The 2014-15 League 2 campaign might lack the competitive nature of its predecessor – so tight was last year’s vintage that its trends and patterns only truly emerged by around December – but that doesn’t make it any less intriguing. In fact, this season might be one of the most interesting in years, with the Tell Him He’s Pelé pre-season predictions looking like they’ve been wildly debunked already. Only Albion Rovers and maybe Elgin City have performed as expected; the rest have rendered August’s forecast as a trifling piffle.
Two teams in particular have caught the eye so far: Arbroath and Queen’s Park. The Lichties, their summer preparations thrown into disarray after Paul Sheerin’s sudden defection to Aberdeen, were considered a decent shout for a top four place but have looked rampant so far, with six wins in seven. Allan Moore has augmented Sheerin’s existing squad with a number of sound recruits and when the side hit their rhythm, they look like a thrilling prospect. So too do the Spiders – their outlook was most unfavourable, but they’ve already barged into the play-off places and on current form, look unlikely to shift from them.
Elsewhere, a number of teams have yet to prove their worth. Annan Athletic and East Fife, two of the favourites for the league title, are lagging behind the pacesetters after both losing their opening three matches, while Berwick Rangers’ lack of consistency has precluded them from competing further towards the top of the table.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment, however, has been Clyde. A fourth place finish under Jim Duffy last term gave Barry Ferguson a very decent platform to build on for the year ahead but questionable tactics and, perhaps, a lack of understanding of the division’s intricacies have held them back. Clyde and Annan and East Fife will be expected to climb the table in time but nothing can be taken for granted.
Of course, the first quarter hasn’t past just yet – Scottish Cup first round ties and their subsequent replays mean that some sides have only played seven games – but the combination of league and cup results have offered a decent enough barometer as to how the ten teams have shaped up so far. The next few months should be rollicking fun.
Albion Rovers (2nd)
After a summer of upheaval and uncertainty, Albion Rovers have found their groove and sit exactly where they should expect themselves to be. Second place in the table with 13 points from seven matches, a fine Challenge Cup first round victory over local rivals Airdrieonians and progression in the Scottish Cup – only a curmudgeon would be disappointed with how the season has begun. Indeed, a win over East Stirlingshire at the end of September would have guaranteed their best start to the league campaign in almost 20 years.
Player-manager Darren Young has adapted well to the demands of League 2 and his side, nominally deployed in an orthodox 4-4-2 formation, might not necessarily be the most expressive or thrilling of teams in the division, but there’s something impressively dogged about their endeavours. This is perhaps reflected in their score-lines – although Young has placed a greater emphasis on their offensive ventures, it has only yielded nine strikes so far.
John Gemmell, absent throughout September with a rib injury, has contributed two league goals but has generally made a nuisance of himself in attack. Mark McGuigan, a player who often looked peripheral last term, has scored twice – in 2013-14, he managed three league goals for the whole season – and looks better served up front than out wide. Ross McNeil has looked sparky when selected and Marc McKenzie continues to buzz around the park with purpose.
But while the Vers might not be the most prolific of sides, they are a stingy proposition. They have conceded just five times (the best record in the league) and kept three clean sheets with their settled, stable defence a key factor in their success. Goalkeeper Neil Parry has played well throughout and he has been aided by Michael and Ross Dunlop at centre-back and Alan Reid and Kyle Turnbull on the flanks. Turnbull in particular has excited since joining from Falkirk in the summer with his willingness to raid forward and link with the attack with his threatening deliveries.
Young’s decision to field himself, however, is sometimes a cause for consternation. The 36-year-old has starred in every match alongside an ever-changing cast of characters in the middle of the park. Preferring to operate in front of the defence as a conduit between the backline and the midfield, sometimes Young slows down the play; sometimes he dictates the tempo; sometimes he gets overrun; and sometimes his wile and intelligence outwits the opposition. While the team are performing well, his inclusion is a minor quibble but in time perhaps a pairing of Liam Cusack and the returning Scott Chaplain might be better suited to the rough and tumble of the basement tier in the long-term.
