In The Queen’s Defence: A Deconstruction


The third meeting in the league between Ayr United and Queen of the South came at an important time. Queens had just over-taken Ayr to claim ninth place with their 2-1 home win over Morton. Queens’ winless run from the middle of December to the end of January – with draws in between – could suddenly be re-interpreted as a three-match unbeaten run.

Ayr had drawn their two previous matches but had failed to win since beating Raith Rovers 1-0 at Starks Park in mid-November – the main reason why they found themselves propping the table.

This was the first league match for both teams since the beginning of the transfer window. Each team had brought short-term signings in an effort to avoid relegation, to mixed success. Ayr brought experience to the striking positions, with Keigan Parker joining on a free transfer and Sean Higgins arriving on loan from St Johnstone (having failed to break in to the first team there). Both players would have delighted the Ayr support as the burden of goal-scoring was increasingly falling on veteran forward Mark Roberts. In addition, Ayr brought in Adam Dodd and Liam Tomsett – both inexperienced but promising midfielders – on loan from Blackpool.

Queen of the South, meanwhile, brought in two loan signings from the SPL: John Potter from Dunfermline (who enjoyed promotion with MacPherson’s St Mirren team in 2005-06) and striker Sam Parkin from St Johnstone.

All of these players contributed towards the match, to one extent or another. Sean Higgins started up front with Parker but broke his foot in an innocuous challenge just eight minutes in to the match. He was replaced by Mark Roberts (a like-for-like replacement as the number ten). The rest of the players started the match, including Potter at centre-back for Queens.

Gus MacPherson continued his recent trend of sticking to a 4-4-2 based formation in league matches. It was a four-man defence that had started in the recent unbeaten run (although it was a 4-5-1 that was used in a 2-2 draw away to Livingston and the defence was not unchanged in any of the matches). Craig Reid, one of Queens’ more talented defenders was suspended after a red card against Livingston. While Reid’s role as a full-back perhaps did not make the best use of his attributes (as a generally elegant defender for his level with good awareness, but not entirely comfortable with taking the ball forward or over-lapping), he was still probably Queens’ most useful right-back (excepting Alan Reid, who played at left-back against Ayr instead of Kevin Holt). Craig Reid’s replacement at right-back in this match was Ryan McGuffie, a powerfully built but ungainly defender who was much better suited to being a centre-back in a 4-4-2 or a right-sided centre-back in a three-man defence.

That said, McGuffie did not shirk from his offensive duties as a full-back in a 4-4-2 and tried to support right-winger Daniel Carmichael when it was appropriate. There was one moment early in the match where Johnstone played a side-ways pass to McGuffie at the half-way line, who fed the ball in to Carmichael. The winger was double-marked by Ayr’s Malone and Dodd, but the ball broke loose to McGuffie and he got forward to cross the ball to the far post. The cross itself was not angled properly and Ayr goal-keeper Kevin Cuthbert collected it safely, but it could not be said that McGuffie did not try to make the best of his ability in the circumstances.

The match, in truth, was not of the highest standard. That was to be expected, for a number of factors:

  • It was a match played between the bottom two sides of the division. Neither side would find themselves higher than eighth during the final third of the season.
  • Football is never played on excellent pitches in Scotland in mid-February (although, in fairness, while this pitch was heavy it had good grass cover).
  • There were new signings on the pitch, which meant that mini-partnerships among players, within the respective teams, would have to be re-built to an extent.
  • The two teams were very similarly set-up: lop-sided 4-4-2 formations were used, with the right-midfielder providing width and the left-midfielder slightly tucking in. The main difference was Queens had Parkin as a target man, with Reilly running beyond him; Ayr had Roberts playing as a more creative number ten behind Parker’s runs.

The first half did not have many obvious goal-scoring chances. Perhaps the best opportunity came when Roberts shot narrowly wide from just outside of the box. The move was created, ironically, by a new partnership between Tomsett and Dodd whom we can presume had played together for Blackpool’s youth and/or reserve teams. Tomsett spread the ball wide-left to Dodd to begin a counter-attack, where the Queens back-line was stretched, but had already sat on the 18-yard line to defend the move. Dodd saw that Parker was being marked by the edge of the box, but it was clear to Dodd that there was a five-square-yard space in front of the box. Roberts had out-paced the back-tracking Johnston to collect Dodd’s diagonal pass just outside the area but the forward swivelled and shot marginally wide. The space available in front of the Queens defence and behind the midfield of McKenna (later Simmons) and Johnston was alarming.

Queen of the South’s best opportunity in the first half also came from a shot on the edge of the box. The move was created by Parkin’s ability to hold a ball up and play Reilly through for a shot. The picture above shows Parkin holding off a challenge from three separate Ayr players, before turning and passing to Reilly. Reilly took the shot on his weaker foot at an angle slightly more acute than Roberts’s chance. Cuthbert comfortably saved.

