It was Ground-Dog Day with a vengeance for your reporter as for the fourth time in succession this season Thistle dominated the play, but could not score and allowed Dundee to sneak away with three points in their swag bag. Substitute Pat Clarke scored the only goal to arrest the Dee-cline and Fall of Dundee’s promotion hopes.
Last Saturday just before turning into the road leading to Airdrie’s Stadium, Wee Honk and I saw a sign saying “Horse Manure £2”. After paying ten times that sum between us to watch Thistle’s abject capitulation, we turned to each other at the end of the game and said “We should have bought the horse manure”. Yet a lovely spring day (hard to believe that our previous home game had to be postponed due to severe weather) and the optimistic feeling that dreams can come true engendered by Ross County’s stunning conquest of Celtic, meant that I was back in my usual place with hopes of victory well and truly fertilised.
If things had turned out somewhat differently a few weeks ago the managerial teams might have been in opposite technical areas. Ian McCall did his best to shuffle his limited and diminishing pack, and to compensate for the loss of Alan Archibald to injury, by trying out yet another formation, this time a variation on the 5-3-2 theme. Ian Maxwell swept and Paddy Boyle became an auxiliary left central defender, with Ryan Conroy as left wingback. On the other side John Robertson was flanked by Paul Paton.
In midfield David Rowson and Paul Cairney operated as usual with Bryan Hodge in his unique “quarterback” role. Apologies to those who prefer to keep American football terminology out of Scottish soccer, but it is difficult to think of a better description of what Hodge does. While Rowser and Cairney win the ball and drive forward, Hodge takes the ball and retreats, looking for the killer pass, whether to his wide receiving wing backs or audaciously threaded through the middle to his strikers. Mark Corcoran partnered Liam Buchanan up top.
For the sake of completeness I should also mention that Jonny Tuffey was in goals, but partly because the referee had stolen his bright red top and partly because he had less influence on the result of the game that an Official Monster Raving Loony Party candidate has on the result of a General Election, there is nothing more to say about him.
Apart from an error by Maxwell when he bang bang silver hammered a passback much too strongly to concede a corner, the early momentum was mostly with Thistle. Robbo commanded the defence and the midfield was scrapping hard. A period of pressure in the penalty box and the usual cornucopia of corners did not produce any clear-cut openings, though a Hodge drive might have caused trouble if it had not been slammed straight into Corcoran.
The Dundee fans’ main encouragement came from events on a football park 100 miles away as news of a goal for Queen of the South against promotion rivals Inverness Caledonian Thistle galvanised the away support into a chorus of “Hello, Hello, we are the Dundee boys”, swiftly countered by Thistle’s own “Hello, Hello” song, followed up by “Let’s all laugh at Celtic” as a compromise everybody could join in with.
Usually the “Curse of the Programme” means that the player featured on the front page is injured, dropped or plays like a haddock. However, Paul Paton, so disappointing in recent months, was positively inspired and well deserved his Man of the Match award. His feet did let him down occasionally, but he worked up and down the right side of the pitch with passion and determination and reminded us of that youthful enthusiasm and willingness to be involved that used to make him a fans’ favourite.
Paton assisted Paul Cairney in keeping the elephant in the room, Gary Harkins, generally quiet for most of the game. Harkins did annoy the home support by deliberately putting his feet (Robert Pires style) in places which made it look as though he might have been fouled, but after being taken in a few times, the referee wised up to this trick and on one occasion Harkins was left lying on his back to the derision of the home support, vainly appealing as play raged to the other end.
Liam and Coco had shots blocked and a Liam pass nearly played Cairney through. Much good approach play, with Hodge prominent, broke down at the edge of the box. The wee boy behind me asked his dad, “How many substitutes are allowed in a game of ice hockey?” and as we all pondered this off the wall question, Ryan Conroy curled in a free kick which Tony Bullock had to look lively to prevent hitting the top corner of his net. Another corner, so attack over.
Paul Paton angled a beautiful dropping long pass over the Dundee defence. If Liam Buchanan had been Kris Boyd he could have replicated his volley into the roof of the net, but instead he neatly trapped the ball and played it to Cairney on the edge of the box. Three months ago Paul would have first timed his shot into the bottom corner, but in keeping with the general malaise that has afflicted Thistle’s forward play, he wanted a clearer view of goal. He skilfully turned two defenders, but by the time he had the goal in his sights, the ball was not quite sitting properly for him and he stabbed it past the goalie…and the post.
This was Liam’s last involvement. He shipped a fair amount of punishment from Lauchlan and McKeown in the Dundee rearguard, much of this unnoticed by the referee. Eventually his ankle gave way and he hobbled off for treatment on the half hour mark. Physio Kenny Crichton produced the usual “rolling arms” sign from the far corner flag and Simon Donnelly was introduced into the action. While the stretcher bearers took their normal age to get ready, Kenny carried Liam along in front of the Dundee fans (who to their credit gave sporting applause). By this time, Kenny and Liam had got into the groove of the Sunday School outing three-legged race routine and they performed a wonderful sidestep to leave the stretcher party grasping at thin air.
With Coco and Sid now partnered up front, Thistle lacked a natural goal poacher, but the makeshift pairing could not be faulted for lack of effort. Corcoran almost beat Bullock to a through ball from Hodge and fired in some dangerous crosses. Hodge put Coco in again but this time his shot was weak and easily saved. Next it was Paton’s turn to be the supplier and this time Coco’s shot did trouble Bullock.
