FINISHING the season’s first quarter level on points with Livingston and two ahead of Falkirk has been a remarkable achievement for Cowdenbeath, but the side’s current fifth-place position has as much to do with these sides’ deficiencies as much as their own grit.
Manager Colin Cameron’s problem in bridging the gap between Second and First Division was exacerbated by the loss of energetic midfielder Jon Robertson to St Mirren over the summer. Cameron offset the loss by recruiting Jamie Stevenson, and although the crafty playmaker brings class to the middle of the park, he lacks Roberton’s dynamism.
Cameron also guaranteed something which would excite supporters – he brought in players from abroad. Ruben Garcia Rey and Pablo Navas-Alors were both acquired from Spanish clubs, with the former’s links to Real Madrid as a youth acted as a convenient hook for some sections of the media to hang their story from. Bradford-born Zepheniah Thomas, a St Kitts and Nevis international also adds an exotic twist to the side, but it is yet to be seen whether or not any of them will have the same impact as the mercurial Morgaro Gomis did in 2006-07.
Cowden would have hoped to build on last season’s outstanding defensive performance (the side conceded a meagre 29 league goals in 2011-12), but a 0-4 defeat to Dunfermline illustrated the gulf between calibre of opposition in Division One and Division Two. That loss, coupled with a dismal 1-2 reverse against Montrose in the League Cup, suggested Cowden would struggle badly.
Early fears were allayed by three consecutive victories and clean sheets which lifted them to second in the table. Despite reaching the semi-final of the Ramsdens Cup, their first semi-final appearance since 1970, the club are on a winless streak of six matches but draws with Falkirk, Livingston and Raith Rovers have done enough to keep pace with the rest of the league.
Cameron must improve his side’s defending, particularly at Central Park, where they have conceded 15 goals compared to the three away from home – there has never been a better opportunity for Cowden to maintain their First Division status than now. SM
Raith Rovers (4th)
Even by Raith Rovers’ fans’ pessimistic standards, expectations for the 2012-13 were unusually low. Manager John McGlynn, a man who was often able to craft silk purses from sows’ ears during his five-year tenure, decamped to Heart of Midlothian, while last season’s leading scorer John Baird and club captain Iain Davidson defected to Dundee. McGlynn’s replacement, Grant Murray, was promoted from within (as is the current fashion in Scottish football) and had to contend with a dwindling playing budget.
Before leaving for Tynecastle, McGlynn had secured a number of signings, but Murray has stretched his meagre budget and brought in a clutch of quality players. Full-backs Eddie Malone and Jason Thomson were drafted in, while Stuart Anderson’s recruitment has allowed Allan Walker the freedom to push into advanced positions. On the flanks, Grant Anderson has brought pace to the attack and has dovetailed strongly with Pat Clarke and a rejuvenated Brian Graham. Goalkeeper David McGurn, meanwhile, has further strengthened his reputation as one of the best part-time players in the country.
Solid pre-season performances against SPL sides were encouraging, and fans have been impressed with the attractive style of play implemented by Murray, particularly given the dour fare McGlynn could occasionally serve. Early results over Hamilton and Falkirk were positive, and a thumping victory over Ross County in the League Cup raised expectations.
However, recent form has been worryingly similar to last term (since the end of August, the club have only one once in eight matches), where a bright start was tempered by a dreadful run of results which could have conceivably culminated in relegation. The current Rovers side appear too strong to get dragged into a similar scenario, but lack the quality to mount a significant challenge to Partick Thistle and Dunfermline at the top of the table; a mid-table finish seems the most likely outcome come May. SM
John Hughes finds his team exactly where Gory Bollan’s was this time last year: in the middle of the table on 12 points. Bollan’s team were initially more difficult to beat (one win, one loss, seven draws) than Hughes’s so far (three wins, losses and draws), but the form in both seasons has evened out to the same level after the first quarter.
Is that a good or bad thing? It is difficult to judge. On one hand, Livingston’s squad has enough quality in it to not have to seriously worry about relegation to the Second Division in the medium term. On the other, there is plenty potential in the squad to be a top side in the First, but this has not yet been realised.
There are maybe a couple of reasons why Livi have not yet improved on last season. The first is the lack of a settled first XI – both by injury and design, Hughes has not put out the same side in successive matches this season. There have only been two ever-presents in the team to this point: goalkeeper Andrew McNeil (who can be a match-winning stopper, but invariably looks a flustered moment away from throwing away his side’s momentum) and Frenchman Anthony Andreu. The latter’s presence in an attacking midfield role has meant that Bobby Barr, one of last season’s more dangerous attacking players, was allowed to be loaned out to East Fife, with the left flank now occupied by either Jordan Morton or occasionally Keaghan Jacobs.
