Monday, July 25, 2011

SPL: Dunfermline v St Mirren

The Game

Dunfermline make their SPL return with the TV cameras in attendance for the unveiling of last season’s championship flag.

I can’t truthfully make a prediction without admitting that the game has already started. It’s 0-0 right now.

I’ll back - despite the evidence of the opening stages - both teams to score and take a point each.

Dunfermline

Newly promoted and favourites for the drop? A common reading of how Dunfermline’s season will pan out.

Unfair? Perhaps. The stagnant nature of top flight often allows promoted clubs to survive, to spring enough of a surprise to ensure safety. St Johnstone fight on two seasons after promotion, Inverness eye warily their difficult second season.

I’ve not seen much of this Dunfermline side and, even if I had, a fairly heavy period of recruitment has increased the sense of mystery.

Paul Burns, Kevin Rutkiewicz, Paddy Boyle, Andy Barrowman, Paul Gallacher, John Potter, Jason Thomson have arrived, offset only by the loss of Calum Woods to Huddersfield.

It’s a deepening of a squad that manager Jim McIntyre obviously thought was in need of replenishment before embarking on the challenge of the SPL. How much quality do the new players bring? At the moment that’s an imponderable.

What we do know is that Dunfermline were impressive in clinching promotion, powering ahead of Fife rivals Raith Rovers in the closing stages of the season. In a league where only four teams registered a goal difference of more than +10 Dunfermline reached an impressive +35.

They scored more goals and conceded less than anyone else and the league table reflected that achievement. It’s also worth pointing out that they did this while contending with eight Fife derbies against Raith and Cowdenbeath and four games against traditional rivals Falkirk. Throw in their meetings with a financially hamstrung but at times rampant Dundee and we can see their success last year against a tricky and stubborn backdrop.

And McIntyre impresses, a young Scottish manager on the way up who has stated his commitment to playing the game in the style he demands. As Craig Cairns shows in a tactical analysis over at Three At The Back he’s also happy to change formation as the situation requires.

Where does all this leave Dunfermline?

Gretna’s SPL annus horribilis was the last time a promoted side went straight back down. It also appears - as much as we can tell this early - that there’s been a levelling out in the lower ranks of the league. As many as six or seven teams look difficult to place.

As Inverness showed last year a quick start can do wonders for a newly promoted side. As Hibs showed it doesn’t take a hugely extended run of form for the threat of relegation to be replaced by a comfortable mediocrity in the bottom six.

I can’t see Dunfermline going on the sort of run that had Inverness scaling the heights of the SPL on their return to the league.

But they’re certainly not relegation certainties. Unfortunately I can’t convince myself that this squad is going to be strong enough to reach the safety of mid-table. Luck and their stomach for a scrap might well decide their eventual fate.

St Mirren

It’s fair to say there were a number of doubters when Danny Lennon got the St Mirren job. It’s probably also not outrageous to contend that he didn’t assuage all the doubters over the course of his first SPL season.

Unheralded and unfancied he was accused of building a first division side that wouldn’t survive the stresses of the SPL. On air he often sounded like a down-at-heel motivational speaker, a bizarre platitdunal mish-mash of management and fitba’ cliche.

Yet the Whitburn philosopher has lived to tell the tale. He kept St Mirren up and he’s used the summer to prove that there is steel in his heart.

Changes have been made at every level. Assistant manager Iain Jenkins has moved on and in comes the experienced Tommy Craig who, if memory serves, will have coached a young Lennon at Easter Road back in the day.

Steven Thompson, Nigel Hasselbaink, Paul McGowan, Graeme Smith, Gary Teale, Graham Carey and Jeroen Tesselaar have signed up for Lennon's Paisley project.

Jettisoned are Craig Dargo, Gareth Wardlaw, Patrick Cregg, Sean Lynch, Jamie McClusky, Nick Hegarty, Garry Brady, Michael Higdon, Paul Gallacher and John Potter.

It’s a big turnaround and the arrival of Thompson and Teale suggest that Lennon was looking for experience on his summer spree.

The loss of Michael Higdon would look to be dangerous, St Mirren have not been free scoring since their return to the SPL and 15 goal strikers are hard to come by. One must also concede, however, that few of us saw Higdon as a 15 goal striker when Lennon took over so the manager might be confident of his alchemist’s touch with forwards.

Lennon couldn’t seem to settle on his best side last season. A summer of change should have given him the squad he wants. Achieving that largely on his own terms makes him something of an oddity in the SPL.

A lot will depend on how quickly the team come together. A failing last year was how some solid play could be undone by an inability - even with “hot shot” Higdon - to convert chances when on top only to let defensive frailties lead to a sucker punch.

A dangerous combination that. Lennon’s reworking of the squad looks to be aimed at overcoming those self inflicted obstacles. Unfortunately I can’t see his side going on the sort of consistent run of form that would lift them clear of the lower reaches.