Feature: Season Preview – Dunfermline Athletic

By Lewis Michie

With transfers happening left, right and centre in the Championship it could be far too easy to miss a bit of good business – or in Dunfermline Athletic’s case, multiple smart deals that have not received the praise they maybe should have.

As everyone knows at this point, the Championship is pretty much fair game, in Dunfermline you are looking at a team that wouldn’t be all the surprising to see involved nearer the bottom of the table, or securing a place in the play-offs. We spoke with Pars fan Cammy Anderson who provided some insight ahead of the upcoming campaign.

He summed up the 18/19 season pretty neatly, saying:

Last season certainly never panned out as expected. Many fans, myself included, expected us to properly challenge for playoffs but in the end we narrowly avoided relegation.”

Athletic finished the previous season in seventh, just three points from bottom spot – after losing their last five games – no one scored less goals in the 36 games than Dunfermline either.

Alan Johnston lost support of the fans and was sacked in January, replaced by Stevie Crawford who’d previously been a part of Johnston’s backroom staff. Things didn’t start perfectly for Crawford, with two loses sandwiching a draw – but then things turned around, stringing five league wins in a row together.

In the end the run was enough to secure safety, which ultimately was the most important aim – although after that fifth win you could have forgiven Dunfermline fans for thinking they might be able to sneak into the final play-off spots.

That didn’t happen – which goes without saying when you get one draw and seven loses in your final eight games. Crawford’s side scored just three goals in that time, which is the biggest issue that needed seeing to straight away.

Cammy told us just how desperately the Pars require a fresh injection of goals this term, saying:

Lack of goals was our biggest problem last season so adding a striker who can pretty much guarantee double figures would be great.”

Miles Hippolyte and Louis Longridge ended the season as joint top goalscorer – with six a piece – both have departed East End Park, so even though neither were prolific last season, with their departure goes over a third of the teams goals.

Jackson Longridge was next in the list with five – from left-back – he has joined Bradford City. Bruce Anderson also scored five after joining on loan from Aberdeen in January, there hasn’t been any rumours of a return for Anderson, so that leaves Andy Ryan, he too scored five times and as a 24 year old, he at least provides a little bit of promise for the future.

So where are the goals coming from next season? Obviously there will be hope that Ryan can build on his tally from last season, and 19 year old Callum Smith will surely be hoping to follow in his older teammates footsteps, as will Gabby McGill – the 18 year old striker joins from Middlesbrough Under 18’s, where he scored 13 times in 18/19. But Crawford will certainly be hoping some older new arrivals can bring plenty moments to celebrate for Pars supporters.

We spoke to Cammy before most of the recent signings happened, he told us this,

3 Championship clubs are reportedly keen on Raith Rovers Kevin Nisbet, who scored 34 last season, and I’d certainly like to hope that the Pars are one of them.”

Well maybe someone at the club was reading our DM’s – or just had a wee bit of common sense as this seemed an obvious deal to want – As the 22 year old Nisbet activated a release clause in his contract to move to East End Park.

Obviously there is a lot of excitement around this move when you look at how flawlessly Lawrence Shankland made the step up from League One to the Championship last season – If Nisbet can even score half the amount he did last season, he’d run away with Dunfermline’s top goalscorer award and likely be the difference between a relegation battle and a promotion fight.

Some supporters would have liked a veteran striker to add to the pack, someone who could bring that real track record of goal scoring and teach a few lessons to the younger lads. That doesn’t seem like it will happen, the wages would have been too significant and the types of players that might have fit this spot have gone elsewhere – such as Kris Doolan  and Kenny Miller – but even the current forward line should be enough to replace the goals that have departed at the very least.

Obviously the Pars can’t put all their eggs in one basket, and in fact they can’t rely on all of their goals coming from one position either. More scoring from the midfield would be very welcome at East End Park.

Ryan Dow dropped down to League Two to attempt to revive his career with Peterhead last season. That has proven to be a worthy gamble, with the former Dundee United and Ross County man playing more for Peterhead last season than he ever has in a single campaign before – usually struggling to get much more than 20 or so games due to injury. The wide man can certainly add creativity in the sense he might create goals, but he can hope to provide a goal or two of his own – although at this point, this season is likely to be make or break for Dow’s career as a full-time footballer at the age of 28.

Josh Coley join on loan from Norwich City, he also plays as a winger, primarily on the left-hand side. Although the 20 year is largely unproven, Norwich have a decent track record in their youth system – often bringing in youngsters from elsewhere, like they did with Coley – and the winger did manage a goal and two assists at Reserves Premier League 2 level last term.

