After the dull procession of last year’s League 1 championship, isn’t it wonderful to see the division return to a far more engaging spectacle this time around? With no true paradigms established just yet, there is plenty of intrigue at every level and all ten teams have brought something of interest to the party at the end of the first quarter.
Early pace-setters Forfar Athletic have immediately caught the eye. Dick Campbell’s side were expected to challenge for a play-off position but for them to top the table – all the while playing an attractive, expansive brand of football – is remarkable. After several years of general inconsistency – one season they’re competing in the top four, the next they’re not – they look ready to make a sustained tilt for the title. Pre-season favourites Dunfermline Athletic cling on to their coattails and have sufficiently recovered from a poor start to climb the division. Jim Duffy’s Greenock Morton, meanwhile, are a fantastic proposition at home but their away form must be corrected if they’re to keep pace with the Loons and the Pars.
Beneath the top three, it’s a much of a muchness, with every side capable of beating one another. Ayr United began the year in tremendous form but recent defeats have halted their progress, while Brechin City, Peterhead and Stranraer have all lost as many times as they’ve won and sit bunched up in mid-table.
Making up the rest of the division are Airdrieonians, Stenhousemuir and Stirling Albion, and the three sides look the likeliest to duke it out to finish in eighth. A recent upturn in form suggests that Airdrie are capable of moving up the league but nothing can be taken for granted. Scott Booth appears to have misunderstood the requirements to succeed in League 1 and the Warriors are floundering badly, while Stirling just don’t look good enough.
Expect there to be plenty more fascinating narratives as the season lurches into its second quarter.
It began with one of their worst performances in recent years, and it ended with one of their best displays in some time. It’s been a funny few months for Airdrieonians – given the significant turnover in personnel over the summer, the campaign was always likely to be a difficult one and to find themselves duking it out towards the bottom of the division is no surprise. But a flourish over the last month – seven points from four matches and a marked improvement in performance – has seen Gary Bollan’s side move away from tenth place and look towards mid-table.
Losing out to local rivals Albion Rovers in the first round of the Challenge Cup was mildly embarrassing – despite probably being the better of the two sides, a crude error from Lucas Birnstingl allowed the Vers back into the match, and they eventually lost out on penalties – but the manner in which they capitulated to Stenhousemuir in the League Cup was quite appalling and augured ill for the year ahead.
And so it proved. Despite a far better showing against the Warriors on the opening day of the league campaign, their inability to convert a number of increasingly presentable chances counted against them and they came undone after Martin Grehan’s late strike. Defeats to Peterhead and Dunfermline Athletic followed, before a 0-0 draw with Stirling Albion secured their first point of the season.
By this point, Bollan, perhaps realising the inadequacies in his summer signings, brought in a cast of new recruits. Bryan Prunty returned to the club after a six-year absence, while centre-backs Luca Gasparotto and Ben Richards-Everton joined on loan from Rangers and Partick Thistle respectively. Their arrivals did not bring about an immediate upturn in form, and it wasn’t until 27 September when they recorded their first victory, a rambunctious 3-2 triumph over Ayr United at Somerset Park. Reprising last season’s successful 4-4-1-1 system, with two screening midfielders (Marc Fitzpatrick and David Proctor in this instance, having failed to make much of a positive contribution at centre-back) in front of the defence, a late goal from Gasparotto and a thumping header from Jamie Bain in the final minute ensured the win.
A reasonable showing (but no points) against Forfar Athletic was followed by a tremendous display against Brechin City at the weekend. Airdrie were menacing from the first kick of the ball to the last, with Scott Fraser (dafted in on a temporary basis from Dundee United) scoring after three minutes and turning in a superlative performance in a 4-0 win. Signed until 9 January, Fraser looks as though he can add the spark to an otherwise one-paced midfield.
It remains to be seen whether or not the win over Brechin is a turning point, but their forthcoming fixtures – Stirling, Peterhead and Stenhousemuir – will provide a decent indication as to how they’ve progressed. There are still plenty of areas for Bollan to address: Andy McNeil has never looked the most convincing of goalkeepers; Richards-Everton has a tendency to over-complicate things rather than just concentrate in the simple act of defending (perhaps more pertinently, both he and Gasparoto’s loan agreements expire in the New Year); and, even with Fraser’s inclusion, the middle of the park still requires attention.
