If you’d told a Dunfermline supporter at the start of last month that the Pars would be finishing the season in a play-off position, their first question would probably have been along the lines of “against Airdrie or Alloa?”.
But such has been their run since the middle of November, a promotion play-off position now seems a realistic aim. The Fifers are unbeaten in seven and if results go their way on Saturday they could finish the day only three points off fourth spot. It is still very tight in the division, but recent results should certainly have supporters believing they can begin to look up rather than down.
It was an uncomfortable start to the season at East End Park but one thing it certainly wasn’t was boring. There were 27 goals in Dunfermline’s first seven games in the league – the problem was more were ending up in their own goal than the opposition’s.
They were often playing well in games but not getting the results through the concession of soft goals they conceded. Their first two wins came in the form of 4-3 victories, over Dumbarton and St Mirren respectively, although there were five consecutive defeats and some pretty abject performances sandwiched between those results. Seven-goal thrillers are great for the neutral, but when you are having to score four goals to win a game there is certainly cause for concern.
The lowly league position early in the season was certainly a surprise given how comfortably they steamrollered League One last season. A lot was made of the loss of Faissal El Bakhtaoui to Dundee and although new signing Gavin Reilly began the season with a few goals, he did not have nearly the same impact on the team as the Moroccan had. Then came the penalties…
The old adage for a struggling striker is ‘you’d rather be missing chances than not creating them at all‘ – but is that really the case when you’re missing six penalties in the first few months of the season? The well-documented spot kick shockers against Dundee United and Ayr made headlines and appeared to show a side bereft of confidence in front of goal, but Dunfermline were still looking a lot more of a threat than their rivals at the foot of the table.
Incredibly after his achievements last season, Allan Johnston was coming under pressure from a minority of the supporters, with patience wearing thin with his point-blank insistence that results would improve.
But improve they have.
They have managed to add solidity to their exciting attacking options and have only conceded an impressive tally of just six goals in the league since the start of November. They are finding a way to win games that they were not during the opening part of the campaign and the strength of their squad means they have a real chance of making an impact on the upper echelons of the league between now and May.
Nicky Clark was a surprise signing from Bury at the end of the transfer window but his goals have been crucial and he has arguably been one of the signings of the season. Despite missing a multitude of chances, he has bagged eight league goals since his arrival and there are plenty of clubs in the league who could do with a striker with such a poacher’s instinct.
After a year out, the return of Callum Fordyce has been crucial and he is improving every game alongside Lee Ashcroft – another surprise summer signing from Kilmarnock. Sean Murdoch bailed Dunfermline out countless times last season and it is also no surprise that their form has picked up since the keeper’s return, after missing the first half a dozen games of the season.
John Paul McMullan is now looking like the exciting winger that Pars fans thought he would be when see signed, while Nat Wedderburn has been a colossus in the centre of the park in recent weeks. The Pars have real strength in depth compared to other sides in the league and a glance at their most recent bench – which included Michael Paton, Joe Cardle, Gavin Reilly, Farid El Alagui and Rhys McCabe – shows that Johnston had plenty of options to change things up and bring on a more than capable fresh pair of legs off the bench.
Dunfermline supporters have been through too much in recent years to get too carried away and given that their side is only five points above Ayr in ninth, most would be happy with a mid-table finish. But Johnston stated his intent on the opening day of the season by claiming the Pars were aiming for a play-off spot and given their recent run it is not out of the question.
St Mirren – who Dunfermline have beaten twice this season – are next up on Saturday, before four games against Dundee United, Hibs, Falkirk and Morton that will surely determine whether they are looking upwards or over their shoulder.
There is plenty of football still to be played, but after three long years in the abyss of League One, there are signs that their next play-off campaign could be for promotion, rather than a relegation one.