After last season’s hullabaloo – Rangers’ sudden readmission into the SFL and the one-sidedness of the subsequent campaign – it was pleasant to witness the basement tier return to some sort of normality this time around. And what a year it was! The inaugural League 2 season turned out to be one of the most keenly contested seasons in recent memory with the trends and patterns only really establishing themselves after the New Year. Such was the competitiveness of the division that only ten points separated first from ninth as far into the season as December.
With the exception of Queen’s Park – it turned out to be a thoroughly horrid campaign for everyone connected with the Spiders – every club would have viewed themselves as legitimate contenders for promotion at that point. But while all teams are equal, some teams are more equal than others and the more capable outfits began to pull away from the pack. Peterhead, crowned champions for the first time since joining the SFL in 2000, overcame a sluggish start to fix themselves at the summit of the table in mid-December, a position they would not cede (can we finally put to bed the suggestion Jim McInally is a “bottler”?). They were chased by Jim Chapman’s Annan Athletic, a side who recorded their finest senior season to date but who could not overcome the play-offs.
Indeed, it was Stirling Albion in third who clambered out of the division after a two-year sojourn. At times ugly and uninspiring, the Binos came good in the end to beat Annan and then East Fife in the play-off contest. Clyde proved to be the division’s surprise package: completely unfancied at the beginning of the season, the small, talented group of players punched above their weight throughout the season, only to come undone in the play-off semi-finals. Should they retain the majority of their squad, they could conceivably go one step further next term.
Elsewhere, it was all much of a muchness: Berwick Rangers only started to hit their groove after Colin Cameron’s appointment; Montrose were, well, Montrose, really; Albion Rovers’ league form was terribly underwhelming and they never once looked like threatening for the title, despite their acclaimed Scottish Cup run; East Stirlingshire’s fantastic start gave way to maddening inconsistency; and Elgin City did not adjust to the loss of key players and could only look on as their rivals finished some distance ahead of them.
Although the quality was sometimes lacking, it was an engaging, engrossing year. When will we see the likes again.
Albion Rovers (7th)
It is difficult just what to make of Albion Rovers’ season. On one hand, the club enjoyed a stunning Scottish Cup run, defeating Motherwell en route to a quarter-final clash with Rangers and then taking their illustrious opponents to a replay after an incredible 1-1 draw at Ibrox. Their performance that afternoon was garlanded with acclaim at a national level, and the club took a sizeable bounty from television revenue afterwards. On the other, their league campaign was wholly underwhelming. Billed as one of the favourites to win the division at the beginning of the season, they did not live up to expectation. It is on their league form that this report card has been graded; the Scottish Cup success has earned them the bonus point.
Perhaps we were all hoodwinked by the briskness of James Ward’s summer recruitment – within a fortnight of the close of the 2012-13 season, the manager had already assembled the bulk of his squad for the new campaign. At first glance, they appeared to be a capable bunch: Neil Parry had played with distinction at Queen’s Park for several seasons; Mick Dunlop was a handy third tier defender; Scott Chaplain had played the best football of his career with the Rovers; and Mark McGuigan, signed on a temporary basis from Partick Thistle towards the end of the transfer window, had proven himself during a brief loan spell last term. Everything pointed to, at the very least, a challenge for the play-off places.
Back-to-back wins and a decent draw with Annan Athletic in their first three matches suggested the season would play out as expected but one win in eight stifled their progress and sucked them into the peloton. Following the remarkable victory over Motherwell, achieved through a late swish of Gary Phillips’ boot, it looked as though the Vers were in a position to improve their league form and four wins in seven between Christmas and mid-January propelled them to within two points from Clyde in fifth. And yet the team let themselves down with another sequence of poor results; they would not come as close to reaching the play-offs again.
The decisive moment of the league campaign came in the aftermath of their draw at Rangers. With an upcoming fixture against Queen’s Park to prepare for, the Scottish Cup replay was arranged for two days later. Ward was placed in an invidious position: with a game in hand and six points from East Stirlingshire, should he have taken a more pragmatic approach? Or chase an unlikely semi-final appearance instead? Ward chose the latter, resting his entire first choice XI, and his team were promptly thrashed 0-4 by the Spiders; Rangers defeated them two days later. Rovers went on to take nine points from their final eight matches.
Putting the Scottish Cup run to one side, the Vers’ league form has been disappointing. Ward will shoulder a large portion of the blame, but too many players failed to pull their weight. Only a handful can be content with their contributions – Mick Dunlop and his brother Ross formed a trusty partnership in central defence, while Ciaran Donnelly adapted well to his role as the side’s screening midfielder. Elsewhere, Liam Cusack was an energetic presence in the middle of the park and Chris Dallas provided industry to the frontline.
