Sunday, 17 July 2011

Walk on the wild side.

Pat Scullion: upsetting.

I must start this post by apologising for the lack of activity on Who the hell is Akabusi? over the last week or so. Given that there has been very little to write about since we were defeated by Annan Athletic last weekend (the dour 1-1 draw with Berwick Rangers on Tuesday night was so breathtakingly tedious that I could barely muster the required enthusiasm to make any sort of comment, no matter how meagre it may have been) and that my evenings have been consumed by a rather crucial game I have running in Football Manager 2010, I've had scant time to commit my thoughts to paper.

This sunny Sunday afternoon, however, I've found myself with some free time on my hands. Rather than spend the day with my best friends in a beer garden somewhere, swapping lascivious tales of sexual conquests and rambunctious nights out in local in nightclubs, I've decided to write an article on Stenhousemuir FC. I could have spent the afternoon out running or playing five-a-sides or indulging in some form of exercise in bid to curtail my gut from becoming as large as Ireland. Before the Christmas period, I spent over £150 on buying three Fred Perry polo t-shirts and rather optimistically, I purchased them in the boutique medium-slim size. At the time, even before I began to develop this cute lil' A-cup chest of mine, I required the help of two people and a large specially designed plastic device that resembled a giant shoehorn just to help me fit into them. Seven months later and given that I'm beginning to resemble the inside of a large, fleshy lava lamp, the t-shirts now fester somewhere in the back of my cupboard while my over-sized smocks, ponchos and joggie-bottoms (all purchased online from Jacomo, of course) are now worn with such regulairty that I could easily be mistaken in the local supermarket for a contestant from The Biggest Loser. No, instead I'll commit my bigoted and addled scribblings on my football club to a little-read internet blog. I had even thought about writing something nice for my girlfriend, a letter or a funny e-mail, full of smiley faces and the "<3" symbol. She's still enjoying herself in Mauritius, if you were wondering. Her correspondence is becoming less frequent and more vague but by all accounts, it seems like she's having a wonderful time. She says that she's made some really good friends with some cracking guys called Darnell, Shaun, Jamal, Andre, Jermaine, Casey, Tyrone, Trevon and DeShaw. They sound like a good bunch. She even commented that one of them had "really big fingers". I'm not entirely sure how she made this discovery, it was probably through playing frisbee with him or something though... Forget all that, instead of finding out what she's been up to, it would be far more worthwhile to discuss the dreadful hash that Stenhousemuir have made of their four pre-season games.

The statistics make for dismal reading. In four games against opposition from the Third Division, Stenhousemuir have failed to register a win. Against teams that finished fourth, sixth, eighth and tenth last season, the Warriors have lost two matches and drew the others, scoring a paltry three goals and conceding seven. Yesterday's 1-1 stalemate against Clyde made for a depressing spectacle. The inability to beat a Bully Wee side consisting of just three signed players, several trialists and a central defensive pairing of Pat Scullion and Craig Tully is possibly the nadir of the pre-season friendlies. I have little confidence in Davie Irons' squad for the season ahead and while the optimists and the freewheelers may raise their hackles, roll their eyes at me, tut loudly and say, Oh for goodness sake! Come on man, it's only friendly games! They count for absolutely nothing!, this has probably been the most dire series of pre-season matches I've seen since I've started watching Stenhousemuir in 2004. Rival teams have had impressive showings in their friendlies: Cowdenbeath thrashed a fringe Spartans side 9-0; East Fife played very well despite losing 3-1 to Hibernian at New Bayview; Brechin City have drawn with both Dunfermline and Kilmarnock. Stenhousemuir, meanwhile, failed to beat the side that propped up the entire football league last season.