With a presentable run of fixtures ahead against sides from the lower reaches of the table – Clyde, Berwick Rangers and Elgin City – Albion Rovers should have the wherewithal to build on their fine start to the season and maintain their status in the play-off places. Given the circumstances, anything less than seven points would be a considerable disappointment. CGT
Annan Athletic (8th)
Annan Athletic might be unbeaten in their last four matches but their start to the season was tempered by three consecutive defeats. The Galabankies have collected just eight points from their opening seven matches; this is statistically their worst start to the season since 2009-10. Having spent their six years in the football league bouncing somewhere between solid promotion candidates and mid-table jobbers, this was the season Jim Chapman’s side (mostly unchanged from last year) were expected to finally clamber out of the basement division – it remains to be seen whether or not such a feat is achievable.
The campaign began in ignominious fashion with the concession of eight goals in the first rounds of the Challenge and League Cup against Heart of Midlothian and Dunfermline Athletic respectively – they never came close to unfixing their opponents, although it would have been unrealistic to expect Annan to prevail in either fixture. Losing out to Albion Rovers in the opening match of the season was no disaster either, and they competed well enough in the first half until two quickfire goals after the interval suckered them.
The 0-1 defeat to Queen’s Park highlighted a number of deficiencies in defence. After Steven Swinglehurst departed after 30 minutes with an injury, the backline was in disarray – Shaun Fraser’s effort, struck more in hope than anything else, should have been cut out at the source. The dismissal of Peter Watson on the hour-mark did little to help matters either. Without the centre-backs, the team staggered into their third consecutive loss and crashed out at Montrose, succumbing with alarming ease.
A point against Elgin City was immediately followed by their first win of the season against Berwick Rangers (although given their relative superiority over the Black and Gold at the Galabank, it shouldn’t have come as a real surprise). East Stirlingshire were dismissed courtesy of Peter Weatherson’s freekick while Clyde were held to a 1-1 draw. It is little coincidence that their upturn in form coincided with Watson’s return from suspension.
Only a handful of players have played consistently well over the course of the season. Alex Mitchell has performed to a high standard since Kenny Arthur’s retirement; Matty Flynn offers creativity from the middle of the park; Steven Logan is dynamic and direct; and Stuart McColm, disregard by Barry Ferguson at Clyde, has brought flair (and sometimes frustration) to the wing. Much was expected from Kenny Mackay after last term’s histrionics but injury has precluded his involvement for spells. Despite his fitness concerns, however, he has still scored twice in four matches.
A difficult series of fixtures lie in wait but, in time, Annan should be equipped to pull themselves into contention for a play-off place. The Galabank support have never quite taken to Jim Chapman, with many finding his perceived abrasiveness difficult to entertain. His record at this level, as is often referenced on these occasions, is good and as long as he maintains his lofty standards, it should be good enough to keep any dissenters at bay. CGT
Seven matches: six wins; one loss. It has been almost a perfect start for the Red Lichties and there are signs that they could run away with the league title. There have indeed only been a handful of games played, which means that annointing them as champions at this stage could be a massive folly, but with the other teams consistently taking points off each other it already gives Arbroath a five point lead over their rivals.
At this moment, however, they do look like worthy title winners in waiting. A perfect away record is only sullied by an anomalous loss to East Fife at home, which momentarily knocked the Lichties back down to second place (but only for a week). With the best goal-scoring rate and merely the second best defensive record in the division, Allan Moore surely couldn’t be happier.
The key to their success thus far is in having two solid banks of four without possession of the ball and attacking with flair in the final third. The like of Kevin Nicoll epitomises the side’s sturdy pragmatism when defending, but the team’s story lies with their attacking opportunities.
In Bobby Linn, Moore has a winger who can turn a match on its head at this level. His slaloming run from inside his own half to carve Queen’s Park open and set up the late second goal in a 2-0 victory was as thrilling and decisive a dribble witnessed anywhere in the country this season. His willingness to cut in off the right flank with the ball and have a go at the opposition, between their lines of midfield and defence, causes untold havoc.
But it’s not all about Linn. Scott McBride’s crossing and attacking the far post from the left wing has balanced Linn’s dribbling effectively, while ahead of them Simon Murray has shown terrific technique to score excellent goals in his last two league appearances. That is complemented by Paul MacManus’s streetwise instincts inside the penalty area, but most excitingly they are all backed up by Dundee loanee Dylan Carreiro, who looks a tremendous talent. Carreiro was allowed to express himself in his first start against Clyde, and punished them for going down to ten men with a couple of excellent goals struck from just outside the penalty area. The Canadian is only signed on loan until December, but if Moore manages to extend Carreiro’s stay then it is difficult to see any other team keeping up with a side with so much danger from so many different angles.