In the January transfer window, the manager will perhaps repeat last season’s trick of finding quality players discarded from full-time clubs to furnish his squad – if Airdrie can maintain their current level of improvement and continue to climb up the table, then the necessary surgery won’t need to be as dramatic as it was in 2013-14. CGT
Ayr United (4th)
In the lyrics to Taylor Swift’s latest single “Shake it Off”, undoubtedly the year’s finest pop release, the American singer-songwriter proclaims that “the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate”. Mark Roberts is a man who knows all about the haters after two unproductive years in the Somerset Park hotseat and, although the Ayr United manager has been able to mollify some of the terrace and keyboard malcontents with a refashioned side and a promising start to the campaign, there is a sense at the end of the season’s first quarter that Roberts – and the club – are at critical juncture.
After all, this is a big year Roberts. Chairman Lachlan Cameron’s decision to retain the services of the 38-year-old, despite a disappointing conclusion to last term (albeit it was a year in which the Honest Men achieved what was expected of them, perhaps even more), was met with reactions ranging from indifference to desolation amongst supporters. A lengthy statement from Cameron at the start of the season set Roberts the target of gaining promotion.
So how has it gone? Remarkably similar to the start of 2013-14, as it happens. United have begun the season well and boast the same points tally (13) and occupy the same position in the table as they did 12 months ago. Bouncing back from a woeful defeat at Clyde in the first round of the Challenge Cup, Ayr eased past East Stirlingshire in the League Cup to set up a derby against Kilmarnock before catapulting themselves to the top of the table with three straight league wins. Since narrowly losing 0-1 at Rugby Park, however, performances and results have been less impressive: Ayr’s only victory in the last six games came against a Brechin City side that conceded two penalties and were reduced to ten men; their only other showing to warrant pass marks came in defeat against Dunfermline Athletic on Friday night.
With no clear statistical authentication as to whether Ayr are a better team this season, it is difficult to make a judgement at this stage. They are, however, a different proposition. This was inevitable following talismanic striker Michael Moffat’s departure in the summer – Ayr would have to be re-imagined the process has seen significant experience added to the squad and the adoption of a more refined approach. Roberts has favoured a 4-4-1-1 formation, with initially Jon-Paul McGovern and latterly Brian Gilmour playing in behind the hard working Ryan Donnelly in attack. The strategy hasn’t always worked, particularly at home where sides have sat in and played narrow. Defeats to Stranraer and Airdrieonians stand out as unsatisfactory; the closing minutes against Airdrie (where the visitors scored two late goals to prevail 3-2) was reminiscent of some of United’s worst performances under Roberts.
More decisive to Ayr’s slump has perhaps been another issue: the first choice defence is a stronger unit than it was last season, with Nicky Devlin impressing in the right-back role, but the backline has been disrupted by injury all too often. Centre-backs Martyn Campbell and the peerless Peter Murphy – who looks like one of the division’s best defenders – and left-back Kevin McKinlay have all been troubled by various ailments (both Campbell and Murphy were forced off against Airdrie). With the duo absent at Peterhead, McKinlay and Scott McLaughlin formed a makeshift partnership in the centre and while they’re both adequate as a short-term fix, the consequences, including Michael Donald having to drop to left-back, weaken the team overall. Ayr’s season is in danger of being undermined if dependable defensive reserves cannot be sourced soon.
The Peterhead game also saw Roberts hand a first start to former Celtic and Dundee striker Craig Beattie, who joined on transfer deadline day. Unfortunately, the match served to prove he isn’t yet at the physical level to contribute for much more than 30 minutes. The bustling forward has, however, shown enough in just over 180 minutes of game time – in which he has contributed three goals already – that he can be a real asset at this level. Alongside Beattie, former Motherwell and Celtic youngster Paul Slane and another ex-Motherwell kid Dale Shirkie have also been added to Roberts’s attacking roster, but neither player has been used to full effect just yet.
