.”

The season since then: Stranraer have embarked on an astonishing run of form and look almost certain to finish the season in the play-off places.

In October, this site suggested that Stranraer’s priority for the season was to avoid relegation. The Blues began the league campaign with just one point from their opening five games and although a resurgence saw them conclude the first quarter with 11 points, few were prepared to divest Steve Aitken’s side of their relegation favourites tag. Three months later, however, and Stranraer have firmly established themselves as promotion play-off candidates.

Their form since winning their first league match of the season, a 2-0 win over East Fife on 21 September, has been quite wonderful and in any other season, it would be enough to install them as title challengers. Stranraer have taken 32 points from a possible 39 since mid-September, a sequence which included a famous draw with Rangers at Ibrox – they are the only side to deny the Gers a league victory all season. Their run shows no sign of halting: they routed Ayr United 4-0 at the weekend, a result which opened up a four point gap (with a game in hand) between themselves and the Honest Men in fourth.

Aitken deserves immense credit for Stranraer’s success this year. Not only has he recruited well, bringing in players to address his squad’s deficiencies, the manager has fashioned a well drilled, balanced side that play a high-tempo game – their one-touch and two-touch passing in particular is a sight to behold, and every player is comfortable in their role. Their improvement as a defensive unit will have been particularly pleasing. With Frank McKeown at the heart of a largely settled back four and David Mitchell continuing to develop in goal, Stranraer have conceded 14 fewer goals than at this stage last season, and the fewest in League 1 this year behind Rangers. Scott Robertson and Mark Docherty have strengthened the full-back positions and the extension of Scott Rumsby’s loan agreement with Aberdeen until the end of the campaign is a boon. On Saturday, their commitment to keeping a clean sheet, despite their four-goal advantage, was testament to the spirit throughout the side.

While their good form is borne from their collective strength and cohesion, Jamie Longworth deserves special attention. Having seemingly lost his way after a disappointing final season with Queen’s Park last year, he has been rejuvenated at Stair Park and scored 19 goals already. The more robust Martin Grehan acts as the perfect foil for Longworth and has netted 13 times himself, while wide midfielders Andy Stirling and Sean Winter are a reliable source of goal-scoring opportunities.

Stranraer fans are currently enjoying one of the best periods in the club’s recent history. Although some of the more pessimistic supporters still believe the club will fall into mid-table, there has been nothing to suggest this will be the case. The squad has depth: Steven Bell, who will remain at the club until the end of the season, appears to have put three years of injuries behind him and is an able deputy for the stricken Chris Aitken, and David McGregor, Ryan Borris, Marc Corcoran and David McKenna are all in reserve should injuries and suspensions hit.

This team are going places – will their next stop be the Championship? 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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