The final look back at our most recent game
The purpose behind this weekly feature is to highlight good and bad points from the previous game; in a defeat, there can often be moments of positive play or performances that are significant enough to be plus points in what might otherwise have been a poor game. While the loss to Morton, from a late goal, was not an embarrassment, there were few (if any) positive points from the team's display that were significant enough to be included here. There is no worth in highlighting moments that are only "above average". So this time, the plus points come from the stands and the catering.
A legend in Scottish football catering, the Stephens Bridie was at its delicious best on Saturday. It seems (I could be wrong) that what was once almost a crusty "handle" on the bridie has been softened - a definite improvement - while the steak inside the bridie is as superb as always.
Towards the end of the game, a drum could be heard in the Norrie stand. A group of young fans were involved in this and their drumming added to the atmosphere. I would like to see this become a regular sound on a matchday at EEP. Having recently attended the Motherwell v Hamilton game (when the Pars game at Livi was postponed), the young group of Motherwell fans and their drum really boosted the experience of attending the game. This is to be encouraged - too many stadiums in Scotland are devoid of noise and lack any type of vibrant atmosphere.
No fan is happy with a defeat. However, when the same vitriol is aimed at the same players (or player, in our case), it becomes tiresome very quickly and seems as though any loss is used as an opportunity to hammer a scapegoat. The game itself is secondary to the often unfair level of criticism aimed at the scapegoat. Yes, I'm taking about Nicky Clark, who I have been critical of on this site but never in a vindictive way.
LEFT ON THE BENCH
Why have 2 decent strikers on the bench - one of whom averages a goal every 65 minutes in his limited appearances - and not use them, having made 2 substitutions and still having 1 left, when you are a goal down at home in a Cup tie? Andy Ryan in particular must be wondering why he is not being given more game time. Callum Smith, who admittedly does not have Ryan's scoring ratio, would also have been a good option coming off the bench with his pace.
Photo and edit by Pars Review
The final look back at our most recent game
After a run of 9 Championship games without a clean sheet, Dunfermline have now had 3 consecutive shutouts. New goalkeeper Lee Robinson has yet to concede a goal since making his debut against Falkirk, when he had to make a few important saves to prevent an opposition goal. In the 2 games since, against Dumbarton and then on Saturday against Dundee United, he has hardly had to make a proper save, which is partly down to the good work being done by the players in front of him. Sir Alex Ferguson once said, "attack wins you games, defence wins you titles" and while the Championship title might be out of our reach this season, our current run of shutouts is a strong foundation for securing a play-off place.
NO INFERIORITY COMPLEX
It might not be reflected in the result, but those who saw the game on Saturday - and, indeed, our last game against United plus recent games against St Mirren - will have seen a Pars side that has no inferiority complex when facing teams above us. Last season, we went into certain games - add Falkirk away to that list - looking less than confident and unable to impose ourselves. We were the better team on Saturday and have become much stronger mentally.
STILL NO WIN
Football is ultimately a results business and for the 12th game in succession we could not defeat United. This time, as noted above, it was not down to being outplayed or through feeling intimidated. So progress is being made - but we still need that win, to prove that we are capable of taking on and beating them. Maybe next time.
OUT OF SORTS RYZO
Ryan Williamson is experiencing an ongoing dip in form that stretches back to the Inverness away defeat at the end of October. In the first quarter of the season, Ryan was an attacking threat and also had tightened up his defensive work. His booking against United, when he was flummoxed by Billy King, eventually fouling the United winger, was a sign of how he has regressed defensively. With a first team squad of around 18 players it is impossible to have 2 "specialist" players for every position. Right back is one such position in the team - Ryan is the only natural right back at the club, and while midfield should be the priority for signings this month, a right back to challenge Ryan should also be considered. It is to be hoped that Ryan regains his form and enjoys the second half of the season but as it stands, the team would benefit from a new right back being added to the squad.
Photos and edit by Pars Review
The final look back at our most recent game
A settled team line-up and formation served Allan Johnston well in the opening weeks of the season. When results worsened, he stuck to the same format in the hope that performances would revert back to the standard of the first quarter. Eventually, when this did not happen, the manager began to try different formations. Then he dropped/ran out of patience with ever-present Kallum Higginbotham and brought Michael Paton into the team. More recently, 2 other regulars have been replaced by other players, seemingly - so far - helping to improve results and performances. The players - Sean Murdoch and Callum Morris - were not dropped, as Murdoch lost his place through injury and is still out, while Morris was suspended for a game. Encouragingly, though, Morris did not simply regain his place at Dumbarton. Jean Yves M'Voto, who played so well in the previous game, was retained, just as I would like to think new keeper Lee Robinson would have been even if Murdoch was fit again. AJ's starting 11 now has 3 different players, and his willingness to alter formations from 4-4-2, to 4-1-4-1, 4-1-3-2 or 4-3-3 has coincided with the team winning 3 consecutive games and keeping clean sheets in the last 2.
