By Lewis Michie
Forfar Athletic will spent a third consecutive season in League One in 19/20 – scraping and fighting for survival two seasons ago turned into finishing second and playing in the play-offs last term. There has been a continuous progress under Jim Weird at Station Park and in a competitive League One this season there is every chance there could be another successful campaign this year – although progression would mean a league title and while that might seem a step too far, nothing has really seemed to follow the script in the third tier these past few years.
We had a fantastic response for Forfar fans to help with this article and we were able to get two of them – Drew (@SUY2D on Twitter) and David (Whose Son @JordanHogg23 put us in touch with) to answer a few questions about their beloved Loons.
Thank you to the other supporters who got in touch, unfortunately the quick turnaround of this piece meant we couldn’t get your input, but we look forward to working with more supporters of Forfar, and other clubs for that matter, throughout the season.
In all truth Arbroath ran away with the title in League One last season, and Forfar almost came out of nowhere to position themselves between the Litchies and Raith Rovers in what was meant to be a two horsed race. Athletic never really seemed like they’d win the league, but in the end they only finished seven points adrift of the eventual champions, showing just how good last term was for the Loons.
Most supporters seemed to agree with the sentiment that last term was one to remember for Jim Weir’s side. Drew told us is was a bit of a season of two halves, saying:
Poor first half of the season, exceptional second half of the season which was validated by beating Arbroath twice.”
And David agreed, telling us:
Last season – we started slowly then as Hilson and Baird got fitter, we became unbeatable at home – play-offs was just one step too far for us.”
After a successful season, it makes sense to attempt to keep hold of the majority of your squad and build on it, Weir has managed to do that to an extent, but there has been some rebuilding to do, with four of last season’s ten most commonly used players no longer at Station Park.
Thomas Reilly and Dylan Easton took the odd step of stepping down to the Lowland League with Kelty Hearts – both put together a combined over 5,500 minutes last term, and Easton scoring seven times.
20 year old Lewis Moore has also returned to his parent club Hearts.
The biggest loss however is likely John Baird, the former Inverness, Dundee and Raith Rovers (among others) striker netted 22 times in his sole season at Station Park. He’s left for a new life in Australia. Unfortunately for Weir he not only lost his top goalscorer, but also his assistant manager – however Gary Irvine will at least take over in the role of assistant. Not sure he will manage to replace those 22 goals – but there are a few candidates to chip in for that vacancy.
Some other departures that could have an impact include left-back Adam Eckersley who has moved to league rivals Airdrieonians due to their hybrid part/full-time status and to be closer to home. Also 22 year old central midfielder Brad Spencer has joined Raith Rovers.
Athletic have however kept hold of some important players, such as centre-back Ross Meechan who played over 4000 minutes last season, goalkeeper Marc McCallum who wasn’t far behind, also Dale Hilson who netted 14 times.
With departures like that, it was obvious some recruitment would need completing, and luckily for many Loons supporters, it happened quickly.
The relegation of fellow Angus club Brechin City ended up being a helping hand for Forfar. Half of the eight arrivals at Station Park came from Glebe Park.
Sean Burns comes in to provide competition for the left-back slot left vacant by Eckersley – another full-back, Jamie Bain has played there more often in the league cup campaign, although he can also play on the right side.
Mark Docherty arrives from East Fife, and is listed online as a left-back, but has more often played as a centre-back in the League Cup.
Two midfielders come in from City, including veteran Scott Robertson and 26 year old Callum Tapping has a few supporters excited.
Finally, probably the most important recruit from Glebe Park is striker Andy Jackson. Jackson netted 11 times and assisted a further six last term – despite relegation for Brechin – and boasts a career total of 54 League One goals, with a more than decent 39 assists to go along with it, so not a bad capture.
Of the other signings, 17 year old goalkeeper Sam McGuff could be one for the future, but it’s Jordan Kirkpatrick from Alloa Athletic and Ross Forbes from Dumbarton who can provide the most hope in the short term.
Kirkpatrick struggled for minutes in the Championship last term and still managed to score three times, the 17/18 season is a more relevant factor for Athletic fans, where he netted seven and assisted two in League One as Alloa were promoted.
At 30 years old, Ross Forbes is a name many supporters will recognise, and with good reason, the former Motherwell, Partick Thistle and Dumbarton man has a lot of quality – and an eye for a spectacular goal every now and then.
