Sunday, 22 April 2012

Stenhousemuir 2 - 1 Brechin City

Prince: if there's anything to do with 1999, expect a lazy
reference to Prince. I apologise profusely.

Tonight I’m gonna party like it’s 1999,” sang Prince. And he had good reason to: for the first time in 13 years, Stenhousemuir have beaten Brechin City in a league tie. Until yesterday’s 2-1 victory, the last time Stenhousemuir had defeated the Glebe Park side was on the 8th May 1999 when a solitary strike from Ross “Slippers” Hamilton was enough to secure the win. It is also perhaps worth noting that the last time Stenhousemuir beat Brechin, they won promotion.

Goals from Iain Thomson and Grant Anderson secured a deserved victory for the Warriors. Jim Lister’s late consolation provided a nervy finish but the result was rarely in doubt. Stenhousemuir have consolidated fifth place and sit tied on 48 points with Airdrie United in fourth and East Fife in sixth with only goal difference separating the sides. The match was also the first time the club have won back-to-back matches since November.

Stenhousemuir began the game brightly and comfortably moved the ball around the park. Eric Paton and Brown Ferguson were heavily involved in the team's fluid passing but the Warriors were at their most dangerous down the right flank through Nicky Devlin. His willingness to attack Brechin's left fullback Mick Dunlop was central to his team's impressive start and directly led to the game's opening goal.

Iain Thomson: the catalyst.

On 17 minutes, Devlin crashed down the right flank beyond Dunlop and zipped a low ball across the face of the goal. Despite Ewan Moyes’ best efforts to clear, the ball landed at Iain Thomson at the edge of the area and the midfielder drilled a fine first-time drive low into the net. Later in the half, Thomson and Grant Anderson both had excellent chances to increase the lead moments later but Gary Fusco produced two astonishing goalline clearances to block their shots.

Brechin, meanwhile, offered little throughout the first half. Craig Molloy drove a decent shot wide of goal but apart from that, they looked bereft of craft and invention, particularly in attack. There appeared to be little understanding between strikers David McKenna and Rory McKenzie and the pair were arguably the visitors poorest performers. Ross McMillan and Michael Devlin are unlikely to have an easier afternoon.

Stenhousemuir’s performance throughout the second half lacked the urgency of the first but they were still able to contain Brechin well and on the hour mark, they doubled their advantage. Thomson’s pass should have been cut out by Buist but the defender contrived to allow it to run underneath him and into the path of Grant Anderson. Anderson needed three touches: the first brought the ball under control; the second took it beyond Nelson; the third prodded it into the net.

The Warriors seemed content to sit on their two-goal cushion and see the game out but Jim Lister's goal in the 82nd minute ensured a nervy finish. Carcary gathered the ball on the right flank and hurtled towards the penalty box. Ally Brown’s decision to sprint from his line to block him appeared ill-judged as Carcary’s cross spun underneath his body and into the path of substitute Jim Lister. The hulking forward hooked the ball into the corner of the net.

In the closing minutes of the match, Anderson’s afternoon was abruptly ended when he was knocked unconscious after challenging a high ball with Fusco. The winger collapsed in a heap on the ground, prostrate, his eyes rolling back in his head. A hush fell over the ground as St John’s Ambulance prepared a stretcher but the player regained full consciousness a minute later. Referee Des Roache, who had been excellent throughout, brought the game to its conclusion moments later.

Nicky Devlin: great expectations.

The victory was entirely deserved. Stenhousemuir’s performance throughout spells of the first half were impressive and reminiscent of the high standards set at the beginning of the season. Eric Paton appears to have shaken off his lurgy and looks fitter and more dynamic now than at any point this calendar year. Iain Thomson, surely the outstanding candidate for the club's Player of the Year, hassled and harried Brechin's Craig Molloy and nulified his impact on the game. Stewart Kean also deserves credit for his performance. His doggedness and tenacity constantly unsettled Moyes and Buist and it may have even been his finest game for Stenhousemuir.

By some distance, however, Stenhousemuir’s most eye-catching player was Nicky Devlin. The 18-year-old Motherwell loanee was direct, energetic and physical and his run and cross for Thomson’s opening goal was the highlight of the match. Devlin is unarguably one of the most exciting loan players I’ve seen at Stenhousemuir and undoubtedly has a very bright future ahead of him. It is difficult to imagine Willie Lyle playing again this season while Devlin is at the club.

Jim Weir: in happier times.

While the Warriors fully merited their victory, this was the most disappointing Brechin side I had seen since the club won promotion to the Second Division in 2009. Traditionally, the Glebe Park side are replete with footballers who combine physicality with technique and ability, but this year’s vintage are vastly inferior to anything Stenhousemuir have faced in the past. In the build up to the match the phrase "we've never been a better chance to beat them" had been banded around in some quarters. Brechin were dominated across the pitch.

Predictions at the start of the season that Brechin would finish the league in a strong position appear to have been grossly misjudged. Manager Jim Weir, who has remarkably been offered terms for next season, has made a number of poor signings over the couse of the year and failed to take a promising set of players forward. While Paul McManus and Garry Brady can be considered successes, players like Derek Carcary (a peripheral figure throughout his spell with Dumbarton) and Graham Weir (a notoriously hardworking but accutely limited striker) have failed. Coupled with the additions of David McClune, Mick Dunlop and Jim Lister, all relegated with Alloa Athletic last season, and Weir has flooded his squad with average players. In hindsight, it’s little surprise Brechin that are treading water in mid-table. The loss of Rory McAllister has perhaps been more keenly felt than many would care to admit.

