By Lewis Michie
In the past seven seasons Stirling Albion have only risen out of the fourth tier of Scottish football once, and they were relegated straight back down in the sole campaign. Albion appointed former Aberdeen, St Johnstone and Morton man Kevin Rutkiewicz last October, even without the full season the new manager manged to finish fifth in the division, his aim this season will be to go at least one better.
Saying that Stirling finished last season one spot outside of the play-offs can be slightly misleading. While that fact is absolutely true, it would also be correct to say that Albion were still 19 points adrift of Annan Athletic in fourth – and only finished four points ahead of Cowdenbeath, Queen’s Park and Elgin City who each finished with 43 points.
This clearly shows that the top four in the division really pulled away, and in truth, the bottom two of Albion Rovers and Berwick Rangers were cut adrift, leaving three mini leagues in a way.
The challenge for the likes of Stirling and the three other sides is to break out from the pack and push into that top four, both Peterhead and Clyde were promoted, and a lot of keen followers of Scottish lower leagues have commented that they don’t feel Stenhousemuir or Brechin City will be guaranteed to replace that quality. With Cove Rangers coming up from the Highland league, many expect things to be much tighter throughout League Two this term – giving teams like Stirling a greater chance to put themselves in with a shot of promotion.
We’ve said time and time again in these articles that a bit of consistency can be key for sides in the likes of League Two, where keeping a squad together is not easy. Stirling have done a better job of that this summer than some. Of their top five minute earners last season only one has departed Forthbank – That being left-back Jordan Allan who has joined Stranraer.
There are some goals needing replacing in this Stirling side, the two top goal scorers last season were Darren Smith with 11 – He has joined Clyde, and Peter MacDonald with 10 – he drops down to the Lowland League to join East Stirlingshire.
On the surface that looks a bit bleak, but Smith is 30 and MacDonald 37, so while they could have made use of both, it was a matter of time before replacing them would become a task anyway. However, there is a lot of hope in the players still around. Dylan Mackin scored nine after joining in October and at just 21 he did have a better goals per minute ratio than MacDonald. Dom Docherty, who is also 21, managed to score five times from midfield last season also – Rutkiewicz will hope he can add to that this term.
An issue for Stirling is they aren’t just tasked with replacing the goals that have departed, but they need to score more than they did last season to realistically look at the play-offs. With 44 goals last season only the bottom two sides scored less – and Queen’s Park got the same tally. To push for play-offs you’d imagine Stirling will need to push closer to at least the 60 mark.
Rutkiewicz has made quite a few additions to try and add/replace these goals. Two of these come from league rivals Queen’s Park, which feels a bit like a double win for the binos, they add to their squad while simultaneously weakening a rival.
These two additions are both strikers – 22 year old Josh Peters and 25 year old Lewis Hawke. Peters scored twice and assisted once for Queen’s last season, but that was in just over 1000 minutes in all competitions, so he will be looking to increase his pitch time.
Hawke was a bit more prolific, which you’d expect from someone who played over double the minutes and is three years older. He scored ten times and assisted three at Hampden, so he could more or less work out as a replacement for either MacDonald or Smith’s goals.
Another exciting signing for Stirling faithful to get excited about is the recruitment of former Peterhead attacking midfielder, 27 year old Paul Willis. Willis has had somewhat of a journeyman career – which has included a stint in Canada – and spent last season, firstly with Berwick Rangers and then Peterhead – racking up over 2000 minutes, eight goals and four assists in 18/19. He was offered a new deal with Peterhead, but with playing time not assured decided to stick in League Two – at least for now – and Forthbank could be the perfect place for Willis to settle down after playing for eight clubs over his career, including multiple stays at some of those teams.
In terms of defending last season, Stirling were fairly average, as you’d anticipate from a team that finished dead middle of the league table. They conceded six more goals than Annan Athletic, but had a better defence than every team they finished above. So there is certainly less work to be done with the back-line at Forthbank. While most used left-back Allan has departed, most frequently used centre-back Ross McGeachie remains, as does last season’s first choice right-back Kyle Banner who is just 18.
Jordan McGregor only played just over 1000 minutes last season, but he finished the season as McGeachie’s defensive partner, and the 22 year old has played the majority of the season the League Cup campaign thus far. The rest of the back-line has also been bolstered by the recruitment of the likes of 19 year right-back Craig Truesdale from Airdrieonians, and a couple of centre-halves who could add to the competition in that position, plus of course other cover elsewhere, in 29 year old Paul McLean from Brechin City and 25 year old Gareth Rodger. McLean filled in as a right-back most recently against Elgin City.
Perhaps the biggest addition at the back is 26 year old Blair Currie who helped Clyde to promotion last season – many Bully Wee fans were a bit shocked to see Currie released at the end of the season, and feel Stirling have gained themselves a quality stopper.
The big gap to fill was that left-back slot left open by the departure of Allan. 26 year old Jordan Lowdon has arrived from Elgin City – the 26 year old former Celtic trainee played over 3,500 minutes for Elgin last term, missing just three games all season, and playing the full 90 in all but five of the 41 games he played. Lowdon has played every minute of every game thus far in the League Cup, but 30 year old James Creaney arrives from league rivals Annan to add competition.
Things would look, at least on paper, exciting for Stirling ahead of the new season, especially defensively. This was added to in the first game of the League Cup as they held Hibernian to a draw. However, they’ve went on to concede 11 goals in the next three fixtures in the cup, losing 6-1 to Arbroath. 3-0 to Elgin City and 2-1 to Alloa Athletic.
The Elgin City result will be particularly concerning considering they are league rivals. Although it always has to be kept in mind that the league cup for many sides is essentially glorified friendlies, and results don’t always play out the same in the league.
Overall, Stirling will most certainly be wanting to aim for the play-off spots. It would represent progression in league placing – in what is now arguably a more open league – and give them a shot of rising above the ranks they most often occupy. With that said, every side in League Two this season will have the same thought, so it is increasingly difficult to predict who will actually manage to make that leap with such high turnovers in many squads – nonetheless, Stirling have many tools that can make them contenders, the familiarity of most of the squad is a big plus, as of course is the fact some of their better players skew towards the younger side of things, making the future bright at Forthbank.