A game that could possibly be Dunfermline's biggest test of the season takes place tomorrow at EEP with Hearts the visitors in the Betfred Cup second round. The teams were paired together in the same competition last year, in the first round group stage, with the Pars topping the group and Hearts is disarray under previous manager Ian Cathro. Both teams have changed personnel since then, and both clubs have made good starts to the season. A big crowd is expected and a great cup tie could be witnessed by all those inside the stadium.
After the setback of last week's home defeat by Ross County in the Championship, tomorrow's game against Hearts provides Allan Johnston with another early season challenge. After the away win at Dundee in the Betfred Cup group stage, coupled with the long overdue victory at Tannadice in the League opener, Dunfermline have enough quality to trouble difficult opponents. Hearts, however, are a step (or 2, or 3) up again: the Pars will need to be on top form and also avoid unforced errors if we are to get anything from the game. Slack defending was the key to last week's defeat and Hearts will be quick to punish any defensive dithering.
The midweek win at Inverness in the Challenge Cup, with 11 different players starting the game compared to the line-up against Ross County, may have given AJ food for thought regarding selections for tomorrow, but I would expect the manager to name a team along familiar lines. Danny Devine, missing against Ross County through injury, is fit again, while Tom Beadling played 60 minutes against Inverness - as a central defender - but lacks enough game time after 4 months out injured to be considered for a starting slot tomorrow. Here is the team I expect to start; Joe Thomson would be the unlucky player to miss out, as I expect AJ to play James Craigen in midfield, with Jackson Longridge shifting back to the left wingback role after playing in central defence last week due to Devine's injury:
Top of the Premiership, having just defeated Celtic last week, Hearts are a different proposition than the disjointed lot that we faced 12 months ago. Taking nothing away from the Pars performance that day, it is obvious that under Craig Levein, Hearts are more organised and simply better managed than under the hapless Cathro. Levein has signed 13 players during the current transfer window, either on loan or on permanent deals, with the most notable new arrival possibly being striker Uche Ikpeazu, an exciting talent, signed from Cambridge United. Levein had this to say about the player and also his hopes for the season ahead:
“The important thing is for him is to realise he can contribute to the team in other ways. He doesn’t need to score every week, although he wants to, of course. I would like to see him score every week but he was so unselfish with his running and link-up play. The pass he put through for Steven MacLean was sublime.
“Obviously it’s early in the season and there is a long way to go. I don’t want to get carried away. Once we’ve played all 11 of our opponents then I’ll have a better idea of where we are."
Reflecting the status of this pointless competition, tonight's Irn Bru Cup game at Inverness will feature a Pars team that will include under 20s and fringe players. With the Championship the obvious priority this season, there is also the League Cup game against Hearts this weekend - no need to risk injury to first team starters before then. The Irn Bru Cup game will give players such as Andy Ryan, Aidan Connolly, Callum Smith and others some much needed game time, which is one positive to take out of the club's participation in the competition. Whether the team progresses or not will be of little concern, although the objective will be to win the game, as always.
The lack of interest in the game was highlighted when the official supporters club confirmed that they would not be running a bus to Inverness, as only 3 fans had enquired about travelling. With it being midweek, a return car journey to the Highlands will be given a miss by the vast majority of Pars fans. The £15 adult entry fee to the stadium will not exactly entice those who might be contemplating making the journey.
Inverness are the holders of the trophy and their manager John Robertson has the same priority as Dunfermline this season: promotion. Inverness narrowly missed out on a promotion play-off place lasts season, after relegation from the top flight in season 2016/17. The Highlanders have made a good start to the League season, and while goals have been scarce in their opening 2 games (a 0-0 draw against Ayr and a 1-0 win at Falkirk) they will be satisfied with their initial haul of 4 points from 6.
