Ayr United kicked of the 2020/21 Championship with three points against Queen of the South at Somerset Park on Saturday… but there is certainly room for improvement in the performance of the Honest Men. With more that a small nod to the much loved but departed Tell Him He’s Pelé, here are five things we learned from the season opener:
- Michael Miller can be a key man for United this season
When Michael Miller joined United at the start of August the move was overshadowed by the signing of Tom Walsh on the same day. Many (perhaps with an unrealistic idea of the strength of squad possible in this COVID-hit season) envisaged a back-up role for the versatile 25-year-old, however, Miller has impressed so-far this season.
The former Greenock Morton and Livingston man, who moved to Somerset Park with a League 1 medal in his back pocket after a solid season as Raith Rovers' right-back last year, was the match winner with two set-piece goals but it was his all-round performance that stood out. Anchoring the midfield, Miller was imperious in his play; calm and composed, on countless occasions he was in the right place to intercept, dispose and disrupt the Doonhamers. Screening the back four, he contributed to a largely comfortable afternoon for Jack Baird and Sam Roscoe (if not the rest of the team). On today’s evidence, expect Miller to be a first-team regular this season.
2. United’s midfield balance needs work
While Miller excelled in his role, overall the United midfield was poor. Joe Chalmers and Andy Murdoch in front of Miller, plus Luke McCowan and Micheal Moffat on the left and (nominally) right respectively looked uncertain and disjointed for much of the game.
Andy Murdoch, in particular, appears to be struggling to find his form and his niche on his return to action after a lengthy lay-off (the 25-year-old tore his ACL at the start of September 2019). There was a lot of pointing, cajoling and — in Murdoch’s case — misplaced passes today. From middle-to-front, Ayr badly missed Tom Walsh’s ability to support the lone-front man, Bruce Anderson on his return from a wasted trip to San Marino.
A lack of preparation on the training pitch was maybe to blame. Miller missed Tuesday night’s Betfred Cup win over Annan Athletic though injury and his place in the starting XI was a late call for the management team on the morning of the game. Hopefully a full week of practice will see a more proficient performance in Inverness next weekend.
3. McCowan paid the price for a lack of squad strength
It was a frustrating afternoon for forward Luke McCowan, rounded off with a premature trudge up the North Terracing in the direction of the Honest Men’s temporary dressing room in the Ally MacLeod Hospitality Suite. There were no complaints when referee Steven McLean showed McCowan a second yellow card in the 91st minute for a needless altercation with Gregor Buchanan. Stupidity from Luke — but Mark Kerr must share culpability.
Up against the wonderfully named Nortei Nortey, nothing much came off for the industrious winger who played all but three minutes of our three Betfred Cup matches. His reckless hack out at Nortey on the hour mark which led to his first booking appeared to be borne of both frustration and tiredness; shortly after another misadventure going forward was met with a plea from Assistant Manager Mick McArdle to focus — and a less subtle order from Kerr to ‘get the finger out’.
It was at this point it became clear that withdrawing the 22-year-old was the best course of action but, with limited options on the bench, an increasingly antsy Mark Kerr on the touchline decided against trusting his young bench (Paul Smith was an obvious replacement). Thankfully on the day McCowan’s red card was not an issue but his subsequent suspension is certainly not helpful, especially if first-team-ready reinforcements cannot be added this week
4. Young Sinisalo is no cause for concern
Eyebrows were raised when Mark Kerr chose to put his faith this season in 18 (now 19)-year-old, untested goalkeeper Viljami Sinisalo. Sure, Ross Doohan was the same age and also did not have a senior appearance to his name before his impressive two-year stint at Somerset Park. But what were the chances of lightning striking twice?
Well, it looks like it might. The young Finn was a one of a number of Academy prospects from down south trialled over the summer in Kerr’s rather secretive pursuit of a new №1 — and there appeared to be something hyperbolic when he told the club’s website “[Aston] Villa consider Viljami one of the best of his age, anywhere in Europe” — but ‘Vil’ has made an impressive start to the season.
Vocal, with excellent distribution, Sinisalo came up trumps this afternoon making a number of smart saves to keep Queen of the South at bay in a near flawless performance. Inevitably, the young goalkeeper will make a mistake or two this season; but as of now his account is already in credit.
5. Queen of the South can compete this season
It was a source of mirth amongst Championship supporters over Lockdown that Queen of the South had just three signed players. After a mass clearout at Palmerston Park of the side that looked to be sliding towards League 1 before the pandemic hit, a cautious and pragmatic approach seemed to signal that Allan Johnston would miss out on a host of potential options to revive the Dumfries side’s fortune.
Johnston — who missed this game due to a positive COVID test amongst the Queen’s coaching staff — belatedly was able to hammer his contacts book to surround talisman Stephen Dobbie with a ragtag bunch of largely unknown journeymen, prospects and last-chance salooners… that might just come together to do a job.
The back four and ‘keeper Rohan Ferguson look like they will be at least competent, especially if 18-year-old Rangers prospect James Maxwell can cool his jets. With that platform, Johnston’s side should at least be hard to beat and three draws in the Betfred Cup plus this performance would seem to suggest that. Their midfield — three dumpy guys who don’t set the heather alight — is a concern and while I am sure it wasn’t the intention of the below tweet to belittle the other eight outfield players on the park at the time, Queens fans will hope that their young attacking options such as Connor Shields and Aidan Fitzpatrick can also contribute.