Ward will continue next season and has already strengthened the squad with a number of eye-catching recruits. But there will be no margin for error this time around; without the cup success, he could have lost his job this year. A similar campaign next term will not be tolerated. CGT
Annan Athletic (2nd)
When reflecting on the 2013-14 season, everyone connected with Annan Athletic should look back on it with pride. Although it culminated in disappointment, with the team comprehensively shellacked by Stirling Albion in the play-off semi-finals, the campaign has been the club’s best since joining the SFL in 2008. In Jim Chapman’s first full season in charge, Annan have achieved their highest league finish, scored their greatest number of goals (63) and recorded their best goal difference (+20); it just wasn’t enough to catapult them into League 1.
The season started in unremarkable fashion with the team – like so many others in the division – failing to achieve any degree of consistency, with each win immediately proceeded by a draw or a loss (it wasn’t until September when they recorded back-to-back league victories). Their form in the cup competitions, however, was solid and Annan reached the semi-final of the Ramsdens Cup, losing out to eventual winners Raith Rovers.
Annan truly hit their stride after Christmas, winning four consecutive matches and climbing into second place, a position they would hold on to until the end of the season. Their form throughout 2014 was largely excellent but it was never enough to unfix Peterhead at the summit of the division, a team with whom they shared an unexpected rivalry over the course of the season. Towards the end of March, a 2-1 win over the Blue Toon at the Galabank and a midweek victory at Albion Rovers brought them within six points of the league leaders, but any hopes of chasing them down were dashed by defeat at Stirling Albion.
Indeed, while Annan enjoyed a better head-to-head record against Peterhead and were capable of dismissing the division’s lesser lights, it was their poor form against the teams immediately beneath them that hamstrung their progress. In eight league meetings with Stirling and Clyde, they recorded just two wins, one against either side. They would carry their inferiority complex over into the play-off semi-final contest with Stirling; the tie was as good as over within the first 30 minutes of the first leg.
There were a number of outstanding players throughout the campaign. Steven Swinglehurst was one of the division’s best centre-backs, a thoughtful, positionally aware player; Andy Mitchell, who joined on loan from Rangers before signing on a permanent basis, looked far too good for the basement division (and has since been heavily linked with moving to Falkirk for 2014-15); and Kenny Mackay was arguably the league’s best signing. Unheralded before his move from Greenock JFC, the striker scored 13 times in 28 league appearances, including a handful of late, decisive goals.
Can Jim Chapman take Annan Athletic one step further next term? If the manager is able to retain the bulk of his squad and intelligently replace of key players (Mitchell’s departure appears inevitable, and the underrated Ally Love will join Albion Rovers) then they should offer a significant challenge for the League 2 championship. CGT
Berwick Rangers (5th)
Overall, it was not a particularly memorable season for the Berwick Rangers but there have been enough entertaining performances along the way and plenty to be positive about.
Shielfield Park was a difficult venue for opposition teams to go to throughout the season – it was only against Clyde (a 0-1 loss) at the end of the season’s first quarter that Berwick Rangers failed to score. Indeed, they finished as the league’s top scorers at home, something that might not be a surprise given the calibre of player at the club, including Darren Lavery, Scott Dalziel and Lee Currie.
Consecutive 4-0 thrashings of bottom feeders Queen’s Park apart, however, it took until Colin Cameron’s succession over Ian Little for the team to realise its goal-scoring potential. Little presided over too many poor displays – peppered with the odd win – and Berwick were festering around eighth place in the division by the time that Cameron agreed terms with the club.
Cameron’s short-term impact was obvious, with a four-match unbeaten streak from the middle of January including 11 goals, and while they didn’t win their next three matches the new manager soon oversaw the biggest result of the season: a booming 5-0 win at home against Montrose, featuring an inspired performance from Currie in the middle of the park. If Cameron can replicate the club’s form since the beginning of March – the Wee Gers earned 60 per cent of the available points from the last ten matches – then it is likely that Berwick will be serious title contenders next season.
A combination of keeping a hold of their highest goal-scorers and improving the squad elsewhere will only shorten the odds of that happening. A mid-table finish this campaign isn’t good enough for a club of Berwick’s ambitions, but there are undisputable signs of progress under Cameron. JAM
Despite tumbling out of the play-offs in their two legs against East Fife, this has been a remarkable season for a club who were dubbed the favourites for the division’s last spot.
