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The Championship - First Quarter Report


hislopsoffsideagain

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I don't care what anyone else says, the Championship is the most interesting division in the SPFL. What's that you say? "You're only saying that because the team you support is top of the table"? That's an outrageous allegation that I can neither confirm nor deny at this time.


We are now nine games, or one quarter, of the way through the season. So here's a breakdown of how the ten clubs are faring, with a grading system shamelessly stolen from the legendary Tell Him He's Pele site of years gone by...



ARBROATH    A

If anyone needs reminding, Arbroath are a part-time team. This is their third season at this level but they are not only surviving but thriving. They are outside the promotion playoffs only on goal difference and their only two defeats are to the clubs first and second in the table. I simply cannot overstate how incredible this is. This is the strongest team they've probably ever had, though they will find it hard to replace the outstanding striker Joel Nouble when he inevitably returns to parent club Livingston in January. Nouble has deservedly got the headlines for his terrific play which has also brought out the best in Michael McKenna, who has seven goals already after scoring only six in the league in the previous two seasons combined. More under the radar is Nicky Low, the former Aberdeen prodigy who had been strolling around the Lowland League until last Spring and yet is the closest thing this level has to a quarterback. His range of passing has made the Red Lichties more expansive and his superb set pieces give them yet another type of threat. Add in the traditional Dick Campbell levels of organization and you get a club which put many far better resourced peers to shame.


AYR UNITED    C-
Teams are (and correctly so) often pilloried for sacking a manager as early as September. However United got it right by binning David Hopkin after a dreadful start where they took a single point from their opening four matches and Hoppy seemed to blame the supporters for their struggles. Since Jim Duffy took over there's been three victories and a jump into mid-table. There's no question Ayr are now better organised and less likely to cause your eyes to bleed, though Hoppyball set the bar pretty low there. The recent 4-0 thumping by Partick Thistle exposed their limitations though. The biggest concern is the lack of quality and balance in the squad Duffy inherited, which is desperately short on central midfielders. Up front Tomi Adeloye looks like the only potent goal threat. Expect reinforcements in January which will determine whether they can steer clear of a relegation battle.


DUNFERMLINE ATHLETIC    F

Bottom of the league and still winless, Dunfermline couldn't even get through the international break without shooting themselves in the foot. Peter Grant's insistence last week that the Pars could still win the Championship (a 500-1 possibility according to the bookies) was relatively small beer compared to the spectacularly ill-thought out statement released by the board the week before which seemed to defend the hapless manager whilst slagging off the supporters at the same time. The draw at the weekend against Kilmarnock was a welcome improvement but is it an aberration or a sign of a corner turned? Whilst the takeover by a German consortium did not have the fans expecting the next Franz Beckenbauer, this squad is supposed to be challenging at the top end rather than propping up the table. It's not unfair to point the finger of blame at the dugout; Grant has brought in roughly a million central defenders, fell out with Dom Thomas shortly after making him captain, took too long to drop calamity keeper Deniz Mehmet and persisted for ages with playing widemen through the middle. It's also worth noting that the team look better without injured marquee signing Graham Dorrans, whose main contribution so far is to get in a slagging match with some supporters after another defeat. It can get better, but it is unlikely to do so until Grant is replaced.


GREENOCK MORTON    C-

As if being ninth wasn't concerning enough, the fact that Morton fans consider keeper Jack Hamilton to have been their best player so far this season is probably not a good sign. Gus MacPherson won more matches during the relegation playoffs at the end of last season (three) than he has done in sixteen Championship matches as manager (two). The glass-half full view is that MacPherson is still integrating some intriguing last minute loan signings in defender Oisin McEntee, wide players Jaakko Oksanen and Tom Allan and striker Gavin Reilly. A more realistic take is that this is a young and thin squad; Kyle Jacobs aside, the midfield is very raw while among the forwards only Reilly has a pedigree for scoring regularly at this level. If their hitherto impressive goalie hits a patch of dicey form as he so often has in his career, the Ton could be in for a ton of trouble.


HAMILTON ACADEMICAL    D

It's not unusual for newly-relegated sides to struggle to find their feet in the early weeks of the Championship season. They don't usually hit the skids as spectacularly as Accies though. Brian Rice's departure after two matches hasn't helped - not that the fans minded - and any hopes that a win over ICT was the sign they'd turned a corner evaporated in a 6-1 shellacking at home to Partick Thistle. That victory over Inverness is the team's only home triumph since opening day weekend. The truth is that this is a remarkably weak squad given the club spent the previous seven seasons in the top flight. At the back Mihai Popescu looks more like the jobber that won this league with Hearts than the titan who won it with St. Mirren, Shaun Want is yet to find his level and highly-related youngster Jamie Hamilton's progress has stagnated and loanee Luke Matheson looks lost. Lewis Smith and Josh Mullen are bright sparks but otherwise the midfield has struggled, though this might improve when Lewis Spence gets fit and Miko Virtanen is played in his more natural deeper role. And up top the long-term injuries that have limited forwards David Templeton and Andy Winter to one start between them have left them dreadfully blunt with just Andy Ryan and David Moyo to pick from. Still, are they really so weak that they could go down again? Surely not...


