It’s taken six months but at long last, the League 2 table is beginning to resemble something coherent. When we first cast our eyes across the division in October’s mid-term report card, just five points separated the top of the table from ninth place; at this juncture, it’s now 16. Patterns are also beginning to emerge, and it’s apparent which sides are likely to challenge for the title, which teams will contest the play-off places, and who is likely to end the season meekly bubbling under.
Peterhead, the pre-season favourites, lead the pack and with strikers Rory McAllister and Andy Rodgers both fit and on form, it will take something special to topple them. Chasing down the Blue Toon are Annan Athletic and Clyde, the season’s surprise package – in the summer, who would have imagined that Jim Duffy’s side would be scrapping it out in the upper echelons? Just beneath them, Stirling Albion and a faltering East Stirlingshire seem the likeliest to duel for fourth place but, as we saw last term, a positive sequence of results can suddenly propel any team up the table.
Meanwhile, Queen’s Park – poor old Queen’s Park! – prop up the division, as they have done for the entire campaign. Despite the removal of Gardner Speirs and a well deserved victory over Clyde at the weekend, it seems inconceivable that they will finish the year in anything other than tenth.
Albion Rovers (5th)
The mid-term report card: “If James Ward is able to select a settled starting XI and find a way to address his side’s lack of form at home, there is little doubt that Albion Rovers can experience a successful campaign; anything less than a play-off appearance, however, would be bitterly disappointing.”
The season since then: a sequence of five unbeaten matches lifted the club as high as fourth, but doubts still remain over Ward’s capabilities.
As Albion Rovers sit in fifth place, ten points from Peterhead at the division’s summit, expectations for the remainder of the season have now been suitably recalibrated to something more tangible. The club started the campaign as favourites to win the league but their inability to piece together a convincing series of results has precluded them from challenging at the top of the table. An unbeaten run of six matches in all competitions – which began with an astonishing Scottish Cup victory over Motherwell, one of the finest results of their history – lifted them from eighth to fourth, but the weekend’s defeat at Annan Athletic sees the club begin the second half of the season outwith the play-off places. Ensuring a top four finish is the season’s new target.
The match against Motherwell notwithstanding, James Ward’s side have reserved their finest performances of the second quarter against East Stirlingshire and Stirling Albion (their 2-1 win was the first victory over the Binos in almost ten years), with their first half display against the Shire in particular being of a high calibre – their all-action, cavaliering style was supremely eye-catching. Ward has also gone some way to addressing their wayward home form, something which dogged them over the league’s opening stages, and the Rovers are unbeaten at Cliftonhill since the beginning of October.
Consecutive draws against Peterhead and Clyde will have disappointed, not just because of the points surrendered but because they were done so from winning positions. Against the Blue Toon, Ryan McCann equalised with four minutes remaining, and they contrived to throw away a two-goal lead in a poor second half display against the Bully Wee. Had they not squandered the four points, they would be comfortable in the final play-off place. Ward’s tactics have also come under scrutiny with his substitutions and strategy abetting Annan’s victory on Saturday.
A number of players have emerged as key performers over the second quarter. Brothers Mick and Ross Dunlop have performed on a consistent basis in defence; Liam Cusack is an energetic presence in midfield and has linked well with Scott Chaplain, a player who appears to have rediscovered his mojo after an uneven start; and Mark McGuigan has shone since his redeployment to a wide right position (with the player unlikely to feature for Partick Thistle this season, securing him on loan for the remainder of the term is a distinct possibility). There are, however, still doubts over goalkeeper Neil Parry (surely deputy Matt McGinley deserves his chance?) and the enigmatic David Crawford has often cut an uninterested figure when called upon.