From early in the season, when Clyde were putting in the performances that merited positive results they sometimes weren’t getting, there were glimpses of a side that could challenge for a play-off place, despite showing a certain naivety that saw them getting hit against the run of play and making it too easy for opposing teams to get behind them. Since then, though, the Bully Wee have been the surprise team in the division and fully deserved their fourth place finish.
Key to this was the strengthening of the performances in the centre of defence, with Brian McQueen coming on to the form that he hinted at in the 2011-12 season beside Declan Gallagher, and the signing of Giuseppe Capuano, whose unfussy approach at the back of midfield was the ballast that John Sweeney, Scott Ferguson and Stuart McColm needed to be able to drive forward. The improvement to the defence was such that they finished with the second best defensive record in the division and managed a seven-match unbeaten streak away from Broadwood through the middle of the season.
Best of all was the rise in performance of Stefan McCluskey as the number 10. Whether Jim Duffy used a 4-2-3-1 or (most often) a 4-4-2 system, McCluskey was the catalyst to everything good that happened for Clyde going forward. If the wingers wanted to drive infield, he would drift to the flanks to distract the marker and to make space for it to happen; if a midfielder needed to release pressure and feed the ball into a channel then he would take a centre-back with him; and if the team needed a goal-scorer around the penalty box then he was the side’s best exponent (despite Mick Daly’s form in the latter part of the season).
Duffy has since left to take up the vacant role Greenock Morton and there will no doubt be clubs in higher divisions sniffing about the likes of McColm and Ferguson, but if the new manager is able to persuade his starlets to stick together and form a successful side in the way that Billy Stark was able to do so at Queen’s Park seven years ago, then Clyde could just metamorphose into an exciting team indeed. JAM
East Stirlingshire (8th)
Looking back, it feels as though the 2013-14 season has been a squandered opportunity for East Stirlingshire. Having led the division for the opening third of the season – they were the only team in the league’s formative stages to have shown the gumption to piece together a consistent run of form – their fall from the summit was as quick as it was dramatic. After being toppled in late November, they were never able to recover the same level of performance and the campaign eventually petered out with eight defeats in the final ten matches.
Before the season finished, manager John Coughlin announced his decision to step down after rejecting the offer of a new contract. Although he acknowledged the Shire had improved since he took charge, he said his three years at the club as a waste and claimed that the board had hindered his ability to manage the club to the best of his ability. Amongst other things, Coughlin cited their perceived lack of ambition as his greatest bugbear. At the beginning of the season, Tadek Kopszywa and Jason Smith, the club administrator and finance director respectively, said their aspirations for the season were to improve on last year’s tenth place finish – it is easy to see how conflict could have arisen between the two parties.
When the going was good, the Shire were a handy outfit. Built around the experience of Chris Townsley and Michael Bolochoweckyj in central defence and the industry and intelligence of midfield anchor Iain Thomson, they had a sound base on which to push forward from. With full-backs Graeme McGregor and Michael McGowan given licence to push forward and support Max Wright and Jamie Glasgow in attack, they were at their most expansive and dynamic at the beginning of the season. Nine goals and nine points from their opening three matches was a deserved return for the side. But they could not maintain their form and as they began to look more and more rickety, Coughlin reverted to type and tried to make the side as stuffy as possible (a tactic that did not necessarily work – they lost 59 goals over the course of the season, the third-worst total in the division).
The lack of goals proved to be their biggest undoing. Between them, strikers Kevin Turner and Paul Quinn scored ten goals. Callum Gallagher, signed on loan from Rangers between Christmas and mid-January, proved to be a canny piece of business and the young forward scored twice in four matches and generally made a nuisance of himself. The inability to secure him until the end of the season (Ally McCoist was keen to bring the player back to the club but only used him in a handful of matches before relegating him to the bench for the rest of the year) and the failure to bring in a suitable replacement hamstrung them. There was more at stake than the lack of an obvious goal-scorer, but after Gallagher’s return to Rangers, the club netted just 11 goals in 15 matches.
Craig Tully, who played with the club between 2008 and 2011, now leads the club into choppy waters. Are East Stirlingshire in a better place than they were three years ago? Have they improved on last season? Yes, undoubtedly. But even so, for a campaign to start so brightly and not even yield a play-off place will be bitterly frustrating for all those involved, particularly John Coughlin. His record of winning promotion with every club he has been involved has come to a disheartening end. CGT
Elgin City (9th)
After four seasons of reasonable success at Borough Briggs, Ross Jack’s reign was brought to an end with Elgin City’s league performance regressing to something similar to when he first took over. The club finished in ninth place, which was the same position from when Barry Wilson inherited the side, with only occasional glimpses of quality to show what might lie ahead as he considers the long-term playing strategy.