Given that the manager has guaranteed goals among all of those, and with a relatively frugal defence, it bodes well for the rest of the season. It is reasonable to imagine Arbroath holding on to the lead at the top for a while yet. JAM
Berwick Rangers (7th)
Seventh place is definitely not the place where Colin Cameron will want his side after the campaign’s first seven matches, but that is precisely where he finds them, only a point from the bottom of the table. The lower-middle order at this stage is extremely compact, but Berwick Rangers are already ten points adrift from Arbroath at the top. If they seriously consider themselves promotion candidates, then Cameron might have to resign himself to accepting one of the other play-off spots.
On their day, as they have been for at least a couple of years, the Wee Gers are terrific. With goals spread throughout their team, you never know how they are going to cut the opposition open. East Fife and East Stirlingshire found that out to their peril in Berwick’s only wins, with Lee Currie in top form in those games. Currie and Paul Willis are a dangerous prospect around the final third, and showed in these wins their repetoire of cute reverse passes and shots from range (with David Gold and Paul Currie also scoring examplary goals around and outside the box).
The problem is, as technically gifted as Berwick’s midfield might be, they don’t particularly protect the defence well. Even away from home, they look to dominate possession to work chances around the edge of the box, but it leaves them highly susceptible to the counter-attack from high up the park, with space both in front of the centre-backs and behind the full-backs for the opposition to exploit. Of recent 0-2 away defeats to Annan Athletic and Queen’s Park, the recurring theme was the opposition getting the ball to the outside left channel and making chances from there – Annan were particularly wasteful of the opportunities Kenny Mackay created from this tactic.
Cameron will also have a conundrum as to what to do with Jonny Fairbairn. A big strapping lad, Fairbairn came into the team almost as soon as Cameron took charge of the side last season to some success, and the defender already has a couple of goals to his name this season from his ability to attack the ball at set-pieces. But whether played at centre-back or as a makeshift right-back, he has been culpable for so many goals being lost already. Among clumsily conceding a couple of penalties, losing markers on his blind side and other errors, his campaign has not been a great one so far.
It’s surprising that in a squad containing Darren Lavery, Scott Dalziel and Craig Dargo that the strikers haven’t contributed many goals yet, which is perhaps symptomatic of Cameron not striking the balance right with the talent in his team. But with two home fixtures against Montrose and Elgin City before the first quarter season is over, Berwick have a good opportunity to pick up some momentum and start climbing the table again. JAM
Who genuinely thought Clyde would be where they are this far into the season? Our fourth place prediction currently seems a long way off as Barry Ferguson has bungled his way along the bottom of the SPFL’s bottom tier. Their surprise 1-0 win away to East Fife at the weekend spared the Bully Wee of the ignomy of being rooted to the bottom of the standings going into this review, but it doesn’t quite spare the blushes of what has been a pretty poor start to the season thus far.
Ferguson has taken little time to try to mark his own identity on the team. Gone are two of the side’s mainstays of last season: Annan Athletic were quite happy to snap up dynamic left-winger Stuart McColm, who never got much of a chance under Ferguson but who has hit the ground running at Galabank with a couple of vital goals already. Fans’ favourite John Sweeney, meanwhile, was surprisingly released and one wonders if he bore too much of an influence on the rest of the playing staff while Ferguson was instilling his own ideas. It was only a year ago that Sweeney and Iain Thomson tussled in a fascinating top of the table encounter and for them both to be released to join junior and Lowland League clubs is League 2’s loss.
Ferguson’s stubborness is evident in some of the defeats that Clyde have suffered. The 1-8 humiliation to Rangers at Ibrox in the Challenge Cup was attributed to the manager insisting his side playing open football, while the 2-5 loss to Arbroath with a man down early on could perhaps be put down to a naivety in not being able to turn the match into an attritional contest after clawing themselves back into the game.
It’s not all doom and gloom. Ferguson has found a dangerous forward in Scott McManus, a player who has scored on some crucial occasions already this season, while there have also been goals from Michael Daly, Kevin Watt and Euan Smith as well. The biggest positive to speak of so far though is the rising talent of Scott Ferguson, who has been given increased responsibility to match his prodigal talent. It’s only a matter of time before he will be playing at a much higher level.
