Monday, 26 March 2012

Darkness on the edge of town.

Albion Rovers: upsetting.

Despite the result the last time Stenhousemuir and Albion Rovers met
, I approached last weekend’s game in a cocksure mood and confidently predicted we would brush our visitors aside by a comfortable margin. Rovers are a poor, poor team, I reasoned, and got lucky against us earlier in the month. We’re playing on Ochilview's big, open pitch. We have better players who can make better use of the ball. They won’t be able to cope with us. 3-0 Stenhousemuir, no bother.

What utter arrogance. What nonsense. For the second time in a month, Stenhousemuir were beaten by a side sitting bottom of the league and for the second time in a month, it was completely deserved. Albion Rovers fully merited their 2-1 victory. Over the course of the season, Rovers have taken seven points from a possible 12 from the Warriors. If I had badly underestimated how difficult a challenge Rovers would present, not just at the weekend but throughout the season, then so did everyone else connected with the club.

Only a handful of players can be proud of their contribution to Saturday’s game but the majority, particularly the midfielders, should be ashamed of their performances. Granted, Stewart Kean was asked to operate in an unfamiliar role because of injuries to other players, but they were overrun and out-fought by a compact, hardworking Albion Rovers team. The weekly wages of Paul McHale and Stevie Murray, who both offered absolutely nothing throughout the match, could probably cover the pay of six or seven Rovers players.

Stenhousemuir actually started the game reasonably well and took the lead after 25 minutes when Andy Rodgers crashed the ball home from close range, but they really should have increased their lead before Jack Werndly equalised. Their profligacy was shocking - Rodgers, Murray and Ross McMillan all had very presentable chances to score but failed to test Derek Gaston in the Rovers goal.

Jack Werndly: from West Ham to Albion Rovers in three years.

Werndly’s goal, his second of the season against Stenhousemuir, was almost a carbon copy of his 85th minute winner when the sides met earlier in the month. At Cliftonhill, he stabbed home after horrible uncertainty between the Stenhousemuir goalkeeper and the fullback; after 33 minutes on Saturday, he did the same thing again. Dreadful miscommunication between Ally Brown and Willie Lyle allowed the ball to bounce to Werndly and the on-loan Rangers winger prodded the ball into an empty net. It was a rotten goal to concede.

While Stenhousemuir’s tactic of lumping long balls in the direction of Kenny Deuchar worked fairly well in the first half, Rovers began to get to grips with the big striker and Mick O’Byrne and half-time substitute Simon Marriott dealt with the Warriors attacks with relative ease. Even before Ryan McStay, the best player on the park, scored an excellent freekick on 55 minutes, it was clear the home side had run out of ideas. There were no attempts to stretch the Rovers defence, bring the fullbacks into the attack, or use the full width of the pitch. Instead, lob after lob was shelled upfield towards Deuchar.

Referee John McKendrick should come under heavy scrutiny – his performance throughout the second half was as inept as it was frustrating - and many of his calls drew the ire of the home support. He penalised Deuchar after he tussled with O’Byrne, but then awarded John Gemmell a freekick minutes later for doing the very same thing with McMillan. Rodgers should have won his side a penalty on around 75 minutes after he was felled in the area, but McKendrick waved away his appeals.

As the players and staff argued with the officials, goalkeeping coach David Westwood was dismissed from the dugout for his remonstrations. As has been mentioned in previous dispatches, how can supporters expect the players to remain calm and level-headed when the management cannot do the same? Stenhousemuir’s belligerence is becoming the source of embarrassment.

I left Ochilview on Saturday feeling utterly despondent. It was the first time in a long time watching Stenhousemuir that I felt completely claustrophobic by everything around me – the dire football on show, the rising anger and sense of injustice coming from the stands, supporters bickering with one another – and I needed to get away from it. The whole afternoon was thoroughly miserable.

The Second Division league table if it started on the 2nd
of January. Please click on it for a larger image.

Some players and a section of the support have tried to deflect attention away from recent results by pointing out that the club is still sitting in fourth place and still have an outside chance of promotion. It doesn't wash anymore: Stenhousemuir have been wretched since the start of the year. The only reason the Warriors are still in the playoff positions is because other teams have failed to take the initiative and overtake them. Given their current form, Stenhousemuir are likely to drop out of the playoff places after their match against East Fife this weekend for the first time since August. If other results go against them, they could fall as low as sixth.

