Monday, 27 February 2012

Stenhousemuir 1 - 3 Arbroath

Paul Sheerin: going places.

If Stenhousemuir weren’t in a slump before Saturday’s 1-3 reverse at the hands of Arbroath at Ochilview, they’re certainly in one now. Their recent form has been miserable and the club have picked up a meagre ten points from as many games. Only Forfar, Albion Rovers and Stirling Albion, all cut adrift at the foot of the table, are in poorer form than the Warriors.

Goals from Steven Doris and Josh Falkingham gave the visitors a deserved lead before Stewart Kean’s strike midway through the second half reduced arrears. With the Warriors pressing for an equaliser, a calamitous piece of goalkeeping from Ally Brown allowed Falkingham to score his second of the game and secure his side's victory. Stenhousemuir may have been trailing by a single goal when Gary Smith’s cute header clipped the post but in truth, it didn’t matter. It’s an irrelevance. The only thing that matters is they were left faltering once again.

Arborath were well-drilled and highly motivated throughout and deserved their victory but they were aided by some tactical floundering on their hosts’ part. By the time Stenhousemuir reverted from an unorthodox formation to a more traditional system to combat their visitors’ enterprising play, they were already two goals behind and half of the match was already over.

It was difficult to tell how Davie Irons had set up his team to begin with. Ally Brown continued in goal behind a three-man defence of Kevin McKinlay, Ross McMillan and Michael Devlin. Sean Dickson started on the left wingback and Iain Thomson, having never played there before, took up the same position on the right. Paul McHale, Brown Ferguson and Andy Rodgers, making his first start in three games, began the game in midfield while Gary Smith and Stewart Kean continued in attack. Willie Lyle dropped to the bench and was joined by Stevie Murray, making his return to the first team since dislocating his shoulder against East Fife a month ago. Alan Lawson, meanwhile, watched from the stand after captaining Scotland Schoolboys to a 4-0 win over Northern Ireland the previous night.

Steven Doris: buxom.

Was it a 3-4-3? Or a 3-5-2? A 3-4-1-2, perhaps? Who knows. The players certainly didn’t and looked unsure and hesitant throughout the first half. Arbroath took full advantage of their uncertainity and opened the scoring after nine minutes. Brian Kerr’s incisive pass cut through the lopsided Stenhousemuir defence and played in Steven Doris. The forward needed only two touches - the first to bring the ball under control; the second to smash it into the net.

Stenhousemuir’s play throughout the half was slow and ponderous and other than 25-yard drive from Kevin McKinlay that sailed into Darren Hill’s arms, they attacked with little threat and fluency. The absence of Eric Paton was, once again, keenly felt.

In players like Kerr, Josh Falkingham and Paul Sheerin, Arbroath have some of the finest midfielders in the division and they passed the ball across the pitch with authority. Despite having an additional man in the middle of the park, the Stenhousemuir midfield were unsure of their roles and failed to stem the visitors' threat. Their pressure soon paid off when Iain Thomson sliced a poor clearance into the feet of Gavin Swankie, who in turn fed Falkingham. The diminutive midfielder cleverly feinted past McMillan and drilled a fine left-footed drive into the corner of the net.

Michael Devlin, injured on the cusp of half-time, was replaced by Willie Lyle at the interval as Irons reconfigured his side into a 4-4-2 formation for the second period. Thomson moved into central defence and Rodgers was pushed out to the right flank.

Stenhousemuir looked far more comfortable in a straightforward formation and kept possession well, moving the ball across the park and pressing Arbroath deep into their half. The visitors defence, marshalled superbly by former Gretna and Livingston stopper Chris Innes, blocked the Warriors' attacks with relative ease until the 70th minute when Kean converted at the second attempt after connecting with Rodgers' superb cross.

Arbroath put the game beyond doubt with two minutes remaining. Brown Ferguson conceded a soft freekick 25 yards from goal and the crowd watched in horror as Ally Brown allowed Falkingham's effort to slither through his hands and over the line. It was a rotten goal to lose.

After their victory over Stirling Albion, Dumbarton now lead Stenhousemuir by seven points. With six points now separating the Warriors in fourth place and Airdrie United in seventh, Stenhousemuir cannot afford anything other than a win against the Sons tomorrow night.

Stevie Murray: if it was the medieval times, he would have
been burned at the stake for his tricks and sorcery.

Saturday's result nothwithstanding, Stenhousemuir deserve some credit for a decent second half showing against the Lichties. Iain Thomson adpated reasonably well to an unfamiliar position and looked assured when moved into central defence after the interval and Stevie Murray looked energetic and dynamic on his return to action but beyond that, it's difficult to not feel frustrated with the outcome. Although few will dispute that Arbroath fully merited their win, had Stenhousemuir matched their opponents' 4-4-2 formation from the outset, they could have been more comptetitive and taken something from the game. Instead, they were hamstrung from the very start.

Davie Irons has been criticised in the past for a lack of tactical acumen and a quioxtic tendency to tamper with successful systems. Stenhousemuir have been found wanting when set up in anything other than a 4-4-2 formation. The simple fact is that, beyond a handful of players, the Warriors do not have the personnel to play in any other system. Having coached his side for over a year now, this should be clear to him. The players respond to it and are comfortable in it. Admirable as his experiments have been to assimilate his team into exotic formations such as 4-2-3-1, 3-1-4-1-1 and Saturday's perverse effort, they just haven't worked.

Want to drop the club captain? Fine, but don’t configure your team to an entirely new system because the club's only senior right fullback is sitting on the bench. Jack Hamilton, the 19-year-old defender, has looked very capable on the rare occasions he’s played. Like Alan Lawson, Hamilton surely deserves a run in the first team, especially given Lyle’s poor form. There is no logic in altering the entire formation just because one player has been dropped from the team.

