Season preview: Dunfermline Athletic

Arrogance and self-belief are not personality traits you would associate with Dunfermline fans, but that is what we were in the last campaign. It is one we will not fall folly to this time around.

In what was the Pars second successive season in the third tier, – buoyant of the back of finishing second only to Rangers – we thought it would have been the proverbial cake walk. How wrong we were. By December, Jim Jefferies left the club – unusually quietly – and was replaced by his protégé John Potter earlier than was anticipated. Almost to a person agreed a change was needed, and Potter was the right appointment. Once again we were all wrong. There were just five wins out of 20, and the slide continued until it ended in seventh position, one of the lowest finishes in the 130-year-history of the club.

Before the playoffs were finished, Potter was back in his role as head coach and Allan Johnston had arrived as the new manager. Neil McCann and Andy Goram who held coaching roles at the club left. Then Johnston took the unusual step of not retaining any of the 18 out-of-contract players. This left the club with 10 first-team players – no goalkeeper – and five U19s. The former winger wanted to bring in at least eight to 10 bodies, with the likelihood of three being part-time with the quality or knowledge of winning League One. In the youth side, he was looking for a few U19s to complement those in their progression while playing in the top tier of the SPFL Development League.

He started rebuilding the squad with the signatures of Livingston pair Callum Fordyce – who was later made captain – and Jason Talbot. Talbot is a left-back while Fordyce plays on the right side of a centre-half pairing. Potter said of Fordyce:

“He’s got strength and pace, which Allan and I are looking to add to the team. He’s versatile too – I’ve seen him play at left and right back as well as centre-back. Callum’s experience of playing regularly at a higher level will help us. He works very hard at his game and he’s got a tremendous attitude. He can be very effective in both boxes, which is something I feel we lacked last season.”

His partner at the back is Ben Richards-Everton, formerly of Partick Thistle. He was a familiar opponent to the Pars having been at Airdrieonians (on-loan) for the majority of last season. All three were signed to be in the starting eleven when possible. The fourth signing made before pre-season training got underway was the versatile attacker, Michael Paton. The 26-year-old had previously plied his trade under Johnston at Queen of the South and was still there when the manager wanted to bring him in.

A number of trialists were brought in to participate in the seven friendlies Dunfermline had in the lead up to the first game of the season – away at Arbroath. Joe Cardle was the familiar face amongst them. The left-winger was made redundant by the club in 2012 while in Division One. After being made a free-agent he played for local rivals Raith Rovers until summer last year when he departed to Premiership side Ross County and reunited with former boss Jim McIntyre. He signed a day before the only home friendly against Hibernian and was the most celebrated signing since Paul Gallacher back in 2007. Joe said of the move:

“It’s a club that I have always spoken about with my Mum and Dad and Lucy and I always knew that I would come back at some point. It’s happened and I’m happy to be here.”

Another player accustomed to East End Park was signed somewhat out of the blue on the same day as “Super Joe”. Sean Murdoch was with the club as a youth player between 2003 and 2005. As a senior he extended his stay by another three years and played in the short-lived UEFA Cup run before departing for Hamilton Academical in a £15,000 move. He backed it up with spells at Accrington Stanley, Hibernian, and Rochester Rhinos but has been a backup keeper for most of his career. Although he is the preffered number one at the moment. This is what he had to say on being back:

“Different class – brilliant. It’s good to see some old faces like the groundstaff, and hardworking people that have stuck by the Club. I still followed the Club and obviously it was great to see all the fans pulling together. It’s great to be back, nothing much has changed, everything is still similar to the last time I was here.”

David Hutton will be battling Murdoch for the number one jersey. The well-travelled 30-year-old was at fellow strugglers Ayr United – who finished one place lower than the Pars last time out. Although, apart from the last couple of seasons, the Glasgow-born stopper performed in the second-tier with one season in the same Queen of the South side as Johnston five years ago. After a display of three clean sheets in the opening four exhibitions, he was retained on a one-year deal.

Blair Currie was also brought in on trial – probably on the advice of Hutton. The 21-year-old was a Rangers youth player before making his professional debut at the age of 18 in a game against Falkirk in the second tier. This was after the aforementioned Hutton was sent off for Hamilton and Currie made an appearance from the bench. With the imminent signing of Murdoch, Johnston decided against offering a contract to the young keeper who ended up signing for League Two side Annan Athletic.

In attack was a player who was a thorn in the Pars side last season. Ross Caldwell scored three of his six goals against the Black and White while at St. Mirren and their Renfrewshire counterparts Greenock Morton. At 21, he has already had three clubs and a loan spell in his four seasons. Eight goals in 19 starts read well on paper, but factoring in a return of netting twice in 52 substitute appearances is not a statistic that will fill fans with optimism. Caldwell ended up signing a six-month deal with divisional rivals, Ayr United.

With 17 first-teamers on the books at least one, but as many as three signing(s) is expected giving what the board and Johnston have stated. Key areas in which the playing staff will look at is the defensive midfield role, right midfield, and right-back. At present, Andy Geggan can play the holding role but does prefer to go forward. The Pars lack that stopper who will just sit and disrupt the play in front of the back four. There have been a couple of names linked with filling that gap. First of all, Iain Davidson – formerly of the parish Raith – had been training with the side but nothing has come to fruition as of yet. Then another member of Johnston’s Doonhamers title winning side, Stephen Mckenna was rumored to be coming in.