Last season, Mark Roberts’s side were able to use their good start to the season as a platform to remain as inside the top four for the entire campaign. If they are to do the same this time around, the next couple of weeks are crucial, starting with Saturday’s trip to Greenock Morton. Brechin, Peterhead and Stranraer are all within three points of the Honest Men (the latter two having played one less fixture) and with Airdrieonians also finding form, Roberts can ill afford to see his side fall off the pace. AG
Brechin City (5th)
Will the real Brechin City please stand up? Is it the side that tore Stirling Albion asunder at Forthbank and eased to victory at home against Greenock Morton? Or is it the team that, just one week later, meekly surrendered to a 0-4 defeat at the hands of Airdrieonians? The answer, based on results at least, is probably somewhere in the middle but the inconsistency in performances will be maddening to Ray McKinnon. The manager is arguably still looking for the formula that underpinned the stellar start to his career at Glebe Park between mid-October and March in 2012-13. Nevertheless, the Hedgemen are still handily placed for a tilt at the promotion play-offs in the coming months.
A necessary task for McKinnon was to overhaul a defensive unit that conceded, through a combination of injuries, ill-discipline and poor form, 71 goals in 36 games last year. There has been some improvement in this regard – Paul McLean has been redeployed as a centre-back alongside Darren McCormack and the two have complemented each other well. At full-back, Jamie McCormack’s performances have waned (McKinnon may seek an alternative when his short-term deal expires) and Colin Hamilton has been a little flaky but continuity has helped – the same back four and goalkeeper have started all nine games, and Graeme Smith has mostly been excellent between the posts. The loss of 15 goals in nine games is a marginal improvement, although City have already kept the same number of clean sheets as they did through the whole of last season.
Ahead of the back four, the central midfield pairing has always been a key component in McKinnon’s favoured approach but, unlike the defence, it has suffered from disruption. Callum Tapping’s youthful exuberance has been curtailed through injury, likewise the ever reliable Craig Molloy, who suffered ligament damage in the win against Morton. The captain’s recovery will keep him out for a number of weeks (something described as a “huge loss” by his manager). Gary Fusco has not had the impact that was expected on his return to the club from Forfar Athletic and Greg Cameron’s foolish red card against Ayr United was instrumental in their first defeat of the season. These four players illustrate a new depth to the squad (in this area at least) but they’re of little use to McKinnon while they’re sitting in the stands.
Brechin’s strength remains in their attacking talent, and they are the division’s third top scorers. Alan Trouten continues to find the net with regularity and has scored six times in all competitions, but otherwise the goals have been shared around the team. Jamie Masson has been a positive addition to the side on loan from Aberdeen, with the 21-year-old fitting the approach of seeking to exploit the space between the opposition’s defence and midfield (and his goal against Ayr was a real pinger). Playing further forward, striker Andy Jackson has struggled with his only goals of the season coming in the 5-0 win at Stirling Albion. Jackson has recently found himself out of the team, with McKinnon favouring the physicality of Robert Thomson up front instead. A run of games may be what Thomson requires to replicate the form that saw him net seven times in 14 fixtures at the tail end of last season.
Overall, Brechin are two places, three points and four goals better off than at the same stage last year and look far more reliable in defence. With a prevailing wind behind them, the side’s attacking potential can see them win matches with an attractive ease. Their mettle in the face of adversity, however, is less certain: City have gone behind just twice this season but lost comfortably on both occasions. Injuries to key personnel and a squad limited in numbers in key areas may once again threaten to derail Brechin but, Saturday’s defeat at Airdrie apart, Ray McKinnon should be satisfied with his side’s start. Bouncing back from the Excelsior abjection will be important as play-off rivals Stranraer and Ayr are up next. AG
Dunfermline Athletic (2nd)
Even although Dunfermline Athletic are a point from the summit of the table and sitting in the reasonable comfort in second place, it’s still difficult not to feel a little disappointed with how their first quarter has progressed. Jim Jefferies side were expected to trample over the division and cruise towards the championship with minimum fuss until a tricky opening period stunted their development. But, given their recent form, it would be foolish to be dismissive of them in the near future – before long, the Pars should top the league.
