Turning points – where a season can go right or wrong

Scouting a club's next opponents affords a unique insight into a game – how Jim Goodwin transformed Alloa after a 5-2 home defeat.

By Greg Gordon

This article first appeared in Issue 9 which was published in September 2018.

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One of the key things that distinguishes a good team playing poorly from a bad team playing uncharacteristically well is a consistency of body language and mentality. Good teams have good habits and a consistent professionalism and you can see it in the repetition of individual team and player tasks they perform.
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Good teams and good managers will always find a way with the right support around them. You write them off at your peril.

September 23, 2017. It is hardly a red letter day for Alloa Athletic, their fans and their manager Jim Goodwin, but it is a date that confirms that football exists, first and foremost, to make fools of those who would offer their opinion in haste.

As the final whistle sounded on a 5-2 home defeat to League One high flyers Albion Rovers, there was predictable discontent within the home support at The Indodrill Stadium. A 448-strong crowd could hardly muster a baying mob, of course, but the paradox of small crowds is that they generate a commentary where every shout is audible and there’s nowhere to hide.

“Goodwin has got to go,” groaned the old guy beside me. “There’s no plan, no heart, no sign of progress. He hasn’t got a clue.”

After a start that included defeats to Montrose, East Fife and Airdrie and a return of just eight points from their first six games, Alloa were not pulling up any trees. But neither were they ripe to be written off either, just two months into the season.

Still the consensus, leaving the ground, amidst the early stirrings of autumn, was that here were two teams heading in rapidly different directions.

On the back of this clinical performance and a free-scoring start to the season, the bright, young Albion Rovers boss Brian Kerr would be linked with the newly vacant Falkirk job within the week and he became the proud recipient of Ladbrokes’ Manager of the Month award for September. During the period, the Cliftonhill side racked up big away wins at Arbroath (4-1)and Alloa (5-2) and also ended the unbeaten run of leaders Raith Rovers, with a 2-1 triumph at Cliftonhill.

Their only setback was at home to Stranraer but Albion Rovers retained a 100% record on their travels underpinned by a dynamic, counter-attacking 4-3-3 and the goals of Alan Trouten, Sean Higgins and the teenage force of nature Connor Shields.

Having emerged seemingly from nowhere, Shields was already on Sunderland’s radar and would sign for the English Championship side in the winter transfer window.

Despite this, the observations in my report were a far more nuanced reflection than the scoreline might reflect as I wrote: “Albion Rovers had six shots on goal and scored five times, emphasising the fact that this was a false result, skewed by the goals. Alloa had 15 shots on goal and scored twice. They played well until it came to converting chances. Albion Rovers scored their goals at exactly the right time.”

But as far as the main stand naysayers at Alloa were concerned, Jim Goodwin was one, maybe two, games away from the sack.

There’s a top and tail to this story too. My season had started at Alloa, in the blazing sun of a 0-3 League Cup defeat to Hibernian. And it ended, nursing a long, cool tumbler of ‘what-ifs’ watching the same opponents at home on TV. Raith had long since clutched defeat from the jaws of victory, drawing 0-0 with Alloa at a packed Stark’s Park when a win would have given them the league title. They compounded the failure by losing twice to the same opponents to crash out of the end-of-season promotion play-offs.

But I was nevertheless delighted when Jordan Kirkpatrick’s stunning winner in extra-time promoted Alloa Athletic to the Championship and relegated Dumbarton to League One.

But in the wake of that September 2-5 defeat to the rampant Albion Rovers, Alloa looked anything but promotion contenders.

After the game Goodwin, to his credit, was typically making no excuses.

“It is a very difficult result to take, but if you defend the way we defended you are going to get punished. It is as simple as that.

“I think Albion Rovers have had six shots on target and managed to score five goals. We had 15 shots and only managed to score with two. Their goalkeeper was excellent but I am making no excuses because our defending was appalling. So therefore we must take it on the chin.”

