Sunday, 27 November 2011

Stenhousemuir 3 - 0 Albion Rovers

Stewart Kean: hairy.

The statistics make for wonderful reading. In their last three home matches, Stenhousemuir have scored 11 goals, conceded none, and still remain unbeaten. Albion Rovers were the latest side to come undone at Ochilview.

Last time the sides met, Larry Acqua’s late header secured a point at Cliftonhill. There would be no such dramatics this time around. In a strong second-half showing, Stenhousemuir were clinical and efficient.

In atrocious conditions, Stewart Kean opened the scoring before the hour-mark before Andy Rodgers’ brace put the game beyond Rovers. Rovers, who had generally competed well throughout the game, were undone by three outstanding examples of ruthless finishing.

Without extending into the realms of hyperbole, the weather was perhaps the worst I’ve ever seen at a football game. The wind swirled and fluttered across the pitch, blowing rain into the stand and the terracing behind the goals. When kicked against the gale, the ball would hold up and gave no indication as to which direction it would drop.

At one point, the nets billowed like the sails of a galleon on a storm-tossed ocean.

Throughout the first half, the Warriors tried (and ultimately failed) to take advantage of playing with the wind behind them. Stevie Murray, Eric Paton and Kevin McKinlay all tested Derek Gaston in the Rovers’ goal but he dealt with their efforts with little fuss. Despite these drives from distance, Stenhousemuir’s general play was laboured and unimaginative.

All too often, Kean and Rodgers were forced to scrap for long balls punted from the defence against the lumbering Todd Lumsden and Mick O’Byrne, while Paton and Murray, normally so influential, were on the periphery and were rarely involved.

Rovers, meanwhile, adapted far better to the conditions. John Gemmell performed with diligence as a loan striker and linked well with his teammate. Scott Chaplain and Ryan McStay sat deep and patrolled the small pockets of space in front of their defence, preventing their hosts from shooting from distance.

Gaston did his best to waste as much time as possible, taking his time over his goal kicks. At one point, he even stopped to tie his laces, much to hackles of the home support. It was frustrating to watch but, in the circumstances, entirely understandable.

Before the referee drew the first half to a close, Rovers looked the most likely to take the lead. O’Byrne came close to scoring following a corner and Gemmell flashed a low drive wide from the edge of the area. The Warriors seemed the more grateful of the two sides for the interval.

I remember in the wake of a defeat at Dumbarton several years ago in similarly blustery conditions, John Coughlin commented, In these conditions, people will think the wind will blow the ball into the net for you. It won’t.

Was it arrogant to expect Stenhousemuir to have taken a lead into the second half? Should we have expected them to have approached the game with more intent?

My friend sitting next to me remarked that the Warriors will have no option other than to play football in the conditions. We can’t play those long balls anymore, he said. We’ll have to go out and knock it around a bit when we come out.

Soon after the restart, Stenhousemuir flexed their attacking muscle. Iain Thomson shuttled the ball out to Murray on the flank and the winger’s clipped cross bounced in the area but beyond Kean and Rodgers. Shortly after, the pair combined, but the former Morton forward failed to test Gaston. The passages of play were the best they had mustered in the whole game so far.

Rovers, like Stenhousemuir in the first half, could not use the wind to their advantage. Their long balls behind the Warriors’ defence often drifted beyond their attackers and out of play while McKinlay, dropping deep to sweep behind his defence, performed his task with relish. Despite this, Rovers seemed the more likely of the sides to take the lead.

It was of some surprise then, that the home side struck first. With the hour mark approaching, Andy Rodgers beat Mick O’Byrne to a high ball and slid a cute pass into the path of Stewart Kean. The striker’s low shot was drilled beyond Derek Gaston, clipped the inside of the post and bounced over the line. The forward was smothered by his team-mates in celebration.

Stenhousemuir extended their lead 20 minutes later. Paton’s corner swirled into the area and Rodgers rose above O’Byrne and clipped the ball into the net. There may be some debate if O’Byrne actually had the final touch, but Rodgers spun away with his arms aloft.

Rodgers’ second put the game beyond doubt. The ball was chipped forward and hung up in the wind and unsure of its direction, Lumsden, O’Byrne and Kean all challenged for it. The ball hit Kean’s back before dropping into the path of Rodgers. The forward steadied himself and thrashed in a shot from 20 yards. It was utterly sensational.

John Gemmell thought he had reduced the deficit in stoppage time with a header but his goal was disallowed by the stand-side linesman for some apparent infringement.

The referee’s final whistle brought a palpable sigh of relief around Ochilview and arguably the hardest-won three points so far this season. Were Stenhousemuir good? Were Albion Rovers bad? Who knows? The weather rendered any such discussions an irrelevance. Some players adapted well to the conditions, some didn’t. Nothing more.

Stenhousemuir will be pleased with the performances of Ally Brown, Kevin McKinlay and Martyn Corrigan. The goalkeeper performed admirably in horrid conditions and kicked well into a strong wind while his central defenders dealt admirably with the majority of the Rovers attacks.

The return of Paul McHale is another cause for celebration. McHale last played in the 3-1 victory over Cowdenbeath and until his injury, the midfielder was arguably the club’s best player. He replaced Brown Ferguson in the closing stages of the match and moved the ball around with his usual intelligence and composure. His return is greatly welcomed.

Most impressive of all is the burgeoning strike partnership between Andy Rodgers and Stewart Kean. In previous articles, I had written that there was a genuine hope that the pair would develop a strong understanding but now, they have blossomed into two of the most lethal strikers in the league. Their movement and positioning is the best I’ve seen at the club since Paul McGrillen and Colin Cramb.

Rodgers in particular is arguably being the most clinical striker the club have signed since Des McKeown brought in the well-travelled Cramb from Hamilton. His second goal, in keeping with his hat-trick against Annan last week, was quite sublime.

Stenhousemuir now travel to East Fife next week. The Methil club currently sit five points behind them in the league in fourth place and the Warriors haven’t beaten them at New Bayview side since Scott Dalziel’s strike secured a 1-0 win in early 2008.

The Warriors have performed poorly on their travels, winning once. East Fife’s home record is unremarkable and with the returning McHale and Rodgers arguably in the finest form of his career, Stenhousemuir can be quietly confident of a positive result in Fife next week.

Stenhousemuir: Brown; Lyle, Corrigan, McKinlay, Dickson; Ferguson (McHale 86), Paton, Thomson, Murray (Hamilton 88); Kean (Quinn 90), Rodgers. Subs Not Used: McCluskey, McCafferty.

Albion Rovers: Gaston; Reid, Lumsden, O'Byrne, Donnelly; Love (Reilly 79), McStay, Stevenson, Lawless, Chaplain; Gemmell. Subs Not Used: Travers, Marriott, Gilmartin, Scott.

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