Few would have predicted that after a combined 14 League games, Dunfermline and Falkirk would have recorded only 3 victories, 2 of which came last weekend. Occupying 2 of the 3 bottom positions in the Championship, both clubs still target promotion this season - Falkirk stated as much when replacing manager Paul Hartley with Ray McKinnon - and the same message is a regular part of Pars boss Allan Johnston's weekly mantra in his pre-game interview, the latest of which can be seen here.
Here is the current Championship table:
Last Friday evening saw the Pars record a League win for the first time since the opening weekend. The game itself - a 1-0 slog against Partick Thistle - was fairly forgettable with the exception of the last 10 minutes when both teams awoke from their slumber and began to attack. Clearly we need to see more of this, spread over the full 90 minutes, for even with an improved defensive return in the past 4 weeks (one goal conceded in 4 games), the entertainment factor has been consistently low.
The reserve game on Tuesday against Dundee saw Dunfermline win 5-0 and a welcome 90 minutes for Tom Beadling - his first full game since returning from injury - in addition to game time for Robbie Muirhead, who has yet to reach match fitness since joining the club at the end of August. Beadling may not be quite fit enough to be considered for a starting place against Falkirk but his imminent return will be a huge boost for the team: the prospect of a central midfield pairing of Beadling and Malaury Martin is very promising for our ambitions this season.
PARS TEAM, FORMATION ETC
Ryan Williamson may come back into the starting 11 after returning to the squad as an unused sub last week, following a spell out injured. That would mean either a shift back to midfield for stand-in fullback James Craigen, unless the manager retains his current midfield selections, with Craigen then dropping to the bench. Midfield is certainly the most competitive area of the team for a starting slot - Joe Thomson impressed when coming off the bench last week and could feature tomorrow. The rest of the defence picks itself, and up front it would be a surprise if the current pairing of Faissal El Bakhtaoui and Andy Ryan did not start the game tomorrow. Faissal, yet to score a League goal, still remains a better option than Myles Hippolyte or Muirhead.
I would bring Williamson back into the starting 11 but change the shape of the team to a 4-3-1-2 formation rather than last week's 4-4-2, with Louis Longridge playing behind the front 2 as opposed to the right wing, where I fell he lacks the speed or aggression to get past a fullback. This would mean a more compact midfield of James Vincent, Malaury Martin and Aidan Connolly.
Here is my preferred Pars line-up:
After jumping ship from Morton in controversial circumstances, Ray McKinnon recorded his first win as Falkirk boss at Alloa last Saturday. His team still sit last in the table but will look towards tomorrow's game as a chance to cut the gap above them to a couple of points. McKinnon signed former Hearts midfielder Prince Buaben this week and had this to say about his new signing and the chances of signing other out of contract players:
“Prince has played at a good level, he is a very good footballer. He has great stature, he’s a big lad who is comfortable on the ball with bags of experience. That is everything we need at the moment. I think he’ll turn out to be a really good signing for us.
“If there are people still available that can make us better, then we’ll certainly be looking at them. There are still a lot of players out there looking for clubs and trying to do certain things, who were maybe looking to go abroad, that could be options.
“We are still looking, we need to. My job is to continually improve Falkirk Football Club and I’ll look at people at any time of the season if I think they can improve us.''
After 6 League games, the Pars and Partick - who both began the season with Premiership aspirations - occupy eighth and sixth positions in the table, several places behind surprise leaders Ayr United. Thistle can narrow that gap with what would be a first away win (and points) of the season, while Dunfermline look to win a League game for the first time since the opening round of fixtures.
Here is the current Championship table:
Five League games without a win and no victories at home in this season's Championship do not make good reading for Pars boss Allan Johnston, who has seen his team struggle after an encouraging start to the season in the League Cup, which was then followed up with a win at Tannadice in the first League game. Winless since and lack of goals have derailed the Pars season but Johnston will be encouraged by the team's display against Morton last week. Changes to the starting 11 paid off, with midfielder Malaury Martin particularly impressive and Andy Ryan, wasted on the bench for much of this season, scoring his 4th goal of the season, and averaging a goal every 91 minutes this term in his limited time on the pitch. Ryan will hope to celebrate his birthday weekend (he turns 24 on Saturday) with a goal this evening, in a game that is being shown live on BBC Alba.