Simon then assumed centre stage as Hodge unlocked the Dundee defence with an outrageous back flick. Donnelly expertly tipped the ball round the keeper and might have gone down under the challenge. Rightly or wrongly he stayed on his feet, but the angle was against him and the combination of goalkeeper and defender was on hand to block his intended final cross. Finally, as half time approached, the ball broke near to Donnelly in the box, He was always stretching and could only dig out a tame prod which Bullock clutched easily.
At the other end Ian Maxwell assumed the persona of his namesake who plays for Barcelona with a glorious piece of skill to bamboozle an onrushing forward. Colin McMenamin of Dundee, frustrated by lack of opportunity to add to his impressive tally of goals against Thistle, earned a stupid booking for obstructing a kick out.
The second half opened much as the first had closed with Thistle in the ascendancy. Donnelly rather pulled out of the opportunity of challenging the muscular Bullock for a high cross at the end of a promising attack. Then Hodge produced his best long pass of the game to put Corcoran one on one with the keeper. Sadly he snatched his shot wide.
Dundee came more into the game over the next phase. Shinnie crashed to the ground in the box. It seemed to me that he had fallen over the ball and the referee waved away all protests. Dundee’s corners were more threatening than Thistle’s but headers from these still fell wide. Leigh Griffiths, whose BBC blog has been strangely silent over the past month, was introduced from the bench, no doubt hoping for a happier time than on his last visit to Firhill with Livingston, when he had to limp off after kicking the North Stand in frustration.
Normal service resumed with Rowser trying to break his Firhill scoring duck. His reasonable, but hardly vicious, shot was fumbled by Bullock, but there was no predatory striker lurking to apply a finish. Perhaps realising this, Ian McCall brought on the forgotten man (Thistle’s answer to Darius Adamczuk), Kris Doolan, to replace the tiring Mark Corcoran. Doolan looked sharp and hungry. It is a little difficult to understand why he has had so few opportunities this season. Meanwhile Dundee brought on another forgotten man, former Scotland midfielder Colin Cameron, for Andrew Shinnie.
Thistle almost remembered the lost art of scoring as the consequence of a corner kick. The clearing header dropped to Bryan Hodge and his fierce shot from distance skimmed over the crossbar and thudded into the Bing.
Minutes 70 through to 80 were Thistle’s season in microcosm. Doolan looked to be pulled back as he outpaced the Dundee defence, but no free kick was awarded. Then Conroy hung up an excellent cross which Doolan met first time at the far post. Several fans were halfway up in celebration before realising that the shot had hit the side netting.
Then, almost as if to emphasise and rub in the amazing and expensive resources at their disposal, Dundee summoned Pat Clarke to replace the anonymous chap whose surname is full of Ms and Ns. Clarke was a promising First Division striker who has wasted a year of his career sitting on a bench rather than playing football. He has the height of a giraffe and the leap of a kangaroo. On the PTFC official site’s Locker Room Banter Zone posted this week, Bryan Hodge revealed that his favourite animal was a giraffe. He may be revising this now.
In a near replica of Rooney’s goal for Inverness at Firhill a fortnight ago, Griffiths fired in a perfectly timed cross at pace from the left and Clarke, with his first and only significant touch of the game, planted his header firmly into the top corner. A brilliantly executed strike, virtually impossible to defend against, and the sort of goal that Thistle seem incapable of scoring.
Chris Erskine replaced Cairney but was bizarrely assigned to the same defensive midfield role, which he performed birdfully, but at the expense of having any impact at the other end. Both Boyle and Conroy on the left seemed reluctant to cross the halfway line, despite the empty space stretching in front of them. Big Bird needs room to spread his wings. Surely he could have been flying at defenders down the left while others shuffled across to fill the Cairney-shaped gap in the midfield.
Doolan found good space in the Dundee box and unaccountably sought to pass inside rather than take responsibility for shooting. The ten minute summary of Thistle’s season ended as Hodge brilliantly picked out Doolan once again. This time he bore down confidently on goal and cracked a low hard shot past Bullock…and smack into the base of the post.
I could not even call out “Beam me up, Scotty”, as Scotty had been replaced by Doddsy and Chiz. We all now knew that SuperKev McKinlay would retain his title as the last Thistle player to ripple the Dundee net. We could play Dundee forever in some nightmare parallel universe and never score.
There is little left to say. The heads did not drop and Thistle plugged away to the end. The ball fell to Big Bird at the edge of the box and he put in a decent shot, carried wide by a deflection from the lunging Malone. Corner to Thistle. Time to go home.
This was far and away Thistle’s best performance since the excellent win over Dunfermline. The fatal flaw is obvious, but how is it to be addressed? It is not so much that we miss easy chances. Somehow or other goalscoring has to become natural rather than manufactured, the split second between conception and execution has to be eliminated. But how do you coach that?
For the Dens Parkers, promotion is no longer a Dun-deel. To be honest, on today’s showing either Inverness or Ross County would make a far better fist of an SPL campaign. Dundee have completed the Grand Slam over Thistle. But we should meet them again next season and the day of reckoning, justice and divine retribution cannot be forever delayed. There must be a limit to how many “Get out of Jail Free” cards there can be in one game of Monopoly.
Thistle (ratings): Tuffey 6, Paton 8, Boyle 7, Hodge 8, Robertson 7, Maxwell 6, Cairney 6 (Erskine 6), Rowson 7, Buchanan 6 (Donnelly 7), Corcoran 6 (Doolan 7), Conroy 5
Unused Subs: Halliwell, McKeown
Dundee: Bullock, Hart, Malone, Lauchlan, McKeown, O’Leary, Shinnie (Cameron), Kerr, McMenamin (Clarke), Higgins (Griffiths), Harkins
Unused Subs: Soutar, Forsyth
Referee- Stevie O’Reilly
Assistants- Brian McGarry, John McCrossan
Dundee: Clarke 74
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