Thursday, 10 May 2012

Say hello to the angels.

ALLY Maxwell and John BROWN: see what I did there?

Tonight, Stenhousemuir’s players will have learned whether or not they have been offered terms for next season. Given the disappointing manner in which the Warriors’ season finished, it will be hugely interesting to see which players manager Davie Irons keeps and which ones he moves on.

There are many questions facing the manager – which players can take the club forward? Do players who played well earlier in the season but were poor after the New Year deserve to be kept? Are some of the players really worth the money they’re on? Do the players even want to stay?

I intend to examine and analyse the choices manager will make this evening by creating a simple list. The list is divided into three simple categories: KEEP, GO and MAYBE. KEEP and GO are fairly obvious categories, but the MAYBE category perhaps requires further explanation.

Players that fall into this section may have made substantial contributions over the course of the season but, for a number of reasons, I find I am unable to pass a suitable judgement over their futures – the heart may be ruling the head in some cases - and instead mitigate for both cases.

The list is by no means comprehensive: Eric Paton and Sean Dickson have been excluded as both players are midway through two-year contracts and are almost certain to stay with club for next term. I have also chosen to withhold opinion on a handful of youth players, simply because I haven’t seen them in action.

It would be unfair to comment as to whether or not they merit new contracts, so players such as Dean Shaw, Jamie O’Grady, Jack Hamilton, Michael Hunter, Kieran Anderson and Stuart Love are also excluded. These players only featured fleetingly, or have spent the season elsewhere on-loan.

Instead, I've chosen to focus solely on the 15 first team players. What will tonight hold for them?


Ally Brown - MAYBE

Brown is one of the most frustrating players at Stenhousemuir. While some of his performances have been astonishing (most notably in the 1-1 draw with East Fife), at times he has looked cack-handed and indecisive. At his worst, Brown has been directly responsible for a number of goals, including monstrosities against Arbroath, Albion Rovers and Airdrie United.

This season, Brown’s position has rarely been under threat because of the lack of genuine competition at the club. Before his contract was torn up, Chris McCluskey spent the majority of the season either injured or sulking on the sidelines, while the likes of Dean Shaw and Sean Diamond are too raw and inexperienced to provide a genuine alternative.

If Irons chooses to persist with Brown, a solid, experienced deputy 'keeper must be enlisted alongside him to provide competition. If the manager chooses to release him, most fans will greet the news with an indifferent shrug.

Alan Lawson - KEEP

A player of rich potential, Alan Lawson is perhaps the most promising youngster at Stenhousemuir. Despite a series of mixed performances in mid-season, the defender surely deserves the opportunity to adapt to the hurly-burly of the Second Division and develop into a quality fullback.

Mark CORRIGAN: Kaiser's thumbs up.

Martyn Corrigan - MAYBE
Despite missing the whole of pre-season with an injured hand, Corrigan quickly forged a strong defensive partnership with Ross McMillan and played a crucial part in Stenhousemuir's bright start to the season.

The former Motherwell defender hasn’t played since mid-January after an ankle ligament injury curtailed his participation for the remainder of the season, and while it would be far-fetched to suggest his enforced absence was a major factor to the team’s poor showing throughout 2012, it certainly had an impact. Whether or not Corrigan wants to continue playing is another matter. He seems content enough coaching the first team and at 34, he appears to be approaching the end of his playing career.

If Irons wishes to keep Corrigan on, suitable cover for central defence must be sought for the beginning to next season.

Kevin McKinlay - GO

It’s difficult to recall are more lackadaisical player at Ochilview than Kevin McKinlay. Instead of the former Chelsea youth player with several years of First Division experience fans were expecting, they were routinely treated to careless performance after careless performance. McKinlay played as if he didn’t give a solitary fuck – and it certainly showed.

There have been numerous lowlights during his time with the club: the dismal performance in the 7-0 defeat against Ross County in the Scottish Cup; his dismissal against Dumbarton for throwing the ball away (compounded by the fact Stenhousemuir were already playing with ten men); and his sloppy, slipshod display against Forfar Athletic at the weekend.

There is undoubtedly talent and quality concerned in McKinlay somewhere, but it was rarely on display. Last summer, McKinlay’s signing was heralded as a significant coup but now many supporters couldn’t care less who he plays for next term.

Willie Lyle - MAYBE

12 months ago, Lyle deservedly won the club’s Player of the Year award and it seems absurd to think he may not be a part of Stenhousemuir next year.

At the start of the season, the club captain was playing well but form dipped badly around Christmas and didn’t really recover. Lyle last played for the Warriors around six weeks ago before picking up an injury and he was eventually replaced by loan signing Nicky Devlin, who brought drive and urgency to the right flank.

If Lyle does leave Stenhousemuir, it will be with a sense of loss. A popular player and a thoroughly genuine guy off the park, his presence in and around the club will be sorely missed.

Ross McMillan - KEEP

There isn’t really much to write about McMillan – the man has been one of the club’s outstanding performers over the course of the season and is certain to be offered a new contract. Watching him play, it’s difficult to believe he has only spent two years in senior football. McMillan reads the game intelligently and plays with poise and strength.

The 29-year-old has proved himself to be one of the best defenders at the club since Greig Denham and is certain to be a central figure at Ochilview next term.

Wes BROWN and Alex FERGUSON: the laughs never stop.

Brown Ferguson - KEEP
When he joined the Stenhousemuir from Alloa in the summer, a number of fans were concerned about Ferguson’s poor injury record and questioned whether or not he could make a strong contribution over the course of the season.

Bomber has proved to be one of the team’s most assured players and has brought a steadiness to Stenhousemuir’s midfield. When he plays, his economical displays are rarely noticed – it’s only in his absence that Ferguson’s ability is truly appreciated.

After scoring in three consecutive league matches at the start of the season, Ferguson was briefly nicknamed “El Gol”. He also has the biggest calf muscles I’ve ever seen.

Paul McHale - GO

Although he has effectively been expelled from the club, it is likely McHale will be in attendance at Ochilview tonight. The player is still officially contracted to Stenhousemuir but it is hugely unlikely he’ll be offered terms for next season.