This is the second of a 3 game period that could be pivotal in Dunfermline's season, and for the manager's future. After the draw at Cappielow, which should have resulted in a win but for a goalkeeping error late in the game, the focus on both this evening's game and next weekend's trip to bottom of the table Falkirk becomes even greater. In terms of tonight, ordinarily a draw against a side just relegated from the Premiership would be an acceptable result, but in the context of Dunfermline's season, we have to start winning, especially at home. What happens tonight will then have a bearing on the significance of next week's game - but for now, we can only concentrate on tonight, under the floodlights and live on television, and secure a first home win of the season in the League.
PARS TEAM, FORMATION ETC
There were encouraging signs at Cappielow last week despite a late Morton equaliser denying the Pars a deserved 3 points. Malaroury Martin, Aidan Connolly and Andy Ryan were brought into the starting 11 and should all retain their places for this evening's game. Ryan Williamson, who missed the Morton game through injury, is fit and could replace James Craigen at right back. Tom Beadling, on the bench last week, is still not match fit but Danny Devine is available again after 3 weeks out of the squad through injury then illness.
I would select the same team as last week, and hope to see a continuation of the passing game that was so effective against Morton.
Here is my preferred Pars line-up:
Relegated from the Premiership after losing to Livingston in the play-off final last season, Thistle retained manager Alan Archibald and began the season as one of the favourites to win the 2018/19 Championship. Strong home form (3 wins from 3 games) but a poor away record (losing all 3 matches) sees Thistle in a mid-table position but only 4 points off the lead, with a chance to enter the top 3 should they win this evening's game. A summer clear-out following that relegation did not include old standbys such as Kris Doolan and Chris Erskine, who will once again be important figures for Archibald's team. Striker Doolan has been with Thistle since 2009, making 358 appearances and scoring 114 goals, while midfielder Erskine, who also joined the club in 2009 but who had a spell with Dundee United in season 2013/14 before returning to Firhill, has made 260 appearances for Thistle, with 53 goals.
Thistle have been frustrated in their bid to bring in former Kilmarnock striker Souleymane Coulibaly from Egyptian club Al Alhy, with the Egyptian FA refusing to grant an international transfer certificate. Coulibaly attempted to break his contract with the Egyptian club and was ordered by FIFA to pay compensation to Al Ahly, which he has not yet done. In the meantime, Thistle are unable to register the player and he has been training with a junior club in Ayrshire to maintain his fitness.
Sixth plays eighth in tomorrow's Championship match at Cappielow with Morton playing under new manager Jonatan Johansson for the first time at home. Allan Johnston will remove his tracksuit from its shoogly peg and aim for a second League victory of the season and the first since opening day. Neither side have been prolific in front of goal but Morton have by far the better defensive record going into the game.
Here is the current Championship table:
Two successive clean sheets, against Boreham Wood and Alloa, have provided some type of basis for an improvement in results providing we can also find a way to score at the other end. Tomorrow's game will provide a far stiffer test than we have faced on the past 2 Saturdays. Morton have assembled a decent squad with players such as Denny Johnstone, Chris Millar, Jim McAlister and Michael Tidser, all of whom are better than dependable Championship players, the type that could help the Greenock team sneak into a top 4 promotion play-off place come the end of the season. To achieve a positive result in this game, we will need a much improved performance from the Pars team than we have watched over the past few weeks, one that echoes the best of this season: the games against Dundee and Dundee United away and Hearts at home.
PARS TEAM, FORMATION ETC
Ryan Williamson is an injury doubt for tomorrow but assuming he is fit, I would move James Craigen to right midfield, and play a 4-4-1-1 system with Louis Longridge playing just behind Faissal. I hope to see the ball on the grass as opposed to rising and dipping in the Renfrewshire air, and with that in mind I have selected Aidan Connolly on the left wing. Let's not ask our top striker to battle in the air with much taller and more physical opponents, but instead get the ball on the ground and pass, pass, pass.
Here is my preferred Pars line-up:
After manager Ray McKinnon jumped ship to Falkirk, Morton were quick to appoint Jonatan Johansson as McKinnon's replacement. The former Finnish international striker, who had a period as Morton's youth team coach in 2012, is in his first managerial role after a coaching roles at Motherwell (2012-2015) and then as assistant manager for both the Finnish international team and Rangers.