It is not that Elgin failed to create much. Despite finishing second bottom in the league, they were among the division’s higher scorers and averaged over two goals in every home match. The problem was that they were as likely to lose 2-3 as finish with any other result and they comfortably had the worst defensive record away from home. Elgin’s season is best typified by the happening of 2-3 losses in three of their four home matches running from the end of January, but the 3-2 win away to Berwick Rangers, the 3-0 away victory at Montrose and a booming 5-0 win against East Stirlingshire were clear evidence of an attacking unit that could be very dangerous when the stars were aligned.
Those records are not a coincidence. Dennis Wyness is still a wily, technically gifted forward despite his advancing years; Craig Gunn has shown prolific form over several seasons despite often playing wide on the right; and Shane Sutherland unsurprisingly hit double figures in goals (although there is still a strong suspicion he is playing within himself). Yet there was no balance to the side at all once the early season’s best performer Brian Cameron fell injured, to the extent that Sutherland often had to play in the centre of midfield and a number of other players had to fill in vacant positions whilst being top-heavy elsewhere. Sean Crighton was the standout performer over the whole season, but his future appears to be elsewhere along with several others in the squad based within the central belt.
Wilson understandably wants to develop a greater cohesion in his team with regular training together, but keeping players local could be both a financial and practical risk if either there is a need to compensate or to lower the playing standards. It couldn’t get much worse for the club, but with the advent of the relegation play-off next season there will be pressure on Wilson to improve performances with greater consistency. JAM
“Much about such” succinctly describes Montrose’s 2013-14 campaign. Just about too good to get drawn into a scrap with the bottom clubs; not close to being good enough to challenge for the play-offs. Stuart Garden possibly overachieved last season when he had the Mo finish in sixth place, which seems absurd on the face of it since that is the position that they finished this season with only a point’s difference between the two.
However, Montrose’s two wins in the last couple of matches disguises the mediocrity that had set in. With fewer points generally available in the previous season from Rangers’ participation in the league, it was easy to mask the lack of progress at the club and Garden was relieved of his management duties when it was mathematically certain that they would not reach the play-offs. George Shields’s appointment came with a statement that the club are looking to compete for promotion next season, but if they are to do so then it is stating the obvious that the team needs to improve.
Among Stuart McKenzie, Ross McCord, Paul Watson and Garry Wood, there is a strong core to the squad that has performed well in parts this season but not enough collectively throughout. Bryan Deasley’s scoring streak of eight goals in as many matches promised a lot, with Montrose sitting in the play-off positions at the end of the season’s first quarter. Deasley regressed to the mean, however, with only two goals in his 25 matches proving to be unsustainable for the club’s greater ambitions.
If Deasley can score in more regular intervals – which goes against the general pattern of his career – then maybe Montrose will go places next season, otherwise the board are going to have to invest to match their ambitions. JAM
Peterhead deserved a little more scrutiny last season when they failed to get promotion through the play-offs. Despite having an enviable league record – including a clean sheet every other match – their faltering just when it counted the most suggested that Jim McInally might have taken them as far as they could go.
With few amendments to the squad over the summer, those suspicions resurfaced when Peterhead fell as low as seventh after the opening ten matches. With Rory McAllister in the headlines for the wrong reasons, it wouldn’t have been too much of a surprise to see a malaise creep in. Then he started scoring. Thirty-two league goals in as many appearances almost single-handedly won the title for Peterhead – Andy Rodgers scored ten himself but the next-most was Fraser McLaren on five.
Peterhead aren’t a one-man team, though – there was genuine quality throughout the side from wing-backs Steven Noble and Graham Sharp, solidity and a little flair at the back in Scott Ross and Ryan Strachan, and Dean Cowie was one of the division’s most productive players in the long-term absence of David Cox.
It was the partnership between McAllister and Rodgers that really made the team the success it was in this title-winning season. Rodgers is probably the perfect foil for McAllister, a crafty technical forward who on his own can distract a centre-back pairing at this level to make space for the top-scorer in a completely different manner than Martin Bavidge’s bulldozing qualities.
As a partnership it will be interesting to see how prolific they can be at the next level and if Shane Sutherland joins as might be the case, then the Blue Toon should have enough goals in them to punch their weight in League 1 next season. JAM
Queen’s Park (10th)
Queen’s Park’s 2013-14 campaign should be neatly folded up, locked away in a drawer and never spoken of again. Propping up the rest of the league is not unfamiliar to the Spiders – they last achieved the ignominious feat in 2001-02 – but at least they were a vaguely competitive proposition that year. This time around, they finished 12 points behind Elgin City in ninth and watched everyone else disappear over the horizon. Along the way the club decamped to Airdrie and lost the hitherto longest serving manager in Scottish football.