Although no-one at the club has yet to provide a suitable reason for the player’s dismissal, several sources have suggested McHale has branched out and has started working as an agent and a scout. When he told his manager he wouldn’t be able to dedicate as much of his time to Stenhousemuir because of his new work commitments, Irons told him to “stay away from the club”. There is a certain degree of irony in there, I’m sure you’ll be aware.

Regardless, McHale would have been one of the first players to leave Stenhousemuir. Beyond a handful of reasonably strong performances, he did virtually nothing to justify his handsome wages and drifted through games with little consequence.

Iain Thomson - KEEP

Your knobbly knees, your ginger hair, your Edinburgh accent... You’re Iain Thomson!

Unfussy and economical with the ball and hardworking and industrious without it, Thomson entirely deserved to win Stenhousemuir’s Player of the Year award. Alongside a fine series of performances, the midfielder contributed a number of important goals, including the opening goal in a 3-2 away win over Forfar Athletic and the opening goal in the 2-1 home victory against Brechin City.

Thomson has been a popular player with his managers at Ochilview – John Coughlin signed him on two occasions, for Berwick and for Stenhousemuir, while Irons continually refers to the midfielder as a “catalyst” – and it is highly likely he will be offered a new contract for next season.

Jesus, Mary and JOSEPH McCAFFERTY: fatherly.

Joseph McCafferty - GO
The young midfielder was drafted into the club after an impressive a trial period at the beginning of the season but other than a handful of mediocre appearances, he has failed to make a significant impact at the club.

His legacy – if you can even call it such a thing – will be his father engaging in an argument with supporters after a listless performance against Stirling Albion.

McCafferty also looks like a giant bat.

Stevie Murray - MAYBE

Murray is perhaps one of the most skilful and exciting players to have played at for Stenhousemuir but like Willie Lyle, his form badly tailed off after Christmas to the point where he became a rather peripheral figure.

Before Christmas, Murray was a central figure in Stenhousemuir’s attack but since picking up an knock in the New Year game at Stirling Albion, he has been dogged by injury and has lacked the ability to influence games as before.

Throughout his career, the winger has had the tendency to do “everything and nothing” when in possession but in recent months, he has erred towards the latter. If Murray can improve his fitness then he will be a strong asset. Whether or not he is afforded the time is another matter.

Stewart Kean - MAYBE

Stewart Kean has become a popular player over the course of the season with his doggedness and hard work yielding 11 goals.

Many bemoan the player’s poor touch and technique – there have been numerous occasions over the course of the season when the player has found himself in threatening positions, only to be let down by a lack of skill and finesse. What Kean lacks in ability, however, he more than makes up for in energy but, as one fan pointed out, hard work and industry is the very minimum supporters should be expecting from their players.

There are surely more efficient alternatives available. Kean is an honest and amiable guy but perhaps more is required in order to move the club forward.

Brendan RODGERS: I'm running out of ideas now...

Andy Rodgers - KEEP
The club's top scorer this season – 17 goals in 38 appearances is a fine return – Andy Rodgers is arguably in the finest form of his career. Despite some doubts when he initially joined the club (one fan held a genuine belief the player “hated” Stenhousemuir following a number of saucy displays for Ayr United last year), Rodgers has shown a new maturity and has developed into a fine lower-league forward.

While he can still be eminently frustrating – he rarely contests aerial duels and is sometimes alarmingly profligate in front of goal – his stunning overhead kick against East Fife is widely regarded as one of the finest goals scored at Ochilview. The technique and sheer audacity he displayed in that moment is still utterly remarkable.

Rodgers was rumoured to be joining Paul Hartley’s upwardly mobile Alloa Athletic but the player was quick to refute any such fanciful notions via Twitter (he dismissed the tittle-tattle as “complete fabrication”) and expressed his enthusiasm to move forward with the club.

Grant Plenderleith - GO

Plenderleith will have probably spent the majority of the season feeling hard done-by. At the start of the season, Irons pledged the player would make a positive impact over the course of the campaign but rarely utilised him, eventually sending him on-loan to Bo’ness United.

In March, he won the Stenhousemuir £2500 pounds in Ramsden’s Dash for Cash competition. On the Stenhousemuir fans’ forum, a member called “Weeman” posts with an increasing bitterness about how Plenderleith was unfairly treated by the club over the affair – they didn’t want to play him but they were happy enough to take his prize money.

Beyond his pace, there is little for Plenderleith to truly offer the team. It’s perhaps in the player’s best interest he starts afresh at a new club.


In the past, the club have tended to announce which players have been offered terms and which players have been released between 9pm and 10pm. The announcement will be made on their website - make sure you're connected to the world wide web for that.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Stenhousemuir 2 - 1 Brechin City

Prince: if there's anything to do with 1999, expect a lazy
reference to Prince. I apologise profusely.

Tonight I’m gonna party like it’s 1999,” sang Prince. And he had good reason to: for the first time in 13 years, Stenhousemuir have beaten Brechin City in a league tie. Until yesterday’s 2-1 victory, the last time Stenhousemuir had defeated the Glebe Park side was on the 8th May 1999 when a solitary strike from Ross “Slippers” Hamilton was enough to secure the win. It is also perhaps worth noting that the last time Stenhousemuir beat Brechin, they won promotion.

Goals from Iain Thomson and Grant Anderson secured a deserved victory for the Warriors. Jim Lister’s late consolation provided a nervy finish but the result was rarely in doubt. Stenhousemuir have consolidated fifth place and sit tied on 48 points with Airdrie United in fourth and East Fife in sixth with only goal difference separating the sides. The match was also the first time the club have won back-to-back matches since November.

Stenhousemuir began the game brightly and comfortably moved the ball around the park. Eric Paton and Brown Ferguson were heavily involved in the team's fluid passing but the Warriors were at their most dangerous down the right flank through Nicky Devlin. His willingness to attack Brechin's left fullback Mick Dunlop was central to his team's impressive start and directly led to the game's opening goal.

Iain Thomson: the catalyst.

On 17 minutes, Devlin crashed down the right flank beyond Dunlop and zipped a low ball across the face of the goal. Despite Ewan Moyes’ best efforts to clear, the ball landed at Iain Thomson at the edge of the area and the midfielder drilled a fine first-time drive low into the net. Later in the half, Thomson and Grant Anderson both had excellent chances to increase the lead moments later but Gary Fusco produced two astonishing goalline clearances to block their shots.

