Dunfermline travel up the Angus coast tomorrow in the fourth week of games of this season's Championship, looking for a first League win of the campaign. Opponents Arbroath, newly-promototed and managed by former Pars player, coach and manager Dick Campbell, have started the season well. Rated favourites for relegation before a ball was kicked, they have collected 4 points from their opening 3 games, including an important win last weekend at Alloa.
Here is the Championship table; this evening, Inverness play Morton and the Dundee derby takes place at Tannadice. Tomorrow's games see Partick host Ayr United and Queen of the South take on Alloa, in addition to the Pars' trip to Gayfield.
After winning the Betfred Cup group, and an encouraging display in the opening League game against Dundee, Dunfermline then took deserved credit for the defensive resilience shown in the narrow loss to Celtic at Parkhead in the last 16 of the Betfred competition. Prior to and following the game at Celtic Park were a pair of League games that saw the team fail to capture anything like the free-flowing form that they have shown they are capable of in other matches: a draw at Queen of the South and the disappointing nature of last week's home loss to Dundee United when, despite the good play of the opposition, Dunfermline rarely posed any real attacking threat, eventually going down 2-0.
Tomorrow's game is against one of only 2 part time sides in the division but will not be any less of a challenge than other fixtures against full-time outfits. Dick Campbell, the oldest manager in the 4 SPFL divisions, has retained the nucleus of the team who he guided to both the 2016/17 League 2 title and last season's runaway League 1 title.
The Dunfermline squad for tomorrow's match will be along familiar lines. No new faces have yet been drafted in - with the transfer window closing soon, there is still no sign of the winger we were said to be interested in several weeks ago. The trialist winger from Wednesday's Fife Cup reserve team win, 18 year old Vinnie Steels, did well and may yet join up to challenge for a first team place, but there is still a need to add more quality and experience to the squad, to supplement the mainly youthful core of the first team pool of players.
As has been the case in all games this season, Stevie Crawford has to decide whether to go with 2 strikers up front - Kevin Nisbet and Andy Ryan - or play Nisbet plus Kyle Turner in a 4-4-1-1 formation, Turner playing behind rather than alongside the main striker. There are other options - the second half of last week's game against Dundee United saw Dunfermline line up in a 4-3-3 formation, which allowed Turner to be played in the left of the midfield 3. We must find a way to accomodate Turner's talents in the starting line up - a substitute last week, he is simply too good a player to be benched, and has been utilised in different positions during his appearances either from the start or from the bench this season.
The other main selection question for tomorrow is in central defence, where fit-again Danny Devine could replace Stuart Morrison. With Euan Murray out for at least another 6 weeks, Devine's experience could be useful, after the defence looked particularly vulnerable in the United game. Tom Lang is also available as a central defensive option.
Possible Pars line-up for tomorrow's match:
After the diversion of last week's memorable trip to Parkhead in the Betfred Cup, it's back to League business tomorrow for a Pars side looking for a first win in the 2019/20 Championship after draws in the opening 2 games. We face familiar foes Dundee United who are once again aiming for promotion back to the Premiership and who have started the League season with 2 wins.
Taking the lead in both League games but ultimately having to settle for a point in each game has given Dunfermline a solid start to the Championship season. We can claim with some justification that we were robbed of a win against Dundee in the opening game by a pair of contested penalty rewards that gave the opposition a pathway back into the game. This was followed by a strangely disjointed display in the next game, at Queen of the South a fortnight ago. The resilience shown in the mainly backs-to-the-wall game against Celtic will have given the players confidence but a different approach will be required against Dundee United. We will have more possession of the ball than against Celtic and despite our poor record against United (one win in the past 22 meetings), there will clearly be a far greater expectation of winning the game than we ever realistically expected last week.
Expectation should be tempered with realism that the players in the squad are still evolving, with several starters having played less than a dozen games, either in senior football (Stuart Morrison, Josh Coley plus most of the subs bench) or at Championship level (Aaron Comrie, Kevin Nisbet, Kyle Turner). Mixed in with the younger players are a group of players in the 23-26 year age bracket (Ryan Scully, Lee Ashcroft, Lewis Martin, Tom Beadling, Andy Ryan) plus ''older heads'' Ryan Dow (28) and captain Paul Paton (32). It's a good mix of players that also includes a promising crop of teenagers pressing for involvement, among them Matty Todd, Lewis McCann and Paul Allan. Add to that other players such as Danny Devine and Tom Lang, who due to injury (Devine) and the good form of others (Lang) have not featured in competitive action so far.
One player who will be missing tomorrow, and for the next 2 months, is centre half Euan Murray. The neck injury he sustained in the final seconds of the game against Queen of the South will require time to heal and although he will be missed, central defence is an area of the team where we have several options.
Most of the current starting 11 selects itself but manager Stevie Crawford will have a decision on who to play alongside Kevin Nisbet - either Andy Ryan in a 4-4-2 or Kyle Turner playing just behind the main striker in a 4-4-1-1 formation. In left midfield, Josh Coley could replace Josh Edwards in a more attacking set-up, with Edwards are more defensive-minded player which suited the type of game we faced at Parkhead.
Possible starting line-up:
And so, into the lion's den we go. Attempting to do what no other Scottish club has done since April 2016 - defeat Celtic in a cup competition - we will travel to Parkhead tomorrow to take on Scotland's champions with a mixture of anticipation and trepidation.