After last term’s solid (yet ultimately fruitless) campaign and a competent summer recruitment strategy, it was anticipated that Dunfermline would enjoy a successful season. Given the outlay on personnel and their full-time status relative to the rest of their opponents, winning the division was certainly was the only possible outlook. It was something of a surprise, then, when they were held to a stalemate on the opening day of the season by Brechin City – the lack of creativity, particularly in the wide areas, hamstrung their efforts in breaking down a stubborn side. The same deficiency – as well as some alarmingly soft-centred defending – saw them capitulate at Forfar Athletic the following week.
Since then, however, Dunfermline’s results have been mostly satisfactory with five wins from six. The Pars are developing a sound habit of dismissing the league’s lesser lights with ease – Airdrieonians, Stenhousemuir, Peterhead and Stirling Albion were all dealt with consummate professionalism (particularly in the case of the Blue Toon, where Josh Falkingham refused to cow to their roughhouse tactics). Of some concern was the loss at Greenock Morton – Dunfermline turned in a sloppy display and were unable to handle Declan McManus as they succumbed 1-2. Beating the mid-card teams is one thing, but surrendering to Forfar and Morton, their immediate rivals, is vexing.
On the whole, there is plenty to find agreeable. Their defensive record is the best in the league – they lost just five goals and kept six clean sheets (including three in their last three matches). Their goalkeeper and back four have functioned as a fully cohesive unit – Ryan Scully has maintained last season’s good form, while Gregor Buchanan has proven to be an excellent acquisition (and is arguably the best centre-back in the league at the moment). Right-back Ryan Williamson is developing into a strong attacking force and his raids down the flank are a joy to watch.
The midfield is guilty of looking a little stodgy on occasion. Falkingham and Andy Geggan are still a dynamic force but look stolid rather than sensational. Ross Forbes is decent enough on the ball but too passive without it while Andy Stirling, signed from Stranraer to operate as a wide playmaker, has lacked the fitness to make a significant impact just yet.
Much was expected from Michael Moffat but the forward has yet to scale the same heights he did during his four years at Ayr United. Three goals is a reasonable return, but be had scored eight at the same stage last season. Moffat looks like he has struggled to adapt to the adjustment in systems – at Ayr, he was the focal point of a side that would try to get the ball to him as quickly as possible, whereas Dunfermline have been operating using a more patient, nuanced approach. The player will no doubt adapt in time. Gozie Ugwu, meanwhile, is a physical, athletic striker who has shown flashes of his capabilities.
Having gone through the opening quarter without ever truly being excellent. They will certainly need to raise their standards in their upcoming fixtures against Forfar and Morton. Losing either match would not be calamitous by any means, but it may call into doubt their title winning credentials to some extent. Victory, however, will propel them to the top of the table and, eventually, the Championship. CGT
Forfar Athletic (1st)
Tell Him He’s Pelé prides itself on an absence of blind spots, bias and agendas. But it perhaps hasn’t paid Forfar Athletic’s excellent start to the season enough attention. By way of apology, allow us to wax lyrical for a moment: to put their start into context, the last time the Loons topped Scotland’s third tier at this stage of the season was in 1992, and they have earned a remarkable 13 points more than this time last year.
Dick Campbell deserves enormous praise for how things have progressed at Station Park. This is no overnight success or fluke – in his six years at the club, Scotland’s longest serving manager has built up an excellent outfit, with the various components all coming together this term. In attack, Gavin Swankie, Dale Hilson and Chris Templeman have been around for three seasons or more (while Danny Denholm returns for a second spell after a brief sojourn at Livingston). Defensively, with just one replacement at left-back, a vastly experienced backline has entered its second season together. The decisive factor this season appears to be the recruitment of two tried ‘n’ tested midfielders in Derek Young and Stephen Husband, two fine players capable of controlling the play.
It was an inauspicious start to competitive action as the side took a little longer to integrate that Campbell would have hoped, and Forfar exited both cup competitions at the first hurdle, departing from Challenge Cup at East Fife and then losing out to Raith Rovers in the League Cup. There were encouraging signs, however, and unencumbered by cup distractions the Loons are flying: six wins (five out of five at home); two draws; and just one defeat.
The pick of the side’s results was probably the 2-0 win over title favourites Dunfermline Athletic in August. It was a convincing display in which Forfar dominated possession (something that before the arrival of Young and Husband they would have struggled to achieve). Chris Templeman was a bothersome presence that afternoon but the lanky striker has subsequently lost his place in the side, with the manager favouring to pair Gavin Swankie and Dale Hilson in attack instead.