Johansson's first game in charge of Morton ended in a 1-1 draw at Tannadice, losing an equaliser in injury time. After the game, he had this to say:
''We have to be clinical when we are on top and have chances. We also have to learn how important the small details are in set plays and how important it is to get the second goal when teams against us are taking risks. When you're leading, game management is a skill and is something we need to get better at.''
Regarding his team selection, Johansson said: ''It's easy to look too much into your opponents' strengths. We have to line up in a way that we can hurt them: be positive, get the ball into their half. If you sit back, it is a negative and gives the opponents confidence.''
Two clubs with different pre-season expectations play each other tomorrow with only 1 League place separating an under-performing Dunfermline side from visitors Alloa, the Championship's only part-time team. After a winless run of games, tomorrow represents a must-win for Allan Johnston.
Here is the current Championship table:
No wins since the opening day of the League season and the country's second worst goals against record: the past month has been a huge disappointment for all concerned with Dunfermline. Shipping goals to opposing teams who have not had to play particularly well has been a recurrent theme. A first clean sheet in 8 games (League and Cups) and a penalty shoot out win in last weekend's goalless draw at Boreham Wood in the Irn Bru Cup could not disguise the lack of quality football being played during the 90 minutes. The early League Cup performances hinted at a bright season ahead, and it is that type of form that must be recaptured, starting this weekend.
The team formation reverted to 4-4-2 last Saturday but as Allan Johnston admitted, that was mainly due to lack of central defenders to play the familiar 3-5-2. The manager has 2 centre halves available to him - unless Danny Devine recovers from injury - with Lewis Martin and Stuart Morrison (injured in last week's pre-match warm up) also unfit. So expect 4-4-2 tomorrow, but with no Kallum Higginbotham, out for a few weeks after a groin operation this week.
Here is my preferred Pars line-up; lack of options in central defence means the only 2 fit centre halves must play; I have selected Myles Hippolyte on the right wing to replace the injured Higginbotham:
No League victories but proving a hard team to beat, Alloa have made a decent start to their season, with draws against Inverness and Dundee United. As Brechin City found out last season, getting that elusive first win is all important but I do not expect Alloa to be "this season's Brechin".
Alloa boss Jim Goodwin guided his team to promotion through the play-offs at the end of last season and had this to say about his team in the build up to tomorrow's game:
“The character is there and that’s brilliant but we can’t keep going a goal behind and relying on coming back. We need to be a bit more clinical in the final third. There were plenty of positives, but we do need to start taking our chances.
“We are creating chances, there’s no doubt about it. The likes of Greig Spence and Dario Zanatta just need to get up and running and then we’ll be fine. It would be a lot worse if we weren’t creating the chances.”
And so the adventure begins: a trip to Hertfordshire, in a Cup many derided (including myself) but let's not pretend it's about the Irn Bru Cup - this is a weekend away, an overnight bus journey and a further overnight in a hotel before we lurch back northwards on Sunday. It's a 48 hour period not likely to be repeated any time soon.
A second string Pars team knocked out Irn Bru Cup holders Inverness in the last round but for this weekend's game, manager Allan Johnston has confirmed that he will field a strong team, partly due to the height and physicality of our opponents Boreham Wood and also because a win would boost morale: this is not a game for a team made up of mainly teenagers. Ryan Williamson is on international duty with Scotland Under 21s; Sean Murdoch, Lewis Martin and Tom Beadling are at various stages of recovery from their injury problems. AJ mentioned 'one or two injury niggles' who will not be risked but it's not known who those players are. I have selected a team, posted below, with mostly first team starters plus a couple of players who need game time, having been substitutes in recent weeks.
Boreham Wood (the football club separate the names, unlike the name of the town itself) narrowly missed out on promotion to the Football League last season, losing the play-off final at Wembley to Tranmere. This pre-season, Tranmere visited EEP and scored 4 times against us, so we have some idea of the level of opponent. Our hosts this weekend are slight favourites to win the game with most bookies.
The competition represents a chance to win a trophy and is a break from the norm, the humdrum, the over-familiarity that plagues Scottish football - do we need to play (for example) Dundee United AGAIN? We will enjoy it for what it is, and those of us lucky enough to be going will long remember our 3am stop-off at some service station in Middlesbrough or some other town. The game itself will fade from the memory long before the good times we will recall about our weekend in Borehamwood.
Preferred starting 11 (4-4-2 formation):
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.