Ultimately, though, Clyde have been a fairly mediocre side this season and have had to rely on individual moments of brilliance from McManus and Ferguson to create opportunities. With so many new faces to this side from Jim Duffy’s team from last season, it is maybe too early to judge, but they seem to have regressed since then. JAM
East Fife (5th)
It’s been a difficult few months for everyone connected with East Fife. Shortly after their opening league fixture, the garrulous chairman Lee Murray suddenly resigned after claiming he was undermined by the club’s board. His departure sparked another knotty discussion about just who actually owns the club, and brought about the re-emergence of the sinister Neil Rankine. As of writing, the supporters’ trust are in the process of raising the necessary capital to buy a major shareholding and transform East Fife into a community owned club; after more than a decade of turmoil, Tell Him He’s Pelé wishes all concerned the very best in their efforts.
On the pitch, it’s been a pretty muted campaign so far. Ten points from eight matches is inadequate return for a team widely expected to finish the season as champions, but it does come with caveats. Like Annan Athletic – another side predicted for a top four finish – they began the season with three consecutive defeats before piecing together a convincing four-game unbeaten streak (earning Gary Naysmith the Manager of the Month award for September in the process). A 0-1 loss to Clyde at the weekend was as surprising as it was disappointing and it leaves them close enough to the sides in the play-off places, but some distance from Arbroath at the division’s summit.
Naysmith’s credentials came under examination following their poor opening spell. The manager brought in a number of impressive players of the summer – Alan Cook, Coalan McAleer, Jon McShane and Fraser Mullen all arrived with good reputations – but no-one really made a significant impression. The Fifers were second best in the 0-1 loss to Elgin City, but they did well enough to drag themselves back into the game against Berwick Rangers until David Gold’s late blow. At Albion Rovers, meanwhile, they played poorly and got exactly what they deserved. Despite a brief spike in form when he took charge of the club in October 2013, Naysmith has never really convinced as a manager and there was a feeling he was unable to take the team forward.
A convincing victory over an obliging East Stirlingshire hinted that they were approaching an upward curve, and the following 2-0 win over Arbroath – the Lichties only defeat of the league campaign so far – remains the high point of the season. In a rare moment of tactical ingenuity, Naysmith selected himself at left-back, to sit behind Scott Smith, with aim of nullifying the threat of Bobby Linn; the strategy worked and Linn was barely in the match, while Allan Walker (who looks far less doleful than he did at Brechin City last term) and Kevin Smith scored two fine second half goals.
A rat-a-tat 2-2 draw with Queen’s Park was followed by handsome victories over Montrose and then Threave Rovers in the Scottish Cup, with the Lowland League side dispatched 7-0. Given their form going into the match with Clyde, the defeat seems difficult to comprehend – despite having the majority of then play throughout the opening exchanges, a combination of Scott McManus’s strike and Ewan Moyes’s red card swung the contest irrevocably in the Bully Wee’s favour.
Kevin Smith and Jon McShane have emerged as the side’s most important players and the strikers have netted ten goals between them in all competitions. Their input will be crucial over the next few weeks – not only do the Fifers have a number of tasty league fixtures to contend with, there’s also the forthcoming Challenge Cup semi-final with Rangers too. This team have shown they’re capable of making an impact in the league, and it will be of great interest to chart their progress over the second quarter. CGT
East Stirlingshire (6th)
Three wins from eight matches is probably just about the right return given East Stirlingshire’s resources and the general callowness of their squad, but the team have shown a maddening inconsistency unmatched anywhere else in the SPFL. At their best, the Shire have been pretty good; at their worst, they have been downright awful. Unfortunately for Craig Tully’s side, there appears to be no grey area.
Before a very decent 2-1 win over Elgin City in mid-August, the Shire had conceded 15 goals in their first three competitive matches. Against Falkirk in the Challenge Cup, the 1-7 score-line wasn’t necessarily reflective of the nature of the match – for the first 60 minutes at least, they held their own against their Championship opponents – but the whole thing came crashing down around them in the final half-hour. Their League Cup tie with Ayr United (0-4) was entirely one-sided and the dismal defeat at Montrose on the opening day of the season (1-4) indicated a difficult season ahead. There has also been a 0-5 loss to Berwick Rangers and a pair of 1-3 defeats to East Fife and Queen’s Park along the way.
