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The Championship - Second Quarter Report



I did it for the first 9 games, so the law dictates that I have to do it again: here's a look at the second quarter of the Championship season.



First, a caveat: whilst Arbroath are indeed part-time, this is not a bunch of guys playing for expenses money and a post-game booze up. Dick Campbell's squad contains plenty of players who could - should - be at full-time clubs but who probably make more money from the combination of football and a day job than plenty of full-time players at this level. Not only that, but they get Campbell's expert tuition. Arbroath are unquestionably the best coached and best drilled team defensively in this division, but on top of that they have quality in every area. They have lost just once since opening day, and despite missing playmaker Nicky Low for most of the last two months they actually scored more points in the second quarter of the season than in the first. Whilst it may indeed be a sad indictment of some of the wealthier clubs in the Championship, Arbroath are top of the table on merit. Can they stay there? Joel Nouble's return to parent club Livingston will make things a lot harder. But Campbell has already said he has replacements lined up. Logic says they will run out of steam eventually, especially if Covid leads to postponements and a fixture backlog. But it would be foolish to bet against them doing the impossible and winning the league,


The first quarter report was focussed on the dismissal of David Hopkin; remarkably, the second quarter one comes a few days after Ayr punted Hopkin's replacement, Jim Duffy, after 104 days in charge (including as caretaker). United picked up seven points in Duffy's three games as interim manager and only seven more in the eleven games since. The fact they are still as high as eighth is more a reflection on the struggles of the sides around them. Expect Ayr to be extremely busy in January with new Chief Executive Graeme Mathie (recently of Hibs) and the new boss - Marvin Bartley and Darren O'Dea have been linked - working to get some balance and quality into a squad which lacks both. The defence particularly needs improvement, as their 31 goals conceded is the joint-highest in the Championship and they haven't had a clean sheet in three months. The trouble is they have approximately a billion defenders on the books and it won't be easy to move on the duds. Ayr are in a relegation battle; the appointment they make here will probably decide whether they stay up or not.


Peter Grant's dismissal came as no surprise, but we're only three league games (the win in Inverness was under Greg Shields, though Yogi did turn up for the half-time team talk) into John Hughes' tenure, so it's hard to know what strides the Pars have made so far. They certainly look more potent going forward, with Lewis McCann providing the spark and goals that more seasoned - and better-paid - strikers Craig Wighton, Nikolay Todorov and Kevin O'Hara were struggling to produce. Graeme Dorrans seems the sort of midfielder tailor-made for Yogiball. However Dom Thomas could be missing for another couple of months after knee surgery, leaving them without their best wide player. I'd imagine Hughes will want to make some moves in the window but this is a pretty big squad - 23 players have started league games - and he may not have much room to maneouvre there. Dunfermline's next two games are at home to the division's top two teams, which should give a better idea of where they stand.


The dismissal of Gus MacPherson on 4 December wasn't overly a surprise; he won only three of twenty-four league matches in charge. MacPherson seemed to gamble that his group of loan signings from the end of the summer window would click and lift the team, but while Oisin McEntee has done well and Jaako Oksanen shown flashes, Gavin Reilly is yet to score a league goal, Tom Allan has offered little and Jimmy Knowles offered little before getting injured. Otherwise the squad is dreadfully weak, especially as veteran central defender Alan Lithgow has really struggled. Dougie Imrie now takes over a team that are bottom of the Championship, with only one league win since 7 August (over a managerless Dunfermline side) and who haven't been victorious in the league at Cappielow since 20 March. No wonder MacPherson's replacement Dougie Imrie looked like a hostage in the photos announcing his appointment.


A cup humiliation at Auchinleck Talbot seems to have finally stirred some sort of life in Accies, whose improvement in recent weeks culminated in a come-from-behind win in Inverness which was born less out of quality and more out of guts. That will give heart to Stuart Taylor, who seemed to be struggling to find his way with the squad he inherited in August from Brian Rice. A promotion playoff spot is surely already out of reach but mid-table seems a likely bet and that in itself is a relief. Having Scott Martin and Andy Winter back from long-term injury can only help now, though David Templeton was sadly forced into retirement. That might free up a wage for new signings up front, though David Moyo has come into form. Otherwise the primary aim of the rest of the campaign may be to develop young talents like Lewis Smith, Reegan Mimnaugh, Marley Redfern and Winter, and given the alternative the fans will probably be cool with that.


ICT have by no means an outstanding squad by Championship standards but if they miss out on promotion this season they may well have only themselves to blame. Behind Arbroath only on goal difference, the early pacesetters have shot themselves in the foot with defeats on home turf to the Red Lichties, Dunfermline and Accies - the latter two after scoring first. Sometimes Inverness can see a game out (eg Killie at home, a 1-0 win), sometimes they let opponents back into it (QOS away, a 2-1 win) and very rarely do they keep their foot on the gas (Morton away, a 6-1 win). In truth, they've not looked nearly as potent going forward since the apparent disappearance from existence of Michael Gardyne (everyone knows why...). Whilst Billy Mckay's renaissance is welcome, Billy Dodds needs to get in another winger or rejuvenate either the stale Tom Walsh or aging Aaron Doran if a title challenge is to continue.


We're used to managers getting fired after a bad result, but after an abandoned match? Rumour has it that the board discovered that the fog didn't make the team any less difficult to watch. Anyway, Tommy Wright - a manager known for pragmatism and who was brought in to keep them up - couldn't set up a team to play on the front foot. Tactically Kilmarnock didn't seem to have a philosophy; some players such as Blair Alston and Liam Polworth seemed to be brought in for a 4-2-3-1 but then so many strikers arrived that a 4-4-2 was almost obligatory even though none of them seemed to have complimentary traits. The bottom line is that Killie took just four points from eight matches against the other teams in the top half of the table and and lost 1-0 four times in a row in the league before Wright's exit. If the new man can at least decide on how on earth he wants the team to play, that would be a start. For all their travails, they are only five points off top with a game in hand and remain bookies' favourites to go up.


A 4-0 win at Ayr aside, the goals dried up a bit - the side who were the division's leading scorers in the first quarter promptly had three consecutive goalless draws - but the points keep coming along nicely for Thistle, for the most part. Wins at Rugby Park and at home to Raith Rovers prove why they are in the playoff places, and a home defeat to Arbroath explains why they aren't at the top of the table. The improvement in defence looks sustainable though and there's reason to think Brian Graham and Zak Rudden will return to form up front. Thistle have been linked with signing James Maxwell (on loan at Ayr from Rangers) and a couple more additions should set them up nicely for the second half of the campaign.


On paper one might argue that the Doonhamers have the weakest and thinnest squad in the whole league, but they have made themselves hard to beat (only two of their league defeats were by more than one goal) and have managed to nick enough points - especially against the teams around them - to be out of the bottom two at least at the time of writing. Lee Connelly's penchant for the spectacular helps, and Innes Cameron does have goals in him. One worries QOS will fall behind if the other sides at the bottom go on signing sprees next month - do they have the resources to do so themselves?


This author has mused more than once that Raith might be the Championship's best side on their day, when Aidan Connelly and Dario Zanatta are raiding in from the flanks, Brad Spencer is running the midfield, Liam Dick and Reghan Tumilty are flying on the overlap and Christophe Berra is strolling at the back. Ethan Ross took them up another gear, and Sam Stanton's imminent arrival will cover for the departure of Dylan Tait to Hibs. But how they could do with a reliable centre-forward; Ethan Varian and Matej Poplatnik are willing but goalshy. That could be the difference between them going up and staying in the second tier. Can John McGlynn rustle up a potent striker? 

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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