Bottom of the league. Fans questioning the manager’s position. Criticism over the style of play.
Welcome to January 2017, Stranraer FC style.
Supporters of the Blues, however, have seen this movie before. In fact, January 2017 looks startlingly similar to January 2016.
Then, as now, Stranraer were in a sorry state. Optimism at the appointment of Brian Reid had evaporated, and the patient fanbase, whilst far from unanimous, certainly harboured plenty of anti-Reid sentiment.
The committee, however, took the brave decision to stick by their man, with spectacular results. Catalysed by the re-signing of fans’ favourite Willie Gibson, the Blues went on a highly impressive late season run that replaced the support’s League Two nightmares with dreams of the Championship. If defeat on penalties in the playoff final was cruel, it was still far more than anyone had dared to hope for.
This season was meant to be different. Gibson was staying on, and the squad was bolstered by the signings of Scott Agnew and Frank McKeown, two players who had excelled in previous spells at Stair Park.
Halfway through the season, hopes of a promotion in Wigtownshire have been replaced with a horrible sense of déja vu. A 1-0 defeat to Stenhousemuir last week saw the Warriors leapfrog their abject visitors at the bottom of the table.
Whilst the Stranraer fans are hoping the ending to the sequel lives up to the original, the 2017 edition has already diverged dramatically, with Brian Reid leaving the club on Monday. The Stranraer committee, so patient last time around, clearly could not see the former Ayr manager repeating the same trick twice.
In his place comes Stevie Farrell, assistant manager during Stevie Aitken’s successful reign and a highly popular appointment amongst the Stair Park faithful. His arrival may hark back to a happier time on London Road, but Farrell faces the same challenges as Reid did and will have his work cut out to match his predecessor’s late surge of last season.
It seems inconceivable that anyone signed in this transfer window will make as big an impact as Willie Gibson, whose mercurial wing play seemed to breathe fresh life into a stale Stranraer attack last season. This time, Gibson is already in situ, with even his lively interjections failing to lift his team from the doldrums.
Perhaps the new manager will inject that spark, bringing in a new formation, a tiki-taka philosophy, or a devil-may-care, gung ho style of play.
Or, perhaps, Stranraer are in a false position, just like last season. Maybe the new manager doesn’t need to be a miracle worker, just better than an ill-fitting predecessor who dragged a talented squad to the bottom of the table. Twice.
Reid marginalised club stalwarts like Craig Malcolm and McKeown, and failed to coax performances from potential game changers like Agnew. A first step on the road to rehabilitation would be to reinstate the popular Malcolm. The little forward has lost a yard of pace and is perhaps not quite the threat he once was, but his terrier-like play and eye for goal surely offers more in a dogfight than the pedestrian probings of Joe Nuttall.
Fans got a glimpse of life post-Reid in Saturday’s Scottish Cup tie against Aberdeen, although the game gave little indication of how the season might pan out. Farrell does not take up his post until Monday, so it fell to Reid’s assistant, Chris Aitken (whose own future at the club has not been confirmed), to step in as caretaker manager.
The Dons, fresh from a sunshine training camp in Dubai, strolled through the match with minimal fuss, and Stranraer were unable to ask any real questions of Reynolds and Taylor in the Pittodrie defence. Some fine shot-stopping from Cameron Belford at least showed the keeper’s reflexes are poised for a second half of the season in which he is likely to have to earn his corn.
The Great Escape of the 2015/2016 season felt like a miracle, an against the odds surge up the table that very nearly took Stranraer all the way to promotion. It seems unlikely that a team so low on confidence will reach so high two years in a row, and most Stranraer fans would bite your hand off for guaranteed safety and the chance to build for next year.
But look at fourth placed Brechin, only 11 points away. And there are 45 points still to play for. If Farrell’s new look Stranraer string together a couple of good results in a row, who could begrudge the optimists of Galloway daring to dream?