By Lewis Michie
Last season was the first season Montrose spent above the fourth tier of Scottish football in 22 years – this term they will play a second consecutive season in the third tier, after not only surviving in League One last year, but by emulating the club that won League Two before them – Arbroath – in coming straight up and playing in the play-offs after Mo finished fourth. If Montrose are going to continue to follow directly in their Angus neighbors footstep’s, then they’ll have another belter of a season and win the league title – but even if that doesn’t happen, another venture into the play-offs would certainly keep the Links Park faithful happy, and there is no reason not to bet on that. We spoke to one of the club’s ‘Supporter Liaison Officers’ Kevin Watson(@MontroseFCSLO on Twitter) to help preview the 19/20 campaign.
League One will certainly be competitive this season, there is no doubt about that, but Stewart Petrie will spend his fourth season in charge of the Gable Endies (Although not four full seasons) knowing that he’s fairly used to taking on challenges head first at Links Park, and more often than not, comes out at the other end successfully.
Montrose’s board, and their fans, seem to be quite clear on the fact they’ve got their hands on one of their best managers in the club’s history and are making use of that but backing him on and off the pitch.
Kevin told us about the good feeling around Links Park at the moment, saying:
At Montrose FC we look forward to the 2019/20 season with huge optimism, our club is in a better place on and off the park than it has been for many years. Our squad has great team spirit and is largely the same with most of our squad signing new contracts”
Kevin also gave us a bit of an idea about how he and Stephen McCallum function as supporter liaisons at Montrose,
Montrose FC Supporters Club are also in a very good place and have an excellent relationship with the club and the board which is getting stronger by the season going forward. Lastly myself (Kevin Watson) and Stephen McCallum were appointed as the first Supporters liaison officers for the club at the beginnings of last season and would like to say that we have had a hand in helping strengthen the relationships at the club from top to bottom, we are certainly enjoying the role and the challenge going forward.”
Consistency is key for Mo, of the ten top minute earners last season, only two have departed Links Park. Ryan Harrington’s loan from Aberdeen concluded, and he has now moved to Champions League qualifying playing The New Saints in Wales. Jamie Redman has dropped down a division to play for Cove Rangers. Considering Harrington was a loan, it’s likely Redman is really the only departure the board at Links were not expecting.
The key player are all mostly still around too, former Dundee United man Sean Dillon was a rock at the centre of defence – he’s still with Mo and has a new centre-back partner. Martin Rennie was top goal scorer with 14, he’s stuck around, as has veteran striker Ross Campbell, who struck nine times last season. At 36 Campbell is already part of the coaching staff, but 24 year old Rennie only looks like getting better.
The big challenge for Petrie this summer was finding players that could improve on an already very talented squad, a squad that already performed beyond expectations last season that has mostly been kept together adding more potential match changers is a scary proposition for other League One clubs. Of course there was still the small proposition of replacing Redman, and with the likes of Harrington, Hearts loanee Euan Henderson and another Dons’ loanee Chris Antoniazzi all racking up a decent share of minutes last term, Petrie was likely looking to have a few more permanent additions as he regained that depth.
Thus far it has been quality over quantity for Montrose, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see one or two more additions – potentially again peppering the squad with a loanee or two just to add that extra bit of depth – with 20 senior players on the books at the moment, after five players departed between their loans coming to an end and contracts expiring.
Montrose let in 50 goals last season, of their fellow play-off opponents Raith only conceded one less and Forfar three fewer, but Airdrieonians in fifth let in six fewer – so you’d imagine any coach would want to improve a defensive record no matter what the number. So Petrie’s main recruitment started there.
Goalkeeper Aaron Lennox who is an Australian native, originally arriving in Scotland at Aberdeen, before spells with Raith Rovers and last season Partick Thistle, will bring competition for 35 year old number one Allan Fleming. The two have been rotated thus far in the League Cup, so it’s possible Petrie hasn’t made his mind up here, but you’d reckon Lennox is the long term plan. This was an important addition because last season at times the Mo bench was covered by 15 year old academy player Ross Matthews, and while the former Dundee trainee is highly touted by many Mo supporters, it’s likely Petrie wanted a couple of senior goalies on board.
The next addition came at right-back. After leaving Links Park a year ago – following the win of the League Two title – for Dumbarton, Cammy Ballantyne returns. A fan favourite before his departure, at 22 the right-back could fit really well into this team. He takes up the spot that was most often filled by Ryan Harrington last season.
21 year old centre-back, and former Dundee player Kerr Waddell has also arrived at Links Park, a surprise to some who felt he might end up signing with Championship newbies Arbroath. Waddell was once highly regarded at Dundee, but during the hectic few years there things haven’t quite worked out. Links Park is a good place for Waddell to rebuild his career which has plenty of life left in it, and next to Sean Dillon, he can certainly learn a thing or two.