Brechin, meanwhile, offered little throughout the first half. Craig Molloy drove a decent shot wide of goal but apart from that, they looked bereft of craft and invention, particularly in attack. There appeared to be little understanding between strikers David McKenna and Rory McKenzie and the pair were arguably the visitors poorest performers. Ross McMillan and Michael Devlin are unlikely to have an easier afternoon.

Stenhousemuir’s performance throughout the second half lacked the urgency of the first but they were still able to contain Brechin well and on the hour mark, they doubled their advantage. Thomson’s pass should have been cut out by Buist but the defender contrived to allow it to run underneath him and into the path of Grant Anderson. Anderson needed three touches: the first brought the ball under control; the second took it beyond Nelson; the third prodded it into the net.

The Warriors seemed content to sit on their two-goal cushion and see the game out but Jim Lister's goal in the 82nd minute ensured a nervy finish. Carcary gathered the ball on the right flank and hurtled towards the penalty box. Ally Brown’s decision to sprint from his line to block him appeared ill-judged as Carcary’s cross spun underneath his body and into the path of substitute Jim Lister. The hulking forward hooked the ball into the corner of the net.

In the closing minutes of the match, Anderson’s afternoon was abruptly ended when he was knocked unconscious after challenging a high ball with Fusco. The winger collapsed in a heap on the ground, prostrate, his eyes rolling back in his head. A hush fell over the ground as St John’s Ambulance prepared a stretcher but the player regained full consciousness a minute later. Referee Des Roache, who had been excellent throughout, brought the game to its conclusion moments later.

Nicky Devlin: great expectations.

The victory was entirely deserved. Stenhousemuir’s performance throughout spells of the first half were impressive and reminiscent of the high standards set at the beginning of the season. Eric Paton appears to have shaken off his lurgy and looks fitter and more dynamic now than at any point this calendar year. Iain Thomson, surely the outstanding candidate for the club's Player of the Year, hassled and harried Brechin's Craig Molloy and nulified his impact on the game. Stewart Kean also deserves credit for his performance. His doggedness and tenacity constantly unsettled Moyes and Buist and it may have even been his finest game for Stenhousemuir.

By some distance, however, Stenhousemuir’s most eye-catching player was Nicky Devlin. The 18-year-old Motherwell loanee was direct, energetic and physical and his run and cross for Thomson’s opening goal was the highlight of the match. Devlin is unarguably one of the most exciting loan players I’ve seen at Stenhousemuir and undoubtedly has a very bright future ahead of him. It is difficult to imagine Willie Lyle playing again this season while Devlin is at the club.

Jim Weir: in happier times.

While the Warriors fully merited their victory, this was the most disappointing Brechin side I had seen since the club won promotion to the Second Division in 2009. Traditionally, the Glebe Park side are replete with footballers who combine physicality with technique and ability, but this year’s vintage are vastly inferior to anything Stenhousemuir have faced in the past. In the build up to the match the phrase "we've never been a better chance to beat them" had been banded around in some quarters. Brechin were dominated across the pitch.

Predictions at the start of the season that Brechin would finish the league in a strong position appear to have been grossly misjudged. Manager Jim Weir, who has remarkably been offered terms for next season, has made a number of poor signings over the couse of the year and failed to take a promising set of players forward. While Paul McManus and Garry Brady can be considered successes, players like Derek Carcary (a peripheral figure throughout his spell with Dumbarton) and Graham Weir (a notoriously hardworking but accutely limited striker) have failed. Coupled with the additions of David McClune, Mick Dunlop and Jim Lister, all relegated with Alloa Athletic last season, and Weir has flooded his squad with average players. In hindsight, it’s little surprise Brechin that are treading water in mid-table. The loss of Rory McAllister has perhaps been more keenly felt than many would care to admit.

Brechin are widely considered to be one of the best-run clubs in the SFL but according to reports on Pie and Bovril, there is unrest and disharmony between senior staff and supporters. The thread, simply entitled WTF, claims that Chairman Ken Ferguson allegedly grabbed a young fan by the throat during a heated exchange last week. The 20-odd Brechin fans in the Tryst Road end made an impressive racket throughout the match and surely deserved better than the performance their team put out in front of them.

John Coughlin: win the playoffs and you will be treated like Jesus.

Warriors supporters can now approach next weekend’s game against Arbroath with a sense of cautious optimism. There have been encouraging signs in the last fortnight that Stenhousemuir have the capabilities to return to the playoff places, while Arbroath are left with nothing to play for, having guaranteed a second place finish. Stenhousemuir have a reasonably poor record against Arbroath and even if manager Paul Sheerin does decide to play his fringe players in a bid to keep his squad fresh for the playoffs, they cannot be taken lightly.

Most eyes, however, will be on the game between Airdrie United and East Fife at New Broomfield. Without a doubt, this is the most crucial game in determining who finishes in the playoff places. From a Stenhousemuir perspective, the game would ideally finish as a draw but the Warriors must win their remaining fixtures to ensure they they finish in fourth place. Then who knows? Maybe we can party like it's 1999, or maybe even 2009 again.

STENHOUSEMUIR: Brown; Nicky Devlin, Michael Devlin, McMillan, McKinlay; Ferguson, Paton, Thomson, Anderson (Dickson 89), Kean, Rodgers. Subs not used: Shaw, Deuchar, Campbell, Murray.

BRECHIN CITY: Nelson; Fusco, Buist, Moyes, Dunlop; Crawford (Lister 58), Molloy, Brady, Hodge; McKenna (Carcary 69), McKenzie (King 89). Subs not used: Scott, Lindsay.

Friday, 20 April 2012

Good day to you, Paul McHale.

Paul McHale: good day, good sir.

Paul McHale’s disappointing spell with Stenhousemuir was unexpectedly cut short last night after the player was instructed by manager Davie Irons to "stay away" from the club for the remainder of the season. The Warriors released a brief statement on their website confirming he would not return to Ochilview following a discussion between both parties at training last night.

Before the club published their statement, McHale appeared to have announced his departure over Twitter. With several players chattering about the evening's training session, McHale tweeted a number them, including club captain Willie Lyle and Andy Rodgers, the words: “Was a pleasure lads”. Sean Dickson replied, saying: “All the best bro! Sad day. Keep in touch! #uscdiscounts”. One fan directly tweeted McHale asking if he had left the club. He didn’t respond.

