Five points. That is all that separates ninth place from East Stirlingshire at the summit of the table.
Scottish Cup ties and the subsequent replays have prevented the SPFL’s bottom tier from keeping up with the other divisions’ fixtures – we are not quite at the quarter-stage of the season just yet, but it is nonetheless quite remarkable how compressed the league remains after seven or eight matches played.
East Stirlingshire are the season’s surprise at the moment. Given the calibre of signings made over the summer, it was expected that they might contend for promotion, most likely through the play-offs. Being able to sit at the top of the table with a three point gap, having won five out of seven, is an impressive achievement thus far, but a three point gap is all it is. With 29 league games for the club still to play, it is still very early to make credible predictions based on previous form.
The division’s other main surprise is just how awful Queen’s Park have become, and just how quickly last season’s quality has dissipated. In the best case, the Spiders might be able to recruit another clutch of precocious teenagers and nurse them to potential stardom as they have been fortunate to have done before, but that ideal scenario is probably a couple of years away at least. It looks to be a long season still ahead for QP supporters.
Everything else in between is wonderfully unpredictable.
Albion Rovers (7th)
Pre-season expectations: promotion, either as league champions or via the play-offs.
The season so far: Rovers are keeping pace with the teams around them, but better was expected after seven games.
Despite their ignominious slide into the basement division, such was the calibre of their summer signings that Albion Rovers were quickly installed as one of the favourites to make an immediate return to the third tier. On paper at least, every major transfer was an upgrade on last season’s fare: Neil Parry was brought in to add solidity to the goalkeeping position; Mick Dunlop was expected to provide experience in defence; Kevin Nicoll and Scott Chaplain (playing with the Vers for a third time) were required to bring balance and a touch of unpredictability to midfield; and Mark McGuigan, signed on a six-month loan agreement from Partick Thistle, was expected to finish off their good work. But instead of motoring through the division, the Rovers find themselves in amongst the chasing pack with ten points from seven games.
James Ward’s side collected the bulk of their points from their opening matches after winning their first two fixtures and then drawing with Annan Athletic. Since then, the team have been marred by inconsistency – the Rovers have lost three of their last four league matches. Most alarming of all, the defeats have all come at Cliftonhill. The ramshackle playing surface is notoriously testing and something the Rovers have often used to their advantage over the last few years – to see them struggle at home is surprising.
Not all of their signings have settled. Some of Parry’s performances have looked haphazard, and his understudy Matt McGinley perhaps deserves a chance in goal. Chaplain and Nicoll have flitted in and out of the side, with injury and loss of form limiting their participation. After a successful loan spell at Cliftonhill last season, McGuigan was predicted to star in League 2 but a lean return of two goals has disappointed. The striker is beginning to find form (his winning goal against Spartans in the Scottish Cup is testament to his growing confidence) and he should look to reach double figures before returning to Firhill in January but he was expected to excel immediately. Elsewhere, Barry Russell and Gary Phillips have impressed while Chris Dallas, although often overlooked, has played well when called upon.
At their best, Rovers have been sublime, and their control throughout their 4-1 win over East Stirlingshire was masterful but all too often, performances are just serviceable. Despite his years of experience as an assistant manager, Ward still has much to learn about taking charge on his own – if he 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. CGT
Annan Athletic (6th)
Pre-season expectations: major improvement on last season’s eighth place finish.
The season so far: mixed results allied to progressive performances (and a Ramsdens Cup semi-final appearance) suggest the club is moving in the right direction.
Annan Athletic’s main aim this season is to significantly better last term’s eighth place finish and so far, the signs are good: the club are two points better off than they were after seven games in 2012-13. Jim Chapman, entering his first full season as manager at the Galabank, is attempting to change the culture at the club. The high turnover of players during the summer and the installation of a more nuanced, progressive approach suggest a revolution, rather than an evolution, in style.