INVERNESS CALEDONIAN THISTLE    A

ICT are not only top of the table but five points clear, which makes it all the more remarkable that they have blown their opponents away in only one half of football so far - the second forty-five at home to Partick Thistle. Otherwise they've proven adept at grinding out results, often getting in front and seeing out the game with relative comfort and control without really getting out of second gear. It could be argued that there is plenty of room for improvement, but is just as possible that they could regress to the mean. It feels a far cry from the intial poor results and performances in the League Cup under Billy Dodds though; after some rocky defending in those matches the Kirk Broadfoot-marshalled backline has turned into a strength. Mark Ridgers is the sort of reliable keeper that many clubs would die for, and the most important veteran is ex-Ross County midfielder Michael Gardyne who has chipped in with four goals. A more reliable goalscorer would really make this team dangerous - Billy Mckay is threatening to fill this role having finally got a run in the team - and whilst it is debatable if they have the depth to stay at the top all season one would suspect a few quid could be found behind the sofa for reinforcements if they are in the mix come January.


KILMARNOCK    B-

Tommy Wright essentially signed a new team following relegation and so it maybe shouldn't be that surprising that Killie are still a work in progress. That said, the club's budget is light years ahead of their peers and so expectations are, and should be, higher than third in the table at this point. Has Wright found his best team yet, or even his best formation? He seemed to start out with a 4-2-3-1 which would bring the best out of Liam Polworth but difficulty in breaking down deep-lying opponents, plus attacking reinforcements, has led back to 4-4-2. With Oli Shaw, Callum Hendry and Scott Robinson available up front they now look far more lethal and yet in recent games against Raith and Dunfermline they've started letting in soft goals at the other end. That should be easily fixable though; the trick for Wright will be to reduce the dependence on Chris Burke - 38 in December - for creativity. Both Blair Alston and Fraser Murray need to step up to the plate. But Kilmarnock remain the odds-on favourites for promotion for good reason.


PARTICK THISTLE    A-

120 goals have been scored so far in the Championship. 37 of them - nearly a third - have been either for or against Thistle. They have been as entertaining as that sounds. Veteran targetman Brian Graham and young predator Zak Rudden have twelve league goals between them so far, more than seven of the clubs in this division have managed. Scott Tiffoney has been electric on the wing. At the other end of the park keepers Jamie Sneddon and Harry Stone have both blundered on occasions and the back four look decidedly dodgy and exposed. Ian McCall seems to have made his peace with this and is unwilling to sacrifice attacking edge for defensive stability, at least for now. Certainly Thistle can consider themselves to be challengers at the top end of the table and have the right to believe they can emulate the example of Livingston a few years back and win back-to-back promotions. 


QUEEN OF THE SOUTH    C

What are appropriate expectations for the Doonhamers? They may be full-time, but this is a squad built mainly by taking fliers on young players from the lower divisions or from outside Scotland. Some, such as striker Lee Connelly (admittedly on loan in this division at Alloa from Sunderland last season) or central defender Roberto Nditi (signed from Forfar Athletic) have been spectacular successes. But most are either still finding their feet or never will. And of the two signings most likely to be described as 'marquee' Aidan Fitzpatrick can at least claim he is still short of match fitness after joining last month but ex-Hearts starlet Harry Cochrane looks like his confidence is completely shot. It's never a good sign when the manager is still changing formations and deciding on his best XI nearly three months in - Wullie Gibson has played in about half-a-dozen different positions already and whilst QOS are seventh in the table they have lost more matches than anyone else and it feels as if they are heavily dependent on Connolly for goals. If he can't keep it up, they will be in a tough spot.


RAITH ROVERS    A-

After Regan Hendry left in the summer and Lewis Vaughan injured his knee again, Rovers were expected to regress. In fact they've barely missed a beat. John McGlynn has stuck with a crisp passing game where the full-backs are encouraged to be extremely adventurous - in the win at Rugby Park Liam Dick scored and Reghan Tumilty set up a late goal with a lung-busting run up the pitch - and wingers Dario Zanatta and Aidan Connolly drive infield. Zanatta looks back to his best after two rotten seasons at Partick and Ayr. In defence Christophe Berra has looked far more comfortable (and far less exposed?) than he did at Hearts last season and has quickly formed a good partnership with Kyle Benedictus, while Jamie MacDonald is still a fine keeper. It's a marker of the progress the club are making that they were able to sign ex-Aberdeen midfielder Ethan Ross last week; when he is up to speed his arrival protects nicely against the impending exit of Dylan Tait in January to Hibs. Raith's obvious weakness is up top where loanees Ethan Varian and Matej Poplatnik put in big shifts but rarely look like scoring. Regardless of that this is a side who are certainly one of the best in this league.


Lawrie Spence has whinged about Scottish football on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007. He has a life outside this blog. Honestly.

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