The downbeat nature of this preview is only a reflection of my feelings about this competition. Needless to say, I will be much more enthused about Saturday's game against Hearts, in a competition that actually matters. Good luck to the team tonight - let's hope that the players who are selected benefit from the game time and that we end the game with no injuries or suspensions.
Tomorrow's game gives the Dunfermline team an early chance to establish their promotion credentials with the visit of title favourites Ross County. After breaking the long-standing Dundee United hoodoo last week, this weekend's game provides another major test. The greater the challenge, the greater the boost to confidence that a win brings, as would be the case tomorrow if we can secure the 3 points. As with last week's game, when we faced - and saw off - Nicky Clark and Fraser Aird, tomorrow sees us face another 2 players who decided against signing new contracts with us this summer, and instead jumped ship to a rival team, in this case Callum Morris and Declan McManus.
Football is full of well-worn cliches, amongst them 'selection headache', which is what currently faces Pars boss Allan Johnston. When having virtually a full squad to pick from, the cliche often extends to 'the type of headache a manager wants'. AJ faces such a decision when selecting the line up for Saturday. Ryan Williamson and Kallum Higginbotham are now free from suspension having both served 1 game bans last week. Their replacements last week, James Craigen and Joe Thomson, both had excellent games and so an instant return to the starting 11 for Williamson and Higginbotham may not be as straightforward a decision as previously thought. Craigen excelled at right wingback and while a natural midfielder, were he to revert back to midfield, that would in turn lead to the exclusion of either Thomson or James Vincent, and in turn make it harder for Higginbotham to be included. I could easily see Williamson and Higginbotham on the bench tomorrow - it would be a surprise to see both start, given the recent performances of the players they would most likely replace.
The rest of the team should be along familiar lines. The squad overhaul this summer has been a success and new players such as Myles Hippolyte have made a good start to their Pars career. Hippolyte will once again lead the line, with his striking partner Faissal El Bakhtaoui given licence to run at the Ross County defence, Callum Morris in particular. Morris can be vulnerable against a fast, tricky forward and will not relish facing an in-form El Bakhtaoui.
Callum Morris rejected a new Pars contract this summer, preferring a move to England. On 4 June, Pars chairman Ross McArthur was quoted as saying: ''After much thought and deliberation, Callum has informed us that he wishes to move back down south and try his luck again in England.'' On 21 June, Ross County announced they had signed the defender. Morris had moved 153 miles north and had given his agent barely longer than Willo Flood's spell at Dunfermline to find a club in England. Ross County's other ex-Par, Declan McManus, ended his Dunfermline career in the play-off defeat at Tannadice in May, having missed a glorious chance to put the team 2-0 ahead. After the game, McManus posted on social media, saying 'next season', which we all assumed meant he wanted to make amends with Dunfermline, and not a team in direct opposition.
Most players have no real affinity with the clubs they play for, so we should ignore Morris and McManus and instead be glad that their replacements have, so far, been of a higher quality than the duo they replaced. That's the matter covered: let's move on and get the 3 points.
The League season begins tomorrow at a venue that has seen some memorable Pars wins in the past; but what was once a profitable away journey has in recent years become a source of frustration - it is now 7 years since our last victory at the home of Dundee United. It appeared as though that run of winless games was about to end in the play-off game in May this year; Dunfermline 1-0 up, dominating the game, then given a glorious chance to go 2-0 ahead but the opportunity missed by Declan McManus. The game was then lost in the second half. So tomorrow we go again, both teams much changed even since that game 3 months ago. The past matters little - we go there with fresh hope and with every intention of starting the season with 3 valuable and significant points.