Want to shunt your most combative midfilder out wide? Sure thing, but don't do it to the detriment of the balance of the team. Iain Thomson, arguably Stenhousemuir's most consistent midfielder over the season, was sorely missed in the middle of the park. Paul McHale has never been the most industrious of players and needs someone alongside him to chase and harry the opposition. Thomson would have provided this drive and energy.

Want to play all three of your strikers at the same time? By all means, but don’t shunt your top goalscorer into an unfamiliar midfield role just to accommodate him. There seemed little point for Andy Rodgers' inclusion on Saturday when Gary Smith and Stewart Kean had been playing well when paired together. It was hard to tell what he was supposed to be doing in midfield. Was he an advanced playmaker? A trequartista? Any other position from Football Manager you care to mention? He was wasted in the middle and out wide. Rodgers is a striker. He should be used in attack (his cross for Kean's goal, however, was quite delightful).

After the match, the assembled press waited for a comment or explanation from the manager, but there wasn’t one. He wasn’t there. Irons had left the ground within minutes of the final whistle.

Stenhousemuir: Brown; Devlin (Lyle 46), McMillan, McKinlay; Thomson, McHale, Ferguson, Dickson, Rodgers; Kean (Murray 80), Smith. Subs not used: Diamond, Campbell, Love.

Arbroath: Hill; Wedderburn, Malcolm, Innes, McAnespie; Gibson (Caddis 76), Falkingham, Kerr, Sheerin; Doris (Elfverson 84), Swankie (Sibanda 66). Subs not used: Burns, Busch.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Brechin City FC: 13 years of hurt.

Brechin City FC: impregnable.

The wait goes on.

On May 8 1999, Westlife topped the UK Singles chart with their anodyne ballad Swear It Again and a single Ross Hamilton goal secured victory for the Warriors against Brechin City at Ochilview. Since then, after almost 13 years and 15 league games between the sides, Stenhousemuir have failed to win a single match against the Angus club.

And the wait still goes on. On Wednesday night, the Warriors lost 1-0 at Glebe Park through Rory McKenzie’s 70th minute strike. With a muted response from both sets supporters who attended the match (a meagre 347 fans bothered turning up), it’s difficult to tell how well Stenhousemuir performed – some say Brechin deserved their win; others claim a draw would have been a fairer result.

Over the last few years, Brechin City have undoubtedly been Stenhousemuir’s bête noir. When the Warriors won promotion to the Second Division in 2009, Brechin were a fearsome and imposing side - strong, intelligent and physical, they were one of the most formidable teams in the division. Juggernaut striker Rory McAllister even scored a remarkable eight goals in 11 games against the club as his side failed to win promotion to the second tier of Scottish football.

McAllister has since moved on but Stenhousemuir still cannot overcome them. The Warriors were defeated 2-0 at Glebe Park in the first league game of the season and drew 1-1 at the return fixture in October. Despite playing against ten men for almost an hour following Bryan Hodge’s dismissal, they were unable to break down their visitors and secure the win.

At the start of the season, many people (myself included) tipped Brechin to win the league. Manager Jim Weir made a number of canny signings and was able to add Paul McManus and Garry Brady to a talented pool of players featuring the likes Gerry McLaughlin and Craig Molloy. Despite a reasonable start to their campaign, the side went through a miserable spell before the winter, losing at home to Albion Rovers and East Fife. Since Christmas however, the Angus club have gone on a credible run and, like Dumbarton, have quietly snuck up the league table. They now find themselves on the cusp of the playoff places and sit in fifth place, two points behind Stenhousemuir. They travel to league leaders Cowdenbeath on Saturday and, depending on results, could leapfrog the Warriors.

Adolf Hitler: big in Germany when
Stenhousemuir last won in Airdrie.

On a more positive note, Stenhousemuir finally won their first match in 73 years in Airdrie. Before their 3-0 win on Saturday, the last time the Warriors were victorious in North Lanarkshire was in 1939. The general consensus between supporters from both sides is that Stenhousemuir didn’t play particularly well, but they didn’t have to – from the first kick of the ball to the final whistle, Airdrie were quite hopeless. It’s tricky to gauge either side’s performance from the match highlights but the Diamonds’ defending for the first and second goals in particular is utterly abject. Credit must go to Sean Dickson and Gary Smith for the quality of their finishing but they were abetted by astonishing ineptitude from their opposition.

With 13 games of the league campaign remaining, it’s difficult to tell whether or not Stenhousemuir have overcome their slump and can maintain their league position for the rest of the season. On Twitter, a number of players have pointed out the team is still in fourth place and have cautioned against panicking until the they slip out of the playoff places. The phrase “doing an Alloa”, however, has been quietly muttered by the more pessimistic of supporters.

While I would tend to agree with the players, Stenhousemuir’s loss of form over winter has been a cause for concern. The root cause of the slump is difficult to pinpoint, but I believe it can be attributed to the loss of form of several senior players:

Eric Paton, unarguably the finest midfielder in the division, has been unfit since the turn of the year and has struggled to exert his usual level of influence on Stenhousemuir’s play. Club captain Willie Lyle has suffered his worst run of form since his poor first season with the club and was directly culpable for Forfar’s winning goal in January (it could be argued, however, that Lyle has recovered his form and has performed steadily in the team’s last few matches); and Paul McHale has looked ineffective and has developed a tendency to drift in and out of games since returning from his foot injury in January.