This offensive change is perhaps symbolic of the transition between the direct football that typified Campbell’s early years at Station Park to this term’s more fluid passing style – an attractive spectacle when in full flow. Key to this approach is Swankie, Hilson and Denholm. The trio have 16 goals between them in all competitions and unsurprisingly, the Loons are the division’s top scorers. They combine pace with clever movement and ingenuity, and are a difficult proposition to counter. Omar Kader, meanwhile, is probably enjoying his finest season at the club.
Saturday sees a top of the table clash when Forfar meet Dunfermline, who sit just one point behind them. It also pits Scotland’s oldest and most experienced managers against one another. Picking a favourite for this contest is not straightforward – it sees the Loons’ experience versus the Pars’ youthful exuberance, and Forfar’s in form attack against Dunfermline’s athletic defence. Over the course of the next seven months, one might just favour Dunfermline’s full-time status and greater strength in depth, but Forfar have shown they have enough about them for now to prevent a procession. AG
Greenock Morton (3rd)
Given the unevenness of their transfer activity over the summer and the general poverty of their squad as a whole, Greenock Morton are probably doing what’s expected from them. Fifteen points from nine matches is not the most spectacular of returns but if they are to maintain the same ratio over the course of the season it should probably be enough to see them finish in the play-off places. If Jim Duffy’s side are to go one better and offer a genuine challenge at the top of the table, however, he must do something to address his side’s inconsistencies.
At Cappielow, Morton have been perfect. Four games, four victories; ten goals scored, two conceded. They are an adventurous, expressive side on home turf – the Ton demolished Stranraer 4-0 (although playing against ten men following David Mitchell’s 18th minute red card certainly helped), dismissed Airdrieonians (a match lit up by Marc Fitzpatrick’s hissy fit) and brushed aside Stirling Albion at the weekend. Their finest game of the season was the 2-1 win over Dunfermline Athletic – Morton dominated the match from start to finish and scored two very nice goals to boot.
It is unfortunate, then, that they cannot take the same form on their travels. A handy win at Peterhead (courtesy of Thomas O’Ware’s last minute thriker) aside, Morton’s performances away from home have veered from unlucky to downright appalling. Against Stenhousemuir, a series of questionable refereeing decisions did not go in their favour, but their general play was scrappy and unimaginative and easy enough for the Warriors backline to deal with. They were dire against Ayr United and Forfar Athletic, while the 1-3 loss at Brechin City was just tragic. A lack of control, particularly in the middle of the park has perhaps prevented them from making more of an impression; the manager’s decision not to sign Mark Millar appears particularly strange.
A lack of width has also proved to be a peculiar nuisance so far. Jamie McCluskey has performed to an adequate standard but his brother Stefan, who had worked well with Duffy at Clyde last season, has missed long spells through injury and, when selected, looks a little daunted by League 1. The problems out wide are exacerbated by the manager’s decision to field centre-halves in the full-back positions. Lee Kilday has done okay but it’s a white knuckle ride whenever Ricki Lamie finds the ball at his feet. Replacing him with Mark Russell in the long-term might be a more appropriate solution.
Although the manager has been criticised for his failure to adequately strengthen his forward options, he side boasts the best striker in the division. Declan McManus, signed on loan from Aberdeen until the New Year, has been excellent, scoring eight times in all competitions. A fast, intelligent forward comfortable operating through the centre and on the wing, he is capable of bringing the best out of those around him. Behind him, Conor Pepper and Joe McKee have built a decent partnership in the middle of the park and can knock the ball around with economy. Thomas O’Ware has done a decent enough job wherever he’s been fielded and Derek Gaston is always, quite literally, a safe pair of hands.
