|Partick Thistle: charging you £1.50 for a tin of Diet Coke.|
Stenhousemuir dropped out of the Ramsdens Cup after losing their first round tie 2-1 to Partick Thistle at Firhill on Saturday. Goals from David Rowson and Tommy Stewart secured the win for the First Division side who will now face Hamilton at New Douglas Park in the second round. Stewart Kean's late strike proved to be nothing more than a consolation for the Warriors but despite the result, they performed admirably and showed little difference between themselves and their full-time opposition. It was a decent showing from Stenhousemuir and augers well for the Scottish Communities League Cup looming on Saturday.
Stepping through the heavy double doors of the main entrance, I was taken by the dismal grandeur of Firhill's Aitken Suite. Its tattered carpets and faded wallpaper reminded me of a dilapidated ballroom or a downmarket social club. Thirsty, I approached the bar and requested a tin of Diet Coke. That'll be £1.50, she said. £1.50? For a can of Coke? Incredulous, I remarked that I could purchase at least two in if I bought them from a newsagents, or from a supermarket. The barmaid looked at me and shrugged indifferently. I handed over the money. With the kick-off looming, I made my way to the Jackie Husband stand. Signs outside the ground warned that none of the turnstyles had cash and that all tickets must be purchased at the booth beforehand. Needless to say when I asked at the booth for a ticket, I was told that I had to pay at the turnstyle. But of course. Avoiding the seats lavished in dirt and bird shirt, I sat with the rest of the travelling support tucked away in the corner of the stand and watched the game unfold.
As expected, Stenhousemuir began the match with the same 4-2-3-1 system they showcased against Clyde the previous weekend. Chris McLuskey started in goals while Kevin McKinlay and Willie Lyle slotted into the fullback positions. Martyn Corrigan, making his debut for the club, partnered Ross McMillan in central defence. Brown Ferguson and Paul McHale took up deep positions in midfield while Stevie Murray, Eric Paton and Andy Rodgers were pushed into more advanced roles. Stewart Kean started the match as a loan striker. Sean Dickson was relegated to the bench and sat alongside Iain Thomson, Paul Quinn, Grant Plenderlieth and Ally Brown.
Both teams started the game well and moved the ball across the Firhill pitch in an ecomomic fashion. Stenhousemuir looked relatively solid in the opening exchanges but looked susceptible when Thistle attacked on the break. With ten minutes gone, Stewart Bannigan exchanged passes with Aaron Sinclair and drilled an incisive pass between McMillan and McKinlay and into the stride of Kris Doolan, but an alert McLuskey did well to race from his line and beat his shot away. Thistle began to exert their dominance and opened the scoring eleven minutes later. After some neat short passing following a throw-in, midfielder David Rowson collected the ball twenty yards from goal and his shot deflcted off Corrigan's shins and wrong-footed McLuskey. The goalkeeper stood stranded as the ball bounded into the net.
The Warriors played some tidy football but were unable to break through a resolute Thistle defence. When the visitors were in possession, the home side sat deep, often with ten men behind the ball, and seemed content to allow their opposition to pass the ball in front of them but Stenhousemuir lacked the guile and penetration and failed to threaten Scott Fox's goal. It wasn't until after the half hour mark Paul McHale found space and fired a dipping shot over the crossbar from twenty-five yards. Both Doolan and Tommy Stewart passed up decent opportunities to increase the home side's advantage before the half was brought to a close.
With the the players failing to adjust to the 4-2-3-1 formation, Davie Irons reorganised his team for the second half accordingly and Stenhousemuir began the second period with a more traditional 4-4-2 system. McKinlay moved into midfield while Ferguson dropped into the left fullback postion. Murray moved over to the right and Rodgers joined Kean in attack. After the tactical shift, Stenhousemuir looked far more threatening. Paton was afforded more space and was able to play balls into the channels and although Willie Kinniburgh and Stuart Bannigan coped with Stenhousemuir's high balls, Rodgers forced them to compete a little harder.
The game was beginning to resemble a pre-season friendly rather than a competitive fixture with both sides looking a little tentative. Stenhousemuir started to probe and attack the space between Thistle's defence and midfield and after fine play through the middle of the park, Murray slipped a cute pass through the defence and into the path of Kean. His touch was heavy and offered Scott Fox the chance to narrow the angle. His shot eventually hit the goalkeeper and bounced out for a corner. Kean really should have done better.