It’s something that will certainly take time, judging by Annan’s results. While their showing in the Ramsdens Cup has been excellent, the team have failed to find consistency in the league – they have yet to record back-to-back victories – but this is perhaps reflected in Chapman’s team selection. The manager seems unsure of his best XI, or his players’ best positions. For instance, Peter Weatherson has yet to be given a defined role in the team and has been deployed at centre-back, in midfield, and as a striker, all with varying degrees of success. When the side click – the excellent 5-2 win at Queen’s Park is a perfect example – they have looked an exciting prospect; it just hasn’t happened with great frequency yet.
Chapman has negotiated his way out of the division before and the signing of Martin McNiff and Iain Chisholm on a permanent basis, both part of his championship winning Dumbarton side of 2008-09, have formed part of the defence, while further forward, Ally Love has continued to impress. David Hopkirk, a wildcard striker who should perhaps be playing at a higher level, has formed a sound understanding in attack with Kenny Mackay; the young striker has assimilated well into senior football.
Cup escapades are always a nice distraction, but their league form is more pressing. In time, Annan’s results should improve and see the team climb up the table and into the play-off places. Chapman has been there before – it would be foolish to expect anything less. CGT
Berwick Rangers (4th)
Pre-season expectations: to equal or improve on last season’s play-off finish, while finding a regular source of goals beyond Darren Lavery.
The season so far: a mixed bag, but Berwick remain in the play-off spots with the division’s best goal difference record.
A win against Elgin City at the weekend would have put a different spin on things. Having been two goals up with just over half an hour remaining, Berwick Rangers looked to have four wins from eight and would have only been a point behind East Stirlingshire at the top of the table – as it happens the Black and Gold sit in fourth, but with the league as tight as it is, it is difficult to quantify exactly how strong a position that is.
When Fraser McLaren left for Peterhead during the summer, there was barely a sense of disappointment around Shielfield but there would have been at least some concern as to how to replace his goalscoring ability. It turned out that Ian “Yano” Little already had what he needed: Scott Dalziel has now settled after arriving from Brechin City in February and has supplemented Darren Lavery’s goal threat expertly. Dalziel’s presence up front has displaced Lavery from the central striking role, and although starting on the flank might not be Lavery’s ideal position, it has allowed him to concentrate on getting on the blind side of defenders to the extent that he has six goals in eight matches. Dalziel himself is contributing to the scorecard too: three goals in the second half of 2012-13 has already been bettered with four goals from eight appearances this term. Perhaps the biggest surprise, however, is the emergence of Kenny O’Brien, who is a strong challenger for Ross Gray’s place on the other wing.
A loss like 0-1 away to the Shire earlier in the season is not an embarrassment, but when Little’s forwards can be negated it is difficult to see where goals can come from. There have been only four different goalscorers so far this campaign, but when Lavery and Dalziel combine as well as they are do, Berwick 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. JAM
Pre-season expectations: following a summer of disarray, as well as having a modest budget and shallow squad, it was difficult to predict anything other than a season at the bottom of the table.
The season so far: three wins and ten points from eight is the least that Clyde deserve.
Jim Duffy’s Clyde sit on equal goal difference to Stirling Albion in eighth place. The Bully Wee have played a match more than the majority of the division, but they do not look out of place in the league’s middle pack. Given that they have probably deserved draws from at least a couple of their losses, and even if they are sitting on the same amount of points as this time last season, Duffy can still take pride in the improvement that his side has shown so far this season in the circumstances.
Losing 0-3 at home to Montrose a couple of weekends ago was probably the low point of the season to date. A similar score conceded to Albion Rovers at the beginning of the campaign makes the results card look worse than the team performance, but on the whole, Clyde have been reasonably competitive to date. Wins at home to Berwick Rangers and Queen’s Park and away to Annan Athletic have been supplemented by the most recent draw with Peterhead, but narrow losses to Elgin City and East Stirlingshire could – and possibly should – have been draws.