The Pars' 100% record in the Betfred Cup included a win against United's neighbours, Dundee, and goals from a variety of players. Defenders chipped in with a couple (Jackson Longridge and Danny Devine) while our forwards have all scored. We will be without the suspended pair of Ryan Williamson and Kallum Higginbotham tomorrow, meaning that the starting 11 could feature just 3 players who started the last game against United in May: Lee Robinson, James Craigen and James Vincent (plus Lewis Martin, if he has recovered from last week's injury and is selected). During the weeks that followed that game, we lost some of last season's main players - Callum Morris, Nicky Clark, Declan McManus, and Fraser Aird from the final quarter - but so far that has proved to be almost a blessing in disguise - last year's replacements are in no way a downgrade and have all made promising starts to their Pars careers. From what I have seen so far, I would not swap any of the above mentioned names for the players who have taken their places - Danny Devine, Faissal El Bakhtaoui, Myles Hippolyte and Louis Longridge, along with others who can also fill those positions.
Dundee United have also reshaped their squad over the summer. Clark and Aird moved from EEP to Tannadice along with another 10 players from other clubs. United's Betfred Cup campaign resulted in just 1 win from 4 games and failure to qualify for the next round. Manager Csaba Laszlo, a much derided figure amongst the club's support, has been backed by chairman Mike Martin, who had this to say this week about the manager and the season ahead: “I said at the end of the season that Csaba was going to lead our campaign this year. We’ve worked with him over the last 11 weeks putting together his squad, his coaching staff and putting in place the other elements of the infrastructure he needs to execute his job properly. “We were very disappointed with the (Betfred) results to be honest. Every competition we go into, every match, we want to win and although it does come very early in the season with not much of a pre-season behind you, that’s the same for all clubs. We were in no different position so far as that was concerned. I think where things were different here was the complete overhaul of the coaching and the playing staff and so we had the added complication of gelling the team basically.
“We were disappointed with the outcome, but it didn’t wholly surprise us given the stage we were at in terms of rebuilding the squad.”
Tomorrow is the time to achieve that long overdue win at Tannadice. It's time to defeat a club who have ridden their luck against us for far too long. We have the right mentality in this squad to win the game and to give the supporters a very enjoyable trip home.
Only a dramatic, and highly unlikely, set of results can prevent the Pars from topping Betfred Cup group D after tomorrow's final round of matches. A defeat to last placed Stirling Albion, a Dundee win and a significant swing in goal difference would be required and all evidence so far suggests all those factors will not combine. A draw would be enough for Dunfermline to win the group but all concerned with the club will look towards a fourth straight victory and securing a seeded place in the knockout stages.
The return of Faissal El Bakhtaoui saw a change in personnel at Brechin in midweek, with Joe Thomson moving to the bench and Louis Longridge playing a deeper role than the attacking position he occupied prior to that game. The same 3-5-2 formation was retained and will almost certainly be preferred again tomorrow against Stirling. AJ has the option of playing the same starting 11 but with the first League game next weekend in mind (Ryan Williamson and Kallum Higginbotham are both suspended for that match, at Dundee United) the manager may choose to start with Lewis Martin and/or Aidan Connolly who are both possible replacements for the suspended players next week. Up front, Andy Ryan may start, having scored 3 goals in limited substitute time during the Betfred group games.
Stirling Albion were League 2 promotion contenders for much of last season but fell out of the playoff places in the final weeks of the season, eventually finishing sixth, the same position they occupied in 2016/17. The Binos' Betfred Cup campaign began with 2 defeats, against Brechin City and Dundee, followed by a 2-0 win at Peterhead on Tuesday. Manager Dave Mackay commented after the win at Peterhead:
“I think we played pretty well and contained Peterhead for the best part. We forced Peterhead into playing a lot of long balls and towards the end they had a lot of set-plays, which I thought we dealt well with considering we struggled against Peterhead last season, conceding a number of goals. That was a pleasing aspect but our shape and our workrate off the ball was good and we looked a threat every time we went forward.
“Our front four did really well, not just the scorers Peter MacDonald and Mark Stewart, but also Kevin Fell and Neil McLaughlin and we have still Darren Smith to come back as well. We had five first-team players missing but we showed we have decent depth to the squad and players challenging for positions.”