As the Warriors committed men forward, Partick Thistle put the game beyond doubt in the eighty second minute. With players out of position, Tom Stewart, unmarked, pulled into space and drilled a superb first-time shot past McLuskey. The goal was well-taken but McLuskey's positioning was slightly suspect, the goalkeeper offering a little too much of his goal for the forward to aim at. Kean reduced the deficit minutes later after he connected with a McHale cross and sent a looping half-volley over Scott Fox and into the net, but it was of little consequence. Despite a rousing finish from the Warriors, the referee brought the match to an end moments later.
Despie losing the match, Stenhousemuir have every reason to be pleased with their general performance. Partick Thistle may have looked a little lethargic and rarely showed the drive and industry expected from full-time opposition, but Davie Irons and the travelling support can take several positives from the game. One of the most encouraging aspects was the perfomance of Ross McMillan and Martyn Corrigan in central defence. The pair look strong and assured and handled the majority of Thistle's attacks with relative ease with McMillan in particular the game's outstanding performer. Dominant in the air and quick and assertive in dealing with more direct opponents on the ground, the defender reads the game well and appears to be a very good aquisition. Corrigan, meanwhile, made an impressive debut. He organised the backline with authority and attacked the ball with agression and conviction. There is little doubt that the pair will develop a strong partnership as the season progresses. With Lyle and McKinlay at fullback, the defence looks steadfast, imposing and one of the strongest in the Second Division.
Grant Plenderlieth also deserves praise for his cameo performance. Replacing Rodgers with fifteen minutes remaining, the young forward made several incisive runs down the right flank and caused problems for fullback Aaron Sinclair. Plenderlieth may lack technique and skill when in possession but he could prove invaluable as an impact substitute as the season progresses. Against tiring defenders, his pace and direct running will be a useful asset.
Most strikingly of all, the players looked far more suited to an orthodox 4-4-2 system. As stated in last week's Walk on the wild side post, the 4-4-2 formation is far more suited to the player's strengths than the 4-2-3-1 and it's little coincidence that the team's performance improved with the change of system. In the opening skirmishes, Eric Paton failed to exert any influence and cut a forlorn figure in a crowded midfield but, when paired alongside Paul McHale in the second half, he began drop into deeper positions and able to see the game playing out in front of him, began to switch delicious thrusting passes into space on the flanks. With Paton playing in front of the defence, McHale starred in the middle of the park and passed and moved the ball with a skill and economy and looked far more commanding than at any point throughout pre-season. The 4-4-2 system also brought out the best in Stewart Kean and Andy Rodgers. In the first half, the former looked isolated and shorn of support while the latter drifted around on the flanks without asserting himself on the game. Paired together up front, they looked a lot more comfortable. Kean functioned better without being forced to play with his back to goal and Rodgers offered a greater challenge for high balls and linked well with his teammates. Their striking partnership is still in its infancy but, like McMillan and Corrigan, there is hope that an understanding will develop between them.
After a dour pre-season campaign, the past week has been the perfect tonic. The signing of Kevin McKinlay and Saturday's fine display at Firhill have instilled a sense of optimism ahead of the weekend's trip to Cowdenbeath and both players and supporters should approach the game with an element of confidence. Against Second Division opposition, the match should act as a barometer as to how the season ahead will progress and how the Warriors will compete against the stronger teams from their league. Having retained the majority of the squad that battled admirably against relegation last term, Cowden are argubaly one of the favourites to secure a playoff position and should go into the game as favourites, but if Stenhousemuir are to persist with their 4-4-2 formation and attack with the same drive and energy they displayed in the second half of Saturday's match, I am quietly confident that they can progress to the next round of the cup.
PARTICK THISTLE: Fox; Paton, Balatoni, Kinniburgh, Sinclair; Stewart, Rowson, Bannigan, Flannigan; Doolan (Grehan), Erskine (Campbell)
STENHOUSEMUIR: McCluskey; Lyle, McMillan, Corrigan, McKinlay; McHale (Dickson), Ferguson (Thomson), Rodgers (Plenderlieth), Paton, Murray; Kean