On the 27th October, Stranraer FC became one of the first teams this season to dispense with their manager Keith Knox and promote from within. The decision had been taken with heavy hearts as Knox had been a tireless servant of the clubs and was well thought of amongst the terraces – almost akin to Barry Smith. There was, however less barking over Stephen Aitken’s appointment than John Brown’s at Dens Park.
Aitken had been with the club working as an assistant manager but when the chance presented itself he was never going to refuse it. Despite taking over the same players brought to the club by his predecessor Aitken was well known to them and knew his team very well.
Initially there was a bounce as he oversaw a 4-1 defeat of Forfar Athletic; it then all went south. 1 point was gained out of 3 games in November. The Light Blue faithful would have been forgiven for thinking that the Board had made the wrong decision. After all this was a team that last season began by being humbled 9-0 by Morton in the Ramsdens Cup; this season in the Scottish Challenge League Cup it was Livingston who beat them 8-0 – all in all suffering was in the Stranraer DNA!
They needed points and during December they got some as they started with two victories. What followed though were 2 defeats. Both of those defeats came against Queen of the South and Brechin City, the champions and certain play off contenders. Getting points off those around you whilst having anything from those above you as a bonus would certainly be a risky strategy but Aitken seems to have pulled it off.
January saw points gathered from Albion Rovers and Stenhousemuir whilst losing to Ayr and Alloa. February saw more points gathered from East Fife with bonuses in encounters against Arbroath and Stenny once again. Their 5-0 loss was at home to Queen of the South. The pattern continued in March with a win against Albion Rovers and a loss at Forfar. As they currently sit in 8th with East Fife and Albion Rovers beneath them the pattern looks like it has rocky times ahead.
Their last 3 games of this season see them away at Arbroath who may be fighting for a play off spot; at home to Forfar who may be in the same position as Arbroath; and finally away at Stenhousemuir where they must hope their luck against the Warriors continues…
The squad from which they are drawing hope has a mixture of younger players and the strength and steel of experience through it. As an Ayr fan I can see some familiar names amongst it which gives me a little insight.
In goals, Davie Mitchell moved from Ayr and quickly became a fans favourite. He is one of a fairly rare breed – a good young goalkeeper. He was certainly tipped for more than playing in the 3rd or 2nd Division when he was at Ayr United’s Football Academy but he is now in his 4th year at the club and seems to be fair enjoying himself. Colin Stewart, before finding himself in demand at Cowdenbeath, had been drafted in to the team during the season but now they seem to have young Russell Caldwell as back up and don’t anticipate too many problems from the keeper in charge of the gloves at present.
At the back two other familiar Ayr faces appear in the shape of former Academy starlet Lloyd Kinnaird and veteran Mick Dunlop. They are surrounded by good and decent team mates in Mark Staunton, Frank McKeown and David McGregor. The problem is that they have the second worst goal difference in the league with the 3rd worst goals against… Forfar and Albion Rovers are worse. If they are going to stay up it needs more from both up front and at the back.
Midfield has another two familiar ex Ayr faces in veterans Chris Aitken and Ryan Borris; Grant Gallagher, Sean Winter, Dean Agnew and Jamie Campbell make up the squad. This was a squad that was designed for the 3rd Division and ended up in the 2nd so it may seem lightweight and lacking in numbers. It could have given Queen’s Park a decent run for 2nd spot in the 3rd – they are now being asked to do it in the division above. It’s a huge task.
Up front the veteran of all veterans is Michael Moore who had an unhappy spell at Somerset and never really won over anyone – apart from Michael Moore. He is a hero down at Stranraer and no wonder. He has been an exceptional servant to the club over the years and keeps chipping in with the odd vital goal. Robert Love, Craig Malcolm, Darren Gribben and the giant Armand One (So big now he is almost Armand Twosie) make up the rest of the front line. Malcolm has bagged 14 league goals this season with Aitken and Winters from midfield in joint 2nd with 5 league goals each. It is clear to see where the issue may also be. If they are letting too many in at the back they are failing to score more than the opposition from the front – the golden rule in football!
We have to remember that Stranraer were supposed to be in Division 3 and this may be a task beyond them but they are a skilled team with the right attitude at times. What is worrying is the last three games so they must take some decent points off the next teams on their radar. They need to be sitting with the points on the board and not dependant upon the run in to save them otherwise I fear they may be back in play offs this year. The lay offs are always dicey for the team staring down a division as they are on a losing streak without much confidence finding themselves up against teams that have reached for the stars and got a reward; they remain hungry for success. Interesting times down the South West I would say but if I were a betting man, which I am not, I would be looking to extend contracts beyond the official end date of the season – mind you that aint a bad place to be for a team that was looking at 3rd division football anyway. Dropping down though would mean missing losing out on a couple of huge pay days… THAT would be unfortunate.