13 goals and seven assists from midfield for Dumbarton in League One last season is more than enough reason for Forfar supporters to know they’ve signed a player who not only provides some versatility, but gives quality that could be the difference between the play-offs and no play-offs.
So while the loons did have some turnover to deal with, at least on paper, they’ve dealt with it admirably. The midfield is the biggest area of change, but their solid enough back-line (Third best in the division last season) remains mostly intact. While the departure of Baird is a blow, the recruitment of the likes of Forbes and Jackson, plus the potential of Hilson to score even more should just about cover Baird’s goals.
Forfar supporting David was keen not to get carried away with the signings, but certainly felt Weir had recruited well, saying:
Too early to tell but Jordan Kirkpatrick looks good and Andy Jackson should be good for a few goals. Also looking forward to seeing Calum Tapping and Scott Robertson making a contribution in midfield.”
Drew also felt that Weir had done well to bring in some of the quality that has arrived, he said:
Quality players have been brought in (Kirkpatrick, Forbes, Burns) the stand outs for me.”
Another plus for Forfar is the age of quite a few of the players in the squad. While a few like Irvine, Forbes and Jackson sit north of 30, a number of the key looking players for the season ahead are either closer to their twenties or at least 27 and under.
Goalkeeper McCallum is 26, as is striker Hilson. Ross Meechan is just 24, while Sean Burns and Jamie Bain are both 27 – as is Jordan Kirkpatrick. Meanwhile Callum Tapping is 26.
Forfar have had a pretty successful league cup campaign – to say the least. A 3-0 battering of Brechin City opened the competition, they then beat another Angus side – Montrose – 4-1. There was no shame in a 2-0 loss to Premiership Ross County, but they went on to record a 2-1 win over another Premiership side in St Johnstone.
This has landed the loons second place in group B and therefore a place in the next round where they could end up playing: Aberdeen, Celtic, Hibernian, Kilmarnock, Livingston, Motherwell or Rangers. A tie with any of those teams, but especially some of the top half Premiership sides, would not only be a great day, but a fantastic cash earner for the club.
Looking at these games, the personnel does chop and change, but the formation has stuck as variations of a 4-5-1. It seems in recent games that Weir has went for Robertson, Tapping and 21 year old Murray Mackintosh as his central three. Forbes and 19 year old Connor Coupe have provided the width and Andy Jackson has played upfront with Dale Hilson unavailable, but it would appear Hilson is still first choice.
The use of the likes of Coupe and Mackintosh is certainly a bonus as it shows some depth in the side, with the likes of Gary Irvine and Jordan Kirkpatrick used on the bench.
The back-four in both most recent games was Jamie Bain at Left-back and Ross Meechan on the opposite side, with Mark Docherty partnering 22 year old Darren Whyte centrally – another good example of blooding in the younger lads. With Burns, Irvine and once he returns Michael Travis all also likely to get their opportunities there this shows yet more depth.
Nonetheless, most football fans are always thinking of the next step, so we did ask David and Drew if they felt there would be more incomings and if so, where they’d like to see them, firstly Drew said:
I’d doubt there’d be anymore signings to be made, maybe a loan or two for cover at centre half.”
And David similarly feeling that realistically, it would be hard to make a big difference at this stage in the window, telling us:
We don’t need much, maybe another attacking midfielder and the usual fans’ demand of the lesser spotted 30-goal-a-season striker.”
The final big question is always “Where should the club be looking to finish in the table this season?”
With the loss of some good players this summer, it would be fair to allow Forfar fans the opportunity to say mid-table is understandable, but there does seem to have been quality brought in and there should be at least one or two play-off spots wide open in the division and for a side that finished second last term, Forfar have more than enough about them to challenge for those.
The key will be, as for many sides in the division, keeping the important players fit. Of course someone right up there challenging for the golden boot would be a nice boost, but if everyone is chipping in with goals, it eventually has the same effect.
Again, the supporters who got in touch were level-headed, but realised Forfar have an opportunity for another round of play-offs this season, firstly David told us:
Forfar fans always start the season looking for a mid-table finish, but I think we’ll make the playoffs again this season.”
While Drew had a similar outlook, saying:
With the quality we’ve added this season & if dale Hilson stays fit, we should definitely look to be in with a very good chance of finishing in the top 4.”
Overall, We’d have to agree with the lads, nothing is guaranteed in the third tier this season, but one of the closer things to a guarantee is that Forfar certainly have the quality, it’s just fulfilling that and as Athletic have proven since Weir took over in October 2017, they do that more often than not.