Rovers have a highly presentable Scottish Cup fifth round tie with Stenhousemuir to look forward to in February but in the meantime, they must find a way to overhaul Stirling Albion in fourth and pull themselves away from the chasing pack. Fixtures against Montrose, East Stirlingshire, Berwick Rangers and Elgin City provide them with the ideal opportunity to do so – whether the weekend’s loss to Annan was merely a blip or the beginning of another moribund run remains to be seen. CGT
Annan Athletic (2nd)
The mid-term report card: “In time, Annan Athletic’s results should improve and see the team climb up the table and into the play-off places. Jim Chapman has been there before – it would be foolish to expect anything less.”
The season since then: Annan have more than punched their weight over the past six months and might even be considered as an outside shout for the championship.
At the time of the publication of the mid-term report card in October, Annan Athletic sat in sixth place with 11 points; three months and 20 points later and Jim Chapman’s side can begin the second half of the season from the comfort of second. It’s been an excellent campaign so far for the Galabankies, one which is progressing better than expected.
Like their divisional rivals, Annan were unable to piece together positive series of results and, until recently, failed to win back-to-back matches. A 2-0 win over Peterhead in November lifted them to second but a three matches without victory saw them drop as low as fourth and, had results gone against them, they were in danger of slipping to eighth. Maximum points from their last three matches, however, and Annan have quickly established themselves as a credible force.
The team have developed the habit of scoring late, decisive goals: Kenny Mackay’s 90th minute goal ensure a 3-2 win at Elgin City; Kieran Brannan scored in the final minute in a 3-2 victory over Berwick Rangers; Ally Love equalised in injury time against Stirling Albion; Josh Todd and Mackay both netted after 90 minutes in a win at Montrose; and Mackay scored with five minutes remaining in a 2-1 win over Elgin. Indeed, Mackay is becoming something of a talismanic presence in the Annan attack – with the mercurial David Hopkirk stricken with a metatarsal injury Mackay has proved to be a highly capable replacement and has scored five times in his last six matches. His assimilation into the senior leagues has been straightforward.
It would be wrong to suggest that Mackay’s hot streak is solely responsible for the team’s lofty position, however – every area of the squad have pulled their weight. Kenny Arthur looks reinvigorated after his poor campaign with Airdrie United last term and has been afforded great protection from centre-backs Steven Swinglehurst and Peter Watson. Further forward, Ally Love and Kieran Brannan have impressed and the calibre of Josh Todd’s performances has prompted Chapman to consider extending his loan agreement until the end of the season. Elsewhere, Rangers’ Andy Mitchell has also drawn praise, and his versatility has been of great benefit.
A trip to Shielfield Park at the weekend should make for an interesting contest but their following three fixtures – Clyde, Stirling Albion and Peterhead – will provide a stiff test of their credentials. If Annan can collect, say, nine points between now and the beginning of February, then they must be taken seriously. Originally an outside bet to contest a play-off position, the club could be eyed as candidates for a title challenge. CGT
Berwick Rangers (8th)
The mid-term report card: “When Darren Lavery and Scott Dalziel combine as well as they do, Berwick Rangers should be winning more games than they lose and should hope to put up more of a challenge to East Stirlingshire further into the season.”
The season since then: almost identical form from one quarter to the next has seen Berwick fall a little behind the pack.
If any team in the division might benefit from the opening of the transfer window, it might just be Berwick Rangers. With some definite quality in the team, there is nonetheless a shortfall outwith Ian Little’s most-picked players that has resulted in an inconsistency which has seen them lose more games than they have won.
There are six players who have played in approximately 85 per cent of Berwick’s league matches this season: Lee Currie, Steven Notman, Devon Jacobs, Dean Hoskins, Scott Dalziel and Darren Lavery. Although the latter two have scored 17 goals between them this season, the core of six have also contributed exactly 85 per cent of the club’s goals among them. “Yano” would surely include someone like Dougie Brydon – who looked so impressive last term – among those players if he was available this season, but beyond that he has had to juggle the rest of the squad with varying effect (although the emergence of Jonathan Fairbairn in defence has been one of the club’s recent highlights of the winter).