Last night, I studied the results of every team in the league since the New Year and collated the data into a handy table. It makes for disappointing reading. Had the Second Division started on 2nd January 2012, Stenhousemuir would be in ninth place. Only Albion Rovers lie below the Warriors in the table, having amassed a meagre eight points from two wins and two draws. Their two victories, it has already been noted, have both come against Stenhousemuir.

It’s very difficult to pinpoint what’s gone wrong at the club. It may be convenient to point out that the club’s slump coincided with manager Davie Irons starting his shifts with Dumfries and Galloway Police Force (he has missed several training sessions since December because of work committments), but there’s something more than that. There is a malaise around the club, from the management to the players to the supporters. A sense of gloom pervades Ochilview and the last time there was this level of despair at Stenhousemuir was in the final days of John Coughlin’s management.

Injuries and suspensions have taken their toll. As has been discussed at length, Eric Paton’s injury has badly upset the team’s natural rhythm and fluidity, but the underrated Brown Ferguson has been missed just as equally. He has quietly emerged as one of the team’s most important players and brings an assured steadiness to the midfield that is only apparent in his absence. Far better should be expected from their deputies. Paul McHale and Stevie Murray have offered the team nothing since the turn of the year while Jamie Campbell, despite some decent performances in recent weeks, has done little to suggest he has a long-term career in full-time football.

Kenny Deuchar: glory days.

Kenny Deuchar is perhaps the team's most perplexing player. Many sides in the Second and Third Division would have welcomed a player like Deuchar, but he has fared poorly since joining on-loan from Livingston. Pace and movement were never part of his game, even when he was in his pomp at Gretna, but he is almost completely immobile and is nothing more than a target for long punts out from the defence. Most concerning of all is how the striker also looks completely bereft of confidence. On Saturday afternoon, with the score tied, he was put through one-on-one with the goalkeeper but as soon as he brought the ball under control, he never looked like scoring. His poor shot was hit straight at Gaston. For future matches, and if injury allows, Kean and Rodgers must be brought back into attack.

There is no doubt the club have progressed this season. Last year, Stenhousemuir were adrift in ninth place and faced ending the season in the relegation playoffs but a combination of fierce resolve and Alloa’s freefall down the league table saw the club narrowly finish the season in eighth. Irons has done well during his time in charge of the club and he has made the Warriors are a far stronger, more attractive team than last season, but the campaign is falling apart and in danger of becoming completely undone.

Stenhousemuir have played very well against East Fife this season, winning all three of their contests but on recent evidence, it’s unlikely they’ll make it four. In December, the last time the sides met at New Bayview, Stenhousemuir prevailed 3-1 and the victory was widely considered to have been one of their finest performances in recent years. The Warriors played with such zip and verve, their hosts simply could not prise the ball from them. Their slick, stylish passing was met with acclaim from both sets of supporters and it was felt the club could mount a serious title challenge and sustain their lofty league position.

Just what has happened to that team?

Thursday, 22 March 2012

An evening with the Gentleman Amateurs.

Queen's Park FC: some of their fans outside Hampden on Tuesday.
It’s been almost four weeks since I added anything to Who the hell is Akabusi?, but, as usual, I have a well-rehearsed list of mitigating circumstances to explain the recent inactivity on it. The level of coursework at my University has dramatically increased and precluded me from giving the blog the attention it deserves. Instead of offering my expert opinion on Stenhousemuir FC, I’ve been busy writing theatre reviews and potted histories on Chinese footballers as part of a portfolio (trying to put a positive spin on Du Wei’s atrocious debut for Celtic really took some doing, believe me).

In addition, I haven’t been able to attend a Stenhousemuir match since their 1-0 defeat to Albion Rovers on Cliftonhill at the start of the month. I fully intended to write a withering analysis on how the Warriors were overrun and out-manoeuvred by a hungrier, more committed side; on how the team were once again undone on a bumpy, pockmarked pitch in cold conditions; and on how Davie Irons’ failure to attend the game would probably herald the end of his tenure as manager at the club; but instead, I had to practice shorthand. An internship with Sky Sports News demands a speed of a least 100 words per minute – I can barely write 60.

Having missed the matches against Stirling Albion and Cowdenbeath, I felt unqualified to offer any comment or opinion on the club’s recent travails other than this one observation: after the 4-0 victory over Stirling Albion, Irons delivered an astonishing post-match interview with Warriors TV, which reminded of this clip from The Simpsons:

The clip is taken from "Lisa’s Pony". After badly letting down Lisa, Homer decides to make amends by buying her a pony. Unable to keep up with its expensive maintenance costs, he is forced to take on a second job at the Kwik-E-Mart and work through their infamous nightshift. The workload begins to affect Homer and his bug-eyed, twitchy appearance throughout the episode bears a string resemblance to Iron’s interview.