Kevin McKinlay’s loss of form is perhaps the most perplexing. Since coming back from a shoulder injury in November, the player has been somewhat of a liability. Before his enforced absence, the former Morton fullback played with an arrogance and swagger, as if the whole affair was beneath him. When on form, his languid approach is a joy to watch, but of late, his lackadaisical style of play can be unnerving and he has often put his teammates under unnecessary pressure through carelessness. His witless performance in the defeat to Ross County was the worst I’d ever seen from a Stenhousemuir defender and his red card against Dumbarton for throwing the ball away was simply mindless. With Alan Lawson emerging from the U-19s as a credible challenger for the left fullback position, McKinlay’s place in the first team is uncertain.

That said: these are all good players. There is little doubt about their talent and I have little doubt they can recover their form and perform well for the remainder of the season.

Inverting The Pyramid: a must-read for any manager.

Manager Davie Irons also deserves a certain degree of criticism over the last two months. After the first game of the calendar year, a dismal 3-1 defeat against Stirling Albion, he was rumoured to have shouted something along the lines of “I cannot believe you lost to a team like that!” at his players. Stenhousemuir were overrun by a highly motivated Albion side and such a show of arrogance, especially after the loss, is quite shocking.

The Scottish Cup tie against Ross County was perhaps the nadir of his management of the club. Although Stenhousemuir were never likely to have prevailed in Dingwall, they were hamstrung by a highly unorthodox 3-1-4-1-1 formation. Even before Ross McMillan’s dismissal, the system was ruthlessly exposed time and time again by a talented Ross County side. His side have functioned at their best in a traditional 4-4-2 system - why he tampered with it and mangled it into something as bizarre as the 3-1-4-1-1, only Irons will know.

His tactics in the following match, a 3-2 home defeat to a lumbering Forfar Athletic side, were also questionable. Forfar’s defence consists of hulking defenders who struggle with pace - the approach should have been to utilise the ingenuity of McHale and Brown Ferguson to craft openings for the strikers. Instead, Lyle and McKinlay were encouraged to shell long, hopeful punts into the channels for Stewart Kean and Paul Quinn to run onto. It didn’t work and the opening 45 minutes were possibly the dullest at Ochilview this season. To his credit, Irons realised this and altered his tactics for the second half but his side were undone by some calamitous defending in the last ten minutes.

Since the defeat against Forfar, the manager has reverted to a traditional 4-4-2 formation with moderate success. The victories over East Fife and Airdrie were deserved and there was little he could have done to beat Dumbarton after two of his defenders had been sent off within 30 minutes.

There are also questions about the amount of time he actually spends at the club. Some of his players even joked about how he rarely attends training, with one of them referring to him as a “part-time part-timer” on Twitter. I noted a fortnight ago how he more or less handed all media commitments over to his assistant, Kevin McGoldrick. While Irons obviously has a strong relationship with McGoldrick and trusts his ability judgement, it is slightly alarming he isn't coaching his players during this difficult period in the season. There may be an entirely reasonable explanation for this - it just hasn't be clarified.

On Saturday, meanwhile, Stenhousemuir will host Arbroath. The last time the sides met at Ochilview, the visitors were beaten 2-0 with relative ease but since then, Arbroath have become a permanent fixture in second position in the league. Many expected Arbroath to challenge for a playoff place but under the tutelage of Paul Sheerin (surely the most exciting young manager in Scotland), they have exceeded expectations and blossomed into one of the finest sides in the division. They are entirely deserving of their lofty position. I would imagine Irons will persist with the same set of players that lost in Brechin on earlier in the week. With other midweek results going against the Warriors, a win at the weekend is crucial.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

A little prick.

Partick Thistle FC: hospitable.

Last night, I made a guest appearance on the Jagscast podcast before attending Partick Thistle’s 4-2 victory over Ayr United at Firhill. Jagscast is a Thistle supporters’ fanzine and one of the best Scottish football blogs available online. Erudite, insightful and quietly humorous, it is essential reading for anyone with an interest in the lower echelons of the SFL and ranks highly alongside the likes of Ross County Tactics and the defunct (and much-missed) Gable End Graffiti (and Who the hell is Akabusi?, of course).

Given the Jags are currently exploring the viability of installing a plastic pitch at Firhill and that Ochilview has recently become somewhat of a retirement home for former Thistle players before they’re finally melted down into glue (manager Davie Irons enjoyed spells at Partick Thistle as a player and as a coach, while almost a third of the current Stenhousemuir squad have connections with Firhill club: Eric Paton, Stevie Murray, Kevin McKinlay, Martyn Corrigan and Brown Ferguson are all erstwhile Jags, while midfielder Jamie Campbell is on-loan from Thistle until the end of the year), I was invited to appear on their weekly podcast and offer my "expert opinion" on both topics.

Instead of attending Stenhousemuir’s match against Brechin City (not only had I made plans to appear on the podcast, it was also logistically bothersome for me to have travelled to Glebe Park) I met with host Vinnie Ferguson and his wily troupe of regular contributors outside the ground before kick-off and after exchanging handshakes, we made our way to a small room tucked away at the back of the Jackie Husband Stand to record. There were children’s toys scattered around the room (one of the games that caught my attention was “Who’s Who?”, Asda’s thinly-disguised attempt to ape Hasbro’s popular Guess Who). Huddled around Vinnie’s mobile phone, we spoke our brains for half an hour before taking our seats in the stand.

The first half, in truth, was fairly abject. Other than Ayr's opening goal and the brief flashes of attacking flair from Michael Moffat and Michael McGowan, there was very little entertainment on show. It was also very, very cold. The rain swirled and bellowed across the pitch and on a number of occasions, blew into the stand, soaking those sitting closest to the pitch. Midway through the game, the same supporters moved en masse towards the back of the stand. Chewing on a Mars Bar at the interval, I rued my failure to bring a second pair of socks.