Pars Review man of the match for the second week in a row, Jean Yves M'Voto is a classic old fashioned centre half. No dribbling, no risks: he is aware of his limitations, and plays within them. He is also a threat at the other end of the pitch, launching himself at corners, which will hopefully see him in the scoresheet soon. He does the job.
SECOND HALF FADE
Now that AJ has proved flexible with team selection and formations, he has to address the other glaring issue in his game management: how to utilise substitutes. Yet again, he brought players on with 12 and 8 minutes remaining. Is he being cautious, avoiding earlier subs in case injuries occur as the game goes on? He seems more willing to make a dramatic first half substitution (as in the cases of Fraser Aird and Big Nat) than bring someone on after 60 minutes. The team works hard and certain players look tired and ready to come off after an hour, or maximum 70 minutes. Dumbarton did resort to long balls as the game went on, and had far more of the ball in the second half than in the first. Equally, we may have allowed them to creep back into it by not introducing fresh legs earlier.
One stand, no terracing, a cold seat that is open to the elements, situated next to what appears to be the Baltic Sea, home of a part time team whose games don't exactly rain goals (Dumbarton average 0.7 goals scored per home game).... in January, the month of empty shopping centres and credit card bills. So for Dumbarton to charge adults £20 and concessions £12 for entry seems a little excessive given what you get in return. Everyone has the choice, but value for money rarely factors in clubs' pricing policies. Whether they price entry through greed or desparation for cash, compare their prices with the Championship's other part time club - Brechin - whose ground has 2 stands and a partly covered terracing. Brechin charge £5 less for adults than Dumbarton and £4 less for concessions. Brechin also have a parent and child deal at £18 plus £2 for additional children. Quite a difference.
Photos and edit by Pars Review
The final look back at our most recent game
NEW ADDITIONS MAKE BIG IMPRESSION
Losing the team captain and vice captain for a crucial derby game could have been a huge blow for Dunfermline but the performances of Callum Morris and Sean Murdoch's replacements were big contributing factors in the win. Lee Robinson, making his debut in goal after just 1 day training at the club, and centre half Jean Yves M'Voto, a regular unused substitute this season, played major roles in the game, with Robinson making 4 excellent saves and M'Voto giving a textbook display of no-nonsense defending. With Murdoch out injured, Robinson will have time to make the keeper's position his own, or at least give real competition to Murdoch. M'Voto should retain his place for this weekend's game but whether he will is a decision for the manager.
Dean Shiels has been the target of Falkirk players and supporters, with 2 of our rivals' players (Kevin O'Hara and Joe McKee) being handed suspensions totalling 12 games for verbally abusing Shiels over his missing eye during the Irn Bru Cup game in October, and then on Tuesday the despicable actions of an element of the travelling support who bought fake plastic eyeballs to the stadium and threw them onto the pitch during the game. There was also singing from the away stand about Shiels. In the weeks following the initial incident with O'Hara and McKee, and up to and including this week's game, Shiels has remained professional and has kept his composure and his dignity. No wonder that he enjoyed the post-match celebrations with the Pars support so much, fist raised while the fans sang his name.
Mocking a disability is about as lowlife as it gets. We should expect very little from Falkirk FC and their fans, but the photos of plastic eyeballs on the East End Park pitch was shocking and unique in Scottish football. We can only hope that CCTV footage will identify whoever is responsible and that they are, at the very least, given lifetime bans from football matches. Falkirk FC have now been featured in national tv and media over the plastic eyeball stunt, their reputation in tatters.
What happened to the Falkirk side that challenged for promotion every year? Their current team are a poor, disjointed lot who are a pale shadow of the good Falkirk sides from the past. Manager Paul Hartley has achieved just 1 win since taking over and will do well to drag his team out of the relegation play-off position that they currently occupy.