It has helped that some of the squad are now beginning to show their worth to Duffy. John Sweeney has led from the midfield by example, where he has showcased strong tackling, booming throw-ins and swashbuckling forays forward. Ryan Frances seems to be maturing and improving, but like most of the others in the squad is capable of an off-day, as the loss to Montrose showed. Nevertheless, his reading of the play and composure when passing out of defence is now more noteworthy than his earlier infamy. Scott Ferguson’s dribbling and shooting technique are exciting to watch and as his decision-making improves, Clyde will turn more losses to wins (but at only 17 years old, he must be used sparingly).
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 Duffy can squeeze some goals out of target man Michael Daly, it should be all but guaranteed. JAM
East Stirlingshire (1st)
Pre-season expectations: a bare minimum of improving on last season’s tenth place; an outside shout of finishing in a play-off position.
The season so far: the Shire currently sit in first place with five wins from seven matches. They also boast a three point advantage and a game in hand over Elgin City in second.
The league table is upside down! East Stirlingshire’s current campaign has been quite wonderful. At the beginning of the season, players, staff and supporters were cautious about their side’s capabilities. Improvement on last season, they said, should be expected. Anything else is a bonus. Three months later and the club sit atop the summit of League 2 – even the more excitable observers who predicted a play-off challenge will have been surprised.
A poor start to the campaign – the Ramsdens Cup defeat at Formartine United was disappointing – gave way to a series of excellent league results, with three consecutive victories against Queen’s Park, Elgin City and Stirling Albion. A win at Clyde was sandwiched between 1-4 home defeats to Peterhead and Albion Rovers, but the team completed September by beating Berwick Rangers 1-0. The Shire also progressed to the third round of the Scottish Cup with a 6-0 win over Threave Rovers – the last time the club won a competitive match by the same score-line was against Stenhousemuir in 1968.
The reason for their excellent season so far can be pinpointed to manager John Coughlin’s diligent recruitment over the summer. The signings of centre-backs Chris Townsley and Michael Bolochoweckyj have bolstered a porous defence, while Iain Thomson has added ballast and steel to the middle of the park. Standards have greatly improved – last season after seven matches, the Shire were bottom of the table. In Coughlin’s 4-1-4-1 system, the above three have formed a triangle that provides a platform for the rest of the team to perform on – Max Wright and David Greenhill in particular have benefitted from the trio’s stability.
When the Shire have been good – against Queen’s Park and Elgin in particular – they’ve excelled, but at their worst, they’ve been dire, with the defeat to Albion Rovers an execrable performance. Elsewhere, they were fortunate to emerge from their meetings with Clyde and Berwick with six points (in both instances, a draw would have been a more appropriate result) but, to run out an old cliché, winning whilst playing poorly is a sign of champions. Their ability to immediately bounce back from defeats is also noteworthy – their two league losses have been followed by victory. Last season, a 1-3 defeat to Rangers precipitated a ten-game losing streak; such lengthy sequences will be unlikely this term.
If 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. CGT
Elgin City (2nd)
Pre-season expectations: recovering from the loss of key players in the summer with an eye on the play-off places.
The season so far: a terrible start has been made up for by a seven-game unbeaten streak in all competitions.
The tightness of the league is telling in as much as when this draft was prepared prior to the past weekend, Elgin City were tied for second bottom in the division. The late win against Berwick Rangers, however, has catapulted City into second – nothing better typifies the competitiveness within the league at the moment.
Ross Jack’s faith in Shane Sutherland is beginning to pay off. The striker now has three goals in two league matches, ironically from a supporting role to Dennis Wyness and Craig Gunn. As has already been argued on several occasions on this site, he needs to involve himself more in matches but it does seem that he is gradually learning to dominate games as his ability allows, to the increasing benefit of his team.
Otherwise, the ever-improving form of Brian Cameron at the heart of the team is driving City forwards, to the extent that they are unbeaten in six league matches, including three wins. Four successive losses in all competitions at the start of the season suggested a sore loss from the outgoing players and, just maybe, a sign towards the end of the road for Jack – the early form accounts more for the lower rating than anything else. However, they are unbeaten since the end of August and it does open the question: can Elgin sustain or improve their levels of performance from here? With what looks to be a settled team, City can look beyond Autumn with optimism. JAM
Pre-season expectations: finishing closer to the play-offs than to the bottom, possibly taking one of the last play-off slots.
