Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Time for a change

Ruairidh MacLennan investigates what it would take for Thistle to mount a serious promotion challenge next season.

The man (or woman) who says that the First Division provides variety has not been to a fixture in our humble ten-team collective. Unfortunately, the appetite of the Thistle fans for this league has dissipated somewhat, therefore some speculation over a possible challenge for promotion is always welcome. The idea may seem farfetched to many, yet a title challenge is not necessarily a concept that we should put aside in the interests of pessimism. The form of next season’s league may have a great bearing on what supporters will expect from the current, yet admittedly fledgling, side.

To say that some of my previous writings have been somewhat morose in their suggestions would in all likelihood be a reasonable observation, thus it is quite a pleasure to be able to sprinkle this update with some optimism. In the last two weeks, the team has put in two very encouraging displays away from Firhill, being unfortunate to only collect a point at Falkirk before winning with a five goal margin in Dumfries. Some notes on those two fixtures then: Firstly, it would be negligent in the extreme to ignore the commanding displays of Scott Robertson, a centre-half formerly of Stirling Albion, in recent weeks. Many have noted out lack of a ball-winner in defence, with defenders such as Conrad Balatoni and Darren Cole perhaps being more of the variety who wait for attackers to run at defences. However, not only was Robertson excellent in his sheer control of the line, but his use of the ball was also a joy to see. It is somewhat unfortunate that Robertson was out of the team for such a long period of time and indeed that he was placed in the middle of the team, as given the right run of fixtures, he could well gain some real momentum for the forthcoming year. Two other players who have impressed recently are Kris Doolan and Chris Erskine, whose attacking prowesses have been quite clear recently. The right tactical combination has these players performing excellently. The question is if Jackie McNamara can find the appropriate spaces in the team often enough to ensure that these two continue to trouble opponents.

These three squad members will be crucial to any potential challenge for promotion, particularly with another vital member of the team, namely midfielder Paul Cairney, reportedly being watched by bigger and undoubtedly wealthier clubs. This stated however, it is quite clear that this team needs a little more, to coin a BBC Sportsound cliché, “dig”. Now I am not a fan of this “dig”, or to re-educate the trail of thought a little, tenacity. It is an ugly, brutish side to the Scottish game, yet invariably a requirement to succeed in it. This is certainly not something I would like to see being a permanent fixture in a Thistle team, however we do need some sort of toughness, possibly provided by a battle-hardened veteran on a short-term deal? That sort of description is enough for, in all likelihood, the majority of the Thistle faithful to reminisce about Martin Hardie. Whether the soon to be 36 year old is the correct fit for the team in the present moment is an interesting point to deliberate on.

The opposition that Thistle will face next year are somewhat important to our aims of course. Many will dread the probable return of Cowdenbeath to the First Division. It seems to be that part-time teams cause problems for our often apparently so fragile team. Decidedly tepid performances against Cowdenbeath and Stirling Albion in recent years have led me to question whether facing non full-time clubs is actually advantageous in any way to Thistle’s own promotion hopes. While the likes of Falkirk habitually dispose of these teams without much trouble, Thistle seem to struggle to perform at all. I must say that Arbroath would be welcomed with open arms in comparison to the Blue Brazil, Central Park having been visited so recently. On the other hand, many would like to see the back of Raith Rovers, myself included if I am being sincere. Not only have we had a dreadful record against the Rovers since their return, their derby opposition to probable SPL victim Dunfermline would do much to support both teams. This is not to say that Dunfermline themselves are unwelcome, however the seemingly only alternative is Hibernian, who although would bring a sizeable support to Firhill, could well sweep aside any challenge from other First Division sides. As tempting as a good crowd or two inside Firhill is, a meaningful effort at winning promotion means so much more.

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