|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.