Getting the best out of Lavery can sometimes be an issue. Dalziel’s form and ability to lead the line as the number 9 has displaced Lavery being being the main man in the Berwick strikeforce this season, even if the latter remains the club’s top goalscorer. Playing him off Dalziel in a deliberate 4-4-1-1 or 4-2-3-1 seems like the ideal solution, but it also relies on a link with midfield and Kenny O’Brien in particular isn’t showing the kind of form in a deeper position than he was higher up the pitch in a 4-3-3 that saw them towards the top of the table at the beginning of the season.
Nevertheless, Berwick are only a couple of points off where they stood at the same juncture last season. If they can bring in players of the dynamism of Dylan Easton from last year (and maybe coax St Johnstone into having him return again on loan) and open up play between the lines as they did to great effect before, then the Wee Gers can still prove to be a threat for the final play-off spot. With the club performing successful off the pitch – their “free match” with Peterhead on 28 December was met with acclaim – the playing staff now need to keep their end of the bargain. JAM
The mid-term report card: “Clyde had been written off as the main candidates for the wooden spoon, but on the performances that they have shown so far, they ought to be snug in mid-table by the end of the season. If Jim Duffy can squeeze some goals out of target man Michael Daly, it should be all but guaranteed.”
The season since then: a surge in form saw Clyde to the top of the table before Christmas, but no win in their last three matches has seen them drop back into third.
Given the lowly pre-season expectations, it has been a remarkable year so far for the Bully Wee. Even although they have not won since the middle of December, Clyde are still in third place. They do not score enough goals to have a great chance of competing for the title, but their defensive record, the joint-best in the league, ought to be enough to have them finish within the play-offs.
Not that Clyde don’t make enough chances. Between Stuart McColm on the left wing (ably supported by full-back Kieran McDonald), Scott Ferguson on the right and Stefan McCluskey floating anywhere in between, there is plenty supply for a striker. Clyde probably offer the most penetration behind full-backs of any side in the division, but they simply don’t have a regular goal-scorer. Ferguson is out on his own as the club’s top scorer with five goals, while Michael Daly, Kevin Watt and Pat Scullion have four among them. Clyde, in fact, have scored the least amount of goals beyond Queen’s Park. If they had a someone to both win aerial duels (the lack of a physical threat up front is a concern, Scullion’s excessive bulk notwithstanding) and attack the supply of cross balls then they would probably still be top of the league. The imminent signing of Bradley Coyne from Stirling Albion should go some way to improving their offensive capabilities.
After some derision in recent campaigns, it has to be said that Jim Duffy has done a good job so far this season. The club recently recorded it’s fifth consecutive annual profit and hope to be debt-free by this time next year. The tight purse-strings, however, have an effect on Duffy’s budget and he might not be able to keep some of the club’s burgeoning talents beyond this season – there might not be a better time to qualify for the play-offs. JAM
East Stirlingshire (6th)
The mid-term report card: “If John Coughlin can ensure his team maintain their focus over the course of the season, his team should offer a significant challenge come May. While improvement is the watchword at East Stirlingshire, anything less than a play-off place after this start would be a disappointment.”
The season since then: having led the division from the beginning of the season until mid-October, one win in their last nine games has seen the Shire tumble to sixth place.
It’s difficult not to feel frustrated in the manner in which East Stirlingshire’s campaign has begun to peter out. John Coughlin’s side began the season by winning five of the opening seven encounters and sat proudly at the top of the table while the teams beneath duked it out amongst themselves. But since beating Annan Athletic on 29 October, the Shire have embarked on a rotten run of form, winning just one game since. In their last nine matches, they have collected seven points – to put that into context, leaders Peterhead have totaled 23 in the same period.
It’s difficult to pinpoint the specific reasons behind their stuttering form, with every dropped point coming with its own set of mitigating circumstances. They were unone by a poor defensive performance in the midweek 2-3 defeat at Albion Rovers, with the backline unable to get to grips with the rangy Mark McGuigan, while red cards to David Greenhill and Michael Bolochoweckyj during the loss at Berwick Rangers undermined their chances of taking something from the game. The recent defeat to Stirling Albion was particularly sore to take – having led through Max Wright and dominating the play, late goals from Craig Comrie and Mark Ferry suddenly turned three points into none.