At the start of the second half, Ayr seemed the more likely to score. The Honest Men had a sustained period of pressure from a set-piece, which developed into a deep cross from Parker at the bye-line and close to right-hand side of the Queens penalty box. A number of missed headers meant that the ball fell kindly for Dodd on the far corner of the six-yard box. The midfielder struck the ball first-time across goal, but Queens’ centre-back Higgins was on the line to clear.

Queens’ play-maker Alan Johnston later took the ball forward from a knock-down by Queens forward Nicky Clark (a substitute for Reilly). Johnston’s lofted shot from twenty yards struck the centre of the cross-bar, with Cuthbert marginally off his goal-line and not able to get a hand on to it. Robertson anticipated the re-bound and cleared for Ayr, but Queen of the South were to begin to look the better side.

Queens had a couple of wasted opportunites to score against Ayr on the counter-attack, with Queens goalkeeper Robinson comfortable in dealing with crosses and releasing the wide players to attack. Carmichael had switched to the left in one forward move but was double-marked by Ayr’s Tiffoney and McGowan. Carmichael managed to earn a corner, from which Scott McLaughlin scored. McKenna’s substitute Simmons has been incorrectly given the goal on online records, but it was Simmons’s mis-placed shot that fell to McLaughlin at the six yard box, from which McLaughlin took two attempts to score.

With fifteen minutes left, Queen of the South would have hoped to have held on to what would have been an important win, putting them four points ahead of Ayr. Interestingly, they did not make any substitutions or major tactical changes. Instead, Ayr took right-midfielder Michael McGowan off for the left-footed forward Adam Moffat and appeared to be set up in a more attacking 4-3-3 shape, with the onus on them to get at least one goal.

There was one moment, late on, when Ayr looked likely to score. Ayr’s right-back Tiffoney combined well with a one-two from Parker on the right side. Tiffoney’s ball across goal resulted in a couple of shots that were blocked by a compact Queen of the South defence.

The equaliser eventually arrived, from a poor defensive error by right-back McGuffie. Queens were effectively stationed on their 18-yard line with Ayr probing, looking for a gap behind the defence. Roberts collected the ball in the inside-right position, passing the ball across and behind him to bring Ayr left-back Eddie Malone in to play. Roberts then drifted inwards towards the edge of the box, where Malone pinged a low pass in to Roberts’s feet. Roberts was not pressed and had the time to look up and see Moffat un-marked, between Queens right-back McGuffie and centre-back Potter. Moffat ought to have been picked up by McGuffie, who was partly distracted by Dodd lingering on the outside-left, but was caught ball-watching. Roberts’s cutely chipped ball over the top of the defence found Moffat, who had the time to volley low beyond Cuthbert’s left arm.

Ayr continued to attack in the same manner with their full-backs getting forward, but the quality in their final ball was not there. It is arguable that, with Ayr in the ascendancy in the latter stages of the match, they should have gone on to win, but it was Queen of the South’s result to lose and they would have been disappointed to lose such a poor defensive goal towards the end of the match.

Queen of the South would go on to beat Ayr United 2-1 at home with six games in the league remaining, but by then Queens were still three points behind Ayr at the bottom of the table.

John A Maxwell

John A Maxwell

John is a Ross County supporter whose care for the lower leagues is just as thoroughgoing as when Billy Ferries tore down the wing. His footballing favourites include Fernando Redondo, Gordon Connelly and André Hainault.


  • Reply July 29, 2012

    Ross Donnelly

    Was pointed to this site by a friend and having read all of the articles must say this is a superb site. I have followed your Ross County tactics blog for some time now which has always been a wonderful read, and this site so far is of similar unmatched quality in Scottish sport reporting.

    Felt like posting on this article as it is, in my opinion, one of the most in-depth and informative reads on any aspect of SFL I have seen.

    Keep up the good work and this site will flourish. I look forward to looking back on the Thistle 2012/13 championship winning season!

    • John A Maxwell
      Reply July 30, 2012

      John A Maxwell

      Thank you Ross.

      As you will see on the ‘5 things we learned’ piece, I am fascinated by Thistle’s fluency. I will be keeping an eye on Thistle’s progress through the season.

      Do spread the good word!

      • Reply August 3, 2012

        Ross Donnelly

        No worries John!

        Yeh Thistle have looked really exciting pre-season this year and it is obvious Jackie has a very clear idea of the type of players he wants to play the type football he wants. Our team is composed mainly of technically gifted, fit, younger players but with great experience in Archibald, Murray and Rowson to guide them along.

        We may still be too fragile and inexperienced to win the league but it should be a fun year!

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