At the beginning of the season, a title bid was always a little unlikely but promotion, regardless of how it is achieved, is the still aim. If Morton can continue to win their home matches, they should do just fine. Such is the scepticism surrounding Duffy, however, that every dropped point and poor performance brings him under renewed scrutiny – if results at Cappielow falter for whatever reason, then their away form must be addressed if they are to enjoy a successful campaign. CGT
Three wins and a couple of draws is a fairly respectable outcome thus far for a Peterhead side enjoying its first season back in the third tier. Almost every aspect of their record so far is symmetrical, which highlights what we thought we knew: they are too good to get drawn into a relegation battle but are unlikely to stage a credible push for promotion this season. But there is a lot more to come from this team, and the signings of the calibre of Nicky Riley and Mark Millar signal their intentions.
It’s been a regular complaint of Peterhead in this feature over the last two or so years, but the Blue Toon’s disciplinary record is woeful and undermines how good a team they can be at times. They have collected five red cards already this season under Jim McInally’s management, with a reckless performance at East End Park resulting in three sendings off in the one match – the lack of discipline can’t even be seen as a surprise anymore, considering how far reaching it has been in the last few years. The manager might think that the problem isn’t with aggression but with petulance, but considering the hefty challenges that were going in against Dunfermline before the first card was issued, perhaps McInally ought to address the manner in which he emotionally prepares his players before the match.
When the nut is screwed, however, Peterhead can be an effective force. McInally has long been a fan of the 3-5-2 system, which works for them in a predominantly 4-4-2 orientated league with a squad which has, until now, been built around the defensive solidity while still affording two strikers that the formation allows. It will be interesting to see how the side copes without Graham Sharp, however, and if McInally is inclined to prefer an attacking bias he might be tempted to place Riley there and allow the former Dundee winger to dominate the right-hand side.
But from what was evidenced in the win against Ayr, that might be a bit of a waste. Riley’s direct dribbling in a free role behind Rory McAllister set up a number of chances for the striker, and on another day McAllister might have had a hat-trick or more. The latter has surprisingly only scored a couple of goals this season, but with the amount of chances that are coming his way it is only a matter of time before he threatens the top of the scoring charts once more – when it clicks for him, Peterhead will likely no longer be in mid-table. With McInally yet to see anything close to the influence that Mark Millar can bring to the team, there is a lot of potential yet untapped.
The Blue Toon can almost certainly finish in the play-offs this season. When they have Millar, McAllister and Riley all on form, together with the team’s typical solidity, there might not be many teams to compete equally with them. But they’ve got to retain their discipline. JAM
It has been a pretty dreadful start to the campaign for Stenhousemuir. Pre-season predictions claiming the side would spend the year challenging for the final play-off spot now seem wildly over-exaggerated and on current form, the Warriors are more likely to be sparring at the foot of the table than anything else. Relegation, unthinkable in July, is now a distinct possibility, and Scott Booth faces a vexing task in attempting to guide his team away from the lower reaches of the division.
The former Scotland U-17s coach has warned his methods would take time to implement and become realised. Given the way the club has changed in recent months – the players are training three nights a week, and a greater emphasis has been placed on fitness and youth development – patience was always a necessity but there has been no tangible improvement on the field so far. Booth certainly talks a good game but, as the old adage goes, actions speak louder than words; there’s very little to have offered encouragement.
Results at Ochilview have been just about adequate (the shocking 4-5 reverse against Stirling Albion notwithstanding). The 1-0 victory over Airdrieonians on the opening day was barely deserved, with the Diamonds passing up a number of outstanding chances before Martin Grehan’s late sucker punch, but few could quibble with the recent stalemates with Ayr United and Stranraer. The 2-1 win over Greenock Morton has been the high point of the season so far.
Their away form, however, has been disgraceful. Not only have Stenhousemuir lost all four matches, they haven’t even scored a goal. Incredibly, they’re the only club in the SPFL – including the Highland and Lowland Leagues – yet to find the net away from home. In some cases, they haven’t even managed a single shot on target. The defeat to Brechin City was perhaps a little unfortunate but in the three subsequent losses at Peterhead, Dunfermline Athletic and Forfar Athletic, they barely offered any threat whatsoever; the Pars will not play an easier game all season. In this context, the triumph against Morton looks increasingly anomalous.
“Really feel for a couple of the Stenny players and fans,” tweeted Scot Buist, the Warriors’ former centre-back and one of Booth’s most outspoken critics. “A team not far off challenging given a couple of decent signings ripped apart by a manager with zero experience in lower league football. Could be a very long season for them. A decision that still baffles me.”