The reasons behind Irons’ decision have not yet been made clear and until someone from Stenhousemuir can confirm why McHale has effectively been expelled from the club, supporters will be left to pick through an assortment of Twitter and Facebook comments from the player and speculate as to what had happened at last night's training.

Throughout the season, McHale has seemed to use social media as a way of expressing his frustration at how he was being managed at Stenhousemuir. For example, during the opening game of the league campaign against Brechin City, McHale spent most of the game on the bench and was introduced with 16 minutes remaining. The next day, he wrote on Twitter: “My anger over yesterday still hasn't passed, going to the gym then few magners watching football.”

Later in the year, after he was left on the bench in the 3-1 defeat at Stirling Albion in the New Year, he wrote on a Facebook conversation between a handful of players: “Was a good night mate, flew in though. Yeah buzzing for the dingwall journey. Few choice words at training tomorrow.”

“McHale you are an angry boy I thought I was bad but you could take the title lol,” replied a teammate.

“For good reason,” asserted McHale.

My own theory behind his expulsion is quite simple. McHale, unhappy with his peripheral role with the club (his last appearance for Stenhousemuir was almost a month ago, in the 2-1 home defeat to Albion Rovers), voiced his concerns with Irons and after a frank exchange of views (possibly with the player questioning his manager's ability, I don't know), he was told, in no uncertain terms, not to return to the club. This notion may be a little simplistic, but given the two examples above, it seems entirely plausible.

McHale’s departure, purely from a playing perspective, is of little consequence. The majority of fans would have selected him as “first out the door” come the end of the season. Despite a reasonably promising start for the club (his performance in the 3-1 victory over Cowdenbeath was quite fantastic), his season was disrupted by poor fitness and poor form. A fine player with the ball at his feet but utterly ineffectual without it, he would drift through games offering the team virtually nothing. Teammates Iain Thomson and Brown Ferguson may lack his finesse and range of passing but they could never be accused of hiding. McHale cowered from his defensive responsibilities and rarely contested 50/50 challenges. His absence will not be mourned.

Perhaps more concerning is that McHale’s departure suggests a divisive dressing room at Stenhousemuir. The club still have an outside chance of finishing the campaign in the playoff positions and can ill-afford such disruptions. Are darker forces at work here? Has Irons "lost the dressing room"? Or is he weeding out troublemakers and strengthening his own position? Goalkeeper Chris McCluskey (who described Irons as “the biggest cunt in football” to one supporter after the Scottish Cup tie with Ross County) was quietly released from his contract last week with little fuss. If Irons is still the manager for next season, his movements over the summer will be of great interest.

It may be of little consequence, but the last player who was told to “stay away” from the club was Colin Cramb. Cramb was told to never come back to Ochilview by Des McKeown after an infamous 3-0 defeat to Berwick Rangers at Shielfield Park. After apparently apparently feigning injury, he was substituted and instead of watching the remainder of the match, he nipped into the nearby social club to watch the Grand National. Many fans lamented Cramb’s expulsion – he was, on form, an extraordinary player and one of the best to have played at Stenhousemuir in recent years – but few will feel the same way towards Paul McHale.

Monday, 26 March 2012

Darkness on the edge of town.

Albion Rovers: upsetting.

Despite the result the last time Stenhousemuir and Albion Rovers met
, I approached last weekend’s game in a cocksure mood and confidently predicted we would brush our visitors aside by a comfortable margin. Rovers are a poor, poor team, I reasoned, and got lucky against us earlier in the month. We’re playing on Ochilview's big, open pitch. We have better players who can make better use of the ball. They won’t be able to cope with us. 3-0 Stenhousemuir, no bother.

What utter arrogance. What nonsense. For the second time in a month, Stenhousemuir were beaten by a side sitting bottom of the league and for the second time in a month, it was completely deserved. Albion Rovers fully merited their 2-1 victory. Over the course of the season, Rovers have taken seven points from a possible 12 from the Warriors. If I had badly underestimated how difficult a challenge Rovers would present, not just at the weekend but throughout the season, then so did everyone else connected with the club.

Only a handful of players can be proud of their contribution to Saturday’s game but the majority, particularly the midfielders, should be ashamed of their performances. Granted, Stewart Kean was asked to operate in an unfamiliar role because of injuries to other players, but they were overrun and out-fought by a compact, hardworking Albion Rovers team. The weekly wages of Paul McHale and Stevie Murray, who both offered absolutely nothing throughout the match, could probably cover the pay of six or seven Rovers players.

Stenhousemuir actually started the game reasonably well and took the lead after 25 minutes when Andy Rodgers crashed the ball home from close range, but they really should have increased their lead before Jack Werndly equalised. Their profligacy was shocking - Rodgers, Murray and Ross McMillan all had very presentable chances to score but failed to test Derek Gaston in the Rovers goal.

Jack Werndly: from West Ham to Albion Rovers in three years.

Werndly’s goal, his second of the season against Stenhousemuir, was almost a carbon copy of his 85th minute winner when the sides met earlier in the month. At Cliftonhill, he stabbed home after horrible uncertainty between the Stenhousemuir goalkeeper and the fullback; after 33 minutes on Saturday, he did the same thing again. Dreadful miscommunication between Ally Brown and Willie Lyle allowed the ball to bounce to Werndly and the on-loan Rangers winger prodded the ball into an empty net. It was a rotten goal to concede.

While Stenhousemuir’s tactic of lumping long balls in the direction of Kenny Deuchar worked fairly well in the first half, Rovers began to get to grips with the big striker and Mick O’Byrne and half-time substitute Simon Marriott dealt with the Warriors attacks with relative ease. Even before Ryan McStay, the best player on the park, scored an excellent freekick on 55 minutes, it was clear the home side had run out of ideas. There were no attempts to stretch the Rovers defence, bring the fullbacks into the attack, or use the full width of the pitch. Instead, lob after lob was shelled upfield towards Deuchar.

Referee John McKendrick should come under heavy scrutiny – his performance throughout the second half was as inept as it was frustrating - and many of his calls drew the ire of the home support. He penalised Deuchar after he tussled with O’Byrne, but then awarded John Gemmell a freekick minutes later for doing the very same thing with McMillan. Rodgers should have won his side a penalty on around 75 minutes after he was felled in the area, but McKendrick waved away his appeals.