The season so far: a very poor start followed by a recent unbeaten run has provided of plenty scope for optimism.
Like Elgin City, Montrose started the season quite badly but have come into mid-term on a hot streak. The Gable Endies were without a win from their first three matches, including losses to Stirling Albion and Annan Athletic, but ten goals in the last four matches has brought one entertaining draw and three convincing victories.
One of Montrose’s best qualities in recent weeks has been the variety in the source and type of goals scored. Since Bryan Deasley arrived from Forfar Athletic on loan at the end of August to partner Garry Wood, he has scored a remarkable four in five league matches – whether or not he can sustain that kind of form through the season is open to scrutiny given his career record to date, but there are definite signs that he has struck a prosperous rapport with Wood as a little ‘n’ large partnership. Even so, the Mo have had seven different scorers so far this season, which bodes well if Deasley’s goals dry up.
Things look quite good for Montrose at the moment. Since Jamie Winter was let go to sign for Broughty Athletic several matches into the season, Paul Watson has moved from left-back to the centre of midfield and has surprised many with his command of the middle. David Gray’s cutely backspun corners will invariably provide key chances, and there is plenty competition through the rest of midfield among Lloyd Young, Ross McCord, Graham Webster and Terry Masson. As ever, it is defending as a unit that occasionally lets Stuart Garden’s side down, and the lack of cover in full-back areas might still be a problem as the winter looms, but at least St Johnstone loanee Gareth Rodger looks the part in the centre of defence.
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. JAM
Pre-season expectations: title contenders; play-off hopefuls at the very least.
The season so far: the team haven’t won enough to dominate the division thus far, but when they’ve clicked they’ve been dangerous.
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 Blue Toon’s downfall so far has been in recording too many scoring draws at home – those coming from games they probably ought to be winning if there is any merit to them being one of the favourites for the title. Taking three points from Annan Athletic, Elgin City and Clyde is not disastrous, but the output hasn’t met the sum of the parts. The fact that Peterhead had to come back from behind against Athletic and City, however, does at least emphasise the vitality in the team to labour something from nothing.
Why have they been losing points? Four of the back five (including goalkeeper Graeme Smith) that were so successful in recording clean sheets last season are still being consistently selected, but Falkirk loanee Ryan McGeever has filled the other spare position in Ryan Strachan’s absence – McGeever has thus far shown neither the confidence nor the aggression in the air to match his stature. Smith himself has shown the odd blunder under cross balls, the type that made him notorious at a higher level but which was rarely exposed during Peterhead’s surge up the table in the first half of 2013.
Rory McCallister’s problems earlier in the season didn’t help (the striker was suspended for two matches for turning up to training under the influence of alcohol), but discipline on the pitch has also been an issue. Andy Rodgers has been sent off twice so far this season (the latest being a second yellow for remonstrating on the pitch after earlier being substituted to prevent him from being given a red card in the first place). When the two forwards play together, it is difficult to argue for a more technically astute front pairing in the bottom league, but they must make themselves available to the manger to give the club a chance of automatic promotion.
There are niggling doubts as to whether or not Jim McInally is the right man for the job. Should he be keeping a better control of squad discipline? Does he have the composure to guide the squad through a title run-in, if the Shire keep up their early momentum? Time will tell, but the quality within the squad is undoubtedly good enough to finish within the top two. JAM
Queen’s Park (10th)
Pre-season expectations: in the face of a player exodus, consolidating the team’s competitive edge was priority; a distant bet for fourth place.
The season so far: utterly horrible in almost every aspect.
Oh, Queen’s Park. The current campaign has been a wretched affair – the Spiders have collected a solitary point from their opening seven matches, their goal difference of -15 is, by some distance, the worst in the division (in comparison, Clyde and Stirling Albion are both on -3), and even at this early juncture, the club are completely adrift at the foot of the table. QP also suffered the ignominy of being held at home in a Scottish Cup tie against Preston Athletic; when you’re down, you’re down.