After last summer’s impossibly high turnover of players – a total of 14 departed, including a collection of established seniors (Ricky Little, Neil Parry) and hyper-talented youngsters (Andy Robertson, Lawrence Shankland) – Gardner Speirs was left in a difficult position in terms of preparation and recruitment for the season ahead. But although he was dealt a weak hand, he played it so poorly that he alienated players and supporters and almost undid his good work from the previous five years.
While Queen’s Park have prided themselves on almost a decade of playing with an intuitive, possession-based approach, Speirs dispensed with it in favour of something far more base. Instead of moving the ball through the midfield, the ball was fielded from back to front, with the manager even deploying the hulking Mick Keenan as a striker, despite the player lacking the obvious attributes to succeed in the role. It was ugly and tiresome and it was reflected in their results. It took them ten games to record their first victory, a 2-1 win at Montrose in late October. A battling point against Clyde in the following match (and their fourth without defeat) hinted in an upturn in form that didn’t happen.
Speirs resigned after a chastening home defeat to Berwick Rangers, leaving Richard Sinclair and the long-serving Tony Quinn to guide the club through the festive period. Gus MacPherson was subsequently appointed as the new manager, but there was no improvement – the Spiders lost five of their next six matches and only scored twice (their total of 36 goals for the season was the poorest in the division). It took MacPherson nine attempts to win his first match, a 4-0 demolition of Albion Rovers; he would only win once more in his next seven games but there was perhaps enough to suggest that the most incremental of improvements had been made since he joined.
Few people have emerged from the season with any credit. Blair Spittal began the year in good form and scored a number of important goals along the way, but he was unable to maintain his high standard and his performances declined. David Anderson, so often the club’s talisman over the last four years, only flickered periodically as his season was disrupted by injury. It was Eamonn Brophy, borrowed from Hamilton Academical at the beginning of March, who made the strongest contribution, scoring seven goals in nine matches (including in four consecutive games towards the end of the season). Beyond that, the truth is that many of the squad just haven’t been good enough.
MacPherson is reported to have lined up a number of players for next season and must use his contacts within both senior and junior football to turn Queen’s Park into something more competitive. Harnessing the success of the club’s Strollers and bridging the gap between the reserves and the league competition must also be investigated. Marooned in Airdrie and watching another season of dreck really won’t be much fun for anyone. CGT
Stirling Albion (3rd)
It has been an unexpectedly profitable season for Stirling Albion. Derived as an unpretty, one-dimensional side for the majority of the campaign, a sterling run of form in the final six matches catapulted them into third place and then eventually into League 1. Having been viewed as an outside shout for promotion from the outset, it was an impressive way to finish the season.
Stirling deserve credit for their competitiveness throughout the year – for all but six weeks of the year, they were a permanent fixture in the play-off places – but perhaps more than any other team, they were unpleasant to watch. Greig McDonald’s side were replete with talented players, particularly in attack, and for his sole tactic to involve kicking balls from back to front in the general direction of Jordan White reduced the whole venture to its most basic terms. The manager was vindicated when the team continued to keep pace with the teams around them, and the Binos sat six points from in second place going into the New Year.
McDonald was brought under greater scrutiny between mid-January and mid-March when his side collected 11 points from as many matches. Suddenly, the reductive approach had stopped working and the manager had no answer (yet their play-off place was never in doubt, chiefly due to the foibles of teams beneath them). But for some intangible reason – had the manager had an epiphany? Had a club official encouraged him to play a more eye-catching brand of football? Was it Kieran McAnespie’s release at the beginning of April? – Stirling became a different proposition entirely.
The club won five of their final six matches to finish the season in third place, leapfrogging Clyde on the final day. The run of form included handsome victories over Peterhead and the Bully Wee and saw a number of players assert themselves as key members of the squad: Craig Comrie put an indifferent campaign behind him to become a driving presence in midfield; David Weatherston scored five times in the run in, including both goals in a 2-1 win at Annan Athletic and a decisive equaliser in the victory over Berwick Rangers; and Jordan White continued to establish himself as one of the division’s best strikers.
The same form saw them casually dismiss Annan in the play-off semi-final, winning 8-4 on aggregate, and then overcome East Fife in the final (despite having lost the first leg) to end their two-year stay in the limbo of the basement tier. Having agreed terms for 2014-15, McDonald and his assistant Marc McCulloch face a number of challenges for the season ahead. Ensuring Jordan White signs on is the key priority, but maintaining the same standard of football that got the team into League 1 in the first place is equally as important. CGT