And therein lies the rub. Put bluntly, the team is just not as good as it was last season. Only in goal and in central defence, two areas with depth, has there been any improvement; everywhere else looks significantly deficient compared with 2013-14. Looking back over the summer, it seems remarkable to think that supporters treated the departures of Sean Higgins and Nicky Devlin with indifference – both players would surely be prized commodities in the current side.
It is in midfield where a number of the team’s problems lie. When Sean Dickson was establishing himself in the senior squad in 2011-12, he was playing alongside Stevie Murray, Eric Paton, Paul McHale and Brown Ferguson. This year, with Bryan Hodge absent for an indeterminate period, Dickson is now the most senior midfielder at the age of 22. With the manager preferring “role models” to “characters” in his dressing room, the squad is badly lacking in personality, something that is reflected in their results.
It seems unfair to single out players when the majority of the side have failed to punch their weight but Ross Meechan is simply nowhere near good enough for League 1. The full-back has been directly and indirectly responsible for a number of goals over the past nine matches and looks increasingly haphazard on the right; withdrawing him in favour of Robbie Duncan might be best for all parties. Elsewhere, Josh Watt has not recaptured last season’s form, while Jamie Reid looks a diminished presence on the wing. Player-coach Colin McMenamin, despite his two opportunistic strikes in the draw with Stranraer, has offered very little during his cameo appearances.
A handful of players can take pride in their efforts. Martin Grehan has done reasonably well and has scored three times in nine matches, despite a dearth of quality service. His goals have all been vitally important too and have either been winners or equalisers. Gary Oliver, despite being played out of position on the flank, has looked like a sparky, restless proposition and Kieran Millar is quietly developing into a fine ball-winning midfielder.
Forthcoming matches against Stirling, Peterhead and an improving Airdrie should offer a good indication about Stenhousemuir’s prospects. A failure to prevail in at least two of the three fixtures and the Warriors will be in real danger of sinking to the bottom of the division as their counterparts pull away. And with the winter approaching – a time of year Stenhousemuir never seem to well in, regardless of their management or playing personnel – their situation could become even more desolate. With supporters becoming increasingly disillusioned with Booth and his team, the manager must find a way to translate his grand ideas into something palpable before the side plummet any further. CGT
Stirling Albion (10th)
In the aftermath of Stirling Albion’s latest defeat, a 0-2 reverse at Greenock Morton, manager Greig McDonald was upbeat. “I genuinely believe we are not a million miles away from turning it around,” he said. It’s difficult to agree with him – that’s not to say Albion are completely hopeless because what they do, they actually do reasonably well; they just don’t pose much of an attacking threat. The loss was Albion’s third in a row (all by the same score-line) and their fifth of the season, and it sent them to the foot of the table. The Binos, as they’ve done for the best part of the season, competed well enough at Cappielow but they were undone by a defensive howler, with Chris Smith misjudging a long punt from Morton goalkeeper Derek Gaston to allow David McNeil in to score.
As has come to be expected under McDonald, the Binos are grimly obdurate, particularly away from home. They’re quite capable of strangling the life out of a game, regimentally pressing their opponents and denying them time to move the ball; only never for quite for long enough. There is no lack of effort, just a patent shortage in quality. Containment seems to be the limit of this team’s capabilities.
And all too often this honest endeavour has been undermined by dreadful defensive errors. Albion’s concession of 21 goals in nine games tells its own story. Craig Wedderburn (25), James Creaney (25) and Chris Smith (26) lack assuredness at the back. Smith in particular is capable of solid “thou shall not pass” displays but also moments of extreme clumsiness. Failing to pick up men at set-pieces, track midfield runners and clear lines – all elementary errors – have plagued the side and cost goals. Right-back Lee Hamilton (19), who was recently handed a contract extension, gave one of the worst individual performance this writer has ever seen when Stirling were defeated by Ayr United in August.
Perhaps of greater concern than Stirling’s propensity for defensive hari-kari is that they are woefully short in attack. Saturday’s blank represented the fifth game in six where the Binos have failed to score and, discounting an anomalous 5-4 win over Stenhousemuir (their only league win of the season), they are averaging 0.5 goals per game. Of the strikers signed in the summer to replace Jordan White, only Gordon Smith has made any impression, scoring four times. Steven Doris is increasingly looking like a busted flush and Lewis Coult is unlikely to garner the confidence in this side to elevate him from simply being “unconvincing”.
