Friday, 19 August 2011

Stenhousemuir 2 - 0 Arbroath

Arbroath's famous smokies: defensively naive, like the Africans.

Stenhousemuir recorded their first league win of the season following an entirely deseverved 2-0 victory over a poor Arbroath side at Ochilview on Saturday afternoon. Goals from Brown Ferguson and Andy Rodgers secured a fine victory and capped a fine performance from the Warriors. Energic and industrious throughout, Stenhousemuir were far superior in almost every department to their sluggish visitors.

Manager Davie Irons made a series of changes to the team that lost at Brechin the previous week. The most remarkable was his decision to dispense with his ambitious 4-2-3-1 project and adapt a more conventional 4-4-2 formation. Chris McCluskey continued in goals. Ross McMillan missed out through injury and so Kevin McKinlay shunted into central defence alongside Martyn Corrigan while Sean Dickson and Willie Lyle started at left and right fullback respectively. Stevie Murray and Brown Ferguson adopted the wide midfield positions with Eric Paton joining Paul McHale in the middle of the park. Andy Rodgers partnered Stewart Kean in attack. Paul Quinn, Iain Thomson, Jack Hamilton, Sean Diamond and a trialist goalkeeper featured on the bench.

Before kick-off, the club paid tribute to the victims of the recent terrorist attack in Norway by observing a minute's silence while the Norwegian flag flying at half-mast on the gantry between the dugouts opposite the stand. Stenhousemuir started the match well and passed the ball around the park with guile and purpose. In the 4-4-2 system, the players seemed far more comfortable and at ease in their natural positions. Rodgers in particular looked more accustomed as a traditional striker and was heavily involved in the home side's best moves.

After thirteen minutes played, Stenhousemuir took a deserved lead. Paton and Kean swapped passes in midfield and the latter found Paul McHale who lofted an incisive pass over Arbroath's lumbering defence and into the path of Ferguson. Striding into the penalty area, the midfielder deftly headed goalwards, completely wrong-footing Darren Hill and sending the ball trundling into the net. It was an extraordinary goal. Ferguson sheepishly wheeled away to celebrate with his teammates as Hill looked on ruefully - he was entirely culpable.

Stenhousemuir continued to dominate the play and looked the more imposing of the two teams but slack play almost allowed the visitors back into the game after twenty minutes. Lee Sibanda switched the ball from the left to the right flank and as Josh Falkingham chipped the ball into the penalty area, Dickson complacently allowed the cross to bounce beyond him, but Gavin Swankie failed to take advantage of his lapse and flashed a diving header wide of goal. It was their only significant effort of the half.

Rodgers had an excellent chance to extend the Warriors' lead on the half hour mark. Poor defending from Arbroath saw them fail to clear the ball and Stewart Malcolm's weak header landed on the edge of the box and Rodgers, charging in from the right, crashed a superb half-volley that Hill did well to beat away from goal. The home side continued to have the better of possession without offering a significant threat as the referee brought the first half to a close.

The Warriors started the first half with the same flair and aggression they ended the first. After five minutes of the restart, Rodgers had an excellent chance to score, controlling McHale's fine pass and spinning away from his marker inside the penalty area, but his shot was tame and Hill was quick to gather it. The forward did not have to wait long for his first Stenhousemuir goal and after a combination of Kean's doggedness and Arbroath's failure to perform simple defensive tasks, he bundled the ball over the line from six yards. It was nothing less than what his performance deserved.

With a two goal advantage, the Warriors dropped their tempo and were less insistent with on pressing their opposition and slowly allowed Arbroath to back into the game. Paul Sheerin's looping corner swung out towards Sibanda at the back post but the forward's shot was hacked from the line by Willie Lyle. Lyle was on hand to block another shot on the goaline minutes later as substitue Lee Bryce rounded McCluskey and fired in a low shot. Swankie forced McCluskey into a fine save after a cumbersome run through Stenhousemuir's defence. Unable to breach a resolute Warriors defence, Sheerin was even booked for punching the ball into the net.