The second half was far more enterprising. Ayr United failed to build on their promising first half performance and sat deep, attempting to defend their lead and contain their hosts. They started the half far too narrow, and this allowed fullbacks Stephen O’Donnell and Aaron Sinclair to push forward and offer attractive attacking options on either flank, while midfielder David Rowson began to find teammates in promising pockets of space with some neat passes and with the hour mark approaching, Kris Doolan equalised with a snapshot from the edge of the area. The striker added a second ten minutes later with a deft, looping header before Paul Cairney’s penalty increased the home side’s advantage. McGowan crashed in a second goal for Ayr in the final minute but Cairney's assured finish in stoppage time ensured a fine Thistle win.

After the match, I converged on the concourse at the back of the stand with the rest of the podcast contributors. When pressed for my opinion on the game, I declared that Aaron Sinclair should have been voted Man of the Match and made a ludicrous comparison between the former Montrose fullback and former Arsenal captain Patrick Vieira. Dear me.

Walking home last night, I was worried I had sounded like a massive twat. Having listened to the podcast this evening, I’m delighted to hear I just sound like a bit of a twat.

Follow Jagscast on Twitter here.

Follow their charasmatic, David Koresh-like leader Vinnie Ferguson on Twitter here.

Monday, 13 February 2012

Stenhousemuir 1 - 2 Dumbarton

John Beaton: gamechanger.

BEATON BY THE BETTER SIDE: the headlines in the morning papers will record Stenhousemuir's fifth loss in six matches after their defeat to Dumbarton, but they won't explain how great an impact referee John Beaton had on the game. While blaming the match officials in the wake of a defeat is the last refuge of a scoundrel, in this instance, I am prepared to lay a significant portion of blame with Beaton.

The referee sent off Ross McMillan and Kevin McKinlay within 30 first half minutes before goals from Alan Lithgow and Bryan Prunty secured victory for the Sons. Gary Smith's fine strike proved to be little more than a consolation of the hosts. Dumbarton ran-out worthy winners but they were aided and abetted by Beaton's atrocious performance. Along with the dismissals, the official made a number of highly contentious decisions and infuriated the home support throughout the match.

Stenhousemuir made a number of changes to the side that defeated East Fife a fortnight ago. Ross McMillan and Michael Devlin, making his second debut for the club, were drafted into central defence while Sean Dickson started on the left of midfield. Paul McHale and Alan Lawson dropped to the bench and Stevie Murray missed out through injury.

The opening skirmishes between the teams were tentative as both sides struggled to gain an advantage. After ten minutes, Pat Walker scuttled onto Bryan Prunty’s flick but as he moved in on goal, he made slight contact with McMillan and fell to the ground. Beaton could barely wait to pull the red card from his pocket. With both Devlin and McKinlay covering, it seemed an appalling decision - a yellow card would have sufficed. At half-time, a tracksuited McMillan returned to the pitch, not to confront the referee, but to review the incident with Warriors TV.

Irons, furious with the decision, was also dismissed by Beaton. He spent the remainder of the game prowling along the front row of the Norway Stand, barking orders at his depleted side.

Fans may recall a 1-1 draw between the two sides in November 2008 where Stenhousemuir's Kevin Motion and then Dumbarton's Gary Wilson were dismissed with ten first half minutes for reckless tackles. Many expected Beaton to follow suite and send off James Creaney after the wingback thrashed his forearm across Brown Ferguson’s face as the pair challenged for a high ball but remarkably, the Dumbarton player escaped censure. Andy Rodgers and Martin McNiff received bookings for their remonstrations while Ferguson, completely star-spangled, left the pitch with the aid of the physiotherapist. He was replaced by Paul McHale.

Stenhousemuir were reduced to nine men after 30 minutes. Kevin McKinlay had already been cautioned for a cynical trip on Walker several minutes earlier when he conceded a contentious corner kick. McKinlay was unhappy with the decision. McKinlay was angry. McKinlay threw the ball away in disgust. Beaton had little choice but to dismiss the fullback. It was nothing more than an act of mindless stupidity.

With two players missing, the Stenhousemuir side reconfigured themselves into a quasi-3-4-1 formation. Dickson was shunted into the left-hand side of defence while Rodgers was withdrawn to the right of midfield, but a goal was inevitable. It arrived six minutes later when Alan Lithgow rose the highest to direct Mark Gilhaney’s corner into the net.

Bryan Prunty: advantage.

Prunty should have increased the lead moments later after Walker’s fine centre found him in space, but Ally Brown blocked the striker’s shot. The former Airdrie United forward made amends in first half stoppage time, sending a crude shot spinning off Devlin’s shins and beyond the goalkeeper.

Beaton brought the half to a close and left the pitch to a volley of abuse from the home support. Fearing a rout, a number of Warriors fans left the ground during the interval.

The rout never materialised. Dumbarton, as would have been expected from any team with such an advantage, were content to keep possession and moved the ball around the pitch with relative ease, but only a combination of outrageous profligacy and marvellous goalkeeping prevented them from scoring. It is no exaggeration to say Dumbarton could have score eight or nine goals had it not been for Ally Brown. Once again, he was tremendous.

Stenhousemuir did their best to contain the visitors but understandably, offered little potency in attack. Rodgers tested Grindlay twice, the first with a low drive after galloping past two defenders, the second with an audacious chip from 40 yards, but the goalkeeper saved both efforts with ease.

It wasn’t until the introduction of Gary Smith that Stenhousemuir began to threaten. Replacing the tiring Eric Paton with little over 20 minutes remaining, the Motherwell loanee immediately brought physicality and strength to the Warriors attack. Playing predominantly with his back to goal, the young striker linked well with Thomson, McHale and Kean, who dropped into a deeper position.