In a competitive division, it is these fine margins which can propel a team upwards or send them sliding down the table. If Coughlin can find a way to stiffen his side’s resolve, they could still maintain their push for a play-off place because there are plenty of positives to work with. Iain Thomson has been one of the division’s best midfielders and looks as though he could develop a sound understanding with Ricky Miller in front of the Shire defence (the bulky centre-back was brought out of cold storage against Stirling and impressed with his range of passing). Max Wright continues to bewitch on the flank, while the addition of Callum Gallagher from Rangers on a short-term loan agreement has looked like an intelligent signing. The striker has been compared favourably to Brian Graham and has provided a fine alternative to Kevin Turner – keeping him at the club until the end of the season should be promptly investigated.
Their next three fixtures could go a long way to determining how the remainder of the season pans out. The Shire have back-to-back home ties with Peterhead and Albion Rovers before concluding January with a trip to Broadwood to face Clyde. It has been mentioned above, but it bears repeating: the failure to secure a play-off position after such a promising start would be bitterly disappointing. John Coughlin and his players cannot let this season slip away. CGT
Elgin City (9th)
The mid-term report card: “They are unbeaten since the end of August and it does open the question: can Elgin City sustain or improve their levels of performance from here? With what looks to be a settled team, they can look beyond Autumn with optimism.”
The season since then: Elgin have plummeted down the division, winning only two of their last nine matches.
Elgin City might only be still be six points and a handful of goals away from sitting in the play-off positions, but there is an increasing suspicion that this will turn out to be another average season for Ross Jack’s side. City seem to be prone to being affected by confidence as much as the ability to play.
There are plenty of match-winners in the side: Dennis Wyness remains one of the most canny forwards in the division; Shane Sutherland has opened the scoring or scored a brace four times this season; and Craig Gunn was the top scorer in the league until recently. However, small unbeaten streaks have been bookended by losing sequences. On the balance of affairs, City are more likely to lose than to win games at this moment in time – the club have ceded as many as 15 points from winning margins this season already.
There doesn’t seem to be enough quality outwith the first XI, but then given the amount of goals that the regularly selected defence concedes, there might not be enough about the first team as well. Jamie Duff and Sean Crighton for the most part resemble strong, impervious centre-backs and there are few better partnerships in League 2 in defending with their back to their goalkeeper. The problems tend to lie when the defence is turned, when opposition forwards often out-compete the defenders, particularly in the full-back areas. This site has oft-derided David Niven’s ability as a defender or midfielder and although there is no doubting the leadership qualities he brings to the team, he is often found lacking from a positional perspective.
Jack often fails to get the balance to his side right. Having Mark Nicolson in the centre of midfield has helped matters somewhat but he is still short of the form that he showed at the beginning of last season, having been unfit to play for the best part of a year. Paul Harkins often flatters to deceive due to a fluctuating work-rate, while for all the will in the world Ali McKenzie doesn’t have the technical qualities of the departed Daniel Moore.
On their day, Elgin are good enough to beat anyone else in the division, but keeping the forwards confident and in regular supply of goal-scoring opportunities will be Jack’s problem for the rest of the season. It is difficult to see them achieving better than mid-table come May. JAM
The mid-term report card: “More of the same of the most recent form will see Montrose consolidate themselves as play-off challengers, but in such an unpredictable league who knows where they will be by Christmas.”
The season since then: only a couple of wins in the season’s second quarter has seen Montrose average out in the middle of the table.
Stuart Garden’s sheen is starting to wear off a little now that he has been at Links Park for over 18 months, but as Montrose sit in seventh place, only four points and as much of a goal difference from the play-offs, they’re not doing that badly. However, with only one win since the middle of November, there is at least a little cause for concern that a run of mediocrity will develop beyond the new year and leave the ‘Mo scrapping to avoid being “best of the worst” after Queen’s Park.