The second reason is the lack of flexibility in Hughes’s tactics. The team shape might change on a general level, but Livingston have conceded an alarming number of goals from careless passing from the back. Opposition teams have learned to press high up the pitch, as an attempt to win the ball close to McNeil’s goal – with Livi’s defence not set to cope with a quick counter – is when they are at their most weak (as any team would be). Despite Hughes having the obvious weapons to counter this strategy (quick forwards against a high defence can often bring a one-on-one situation), the goalkeeper to full-back to midfielder link-up has been almost constant. It is fine when it works, but Livingston’s middling position in the league could possibly be bettered with some variation in their approach.
There is promise in the team, with Andreu’s stereotypical Gallic flair combined well with a low centre of gravity which is almost reminiscent of David Hernandez if he played 15 yards deeper on the pitch. Andreu’s discerning eye for a pass from any angle has set up a clutch of assists this season. Marc McNulty is continuing his emergence as a potential top-flight talent – only three goals in the league so far does not truly reflect on his ability to finish a move. However, the outstanding talent (in this writer’s eyes) is Stefan Scougall – the unnerving simplicity of his recent goal against Hamilton is hopefully only one of many more exciting contributions to be witnessed this season. JAM
A recent victory over bottom-dwelling Dumbarton has given Falkirk two wins in nine in the league this season – a result which brought Stephen Pressley’s team up to a win ratio in the league of 22% for the whole of 2012.
Pressley has recently been linked with the vacant Burnley manager’s job. Given that a) Burnley were an excellent platform for Owen Coyle to showcase his ability as a Championship/Premier League manager, and b) Pressley’s achievements since he joined Falkirk in 2009 have not been groundbreaking, he would be insane not to leave Grangemouth if asked. He only needs to see the fall from grace which Billy Reid has experienced to know how quickly one’s perception in Scottish football can change.
When 2009-10 saw Pressley fail to prevent Falkirk being relegated from the SPL, it was followed by a lacklustre first season back in the First Division. Falkirk had a colossal budget in contrast with most of their competitors, but could only finish third behind Dunfermline and Raith Rovers – Pressley’s stock among the supporters could not have been lower. However, the first half of 2011-12 was superb, with Falkirk challenging at the top of the table (until Boxing Day, at the very least). The Bairns also made the League Cup semi-final, beating Rangers on the way, before the season’s momentum dissipated following the sale of Kallum Higginbotham.
Indeed, the current first XI is almost unrecognisable to 12 months ago. Murray Wallace, Tam Scobbie, Marc Millar, Higginbotham, and Farid El Alagui are long gone. Replacements have come in and other youth graduates have been further integrated, but to nowhere near the same effect.
Strategically, the team is not that much different from last season. The stock formation is 4-4-1-1, but this system is neutral and relies upon the correct personnel being used within it to be purposeful. Millar’s creative presence and experience in the middle of the park has been missed, with injuries and inconsistent form hindering any true midfield progression in a similar way to this time last year. There is some imbalance at full-back, which is on the whole down to a dip in form by Kieran Duffie, who was one of last season’s best players in the division. Centre-back Jonathan Flynn has recently been deployed at right-back with Duffie playing in front of him – there are doubts that this could be a successful long-term scenario though, because Duffie (as with most rampaging full-backs) is most effective when accelerating into space on the overlap, rather than exploiting space further infield created by another player’s overlap.
Tactically, Falkirk are maybe not quite as intelligent as Pressley would like to make then out to be. Pressley himself can be too much of a reactionary manager. Even if 4-4-1-1 is the stock formation, Pressley can occasionally be guilty of focusing on nullifying the opponent rather than striking on their weaknesses. As an example, there was a winnable match against Livingston where it was obvious Lyle Taylor and Sean Higgins should have been leading from the front to press Livingston into mistakes, as the majority of other teams have done. However, on the whole Falkirk were too deep – the space behind Flynn and Darren Dods for Livi’s pacy forwards to run into would have been a genuine concern for Pressley, but it was an opportunity wasted and another loss at home.
There is much to improve on at Falkirk, but there are plenty of players in the squad capable of doing that. JAM