The ex-Celtic and St Mirren defender ended his summary with a rallying cry, saying: “I’m the manager, I pick the team, I pick the formation, I have brought the players to the club so it’s my responsibility and I’ll do everything I can to turn things around and get us back on track next week against Arbroath at Gayfield and we will go again.”

But it would take until a home game almost another month later, on October 21 against East Fife, for Goodwin’s Wasps to finally take flight with a 4-1 win. It was a result that instigated a run of five straight wins where 13 goals were scored, just two conceded. It was notable too that the Albion Rovers defeat was avenged with a 2-0 away win in Coatbridge.

It is a funny situation for a next opponent scout. Positioned in enemy territory, donning the UN blue helmet of neutrality, you can see how subtleties and context get lost for fans who broadly see the game in ones and zeros, as a binary proposition, good or bad.

For the scout, especially early season, everything is shades of grey. New players are yet to gel into a team. The confounding factor is early season performances from sides that you know will have regressed to the mean of their ability by the first blooming of spring daffodils. Already, confidence and momentum is that most precious of commodities. Even in September it turns losers into winners and in its absence, heroes become bums.

As good as Albion Rovers had been in the first quarter, the loss of Shields to Sunderland and the implications of running with a small squad took their toll, and quickly.

After the turn of the year, Albion Rovers won just two more games and were relegated, with Brian Kerr and his assistant Stuart Malcolm moving on. The Cliftonhill men won eight and drew six of their league games overall, but only nine points from 60 were accrued in a disastrous final 20 games.

Sir Alex Ferguson had a favourite saying that no team is ever as bad or as good as they’re portrayed in the press or in the stands. And that is endlessly true in the round, regardless of the highs and lows in performance all teams experience from game to game.

As a rule of thumb, you need to see a team three times in a season to form a sure opinion but I’d also say that first impressions are also generally correct if you are a good judge of teams and players.

As such, the only thing you can really rely on as a scout are your own eyes and your own opinion. And you have to make your peace with that and the fact that there is so little signal amidst the noise that is literally everywhere – in the stands, in the press and on social media.

One of the key things that distinguishes a good team playing poorly from a bad team playing uncharacteristically well is a consistency of body language and mentality.

Good teams have good habits and a consistent professionalism and you can see it in the repetition of individual team and player tasks they perform. In their determination and their patience and composure they keep going, regardless of the state of play.

Bad teams find their motivation when there’s suddenly a new contract at stake, a glamour cup tie or a big win bonus, or when there’s no pressure at all. Often very good players play in very bad teams (the wrong man, in the wrong team, at the wrong time).

Unlike a good team the gulf between a bad team’s best and worst performance is massive over the course of a season. Good teams put in consistent performances – even in defeat. And even in an uncharacteristically bad defeat.

Even in the aftermath of a 5-2 home loss, Jim Goodwin had some justification in saying: “It might sound stupid, but I thought we played OK going forward and we did create a number of opportunities.”

On another day, more than two of the 17 efforts on goal go in, Alloa defend better and the result is wholly reversed. Such is the way it goes in this game of small margins.

I love the term ‘scoreboard journalism’ which was originated by then-AZ head coach Co Adriaanse in 2003 and describes the classic fan and journalists’ tendency to take a result and extrapolate a narrative from the scoreline. If you do that then you’ll never know the game and never describe what is really happening on the field. You’ll come to all sorts of wrong-headed conclusions and make really bad long-term predictions.

Albion Rovers were not so much a bad team as a team missing the additional components that would have allowed them to flourish beyond the first two quarters of the season.

To be fair, Brian Kerr was always aware of his squad’s limitations. And he was left to rue a pre-season gamble that ultimately backfired in an interview with the Airdrie and Coatbridge Advertiser.

“There is no doubt there has been good highs and there has been the obvious lows,” he said. “This season it’s just been about trying to keep a group of boys consistently fit and not suspended. That’s where our real downfall has been. With a small budget at the start of the season we aren’t going to get big numbers. Our thoughts were to keep a small group and hopefully keep them free of injury all season.

