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You can't take your eyes off the Scottish Championship



I know I keep banging on about it, but the Scottish Championship really is a compelling league. As we enter the final quarter of the season, all ten clubs have something to play for.

Inconsistency has been the dominant theme as teams go from periods where everything goes in to ones when they seem to have smashed a mirror over a black cat whilst walking under a ladder, or vice versa. The table is so tight that some teams who were in the promotion playoff hunt a month ago are now looking over their shoulders with trepidation, whilst others who appeared set for a relegation dogfight are now dreaming of nicking a top four spot.

The latter group include Dunfermline, who in mid-February lay seventh, just three points above bottom spot in a total mess following Allan Johnston's departure. Luckily for them his replacement, Stevie Crawford, has proven the most unlikely saviour since the disciples went to the wrong stable at the start of Life Of Brian. It also helps to have a centre forward in form; step forward Aberdeen loanee Bruce Anderson, clearly scarred for life by his parents' decision to give him a name that it is impossible to say without putting on a dodgy Australian accent. Young Brucie, as surely everybody must refer to him by law, is taking his revenge on society, or at least that part of it that stands between goalposts in Scotland's second tier.

An in-form striker can only take you so far though, particularly when the rest of the squad is so thin that home fans at Palmerston have started taking their boots with them in case they are required on the bench. I give to you Queen of the South, who as recently as the end of January bodied Dundee out of the Cup on the back of Stephen Dobbie's goals. It's tough enough for any forward to score more goals than his age; for a 36 year old one to do so two months before the clocks change is mental. A fifty goal campaign for the veteran wasn't just a possibility at that point, it was odds-on.

And then it all went, er, south. An extraordinary 4-0 demolition of Ross County in mid-January has been followed by seven straight league defeats; Dobbie's last league goal came in the first of those seven. Saturday's loss at home to Caley Thistle was marred by goalkeeper Alan Martin giving home fans the bird when the half-time whistle went. He was substituted at the break because "of a back injury" according to manager Gary Naysmith. Aye. Sure.

So the Doonhamers have essentially swapped places in the table with Dunfermline. The problem is that, at the business end of things, there are now teams directly below them that have form and momentum. Falkirk and Partick Thistle are both finally reaping the rewards of their 'sign an entirely new team for our entirely new manager strategy'. If they haven't quite reached Dunfermline's Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds levels of giddiness, those two have at least moved into It's Getting Better territory, though with the duo set to clash next weekend somebody is going to suffer a rotten climbdown.

There are exceptions to the incredible ups and downs that has permeated this division, all of which seem to exist north of the Tay. Caley Thistle are so determined to become the definition of mediocrity that physicists are concerned the universe could implode with shock if they moved either above fourth or below sixth in the table. They last won consecutive league games in September and have mastered the unfortunate habit of playing up to strong opposition and down to weaker ones. The trouble is that whilst they could argue that they have deserved at least a draw in all six league games they've played against Ross County and Dundee United, they haven't actually won any of them. They have knocked both out of the cup at least, so if John Robertson manages to drag them into the playoffs after all - by no means a certainty if Dunfermline keep going like this - and cons the players into thinking it is a knockout competition, they might pull off a miracle after all.

As for their neighbours, "County have been crap for months" bewailed one Staggie friend of mine recently...with his team sitting top of the league. The thing is, the concept of form doesn't seem to have actually reached Dingwall. If football is indeed a results business, Ross County have got it down to such an extreme art form that Tracy Emin is nodding with approval. It's not that they haven't been playing well at times, it's just that it seems that ninety per cent of the time it doesn't matter. After an hour and a half of football each weekend, it turns out they've won. It's just one of life's certainties and there's no point fighting it.

You just know that every single person in the country put Ross County 2-0 Greenock Morton on their pools coupon last weekend, though part of that is because Jonatan Johansson is so risk-averse away from home that even Jose Mourinho would accuse them of being too negative. They've actually scored more than once in only three of the Finn's twenty-four league games in charge. Boring your way to survival is certainly a bold strategy, Cotton. We'll see if it pays off.