This Dunfermline team will certainly have a youthful feel about it, of the 11 top appearances makers in the squad last season just three are sticking around (Which is a challenge in itself) but those three players are all 26 and under (26,25 and 22). A lot of the new recruits are younger lads too, Nisbet is 22, promising midfielder Kyle Turner, who previously trained with Aberdeen and West Brom has signed from Stranraer, he is 21, Aaron Comrie has been recruited from St Johnstone, he’s just 22 – as is Tom Lang who comes in from Clyde and another defensive signing Euan Murray is 25.

Cammy spoke in a bit more detail about the club’s aims, he said:

The club have been very open with their ambitions to build a young team whose careers are on an upwards trajectory opposed to signing players who’ve jumped around clubs and it’s hard not to get excited by this.”

So one thing this squad could maybe do with is a bit more experience. At the moment that could be provided by the likes of Danny Devine and Lee Ashcroft at the centre of defence, with both of them in their mid-twenties with plenty playing experience – although there is some decent challenges for their places. 32 year old midfielder Paul Paton will add some more years to the squad’s combined age as of course will Ryan Dow (28) and goalkeeper Ryan Scully (26).

So those paying attention with have realised the five oldest players in the Dunfermline squad are: Paton (32), Dow (28), Scully & Devine (26) and then Ashcroft and Murray tied as fifth oldest (25). Age isn’t everything, but most successful squads need some balance. Often many lack that youthful edge, so you’d probably prefer as a Dunfermline fan to have the youth, but a couple of additions nearing or over the age of 30 probably would go  a miss (Willo Flood anyone? No? Hello?)

Athletic only conceded 40 goals last term – only Ross County and Ayr United let in less – although Dundee United and Inverness both also conceded 40. What that tells you of course – considering those four teams made up the top four – is Dunfermline had something resembling a play-off contending defensive output. With the addition of Nesbitt, and hopefully a couple of more attacking players to follow – Pars supporters will be optimistic if goals are added to the defensive solidity – if that can be retained.

They have lost a few key parts to that solid back-line though – Jackson Longridge and Ryan Williamson began the last campaign as the main full-backs. They’ve both departed, as has goalkeeper Lee Robinson – although he was replaced by Ryan Scully in January.

There is still hope that defensive record can be maintained though – centre-back pairing Danny Devine and captain Lee Ashcroft played over 7,000 minutes combined last season, so if their new team mates fit in, there is a lot of potential there.

Aaron Comrie is primarily a right-back, although did play a couple times at left-back for St Johnstone in the 17/18 season – but you’d imagine he will take Williamson’s place. Euan Murray joins from Raith Rovers like his teammate Nisbet, he can operate across the back line, but looking at the squad you’d imagine he might end up competing with Lewis Martin for the left-back slot. Finally Tom Lang had an impressive season with Clyde and had plenty of suitors, but will he just provide competition for Ashcroft and Devine or partner them?

The Pars did experiment early last season with  a back five, and the personnel at East End Park at the moment could suggest the potential to try it out again, maybe looking something like this –

Comrie – Ashcroft – Devine – Lang – Murray

Or potentially Martin coming in at left-back, with Murray either dropping to the bench or replacing one of the three centre-backs.

Although this looks possible just in terms of the player available, Cammy didn’t feel like the formation worked out for Athletic when they tried it previously – he also told us that he and many other supporters weren’t convinced by Devine last season, so he wouldn’t be shocked to see a flat back four, with either Lang or Murray providing Ashcroft with a new partnership at the heart of the defence.

With all of this laid out, we need to look at what goals The Pars might be setting themselves ahead of the 19/20 season. Realistically any team in the Championship goes in holding out some hope of a play-off spot, one or two will aim higher, and a few teams while still reaching for that play-off, will be happy with survival.

Dunfermline sit in a middle ground, they are no stranger to fighting for a spot in the top four, and if their defence is as water tight as last term, and Nisbet makes a step up in division like Lawrence Shankland before him, or even half as good of a step up, they will certainly be in with a chance.

With that said, as we’ve touched on earlier in this article, this is a very youthful Dunfermline squad and the feeling amongst many supporters online is that there does feel to be a long term project in the works, with the building blocks still being placed.

A play-off spot would leave Dunfermline fans pretty pleased come the end of the season, but if they miss out on that, as long as they stay in the Championship, scoring a few more goals, and showing evidence of progress with this young crop of players, it would appear most would settle for that. Especially considering some of the other teams in the second tier this season, who may have a stronger claim towards a chance at promotion – at least in regards to the money and experience they’ve got behind them.

Overall, Dunfermline will be a fun project to watch unfold over the next few years, at any level putting trust and time into young players is risky, but it provides a lot of hope and is plenty of fun to watch – and then incredibly rewarding if it works out.

One thing that will give Dunfermline fans optimism about this youth movement though, is they haven’t just plucked players with no professional experience from the youth team (Although there are a few in there) but they’ve also recruited young players who stood out in the lower leagues having played significant minutes last season.

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