Andy Harrow of The Terrace Scottish football podcast previews three of the weekend’s big games, including the Friday night showdown at Easter Road.
Hibernian v Dundee United - Friday, live on BBC ALBA at 7.45pm
Last encounter: Dundee United 1-0 Hibernian (02.12.16)
Tony Andreu’s penalty 17 minutes from time settled this tight contest between the top two clubs. Hibernian had gone into the game three points clear of the Tannadice men at the summit of the Championship with their sights set on extending that lead, while United had gone 10 games unbeaten in their ascent up the table. After a relatively uneventful first 45 minutes, the game burst into life 10 minutes after the restart. Lewis Toshney’s attempts to control a bobbling ball in the box proved unsuccessful and, as he looked to rescue the situation, he brought down Hibs striker Martin Boyle. He took the resultant penalty himself, but the effort was tame and Cammy Bell easily saved his fourth spot-kick of the season. It would be a penalty that decided the game, though. A strong run from United’s substitute Simon Murray was stopped illegally by Liam Fontaine and on-loan Norwich midfielder Andreu slammed home the winner to bring United level with Hibs in the table.
Since the defeat at Tannadice, Neil Lennon’s men are unbeaten, picking up eight points during December. Paul Hanlon and Brian Graham goals saw off Dumbarton at Easter Road the weekend after the loss against United but 1-1 draws in successive games – away to Morton and at home to Raith Rovers – slowed momentum as Christmas approached. Going into the New Year’s Eve game with Falkirk, Hibs sat in second spot but knowing a win for them and a Dundee United defeat at Dumbarton would see them in pole position going into 2017. Craig Sibbald put the hosts ahead, before an almost-instantaneous reply from Jason Cummings. The scores remained level until Kris Commons, on loan from Celtic, smashed in a free-kick with a couple of minutes remaining.
United started this season slowly, but their form since a 3-1 loss at Falkirk in mid-September has been impressive, with a 12-match unbeaten run in the Championship only ended by Dumbarton on Hogmanay, Mark Docherty scoring the only goal at the Cheaper Insurance Direct Stadium. In December, this included wins over Hibs, St Mirren and Ayr and a battling draw away to Raith Rovers as they first caught leader Hibs and then usurped them.
East Fife v Stenhousemuir - Saturday
Last encounter: Stenhousemuir 0-1 East Fife (20.12.16)
You don’t have to go too far back for the last fixture between these two. Only five days before Christmas, in fact, as East Fife came out 1-0 victors thanks to a Kevin O’Hara strike. The victory for Barry Smith’s men moved them up to sixth in League 1 and ensured the Warriors remained at the foot of the table. It was O’Hara’s second goal for the Fifers since joining on loan from Falkirk and it was an expert finish, curling the ball past keeper Colin McCabe from the edge of the box. It was also revenge for East Fife after Stenhousemuir had triumphed by the same score in Methil in October.
Following the departure of Gary Naysmith, East Fife moved quickly to appoint Barry Smith as manager on December 13. The decision has been immediately rewarded and Smith’s troops have won all three of their fixtures, including an excellent 2-1 victory last weekend against league leaders Livingston. The winning run actually extends slightly further, with the Fifers having also beaten Brechin City a few days before Smith’s appointment. This upturn in form has the side from Methil setting their sights on fourth-placed Alloa, who are currently five points ahead.
December was an especially topsy-turvy month for the Warriors. Over their six fixtures, Stenhousemuir won three and lost three. Their month began in spectacular fashion, with a resounding 5-0 victory away at promotion hopefuls Airdrieonians, but was followed by a 4-0 defeat at home to Livingston. This format – win followed by defeat – continued throughout the Christmas period. Brown Ferguson’s men showed impressive resilience to respond to the Livingston result by securing their first home win the following weekend, against Albion Rovers, but they lost to Saturday’s opponents a few days later. Another good away win, this time at Peterhead, was then followed by a 4-2 reverse at home to Alloa. Stenhousemuir fans will be hoping that, for this weekend at least, the sequence of results continues.
Cowdenbeath v Berwick Rangers - Saturday
Last encounter: Berwick Rangers 1-1 Cowdenbeath (05.11.16)
The scoreline barely tells the story from the last time these sides met. Berwick went ahead after 16 minutes when Greg Rutherford beat Cowdenbeath keeper David McGurn from close range. The score remained the same until half-time and few would have expected the drama to come. First, the Blue Brazil’s Kris Renton had a goalbound header cleared off the line by the hand of Berwick’s Steven Thomson. He was sent off but from the resultant penalty Renton’s shot hit the bar rebounded on the line and bounced away. Cowdenbeath spent the remaining 20 minutes pounding on the Wee Rangers’ door, but it seemed to no avail as the clocked ticked into stoppage time. With 91 minutes played, Berwick were reduced to nine men after Steven Notman was dismissed for a wild lunge. Cowdenbeath threw the ball forward and, after something of a stramash, Cameron Muirhead forced the ball past Kevin Walker in the Berwick goal to earn a dramatic point for Liam Fox’s men.
It’s been a difficult season for Cowdenbeath. Having been relegated from League 1 at the end of season 2015/16, they have spent much of this campaign in the lower reaches of the division. An unbeaten November suggested the club had found their footing and their unbeaten run extended to four games when they beat Clyde in early December. However, three defeats in a row meant the Central Park side sat bottom on Christmas Day. A priceless victory over Stirling meant that Cowdenbeath avoided the same fate on New Year’s Day and, in a tight league, also leapfrogged this weekend’s opponents.
Last weekend, Berwick became the fifth different team to occupy bottom spot in League 2 in the past two months, after they lost at home to Edinburgh City and Cowdenbeath overcame Stirling. Only a point separates Berwick from their opponents this weekend and John Coughlin’s men are only last on goal difference, so a few wins could send the Shielfield side clear. However, the Wee Rangers have managed just a single victory since the middle of September.