With the number of players leaving the club over the summer, Gardner Speirs faced a difficult task of replenishing his squad with necessary quality to ensure his team contested their fifth consecutive play-off. Yet instead of consolidating Queen’s Park’s promotion credentials, Speirs has presided over a terrible run of form. His new signings have failed to adequately replace the summer departures (striker Joao Pereira Victoria is an acutely limited forward, while goalkeeper Michael Brown has already left the club after joining from East Fife), but is the reductive nature of the manager’s approach which has frustrated most of all.
Speirs’s eagerness to deploy dual target men up front has seen Tony Quinn and Mick Keenan, nominally central midfielders, paired in attack (it is a role the latter in particular is uncomfortable with). As such, the team are more willing to play long balls from back to front, something recent Queen’s Park sides could never be accused of. While the team are uninspired going forward, they are unpalatably soft-centred – before the 2-2 draw with Preston, the inarguable low point of the season was their rotten performance in a 2-5 home defeat to Annan Athletic, where the Spiders had lost three goals before the interval.
There have, however, been the faintest shimmers of light poking through the mire. Blair Spittal is one of the few players to have emerged from the opening quarter with credit and the young midfielder is already a key performer for the club. In the weekend’s 2-1 replay victory over Preston, the mercurial David Anderson made his first appearance in over eight weeks and already looks as though he has forged a sound partnership in central midfield with David Gold, a young loanee from Hibernian. Anderson has been QP’s best player over the last two seasons and it is hoped he can be the catalyst for the club’s resurgence.
Indeed, the only way is up for Queen’s Park. The past three months have been dreadful and there is still the lingering feeling that Speirs has taken the club as far as he can. If results continue in the same manner, there is little doubt that first team affairs should be handed elsewhere – languishing at the bottom of the table is just not acceptable for Queen’s Park. CGT
Stirling Albion (9th)
Pre-season expectations: maintaining last season’s fine form and pushing for a play-off place.
The season so far: a reasonable start to the campaign has given way to ever-diminishing performances and poor results.
In many respects, Greig McDonald is still lucky to be in a job. Last season, it took until mid-December before Stirling Albion collected ten points and with the club bottom of the table, his position was under severe scrutiny. However, an exceptional run of form across their final 23 matches saw the Binos march up the table and flirt with the final play-off position. Such was the manner in which they finished the campaign, many believed that if the team were able to carry the momentum into the new season, then they could conceivably sustain a substantial challenge at the top of the table.
At present, 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. Once again, supporters are divided as to whether or not McDonald should continue as manager.
The Binos began the season in sound fashion, winning their opening two matches against Montrose and Peterhead respectively. Yet since their 2-0 victory over the Blue Toon, the club won just one of their following five fixtures. The standard of performance has declined over course of the season, culminating in an appalling 0-4 capitulation at Elgin City (such was their poor showing, club captain Jamie Bishop was moved to apologise to fans via an internet message board). The nadir, however, was a 2-2 draw with Lowland League team Whitehill Welfare in the Scottish Cup, a tie the senior side were fortunate to earn a replay from.
Albion’s form has left fans frustrated. McDonald has eschewed the passing approach which served his side so well at the beginning of the calendar year in favour of a more direct style; the tactic is not working. Jordan White, one of the division’s best players last season, has failed to benefit from the change in strategy. A forward who prefers the ball into his feet rather than competing in the air, White looks short of confidence; his one league goal is a poor return for a striker of his calibre. The continual presence of Kieran McAnespie is also perplexing – despite his prowess from set-pieces, he offers little. Only goalkeeper David Crawford has played well throughout the campaign.
A handful of results in their favour could easily propel Stirling Albion upwards, but any hints of progress appear to be immediately followed by a poor performance. Upcoming fixtures against Montrose and Clyde provide a good opportunity to re-establish the club as play-off contenders but should McDonald fail to find a solution to his side’s travails, a normally passive board may be forced to act decisively. CGT