In and around the penalty spot: Why Johnston had to get it wrong to get it right

A section of knee-jerking keyboard warriors were out in force at tea-time on Saturday after the Pars suffered defeat for the first time this season. The result being a two-one victory to Balmoor residents, Peterhead. Allan Johnston’s insisted on not changing his starting eleven – for tactical reasons – for the six successive game was a decision that cost him the League One tie.

I believed that bringing in Josh Falkingham for Shaun Byrne would have been a necessary change to counter the Blue Toon’s robust midfield, and well-drilled backline. My thinking was the Englishman is diminutive for his rough and tumble style that gets under the skin of his opponents. Byrne does not have that trait in his arsenal; what he lacks is that natural ability and desire to get stuck into the challenges to win the ball back. Falkingham, like the former Celtic youth player, does have that eye for a pass, although while he does not have the range that the Kirkcaldy-born playmaker provides it is effective for the job required.

I am not saying anything that the manager and his staff do not know, and this is not a criticism of Byrne who was left hung out to dry when Johnston realised his error and substituted him just shy of the half-hour mark for the aforementioned “wee Falky”.

After he came on, Dunfermline controlled the midfield. Before the change, Andy Geggan was outnumbered two to one in the middle of the park. The formation (4-1-3-2) allowed for Peterhead that are organised in a simple 4-4-2 to exploit that lone figure in midfield. This also facilitated the wide players who were comfortably stationed in the space between the Pars full-backs and wingers. The easy switch to a 4-2-3-1 allowed for control in the middle of the pitch and have enough bodies in between the two banks of four to pass the ball around comfortably and retain possession.

Michael Paton is challenged by a Peterhead defender. (Craig Brown/DAFC)
Michael Paton is challenged by Nicky Reilly. (Craig Brown/DAFC)

After Rory McAllister scored his 10th goal of the season from the penalty spot, the Highland side failed to kick on and dominate from there. They lacked the intensity that they started with and produced very little in terms of chances after the first half hour. Nicky Reilly struggled to penetrate down the sides against the full-backs – after getting joy earlier on. Dunfermline’s comeback was completed after Michael Moffat got his head on the end of Joe Cardle’s dangerous cross and went in level at the break.

The Pars came out in the second half looking familiar to the outfit that had been demolishing their opponents. Both Ryan Wallace and Michael Moffat had great chances to take the lead, but Graeme Smith was great between the sticks – putting in a man of the match performance. The holding pair of Geggan and Falkingham thwarted any threats and protected their defenders. However, Jim McInally’s team stole all three points at the death when Andy Rodgers crossed into the box, and Ben Richards-Everton eased over in the box before the sub McIntosh knocked it past the helpless Sean Murdoch.

Three days later, Premiership outfit Dundee were welcomed to East End Park. The Dees started their campaign adequately – although they did lose to two teams who are expected to finish above them come season end. However, they picked up a two-each draw against local rivals, Dundee United and wins over Kilmarnock and St.Johnstone. The former Hearts winger made one change from the side that played at the weekend. Falkingham was preferred to Byrne, and that change was an important part in the victory.

It was expected that Kane Hemmings and Greg Stewart would pose a real threat as on their last visit they decimated the Pars backline for Cowdenbeath in a playoff final. However, they were kept quiet in the first period. This was in part due to the staunch defence that the Pars showed – due to the holding two in the middle – but also due to the heavy periods of possession that pushed the Dark Blues deep into their own territory.

In the first half, Dunfermline were not rattled. Cardle hit the side netting before the crowd had settled in their seats, but the breakthrough came just after the ten-minute mark. El Bakhtaoui’s goal tally reached double figures in the seventh game of the season. The team from Tayside really struggled to get a foothold in the game, and forged out only one or two chances. Their best coming from a Gary Harkins set piece that was headed on target by Julen Etxabeguren at the far post but well meet by Murdoch – who was exemplary in his performance earning him post-match plaudits.

Faissal El Bakhtaoui is joined by Michael Paton in celebrating the opener against Dundee. (DAFC)
Faissal El Bakhtaoui is joined by Michael Paton in celebrating the opener against Dundee. (Craig Brown/DAFC)

Second half, Paul Hartley told his men that their opening gambit was not acceptable, and the Pars were under the quash for long spells of the last 45. The equaliser came from a switch off and lack of communication and understanding in the back-line, Callum Fordyce came to help with Ben Richards-Everton on Paul McGinn and had allowed Hemmings to drift into the box unmarked and get off a simple shot that Murdoch had no chance of keeping out. From then you thought there was only going to be one winner but, Pars absorbed the pressure well, playing more 4-4-2 to nullify players like Stewart who like to drift in from the right. The wingers Cardle and Michael Paton had run their race and were still popping up all over the park to cover their full-backs diligently. Their hard work eventually paid off in the most rewarding way possible.

As the game was winding down, the home fans were getting restless as it looked destined that the game was heading to extra time. The crowd was conversing with one another about changes that should be made, bringing on Byrne to compact the midfield and keep possession was one claim that myself at the time seemed logical. However, to Johnston’s credit, he did not want to disrupt what was a well-rounded team performance but was forced to as Michael Moffat picked up an injury from a bad challenge by McGinn.

Then five minutes before the end of regulation as Dundee turned up the intensity, Murdoch pulled off an unorthodox double save and started a counter attack. The sub Ryan Wallace lumped the ball forward to El Bakhtaoui, who showcased his great touch to pluck the ball out of the air then switched it to Paton who was – somehow – bombing it down the wing towards the Norrie and found Cardle centrally, who knocked it past the centre-halves before slotting it under Scott Bain in goal. The crowd was as raucous as the players who piled on top of the goalscorer and set up a nervy ending.

As Hartley pushed captain James McPake up-front in search of the equaliser, they were massive gaps at the back. El Bakhtaoui had a chance to put the game out of sight, but Tomas Konrad recovered to take the sting out of the shot. However, moments later after a wayward cross from Cardle managed to find an unintended receiver in Paton who rolled the ball into the unmarked Moroccan and left Paul McGowan stranded on the penalty spot before rolling it into the corner with the last kick of the game.

The change had worked, and the more defensive effort that the Pars put in on Tuesday night showed that they have more than one way to win a game. It was a real test in this much changed Dunfermline side from the unmitigated disaster that was last season, and they stood up to it when the Jefferies and Potter sides of the last few campaigns would have crumbled after Dundee equalised. A positive omen for the year ahead.

You can follow @MichaelWood_SJ on Twitter.


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