Arbroath's attacking intent was quelled as the Warriors regained control of the game. Paton and Murray exchanged passes on the halfway line and the former's curling pass found Dickson haring down the left flank. The fullback fired in a delicious cross but Rodgers, unmarked, contrived to send a weak header straight at Hill. In the final minute of the match, the striker forced Hill into another excellent save after cutting in from the right flank and crashing a left-footed shot goalwards.

By and large, Stenhousemuir should be proud of their performance. From back to front, every player impressed. One of the most eye-catching aspects of the game was how the players responded to playing in a traitional 4-4-2 system. Eric Paton excelled as he dropped to collect the ball from his defenders and dictated the play from a deeper role and Arbroath's midfield were unable to cope with his passing and movement. The Big Easy was superbly complimented by Paul McHale who passe with confidence and pressed the opposition with diligence. Despite a series of questionable performances in his first few games at the club, McHale delivered his finest performance since he joined the club and looks far more impressive when played further forward ias a conventional central midfielder

Most encouraging of all was the performance of Andy Rodgers. Full of energy and invention, the forward linked well with Kean and looked far more potent when deployed in his natural position instead of a wide forward. He was confident and could have scored four goals had it not been for a combination of good goalkeeping and wayward finishing. Having seen Rodgers play against Stenhousemuir in the past for Montrose, East Stirlingshire and Ayr United, my opinion of him was an average forward with an unimpressive petulant streak but his performance against Arbroath was excellent and by far and away the best I'd seen from him.

As good as Stenhousemuir were, however, they were aided and abetted by a very poor Arbroath side. Despite a decent twenty minute spell in the second half where they looked reasonably threatening (although this was perhaps due to complacent defending rather than genuine craft and guile), from back to front, they were generally ineffective and unable to compete. Darren Hill may have produced a string of fine saves to deny Andy Rodgers but he was hopelessly out of position for Ferguson's goal. Watching the replays, only Hill will know what he was doing so far from his six yard box. Further forward, Arbroath's central defensive partnership line played poorly throughout. Beau Busch seemed overawed by the physicality and pace of Stenhousemuir's attack, while it seemed alarming that a player of Stewart Malcolm's size was easily beaten in aerial duels with Kean. Fullbacks Mark Baxter and Graham Girvan offered little support on the flanks and Lee Sibanda contributed virtually nothing in attack. Gavin Swankie looked reasonably potent in spells in the second half but the former St Johnstone player seems more suited to creating rather than finishing moves. Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of their game was the performance of midfielder Brian Kerr. Given that he had spent the majority of his career playing in the SPL and won a handful of international caps,  it was distressing to see a player of his pedigree overrun and chasing shadows. There was little on show to even suggest that he once played in Newcastle United's first team.

It will be interesting to see how Davie Irons will approach Saturday's game against Forfar Athletic at Station Park. Given that Forfar boast a team full of tall, physical players, there may be a temptation to rush Ross McMillan back into central defence and shunt Kevin McKinlay back into left fullback solely to offer additional height in Stenhousemuir's backline but this would be harsh on Sean Dickson, who arguably had his finest performance for the Warriors at the weekend. Regardless of personnel, I would hope that Irons continues to utilise the 4-4-2 formation. To quote that old adage, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. I wish there was something more insightful I could add here but there really seems no need to make any adjustments to a winning side. Forfar drew with Cowdenbeath in their opening fixture then conceded a last minute goal to lose at Albion Rovers at the weekend, and some of their fans have shown disillusion with manager Dick Campbell's tactics and team selection. While I approach the match with a sense of caution, if Stenhousemuir can perform to the same standard that they did against Arbroath, I would be quietly confident of our chances against Forfar.

STENHOUSEMUIR: McCluskey; Lyle, McKinlay, Corrigan, Dickson; Ferguson (Thomson), McHale, Paton, Murray; Kean, Rodgers (Quinn).

ARBROATH: Hill; Girvan, Malcolm, Busch (Wedderburn), Baxter; Falkingham, Gibson (Mair), Kerr, Sheerin; Sibanda (Bryce), Swankie.

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