I was at the Stirling v Dundee Betfred game 2 weeks ago and although Dundee won 4-0, Stirling were well in the game until tiredness and some good finishing by Dundee late in the game. Stirling are a well-organised side but rely more on hard work than flair.
Sunday's victory at Dundee has put Dunfermline in pole position to win Group D of this season's Betfred Cup, with a further 2 games remaining. Next up is a trip that has become very familiar over the past few seasons, to the hedge at Glebe Park, against a Brechin team who have made a good start in the group, securing 4 points from their 2 games to date. Allan Johnston has emphasised the need to approach every game with the same professionalism and attitude as his team showed at Dens Park. There have been enough warnings against complacency in the Betfred competition already this month: supposed "bigger" teams struggling against less fancied opposition (Falkirk losing at home to Montrose, Hamilton defeated by Annan, Motherwell drawing at Stranraer, Dundee United drawing both home games against Arbroath and Alloa, and losing both penalty shoot outs for a bonus point, and so on).
Here is the group table after 2 games:
The win at Dens Park will have given the new-look Dunfermline team belief in themselves and will hopefully act as a catalyst for the remainder of the games in the group and - more importantly - the start of the Championship campaign a week on Saturday. Continuing with the 3-5-2 formation that he has favoured since the start of pre-season, Allan Johnston has put together a squad that has competition in all areas and also has the boost of players such as Faissal El Bakhtaoui, James Vincent and Tom Beadling all due to return soon after injury. Sean Murdoch also continues his recovery from a longer-term injury.
The performance at Dundee was one of the Pars' most impressive away displays in recent years, with the defence adopting a no-nonsense policy of clearing the ball at any opportunity, while the wingbacks were effective in attack, creating (Ryan Williamson) and scoring (Jackson Longridge) the game's only goal. In midfield, James Craigen had his best game for Dunfermline, and it was only up front that was lacking, with several chances created but not converted into goals.
Pars fans may see Faissal in action tomorrow for the first time since he rejoined the club, along with James Vincent, who has made just one substitute appearance during pre-season. Three points are expected but will have to be worked for.
After a truly miserable 2017/18 season, failing to win a single League game, Brechin manager Darren Dods will have taken heart from his team's unbeaten start to the Betfred Cup. Adding 8 players to his squad, which has compensated for the loss of stalwarts including goalkeeper Graeme Smith, Dods will once again be aiming for promotion from League 1, while building the nucleus of a squad that would be much better prepared for life in the division above.
Before the start of the Betfred competition, Dods had this to say about the season ahead:
“We know last season was a difficult and disappointing one, however that is gone now. We have changed the squad a bit as well and that has helped bring a freshness in. We cannot wait to get going again as well as what is done is done.”
The pivotal game of the Betfred Cup group takes place on Sunday at Dens Park with the 2 top ranked teams in the group facing each other. Dundee's ground is the site of many great past games between the clubs, while the last time the teams met, in August 2015 at EEP, saw the Pars defeat Dundee 3-1 in the League Cup second round.
Both Dundee and Dunfermline recorded resounding victories in their opening games in the group, with Dundee defeating Stirling Albion 4-0 and the Pars winning 3-0 against Peterhead. A win for either side would make them favourites to win the group, while a draw would keep the group alive through the final 2 games that follow this one.
Dunfermline's first competitive game of the season ended in what was ultimately a convincing win over Peterhead. Two of the goals in the 3-0 win came in the final few minutes but the Pars were the stronger team throughout and there were encouraging signs of what is largely a new team beginning to gel. Eight Pars players made their competitive debuts for the club against Peterhead - Jackson Longridge, Danny Devine, Mark Durnan, Joe Thomson, Louis Longridge, Myles Hippolyte plus subs Aidan Connolly and Lewis McCann. The team has been almost completely overhauled since the end of last season and many of the new signings look to be upgrades on the players they have replaced. It was good to see Myles Hippolyte and Louis Longridge - players who have played most of their career games as wide attackers as opposed to playing through the middle - do so well up front and look like natural strikers. I felt before the game that even with the signing of Faissal El Bakhtaoui that we still needed one more "actual" striker but the performance of the 2 players mentioned above has suggested otherwise.
