|Jamie Campbell: from good stock.|
Before Stenhousemuir’s dismal 3-1 defeat to Stirling Albion (I had started writing a report of the match but gave up – the whole thing felt pointless and deflated, like a lilo after a holiday), word spread amongst the crowd that manager Davie Irons had made his first signing of the January transfer window in Jamie Campbell, a young wide midfielder from Partick Thistle.
At this point, no announcement had been made on the club’s official website. Enquiries were quickly made into the player’s history and abilities and several Thistle fans were canvassed for their opinion. The 19-year-old made 18 appearances for the Firhill club last season, scoring once. Although fairly diminutive, the winger apparently possesses a decent technique and a fine burst of acceleration. The only reason he’s been sent on loan, I was assured, is because there are superior players ahead of him, namely Paul Paton and Paul Cairney.
Most fans rolled their eyes. Another loan signing? From Thistle? Again?! Christ...
Stenhousemuir fans were right to be wary. It was a disappointing debut from Campbell. There were rare occasions where he showed the odd flash of skill but on the whole, it was a lousy and ineffectual performance. His touch was heavy and he often struggled to find his teammates with simple six-yard passes. He looked unconfident and struggled make an impact in the game. There were at least two occasions when he beat an opponent but rather than swinging in a cross, he would check back and attempt to take on his opponent again. With 20 minutes remaining, he was withdrawn for Paul Quinn.
Campbell’s performance was no worse than that of Sean Dickson or Kevin McKinlay and while it would be incredibly harsh to label him a failure after a solitary game, there was very little to inspire confidence or suggest he’s a player capable of challenging for a starting berth on a regular basis. More likely, I can imagine him playing a handful of games before spending the remainder of his loan spell on the bench, forlornly kicking a ball around at half-time with the rest of the substitutes before quietly returning to Partick Thistle.
Despite his disappointing debut, Campbell looks far more capable than Shaun Fraser, Stenhousemuir’s first loan signing of the season. Fraser was also signed from Partick Thistle in a bid to bolster the Warriors’ attack and offer an alternative to Andy Rodgers and Stewart Kean. He was billed as a physical and muscular player and despite being far from the finished article, there was a raw talent concerned in him somewhere.
Shaun Fraser, in fact, was perhaps the most limited forward I’ve seen playing for Stenhousemuir. He was stocky, lethargic and lacked the necessary technique, awareness and intelligence to compete at even Second Division level. In three substitute appearances and little over 45 minutes of game-time, Fraser looked completely lost. After his final appearance in the 5-2 defeat to Airdrie, he spent the remainder of his loan spell on the bench, forlornly kicking a ball around at half-time with the rest of the substitutes before quietly returning to Partick Thistle.
Had Irons actually watched Fraser or Campbell before deciding to make them a part of his squad? Or did he simply sign them after a recommendation from Jackie McNamara? If it’s the former, then his judgement must be questioned – Fraser was hopeless (although it is too early to fully cast judgement over Campbell). If it’s the latter, then surely Fraser’s failure is an indication that McNamara is a poor judge of young talent and his recommendations cannot be trusted? The old adage “once bitten, twice shy” springs to mind in this instance.
Along with Colin Hamilton, the young fullback drafted in from Heart of Midlothian (after a promising start, his form dipped so badly he was dropped to the bench), the quality of the loan signings Irons has made this season is dubious and begs the question: are the likes of Shaun Fraser, Colin Hamilton and Jamie Campbell really better than our reserve and U-19 players?
Cast your mind back to Irons’ Meet the Manager session in July. At the meeting, he paid special tribute to Grant Plenderleith and Stuart Love. The manager claimed Plenderleith was responsible for winning his side six points last season after providing crucial assists and scoring in games against Dumbarton and Airdrie and said the young forward would make an impact throughout the season. Love, he declared, had an “excellent chance” of making it.
Seven months on, his words seem completely redundant. Plenderleith made a handful of substitute appearances at the start of the season but hasn’t played since the 2-2 stalemate with Stirling at the start of September. He hasn’t even featured on the bench since 1-1 draw with Albion Rovers the following week. Love, meanwhile, was shipped out on loan to East Stirlingshire. He has played twice for them.
The club’s chairman, Martin McNairney, must be a frustrated onlooker. At July’s meeting, he expressed his disappointment that, under previous manager John Coughlin, inferior players were being brought into the first team on loan from SPL clubs (namely Ally Love and James McLennan of St Mirren) while youngsters developed at the club’s youth academy were overlooked. McNairney also told the assembled audience how happy he was that Irons was prepared to give the U-19s a chance.
Stenhousemuir’s youth academy is generally considered to be one of the finest outwith the SPL. Several players have been sold to bigger clubs (brothers Colin and Jack Hamilton’s transfer to Hearts is probably the most notable) and a number have become important members of the first team – Gary Thom, Robert Love and Sean Dickson, for instance – but Irons (and his predecessor Coughlin) seems reticent to utilise them and prefers instead to bring in youngsters from other clubs. I cannot see the sense in it.
It also sends out a negative message to the academy players and coaches. What’s the point of producing players at U-19 level when players of the same age from bigger clubs are being drafted into the first team squad ahead of them? Grant Plenderleith may be technically limited but he’s an underrated finisher and there are few players in the division that possess his pace. I cannot understand why he isn’t on the bench at the very least, or why Jamie Campbell’s been signed and played ahead of him. And while Stuart Love may be slightly built, his positioning and movement is intelligent and elusive and makes him a far better option than the lumbering Shaun Fraser.
I want to clarify: I am not suggesting that Plenderleith, Love, Alan Lawson, Jack Hamilton and Michael Hunter et al are better than the likes of Eric Paton and Stevie Murray and will have an immediate and sustained impact on the first team, but I just cannot see the logic in bringing in young players on loan from more established clubs that are no better than the players were are producing at our youth academy.
Some loanees have been notable successes – in ten games, Gordon Lennon proved himself to be one of the classiest defenders to have played for the club after joining in January of 2008 from Partick Thistle; Hamilton’s Michael Devlin was crucial in helping the club avoiding relegation last year; but by and large, the loan signings brought in during my time watching the club make several unremarkable performances before silently drifting back to their parent clubs. In the grand pantheon of Stenhousemuir players, there are few that will remember the contributions from Adam Coakley, Shaun Fagan, Alan Gilbride, Paddy Mailey or Stephen Connolly.
Jamie Campbell may yet prove to be a shrewd acquisition (and I sincerely hope he can make a positive contribution while he’s at Stenhousemuir) but by judging him solely on Monday’s performance, his signing seems quite pointless.