The only other addition has come up-front, with 22 year old Blair Lyons arriving from Stirling University. There is plenty of competition up there with Josh Skelly, Martin Rennie, Craig Johnston and Russell McLean all capable of playing up top – although many of them can place elsewhere on the pitch. There is of course also Ross Campbell, but at 36 his coaching role may take forefront. As is suggested by the fact he has had just one sub appearance in the League Cup. Campbell is actually the only of the strikers in the squad not 25 or younger, so there is plenty of future ability in this forward line.
Mo scored 49 goals last season, that was less than Airdrie and Dumbarton behind them in the table, the same as East Fife and a good distance off the rest of the play-off teams tallies. Obviously Petrie will want to add to this, but with such a young attacking line, part of that might just take care of itself as the younger strikers continue to improve.
Many of these strikers end up playing wide as well, but 27 year old Graham Webster also adds width to this Montrose line-up.
Central midfield is the only area not to experience any additions thus far. There is a lot of quality in that area for Mo, so it would to be a top name signing or an able bit of depth being added for Petrie to move in the market for a centre-mid. There has been quite a bit of rotation between midfielder in the League Cup but 33 year old captain Paul Watson, fellow 33 year old Irishman Patrick Cregg and 31 year old Terry Masson – now in his ninth season with the club – are the usual suspects in a three man midfield.
There has been a decent amount of rotation in this spot for Petrie, but those three are the top three minute earners in the position remaining from last term – Redman had played more than Watson but has departed. Also capable of playing in the centre are younger options of Lewis Milne who is 25 and 24 year old Liam Callaghan.
In terms of further signings for Mo, they could probably get off with not making any, but that 1-2 players who could add depth might do nicely for Stewart Petrie and co. Again the loan market might be worth dipping in to.
Centre-back is debatable, they have Dillon, Waddell and 23 year old Matty Allan. Other players can cover in there, but a fourth career centre-half might be worth recruiting. Andrew Steeves and Iain Campbell are the left-backs, but only Ballantyne is noted as a natural right-back. So someone who could cover both right full-back and in the centre would kill two birds with one stone.
Montrose have clearly established a relationship with Aberdeen after taking in two loanees last season. Someone like Seb Ross who spent last season with then League One team Stenhousemuir could add depth in the centre. However, if he wasn’t an option, Connor Barron could be worth looking at. At just 16 the Aberdeen academy player is much more raw than Ross, but has already shown clear technical talent and could be ready for a test in a professional environment.
Striker is an area that doesn’t need more depth, but if someone of better quality of what is already at Links Park becomes available, that would be worth pursuing – but if that type of player is available at this point in the window, or if that type of money is left in the kitty to recruit them, is another question.
With just Webster as a “natural winger” the league cup has seen the likes of Rennie, Milne and Lyons play wide. This does increase the play time in the crowded striking department, if a speedy young winger was to be available in the loan market, it’s a low risk way of providing that little bit more expertise in the wide areas, even if it is untested expertise.
Kevin of course has a fantastic relationship with the club and was able to give us some insight to the movements in the background of the club as well, saying:
“Former Dundee United, Ross County, St Mirren and also former keeper for the Mo Tony Bullock has also joined the club as goalkeeping coach and has replaced Jim Butter. With Martyn Forheringham also retiring from playing and taking up a coaching role, Stewart Petrie and assistant Ross Campbell have a very strong backroom staff which will be invaluable in the season ahead.”
“Chairman John Crawford also has a very strong board of directors who are taking our club from strength to strength. Fantastic stuff.”
When asked about the aspiration of the season, Kevin was measured, but still dreams of the club somehow matching – or even improving on – last season’s achievements, Kevin said:
“Our main aim for the season ahead is League 1 survival but knowing Stewart Petrie very well and the way he gets the best out of players we are hopeful that we can get another top half League 1 finish in what will be a very very tough division this year. Everyone at Montrose from the directors all the way down to the fans are all pulling in the right direction and it is fantastic to see and be a part of. Long may it continue.”
Overall, as seen above, Montrose fans would be happy just to retain their place in League One for a third season – at least for the most part. Call it a bit of bias (Because we do love Montrose) but we are looking slightly more ambitiously at Mo this season. League One will be incredibly competitive, that much is clear, but with a game changing manager like Petrie at the helm, most of their play-off challenging squad maintained and some quality new signings, it would be no great shock to see Montrose involved in play-offs once again come May. If not, we are sure they’ll be challenging for them right up until the final few game weeks.