In The Queen’s Defence: A Deconstruction


This would turn out to be Gus MacPherson’s last match in charge of Queen of the South.

Queens went into this match – the second-last of the season – bottom of the league. Queens had 32 points on the table with two matches to go; Ayr United had 35 with the same remaining. Queens had a goal difference of minus 22; Ayr minus 23. The margins were close, but Queen of the South still had a lot to do to escape automatic relegation (with the second-bottom team facing a set of play-offs against clubs from the Second Division).

Queens’ form leading up to this match was not inspiring, having not won since beating Ayr 2-1 at home a month earlier – five matches previous. Queens would have to at least match Ayr’s result to remain in contention to avoid automatic relegation for the last match of the season. Ayr’s result was a 3-2 home win against Dundee.

Raith Rovers were in eighth (third-bottom) place in the table before this match. The ‘race for the bottom’ had been an isolated competition among Rovers, Ayr and Queens since the Christmas period, with each team flirting with last place in the table at one point or another.

It can be argued that Rovers had over-achieved in the season previous, challenging Dunfermline to promotion to the SPL until mid-April 2011, with five matches still to play. The 2010-11 and 2011-12 Rovers teams were not entirely different at the start of each season. David McGurn, Grant Murray, Willie Dyer, Laurie Ellis, Allan Walker, Iain Davidson and John Baird all played substantial roles in both seasons. To over-simplify, Gregory Tadé’s departure to Inverness Caledonian Thistle in the close season left a presence which was never fully replaced. It took until the end of the season for Brian Graham to find enough form to, in effect, replicate Tadé’s influence. Graham would have an influence in this particular match.

The first notable point in the match saw Queens right-back Alan Reid clip the ball down the touch-line, for Sam Parkin to lose possession. The loose ball was directed centrally, where young Hearts loanee Jamie Walker collected possession after having cut in from the right flank. Walker’s contribution at this moment was not decisive, in taking the ball forward five yards and scuffing a shot wide, but the collective movement was promising.

With Jamie Walker coming inside to collect the ball in the first instance, Queens left-back Kevin Holt (who would normally mark Walker) was unsure whether or not to follow him. After initially proceeding a few yards, Holt then realised that he ought to retreat and keep the defensive line of four. It was at that point that Brian Graham had noticed the gap and snuck to an outside-right position behind Holt (who did not realise Graham was there). Graham was un-marked, facing goal from the right-hand edge of the penalty box; with an easy through-pass from Walker, Graham might have set up an assist, at least. It would not be the only time that Holt’s positioning against Walker would be tested.

Rovers’ first goal was scored by Graham after fifteen minutes. Baird controlled a low ball played in to him from deep, holding off Queens centre-back John Potter in the centre-circle. Baird’s touch and pass to his left, facing his own goal, brought Jamie Walker in to play again. Walker accelerated forward, faced by Holt, before passing to his right to the over-lapping Jason Thomson. Thomson centred the ball deep towards the back post, where Allan Walker nodded the ball down to Graham, just outside and towards the left of the six-yard box. Graham was not being marked tightly enough by Ryan McGuffie. McGuffie did not read the momentum of Allan Walker’s header, allowing Graham to kill the ball with one touch, turn McGuffie with ease and score low in to the far corner of Robinson’s goal. Tactically, there could not be too much of a complaint: Rovers broke quickly and used the full width of the pitch in their attack. On another day, McGuffie would have blocked Graham’s short path to goal.

Queen of the South responded quickly, with Kevin Smith chasing a long ball to the outside-left channel. Smith’s cross was met by Parkin, who could only head high and straight towards Rovers goal-keeper David ‘The Witch’ McGurn, who tipped the ball over the bar. Smith missed with a shot from outside the box, after finding space from the width from Danny Carmichael on the right wing.

The second goal from Raith Rovers, on fifty-four minutes, also came from the right-hand-side of their team. Alan Johnston’s attempt to play a short pass out of midfield was intercepted by Iain Davidson. Davidson saw that Jamie Walker was still in a high position from Rovers’ initial attack before, before Johnston’s pass. Walker drifted in to an on-side position, but still behind Kevin Holt at left-back. Holt knew where Walker was and anticipated the pass behind him, but Holt’s starting position meant that Walker received Davidson’s pass close to the bye-line, behind the Queens defence. A low ball flashed across goal was deflected in by John Baird.

While Raith Rovers were generally the better team to that point, with Jamie Walker’s off-the-ball movement causing problems, it was still two poor defensive mistakes that found Queen of the South in an almost un-salvageable position.

Queens responded almost straight away, with a long diagonal ball from a deep right position knocked down by Parkin on the edge of the Rovers penalty box. Daniel Carmichael’s run met Parkin’s knock-down. Carmichael beat McGurn in a one-on-one position, to bring the score back to 2-1, with just over half an hour left to play.

Queen of the South went on to put some pressure on Raith Rovers, with McGurn put under high pressure from crosses from deep. McGurn could not collect the ball from the succession of crosses and corner-kicks which kept Rovers sitting deep in their own box. This allowed Queens to remain high up the park and collect loose balls to further test McGurn’s command of the penalty area. McGurn had a wonderful save from a Scott McLaughlin in-swinging corner from the left. McLaughlin’s cross was met towards the near post by McGuffie, who glanced the ball towards the back post. Gavin Reilly, a substitute for striker Kevin Smith, prodded the ball goal-ward, but McGurn stretched to his right to parry the ball away.

The visitors brought on Daniel Orsi, a young right-winger who was injured for almost the whole of the league season. Carmichael changed to the left flank and Queens’ width tested Raith Rovers for the rest of the match, but shots were blocked or comfortably saved. Rovers scored late in injury time after another Queens mistake at the back. Queens brought on Steven Black for Alan Reid at right-back, but Black slipped at an unfortunate moment when controlling a high ball as Rovers substitute Pat Clarke closed him down. Clarke took the ball forward and scored from an acute angle towards the left of the penalty box.

Queen of the South were relegated as a result of that match. They had been in the First Division for ten seasons following promotion in 2002.


It might be easy to choose any five matches from Queen of the South’s season and find faults with the team, but the common themes can be found with other results through the season. There were too many late goals conceded from defensive mistakes. There was not enough continuity in selection of the defence. Perhaps there were more formations used than necessary – they were often changed as reactions to previous poor results, rather than as a result in forward-thinking strategy.

It could be said that there were was too much inexperience in the team, especially in defence. Kevin Holt and Steven Black were culpable of mistakes leading to goals conceded, but they also had experienced players like Ryan McGuffie, John Potter and Chris Higgins beside them making elementary errors.

What cannot be disputed is the effect that austere cut-backs from 2010 onwards had. Queen of the South could not retain talent like Boab Harris, Colin McMenamin and Rocco Quinn. For the most part, they had to replace the departing players with their own youth-team graduates. The spending of resources could be questioned – Gus MacPherson, for example, described Stephen Simmons as “more than capable of playing in the SPL.” Simmons would later lose his place in the team.

Now, Queen of the South are about to start the 2012-13 season in the Second Division with Alan Johnston as the manager in charge of a promising young squad. With Daniel Carmichael, Daniel Orsi and Gavin Reilly sharing an average age of 20 years old and with the potential talent of loose-cannon Willie Gibson available to him, Johnston will look with optimism towards the season starting in August 2012.

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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