On 76 minutes, Smith collected Thomson’s pass and showing excellent technique, touched the ball beyond his marker and smashed a superb shot into the corner of the net. Smith was outstanding during his brief spell on the pitch. Although the player must improve his aerial ability (he failed to offer a significant challenge to any high ball slung in his direction), his supporters may be correct – when the ball’s played into his feet, he looks "the real deal".

Smith’s goal roused the home support but Stenhousemuir were unable to find an equaliser and failed to trouble Grindlay's goal again.

Beaton left the pitch accompanied by several stewards as the home support converged on the tunnel. In eight years supporting the Warriors, I have never seen the same level of rancour and resentment directed at a referee. His performance throughout the match was quite extraordinary. Petty, pernickety, and myopic, it was one of the worst pieces of officiating I’ve ever seen and one of the very few times I’ve believed a referee to have some sort of genuine grievance against the club and its players. At one point during the first half, he even booked Willie Lyle for kicking the goalpost.

Davie Irons: belligerent.

Although Beaton rankled throughout, both Kevin McKinlay and Davie Irons should take long, hard looks at themselves. McKinlay’s show of petulance was utterly pathetic, especially when his team were already handicapped. I hope he is disciplined by the club.

However: how can anyone expect the players to maintain a high level of discipline when the manager cannot be trusted to do the same? In almost every game this season, Irons has bickered and argued with officials. This was the first time he’s been sent to the stand this year and, to be honest, I’m surprised it hasn’t happened sooner. I was astonished by those that applauded him as he left the pitch. His consolatory pat-on-the-back for McKinlay as he trudged off the field of play was also quite incredible. The player deserved censure, not relief.

Despite the defeat, Stenhousemuir should be proud of their performance. Ally Brown, Iain Thomson and Stewart Kean in particular can take spirit from their industrious and tenacious showing, especially during a trying second half. That said, any doubt that the league was anything other than a two-horse race can surely now be eradicated. With both Cowdenbeath and Arbroath winning, the gap between the sides is surely too great to overcome, barring some form of major collapse. Stenhousemuir must ensure they finish the season in a playoff place.

A more pressing concern is the fact Dumbarton are now level on points with Stenhousemuir having played a game less. They travel to ninth-place Forfar tomorrow night and, should they avoid defeat, will overtake the Warriors. Given the level of support they have from Scotland's referees, nothing less would be expected from them. As one Dumbarton supporter joked on Pie and Bovril: “Our player of the year award must be heading the way of the referees, by far our most consistent performer all season.”

Stenhousemuir: Brown; Lyle, McMillan, Devlin, McKinlay; Ferguson (McHale 16), Paton (Smith 67), Thomson, Dickson; Kean, Rodgers (Campbell 72). Subs not used: Diamond, Lawson.

Dumbarton: Grindlay; Finnie, Nugent, Lithgow; Creaney (Graham 62), McNiff, Gilhaney, Agnew; Walker (Lamont 62), Prunty. Subs not used: Gastal, Borris, Kennedy.

Friday, 10 February 2012

Michael Devlin returns...

Michael Devlin: Jesus.

Michael Devlin will return to Stenhousemuir until the end of the season on an emergency loan deal from Hamilton Academical.

The 18-year-old defender previously played for the Warriors last year after joining the club on loan in mid-March. Devlin quickly became an important figure at the club and was arguably as vital as Eric Paton in helping Stenhousemuir avoid relegation. In a series of commanding performances, the unquestionable highlight was his last-minute winning header in a 2-1 victory over Ayr United.

Strong, mature and intelligent, the defender has a bright future ahead of him and is surely one of the finest young players in the SFL. His signing is certainly manager Davie Irons' most positive transfer this calander year.

With Martyn Corrigan expected to miss the rest of the season through injury, Devlin is likely come straight into tomorrow’s squad for the game against Dumbarton and partner Ross McMillan in central defence.

The club has also annnounced Grant Plenderleith's departure from Ochilview. The young forward has been loaned to Bo'ness United for the remainder of the season. Plenderleith spent the second half of last term on loan at the Junior club and, by all accounts, was a relative success.

I doubt the player has any future under Irons. Despite the manager praising the forward and declaring he would make a strong impact throughout the season, Plenderleith has rarely featuring in matchday squads and is often consigned to the stand. As discussed at length in previous articles, the decision to allow him to leave the club while limited replacements like Jamie Campbell are drafted in is still a source of consternation.

Regardless: I wish Grant the very best for the duration of his loan spell.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Fortunate Sons.

From the vaults: this must have been from the 2008-2009
season. It was one of the few photos that came up in a Google
search for "Stenny Dumbarton". BJO's just decked someone.

Before I begin today’s analysis of the forthcoming match between Stenhousemuir and Dumbarton, I feel as though I should prefix it with a warning. There’s something that isn’t quite right here. I generally pride myself on my knowledge of the teams and the players in the lower echelons on the SFL but on this occasion, I have a confession to make:

I don’t know much about Dumbarton.

Yes. I sound like Alan Shearer or Mark Lawrenson as they lazily sit astride the Match of the Day sofa, casting ignorant aspersions over players and teams I have little more than a base knowledge of, throwing around dunderheaded clichés and poorly thought-out, poorly constructed trivia and offering nothing more than hot air, arrogance and awful, awful shirts.

Yes. The reason I feel unqualified to discuss the current Dumbarton team is because I haven’t seen them in action since October. In the last meeting between Stenhousemuir and the Sons at Ochilview, the Warriors prevailed 3-1 with relative ease. A fine strike from Andy Rodgers and a Ross McMillan brace secured the victory. Dumbarton played poorly throughout the match, only flickering to life in the final minutes when Scott Agnew’s sweet freekick reduced arrears. They seemed unable to cope with the pace of the home side and failed to deal with even the most rudimentary set-pieces. Even early on in the season, it looked as though Dumbarton would spend the rest of the campaign gently bobbing around the bottom of the table and trying to stave off relegation.

