The inaugural SPFL League 1 season will conclude with its most obvious outcome – but that doesn’t mean it can’t be exciting! Rangers promotion and subsequent transfer activity rendered any talk of a title battle irrelevant, but the real fun lies beneath the summit of the table (in every league Rangers contest, this is generally the case).
Stenhousemuir and Dunfermline Athletic appear reasonably comfortable in second and third place respectively, but a few results against their favour could easily blow their season off course (the Warriors seem to be a defensive crisis away from complete collapse). The third play-off spot is anyone’s – a resurgent Ayr United currently occupy the position and are closely tailed by Arbroath, while little Stranraer are just two points from fourth. Whether or not they can continue their current good form remains to be seen.
It is a different story closer towards the bottom, with Brechin City, Airdrieonians, Forfar Athletic and East Fife experiencing their own bouts of existential angst. Among them, the four clubs have won eight league matches and, should their poor form continue, there is a real danger the could be cut adrift and spend the season naval-gazing.
This is all pure speculation, of course – between now and May, anything can happen.
Pre-season expectations: significant improvement after last season’s traumatic relegation; a reasonable shout for the final play-off place.
The season so far: there has been no sign of the club’s downward trajectory stopping, with the team more concerned with the relegation play-offs than a top four finish.
The decline and fall of Airdrieonians under Jimmy Boyle continues apace. The 2012-13 season was a dire affair for all concerned and the club’s inevitable slide back into the third tier was confirmed long before May. Although supporters were suspicious of Boyle, the calibre of his summer signings was generally encouraging – it was felt that if the manager was able to field a settled team on a consistent basis, deploying his charges in their appropriate positions, then an assault on the play-offs could be an outside possibility. Nine games later and a fight to stave off relegation seems a more likely prospect.
And to think that Airdrie started the season well. Cup wins over Hamilton Academical and Stenhousemuir were impressive, while a 3-3 draw with Forfar Athletic on the opening day of the league campaign was admirable for the manner in which the team recovered from a two-goal deficit to dig out a point. Since then, the standard of performance has been dire. Poor displays were a common occurrence last season, with Boyle pointing out on numerous occasions that his team had been assembled for the division below; far better was expected this term.
So what’s the excuse this season? There are some capable players at the club – Lewis Coult has been a sound addition and Liam Coogans is developing into a decent striker – but Boyle’s mishandling of the team has been infinitely vexing. The back four is altered on a weekly basis for little discernible reason while further forward, players often are used out of position. For instance, Martin Hardie, a player recruited to drive his team on from the middle of the park, has been stationed out on the left flank. Other players have come and gone – Gary Hay was signed before leaving a couple of weeks later to take up a coaching role with the SFA, while goalkeeper Colin Stewart (when will clubs learn?) had his contract cancelled following an altercation with supporters during a League Cup tie with Livingston.
There are also issues with fitness and concentration – on three occasions this season, the team have conceded crucial goals in final five minutes of matches, turning draws into defeats and three points into none. With the exception of their early cup fixtures, the highlight of the season was a 3-2 victory over Stranraer where Gregor Buchanan’s last minute goal gave the Airdrie their first home win for over 13 months. The club have collected eight points from nine matches and sit one point above the foot of the table.
Airdrieonians are in a deep malaise. Boyle’s contract expires at the end of the season and there is a strong feeling that progress can only be achieved by bringing in a new manager with fresh ideas. For the moment at least, it appears as though Boyle has the backing of chairman Jim Ballantyne – until something changes, a long, hard year beckons. CGT
Pre-season expectations: possibly going one better than last season’s fifth place finish, but more likely ending the year in mid-table once again.
The season so far: as expected, the club sit in the relative comfort of fifth.
Arbroath have recovered from a slow start and, somewhat unexpectedly, find themselves as Angus’s number one side. They occupy fifth place, two points behind Ayr United (the teams meet on Saturday), with victories over Forfar Athletic and Brechin City strengthening their bragging rights in the area.