Earlier this week, I was asked by Dundee fansite The Dark Blues (link: here) to answer some questions for their match preview of Sunday's game. Their article, together with my answers, can be read here. They can also be followed on Twitter at this link: .twitter.com/UWTB1893
To conclude this match preview, I asked the Dundee guys for a summary of their pre-season and their thoughts on Sunday's game. Here's what they had to say; my thanks to them again for this:
This summer has been quite quiet for Dundee fans. Our new signings are all unknowns and with that, it was hard to get excited until any of us seen them in action.
Jean Mendy looks like he will be a handful upfront but with that, he looks a bit lightweight but we will have to wait until we see him up against some big bruisers to see how he can handle himself. My initial thoughts were that he reminded me of Faissal El Bakhtaoui but he looks a bit more comfortable in front of goal for us, something El Bak lacked with us. Midfielder Elton N’Gwatala will be a handful all over the pitch for most teams and Jack Hamilton will be an important signing for us.
Defender Nathan Ralph and midfielder Karl Madianga done well against Stirling but I’ll have to see more of them two as I wasn’t sold on them.
I’m expecting a tough game against Dunfermline who will be coming to Dens looking for the win. We haven’t won in our last six meetings which stretch all the way back to 2010 so a win is long overdue. Myles Hippolyte is a player I think we have to be wary of. There are a few ex Dundee United players in your squad so one of them will be odds on to score against us. I’ll go for a tight 2-1 victory for Dundee.
Competitive action kicks off at EEP tomorrow evening when Dunfermline take on Peterhead in the Betfred (League) Cup group stage. With 4 group fixtures spread over 5 scheduled sets of dates, the Pars sat out the weekend's games, just as visitors Peterhead will not be active on 28 July, the fifth and final date for group games to be played. The early start for the Betfred Cup has been criticised by some managers including Kilmarnock's Steve Clarke. With playing squads still being formed and fitness still being worked on, the competition is often seen as an extension to pre-season friendlies. Perhaps it would have been better advised to have held the Irn Bru Challenge Cup first and then introduced the League Cup to the fixture list around September, given the League Cup's greater importance.
This is the second consecutive season that Dunfermline and Peterhead have been placed in the same Betfred Cup group. Last season, the Pars won 5-1 at EEP.
Dunfermline's pre-season was successful in terms of giving almost all of the squad games and also bringing in some youth team players who did not look out place among their more senior colleagues. Certain players have yet to feature: in Tom Beadling's case due to injury and Faissal El Bakhtaoui and Myles Hipployte only joining a few days ago and so unable to have played in the first team warm-up games. James Vincent has also made just one substitute appearance. In this respect, the Betfred Cup will be used as an opportunity to give players more game time before the League campaign begins on 4 August.
The Pars are clear favourites to win tomorrow evening but as we saw at the weekend (Falkirk losing at home to Montrose, Hamilton suffering a defeat at Annan and Dundee United drawing at home to Arbroath before losing a penalty shootout for a bonus point) nothing can be taken for granted. If we are to progress to the next round, our game at Dundee next Sunday will be vital but 3 points will also be essential against lower league opposition.
Peterhead's opening Betfred Cup game ended in a goalless draw at Brechin. The bonus point went to Peterhead, winning the penalty shoot out 5-4. The game itself was far from a classic, going by comments made by both managers. Peterhead boss Jim McInally then looked forward to visiting EEP, saying: "This cup’s got to be treated by part-time teams as still your pre-season. Dunfermline haven’t played on Saturday, which is not great for us as it leaves them fresh for tomorrow. They’ll pass the ball round us and we’ll have to work. You see how tired we were on Saturday – we’ll be a lot more tired tomorrow.
