The gradual shift of summer to autumn brings the first month of the League season to an end. Just as with daylight, the Pars began bright then dimmed as August came to a close. Two consecutive defeats in the Championship are a setback but a win tomorrow would keep us on the heels of the top sides, at this very early stage of the campaign. Tomorrow's visitors Inverness have similar ambitions to ourselves this season - promotion, having just missed out on a play-off place last term.
Here is the current Championship table:
The manner of the defaet at Ayr last weekend was unexpected, with the Pars defence vulnerable, even after the change of formation after half an hour; too many players had off days at the same time, which was acknowledged by manager Allan Johnston and captain Lee Ashcroft after the game. The team's form has fluctuated wildly from week to week, after the highs of wins at Dundee and Dundee United, and the excellent performance against Hearts in the Betfred Cup, even though that game was lost. If any positive can be taken from the Ayr defeat, it is that the team will not want to repeat that experience and will be well aware of the performance levels required game after game in order to achieve the desired results.
A flurry of signings in the final day of the transfer window could see changes to the Pars line up tomorrow, but predicting the manager's starting 11 would be guess-work. Instead, I have selected a preferred line-up, below, in the hope that some fresh faces will act as a catalyst for a much improved display. Robbie Muirhead would be a certain starter for me as we need to impose ourselves on opposition defences - recently we have looked weak and have been brushed off the ball too easily. I would retain Faissal El Bakhtaoui, still looking for his first League goal since re-joining the Pars, but with the talent to light up a game. The other main issue, as mentioned above, is whether we line up with a 3-5-2 formation, or 4-4-2 or some variant. I would select Devine and Ashcroft as the central defensive pairing in a 4-4-2 formation.
The recent Irn Bru Cup game between tomorrow's teams will not act as a guideline for tomorrow, given the Pars lined up with 11 different players - mostly first team subs and under 20s - compared to the team that played the previous League game. We go into tomorrow's game knowing it will be a tough physical encounter. If we apply ourselves properly, we are more than capable of winning.
Preferred line-up: Out: Durnan, Ryan; In: Higginbotham, Muirhead.
John Robertson's team have not been prolific in front of goal but are yet to experience defeat in the few games played so far in this season's Championship. What they lack in flair, they make up for in endeavour and the ability to boss games physically. Much of their resurgent form in the second half of last season was down to an excellent defensive record and that continued into the first 2 League games with 2 clean sheets. Last week's 2-2 draw against Alloa, however, saw unexpected slackness creep in, much in the same way that Dunfermline's defence allowed Ayr to score so easily on the same day.
In the aftermatch of the draw with Alloa, John Robertson had this to say: "There's no way we should have drawn the game - we should have had it out of sight. We've tried combinations but it's getting to the stage that am I being too loyal to players? Do we need to look to the young lads who have got a bit of fire and adrenaline? I'm looking at the senior players and some of them are not giving us what we want. They're not showing us what they're capable of and are not showing that drive and energy to go and win matches."
A favourite away venue for many, not least because it provides a nostalgic trip back in time to how most provincial clubs stadiums once were, terracing and coo sheds, Somerset Park has also been a successful venue for Dunfermline in recent years, with the Pars losing just once in the last 16 visits there. While we have improved our squad this season, so too, undoubtedly, have Ayr United. Tomorrow's game may have been overshadowed online this week with all the talk and plans for Boreham Wood but the importance of the trip to Rabbie Burns country should not be underestimated.
An excellent performance against the Premiership leaders last week did not yield the deserved result, as Hearts sneaked through to the next round of the Betfred Cup after being outclassed for long periods of the game at East End Park. There was much to be encouraged by from a Dunfermline standpoint: good football was played, the defence stood firm and only bad luck and outstanding goalkeeping prevented a Pars win. The Dunfermline team may have been lifted by the large crowd, something that won't be a weekly occurrence at some of the smaller Championship grounds, or indeed at EEP when travelling supports number barely 2% of the number Hearts brought through. The team have to lift themselves again, starting tomorrow, to ensure that a good start to the season is maintained and to avoid what would be a second consecutive League defeat, after the loss to Ross County a fortnight ago.
Sean Murdoch, Lewis Martin and Tom Beadling remain injured and I expect Allan Johnston to name the same team that faced Hearts. Whereas last week I posted an expected line-up in the match preview, this week I have listed my preferred line-up. There would be one change from last week's team - Andy Ryan replacing Myles Hippolyte. At the very least, if Ryan is a substitute, I hope he is allocated more game time than the few minutes he is usually given at the end of games.
Betfred Cup group stage: 4 games, 4 wins; scored 12, conceded 1.
Betfred Cup second round: defeated Premiership Dundee 3-0 away.
Championship: 2 games - 1 win, 1 draw, scored 2, conceded 0.
Ayr United, promoted to the Championship after a last-day League 1 title win in April, have made an almost flawless start to 2018/19. Most of the focus has been on top scorer Lawrence Shankland, scorer of 29 goals last season. The striker spent a few months on loan as a Par in 2014 and after a few seasons where his career appeared to be stalling, last season he found the best goalscoring form and has already added a further 11 goals in 8 games this season. Unsurprisingly the target of other clubs, Shankland had this to say about a possible move: ''I’m enjoying my football and playing in a winning team so I don’t see why I should rush out the door. I know what I can do if I get myself into good positions. Playing for Ayr I’ll get chances and hopefully convert them.”
Last summer, the Pars first pre-season friendly took place on the grounds of the University of Glasgow. Lawrence Shankland was a trialist and was played in left midfield, making almost no impression on the game (match report can be found in this site's archives, here). Within weeks, he had signed a contract with Ayr, when it appeared as though his time as a full time player might be over, after indifferent spells on loan with St Mirren and Morton, while still under contract with Aberdeen. How quickly a player's career can be transformed. One to be watched tomorrow, for sure.
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.