Celtic exited the Champions League qualifying stage on Tuesday evening after gifting opponents Cluj the game. How will they react to this? Having scored 12 goals in their 2 League matches prior to their exit from Europe's top competition, they have the capability - domestically - to win convincingly and appease those fans who crave a future 10 in a row titles more than progression on a higher level that should be the true barometer of their club's development. In truth, Celtic have regressed rather than progressed in 2019 - appointing cheap option Neil Lennon as manager after Brendan Rodgers jumped ship at the first sign of English Premier League interest. Failure to reinvest in a fading playing squad - good enough to secure the treble treble but set to break up through a mixture of ageing and the departure of their best player - was laid bare on the field against Cluj.
So to the Pars. This game is obviously a huge test for a squad that will feature only 3 players who have played at Celtic Park before - Paul Paton, Ryan Dow and Lee Ashcroft. Ryan Scully has been there as a substitute keeper but none of our other players have played in Scotland's largest football venue. That in itself is indicative of the gulf in experience and stature of the 2 clubs' squads. There have, though, been 3 Pars victories at Celtic since 1997 and current coach Greg Shields played in all of them (1997, 2004 and 2005). We can only hope that he is a lucky charm and that he can contribute to another positive result, against the odds.
My hope for this game is to avoid a heavy defeat that could derail a promising start to our season. A win would be miraculous. Without being defeatist, any loss of less than a 5 goal margin would see us leave with pride intact and our share of the takings. We will have over 1000 fans in Celtic Park to back the team. Stevie Crawford has spoken this week of building up a bond between players and fans. Pars supporters have responded positively to the performances of the rebuilt squad and we will all go to Glasgow tomorrow as one: united, getting right behind the team and supporting them from first minute until the last.
The long trip to Dumfries tomorrow will reunite several members of the Pars squad and staff with familiar faces in the home side and dugout. Former Dunfermline manager Allan Johnston and his assistant Sandy Clark, who left East End Park in January, have returned to Queen of the South, where they had a successful spell as management duo earlier in this decade. Johnston likes familiarity and has implemented his well-known signing policy of bringing in players he has worked with in the past: ex-Pars Michael Paton, signed after being released by League 1 Dumbarton, and - today - Faissal El Bakhtaoui.
Dunfermline made another scintillating start to a game last Friday, going 2-0 up on Dundee in the opening fixture of the 2019/20 SPFL Championship before eventually having to settle for a point in a 2-2 draw. In 5 competitive games this season - 4 in the Betfred Cup, 1 in the League - the Pars have scored 13 first half goals, compared to 2 goals in the second half of those games. The ability to hit teams hard straight out of the traps has been successful overall: lesser teams (Albion Rovers and East Kilbride) being unable to respond, but better quality opposition (St Mirren, who at 3-0 down lost 3-2) then Dundee showed that whatever the reasons are for not replicating the first half performances, there is always a danger of being open to an opposition comeback as the game progresses.
No complaints, though - which should be the mantra for our season - allowing this mainly youthful squad a chance to develop without undue pressure. We are seeing a new beginning with an exciting group of players and while there will be bumps in the road, the journey itself will be well worth participating in.
The Pars' line up for tomorrow will almost certainly be along familiar lines: despite Danny Devine, Tom Lang and Josh Edwards being given valuable game time in the midweek friendly against Burntisland Shipyard (report here), the defence should remain unchanged, along with the midfield. Up front, Kyle Turner is available again after missing the Dundee game through a 1 game suspension carried over from his Stranraer days last season. Turner, Andy Ryan and Lewis McCann are all competing for the support striker slot up front with Kevin Nisbet, who has made such an impressive start to his Pars career.
Whether or not you regard the Betfred Cup as an extension of pre-season, the real thing is most definitely back tomorrow evening at EEP in front of the BBC cameras with Dunfermline hosting newly-relegated Dundee in the opening game of this season's SPFL Championship. Both clubs will be aiming for promotion, although the Pars camp have noticably avoided setting any targets in public, the type that can backfire should the team subsequently underperform.
The Pars' summer clearout has been a case of so far, so good, with the new-look team topping their Betfred Cup group and scoring 13 goals in the process. As stated often here and elsewhere, the youthful nucleus of the squad will inevitable lead to results fluctuating, meaning that patience - a commodity not too well-known amongst football fans in general - will be needed: the team have shown in the few games they have played together that when on their game, they can be formidable; but they are also capable of an off day, as evidenced in the defeat at Edinburgh City.
As fans, we can take heart from the enthusiasm in the squad, a stark contrast from the shameful group some of the players who wore the black and white last season, the bulk of them thankfully gone - wasters who pulled out of tackles and were not worthy of the jersey. The new signings have injected life, vitality and new belief into the club. We may struggle at times but we can look forward to seeing a squad that will never let us down in terms of effort. No scapegoats this season: let's all get behind what Stevie Crawford, Greg Shields and Jason Dair are trying to achieve. Enjoy the ride, even if there are bumps in the road.
The team for tomorrow's game will almost certainly be that which started against East Kilbride last weekend, except for Andy Ryan replacing the suspended Kyle Turner, unavailable due to bookings picked up last season when at Stranraer.
Expected starting 11:
Dundee replaced former Pars boss Jim McIntyre with veteran defender James McPake in the days before the final Premiership game of last season, with the club already relegated. McPake, who had announced his retirement from playing due to injury, was promoted from the coaching staff into his first management role.
The Dens Park club are second favourites to win the Championship this season, with average odds across all major bookies of 17/5 - compared to title favourites Dundee United, rated at an average of 7/4. Dunfermline are rated fifth favourites at 10-1.
After attending Dundee's Betfred Cup game at home to St Mirren on Sunday (you can watch Ben's vlog of the game here), I was impressed by their strength - particularly in central defence - but felt they lacked guile in attack. New signing Danny Johnson will be their main threat and scored the game's only goal.
Match report will be posted in the hours after the game tomorrow.
All photos on this page were taken by Pars Review.