Sandy Cunningham at least offers a bit of energy and enthusiasm, but has been limited to just four starts. A 22-minute cameo from the substitutes’ bench against Forfar Athletic brought two goals and earned the Binos a point, arguably their best result of the season. Cunningham is one of the few players in the squad (the ever-injured Phil Johnston being another) with plenty of pace but lacking in guile. Stirling badly miss someone who can take control of the ball and create chances for their front men, or even set the tone by keeping possession.
It is fair to observe that Stirling have not been terrible this season (with the exception of Brechin’s 5-0 win at Forthbank last month) but with Airdrieonians now up and running – and taking account of their limitations – it increasingly looks like usurping Stenhousemuir is their only realistic hope of avoiding automatic relegation. The sides face each other on Saturday and a Stenny win would open up a five point gap that could be too difficult to overcome. AG
It seems somewhat unkind to compare Stranraer’s current team with the side that confounded all expectations and finished third in May; it’s like judging Carl Douglas’s seminal 1974 chop-socky themed disco hit “Kung Fu Fighting” with his subsequent output. Vital players Mark Docherty, Andy Stirling (their inventive creative force), and cerebral striker Martin Grehan departed, the latter two to their League 1 rivals. Their replacements, on paper at least, appear inferior. As it has happens, the Blues are two points better off than they were at this stage last season and Stephen Aitken has already picked up a Manager of the Month award.
Aitken’s accolade for September encompassed Stranraer’s shock win over Falkirk in the third round of the Challenge Cup; a 2-0 win at Somerset Park which typified the Blues’ tried ‘n’ tested doggedness and organisation; a score draw away to Airdrieonians; and routine victory over Stirling Albion. The victory against Ayr United was their first of the season but league results in August didn’t cause too much concern, despite yielding just two points from four games. Draws at home to Forfar Athletic and Brechin City were tightly contested affairs, as was the narrow defeat at home to Dunfermline Athletic. Stranraer’s only aberration this season came at Cappielow where they were thwacked 4-0 by Greenock Morton, although an 18th minute red card for goalkeeper David Mitchell and a second dismissal after the interval for Barry Russell probably accounted for the uncharacteristic reverse.
Despite the passable results, there is no mistaking that, mainly due to the loss of Andy Stirling, Stranraer are a fairly unremarkable side. This year’s vintage still have their qualities but the same attributes that hurled them up the division 12 months ago are somewhat lacking. Aitken’s side were marked by their bright, expressive passing and their ability to transition quickly from defence to attack; now, they lack creativity and, more than anything else, just look ordinary. Willie Gibson and Anthony Merenghi are both technically gifted players but they lack the same dynamism and unpredictability as Stirling.
Given Stranraer’s pertinacity, it is important that striker Jamie Longworth has hit a purple patch, with five goals in his last five games. If he can come close to replicating the run of form (which also began in mid-September last season) that saw him net 18 times in 17 games his team’s play-off aspirations will be given a huge fillip. The role of Craig Malcolm should not be overlooked either – he is unlikely to match Martin Grehan’s goal tally from last season (Malcolm’s finishing really is poor for a striker, as evidence in his reckless penalty attempt in the shoot-out against Livingston in the Challenge Cup semi-final on Sunday) but he creates enough chances through with his strength and tenacity.
Another familiar feature of the Blues’ campaign is their determination. On four occasions this season they have score late goals, twice to beat East Fife and Dumbarton in cup competitions, and twice in the league to rescue something from nothing. Against Brechin, Stranraer pulled back a two-goal deficit and equalised in the final minute to secure a point, while the 3-3 draw with Airdrieonians was achieved in similar circumstances.
The bottom line is that this Stranraer team isn’t as good as last season, and their squad remains poorer in terms of overall numbers (injuries to defenders Scott Robertson and Craig Pettigrew have already caused difficulties) but the spirit and attitude Stephen Aitken has ingrained in his players could well propel them into the play-offs once again. And that would be remarkable. AG