Striking the right balance

Ayr United's postponed Scottish Cup fourth round tie versus Falkirk, due to be played at Somerset Park last Saturday, gave Brian Reid the opportunity for some much needed time on the training ground with his squad. In the run up to the League Cup semi-final, Reid described some of the practical difficulties he faces seeing his players for only 90 or so minutes, twice a week. Chief amongst the difficulties of competing with boys clubs and amateur sides for half of a floodlit artifical pitch was the shortage of time to work on tactics and the shape of the side.

The need to hit the tactics board appears to be all the more necessary following the Honest Men's January transfer dealings. Along with the recruitment of Blackpool teenagers Adam Dodd and Liam Thomsett on loan, Ayr have added three strikers: Sean Higgins, Keigan Parker and Marc Dyer. With only Tam McManus leaving the squad following an entirely underwhelming return, Reid now has plenty of striking options to choose from. It's left United fans wondering how the side will line-up for what is sure to be a relegation battle.

This season has seen Brian Reid rotate his front men, Gareth Wardlaw, Mark Roberts, Micheal Moffat and latterly, Tam McManus. With nine league goals between them, they haven't been prolific and United are the league's lowest scorers - the only side to manage less than a goal a game average.

League appearances only. Source: www.andysstats.co.uk
Reid's favoured front two has been Roberts and Wardlaw, but the two have failed to strike much of a partnership.  Wardlaw has been Reid's go-to man when he has played one up front and is Ayr's best option in this role with his hold-up play and physicality. Top league goalscorer Micheal Moffat has been employed mainly in midfield, wide of both a 4 and a 5. This has been much to the chagrin of supporters - Moffat has show in glimpses when played through the middle he has something more to offer in an advanced role.

Brian Reid will be hoping his new recruits can help Ayr find the net more regularly. Sean Higgins has signed on loan from St. Johnstone having made just one start and three substitute appearances for the Perth side this season. Speaking after recruiting Higgins from Tayside rivals Dundee in the summer, then Saints boss Derek McInnes said: "Sean is a player we've looked at in the past because he's got good technical ability. He's a finisher and he had a great second half of the season before he got injured. He can play off a main striker as well, which is something we've not really had”. Higgins netted nine goals in the First Division last season – including 7 in an 8 games spell between February and March – as Dundee bounced back from administration and a 25 point deduction to put together a long unbeaten run but his season was cut short when he was forced to undergo knee surgery.

Higgins career actually started at St. Johnstone but he was unable to make the breakthrough and moved Ross County in 2002 without making a first team appearance for the Saints. He netted his first goal for the Staggies against Ayr United that season and in seven years at Victoria Park went on to make 211 appearances, scoring 56 goals. County fan and respected First Division analysis John Maxwell of the Ross County Tactics blog concurred with McInnes’ assessment of the player, commenting on his great technique and work rate in harassing defenders. Describing how Higgins enjoyed being supporting forward at County rather than leading the line, John suggested  Higgins was better with a focal point to play off and that Micheal Moffat would be an ideal strike partner for Higgins, Moff’s pace forcing defences to sit deeper thus giving ‘Higgy’ more space. 
Parker: hopefully toasting success again in May
Another player with pace, is Keigan Parker. Now 29, Parker’s career has taken somewhat of a tumble down the English leagues in recent years since his departure from Blackpool in 2007. Like Higgins, Parker started his career at St. Johnstone where he made 144 appearances between 1998 and 2004, scoring 25 goals and never really cementing a regular starting spot despite his promise. Colin Hendry took Parker south to Blackpool on a free transfer in June 2004, his first signing in a short tenure in the Bloomfield Road hotseat. Parker netted 41 goals in 3 seasons with the Seasiders, including two memorable strikes in the 2007 League One play-offs versus Oldham and Yeovil in the final as Blackpool clinched promotion to the Championship. That Wembley play-off goal was to be Parker's last for the Club, however, as he failed to earn a regular start in the Championship and was released by manager Simon Grayson at the end of the season 2007/08.

In the three seasons following, short lived spells at Huddersfield, Hartlepool, Oldham Athletic, Bury, Mansfield Town and FleetwoodTown reaped 11 goals in 93 games and plenty of motorway miles. Parker started this season at Blue Square Premier side Stockport County but was at the Cheshire club for only a month, making just one substitute appearance under boss Dietmar Hamman. The reason for his abrupt departure unknown, in September Parker signed for Evo-Stick Division One North side AFC Fylde. The standard of the second tier of the Northern Premier League – the 8th tier of English football – is anyone’s guess but Parker has netted 13 times in 28 appearances for Fylde this season, helping them to the top of the table and impressed in a recent bounce game for Partick Thistle. Boss Jackie McNamara told the Glaswegian newspaper: "Keigan played in a bounce match for us this week and did well. He is a player I have always rated but there's just no money to sign him. He is quick and scores goals and is a good age but unfortunately we won't be able to bring him in at this stage."

Parker’s last goal for Fylde can on the 14th January in a 7-0 win over Harrogate Railway in front of 321 fans and he leaves Lancashire with the best wishes of manager Dave Challinor, the original Rory Delap. Challinor told Fylde’s website: “Keigan has actively been looking to re-locate to Scotland…it’s an opportunity for him to start again. He’s still 29 and should now be in the prime of his career – he just needs to continue to work hard and get his head down to revive his career”. The striker himself said: “It’s a great chance for a fresh start back in Scotland for me and I am looking forward to it.”

There is no doubt the Brian Reid is taking somewhat of a risk bringing Parker back north, but I think any comparisons with another journeyman striker – Junior Mendes will prove to be wide of the mark. Mendes signed for Ayr in November 2009 at the age of 33 and having retired from the game that summer and was arguably never fit. Parker on the other hand has been playing regularly this season and banging the goals in, albeit in a successful team at a fairly low level of English football. There aren’t too many strikers in the First Division that were playing at Championship level just 4 years ago and if, as David Challinor says Parker can ‘get his head down’ he could prove to be a gamble well worth taking.  At 29, time is still on his side. 

I would be surprised if Higgins and Parker don’t form Brian Reid’s chosen strike partnership and the evidence suggests they could be successful pairing. Higgins appears hungry to get back playing, Parker to resurrect his career in Scotland.  But Ayr also also have options in abundance if injury or lack of form strike.  Providing Reid utilises his striking options wisely, and boldly, the Honest Men have all the tools they could hope to have to score the goals that will secure their First Division status.

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