Tenth plays seventh in this weekend's Championship fixture at the Falkirk Stadium. The home side have been in the bottom 2 positions since almost the first week of the season, while Dunfermline are the definition of inconsistency.
Here is the current Championship table:
Lose, lose, draw, win; lose, lose, win, lose, draw, draw. That's the Pars' sequence of results in the League since mid October, and typifies the inability of the team to put together anything close to a run of positive results. As a consequence, we are in seventh place, almost the same number of points from the edge of the top 4 as we are from the relegation positions. The last two games in which we played the teams then at the foot of the table (Falkirk and Partick Thistle) we lost, but on a more positive note we go into tomorrow's game looking for a third consecutive win at Falkirk, after victories at the home of our rivals in April and October this year - which ended a 7 year wait for a win away against the Bairns.
The last time the teams met, on the 10th of November at East End Park, Falkirk won 1-0 for what must be the worst result of our season so far. Falkirk have yet to win a League game at home this season. That win simply cannot come this weekend. It is crucial for our season to win this game. Failure to do so will see morale plummet to a new low. We must win.
Team, formation etc
Injured: Louis Longridge, Andy Ryan, Aidan Connolly
With Andy Ryan becoming the latest Pars player to require an operation this season, options up front - by far the weakest area of the team - are limited. The defence could see the return of Ryan Williamson, who was injured last week. I would expect to see the same line up in defence and midfield as last week. In attack, changes could be made but the options only highlight how important the January transfer window will be.
Formation: the 4-3-3 used during last week's second half could be worth trying again, with Kallum Higginbotham on the left of the front 3.
My preferred lineup:
Falkirk's season has been a continuous struggle before and after the sacking of manager Paul Hartley at the end of August. His replacement, Ray McKinnon, has been pragmatic in his approach, making it clear that he is trying to grind out results with the players at his disposal. No doubt we will see much activity at Falkirk over the next month. Former Scotland fullback Paul Dixon has signed a contract that will begin on 1st January and there will be more to follow. In the lead up to this weekend's game, McKinnon had this to say:
"If we can get the pieces of the puzzle in January, we'll definitely play a different system. We have pace and energy in the current squad but we need to mix that with different players who can hold the ball and also attack on the wing. We're playing with spirit, we're organised and we go into the game full of optimism."
Seventh plays first in tomorrow's Championship match at East End Park, with leaders Ayr United featuring a host of former Pars players in their squad. After having the upper hand over Ayr in recent seasons, including in League 1, Dunfermline go into this game as underdogs, and up against the country's second top scorer, Lawrence Shankland, a player we had on loan 4 years ago and who also had an unsuccessful trial with DAFC in the summer of 2017.
Here is the current Championship table:
The season rolls along, with a mixture of the occasional win, a few draws and some defeats, leaving the team in seventh place, 15 points behind leaders Ayr, who have a game in hand. At the start of the season, it would have been unthinkable that come the end of the calander year, we would be - potentially - around 20 points behind an Ayr side that gained promotion from League 1 in May. Just as Livingston did last season, Ayr are proof that having a budget that can't compare to the bigger spenders in the division does not mean that you can't defeat these opponents. Organisation, team spirit, excellent player recruitment and good management are enough to succeed in this division.
Team, formation etc
Injured: Andy Ryan, Aidan Connolly, Louis Longridge, Lewis Martin (ill)
There has been no mention from Allan Johnston of the absence of Robbie Muirhead from last week's squad, or his availability this week. Tomorrow's team will probably not be changed much, or at all, from the 11 that started against Queen of the South. Lack of reserve games is not helping the reintroduction of Mark Durnan into the first team. On a positive note, Tom Beadling completed his first 90 minutes of the season for the first team last week and will hopefully go onto be a big influence in midfield. In a 4-4-2 formation, Joe Thomson may play as an auxiliary left winger with James Vincent alongside Beadling in the middle of the park, with Kallum Higginbotham on the right; another option is to play 4-3-3 with Vincent, Beadling and Thomson in midfield and Higgy, Faissal and Aidan Keena up front. So with no changes from last week, here's my preferred Pars starting 11:
Ayr have been the surprise team of the Championship so far this season, defying odds of being second favourites for relegation before the season began. Currently sitting top of the division, they retained the nucleus of their League 1 winning side of last season, supplemented by a few well-scouted additions including Andy Murdoch, Daniel Harvie plus on-loan Celtic keeper Ross Doohan. Their squad contains 6 ex-Pars - Lawrence Shankland, Michael Moffat, Andy Geggan, Mark Kerr, Steven Bell and Chris Higgins, and of course manager Ian McCall, who had 2 spells as a player with Dunfermline in the 1980s and 1990s. Shankland has scored an incredible 28 goals in 24 games (League & Cup) this season, one goal behind Queen of the South's Stephen Dobbie, whose 29 goals have come in the same number of games.
Last week, Ayr drew 3-3 with Ross County after leading 3-1. McACall had this to say after the game:
“The first half was a great game of football and we were disappointed only to be 3-1 up, we played really well. The toss was vital today and we lost it. In the second half, the wind got up and the rain came and we were kicking right into it. The second half was a nightmare.
''But all credit to Ross County, they changed and went long ball and I have no issues with that and got a couple of goals. After that we changed and defended better. They still had chances but we had the best chance of the second half with Liam Smith - he has got to score from three yards out.
“I am not disappointed with the point. I knew the toss was going to be vital because of the way the weather changed but we will take a point and move on. We are still top of the league with a game in hand.”