The final look back at the weekend's game
A WIN AT LAST
It had been over 60 days since the team's last League victory, so it was essential to win this game. While there would always have been high expectations of beating Brechin City at home, the recent poor run increased the need for 3 points - and that was achieved. The first half display, while not quite as "excellent" as Allan Johnston claimed, saw Dunfermline dominate and go to half time with a 1-0 lead. The goal, started by Nat Wedderburn then assisted by Nicky Clark, with a finish by Declan McManus, was well worked, as was the second goal shorty after half time. Clark, Joe Cardle and then scorer Michael Paton were all involved and the team looked set for a comfortable victory at that point. A moment of slack and cumbersome play in midfield by Wedderburn - plus a wonder strike from Brechin - halved the lead and nervousness soon crept in to the team's play. Brechin posed little threat, aside from a shot from 20 yards that Sean Murdoch saved. Move onto the next game now, which will be a much harder challenge.
ON FORM STRIKERS
With some defenders going off form, and a central midfield that is in need of an overhaul, the form of the club's strikers has been a rare plus point in the past few weeks. The now-established front pairing of Nicky Clark and Declan McManus are delivering goals and assists. Both players are in double figures for goals, and Clark has added more assists to his game - with 5 assists already this season, he is just 1 short of his 2016/17 total. Clark has upped his game recently and cannot be accused of laziness or lack of effort.
Allan Johnston's post-match message to the fans contained little festive cheer and was highly critical of the noises coming from the stands. Blaming the supporters for how the game changed after Brechin's goal was classic Johnston diversion tactics: he failed to mention that his first choice midfielder (Wedderburn) was once again involved in losing possession and being too slow to recover, giving Brechin the chance to shoot; THAT was the turning point and had nothing to do with the fans. The manager meant his diatribe to be a plea for unity but he worded it all wrong.
Slicing clearances into an empty stand, dithering defenders, no one stepping forward to take charge of the team..... all in evidence after Brechin City pulled a goal back. Brechin, the only team in the professional leagues of Scotland and England yet to win a game, created an uneasiness in the minds of the Pars players and management after making the score 2-1. Where are the leaders?
There is so much potential in this team but the January transfer window must be used to sign mobile midfielders who do not allow part timers to run past them. If an inspirational figure can also be found, that would be beneficial to the team too.
The final look back at the weekend's game
"They tried hard". Faint praise, when searching for something positive to say after another winless game. However, for a long time, there were justifiable complaints that the team not only failed to win at ex-Premiership away grounds, but that they also failed to compete and were easily defeated. This cannot be said of the past 2 away games against Dundee United and St Mirren. Despite the 2 defeats, the team have shown a greater degree of backbone in those games, and while it could be said that is the least we should expect, it was absent for so long that we should at least acknowledge it when it is shown.
ONE WEEK CLOSER TO JANUARY
It's now clear that Allan Johnston will not be using the emergency loan system to add to his squad, especially in the obvious area of central midfield. So we can only hope that he has already plans in place for January when the transfer window opens. The squad is paper thin and urgently needs not only quality additions but also players who are natural central midfielders, and not more strikers or wingers being converted into midfielders. Pace and athleticism are also required of whoever the manager brings in.
There's no league table for how hard a team tried, or for having greater possession than the league leaders, which was the case on Saturday. 3 points from a possible 27 is dire. The Ghost of Christmas Past is making his way to East End Park, and having seen what happened to Raith Rovers last year - a bright start followed by a prolonged poor run of results that saw a tumble down the table, we should be wary of a repeat. Just as the Ghost visited Scrooge to try to make him change his ways, or face the inevitable consequences, so should Allan Johnston take heed of what happened a few miles along the road in Kirkcaldy a year ago, plus look at his own approach to games and be more flexible, or Dunfermline may face a similar fate through not making necessary changes.
So maybe referee Craig Charleston got the penalty decision right - eventually. What caused the change of mind between him and his linesman? Was it Ryan Williamson's reaction to what appears now to have been a non-foul? Let's focus instead on the official's decision making where bookings were concerned. Five to Dunfermline and none to St Mirren. Saints' left back Adam Eckersley kicked out at Declan McManus right in front of the same linesman, and nothing was done. Eckersley later lunged, 2 footed, into a challenge. A foul was given but Charleston did not even speak to the offender. There were other instances of the home side being let off without even a word from the referee. Meanwhile, Charleston was quick to bring the card out for almost half the Pars team, not even giving himself time to think if a booking was appropriate.
The final look back at the weekend's game
Sadly, both Good points are opposition-based this week.
