Its been some time since the the last @albinoanaconda blog post, 65 days to be precise, but ahead of the Honest Men's trip to Palmerston Park I'm picking up almost where I left it. Since a late Mark Roberts goal earned United all three points against Queen of the South in September the Dumfries have picked up only six points from a possible 21 and have slumped to the bottom of the table. Another defeat on Saturday and Brian Reid's men could extend their lead over the Doonhamers to six points.
That win at Somerset Park came on the back of the United's League Cup heroics against Hearts and superstitious boss Brian Reid stuck with the same formation, but with Mark Roberts replacing Gareth Wardlaw in the lone striking role. That tactic simply didn't work for me - as discussed in the last blog entry - yet Ayr have persisted with Roberts up front on his own. The evidence is fairly damning. Following on from the win against Queens, Ayr have struggled at home, scoring just once in four league games - a consolation against Dundee from the penalty spot in a 3-1 defeat. Goalless draws against Livingston and Partick Thistle last Wednesday have all seen Roberts ploughing a loan furrow, as he also did when United made the long journey to Dingwall and were defeated 4-0.
Ayr's best results have come on the road and four consecutive wins began with another heroic cup display at St. Mirren Park. As he did against Hearts, Gareth Wardlaw - with something to prove against his old side - lead the line superbly. The longer the game remained goalless, the more Ayr came into the game. Micheal McGowan in particular began to have a creative influence and after a serious of set-pieces it was Chris Smith who powered home the winning goal from a Eddie Malone free kick to set the biggest Ayrshire derby in history in January.
Four days later and 2-0 down at half-time against Hamilton at New Douglas Park all looked lost but an incredible second-half display - and another header from Chris Smith - earned Ayr an unlikely three points. The Honest Men also travelled to play Raith for an early season 'relegation six-pointer' and came away with what could prove to be a vital 1-0 win against a poor Rovers side devoid of confidence. Like at Paisley, Gareth Wardlaw was the man entrusted to lead the line in Kirkcaldy and Hamilton, with Mark Roberts on the bench. Three games away from home in which Wardlaw has played up front on his own and three impressive and important wins. Four games with Roberts up front on his own - three at home - and just one goal and two points. It would be over-simplifying matters to state it should be Wardlaw and not Roberts who should play up front - things weren't too difference when Wardlaw fulfilled the role at home to a Morton side there for the taking at Somerset - but it is clear Reid cannot continue with Roberts in the loan role. Against Partick Thistle on Wednesday, Marko cut a frustrated figure, his contribution mainly limited to kicking and barging the Thistle back three. When he was substituted on 69 minutes the skipper slumped back in the dugout, clearly not happy. The veteran still has that compose on the ball, especially in the box, that can fashion a shooting chance from nowhere but he simply lacks the legs, stamina, pace and physicality make an impact on his own up front.
Wednesday also saw a second debut for Tam McManus. The former Hibs striker has penned a short-term deal to the first week in January having trained with the side for a number of weeks and turned out a couple of times for the Reserves. Although you can expect some shortness of match fitness having not played a first-team game since he left Falkirk in May it made Reid's decision to go with Roberts alone up front against Thistle all the more bewildering. With four strikers in the match-day 16 why put one on the wing (a matter for whole different blog post) and leave two on the bench, playing arguably the least effective in the lone role up front? More frustratingly, why wait until 74 minutes to make the switch to two up front? Like the Livingston and Morton games it felt that an overcautious approach from the United boss had scuppered any chance of earning three points.
Hopefully Reid will acknowledge a change is needed and in his pre-match comments Brian states: "Our midweek game against Partick took a lot out of the side due to the conditions it was played in and I will look to freshen things up as result", hinting at a start for McManus. Whether in place or alongside Roberts (or Wardlaw) we'll see but there is no doubting that Tam McManus is an exciting option.
Why McManus finds himself, again, in the situation where Ayr United seems to be his only option is baffling. Especially on the evidence of these goals:
Tam's first spell at Somerset Park started with four goals in his first five games and sparked a mini-revival which gave United hope in their relegation battle (Ayr won four and drew four of his first nine league games at the club). In the end, Ayr lost eight of their last nine games and were relegated. Staying on at Somerset Park was never on the cards but it was not until September 2010 that Tam was fixed up with a club as he returned to Falkirk, initially to January but subsequently extended to the end of the 2010/11 season. Seven goals in 13 starts was a decent return at the Falkirk Stadium but at the start of this season McManus again found himself on the look out for a new club - a twelfth of his career at the age of 30.
McManus told the Daily Record in October that he was feeling as sharp as he ever has in his career and "playing for claps" represents a risk well worth taking - but will surely require a change in approach from Brian Reid. Somerset Park buzzed with excitement on Wednesday night, despite the wind and the rain, when McManus entered the fray and partnered Wardlaw upfront. At a stage of the season where a couple of wins could open up a significant gap between the Honest Men and the bottom of the table, a few goals from a proven goalscorer could prove very shrewd business indeed.