At the beginning of the season, who could have imagined that the Third Division would be the most keenly contested league in the country? Only six points separate Rangers at the summit and East Stirlingshire in ninth place. Conventional wisdom dictated that the Ibrox club would perhaps canter to the championship undefeated, but it has been far more difficult than many envisaged – there are a handful of quality sides in the division.
Indeed, under normal circumstances, an interesting three-way battle among Elgin City, Queen’s Park and Peterhead for the title would have developed over the course of the season, but the presence of Rangers will have probably dismissed any such notions – despite the close proximity of the competition immediately beneath them, the Gers should eventually pull away from their rivals and sail to the title unopposed.
From top to bottom, the general performance of each side has been decidedly mixed. Even Montrose and Clyde, two of the sides predicted to struggle over the course of the season have had a handful of bright performances. Paradoxically, Stirling Albion – the only team to have beaten Rangers in the league this term – have sunk to the bottom of the table, with little other sign of improvement.
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.
A total of 11 points from a potential 27 is perhaps not the greatest achievement in the history of football, but the definition of success must have its own context. The Gable Endies were the least-fancied of all the teams in the Third Division in pre-season due to the new management team of Stuart Garden and Lee Wilkie having no senior managerial experience, a clutch of wretched friendly results, and a barely formed squad which was on the cusp of losing star player Martin Boyle.
Indeed, Boyle – who scored 22 goals in all competitions in 2011-12 despite having only turned 19 towards the end of the season – eventually joined Dundee in the SPL. While Boyle has since only made one league start in the top flight and intermittent appearances as a substitute (while not contributing any goals to his new team), Montrose lost their most obvious source of goals for the bottom division. The immediate future looked bleak.
However, by those pessimistic standards, Montrose have had a very good start to the 2012-13 season. An initial set-back (2-3 at home to Clyde) was tempered by respectable draws against Queen’s Park and Annan Athletic. Some intriguing patterns can be found in the rest of the results: a heavy but expected loss at Ibrox was the beginning of a L-W-L-W-L-W sequence. All three victories were 3-1 results; the last three defeats aggregated 2-12. Looking at the outcomes in more detail, there is a theme emerging of Montrose being comfortably beaten by those expected to win and to finish at the top end of the table (Rangers, Peterhead, Elgin), but also of being more than a match of their nearest rivals. On this basis over a whole season – and particularly in a ten-team league – their form is more than enough to consolidate a respected mid-table finish in the circumstances.
Much of the future form will depend on continued goals from Dundee loanee Leighton McIntosh (it is perhaps ironic that as one free-scoring 19-year-old leaves Links Park to find little match-time and no goals at Dens, another arrives from the same place to continue the scoring). Garry Wood acts as a selfless pivot for chances to be created primarily from the right by David Gray – if the latter can maintain the same quality of service and continue to contribute from set-pieces, the Gable Endies will do fine, despite some shapeless defending against the better teams in the division. JAM
Elgin City (2nd)
Ending the first quarter of the season joint-top of the division with Rangers must be seen as a task well accomplished thus far. However, having been in winning positions in the last two league matches to finish with successive 2-2 draws, one can only wonder “what if”.
City have flirted intermittently with the top spot in the division. They went top after starting the season with a forgettable 0-0 draw away to Berwick Rangers before convincingly beating Stirling Albion and East Stirlingshire. Elgin’s two other wins (2-0 at home to nine-man Peterhead and 6-1 away to Montrose) were also comprehensive. However, progress has been affected by resounding results in the negative. A 1-5 loss to Ibrox was in many aspects an unfair scoreline, but with Rangers recording 65% possession and 25 more attempts at goal than Elgin, it is difficult to argue otherwise. In the context of the season thus far, the two most recent draws seem to be the leveling in the extremities of a parabola of results.
Although most will look at household names such as Jamie Duff, Daniel Moore and Craig Gunn as the players likely to keep City’s promotion campaign alive, the surprise of the season must be Stuart Leslie. This writer would prefer to see last season’s Highland League Young Player of the Year at the head of an attacking midfield to make the most of the wake left behind from Gunn’s powering runs into the channels. Nevertheless, a cocktail of pace, strength and tidy finishing could make Leslie the club’s top scorer by the end of the season from the #9 position. JAM
Berwick Rangers (5th)
Sitting in fifth place with 11 points, it has been a very decent start to the season for Berwick Rangers – in truth, all manager Ian Little has to do is ensure his side keep on keeping on.
The Wee Gers’ home form has been commendable, with the 1-1 draw against Rangers being the highlight of the season so far – only a questionable refereeing decision to disallow Derek Townsley’s stoppage-time header prevented them from securing victory. Little’s swashbuckling brand of football has also been widely praised by supporters.
However, results away from home have been of a poor standard, with the club losing each of their three ties. A 0-1 defeat at Peterhead is no disgrace (particularly given the fact that their last visit to Balmoor ended with the club equalling the worst result in their history), but the losses to Annan and Montrose will rankle. While Berwick are certainly creating chances, their inability to convert is a slight concern – a lot more has been expected from John Ferguson and Fraser McLaren in attack.
Elsewhere, former Hibernian youth Lee Currie has impressed, particularly from dead ball situations, while the craft of experienced midfielder Neil Jancyzk has been equally as crucial to his side’s modest success. It has been Little’s transfers from the East of Scotland league which have been the most eye-catching. Former Spartans full-back Dean Hoskins has added an attacking to dimension to the left flank, while Dougie Brydon, recruited from Duns, has solidified central defence; both players are capable of playing above the Third Division.
Berwick’s current form is certainly promising. If they are able to maintain their performances at home whilst improving results away from Shielfield Park, Little’s side have the potential to barge into the play-off places. CGT