The problem, as it always does, lies with the amount of goals being scored. It was in fact at Queen’s Park on 7 December that Montrose last won, but it is almost a quarter season since top scorer Bryan Deasley found the net. Given that his team-mate Garry Wood has always been more of a target man and pivot rather than a regular goal-scorer (having netted three in the league so far this season is about par for his career), the dearth of goals has allowed the Gable Endies to slide down the table a little.
Deasley’s run of eight goals in ten matches probably wasn’t sustainable, but with Lloyd Young permanently leaving (along with Stephen McNally) for full-time work elsewhere, Garden has some work to do to bring in players who can both create and score. It is unlikely that Martin Boyle will return from Dundee once again, but there will be no harm in looking at a couple of loan signings to supplement Luke Johnston’s arrival from Dundee United – Jamie Reid, who recently joined from Dundee until the end of the season, will be an exciting addition once he regains full fitness.
There have been positives elswhere, such as Alan Campbell’s developing proficiency even after over 120 appearances for the club, and the consistency of ever-present goalkeeper Stuart McKenzie. Nevertheless, finding a creative force in the market to work with Ross McCord and to serve Deasley (who has recently signed an 18-month contract with the club) must be a priority for Garden if he wants to think about challenging for the play-offs again. JAM
The mid-term report card: “In such a tight league, it would be churlish to denounce Peterhead’s efforts so far this season but they have not been at their best. Perhaps it says a lot about their resilience that they still find themselves in third place, albeit having played one match more than most of the rest.”
The season since then: five points clear at the top of the table into the new year and unbeaten in their last nine matches, it is difficult to imagine anyone overtaking them by the end of the season.
When we last reviewed Peterhead’s progress in the league, it was clear that there were too many scoring draws in the first quarter and that that kind of form was not sustainable for a proper title challenge. Beyond that, the Blue Toon have had a near-perfect run since losing to Annan Athletic at the beginning of November, going on to win all but two of their matches since then.
What has been key to that success has been the availability of Rory McAllister and Andy Rodgers together as a strike partnership. The forwards already have 20 goals and at least half as many direct assists between them, which has given Jim McInally’s team a far superior goal difference to the rest of the division already.
It has also helped that the manager has been able to call on the majority of his first choice players every week. Graeme Smith, Steven Noble and Jamie Redman are the only players to have played every match for Peterhead so far, but since the beginning of the nine-match unbeaten run they have had a settled side. The unconvincing Ryan McGeever’s last game on loan from Falkirk was the last time Peterhead lost, but Reece Donaldson’s subsequent loan to the north east had him form part of the defence for seven of the unbeaten nine games. Donaldson has already returned to Raith Rovers and will be missed, but McInally still managed to hold the backline together for the recent comeback-win at home to Elgin City, with Ryan Strachan returning beside Scott Ross. This time last year, we were lamenting the amount of red cards picked up by the defence – Ross especially – but that has not been a problem this campaign.
With Rodgers combing so well around the edge of the penalty area with McAllister, it is easy to assume that they will outscore the opposition for the rest of the campaign. If they can keep their misdemeanors to a minimum, and if McInally retains a grip on the defence’s discipline, we could be seeing a return to the division above for Peterhead. JAM
Queen’s Park (10th)
The mid-term report card: “The only way is up for Queen’s Park […] If results continue in the same manner, there is little doubt that first team affairs should be taken away from Gardner Speirs – languishing at the bottom of the table is just not acceptable for QP.”
The season since then: the Spiders are in a league of their own at the foot of the table, ten points from Elgin City immediately above them.
A lot has changed at Queen’s Park since the mid-term report card. The club have decamped to Airdrieonians’ Excelsior Stadium until February 2015 while Hampden is renovated to accommodate the summer’s Commonwealth Games, and Gardner Speirs – hitherto the longest serving manager in Scottish football – resigned in the wake of their 0-4 defeat to Berwick Rangers. Despite all the recent upheaval, the club’s onfield fortunes have not improved: this season, Queen’s Park have been the worst senior team in the country.