As the players and staff argued with the officials, goalkeeping coach David Westwood was dismissed from the dugout for his remonstrations. As has been mentioned in previous dispatches, how can supporters expect the players to remain calm and level-headed when the management cannot do the same? Stenhousemuir’s belligerence is becoming the source of embarrassment.

I left Ochilview on Saturday feeling utterly despondent. It was the first time in a long time watching Stenhousemuir that I felt completely claustrophobic by everything around me – the dire football on show, the rising anger and sense of injustice coming from the stands, supporters bickering with one another – and I needed to get away from it. The whole afternoon was thoroughly miserable.

The Second Division league table if it started on the 2nd
of January. Please click on it for a larger image.

Some players and a section of the support have tried to deflect attention away from recent results by pointing out that the club is still sitting in fourth place and still have an outside chance of promotion. It doesn't wash anymore: Stenhousemuir have been wretched since the start of the year. The only reason the Warriors are still in the playoff positions is because other teams have failed to take the initiative and overtake them. Given their current form, Stenhousemuir are likely to drop out of the playoff places after their match against East Fife this weekend for the first time since August. If other results go against them, they could fall as low as sixth.

Last night, I studied the results of every team in the league since the New Year and collated the data into a handy table. It makes for disappointing reading. Had the Second Division started on 2nd January 2012, Stenhousemuir would be in ninth place. Only Albion Rovers lie below the Warriors in the table, having amassed a meagre eight points from two wins and two draws. Their two victories, it has already been noted, have both come against Stenhousemuir.

It’s very difficult to pinpoint what’s gone wrong at the club. It may be convenient to point out that the club’s slump coincided with manager Davie Irons starting his shifts with Dumfries and Galloway Police Force (he has missed several training sessions since December because of work committments), but there’s something more than that. There is a malaise around the club, from the management to the players to the supporters. A sense of gloom pervades Ochilview and the last time there was this level of despair at Stenhousemuir was in the final days of John Coughlin’s management.

Injuries and suspensions have taken their toll. As has been discussed at length, Eric Paton’s injury has badly upset the team’s natural rhythm and fluidity, but the underrated Brown Ferguson has been missed just as equally. He has quietly emerged as one of the team’s most important players and brings an assured steadiness to the midfield that is only apparent in his absence. Far better should be expected from their deputies. Paul McHale and Stevie Murray have offered the team nothing since the turn of the year while Jamie Campbell, despite some decent performances in recent weeks, has done little to suggest he has a long-term career in full-time football.

Kenny Deuchar: glory days.

Kenny Deuchar is perhaps the team's most perplexing player. Many sides in the Second and Third Division would have welcomed a player like Deuchar, but he has fared poorly since joining on-loan from Livingston. Pace and movement were never part of his game, even when he was in his pomp at Gretna, but he is almost completely immobile and is nothing more than a target for long punts out from the defence. Most concerning of all is how the striker also looks completely bereft of confidence. On Saturday afternoon, with the score tied, he was put through one-on-one with the goalkeeper but as soon as he brought the ball under control, he never looked like scoring. His poor shot was hit straight at Gaston. For future matches, and if injury allows, Kean and Rodgers must be brought back into attack.

There is no doubt the club have progressed this season. Last year, Stenhousemuir were adrift in ninth place and faced ending the season in the relegation playoffs but a combination of fierce resolve and Alloa’s freefall down the league table saw the club narrowly finish the season in eighth. Irons has done well during his time in charge of the club and he has made the Warriors are a far stronger, more attractive team than last season, but the campaign is falling apart and in danger of becoming completely undone.

Stenhousemuir have played very well against East Fife this season, winning all three of their contests but on recent evidence, it’s unlikely they’ll make it four. In December, the last time the sides met at New Bayview, Stenhousemuir prevailed 3-1 and the victory was widely considered to have been one of their finest performances in recent years. The Warriors played with such zip and verve, their hosts simply could not prise the ball from them. Their slick, stylish passing was met with acclaim from both sets of supporters and it was felt the club could mount a serious title challenge and sustain their lofty league position.

Just what has happened to that team?

Thursday, 22 March 2012

An evening with the Gentleman Amateurs.

Queen's Park FC: some of their fans outside Hampden on Tuesday.
It’s been almost four weeks since I added anything to Who the hell is Akabusi?, but, as usual, I have a well-rehearsed list of mitigating circumstances to explain the recent inactivity on it. The level of coursework at my University has dramatically increased and precluded me from giving the blog the attention it deserves. Instead of offering my expert opinion on Stenhousemuir FC, I’ve been busy writing theatre reviews and potted histories on Chinese footballers as part of a portfolio (trying to put a positive spin on Du Wei’s atrocious debut for Celtic really took some doing, believe me).

In addition, I haven’t been able to attend a Stenhousemuir match since their 1-0 defeat to Albion Rovers on Cliftonhill at the start of the month. I fully intended to write a withering analysis on how the Warriors were overrun and out-manoeuvred by a hungrier, more committed side; on how the team were once again undone on a bumpy, pockmarked pitch in cold conditions; and on how Davie Irons’ failure to attend the game would probably herald the end of his tenure as manager at the club; but instead, I had to practice shorthand. An internship with Sky Sports News demands a speed of a least 100 words per minute – I can barely write 60.

Having missed the matches against Stirling Albion and Cowdenbeath, I felt unqualified to offer any comment or opinion on the club’s recent travails other than this one observation: after the 4-0 victory over Stirling Albion, Irons delivered an astonishing post-match interview with Warriors TV, which reminded of this clip from The Simpsons:

The clip is taken from "Lisa’s Pony". After badly letting down Lisa, Homer decides to make amends by buying her a pony. Unable to keep up with its expensive maintenance costs, he is forced to take on a second job at the Kwik-E-Mart and work through their infamous nightshift. The workload begins to affect Homer and his bug-eyed, twitchy appearance throughout the episode bears a string resemblance to Iron’s interview.

Adding anything more seems like pointless exercise. Instead, and in an unusual move, I would prefer to focus on events away from Stenhousemuir. On Tuesday night, I attended Hampden and witnessed Queen’s Park’s straightforward 3-0 win against Clyde.

