WHAT'S GOING WRONG?
The first 45 minutes at Tynecastle on Saturday were arguably the most miserable that the Thistle support has had to endure this season. And it hasn’t exactly been a season to be enjoyed any other time either.
If a week is a long time in politics then a year in football is an eternity. This time last year the Thistle fans were eagerly anticipating Kris Doolan’s 100th Thistle goal as the team as a whole pressed hard for a top six finish. A Doolan double against Ross County took him to, and then past, the 100 goal mark with the 2-1 win a major factor in clinching the top six finish that was confirmed a few weeks later with a win over Motherwell. Securing the Club’s highest finish in 30 plus years was not an insignificant achievement and was a visible representation of the continued progress of the Club since probably around 2012.
Fast forward 12 months and instead of trying to consolidate last season’s top six finish Thistle find themselves as the split fast approaches involved in a real scramble to avoid relegation to the Championship.
So what exactly has gone wrong over the course of the last 12 months? Why do Thistle find themselves struggling so badly with relegation a distinct possibility?
First thing to acknowledge is the fact that this season’s Premiership is significantly stronger than last season’s. I wrote in this very blog way back at the start of the season that repeating last season’s top six finish would be a massive challenge and a failure to do so shouldn’t necessarily be seen as a failure or as a sign of a deterioration in the quality of the Thistle squad. Indeed it was argued by many, myself included, that this season’s squad was in fact a stronger one than last season’s.
To use a stronger league to explain away Thistle’s woes this season though would be to seriously misjudge the situation. The problem is much more complex than that.
It is strange to be writing this article with just 8 games of the season remaining. It feels like a season that has never quite got going. It’s all been a bit stop and start with no real momentum or flow to it and Thistle’s overall displays are probably reflective of that. I’d always argue that it is important to try and add the right players to an existing squad rather than simply recruit players because they are available but the fact that Thistle didn’t complete their transfer business until relatively late on didn’t allow a bedding in period for new signings, the League Cup sectional stage would have been ideal for that. As a result it took some time to come anywhere near to establishing a preferred starting eleven and formation. Indeed as April fast approaches there is still no sense of a settled side or shape to the team. Everything about the season, fixtures and team selection alike, has felt fragmented and disjointed.
Then there is the start to the season itself. Included in our first six league games of the season were fixtures against Hibs, Celtic, Aberdeen and Rangers. Now you need to face each side in the league at some stage of the season or other and we should never go into any game assuming defeat but that’s a tough start and no mistake. A poor start and the pressure is on from the very off.
The above may be factors but doesn’t tell the full story though. In the first half of the season there is no doubt that injuries had a major impact on results and the non availability of so many players contributed to that fragmented and disjointed look to the team that I mentioned. All teams will suffer injuries but we were badly hit not just in numbers of players injured but probably more significantly by the fact that they all seemed to be in same area of the team. Losing both Callum Booth and Christie Elliott to injury so soon after James Penrice went out on loan to Livingston was rank bad luck and left us without a recognised left back for several months.
Nor were injuries restricted to left back. As the transfer window closed we found ourselves severely lacking in the middle of the park. It can be argued that this problem was less bad luck and more to do with poor planning. We were all pleased to see Stuart Bannigan return after missing all of last season due to injury but was too much expected of him too soon? It was certainly optimistic to think he would return good as new and sure enough as September ended so too did Bannigan’s season as he again went under the surgeon’s knife. Bannigan wasn’t the only midfielder hoping to make a return to action after long term injury problems. Gary Fraser found himself in the same position as Bannigan and while he is currently playing first team football he is doing so while on loan to Morton rather than at Firhill. When Abdul Osman also found himself sidelined in the early months of the season suddenly the decision to not renew Sean Welsh’s contract, or at least adequately replace him, seemed a poor one. Although Martin Woods was signed he, understandably, struggled for full fitness and too often we were left with a central midfield partnership of Adam Barton and Ryan Edwards. Now both of those players have attributes but as a midfield combination it didn’t work offering neither little protection to the defence nor much in the way of creativity. The one bright spot in midfield this season has been the emergence of Andy McCarthy who many would rather see start than Abdul Osman who is still some way short of his best since returning from injury.
While the current squad isn’t totally injury free we don’t presently appear to be any worse off in that regard than our immediate rivals. Injuries are not the reason for our current problems. Nor is Saturday’s loss at Tynecastle responsible for our present predicament. That isn’t an attempt to underplay how poor we were at the weekend but against one of the better sides in the division we could have produced a decent display and still lost. What is crippling us at the moment is our continual habit of conceding late goals. Even if you ignore all the other instances of us losing late goals just consider how different the current league table would look right now had we held on to win against Dundee and even taken a point from the away fixture with Hamilton. We would have an extra four points, Dundee three less than their current total and Hamilton two less than theirs. If we are relegated come the season’s end then those two games will stand out. The debate as to why we are so prone to losing late goals is never ending and no nearer to providing an answer. For me it’s almost a self fulfilling prophecy. We concede late goals, therefore we panic about conceding another, drop too far back and, bang, concede yet another late goal. And so it continues.
I know most people will be all too glad to see the back of this season but the one good thing right now is the fact that there are still 8 games to play. There is still ample time to rectify our current position. Still time to drag ourselves up to what right now would be the lofty position of 10th in the league. There are failings in this squad but there are failings in the squads around us too. We aren’t detached at the bottom. We don’t need others to help us out. Our fate lies within our own hands. The margin for error is a fine one and we can’t afford to replicate the mistakes that so marred the first half at Tynecastle but we can get out of this position. We can be part of next season’s Premiership.