Deposed from the Ramsdens Cup by Stenhousemuir and then humbled at home by Montrose in the League Cup, Paul Sheerin’s side were decimated by Ayr United in their league opener, capitulating 0-3. Any immediate concerns were allayed by a 3-2 win at Dunfermline Athletic, but the victory was followed by a loss at East Fife (although Colin Hamilton’s red card on 31 minutes played a significant factor). These results highlight the inconsistent nature of Arbroath’s season – each of their four league wins has been immediately followed by a defeat.
The Lichties headline act has undoubtedly been Lee Erwin. The 19-year-old Motherwell striker originally agreed a one-month loan at the beginning of September, and he announced his arrival with two stunning goals against Brechin. Erwin has been sublime, combining physicality and athleticism with a deft touch and clinical finishing. Saturday’s late penalty against Airdrieonians was his sixth goal in six games, with Rangers the only opponent he has failed to score against. Sheerin has extended Erwin’s loan agreement until the end of September, but holding on to the forward for even longer will be a priority.
Erwin has complemented the side’s other attackers. Steven Milne might not have made the impact expected from him, but Alan Cook’s six goals in seven games have been gratefully welcomed. A bit-part player at Airdrie last term, Cook has become a key fixture in Sheerin’s side. The team have scored 11 goals in their last four games, and the winger has formed a fearsome attacking trident alongside Erwin and Bobby Linn.
Arbroath’s defensive record has been a major disappointment, and the concession of 22 goals is the highest in the league – they are often caught shorthanded at the back and their young defenders have been bullied by opposition sides. If Sheerin can harden their resolve (and, of course, hold onto Erwin), then their focus can legitimately shift towards a play-off place. AG
Ayr United (4th)
Pre-season expectations: major improvement after last season’s horrendous campaign; an outside bet for a play-off place.
The season so far: very decent thus far, but a six-game winless run has stunted progress.
Ayr United completed the first quarter of the season with a convincing 4-1 victory over East Fife. It was a result which clarified the Honest Men’s start to the season wherein four consecutive draws made a decisive appraisal of the progress tricky. Mark Roberts’s side went into Saturday’s fixture without a win in six matches and sat just three points from the foot of the table (hardly form favourable to a positive report card) but remarkably, they have occupied a play-off position since the opening day of the season. United have lost just two league matches – against Dunfermline Atheltic and Rangers – and the win at Bayview confirmed that, on balance, they’re on the right track.
What is glaringly apparent is that Ayr are significantly better than they were last season. The team’s work-rate, shape, discipline and attitude has improved immeasurably, something which could be attributed to new assistant manager Andy Millen. The upshot is that outwith Rangers, the club have conceded the fewest goals in the division. Goalkeeper David Hutton and centre-back Alan Lithgow, both signed during the summer, have been consistently excellent.
While performances against Stranraer and ten-man Brechin City were poor (both games ended as draws), Ayr’s only major blip has come against Dunfermline. Despite taking the lead at East End Park, Ayr were ruthlessly torn asunder and lost five goals, three of which were of breathtaking quality. Were the strikes unstoppable? Perhaps, but there was no hiding from the fact that Roberts’s team selection and tactics on the day were a major factor in his side’s collapse (after equalising, Dunfermline scored three times in 20 first half minutes). Holding onto advantages, something the team found bothersome last season, is still an issue, with nine points dropped from winning positions. Curiously, only Forfar Athletic have a poorer home record, but closer inspection reveals mitigating circumstances: the draw with Airdrieonians was achieved with nine men, while the only defeat was to Rangers.
Against East Fife, United were at full strength but Martyn Campbell, a solid defender at this level (he was exceptional against Rangers), suffered yet another injury and a broken metatarsal will preclude him from playing for around six weeks. Seventeen-year-old Josh McArthur, left-back Gordon Pope and midfielder Scott McLaughlin have all deputised for Campbell over the season but a more permanent solution may be required. Elsewhere, Roberts has struggled to successfully integrate Kevin Kyle into the team, while his eagerness to select 17-year-old Alan Forrest has been, at times, injudicious, despite the winger’s obvious talent.