The best individual performance by an opposition player at EEP in several years was by Stephen Dobbie on Saturday. Three goals and one assist plus several other chances carved out for his team mates that should have been converted saw Dobbie move onto 18 goals for the season, and 99 in total for Queens. Dobbie is in his second spell at the club, where he scored 54 goals between 2007-2009. His 99 goals have come in 152 starts, plus 12 sub appearances. Having celebrated his 35th birthday last week, on this form he could continue for at least another couple of years.
QOS BUDGET MANAGEMENT
Queen's win at EEP took them above the Pars in the Championship table and above more fancied teams. This is due to good management, careful player recruitment and excellent coaching, developing players who have often been cast-offs from other clubs, including Dunfermline: their squad included ex-Pars Scott Mercer and Shaun Rooney, both released by Allan Johnston, and Andy Stirling, released during John Potter's time as manager. Callum Fordyce, another player Johnston released, was injured but has played 24 games for Queens this season. They make good use of their limited resources, on a budget that will be smaller than clubs they currently sit above including Dunfermline, Falkirk and Inverness.
THE STARTING FORMATION
The irony over Saturday's starting formation could not have been lost on may fans, who for months have watched Allan Johnston use the same 4-4-2 formation, regardless of opposition or circumstances. What is appropriate at home to Brechin was proven not to be so away to Falkirk, Dundee United and other teams where the Pars' 2 man central midfield was cut through easily. Johnston sensibly changed to 4-1-4-1 last week at Tannadice, and while there was little creativity, the spine of the team was much stronger and was not at fault for either Dundee United goal. For that game, Johnston also benefited from an enforced change to his original starting line-up. Dean Shiels was stuck in traffic and so Lewis Martin was brought into the team in midfield. Martin, a defender, is a limited footballer but possesses more athleticism than any other emergency midfield option. The next game, however, should have seen a return to 4-4-2. To play 4-1-4-1 at home to a team below us in the table (before kick-off) and to retain Martin, plus playing Nicky Clark as the lone striker - Clark had missed the game at Tannadice due to injury - were all mistakes, which Johnston himself acknowledged when he switched back to 4-4-2 before half time, and moved Declan McManus from the wing (another error) to partner Clark up front. Can the manager not see what works in one game doesn't necessarily work best in the next? File 4-1-4-1 for tough away games. At least it's an option now - but only in the right circumstances.
LACK OF LEADERSHIP
From the captain to the manager, and other senior players who cannot inspire their team mates, there is a worrying lack of leadership on and off the pitch. As good as Stephen Dobbie was, he was helped by a Pars midfield and defence that were often out of position, and simply not playing as a unit. At times like that, you look to a leader to make a difference - a Norrie McCathie who inspired the team to a miraculous comeback at Dens Park in 1994; a Craig Robertson who found strength from somewhere in the 1996 Clydebank game, in the worst possible circumstances. The last 3 club captains have all been released by Allan Johnston (Andy Geggan, Josh Falkingham and Callum Fordyce) and there is a huge lack of fire within the current squad, too many quiet players and too many who seem incapable of making a difference in hard times.
A more pragmatic approach to certain games has long been called for and Allan Johnston made such a change on Saturday, shifting from his favoured 4-4-2 formation to 4-1-4-1. Too often in games against some of the division's stronger teams, the midfield especially has been outnumbered. Playing Big Nat as a defensive midfielder in front of the back 4 was a sensible move, and with the added height and athleticism of Lewis Martin in centre midfield, the side had a much more physical edge. Martin has confirmed that he only started the game due to Dean Shiels being delayed in traffic on the way to Dundee - his inclusion worked to the team's advantage and should be considered again for with the game at St Mirren on December 16.
Meek capitulation has long been a theme of the Pars' trips to Tannadice but the team could not be accused of having a soft centre this time round. They stood up to United and broke up the home side's rhythm. The team's resilience was appreciated by the visiting support, with applause at the final whistle despite the defeat; there was no faulting the attitude of the Dunfermline players.
Strengthening the midfield and having a solid spine to the team made a difference to the Dunfermline performance compared to previous games at Tannadice, which made the manner of how the 2 goals were conceded all the more disappointing. Both goals were entirely avoidable and came from slack play in wide areas. The first saw Kallum Higginbotham try to shepherd the ball out of play, unsuccessfully, eventually being dispossessed. The ball was then played across to the Pars' left and a free kick conceded that United scored from. The second was arguably worse from a Dunfermline standpoint: from a throw in on the United left, Big Nat switched off and allowed his opponent, Scott Fraser, to get away from him and easily score from close range.
