|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.
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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.
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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.