Since the match however, the Sons have crept up the table and without anyone really noticing, they’ve snuck into the playoff spots. Alan Adamson’s side have quietly blindsided everyone and over the last eight weeks, they have transformed themselves from also-rans into genuine playoff contenders. Dumbarton have won their last three consecutive matches, beating Arbroath, Brechin and Airdrie and have amassed 28 points after 19 games. They’ve played one less game than Stenhousemuir and sit three points behind them.

Despite their lofty league position, their side looks, on paper at least, to be a workmanlike and functional one. Alan Lithgow is a solid, burly defender and Scott Agnew is a tricky player, offering guile and incision from central midfield but other than that, their squad is a mish-mash of unremarkable players cast-off from other SFL clubs and graduates from their U-19 squad. Other than the leggy midfielder Kevin Nicoll who misses out through suspension, Dumbarton have a full squad to call upon.

Des McKeown: a trendsetter.

As for Stenhousemuir, meanwhile, I can only say for certain that Martyn Corrigan (currently on crutches with a ruptured Achilles) and Stevie Murray (last seen leaving Ochilview in an ambulance with a dislocated elbow) will be absent from Saturday’s game. I speak with authority on this subject because I had to ask one of our players via Twitter. While the club’s official website readily provides information about the U-19s and their community programmes, there is never any news about first team's selection and availability.

When I first started following Stenhousemuir in 2004, access to this sort of information was readily available. Then-manager Des McKeown was always open and accessible about injuries and communicated through fans via his Dialogue with Des column on the club's website. Since McKeown’s departure, the fans have rarely been given the same level of communication with the machinations of the first team. Davie Irons is rarely available, regularly handing media commitments to his assistant, Kevin McGoldrick, while the otherwise excellent Warriors TV no longer provides post-match interviews.

Several months ago, I suggested the club introduce something similar to the old Dialogue with Des, something along the lines of Intimate with Irons (alliteration is always important in these instances) but the idea was met with indifference (some people bizarrely claimed that opposition managers would use these interviews as a base on which to set up their teams to beat Stenhousemuir). Fans are instead left to through pick through second-hand reports for information about the first team. “I was playing fives up at Ochilview last night and I saw...” or “I was speaking to one of the coaches and they told me...” is often how I regularly keep abreast of news coming from the club. While I appreciate the process of attending the Thursday night training session and writing and filing this information takes time and can only come from the work of dedicated volunteers, it’s frustrating to have to wait until 2.45pm on a Saturday afternoon to learn whether or not Eric Paton’s starting the match.

Alan Lawson: I have the feeling this picture may
have been Photoshopped at some point.

As for the way the team will line-up on Saturday, it’s pure speculation on my part. In an orthodox 4-4-2 formation, Irons will need to reconfigure his defence once again. Ross McMillan is set to return having missed the match against East Fife and will likely partner Kevin McKinlay in central defence while Iain Thomson, who deputised at the back in the win against the Fifers, is perhaps the obvious candidate to drop to the bench. Alan Lawson, the standout player from last fortnight’s win, and captain Willie Lyle should continue in the fullback positions. Ally Brown will probably retain his place in goal.

Meanwhile in midfield, Sean Dickson may replace Murray on the left flank, Brown Ferguson will play on the on the right, and Paul McHale and Eric Paton should keep their places in the middle of the park. Stewart Kean and Andy Rodgers will continue in attack. Loan signings Jamie Campbell and Gary Smith will probably make an appearance from the bench at some point.

Stenhousemuir have enjoyed reasonable success over Dumbarton at Ochilview over the last few years but Saturday’s game will be one of the Warriors’ biggest challenges this season. A win would re-establish the team’s playoff credentials and shrug off concerns about their current form; a defeat will allow could Dumbarton and potentially Airdrie and East Fife close the narrowing gap between the sides and ultimately put Cowdenbeath and Arbroath beyond Stenhousemuir’s reach.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

My Dinner with Jackie.

Jackie McNamara: like Frost/Nixon, but better.

If you’ve been paying attention to the handful of posts on this blog over the last few months, you’ll have noticed that several articles have concerned themselves with the young players Davie Irons has brought to the club on loan. You’ll have noticed that instead of offering any comment or explanation on Stenhousemuir’s dismal slump in form over the Christmas period, this blog has focused on providing a withering analysis of Gary Smith’s 20 minute cameo against East Fife.

I’m sure you’ll be delighted to know today’s piece follows a similar pattern. As part of an assignment for University, I was tasked with reporting from a press conference at Firhill yesterday afternoon. Partick Thistle were unveiling of a new shirt sponsor following their previous backer's administration last month. The deal, I was told, was designed to plug the financial shortfall until the end of the season.

Before leaving for Firhill, I spent 15 minutes drafting a series of questions for manager Jackie McNamara and club captain Alan Archibald: are you happy with the new sponsorship deal? Will it allow you access to the resources to bring in new players? Do you have any opinion on Gary Bollan’s dismissal from Livingston? How do you think their players will respond to his sacking, is that likely to alter the way you approach the game? Do you believe your side can still launch a bid for promotion, or will you be spending the rest of the season consolidating?

As I walked from the city centre to Maryhill, I thought that the press conference might also provide me with the opportunity to ask the management about Shaun Fraser and Jamie Campbell, two of their youth players sent out on loan to Stenhousemuir. Fraser was fairly dismal in his three appearances, while Campbell has toiled and failed to impose himself on the side. Since Irons has failed to offer any sort of comment on how he feels either player assimilated into his current set up or how their introduction has benefitted the team and their bid for promotion, I felt obligated to at least press McNamara for his opinion on the two loan deals.