It was understood that Irons would dispense with any experimental formations and showcase the system and the players that would line up in next Saturday's League Cup tie against Partick Thistle. At times, the formation resembled a 4-5-1 or 4-3-3 formation, at others it appeared as though the team was organised into a fashionable 4-2-3-1 system. Chris McLuskey started the game in goals and Ross McMillan partnered trialist Scott Robertson in the central of defence. Willie Lyle and Sean Dickson started on either flank and Paul McHale, Brown Ferguson and Eric Paton completed the midfield trio. Stewart Kean played as the focal point of the Stenhousemuir attack while Andy Rodgers and the returning Stevie Murray played on the right and left of him respectively. Ally Brown, trialist Kevin McKinley, Jack Hamilton, Grant Plenderleith, Paul Quinn and an unused Nigerian trialist made up the substitutes.

Clyde, as mentioned above, listed just three signed players on their teamsheet. The rest of their side was assembled from teenage trialists and characterless journeymen. Other than Pat Scullion, I didn't recognise a single one of them. Scullion, looking more barrel-chested than before, is beginning to resemble a circus strongman, or a dashing Nazi that might battle Indiana Jones in a derelict Austrian castle. When Auld Donald handed me the teamsheet and I cast a customary glance over Jim Duffy's charges, I thought, arrogantly, that the Warriors would cruise to a resounding, morale-boosting victory and crush their opponents like a flabby grape. Imagine my disappointment.

As in previous games, Stenhousemuir's ball retention and range of passing was delicious and they started with gusto. With the likes of Paton, Ferguson and McHale, the Warriors feature some of the most incisive passers in the league and they moved the ball through the middle of the park with ease and confidence. Clyde struggled to curtail the home side's movement and were often hemmed in around their penalty area, but for all Stenhousemuir's possession, Scullion and Tully were rarely presented with anything other than routine blocks and clearing headers. The Warriors appeared content on stringing together intricate plays in front of Clyde's defence but crucially, they failed to offer any sort of penetration. It was after seventeen minutes that the home side mustered their first significant attack when McHale's deflected shot fell into the path of Rodgers, but the forward's effort was well blocked by the Clyde goalkeeper. Stevie Murray, starting his first game of the season after returning from honeymoon, offered a potent threat on the left of midfield but all too often, his deft crosses were sent into an empty penalty box.

Paul McHale was replaced by trialist Kevin McKinley with five minutes of the first half remaining - it was unclear whether or not McHale was injured (there had certainly been no indication of discomfort until his withdrawl), but Robertson moved into the middle of the park while McKinley dropped in alongside McMillan. The referee brought the half to a close soon after.

Ally Brown replaced Chris McLuskey in goal for the second half and Stenhousemuir began the second period as they ended the first, knocking the ball around the pitch in an assured fashion. With five minutes of the half gone, Stevie Murray's looping corner kick caused havoc in the crowded penalty area and McMillan, McKinley and Rodgers were all denied through excellent defending, the post, and strong goalkeeping. The twenty second burst of excitment was the outstanding highlight from the four pre-season friendlies. Stenhousemuir continued to press and took the lead several minutes later. Lyle and Rodgers swapped passes on the right flank and slipped the ball to Murray. The midfielder curled a fine cross into the box and Kean, unmarked, sent a powerful header into the net.

Once again, the home side failed to build on their advantage and in a pattern very similar to the matches against Annan and Berwick, they slowly allowed their opposition back into the game. Clyde made a number of substitutions midway through the second half and introduced a more potent attacking threat onto the flanks. One of their substitutes showed good movement down the right of midfield and his pass inside was fed into the feet of their striker. Showing excellent control and strength to hold off McMillan, he laid the ball off to Steph McDonald and the midfielder curled home a fine equaliser from twenty yards.

Stenhousemuir changed personnel (Rodgers, Lyle and Paton were replaced by Plenderleith, Hamilton and Quinn respectively) and formation (they briefly lined up in a strange, quasi 3-4-3 before reverting back to an offensive 4-3-3 system) but a winning goal proved elusive. Murray had a tame right-footed effort saved and in the final minute Quinn really should have done better with Murray's centre, but he dallied with the ball and allowed the Clyde goalkeeper to nick it from his feet. The referee finished the game moments later.