I’ve had a soft-spot for Queen’s Park since they won promotion to the Second Division in 2007. The Spiders side of the 2006-2007 season were arguably one of the Third Division's most thrilling teams of the last decade. Managed by Billy Stark and featuring talented players like David Weatherston, Paul Paton, Paul Cairney, Stuart Kettlewell and Alan Trouten, they were an incredibly exciting side to watch. Their playoff final first leg, a 4-2 victory over East Fife at Firhill (the match had been moved from Hampden to accommodate a Rod Stewart concert) was utterly captivating and one of the finest football matches I’ve ever seen.

That summer, Weatherston, the club’s most explosive talent, moved on to St Johnstone, and 12 months later, the squad was inevitably picked apart by bigger clubs. Paton and Cairney joined Partick Thistle while Kettlewell and Trouten signed for Clyde. Queen’s Park were ultimately relegated in 2009 after losing to Stenhousemuir in the Second Division playoff semi-finals.

The club have performed admirably since returning to the Third Division, finishing in the playoff positions in the past two seasons. Although their current squad lacks the flair and excitement as their counterparts from the 2006-2007 season, they are perhaps better equipped to win promotion to the Second Division now than they have been in the previous three years.

David Anderson: looking like a cross between
Shane McGowan and John Hurt in Alien.

On Tuesday night, Queen’s Park raced to a two goal lead within ten minutes through Jamie Longworth (dubbed “the Clyde Killer” by some sections of the Spiders support after scoring seven goals in eight games against the Broadwood club) and Ian Watt. After their bright start, they huffed and puffed their way through the rest of the match before Martin McBride's exquisite finish in the 89th minute completed the rout. The three goals put the gloss on an otherwise stuffy performance - Queen’s Park weren’t particularly impressive, but they didn’t really have to be.

Clyde were wretched. It’s difficult to believe they defeated Celtic in the Scottish Cup just six years previously, but the team’s decline has been as extraordinary as it has been rapid. Jim Duffy and his assistant Chic Charnley did their best to will their players on from the touchline, but this was as poor a Clyde team as I’ve ever seen. Their fullbacks Iain Gray and Lee Sharp were particularly rancid.

Bereft of any attacking options, they were forced into playing Pat Scullion as a lone striker. Nominally deployed as a midfield anchor during his two seasons at Stenhousemuir, here he was fashioned into some sort of target man. Scullion’s reasonably tall and stout, so in some respects the decision makes sense, but a striker big Pat is not. He spent the majority of the game either leaping hopelessly towards the long balls skelped in his general direction, or offside.

The game’s most outstanding performer, however, was Queen’s Park’s David Anderson. Signed from Kilbirnie Ladeside in the summer of 2010, the diminutive midfielder has quietly developed a reputation as one of the division's finest midfielders, mixing a tidy range of passing with energy and tenacity. For those who haven’t seen the 28-year-old in action, Anderson combines the best attributes of Paul McHale and Iain Thomson. It’s a clumsy comparison but probably the best I can offer. Jamie Longworth and Martin McBride, his fellow midfielders, are also fine footballers and would make strong additions to most Second Division sides, but it’s Anderson who excites the most. In the unlikely event that Davie Irons is reading this blog (or, more pertinently, if he’s still the manager of Stenhousemuir in two months’ time), David Anderson would be an excellent signing at Ochilview.

Queen’s Park’s victory over Clyde, meanwhile, sets up an appetizing top-of-the-table clash with Alloa at Recreation Park on Saturday. Alloa currently sit atop the Third Division and enjoy a nine point gap over their rivals. Should Queen’s Park win, the remaining six matches of the season will prove to be hugely interesting; lose, and any fanciful talk of a title challenge can be dismissed.

Watch highlights of Queen's Park's 3-0 victory over Clyde on the superb QPTV here.

Mark Gallagher is the enigmatic leader of the IBF, Queen's Park's notorious hooligan element. Follow him on Twitter here.

Kenny Crawford is the Queen's Park correspondent with the Southside Extra. Follow him on Twitter here.

Monday, 27 February 2012

Stenhousemuir 1 - 3 Arbroath

Paul Sheerin: going places.

If Stenhousemuir weren’t in a slump before Saturday’s 1-3 reverse at the hands of Arbroath at Ochilview, they’re certainly in one now. Their recent form has been miserable and the club have picked up a meagre ten points from as many games. Only Forfar, Albion Rovers and Stirling Albion, all cut adrift at the foot of the table, are in poorer form than the Warriors.

Goals from Steven Doris and Josh Falkingham gave the visitors a deserved lead before Stewart Kean’s strike midway through the second half reduced arrears. With the Warriors pressing for an equaliser, a calamitous piece of goalkeeping from Ally Brown allowed Falkingham to score his second of the game and secure his side's victory. Stenhousemuir may have been trailing by a single goal when Gary Smith’s cute header clipped the post but in truth, it didn’t matter. It’s an irrelevance. The only thing that matters is they were left faltering once again.

Arborath were well-drilled and highly motivated throughout and deserved their victory but they were aided by some tactical floundering on their hosts’ part. By the time Stenhousemuir reverted from an unorthodox formation to a more traditional system to combat their visitors’ enterprising play, they were already two goals behind and half of the match was already over.

It was difficult to tell how Davie Irons had set up his team to begin with. Ally Brown continued in goal behind a three-man defence of Kevin McKinlay, Ross McMillan and Michael Devlin. Sean Dickson started on the left wingback and Iain Thomson, having never played there before, took up the same position on the right. Paul McHale, Brown Ferguson and Andy Rodgers, making his first start in three games, began the game in midfield while Gary Smith and Stewart Kean continued in attack. Willie Lyle dropped to the bench and was joined by Stevie Murray, making his return to the first team since dislocating his shoulder against East Fife a month ago. Alan Lawson, meanwhile, watched from the stand after captaining Scotland Schoolboys to a 4-0 win over Northern Ireland the previous night.

Steven Doris: buxom.

Was it a 3-4-3? Or a 3-5-2? A 3-4-1-2, perhaps? Who knows. The players certainly didn’t and looked unsure and hesitant throughout the first half. Arbroath took full advantage of their uncertainity and opened the scoring after nine minutes. Brian Kerr’s incisive pass cut through the lopsided Stenhousemuir defence and played in Steven Doris. The forward needed only two touches - the first to bring the ball under control; the second to smash it into the net.