The Spiders’ problems have been well documented elsewhere on this site, but the gloom of the final days of Speirs’s tenure deserves scrutiny for one final time. The loss of key players over the summer hamstrung the manager’s ability to build a competitive squad but his bloody-mindedness and enthusiasm for fitting square pegs into round holes (for example, central midfielders used as attackers, wingers deployed at full-back) failed to produce the standard of performance expected from a Queen’s Park side. Seven points from 17 matches was not an acceptable return and there was a palpable sense of relief when he resigned last month.
Richard Sinclair has taken interim charge of the first team alongside Tony Quinn and has overseen an upturn in form. The pair went into their last two matches by adopting a radical approach – fielding the players in their correct positions! – and QP were perhaps unfortunate not to take something from their fixture against Albion Rovers, while the weekend’s victory over Clyde (their second of the season) was thoroughly deserved. David Anderson and Blair Spittal remain the team’s key players, while young Ross Fisher has developed as a steady presence at the back. Elsewhere Mick Keenan looks to have regained his confidence since returning to midfield.
More than 300 candidates have applied for Queen’s Park’s vacant managerial position, including Gus MacPherson and Ian McCall and such is the level interest that the club have extended the deadline for applications. Sinclair has ruled himself out of taking the on the role on a permanent basis, but whoever the board appoint should write off the season and prepare for 2014-15. The club’s youth and reserve sides are performing on a consistent basis and the new manager must find a way to translate that form into the first team. Concluding the season in tenth seems to be the likeliest outcome but, as we said in October, the only way is up for Queen’s Park. CGT
Stirling Albion (4th)
The mid-term report card: “At present, Stirling Albion sit in ninth place, with ten points from their opening seven matches – in a tight knit division with little between the sides, this would be an entirely acceptable return, but Albion have stumbled poorly through the season.”
The season since then: Albion are still dire to watch, but a five-game unbeaten run between October and December has shunted them into fourth.
Since we last charted their progress, Stirling Albion have leapt up the table and nestled themselves in fourth place with a healthy points total, enough to allow them to keep pace with Annan Athletic and Clyde above them and hold East Stirlingshire at arm’s length. The squad have perhaps lacked the consistency of the teams above them to consider their play-off place secure (the last time they recorded back-to-back victories was in August) but a five-game unbeaten run between October and December certainly abetted their progress.
Although the Binos are moving in the right direction, they are doing so by grinding past their opponents – Stirling are brutal to watch, and the team have a tendency to play from back to front at any opportunity, bypassing the midfield on almost every occasion. While this might be viewed as the default approach in the basement tier, it’s hugely reductive for a group of players as good as Stirling’s to adopt such a style. Since the beginning of the season, manager Greig McDonald has been criticised for his team’s long ball strategy and with the exception of comfortable victories over Queen’s Park and Berwick Rangers, they have been turgid.
While their tactics have been found wanting on an aesthetic level, too many players are not pulling their weight. Beyond his organisation, communication and ability to kick the ball very far, it’s difficult to see what Jamie Bishop brings to the squad. Kieran McAnespie offers little beyond his set-piece delivery and Mark Ferry has failed to perform to the standards expected of him (his last minute goal against East Stirlingshire notwithstanding). Jordan White, meanwhile, has not exerted the last season’s level of influence (but whether or not this is because of his side’s long ball strategy is unknown). Thank goodness for David Crawford, the league’s best goalkeeper, and Sandy Cunningham, the livewire forward, two of their better performers this year.
In a competitive league, Stirling certainly have the quality within their squad to maintain fourth place but anything less than finishing the season in the play-off places would surely curtail McDonald’s employment with the club. Away ties with Queen’s Park and then Berwick Rangers should provide his side with the opportunity to build up a handsome tally going into the final third of the year. CGT