Between now and the end of the year, Ayr will welcome their main rivals to Somerset Park at various points. If they can get the better of Stenhousemuir, Dunfermline and Arbroath, then they will have proved themselves as much more than just an outside bet of being involved in the promotion play-offs. AG
Brechin City (6th)
Pre-season expectations: maintaining last season’s form and continuing their upward trajectory under Ray McKinnon.
The season so far: Brechin have disappointed, with just two wins all year.
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. The club sit in seventh, two points from the foot of the table, and an immediate upturn in results is required to prevent the promotion play-offs from becoming an unrealistic proposition. At this stage, it’s difficult to believe this side were ever expected to finish behind Rangers.
Since his appointment 12 months ago, Ray McKinnon has worked wonders at Brechin. His first task was to pick through the rotting carcass left by Jim Weir (who collected six points from a possible 21 at the beginning of last season) and regain the team’s focus. Very quickly, the manager reshaped his side with an organised defence and a fluid offensive unit, winning 13 of their 18 games between late October and late March. By this point however, the travails of playing twice a week (a consequence of a catalogue of postponements at Glebe Park) caught up with the small squad and derailed their promotion charge. In the background, McKinnon was already preparing for the 2013-14 campaign, securing the majority of his key players for the season ahead before reinforcing the squad at the earliest opportunity. City looked well served for a successful season; just what has gone wrong?
Brechin’s approach relies on a solid central midfield pairing to protect the back four, break up play and allow the side’s more attacking players to function uninhibited. Last season, two from Gary Fusco, Garry Brady, Craig Molloy and Jonny Stewart fulfilled the roles, but this year only Molloy remains. Former Raith Rovers duo Allan Walker and Stuart Anderson are often preferred in midfield but neither have impressed – the partnership was described as “one of the most passive in the lower leagues” after their poor showing at Stenhousemuir last weekend.
As well as Walker and Anderson, Ryan Donnelly and Bobby Barr have underwhelmed and have shown little to suggest that either player will reverse their personal – and extended – decline. Graeme Smith is the only summer signing to have played well, and the goalkeeper has often been left exasperated by the poor defending around him. Against the Warriors, McKinnon deployed an additional centre-back but the experiment failed – Brechin slumped to their sixth match without a win and failed to add to their solitary away point.
City can take some solace from their home form: they are yet to be defeated at Glebe Park, but they take on Rangers on Saturday. The match is followed by a league and Scottish Cup double with Arbroath before a trip to face Forfar Athletic. McKinnon has been accustomed to things going his own way, but he faces a big challenge to reboot his team’s season. Copying last year’s successful formula might be the wisest option at this juncture. AG
Dunfermline Athletic (3rd)
Pre-season expectations: finishing the season as the “best of the rest”.
The season so far: the club appear to be on target to end the year in a play-off place.
In many respects, Dunfermline Athletic have already secured their biggest victory of the season. On Friday, the Pars’ administrators were successful in blocking an interdict from former owner Gavin Masterton which aimed to prevent the club from renouncing the lease of their training facilities. The court’s decision has staved off the immediate threat of liquidation and while financial distractions are likely to appear again at some point over the coming months, for the moment at least, both staff and players can focus on winning promotion back to the second tier.
Aberrations against Arbroath and Forfar Athletic aside, Dunfermline have looked a handy prospect over the first quarter and their young squad have adapted well with the rough and tumble of the division. Of their five victories, three of them have been recovered from losing positions. Equally as impressive, three of the wins were earned with goals in the final ten minutes, something which typifies the mentality and camaraderie within the team. The perfect example of both was their astonishing 5-4 victory over Stenhousemuir – with six minutes remaining, the team trailed by two goals but their relentlessness eventually wore down the opposition.
The campaign’s star performers have been the key players who remained after the club’s administration last season. Calum Morris has shone in defence and his organisation has held the backline together. Further forward, captain Josh Falkingham and Andy Geggan make up one of the division’s most dynamic midfield partnerships, while Stephen Husband is a permanent threat. Ryan Wallace is a little too profligate, and more has been expected from the team’s loan signings, but these are minor quibbles.
