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?

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