Out wide right, there is no player in the youth squad or the first-team that is naturally suited out there. There is an abundance of wingers who can play either flank but do not have the work rate to track back to cover Ryan Williamson’s marauding runs. Again the utility man – Geggan – can slot in there or at right-back, but you are limiting his game from that position. An injury or suspension at full-back and they will be struggling to cope in a division with some difficult wingers. John Potter has popped up in a few friendlies and may cover at centre-back in a real defensive emergency, but it will be Lewis Martin pushing the two centre-halves.

In the under 20s. Keeper Cammy Gill, left-back Jordan Orru, left midfielder Cammy McClair and centre-forward James Thomas will all make sporadic appearances whether it be through injury or just to help bleed them in when comfortably controlling a game. Paul-Joseph Crossan is joined by new signings; Johnny Galloway, Recce Duncan and Robbie Crawford – son of legend Stevie. That took the tally of youth players up to eight. The number Potter aimed for going into the top tier of the SPFL Development League. It is perhaps too soon for the latter group of players to make an impression this season, but it is a good crop for the future.

Talking tactics. From the bounce games, the formation can be varied from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-3-3, but the preferred set up at the one moment is a very attacking 4-1-3-2. Pars fans will be pleading that this a getaway from the flat 4-4-2 that was implemented last season. The problem with that system arose with the quartet in the middle. The players were too similar and none of them was a natural wide midfielder.

Under Johnson, the man on the left side will be playing more as a winger with Talbot being a solid full-back. At right-back, Williamson will be the marauding wing-back. In front of him will be a player that he can overlap and fill in when he advances up the pitch.

Up front, in the main, Ryan Wallace will pair up with Michael Moffat – a strike partnership that fans were robbed of watching last season due to Wallace’s constant injury problems. Both players are busy around the pitch with Moffat being the focal point and the former Hearts youth player allowed to drift wide to overload the attacking flanks and pull defenders out of position. Faissal El Bakhtaoui will also provide competition but is adaptable to drop back in the three in behind the front two.

Johnston summed up the kind of style he wants from his players in his first interaction with the fans at the supporters’ council meeting:

“I think we all want a successful team on the park. I found that I learned last time playing in this division that you need exciting players. It doesn’t matter what division you are playing in you want players who can go by people, players who can create. You want to see goals, you want to be entertained and that is the type of group that we have to bring to the club.”

“It is eleven v eleven, it doesn’t matter the size of the pitch if you can pass the ball quickly and go by people, get crosses in the box and score goals it does not matter where you are playing. As long as you are playing the right manner of football, being positive. Obviously you have to stand up to the challenge and match that. Maybe last season we got bullied physically last year so we are going to have to match that but if we have players who pass the ball quickly we should win these games.”

Cardle, El Bakhtaoui, and Williamson certainly have the ability to beat a player if they want to. David Hopkirk and Paton can create chances with Josh Falkingham and Shaun Byrne able to pass it quickly from the middle of the park. Fordyce, Geggan, and Talbot are certainly up for a challenge, and Richards-Everton certainly has the stature at six-foot five-inches to cause problems for the opponents in both boxes. Moffat and Wallace have the prowess to score into the double figures when they are on form. So all the pieces are there to build the team in the mould the manager wants.

In terms of expectations, it has not changed from last season. The board has made it explicit that the sole objective of this campaign is to be promoted by whatever means necessary. If they are not going up Dunfermline Athletic will go part-time and will not reach their potential – and Johnston’s goal – of returning to the Premiership in the foreseeable future. The fans believe that is fair. The amount of revenue the club generates from its support is more than enough to win League One – considering the full-time status of the club. As a side, the attendance is comparable to that of Inverness who won the Scottish Cup earlier on this year, which shows how much the team is underachieving.

In the cups, you never know. It all falls on the cliché of the luck of the draw. If it throws up favorable ties. Getting to the last eight in the Challenge Cup, the fifth round of the Scottish and the third in the League Cup would be a step forward from last season. However, if all it musters is a good crack at the Petrofac and getting turfed out the national tournaments by a couple of good teams that play a division or two higher than the Pars, there would be no complaints.

Dunfermline have already progressed over the first couple of hurdles in the lower prestige cups. A convincing four-one victory over lower-league opposition, Arbroath in the Challenge Cup was backed up with a demolishing of local rivals Cowdenbeath in the League Cup – and, as a result, earned a home tie against Premiership outfit, Dundee. If the Blue Brazil are to topple the Pars attempt at the title, they look far away from achieving such a task. The five-one score line flattered the away side. The emergence of El Bakhtaoui as a frontline striker and improving his finishing has made him look a real threat. He was arguably the best player in both matches and knocked in four in the process.

These early season performances have brought the belief that Dunfermline will be a force to be reckoned with this season. Although you never know with Football, and what may crop up and throw a spanner in the works for the promotion push. It was almost unfathomable that the Pars would not win the title last season and it is even more so this year. However, maybe that is the arrogance kicking in again.

The pre-season review in audio form.

You can follow @MichaelWood_SJ on Twitter.


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