Asked about rumoured interest in Shankland from clubs in England, McCall said: "Our chairman has gone on record saying we had received a bid of £200,000 that he immediately turned down. The only way the chairman will change is if someone offers ridiculous money like £500,000 plus for him.”
Fourth plays seventh in Dumfries tomorrow - weather permitting, with heavy snow and 45mph winds forecast for the hours before and during the game. Should the game go ahead, hosts Queens will be without their talisman Stephen Dobbie through injury, while the Pars will aim to end a difficult week for the club with the much needed boost that a win would bring.
Here is the current Championship table:
Stale performances on the pitch and a statement from the club chairman that highlighted off-field problems between the club and a minority of supporters: it's not been a great week and the game tomorrow will be another test of the team, management and the mood of the fans. There is a sense of despondency around the club at the moment, caused by a prolonged spell of poor results, with the manager's popularity declining alongside the fortunes of his team.
Only 4 points out of a play-off position but also not completely detached from the teams below us, a win at Palmerston - a venue where we are unbeaten in the last 5 visits - could be pivotal for our season; the difference between a gap of 1 point, or 7 once the game is over.
Whatever the result, here's what I hope for this weekend - a tweet I sent last night: thanks to the people who have responded to it. There's been enough of the wrong kind of drama surrounding the club - let's get back to the football! Here's the tweet:
Team, formation etc
After a decent display at home to Morton 2 weeks ago, certain players under-performed at Partick last week, with the midfield in particular a disappointment. For tomorrow's game, I would bring in Kallum Higginbotham - now free from suspension - to replace James Craigen on the right midield, and give Tom Beadling a first League start of the season, replacing James Vincent. The rest of the team remains unchanged, partly due to lack of options. Mark Durnan will be a contender, but may not be fit enough to start.
QUEEN OF THE SOUTH
The perennial midtable Championship team, Queens have slipped into the top 4 almost unnoticed. Losing top scorer Stephen Dobbie to injury - possibly out for a month - will be a huge blow for them, as is the absence of Gary Harkins, also through injury. Despite that, boss Gary Naysmith will be confident going into the game and he had this to say this week in the lead-up to the match: ''For the club to be in the top 4 in the second week in December, everyone deserves a lot of praise. They're a super group of players and work really hard. We've played 16 games in the League this season and if you add the last 3 from last season, we've only lost 4. That's good consistency."
Asked about this weekend's game, Naysmith said: '' Dunfermline will feel they need to pick up points or they're going to become detached. There's a lot for both us and them to play for. As it stands just now, there's a lot of teams eyeing that fourth place and we're one of them. We want to close the gap on the teams above us and if we can do that we'll also open up a bigger gap on teams like Dunfermline, Falkirk and Partick Thistle. It's as simple as that.''
Tenth plays seventh in tomorrow's Championship match at Firhill. Pre-season, few would have expected to find both sides in the lower half of the table in December, and certainly not Thistle in last place. All of Thistle's wins have been at home, while the Pars have a better away record than at home, which may suggest a draw is the most likely outcome tomorrow. A Dunfermline victory could put us within touching distance of the top 4, while a Thistle win could see them move off the bottom of the division.
Here is the current Championship table. Leaders Ayr United play Inverness this evening.
Last week's resounding 3-0 win at home to Morton was both welcome and almost essential in terms of our season. The confidence supplied by an early goal - the direct outcome of a willingness to shoot from distance - will hopefully follow the players to Glasgow, over 5 years since our last visit there. The team produced a very good first half performance last weekend, going into the break 2-0 ahead, and while the second period was less noteworthy, the Pars goal was rarely threatened and a third goal was added late on to round off an overdue home victory.
The club's directors have faith in Allan Johnston and while the dismal home form (pre-Morton) in particular has done little for the manager's popularity in the stands, ultimately his success is our success: I felt there was a need for a change last month but despite that, still hope that Johnston can be successful this season, as the club is far bigger and more important than any perception of the manager.
Team, formation etc
Due to 6 players being unavailable last weekend, the lack of options available to the manager ended up being a blessing in disguise. To his credit, he sensibly chose James Craigen in right midfield instead of Myles Hippolyte, and his lineup was a great balance of hard work and inventiveness. There is no need to contemplate any changes for tomorrow's game. Johnston rarely changes a winning team in any case. Most of the missing players from last week are still not ready for selection but I would retain the same 11 players regardless of that. It was encouraging to see Robbie Muirhead give a decent display on the left, plus the tenacious Joe Thomson was the driving force in midfield.
Relegated last season and in danger of enduring a repeat this term, Thistle have struggled from the outset of the League campaign. After sacking long-term boss Alan Archibald in October, new manager Gary Caldwell has had a dreadful start to his time in charge - just 1 point gathered from his first 6 games, scoring just 2 goals in those games.
Caldwell praised his team's performance in last weekend's 1-0 defeat at Queen of the South, finding positives to take from another loss: ''We are the only ones who can change it. You have to dig in and stay together. There are positives in how we're playing. We've lost and are frustrated. It's just not going for us. We are very close to getting it right and have to keep believing.
“The support I’ve felt from the board here and the honesty and openness of the whole football club has been refreshing and excites me for the future. We’re trying to implement certain things that we are changing within the football club, but it doesn’t happen overnight.
''Certain things we have changed are getting better, but the fans don’t see that. They see the result on a Saturday, and I understand their disappointment and their frustration. But it is coming.”