I arrived at Firhill’s Aitken Suite in the early afternoon and took my place amongst the small number of assembled press. One of them included an undergraduate student from the same course as mine (Dougie - your company was excellent). A banner with the words Just Employment Law (JEL) hung from the wall. Several shirts were draped over the top table with the JEL logo emblazoned across their chest. JEL will be the club’s new sponsors, then.

Aaron Sinclair: pictured moments after learning he would be
forced to don judicial garb for a PR opportunity.

Earlier in the day, one Thistle fan told me over Twitter to expect a press conference “with a twist”. The twist, it transpired, involved players Aaron Sinclair and Jonathon Black wearing barrister's wigs and judicial robes during the announcement. Both players looked quietly embarrassed as they flanked McNamara, Alan Archibald and a troupe of directors from the club and JEL while they took their seats at the main table.

After the new sponsorship was unveiled, McNamara, Archibald and the directors moved outside onto the Firhill pitch for photo opportunities. After a series of traditional photos (McNamara holding the shirt; McNamara posing with the directors), the photographers began to demand something slightly more unorthodox. They attempted to coax McNamara into a number of different positions with Sinclair and Black, still in their judicial garb. “Put your hands on their heads and play with the wigs, Jackie,” implored one photographer.

“I’m not comfortable with that,” replied McNamara sheepishly.

I spoke with Greg Brown, Thistle’s director and David McRae, MD of JEL about the sponsorship and the opportunity to extend the deal beyond the season. Both were friendly and open and happy to talk to me about the importance of securing the club’s short-term finances. I was then given the opportunity to speak with McNamara himself.

We returned to the Aitken Suite. McNamara spoke quietly in dull newspeak, his answers rarely rising above the mundane. For example, when asked about Bollan’s dismissal, he answered: “I don’t know about the ins and outs at Livingston. I’m just concentrating on my job here. I thought he did a good job when he was there and I wish him all the best.” In all honesty, it was the sort of thing I could have written without even interviewing him, picking his words from a stockpile of bland phrases spouted by footballers.

McNamara also spoke about his plans to bring a loan signing of his own from Hibernian (erstwhile Stenhousemuir loanee Sean Welsh) and his disappointment at his team’s inability to score and how he was going about addressing the problem. Then came my chance.

Jackie – can you tell about the guys you’ve sent on-loan to Stenhousemuir this season? Were you happy with the deals? How have they been performing? Are you happy with the reports you’ve had back about them?

“One’s went to Stenhousemuir, that’s Jamie Campbell, he’s played two games so far” he said. “Johnny Lindsay’s went away to Brechin to get experience. He’s not played yet, he’s not made an appearance.

“These two lads have got another year with us after this season, so hopefully they’ll come back with a wee bit of experience, albeit at a slightly lower division. It’s experience that’s valuable to us.

“They’re both at their clubs until the end of the season.

“We’ve got a few loan players in from the SPL - that helps us in the long-run and helps their teams as well. Hopefully we can get that benefit when they come back as well."

I tried to twist my line of questions to focus on Stenhousemuir and the two players he sent to Ochilview. What have the reports been like? Have you been pleased with what Davie Irons has told you about Jamie Campbell?

“Shaun’s only...” McNamara started before correcting himself. “Jamie’s only played two games, I think.

“The first game was against Ross County in the Cup,” he continued, incorrectly. “They got a doing and one of their players got sent off, so it’s been hard to judge him so far.

“I think once it all settles down for the run-in, it’ll be good for us to get them watched and see how they’re performing.”

I didn’t take my questions any further. There didn’t seem any point. McNamara didn’t really want to be there and I didn’t really want to keep him. In truth, it seemed like an opportunity missed.

Shaun Fraser: the real heart of darkness.

As I walked back to University to file my report, I felt quite angry with myself. I didn’t learn anything new about the players other than the length of Jamie Campbell’s loan agreement. I should have asked him about Shaun Fraser’s short spell with the club and if he felt the player benefitted from the experience; I should have found out more about his long-term plans for both Fraser and Campbell; I should have asked him about his relationship with Davie Irons and Stenhousemuir and if there are any plans to develop stronger ties between the two clubs in the future.

But I didn’t. Instead, I pitched my own series of anodyne questions and got back a series of anodyne answers in return. Reading back what I’ve written, I really have no right to complain about McNamara’s replies when my questions were equally as uninteresting.

Despite this, there are several positives I can take from yesterday’s press conference. While the conference itself may have been fairly low-key, the whole experience was worthwhile. Jackie McNamara may have been fairly dull, but it was a genuine thrill to interview one of the most underrated Scottish fullbacks of the last 20 years. Additionally, I learned the importance of pushing the line of questions that I wanted to ask and of being confident in myself. Remember: if you don’t ask, you don’t get. David Frost didn’t topple Richard Nixon by delicately skirting around the issues.

But, perhaps most pleasing of all, the finest thing to come out of the entire day, the most crucial thing I learned at from my first press conference, is the knowledge that we can all enjoy Jamie Campbell’s marauding runs down the right flank from now until the end of the season.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Gary Smith: all muscle, no hustle.

Gary Smith: welcome to Stenhousemuir.

Stenhousemuir's 1-0 victory over East Fife at Ochilview on Saturday was the club’s first in over seven weeks and arrested a dire run of form (four consecutive defeats in all competitions), the worst since Davie Irons took charge last December.

The match itself was fairly unremarkable (East Fife will count themselves terribly unlucky not to have taken something from the game – only wasteful finishing and adroit goalkeeping from Ally Brown prevented them from scoring), but it marked Gary Smith’s first appearance for the club.