Adding anything more seems like pointless exercise. Instead, and in an unusual move, I would prefer to focus on events away from Stenhousemuir. On Tuesday night, I attended Hampden and witnessed Queen’s Park’s straightforward 3-0 win against Clyde.

I’ve had a soft-spot for Queen’s Park since they won promotion to the Second Division in 2007. The Spiders side of the 2006-2007 season were arguably one of the Third Division's most thrilling teams of the last decade. Managed by Billy Stark and featuring talented players like David Weatherston, Paul Paton, Paul Cairney, Stuart Kettlewell and Alan Trouten, they were an incredibly exciting side to watch. Their playoff final first leg, a 4-2 victory over East Fife at Firhill (the match had been moved from Hampden to accommodate a Rod Stewart concert) was utterly captivating and one of the finest football matches I’ve ever seen.

That summer, Weatherston, the club’s most explosive talent, moved on to St Johnstone, and 12 months later, the squad was inevitably picked apart by bigger clubs. Paton and Cairney joined Partick Thistle while Kettlewell and Trouten signed for Clyde. Queen’s Park were ultimately relegated in 2009 after losing to Stenhousemuir in the Second Division playoff semi-finals.

The club have performed admirably since returning to the Third Division, finishing in the playoff positions in the past two seasons. Although their current squad lacks the flair and excitement as their counterparts from the 2006-2007 season, they are perhaps better equipped to win promotion to the Second Division now than they have been in the previous three years.

David Anderson: looking like a cross between
Shane McGowan and John Hurt in Alien.

On Tuesday night, Queen’s Park raced to a two goal lead within ten minutes through Jamie Longworth (dubbed “the Clyde Killer” by some sections of the Spiders support after scoring seven goals in eight games against the Broadwood club) and Ian Watt. After their bright start, they huffed and puffed their way through the rest of the match before Martin McBride's exquisite finish in the 89th minute completed the rout. The three goals put the gloss on an otherwise stuffy performance - Queen’s Park weren’t particularly impressive, but they didn’t really have to be.

Clyde were wretched. It’s difficult to believe they defeated Celtic in the Scottish Cup just six years previously, but the team’s decline has been as extraordinary as it has been rapid. Jim Duffy and his assistant Chic Charnley did their best to will their players on from the touchline, but this was as poor a Clyde team as I’ve ever seen. Their fullbacks Iain Gray and Lee Sharp were particularly rancid.

Bereft of any attacking options, they were forced into playing Pat Scullion as a lone striker. Nominally deployed as a midfield anchor during his two seasons at Stenhousemuir, here he was fashioned into some sort of target man. Scullion’s reasonably tall and stout, so in some respects the decision makes sense, but a striker big Pat is not. He spent the majority of the game either leaping hopelessly towards the long balls skelped in his general direction, or offside.

The game’s most outstanding performer, however, was Queen’s Park’s David Anderson. Signed from Kilbirnie Ladeside in the summer of 2010, the diminutive midfielder has quietly developed a reputation as one of the division's finest midfielders, mixing a tidy range of passing with energy and tenacity. For those who haven’t seen the 28-year-old in action, Anderson combines the best attributes of Paul McHale and Iain Thomson. It’s a clumsy comparison but probably the best I can offer. Jamie Longworth and Martin McBride, his fellow midfielders, are also fine footballers and would make strong additions to most Second Division sides, but it’s Anderson who excites the most. In the unlikely event that Davie Irons is reading this blog (or, more pertinently, if he’s still the manager of Stenhousemuir in two months’ time), David Anderson would be an excellent signing at Ochilview.

Queen’s Park’s victory over Clyde, meanwhile, sets up an appetizing top-of-the-table clash with Alloa at Recreation Park on Saturday. Alloa currently sit atop the Third Division and enjoy a nine point gap over their rivals. Should Queen’s Park win, the remaining six matches of the season will prove to be hugely interesting; lose, and any fanciful talk of a title challenge can be dismissed.

Watch highlights of Queen's Park's 3-0 victory over Clyde on the superb QPTV here.

Mark Gallagher is the enigmatic leader of the IBF, Queen's Park's notorious hooligan element. Follow him on Twitter here.

Kenny Crawford is the Queen's Park correspondent with the Southside Extra. Follow him on Twitter here.