There have been a number of reasons for their ability to capitulate. The majority of their incoming transfers were youngsters sourced from full-time clubs, many of whom have made their senior debuts this season – against Queen’s Park at the weekend, for example, they began the match with two 18-year-old centre-backs, while the average age of all of their back four was just 20. Inexperience can inevitably lead to mistakes; when a troupe of raw youths are tossed in together, it can lead to many, many mistakes. In almost all of the Shire’s matches this year, every match has seen the concession of silly goals. It is vexing, but Tully appears to be patient to pursue the approach and is keen to bolster his first team with youngsters.
Indeed, the Shire can be a hardy proposition when the mood takes them and can knock around the ball in an eye-catching fashion. David Greenhill still roams around the middle of the pitch in a cavalier manner and looks to have linked well with Martyn Shields, and Billy Vidler and Jay Doyle have established a solid attacking trident with the silver fox David McKenna. A little more is perhaps expected from McKenna but with two league goals, he’s contributed a quarter of their total for the season so far.
Where the Shire are definitely excelling, however, is with their development squad. Their youngsters top the Development League East and are undefeated in six matches. If Tully is able to successfully transition between his reserve side and the first team, then the Shire might be able to propel themselves into safety. This is a big “if” however, and consolidation within League 2 is still the key aim for the season ahead. CGT
Elgin City (10th)
It has been quite a disappointing start to the season for Barry Wilson’s side, to say the least. After a couple of wins in their first two home matches and a pulsating 3-3 draw away to Annan Athletic took them to fourth place in the table, it looked as if their play-off chasing potential might come to fruition early on in the season. Three straight defeats, however, have seen the Black and Whites plummet down the table and they sit bottom of the division, with a draught from the trapdoor breezing up the trouser leg to make sure they remember the implications of finishing last.
Pre-season had them looking in fine mettle in an attacking sense – they were, after all, among the top scorers in the league last season despite finishing second from bottom. The midfield looked more balanced too, yet there was a glaring lack of experience in the heart of defence. The capture of Marvin Andrews on trial and then on a permanent contract until the end of the season seemed like a coup, with the Trinidadian imperious in the club’s two wins so far this season. There were concerns that his lack of mobility would undermine his physical might, but he’s been an unqualified success so far. The defensive problems have been beside him – for instance, 20-year-old Matthew Cooper looked uncomfortable in the 0-1 loss at Arbroath and when he went off, Mark Nicolson stepped back in his place and was culpable for not blocking the Lichties’ winner.
Wilson needs to do something to address the awful away form. The club have only won six away matches in the league since this website was founded in 2012. It is difficult to place a reason why that is the case, other than just not being good enough – the home form in the 2012-13 season almost got the team to the play-offs on its own. Maybe it is the distant location of a lot of the squad and the regular distances away to face the rest of the league. That only partly explains the trend until this summer, when perhaps half the squad trained for and arrived at matches from the central belt. This season, all but three of the squad are based around Inverness and Moray, so maybe that exacerbates the issue. If that does explain the problem, they ought to be doing more with their home fixtures, and while two wins out of three ain’t bad, the loss to Montrose was a bit limp.
But they’ve not been terrible and are only a win away from being close to penetrating the top half of the table. It’s too early to write this team off yet. JAM
Fourth place is a pretty respectable position for Montrose, particularly considering how dim we considered their prospects to be in our league preview. Four wins out of seven is a ratio that George Shields will surely be delighted to maintain over the course of the season – it would all but guarantee a finish within the play-off spots. He will have done a good job to do so among a competitive middle order, but it’s not outwith the capabilities of the squad.
Indeed, of the seven matches played, the Gable Endies have only lost to Albion Rovers, East Fife and Arbroath – the former being one of the favourites for the title and the other two clubs having just arrived in the division from above. That might by symbolic of the glass ceiling that Shields’s side faces, but on the flipside they have proven themselves to be just as good as the rest.