CREATIVE SPARKS NOT FIRING
As noted above, the team were more solid and although the game was lost, there were positives. What was clearly lacking, however, was the creative spark that lit up the first quarter of the season with goals and assists: Joe Cardle and Kallum Higginbotham are both struggling to recapture their best form, with Higgy in particular looking a frustrated figure. Both players continue to work hard but they are not currently producing any substantial end product. The result of this (although far from the only reason) is that the team have scored 9 goals in the past 8 League matches, compared to 21 in the first 7.
After a couple of games where his tendency to wander returned (v Queen's Park and Morton), the DAFC captain was focused and one of the few positives from Saturday's game. He also took his goal like a top striker, bringing the ball down then hooking it beyond the keeper. Callum is a class above this level of football as long as he maintains concentration and does not take unnecessary risks with the ball.
STILL IN TOP 4
Despite 1 win from the past 7 League games, the Pars are still in the top 4, which realistically was the target at the start of the season. The title is definitely achievable but a place among the promotion play-off contenders would represent continual progress, building on the League 1 title season of 2015/16 and last season's 5th place in the Championship.
OUT OF FORM REGULARS
Going into a weekend game at Tannadice, Allan Johnston must have some doubts as to his team selection, after the performances over the past few weeks of some of his mainstays. Kallum Higginbotham, Joe Cardle, Dean Shiels and Big Nat have not played well in recent games, although in fairness to Cardle he is still recovering his form after an injury absence. Ryan Williamson's form has also dipped. Johnston would not doubt prefer to play his usual first choices in such a difficult game but there is also a case to be made for freshening up the side, with Michael Paton being a leading contender for a start.
Whether it is lack of confidence, staleness in team selection or simply a case of too many players going off form at the same time, there is a definite lack of fire in the team that has drained games of the excitement of the early weeks of the season. Recent games including Inverness away, Queen's Park in the Cup (especially the first half) and Morton at home saw lacklustre Dunfermline performances. There has been a flatness that has been reflected in results since late September. This has to be overcome if the team are to achieve anything this season.
Dunfermline have the joint best defensive record in the Championship. In the opening weeks of the season, opposition teams rarely got near the Pars goal, such was the dominance of the team in most games. In contrast to that, on Saturday in Falkirk the defence was made to work to get something out of the game, and the fact that Falkirk failed to score from open play is testament to the performance of the back 4 and goalkeeper. Although Sean Murdoch will be disappointed to have conceded another goal from a free kick, he was assured in goal, and was aided by his 4 back line team mates (Ryan Williamson, Jason Talbot, Lee Ashcroft and Callum Morris), plus Jean Yves M'Voto after he was brought on as an extra defender late in the game. All of them did their jobs to great effect.
As noted above, the whole Pars defence played well but special mention must go to Jason Talbot, who is currently in the best form of his time at Dunfermline, and possibly his career, given that he has eliminated the rash challenges, and subsequent disciplinary problems, that were a feature of his career prior to arriving at East End Park, and at the start of his time with the Pars. His performances in the Championship this season are making him a candidate for being the best left back at the club for many years. Left back has often been a problem position for Dunfermline but the current incumbent is one of the team's leaders, a rock solid defender with a great attitude.
So often one of the team's best assets, with 12 goal assists and 6 goals already this season, Kallum Higginbotham also has a side to his game that can be detrimental to the team's progress, namely his suspect temperament. There have been many games where he has received a booking for shouting at officials, or a mistimed tackle, and then spent the remainder of the match walking a disciplinary tight rope. Before Saturday, he had somehow avoided a second yellow card or straight red despite his frustrations and emotions almost boiling over. After a first half booking at Falkirk, he could have been booked again on more that one occasion. Apparently told in the dressing room at half time to keep out of trouble, his 55th minute clash with Louis Longridge gave referee Craig Thomson the chance to finally issue a second yellow card, although the Falkirk player made the most of the challenge. Higgy's passion for the game is admirable but it has to be channeled properly or it can have the opposite effect.
LACK OF ATTACKING THREAT
After rattling in a high number of goals in the early part of the season, the Pars attack has given opposition goalkeepers a far easier time of it since the last Dunfermline striker scored, back on 30 September (Callum Smith, v Dundee United). In the past 4 games, the Pars have had just 8 shots on target. The responsibility for this does not just rest with the strikers, but also the midfield, who despite being technically good footballers, very rarely make a killer pass or create chances for their team mates. Having Joe Cardle back from injury will help in this regard, but in general there has to be more pressure applied on the opposition goal.