Jim Jeffries must preserve his side’s focus and ensure his players maintain their level of performance. Dunfermline are yet to face Rangers (their match was postponed due to international commitments) but they seem to be the best placed to unsettle them at Ibrox. It is not a key priority, of course – finishing in a play-off place is the season’s target, something the club are more than capable of achieving. CGT
East Fife (10th)
Pre-season expectations: an unknown quantity – with a new chairman, manager and playing squad, putting last year’s torpor behind them and climbing up the league was key; a wildcard shout for fourth place.
The season so far: strugglin’ (again).
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. Perhaps most worrying of all, the team look no better than they did under Billy Brown’s dismal tenure.
Local businessman Lee Murray completed a takeover of the club in June and installed former Heart of Midlothian academy coach Willie Aitchison as manager. Aitchison, in his first senior role, assembled a curious group of players, bringing in exotic talents from French football alongside discarded journeymen from the lower leagues. Sometime later, the squad was augmented by former Scotland full-backs Gary Naysmith and Robbie Neilson. Last week, former Rangers and Norwich midfielder Stephen Hughes was also recruited on a short-term basis.
Murray has claimed the high profile transfers, signed with relative inexpense, were brought in to raise the stature of the club and increase the levels of professionalism within the squad. It is difficult to tell whether or not they have improved East Fife in the way Murray had hoped, but they have made little difference to their league position.
On occasion, the Fifers have played with purpose and cohesion (Craig Johnstone’s goal in the 1-1 draw with Stenhousemuir was quite delightful) but all too often their performances have been scrappy and uninspiring. Of their foreign imports, much was expected from Alexis Dutot but injury has badly hampered his assimilation into Scottish football – in four league appearances, he is yet to complete 90 minutes. Elsewhere, Cederic Tuta and Cyrus Moosari have only performed in fits and starts. Naysmith and Neilson have played soundly in spells, but it would be unrealistic to expect ageing full-backs to have a major influence in the team’s approach.
Goals have been a major concern and the team have only scored six times in the league, two of which came via the penalty spot. Liam Buchanan and Pat Clarke are proven strikers in the third tier but the two have failed to strike up any sort of rapport. When fit, Hughes should provide them with better service but it would incorrect to expect his presence to immediately lift the side to victory. It says a lot that Gary Thom, an unfashionable centre-back brought in from Stirling Albion, has been the best player so far.
Away from the pitch, Murray is doing his best to promote the club and comes across as a loquacious character on social media, but his garrulousness has been unhelpful at times. Before their match with Forfar Athletic – their fifth of the season – Murray naively described the match as a “six pointer”, heaping unnecessary pressure on his players. It would be interesting to know the rationale behind Aitchison’s appointment. Beyond working with Csaba Laszlo at Hearts for a brief spell, the manager has had no previous involvement in football – how can experienced players such as Naysmith and Hughes be expected to follow his instructions?
Murray has stated his long-term ambitions for the club, but he must keep an eye on their present condition. After last season’s toils and the upheaval over the summer, another relegation scrap would be most unwelcome. Unless there is improvement over the coming weeks and the team rise from their stupor, then Aitchison might well be the league’s first managerial casualty. CGT
Forfar Athletic (9th)
Pre-season expectations: repeating last season’s play-off adventure was not out of the question.
The season so far: the Loons have significantly regressed over the summer and look unlikely to challenge for a top four spot.
There have been incremental improvements at Forfar Athletic during Dick Campbell’s five years at the club (behind Queen’s Park’s Gardner Speirs, Campbell is the longest serving manager in Scottish football). Promotion from the Third Division in his second season was followed by a play-off place in 2010-11 and again last term. Further progress was anticipated this year and the League Cup victory over Rangers reinforced the positive outlook. Two months later, however, and the Loons are level with East Fife at the bottom of the table. With six defeats in nine matches, the forecast is bleak.