While the game proved to be frustrating viewing once more, there were a handful of positives that the Stenhosemuir support can take form the performance. From the first kick of the ball, Stevie Murray looked utterly outstanding. Although it might be one thing to dominate a teenage fullback who possesses all the grace of a horse balancing on a see-saw and something else completely to do the same against the likes of Mark Baxter and Mark McCulloch, Murray's performance was one of the most entertaining I've seen at Ochilview. Full of tricks and invention, he was the game's most influential player. When it was announced that Murray had missed pre-season to spend time on his honeymoon, I feared the worst. Given that the midfielder can sometimes look a little portly, I imagined that he had spent three weeks with his wife at some gorgeous, all-inclusive idle somewhere in Aruba, being hand-fed grapes by a large-breasted nubile woman while a local child held a handfan to his face and would return to the club resemling the size of a world record breaking pork pie. Thankfully, he returned still just looking a little portly.

Ross McMillan played well and looks to be a canny signing. He appears to be a physical and dominant defender and can read the game intelligently. In the games against Berwick and Clyde, McMillan was not tested by anyone pacey or direct, but he should win the majority of the aerial duels he contests. Meanwhile, Scott Robertson would make a fine addition to the squad. His playing style is very similar to McMillan's and he would offer a strong and commanding presence in the backline. Although he can also play in midfield, he looks far less convincing and resembles an overgrown child loitering around the kitchen and getting underneath his mother's feet as she's busy preparing a Sunday roast. Nevertheless, I would welcome his signing as a defender. Kevin McKinley, however, would be an exceptional signing. His performance in central defence was assured and after winning possession, he showed a talent in moving the ball onto the fullbacks and into the midfield. In a small squad, his versatility would prove invaluable and he could provide competiton to Dickson and Murray on the left flank as well as offering cover in defence. It appears as though the manager only has the money to bring just one more player into his squad and between him and Robertson, McKinley would be the better signing of the two.

Most encouragingly of all, it also looks like we have seen the last of Neil "Ginge" Hastings at Ochilview. I genuinely feared that this comedian was going to be offered terms for the season ahead but given his absence yesterday, it would seem as though Irons has ended his interest in bringing in the defender. It did, however, concern me that he was given three opportunities to showcase his talent before the management realised he was shite and told him to stop coming.

Despite these scant positives, Stenhousemuir look no further prepared for the season ahead than they did three weeks ago. They remind me of my own preparations for my fourth year German exam. The night before I was due to sit my paper, I memorised how to say, Excuse me, sir, what's the best way to get to the train station from here? (Entschuldigung meine Herr, wie comme Ich am besten zum bahnhof, bitte?) then glanced over some hastily scribbled notes before settling down to watch EastEnders for the evening. There are a number of issues that I am gravely concerned about and I'm surprised that they are yet to have been addressed. The team's performances in their four friendlies have failed to inspire any confidence for the season ahead. If the match against Clyde was designed to boost morale, it failed on almost every level. We play Partick Thistle in less than a week and I am approaching the match with fear and trepidation.

The most pressing issue is the size of the squad. Excluding youth players and assuming that Plenderleith is included with the senior squad, Stenhousemuir have fifteen players signed on for next year. Two goalkeepers, four defenders, five midfielders and four forwards. While there is the possibility that Irons might bring in another player in time for Saturday's match at Firhill, for the moment anyway, we look desperately thin. With injuries and suspensions inevitable, all it takes is one player's absence before the team has to be drastically shuffled about. For example, imagine if Sean Dickson was missing. Willie Lyle would be shunted out to left fullback while Eric Paton would have to slot into the vacant position on the right flank. Iain Thomson, meanwhile, would have to offer cover in the midfield. And, of course, this is assuming that only one player is missing from the squad. It would be difficult to envisage how the team would line up if two or three senior players were unavailable. The onus would be on untried youngsters to fill the available positions. Irons' strategy of signing a small core of talented, expensive senior players and augmenting the squad with youth is eerily reminiscent of Campbell Money's tactic in his first full season as manager... At least Irons hasn't claimed that Michael Hunter is actually a goalkeeper or anything outlandish like that yet.

