AFTER nine games, it is little surprise to see Queen of the South and Stranraer sitting at opposite ends of the table. The former, the division’s only full-time side, comfortably occupy first place after a dazzling start to the season; the latter, promoted in mid-July after the demise of Rangers, are languishing at the bottom.
At the beginning of the season, both sides were fully expected to inhabit these positions, but predictions for the other eight sides appear to have been wildly askew – it was unlikely anyone could have envisaged Albion Rovers finishing the first quarter above Ayr.
While the candidate for automatic promotion already seems certain, the battle for the play-off positions is likely to be the most exciting in the country. Forfar, Alloa, Arbroath and Stenhousemuir are credible challengers, and although both are currently toiling, it would be foolish to discount Brechin or Ayr. At the foot of the table, Stranraer seem certain for an immediate return to Division Three.
This article aims to look across the division and rate each side between A and F – the scores are based on a combination of pre-season expectations and current form.
Queen of the South (1st)
Allan Johnston must wonder how his predecessor Gus McPherson made managing Queen of the South so difficult. Queens – the only unbeaten side in the SFL – currently sit atop the Second Division with a seven point lead over second placed Forfar, and will have likely secured the championship long before they face Partick Thistle in the Ramsdens Cup final in April. Coupled with cup victories against Hibernian and Rangers at Ibrox, last season’s misery appears to be a distant memory.
Of course, Queens’ full-time status gives them a considerable advantage over their rivals, but the transformation between this season and last has been remarkable. Although the club have a wealth of attacking options and a clutch of experienced midfielders, their reconstructed – and more importantly, consistent – defence has been their most impressive attribute. Such is their resolute quality, goalkeeper Lee Robinson has kept seven clean sheets in nine games.
Among a number of Dumfries-born players, 19-year-old forward Gavin Reilly has perhaps been the club’s brightest talent. Alongside strike partner Nicky Clark, the pair have scored 20 goals between them in all competitions. It would be little surprise to see the pair double their tally as the season progresses. AG
Forfar Athletic (2nd)
Despite losing to Queen of the South in their opening match of the league campaign, Forfar sufficiently recovered to mount a six-match unbeaten run which featured five wins and 17 goals. Dick Campbell’s side have adapted well to Station Park’s new synthetic pitch and have firmly cemented themselves in the play-off places, a position which – on current form at least – they appear unlikely to secede.
The raft of outstanding summer recruits has played a large part in the club’s ascent up the league table, and Campbell and his board deserve immense credit for the calibre of the transfers. The talented Gavin Swankie and the vastly underrated Keith Gibson, both signed from Arbroath, have greatly improved the team as an attacking force, but it is maybe the players drafted in from non-league opposition which have been their stand-out performers. Omar Kadar and Danny Denholm, formerly of Spartans and Stirling University respectively, have been exceptional, particularly the latter; the 21-year-old has scored five goals from left-midfield.
Despite finishing the first quarter with two defeats, Forfar have surprised many. Unfancied and rarely mentioned in discussions about the play-off positions prior to the beginning of the season, the Loons’ 2012-13 campaign has so far been an unqualified success. AG
Alloa Athletic (3rd)
When Paul Hartley’s Alloa Athletic secured the 2011-12 Third Division championship in late March, it was widely predicted the club would make an immediate impact on Division Two; that the team currently occupy a play-off position is of little surprise.
While a haul of 16 points is commendable, their form has been somewhat inconsistent. Alloa’s sequence of results this quarter reads as D-W-L-W-L-W-L-W-W, with their only consecutive victories coming in their last two matches against Forfar and Ayr United. Home form in particular is problematic, with the club winning two of their five games at Recreation Park. Hartley should be looking to ensure his side maximise its spacious, artificial pitch.
The spine of Alloa’s side blends youth with experience – Scotland U-21 goalkeeper Scott Bain and midfielder Ryan McCord are two of the division’s brightest young talents, while the veteran Darren Young captains the team and brings balance and discipline to the side. Hartley has failed to adequately replace Stevie May, last season’s Third Division Player of the Year – loan signings Mitch Megginson (Aberdeen) and Robert Thomson (Dundee United) look capable, but lack May’s unpredictable quality.
If Hartley is able to address his side’s inconsistency, it is possible that Alloa could finish the season as “best of the rest”. Their next league fixtures are against Albion Rovers and East Fife, two very winnable ties. Four points from the two matches would be an impressive return. RD/CGT