Brechin are widely considered to be one of the best-run clubs in the SFL but according to reports on Pie and Bovril, there is unrest and disharmony between senior staff and supporters. The thread, simply entitled WTF, claims that Chairman Ken Ferguson allegedly grabbed a young fan by the throat during a heated exchange last week. The 20-odd Brechin fans in the Tryst Road end made an impressive racket throughout the match and surely deserved better than the performance their team put out in front of them.

John Coughlin: win the playoffs and you will be treated like Jesus.

Warriors supporters can now approach next weekend’s game against Arbroath with a sense of cautious optimism. There have been encouraging signs in the last fortnight that Stenhousemuir have the capabilities to return to the playoff places, while Arbroath are left with nothing to play for, having guaranteed a second place finish. Stenhousemuir have a reasonably poor record against Arbroath and even if manager Paul Sheerin does decide to play his fringe players in a bid to keep his squad fresh for the playoffs, they cannot be taken lightly.

Most eyes, however, will be on the game between Airdrie United and East Fife at New Broomfield. Without a doubt, this is the most crucial game in determining who finishes in the playoff places. From a Stenhousemuir perspective, the game would ideally finish as a draw but the Warriors must win their remaining fixtures to ensure they they finish in fourth place. Then who knows? Maybe we can party like it's 1999, or maybe even 2009 again.

STENHOUSEMUIR: Brown; Nicky Devlin, Michael Devlin, McMillan, McKinlay; Ferguson, Paton, Thomson, Anderson (Dickson 89), Kean, Rodgers. Subs not used: Shaw, Deuchar, Campbell, Murray.

BRECHIN CITY: Nelson; Fusco, Buist, Moyes, Dunlop; Crawford (Lister 58), Molloy, Brady, Hodge; McKenna (Carcary 69), McKenzie (King 89). Subs not used: Scott, Lindsay.

Friday, 20 April 2012

Good day to you, Paul McHale.

Paul McHale: good day, good sir.

Paul McHale’s disappointing spell with Stenhousemuir was unexpectedly cut short last night after the player was instructed by manager Davie Irons to "stay away" from the club for the remainder of the season. The Warriors released a brief statement on their website confirming he would not return to Ochilview following a discussion between both parties at training last night.

Before the club published their statement, McHale appeared to have announced his departure over Twitter. With several players chattering about the evening's training session, McHale tweeted a number them, including club captain Willie Lyle and Andy Rodgers, the words: “Was a pleasure lads”. Sean Dickson replied, saying: “All the best bro! Sad day. Keep in touch! #uscdiscounts”. One fan directly tweeted McHale asking if he had left the club. He didn’t respond.

The reasons behind Irons’ decision have not yet been made clear and until someone from Stenhousemuir can confirm why McHale has effectively been expelled from the club, supporters will be left to pick through an assortment of Twitter and Facebook comments from the player and speculate as to what had happened at last night's training.

Throughout the season, McHale has seemed to use social media as a way of expressing his frustration at how he was being managed at Stenhousemuir. For example, during the opening game of the league campaign against Brechin City, McHale spent most of the game on the bench and was introduced with 16 minutes remaining. The next day, he wrote on Twitter: “My anger over yesterday still hasn't passed, going to the gym then few magners watching football.”

Later in the year, after he was left on the bench in the 3-1 defeat at Stirling Albion in the New Year, he wrote on a Facebook conversation between a handful of players: “Was a good night mate, flew in though. Yeah buzzing for the dingwall journey. Few choice words at training tomorrow.”

“McHale you are an angry boy I thought I was bad but you could take the title lol,” replied a teammate.

“For good reason,” asserted McHale.

My own theory behind his expulsion is quite simple. McHale, unhappy with his peripheral role with the club (his last appearance for Stenhousemuir was almost a month ago, in the 2-1 home defeat to Albion Rovers), voiced his concerns with Irons and after a frank exchange of views (possibly with the player questioning his manager's ability, I don't know), he was told, in no uncertain terms, not to return to the club. This notion may be a little simplistic, but given the two examples above, it seems entirely plausible.

McHale’s departure, purely from a playing perspective, is of little consequence. The majority of fans would have selected him as “first out the door” come the end of the season. Despite a reasonably promising start for the club (his performance in the 3-1 victory over Cowdenbeath was quite fantastic), his season was disrupted by poor fitness and poor form. A fine player with the ball at his feet but utterly ineffectual without it, he would drift through games offering the team virtually nothing. Teammates Iain Thomson and Brown Ferguson may lack his finesse and range of passing but they could never be accused of hiding. McHale cowered from his defensive responsibilities and rarely contested 50/50 challenges. His absence will not be mourned.

Perhaps more concerning is that McHale’s departure suggests a divisive dressing room at Stenhousemuir. The club still have an outside chance of finishing the campaign in the playoff positions and can ill-afford such disruptions. Are darker forces at work here? Has Irons "lost the dressing room"? Or is he weeding out troublemakers and strengthening his own position? Goalkeeper Chris McCluskey (who described Irons as “the biggest cunt in football” to one supporter after the Scottish Cup tie with Ross County) was quietly released from his contract last week with little fuss. If Irons is still the manager for next season, his movements over the summer will be of great interest.

It may be of little consequence, but the last player who was told to “stay away” from the club was Colin Cramb. Cramb was told to never come back to Ochilview by Des McKeown after an infamous 3-0 defeat to Berwick Rangers at Shielfield Park. After apparently apparently feigning injury, he was substituted and instead of watching the remainder of the match, he nipped into the nearby social club to watch the Grand National. Many fans lamented Cramb’s expulsion – he was, on form, an extraordinary player and one of the best to have played at Stenhousemuir in recent years – but few will feel the same way towards Paul McHale.