Campbell’s key priority in the close season was to address a defence that conceded an average of more two goals per game. Out went Michael Bolochoweckyj and the error-prone Stephen Tulloch; in came the experienced Marvin Andrews, Darren Dods, Stuart Malcolm and Mark Baxter. There has been some improvement in their defensive stability (the team have conceded an average of 1.77 goals per game this year) but the number of goals scored has significantly tailed off – six fewer than at this stage last season. Taking account of two Iain Campbell penalties (both of which were consolation strikes), Forfar have failed to score from in open play in five of their league fixtures. The decision to offload Bryan Deasley to Montrose on loan appears stranger with each passing week.
A 4-0 home win over Dunfermline Athletic has been the sole highlight of the league campaign. Their performance was ruthless, with Chris Templeman turning in an outstanding display, but in context of their other results, the score-line looks highly incongruous – the victory was followed by a 1-2 home defeat to Stranraer.
Supporters were understandably displeased and the tolerance of Campbell’s long-ball tactics and his constant team changes is wearing thin. Frustration has also been evident amongst the playing staff: with just a single league goal to his name, Gavin Swankie was needlessly sent off for dissent in the closing stages of the 0-3 defeat to Arbroath.
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 have a wealth of experience, but has the time come for a fresh approach at Station Park? AG
Pre-season expectations: comfortably winning the league; Ramsdens Cup success; strong placings in both the League and Scottish Cup.
The season so far: it’s been so far so good, with a 100 per cent record in the division and a semi-final place in the Ramsdens Cup, but they were carelessly knocked out of the League Cup by Forfar Athletic.
For the best part, it’s been a wonderful campaign for Rangers. Ally McCoist’s side have won their eight league fixtures, scored 34 goals in the process, and built an unassailable lead at the top of the table. 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.
After their promotion in May, some observers believed that Rangers might have some difficulties adjusting to the step up in quality but such notions have been obliterated. McCoist has assembled a team which far outstrips the 2012-13 squad in every area, with almost every position upgraded. This is not another mish-mash of youth and SPL cast-offs – this is the now the equivalent of bringing a combat shotgun to a knife fight. However, given Rangers’ recent financial reports, one can only wonder if the same achievements could have been reached on a more modest outlay.
While new signings Jon Daly, Bilel Mohsni and Nicky Law have impressed over the course of the season, it is an existing player who has excelled. Six months ago, Ian Black was a comedy figure and, pound for pound, one of the worst players in the country, but the midfielder has overcome personal difficulties to become central to his side’s early success. When paired with Law in the middle of the park, the two form one of the most destructive partnerships in the SPFL. Elsewhere, Lewis Macleod’s rapid development has continued impressively.
Under normal circumstances, Rangers would have been awarded full marks for their season so far, but this squad has not been constructed with just promotion in mind. The club wants cup success and while a forthcoming Ramsdens Cup semi-final appearance is entirely expected, the manner in which they exited the League Cup to Forfar Athletic will have been hugely disappointing. A strong placing in the Scottish Cup will be the minimum requirement to make up for the defeat.
Constant boardroom shenanigans and lingering questions about McCoist’s managerial ability remain but on the pitch at least, Rangers supporters should enjoy the year ahead. CGT
Pre-season expectations: finishing the season in a play-off place.
The season so far: bang on track (with a Ramsdens Cup semi-final appearance to boot), but there are major concerns over the team’s defensive capabilities.
Stenhousemuir’s 17 points from nine matches and forthcoming Ramsdens Cup semi-final appearance is a highly credible return, particularly when the team have huffed and puffed their way through the season so far. Indeed, a 60 minute period in the middle of the weekend’s 3-2 victory over Brechin City has been the only point during the campaign when they have played to their full potential; one can only wonder how good this side this could be if they perform with the same dynamism on a consistent basis.
On the rare occasions the Warriors have played well, Martyn Corrigan’s 4-2-2-2-cum-4-2-3-1 seems to make perfect sense and gives the side a vigour and fluidity in the middle of the park that opposition sides cannot match. At their worst, however, Stenhousemuir have played like an incoherent rabble. With their width, both offensively and defensively, provided exclusively by their full-backs Corrigan’s side are often susceptible to overloads down the flanks. When exploited, as Dunfermline Athletic and Rangers have done, the results are devastating. With six minutes remaining, the Pars turned a 2-4 deficit into a 5-4 victory, while Rangers targeted their vulnerabilities time and again and prevailed 8-0 (in that particular match, it was astonishing that Corrigan did not alter his side’s strategy in an attempt to limit and frustrate Ally McCoist’s team).