“We went there last year and lost 5-1, but we actually played quite well. Hopefully the score’s not as bad this time. We will try to win.”
The final first team pre-season friendly takes place at EEP this evening with the Premiership's Motherwell providing the opposition. This will give Pars boss Allan Johnston a final chance to see his senior squad in action before the Betfred Cup game against Peterhead next Tuesday sees the start of competitive action. There is one final friendly tomorrow, away to Kelty Hearts, which will feature the Under 20s with perhaps one or two senior players who do not start against Motherwell tonight.
Last season provided a valuable lesson in not reading too much into pre-season results, when after a run of defeats in friendlies, Dunfermline began the League and Cup campaigns with a string of positive results, overturning less than impressive displays in warm-up games. What tonight's friendly will provide is a chance for what is largely a new team to get another game together and give game time to players who have not played in all of the previous friendlies due to injuries that have now healed. This will include Joe Thomson and Aidan Connolly, both of whom played the majority of the Under 20s' 1-0 win at Arbroath on Monday (match report can be read here) plus James Vincent, not included against Arbroath and who has just 1 sub appearance this pre-season since returning to Dunfermline on a new loan deal from Dundee.
Opponents Motherwell reached the finals of the Scottish and League Cups last season and have added 5 new signings to their squad in the current transfer window. They will be captained by Peter Hartley after last term's skipper Carl McHugh requested to be stripped of the captaincy as he felt it was having a negative impact on his performances. Manager Stephen Robinson aims to take the club back into the Premiership top 6 this season, after missing out on a top half finish by 1 point in 2017/18. Robinson talked about expectations for the season ahead this week: “We know we were only a point from the top-six last time, so expectations have risen. Everybody’s perception of what we should do has gone up and we need to find percentages from our play, our preparation and our signings to make sure we achieve that.”
After playing mainly local rivals and other Scottish teams in pre-season friendlies over the past few years, tomorrow brings a refreshing change of opponent when Tranmere Rovers visit EEP. After losing their Football League status in 2015, they endured 3 seasons in the National League before securing a return to the Football League after defeating Boreham Wood 2-1 in the play-off final at Wembley 2 months ago. The club have spent the majority of the past 20 years in the third tier of English football, with ambitions to climb higher. They will hope to win promotion again this season, although their cause has not been helped by the loss of last season's 28-goal striker Andy Cook, who has signed for League 1 side Walsall.
Dunfermline's first home pre-season friendly will be many Pars fans' first sightings of the raft of new signings made over the summer. After 2 away games at Bayview, against East Fife and Raith Rovers (the latter with 236 Pars fans in attendance) a larger crowd at EEP is obviously anticipated. Some of the additions to the squad this summer, including returning players who wer eon loan last season - Tom Beadling and James Vincent - have yet to feature this pre-season, with Allan Johnston preferring not to risk aggravating minor injuries. Tomorrow could also see the first appearance in the black and white for midfielder Joe Thomson. The other new signings - Mark Durnan, Danny Devine, Louis & Jackson Longridge and Aidan Connolly - have all featured in the past 2 games.
Lee Robinson and Lee Ashcroft, together with Callum Smith, are other players who have not had any gametime this pre-season. There has been no confirmation regarding their chances of being involved tomorrow. Cammy Gill has done well in Robinson's absence and will have benefited from this, having spent all of last season on the bench.
Up front, while it is clear we require 2 additions to increase competition and quality, 17 year old youth team player Lewis McCann has been impressive in his appearances in both games at Bayview, scoring in each game. Andy Ryan's impact has been minimal but he will be an important player in the season ahead.
The experiment of substituting the entire first team and replacing them with the youth team after an hour was relatively successful against East Fife and Raith but I would be very surprised if such wholesale changes were made against what will be tougher physical opponents tomorrow.