“It’s been a problem, but if you don’t try to bring in a bit of quality in the likes of Alan Trouten and Graeme Holmes you’re going to be lacking.

“That’s something we would look at now as good or bad, we just need to decide whether that was a good or a bad shout. You have someone like Alan Trouten who shows to everybody the benefits he brings with scoring 28 goals over the season.”

While Albion Rovers benefited from a lack of early-season expectation, the converse was true for Alloa, who’d finished the previous campaign as runners up to Livingston before being pipped in the play-offs by Brechin.

Goodwin says: “There was definitely pressure to pick up where we’d left off but after eight games we found ourselves third bottom in the league. In these situations all you can do is draw on your experience in the game, trust in your beliefs. We were a good side on paper, we just needed to transform that to games.

“It was a question of small steps: a first clean sheet, then a win. When we beat East Fife 4-1 in October, there were signs we could really kick on and that’s what happened.”

For Jim Goodwin, luck as much as judgement ultimately forced changes that allowed Alloa to find their level of consistency and the stability that was their platform for promotion.

“It had always been my plan to play two up front, Craig Malcolm and Kris Renton. But a poor start and defeats to Montrose and Ayr United in particular suggested that we’d get over-run in midfield if we persisted with a 4-1-3-2 shape. Craig Malcolm started the season with an ankle injury and that ultimately led to me adding Garry Fleming to the base of the midfield in the 4-2-3-1 that became our default formation.

“I’d originally thought of Garry purely as a number 10 or a striker. But he showed himself to be a far more versatile player than I’d thought. He deserves enormous credit as a real unsung hero of the promotion winning side. He reads the game so well and is always a willing option for a team-mate under pressure.”

Ultimately though, the story of the 2017/18 promotion race is a story of the boards of Alloa and Ayr United backing their manager with signings that would allow them to turn tight games in their favour in the second half of the season.

For the champions Ayr United, the signing of ex-Aberdeen and Scotland U21 striker Lawrence Shankland in September provided the catalyst for Ayr’s successful title bid. After finishing with 29 goals, Shankland was named as the division’s PFA Scotland Players’ Player of the Year as he resurrected his career under Ian McCall.

And at Alloa, the board also deserved great credit for allowing Jim Goodwin to bring in Jordan Kirkpatrick and Ross Stewart on loan from his former club St Mirren. They were to provide a pivotal role in the league run-in and both players scored the crucial goals in the play-off final second-leg win over Dumbarton.

Players and managers will always get the credit and the criticism when things go right or wrong on the field but as team-building is a process that takes place against the shifting sands of injuries, fluctuating form and plans that simply don’t work out, despite the best intentions, it is ultimately the support of a club’s board or owners, at pivotal moments in a season, that conditions success. And especially so for sides carrying shoestring squads.

Jim Goodwin has excelled so far in recruitment that has combined good lower league professionals with hungry youngsters plucked from the pool of elite U20 talent. In the process he has shown an eye for a player and a winning mentality that suggests he will soon follow the trajectory of previous young Alloa bosses Paul Hartley and Jack Ross in carving out a niche at a higher level.

He says: “I like players that have good ability but players that are also tenacious and that refuse to be beaten. Look back at our results and you’ll see that character reflected in the fact that we kept playing right until the final whistle of the play-off final.”

And Goodwin took the opportunity to use his final pre-game team talk of the season to underline this fact to a group of players who needed to dig deep one last time as the clock ticked down to overturn Dumbarton’s 1-0 first-leg lead.

“Before that second leg at Dumbarton I made a chart detailing 10 key results in the season, games where we’d come back from one goal down, two goals down, to get something late on. The one that stood out in all our minds was in September, when we were a goal down to Forfar in the 88th minute, then Kevin Cawley equalised and Kris Renton got the winner in the 93rd minute. Nine times in all we came back from losing positions last season, that’s testament to the players’ character.”

And it is also a timely reminder that good teams and good managers will always find a way with the right support around them. You write them off at your peril. 

This article first appeared in Issue 9 which was published in September 2018.

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