Montrose began the season in style, with confident wins over East Stirlingshire and Annan Athletic. Garry Wood tops the club’s scoring charts this season and his brace against the Shire bookended a strong performance from the rest of the team. Wood’s link up play was impressive against Annan and he combined impressively with attacking midfielder Paul Harkins, who thrived with having a target man to play one-two passing moves with. Harkins’s ability to play between the lines is as effective as anybody’s in the league, but the lack of pace between he and Wood means that opposing teams can squeeze them out of the game if homework is done on them. That is where Bryan Deasley and Leighton McIntosh come into the equation, of course, but neither have had particularly good seasons so far and the latter needlessly got himself sent off in the 0-4 drubbing at home to East Fife.
Perhaps the most appealing aspect to Montrose’s play has been the way that Terry Masson has sprung forward from the right-back position. Masson has already notched a couple of goals this season, both of which were important strikes in winning results and both have come from stamina-shredding second half runs deep into the opposition half. Masson’s cutting infield presents a certain element of surprise, but as fun as it is to watch it can also leave spaces at the back. Montrose look susceptible to conceding chances from their full-back areas, with the East Fife loss coming from weaknesses in those positions and some calamitous clearances.
On the whole, though, they have been doing pretty well. Can they keep it up? JAM
Queen’s Park (3rd)
Before the season kicked off, Queen’s Park were almost immediately pegged as favourites to conclude the campaign in tenth place. While the likes of Elgin City, East Stirlingshire and Montrose had put together squads with a reasonable degree of familiarity, Gus MacPherson’s decision to recruit almost exclusively from the junior and amateur ranks was viewed with suspicion. Were they good players? Were they bad? It didn’t matter – the lack of awareness of their capabilities was enough to see them marked down as bottom feeders.
Nine weeks later, and the notion that Queen’s Park would struggle looks like bunkum: the Spiders are performing well above expectations and look comfortable in the play-off places. MacPherson deserves enormous credit for the manner in which the season has played out so far. His summer transfer strategy has looked excellent, with his new players boasting the technical and mental fortitude to succeed in the division. The calibre of the football on show has also been as aesthetically pleasing as it is effective.
The high point of the season so far was the weekend’s 3-1 victory over East Stirlingshire. Granted, they were abetted by a series of gaffes by their opponents but such was the quality of their play – all intricate movements and clever touches – that it was arguably their finest performance since the 2011-12 season, some compliment given the personnel the club could boast at the time.
In the middle of the park, Vinnie Berry and Darren Miller already look like the best midfield pairing since David Anderson and Martin McBride (and tellingly, Anderson has not been significantly missed since departing in the summer). Berry is a diminutive playmaker, all cute, probing passes, while Miller is a more strapping, streetwise proposition. The two have complemented each other well, while wingers Ciaran McElroy and Paul Woods have become a perpetual threat on the flanks.
Chris Duggan, signed on loan from Partick Thistle until December, has emerged as a key player. The burly Australian striker has yet to score for QP but is developing as the focal point of their attack. Duggan has struck a solid partnership with Shaun Fraser, and he has been central to Woods’s recent success – the forward has provided the assist for each one of his four goals. If the manager is unable to extend Duggan’s loan agreement beyond December, he can call upon Ross McPherson, a stocky, bustling forward. He may lack Duggan’s finesse, but he brings other qualities to the party.
In defence, club captain Tony Quinn appears to have been finally pensioned off, with MacPherson preferring to partner the hirsute Brian Wharton alongside David MacGregor (perhaps the club’s most important summer import) at centre-back of late. Shaun Rooney and Scott Gibson are continuing to improve at full-back and the lanky pair offer danger at set-pieces.
There are no immediate weaknesses in this Queen’s Park side but if injuries and suspensions hit, there is a concern their small squad could be stretched – should Berry or Miller miss out for whatever reason, they do not have the same quality in reserve to replace them. These issues can be addressed later – for the moment, the QP support should relish the current spectacle, particularly after last year’s abomination (to put things into context, they had collected just two points from their first eight games in 2013-14). The side are on a five-game unbeaten run and could extend it further as they take on Montrose at the weekend. With the side returning to Hampden in ten weeks, it’s quietly shaping up to be a good season for the Spiders. CGT
Many thanks go to the great Colin Paterson for his advice on Albion Rovers. Colin is the Sports Editor of the Airdrie and Coatbridge Advertiser and a great doyen of all things Monklands. Please follow him on Twitter here.