On both occasions, this author was moved to describe the defending as the worst he had ever seen. It is a problem which has dogged Stenhousemuir throughout the season and something that Corrigan has failed to correct. His inability to adequately replace the injured Scot Buist over the summer has disappointed, but the defence’s toils go further than an absent centre-back: the unit as a whole has not convinced and has not learned from its mistakes. Given the manager fashioned a solid playing career as a capable defender, it is surprising he has not assembled a more cohesive backline.
The onus is on the strikers to outscore the opposition (with the exception of a 3-1 Ramsdens Cup victory over Peterhead, every win has come by a single goal margin) and it is a task they have performed with aplomb. John Gemmell and Sean Higgins have forged an excellent attacking partnership and have scored nine league goals between them. Gemmell has maintained last season’s form and should be aiming to better 2012-13’s total of 20. Higgins, meanwhile, has triumphed as a number 10 and his technical ability has been crucial in creating opportunities for others. Elsewhere, Chris Smith has performed well in goal, and the returning Bryan Hodge has brought guile to the base of midfield.
If Corrigan can correct his side’s defensive frailties (as Gemmell and Higgins and the supporting cast keep their end of the bargain) and show a little more tactical flexibility when required, then Stenhousemuir should be able to maintain a play-off position through the season. The manager’s next challenge is to guide his side through the winter months – a notoriously difficult period in recent years for the Warriors – but anything less than a top four finish for a squad of this calibre would be unacceptable. CGT
Pre-season expectations: more likely to finish closer to the bottom than the top, but consolidating their League 1 status is the priority.
The season so far: the Blues comfortably sit in mid-table after a highly impressive run of results.
“Without being disrespectful, we should really be beating a team like Stranraer…” It is a familiar refrain made by many League 1 supporters, but the evidence is clear – Stranraer can no longer be considered a soft touch. Finishing the first quarter in sixth place with 11 points (more than double their tally than at the same stage last year), it has been a strong start from the side expected to finish the season propping up the division.
Such notions would have been entirely reasonable after a poor start to the season which saw the Blues collect a single point from their opening five league matches. However, in contrast to their early league form, Stranraer impressed in both cup competitions, beating Dumbarton, Brechin City and, most notably a full-strength Ross County, scoring 11 goals in the process. Crashing out of the Ramsdens Cup to Annan Athletic was unexpected, but they earned praise for the manner of their performance in a 3-5 League Cup defeat to Hibernian.
The meeting with Hibs came on the back of their first league victory, a home win over East Fife. Since then, Stranraer have collected seven points from the division’s three Angus sides and embarked on a four-game unbeaten run.
Manager Steve Aitken made a number of shrewd transfers over the summer, all of which have complemented the existing squad: in front of David Mitchell, Scott Robertson has neatly slotted in at centre-back alongside Frank McKeown and three have played a significant part in the team’s defensive improvement; Grant Gallagher provides the legs in midfield to augment Chris Aitken’s prompting; and Martin Grehan and Jamie Longworth have proven to be a fruitful attacking combination, scoring nine league goals between them (and 13 in all competitions).
Grehan, who has yet to fully convince since leaving Stirling Albion in 2010, provides the muscle and shares similar qualities to the departed Michael Moore, but offers far more in terms of his all-round play. Alongside Longworth (who appears to have settled after a disappointing final season at Queen’s Park), Marc Corcoran, David McKenna, Andy Stirling and Sean Winter, there are plenty of offensive options and far more variety on show than the ugly, one-dimensional approach of previous seasons based around Moore’s ability to win headers.
Aitken has the numbers within his squad to allow for rotation and cover in the event of injuries or suspensions, something which will serve him 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.
Encouraging indeed. AG