Irons' attempt to utilise a stylish 4-2-3-1 system, although laudable, is also worrying. While he should be applauded for promoting this daring approach, I have my doubts over its effectiveness at this level. Although this formation has proved successful at the recent World Cup or in the Champions League, I believe an orthodox 4-4-2 is the most useful way to combat the opposition in the Second Division. With rare exceptions, the majority of teams in the league rely on strength and physicality rather than tactical accumen to win matches. Get the ball out wide and bang it into the box for the big lad. The 4-4-2 formation offers teams the most efficient platform to do this. Arranging the team into a 4-2-3-1 system is obviously designed to bring out the best in McHale, Paton and Ferguson but I don't think the way that the players are being utilised is maximising the most of their talents. With McHale and Ferguson acting as the ballast in midfield, Paton has been deployed further forward, often just behind the striker. As gifted a player as Paton is, this new role does not suit him. His success throughout last season came from his willingness to drop deep into the space in front of the backline and take short passes from his defenders before moving the ball into space or into the channels. Playing further forward, he sees less of the ball and therefore his influence on the play diminishes. While he still displays exquisite technique and an extraordinary range of passing in this position, he performs much better in a deeper role when he has space and is absolved of the creative burden - Paton's speciality is providing the platform for others to create.

The formation also highlights the deficiencies in attack. At the focal point of the team's attack, the 4-2-3-1 system requires a forward with physical presence and an ability to hold up the ball and bring his teammates into play. Stewart Kean is unequipped to play this role. He has many admirable qualities but given his lack of stature and lack of ball control, he's simply unsuitable playing as a lone forward. Imagine, if you will, an aerial contest between him and Brechin City's Gerry McLaughlin - the defender would just stand on his eighteen yard line like some shaven headed nodding dog while Kean snapped fruitlessly around him. Kean's first touch is also quite poor - there have been numerous occasions that a teammate has drilled a low ball into his feet, only for it to bounce off his shin and roll three or four yards away and into the path of an opponent. Surely it would be far more appropriate to play Andy Rodgers in the positon, no? He's taller and has better technique and has played there for the majority of his career. Rodgers cut a forlorn figure yesterday as he drifted from one flank to the other. It seems strange that their postions weren't alternated as the match went on, especially when Kean played as a right winger at Queen of the South and Morton. With a number of attractive crosses swung forlornly into an empty penalty area yesterday, the loss of Scott Dalziel may be keenly felt as the season progresses. Goals, I feel, may become an issue.

Another cause for alarm is just how easily Stenhousemuir are opened up when they lose possession. Against Berwick and again yesterday against Clyde, large swathes of space were exposed when the opposition poured forward on the counter attack. This should not happen, especially when there are three players utilised in the middle of the park. Ferguson, admittedly, has looked impressive so far, but McHale's abilities as a screening midfielder appear to be wanting. McHale jockeys his opponent with all the menace of a friendly jogger on a summer's day asking a passer-by for the time and so far he's looked either unwilling or unable to make the effort to block or stop the opposition. Having seen him in three games, he's begun to remind me of Kevin McLeish or Pat Scullion: a talented footballer lacking in heart and aggression - a passenger. Iain Thomson would be a more effective performer in this midfield where his tenacity and guile would complent the talents of Ferguson and Paton.

Having read back what I've written so far, I come across as a heartless, dead-eyed madman that reads the Daily Mail and writes rambling, futile letters into Points of View on a weekly basis, a cantankerous and bitter old husk without a good word to say about anyone or anything. I love Stenhousemuir FC. I want the club and the players to be a success. I like Davie Irons, I feel as though I must stress that. Having spoken to him at the Player of the Year night back in April, I was enamoured by his enthusiasm and his ambition for his team. He has my full support and I trust his judgement and ability but it's just difficult to try and avoid these lingering feelings of disillusionment after three weeks of poor performances and awful results.

Regardless, I'll be at Firhill next weekend. I'll see you there. I'll be the one with the bad haircut and the whiff of desperation. I hope that everything written above proves to be pure, unadulterated nonsense.

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