Smith was brought to Stenhousemuir on loan from Motherwell for an initial one-month period. The striker has featured four times for the Steelmen's first team and spent a short spell on loan at Dumbarton last season, making seven appearances (his tenure with the Sons was unsuccessful: not only did Smith fail to score, but Dumbarton failed to win any of the games he featured in). The Warriors website says his signing "will add much needed height to our forward line and will hopefully help us get back to winning ways".

The news of Smith's signing was met with trepidation. Over the last three or four years, Stenhousemuir have recruited a handful of players on loan from Motherwell but not one of them managed to make a substantial impact at Ochilview. Adam Coakley’s sole performance came in a 4-0 home defeat to Albion Rovers and was perhaps one of the most ineffectual displays I’ve ever seen. Shaun Fagan was a thoroughly average midfielder and made four thoroughly average performances before skulking back to Fir Park while Darren Smith may have been a promising forward at some point, but he showed very little to suggest he was once a player of rich potential.

Furthermore, given that Irons’ loan signings this season have also proved questionable (Shaun Fraser was a dismal failure and Jamie Campbell has added little to Stenhousemuir’s midfield since joining from Partick Thistle at the turn of the year), expectations for Smith were set fairly low.

At Saturday's game, a group of four men were sitting behind me in the Norway Stand. I hadn't seen them at Ochilview before and they didn’t seem all that interested in the action played out in front of them - instead, they preferred to talk throughout the match about Rangers' transfer dealings and their impending tax case in thick Glaswegian accents.

Stevie Murray: sore yin.

With little over 20 minutes of play remaining, Smith replaced the stricken Stevie Murray (the winger left the ground in an ambulance after suffering a dislocated elbow). Tall and strapping, as Smith made his way onto the pitch I remarked: “Well, he certainly looks the part.”

One of the men sitting behind me heard what I had said and barked back: “Hoi – this boy is the part!” It dawned on me that the group must have been members of Smith’s family and friends.

The forward spent his time generally ambling around the pitch with little purpose. As East Fife pinned Stenhousemuir deep into their half, the home side became more and more panicky and began thumping long clearances to alleviate the pressure. Rather than offer a genuine aerial challenge to Steven Campbell and David White, Smith gently leapt in the general direction of any high balls with little or no conviction.

“They’re not playing balls into his feet! What’s all this long-ball pish? Get it into his feet!” shouted one of the party behind me. I looked incredulous. Regardless of the fact Smith may prefer the ball played into his feet, a player with his physique and athleticism should at least be skilled in winning aerial duels and tussling and scrapping with opposition defenders for possession. Having already played in the Second Division with Dumbarton, he should already be experienced in dealing with the gritty style of the league.

After all, this was presumably the reason manager Davie Irons opted to bring the player to the club. Stewart Kean and Andy Rodgers have both performed well this season but neither player poses a genuine physical threat to attack high balls (although with talented players like Murray, Eric Paton and Paul McHale, one might argue that Stenhousemuir really shouldn’t need to play long balls unless circumstance truly dictates it). If Smith cannot offer this additional dimension to the Warriors’ forward line, Irons would have been as well retaining Paul Quinn.

In the final minutes of the match, Kean’s doggedness caused confusion in the Fifers’ defence and the forward flicked the ball into the path of Smith. He galloped towards the goal and was one-on-one with the goalkeeper. The crowd rose to their feet. Smith shaped to shoot but hit a tame effort straight into the arms of the sprawling Michael Brown. “He should have put the laces right through it,” grumbled one of the men behind me.

As the referee drew the game to its conclusion and the fans dispersed from the stands, a member from Smith’s party attempted to mitigate for his tepid showing. “He wasn’t at his best because he wasn’t on from the start,” the man said to another. “It’s difficult to come into a game and make a difference. Wait til next week when he plays from the start, then we’ll see.”

Scott Dalziel: it still just doesn't look right, does it?

Contrast Smith’s contribution to that of Scott Dalziel. The erstwhile Warrior replaced an ineffectual Steven Hislop (just shortly before Smith made his debut, as it happens) and instantly brought a far greater degree of threat to East Fife’s frontline. Before the striker’s introduction, Iain Thomson and Kevin McKinlay repelled the Fifer’s attacks with little fuss, but Dalziel's muscular and bustling style of play caused a certain level of panic to the Stenhousemuir defence. His ability to challenge high balls and hold play up made his side infinitely more potent.

For me certainly, Dalziel’s departure from the club is still a source of disappointment. Following his transfer from Cowdenbeath in January 2008, the striker quickly became one of the most popular players at Stenhousemuir and his absence is still keenly felt, particularly over those difficult winter months. Hard-working, selfless and a genuine attacking threat, Dazzler would have been the ideal attacker to compliment the finesse of Rodgers and the tenacity of Kean. One wonders if more could have been done to retain him for another season.

Gary Smith certainly has the attributes to succeed at Stenhousemuir and despite his bloodless debut, I genuinely believe he can make a positive contribution to the team. What he (and his supporters) need to appreciate, however, is the nature of the football in the Second Division: it can be very, very ugly. Smith may prefer neat passes into his feet but he must realise that, for the best part, he’ll be forced to use his strength and physique to win long balls and bring his teammates into play. At least he's already achieved what the club website said he would do.

On Saturday, The Warriors travel to Albion Rovers. The last time the sides met at Cliftonhill, it finished in a 1-1 stalemate (it was a game Stenhousemuir should have won the game - Rodgers should have added to Murray’s opening strike before Larry Acqua’s late equaliser). Rovers are on a rotten run of form and have lost their previous five league fixtures. With Ross McMillan to return from injury and Eric Paton hopefully fully-fit after his sickness, Stenhousemuir should approach the match with a certain degree of confidence and will be looking to build on the weekend's victory.

Just as long as the ball's played into Gary Smith's feet, of course.