Stenhousemuir’s play throughout the half was slow and ponderous and other than 25-yard drive from Kevin McKinlay that sailed into Darren Hill’s arms, they attacked with little threat and fluency. The absence of Eric Paton was, once again, keenly felt.

In players like Kerr, Josh Falkingham and Paul Sheerin, Arbroath have some of the finest midfielders in the division and they passed the ball across the pitch with authority. Despite having an additional man in the middle of the park, the Stenhousemuir midfield were unsure of their roles and failed to stem the visitors' threat. Their pressure soon paid off when Iain Thomson sliced a poor clearance into the feet of Gavin Swankie, who in turn fed Falkingham. The diminutive midfielder cleverly feinted past McMillan and drilled a fine left-footed drive into the corner of the net.

Michael Devlin, injured on the cusp of half-time, was replaced by Willie Lyle at the interval as Irons reconfigured his side into a 4-4-2 formation for the second period. Thomson moved into central defence and Rodgers was pushed out to the right flank.

Stenhousemuir looked far more comfortable in a straightforward formation and kept possession well, moving the ball across the park and pressing Arbroath deep into their half. The visitors defence, marshalled superbly by former Gretna and Livingston stopper Chris Innes, blocked the Warriors' attacks with relative ease until the 70th minute when Kean converted at the second attempt after connecting with Rodgers' superb cross.

Arbroath put the game beyond doubt with two minutes remaining. Brown Ferguson conceded a soft freekick 25 yards from goal and the crowd watched in horror as Ally Brown allowed Falkingham's effort to slither through his hands and over the line. It was a rotten goal to lose.

After their victory over Stirling Albion, Dumbarton now lead Stenhousemuir by seven points. With six points now separating the Warriors in fourth place and Airdrie United in seventh, Stenhousemuir cannot afford anything other than a win against the Sons tomorrow night.

Stevie Murray: if it was the medieval times, he would have
been burned at the stake for his tricks and sorcery.

Saturday's result nothwithstanding, Stenhousemuir deserve some credit for a decent second half showing against the Lichties. Iain Thomson adpated reasonably well to an unfamiliar position and looked assured when moved into central defence after the interval and Stevie Murray looked energetic and dynamic on his return to action but beyond that, it's difficult to not feel frustrated with the outcome. Although few will dispute that Arbroath fully merited their win, had Stenhousemuir matched their opponents' 4-4-2 formation from the outset, they could have been more comptetitive and taken something from the game. Instead, they were hamstrung from the very start.

Davie Irons has been criticised in the past for a lack of tactical acumen and a quioxtic tendency to tamper with successful systems. Stenhousemuir have been found wanting when set up in anything other than a 4-4-2 formation. The simple fact is that, beyond a handful of players, the Warriors do not have the personnel to play in any other system. Having coached his side for over a year now, this should be clear to him. The players respond to it and are comfortable in it. Admirable as his experiments have been to assimilate his team into exotic formations such as 4-2-3-1, 3-1-4-1-1 and Saturday's perverse effort, they just haven't worked.

Want to drop the club captain? Fine, but don’t configure your team to an entirely new system because the club's only senior right fullback is sitting on the bench. Jack Hamilton, the 19-year-old defender, has looked very capable on the rare occasions he’s played. Like Alan Lawson, Hamilton surely deserves a run in the first team, especially given Lyle’s poor form. There is no logic in altering the entire formation just because one player has been dropped from the team.

Want to shunt your most combative midfilder out wide? Sure thing, but don't do it to the detriment of the balance of the team. Iain Thomson, arguably Stenhousemuir's most consistent midfielder over the season, was sorely missed in the middle of the park. Paul McHale has never been the most industrious of players and needs someone alongside him to chase and harry the opposition. Thomson would have provided this drive and energy.

Want to play all three of your strikers at the same time? By all means, but don’t shunt your top goalscorer into an unfamiliar midfield role just to accommodate him. There seemed little point for Andy Rodgers' inclusion on Saturday when Gary Smith and Stewart Kean had been playing well when paired together. It was hard to tell what he was supposed to be doing in midfield. Was he an advanced playmaker? A trequartista? Any other position from Football Manager you care to mention? He was wasted in the middle and out wide. Rodgers is a striker. He should be used in attack (his cross for Kean's goal, however, was quite delightful).

After the match, the assembled press waited for a comment or explanation from the manager, but there wasn’t one. He wasn’t there. Irons had left the ground within minutes of the final whistle.

Stenhousemuir: Brown; Devlin (Lyle 46), McMillan, McKinlay; Thomson, McHale, Ferguson, Dickson, Rodgers; Kean (Murray 80), Smith. Subs not used: Diamond, Campbell, Love.

Arbroath: Hill; Wedderburn, Malcolm, Innes, McAnespie; Gibson (Caddis 76), Falkingham, Kerr, Sheerin; Doris (Elfverson 84), Swankie (Sibanda 66). Subs not used: Burns, Busch.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Brechin City FC: 13 years of hurt.

Brechin City FC: impregnable.

The wait goes on.

On May 8 1999, Westlife topped the UK Singles chart with their anodyne ballad Swear It Again and a single Ross Hamilton goal secured victory for the Warriors against Brechin City at Ochilview. Since then, after almost 13 years and 15 league games between the sides, Stenhousemuir have failed to win a single match against the Angus club.

And the wait still goes on. On Wednesday night, the Warriors lost 1-0 at Glebe Park through Rory McKenzie’s 70th minute strike. With a muted response from both sets supporters who attended the match (a meagre 347 fans bothered turning up), it’s difficult to tell how well Stenhousemuir performed – some say Brechin deserved their win; others claim a draw would have been a fairer result.

Over the last few years, Brechin City have undoubtedly been Stenhousemuir’s bĂȘte noir. When the Warriors won promotion to the Second Division in 2009, Brechin were a fearsome and imposing side - strong, intelligent and physical, they were one of the most formidable teams in the division. Juggernaut striker Rory McAllister even scored a remarkable eight goals in 11 games against the club as his side failed to win promotion to the second tier of Scottish football.

