|Annan Athletic: making you worry about your team's pre-season|
performances since 2011.
Conventional wisdom states that if your team generally performs well during their pre-season games, they will tend to struggle throughout their upcoming season. Conversely, if your team plays poorly, then they'll go on to have a successful campaign. If you believe in conventional wisdom, judging by yesterday's performance, Stenhousemuir FC will have won the league by March and will have qualified for the opening stages of the Europa League.
I don't believe in conventional wisdom. Without wanting to comes across as a reactionary lunatic or an over-critical pedant, Stenhousemuir's disappointing 3-1 home defeat to Annan Athletic raises some serious concerns about the capabilities of the squad. With Stenhousemuir's first competitive match against Partick Thistle just a fortnight away, the team is looking thin and under-prepared for the forthcoming season. Despite taking an early lead through an Andy Rodgers tap-in, a brace from Brian Felvus and a sublime effort from Aaron Muirhead secured a deserved win for the visitors. The defeat is the Warriors' second in as many weeks from Third Division oppositon.
The home side lined up in an unfamiliar 4-1-2-1-2 formation with a midfield diamond in place of an orthodox flat middle four. Ally Brown started in goals while Willie Lyle and Sean Dickson flanked two trialist defenders. Paul McHale sat in front of the defence and Eric Paton played at the tip of the diamond, tucked in behind the forwards Paul Quinn and Andy Rodgers. Trialst Carlo Monti and Brown Ferguson lined up in the middle of the park on the left and right of the diamond respectively. Annan, meanwhile, started with a strong line-up but had key performers such as David Cox and Kevin Neilson absent as they attended the T in the Park music festival.
Stenhousemuir started the game with verve and gusto, with their opening play full of neat, short passes between the midfield and the forwards. With McHale lying deep and knocking the ball across the middle of the park to his teammates, Annan struggled with the clever interplay between Rodgers, Paton and Quinn and with Monti's shrewd running on the left of midfield. After thirteen minutes, Ferguson swung in a deep cross from the right flank and although it seemed innocuous enough, the Annan goalkeeper John Jamieson contrived to drop the ball right at the feet of Rodgers. He couldn't miss.
While the home side continued to dominate the possession, Annan looked potent any time they shuttled the ball into attack. The central defensive partnership of Neil Hastings (released by Livingston's U-19s team and who played in last week's defeat at Montrose) and Richie Saunders (formerly of Newcastle United) looked, for the best part, utterly unconvincing. Easily turned by their forwards, allowing long balls to bounce over their heads, and slicing wild, erratic clearances to the opposition, their all-round play was quite shocking. After Stenhousemuir failed to clear the ball to safety, excellent play from Ryan Holms on the left flank found Mikey McGowan on the edge of the penalty area. His cute, slide-rule pass slipped in Brian Felvus who spun away from Saunders and cracked a fine shot over Brown for the equaliser.
Annan took the lead sixty seconds later. Hastings' unruly clearance fell at Aaron Muirhead and the burly defender swapped passes with Felvus twenty-five yards before launching a deft chip over Brown and into the net. It was a fine effort but perhaps Brown could have done better, his positioning questionable. Muirhead was arguably Annan's most impressive performer throughout the match. Looking like a cross between Seth Rogan and Mark Zuckerberg, Irons was rumoured to have offered Pat Scullion and Kevin Motion in exchange for the 20 year-old in January. Annan, quite sensibly, declined the transfer.
After their goals, the visitors remained the better of the two sides without fashioning any other significant opportunites. Monti remained a threat on the left of Stenhousemuir's midfield and continued to link up well with Rodgers, but neither were able to breach a steadfast Annan defence. As the first half drew to a close, Eric Paton crumpled alarmingly on the floor after a fairly mild challenge. He limped off towards the home dugout and was replaced by another trialist, former Stirling Albion and Alloa Athletic midfielder Nathan Taggert.
The only salient moment of an otherwise dour second half was Annan's third goal. Chris McLuskey, having replaced Brown at the interval spilled a harmless looking cross into the path of Felvus and the striker easily bundled the ball into an unguarded net for his second goal of the game. With the flurry of substitutions from both sides disrupting any flow to the game, it petered out and finished quietly.
Despite the result and poor performance, there were a handful of encouraging aspects: until his substitution, Andy Rodgers played well and looks to be an astute aquisition. When he joined the club, I questioned his signing - he's often appeared cantakerous and belligerent and has rarely had an outstanding performance against us, but, on today's evidence, he's shown an ability to link with Paton and the other midfielders that has looked superior to anyone else from last season. Rodgers also showed strength on the ball and a close control that allows him to find space for himself and others. Paul McHale started brightly before fading in the second half. Carlo Monti appears to be a canny player and I would welcome his signing. He looked pacey and direct and cocksure and could provide a fine althernative to Stevie Murray. Nathan Taggart also performed to a reasonable standard after replacing Paton and he may well be worth taking a second look at at our forthcoming friendly matches.
Yet, while it would be unreasonable to be too harsh on a team littered with trialists after what was essentially a kickabout, there was very little on display to suggest that Stenhousemuir are anywhere close to being prepared for the upcoming campaign. As Partick Thistle's Jackie McNamara and Simon Donnelly looked on, the inadequacies in Irons' squad were laid bare. With Martyn Corrigan and Ross McMillan missing out again (the former is still injured but estimates that he will be available following Saturday's friendly with Clyde; the latter was attending another wedding), the defeat highlight the glaring deficiencies in defence. We could be facing the prospect of starting the season with two central defenders who have not yet played alongside one another and the two trialists that might be signed up to act as cover may be young and inexperienced but, for the second week running, they did absolutely nothing to suggest they deserve a contract. Given the ineptitude of their performance yesterday, there is little evidence they could perform against even the most rudimentary of Second Division opposition. - can you imagine them squaring off against the likes of Paul McManus, Jim Lister or Chris Templeman? It would be outright carnage. With the paucity of alternatives, it looks increasingly likely that Iain Thomson will be asked to fill any vacant defensive positions over the coming year. In hindsight, the release of Gary Thom and Scott Gibb (who by all accounts played well on trial with Arbroath over their 4-1 win over Keith yesterday) seems all the more baffling. There is, however, still time for the manager to draft in new players so this worry may be all for nothing.
Davie Irons' non-appearance yesterday is also a cause for concern, with rumours circulating around the ground that he missed the game due to work commitments. Even although it was only a friendly game, it augurs ill for the rest of the season. Would Irons be forced to miss out on crucial league or cup fixtures because of his job? Would he have to hand charge of training sessions over to Kevin McGoldrick since he'll be at work? If this is the case, then I would feel very uneasy about his ability to manage Stenhousemuir FC. The board, staff, players and supporters need assurances that his occupation will in no way interfere with his position as manager of the club, otherwise he might as well just forget it.
With friendlies against Berwick Rangers and Clyde looming, I am hoping for a positive result and an ecouraging performance. If not, then I'll be praying for conventional wisdom.
STENHOUSEMUIR: Brown (McLuskey); Lyle, Dickson, Trialist, Trialist; McHale, Ferguson (Brash), Paton (Trialist), Trialist (Hamilton); Quinn (Plenderleith), Rodgers (Love).
ANNAN ATHLETIC: Jamieson (Summersgill); Muirhead, McGowan (Watson), Gibson, Aitken; McKechnie, Sloan (Slattery), Jardine, Holms; Bell (Atkinson), Felvus.