By Lewis Michie
Albion Rovers spent much of last season looking like certainties for finishing bottom of League Two – But Kevin Harper’s arrival in November eventually saved Rovers from a play-off that might have led to relegation – even if it was the mid-way point of Febuary before he claimed his first win at Cliftonhill. This season Harper, who is the only BME manager in Scotland’s top four divisions, will be aiming to push his side forward, instead of falling back into another battle at the bottom of the division. We spoke to Ben Kearney (@BenKearney0 on Twitter), who is actually part of the media team at Rovers, so knows his stuff, and Ben helped us with some insight on the team.
After Harper’s first victory – a 3-0 triumph over Clyde just after Valentine’s day- it took yet another four games for more points, but following a 1-0 victory over Cowdenbeath at the tail end of March, Albion would go seven games without losing, which was enough to put them right out ahead of Berwick Rangers – who were eventually relegated.
Albion’s hot streak certainly showed they weren’t as badly off as the early stages of the season might have suggested – however, that run that ultimately saved Harper’s squad could also be slightly misrepresenting the overall quality of show at Cliftonhill. What this showed was that Albion really got going once the momentum started to roll, however, they certainly dropped off in form once their safety was confirmed, and Albion fans might be worried that the momentum factor might not make itself as readily available in the coming season.
On first glance there appears to be two obvious areas of improvement to look at off of the back of last season – scoring and squad depth, as Ben backs up, saying:
Squad depth is not great simply due to not having the money, the club out of the 42 SPFL teams are certainly in the bottom three for the playing budget. We could do with another creative midfielder. Our strikers will need to not pass up as many opportunities as they have done in pre-season and our game at East Kilbride in the cup.”
Rovers scored just 32 times last season – somehow Berwick managed to score less, a lowly 27, but no matter how little Berwick scored, Albion will be worried that being unable to add to that tally would create problems.
No single player scored more than four goals for Albion who eventually finished ninth in League Two. Lewis McLear and Gregor Fotheringham combined equally for eight goals. Obviously this tally is worrying, there was no one to turn to that could guarantee some goals.
The rest of the five top goalscorers for the club last term each got 3-a-piece. The positive thing about this group was that two are just 22 years old, another 24, and the other two 26 and 27 – and just one of them departed this summer. So while these players did not combine to a tally that is all that impressive last term, you’d hope they’d continue to improve on those numbers.
None of the recruited players this summer seem on first look to be proven goalscorers – although it’s not like these are all readily available at League Two level. 19 year old winger Euan East has joined from Queen’s Park, as has 23 year old Aron Lynas who has arrived from Brechin City, he can play winger but appears to be set for the full-back role.
As you’d anticipate from a team who finished second bottom, Albion didn’t fare all that well defensively last term either. However, with that said, they still let in 20 less goals than Berwick and only conceded four more than Elgin City – so this wasn’t as much of a problem area.
While goalkeeper PJ Morrison isn’t around this season – he had the highest amount of minutes of any Albion player last term as he was loaned by Motherwell – the rest of the stalwarts of the back-line, such as Bryan Wharton and Sean Fagan are still at Cliftonhill.
Goalkeeper Ryan Goodfellow checks in form Cowdenbeath, left-back Jordan Stewart arrives from Clyde (Although again, can also be deployed as a winger) and Italian defensive midfielder Giuliano Morena has joined from new league rivals Brechin City – all moves that boss Kevin Harper will be hoping improves Rovers’ defensive record.
A lot of the transfer business done by Kevin Harper and his backroom staff this summer might not have neutrals taking a second look – however, the squad they are working with is fairly young. Just two players are over the age of thirty, and 23 year old Brian Ross is the eighth oldest member of the squad, with five players 22 or younger.
So again, if there is trust that these youngster will continue to improve year on year, Rovers might not have to dig too deeply into the market in order to improve this team – it may just self-sustain.
Ben certainly feels there is some decent quality there, saying:
Our two starting full-backs are both solid at this level. Ross Clarke is ever-improving and Aron Lynas brings leadership and experience to the team. Giuliano Morena is everything you want in a defensive midfielder – he breaks up play and is the calming influence of the team. Jordan Stewart and Nicki Paterson are two players who can come up with a moment of magic from a dead-ball situation.”
And while Ben appreciates the work done to recruit so far, and accepts there might not be a massive budget left to play with, he had a suggestion as to a market Albion are yet to dip in to:
More options upfront will be the main recruitment goal for the management team, but I think we could do with another central midfielder and another experienced goalkeeper. Something we have not done this season so far is delve into the loan market, I feel this is something we should be doing.”
So what is the goal this term? Well, once again with the point made that bar about a month and a half of last season, Rovers still would have finished below an absolutely outclassed Berwick Rangers side. So again, the worry will be the season doesn’t begin on fire , and leads to another sacking – with the replacement this time not being nearly as able as Kevin Harper.
Ben seems to be slightly more optimistic than us for Albion’s season, while we feel Albion could push further up the division, we’d suggest they aren’t a team we’d bet on, but Ben seems to be a little bit more confident than us, having really seen what this team is all about, saying:
Kevin Harper and Joe McLaughlin have been very clear that they would be disappointed if the team did not challenge right up at the top of the table. The squad is now a good mix of experience and potential. Kevin and the players will be aiming higher but I think fourth spot would be a sensible and achievable target.”
With that said, you’d think the focus goes on making a good start to the season and getting points on the board early, doing everything possible to avoid falling into another battle for survival. Once that is done you’d of course anticipate any side in this division to be looking upwards and hoping to push for the play-off spots. However, even with the fight Rovers managed to show last season, It would take some surprising upticks in performance in this Rovers squad – and some very smart transfer business that has been underrated – to see Rovers manage to perform better over the course of league season than at least six other League Two sides.