McAllister has since moved on but Stenhousemuir still cannot overcome them. The Warriors were defeated 2-0 at Glebe Park in the first league game of the season and drew 1-1 at the return fixture in October. Despite playing against ten men for almost an hour following Bryan Hodge’s dismissal, they were unable to break down their visitors and secure the win.

At the start of the season, many people (myself included) tipped Brechin to win the league. Manager Jim Weir made a number of canny signings and was able to add Paul McManus and Garry Brady to a talented pool of players featuring the likes Gerry McLaughlin and Craig Molloy. Despite a reasonable start to their campaign, the side went through a miserable spell before the winter, losing at home to Albion Rovers and East Fife. Since Christmas however, the Angus club have gone on a credible run and, like Dumbarton, have quietly snuck up the league table. They now find themselves on the cusp of the playoff places and sit in fifth place, two points behind Stenhousemuir. They travel to league leaders Cowdenbeath on Saturday and, depending on results, could leapfrog the Warriors.

Adolf Hitler: big in Germany when
Stenhousemuir last won in Airdrie.

On a more positive note, Stenhousemuir finally won their first match in 73 years in Airdrie. Before their 3-0 win on Saturday, the last time the Warriors were victorious in North Lanarkshire was in 1939. The general consensus between supporters from both sides is that Stenhousemuir didn’t play particularly well, but they didn’t have to – from the first kick of the ball to the final whistle, Airdrie were quite hopeless. It’s tricky to gauge either side’s performance from the match highlights but the Diamonds’ defending for the first and second goals in particular is utterly abject. Credit must go to Sean Dickson and Gary Smith for the quality of their finishing but they were abetted by astonishing ineptitude from their opposition.

With 13 games of the league campaign remaining, it’s difficult to tell whether or not Stenhousemuir have overcome their slump and can maintain their league position for the rest of the season. On Twitter, a number of players have pointed out the team is still in fourth place and have cautioned against panicking until the they slip out of the playoff places. The phrase “doing an Alloa”, however, has been quietly muttered by the more pessimistic of supporters.

While I would tend to agree with the players, Stenhousemuir’s loss of form over winter has been a cause for concern. The root cause of the slump is difficult to pinpoint, but I believe it can be attributed to the loss of form of several senior players:

Eric Paton, unarguably the finest midfielder in the division, has been unfit since the turn of the year and has struggled to exert his usual level of influence on Stenhousemuir’s play. Club captain Willie Lyle has suffered his worst run of form since his poor first season with the club and was directly culpable for Forfar’s winning goal in January (it could be argued, however, that Lyle has recovered his form and has performed steadily in the team’s last few matches); and Paul McHale has looked ineffective and has developed a tendency to drift in and out of games since returning from his foot injury in January.

Kevin McKinlay’s loss of form is perhaps the most perplexing. Since coming back from a shoulder injury in November, the player has been somewhat of a liability. Before his enforced absence, the former Morton fullback played with an arrogance and swagger, as if the whole affair was beneath him. When on form, his languid approach is a joy to watch, but of late, his lackadaisical style of play can be unnerving and he has often put his teammates under unnecessary pressure through carelessness. His witless performance in the defeat to Ross County was the worst I’d ever seen from a Stenhousemuir defender and his red card against Dumbarton for throwing the ball away was simply mindless. With Alan Lawson emerging from the U-19s as a credible challenger for the left fullback position, McKinlay’s place in the first team is uncertain.

That said: these are all good players. There is little doubt about their talent and I have little doubt they can recover their form and perform well for the remainder of the season.

Inverting The Pyramid: a must-read for any manager.

Manager Davie Irons also deserves a certain degree of criticism over the last two months. After the first game of the calendar year, a dismal 3-1 defeat against Stirling Albion, he was rumoured to have shouted something along the lines of “I cannot believe you lost to a team like that!” at his players. Stenhousemuir were overrun by a highly motivated Albion side and such a show of arrogance, especially after the loss, is quite shocking.

The Scottish Cup tie against Ross County was perhaps the nadir of his management of the club. Although Stenhousemuir were never likely to have prevailed in Dingwall, they were hamstrung by a highly unorthodox 3-1-4-1-1 formation. Even before Ross McMillan’s dismissal, the system was ruthlessly exposed time and time again by a talented Ross County side. His side have functioned at their best in a traditional 4-4-2 system - why he tampered with it and mangled it into something as bizarre as the 3-1-4-1-1, only Irons will know.

His tactics in the following match, a 3-2 home defeat to a lumbering Forfar Athletic side, were also questionable. Forfar’s defence consists of hulking defenders who struggle with pace - the approach should have been to utilise the ingenuity of McHale and Brown Ferguson to craft openings for the strikers. Instead, Lyle and McKinlay were encouraged to shell long, hopeful punts into the channels for Stewart Kean and Paul Quinn to run onto. It didn’t work and the opening 45 minutes were possibly the dullest at Ochilview this season. To his credit, Irons realised this and altered his tactics for the second half but his side were undone by some calamitous defending in the last ten minutes.

Since the defeat against Forfar, the manager has reverted to a traditional 4-4-2 formation with moderate success. The victories over East Fife and Airdrie were deserved and there was little he could have done to beat Dumbarton after two of his defenders had been sent off within 30 minutes.

There are also questions about the amount of time he actually spends at the club. Some of his players even joked about how he rarely attends training, with one of them referring to him as a “part-time part-timer” on Twitter. I noted a fortnight ago how he more or less handed all media commitments over to his assistant, Kevin McGoldrick. While Irons obviously has a strong relationship with McGoldrick and trusts his ability judgement, it is slightly alarming he isn't coaching his players during this difficult period in the season. There may be an entirely reasonable explanation for this - it just hasn't be clarified.

On Saturday, meanwhile, Stenhousemuir will host Arbroath. The last time the sides met at Ochilview, the visitors were beaten 2-0 with relative ease but since then, Arbroath have become a permanent fixture in second position in the league. Many expected Arbroath to challenge for a playoff place but under the tutelage of Paul Sheerin (surely the most exciting young manager in Scotland), they have exceeded expectations and blossomed into one of the finest sides in the division. They are entirely deserving of their lofty position. I would imagine Irons will persist with the same set of players that lost in Brechin on earlier in the week. With other midweek results going against the Warriors, a win at the weekend is crucial.