And then there's the tangerine-coloured elephant in the room. While many of the other Championship clubs have more highs and lows than the characters in Trainspotting, Dundee United fans are the ones most likely to be found on the Scottish moors lamenting the hand life has dealt them. "It's s**** supporting United! We're the lowest of the low! The scum of the f***** earth! The most wretched, miserable, servile, pathetic trash that was ever s*** into civilization! Some people hate Dundee. I don't. They're just w*****s. We, on, the other hand, are a division below w*****s."

Win, lose, draw or whatever, United seem in a state of perpetual crisis regardless. Given that Rangers: The Banter Years has dropped markedly in quality during its seventh season, we should be grateful that its Tayside-based spinoff continues to trundle along nicely despite yet another overhaul of the cast. Replacing Csaba Laszlo with Robbie Neilson was expected to result in a change of direction but the decision to stick with the tried-and-tested formula has proved a ratings hit.

The games United do win seem to be mostly the result of collective embarrassment, as if the players' own self-respect forces them to occasionally perform somewhere close to their potential. However the shame wears off after a while and then it's back to their baseline, which appears to be to play as if everyone is still at the stage of needing nametags so that their teammates remember what their name is.

To be fair, Neilson did sign eleven players - literally a new team - in January. But six weeks on from the end of that window one is entitled to suspect a degree of coherence. Instead United fans have been 'treated' to two weekends of watching their team toil for an afternoon, somehow against all reason find themselves in a drawing position, only for the football gods to take offence to this and part their central defence like the Red Sea to gift first Caley Thistle and then Partick Thistle deserved injury-time winners.

Whereas Partick made a plethora of signings because they gutted their squad after relegation, and Falkirk brought in a gazillion new players to replace the donkeys that Paul Hartley had rounded up, United's squad is striking for the number of players under contract who have in the past few years been very competent at this level or above, but who have been discarded by Neilson in favour of new recruits. The temptation to spend those shiny American dollars was maybe too much to resist, but it might not have been unreasonable to look to the new coach to coax these players back to their best, rather than chuck them on the scrap heap.

And sure, it might be that a Govan Witch Doctor cursed Tannadice in 2015 so that any player that wears the strip instantly becomes a haddie, but it's more likely that Mark Reynolds lost a yard of pace a couple of years ago and can't manage without it, and that Mark Connolly was only good when Manu Pascali babysat him through games at Killie. Neither have improved on United's previous options in central defence; after they were schooled by the just-out-of-retirement Scott McDonald at Firhill there was sufficient evidence to suggest they are actually a downgrade.

Meanwhile further up the pitch United added to their attacking options with Cammy Smith, Aiden Nesbitt, Peter Pawlett and Osman Sow. All players with a bit of pedigree, but how do you play all four in the same team? Your guess is as good as Neilson's, which tells you that not nearly enough thought was put in to the recruitment drive.

At least having new American owners means they probably don't need to worry about the financial implications of a fourth successive season at this level, but whilst a playoff place is pretty much a certainty getting through them is another matter. There's still the enticing prospect of a final between them and their struggling rivals from along the road, where we can be certain that the most positive thing that could be said about the victors would be 'that they were the least crap'.

Neilson still has eight games to mould United into a decent unit and to build up enough confidence to put them in good stead for the postseason. But as it stands Arabs have good reason to fear they're headed for another year in this particular circle of hell, or at least for two more trips to Dumfries, which is pretty much the same thing.

For the rest of us, it is compelling viewing, even if it is in the same way that you can't take your eyes off a crashing car. And if that doesn't sum up the Scottish Championship then I don't know what does.

Lawrie Spence has ranted and spouted his ill-informed opinions on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007.  He has a life outside this blog.  Honestly.

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