Five things learnt from pre-season

Pre-season. Every year I resolve not to bother. Somerset Park can seem a long way and £10 can seem a lot of money to see a kick about. The resolve never lasts, however, and the pre-season optimism and intrigue over new players takes over. Managers will tell you that pre-season games are not about results and all about match fitness but new gaffer Mark Roberts was also keen to use the series of five games to work on the team’s shape and style of play, which has already seen a radical overhaul.

It can be dangerous to read too much into pre-season but the Honest Men can be reasonably pleased with their endeavours, drawing one-each with Queen’s Park, a full strength Bolton Wanderers side and Irish hatchetmen Glentoran. A thumping 4-0 win over Champions League-bound Motherwell had heads turning while a 4-1 defeat versus Partick Thistle reflected the number of youngsters and trialists on show, with Roberts resting most of his main men.

Notwithstanding (well, ignoring) the main caveats: what did we learn from United’s pre-season?:

Starting XI

Unlike pre-seasons of the recent past, United have fielded a fairly settled line-up and used only a limited number of trialists, with the exception of the Partick Thistle game. Goalkeeper Ally Brown and the Jonathan Tiffoney were the only players not involved in the opening fixture at Lesser Hampden. Former Stenhousemuir goalkeeper Brown featured as a second-half substitute in Ayr’s second game against Motherwell and has kept the No. 1 jersey since (and subsequently signed) while Tiffoney returned to action in the penultimate game versus Bolton.

This continuity of selection should stand the side in good stead when the action starts for real on Saturday. Barring injury the side to face East Stirlingshire is likely to line-up:


Tiffoney   J. Robertson   Brownlie  McCann

Merenghi   Sinclair   McStay   Shankland

R. Robertson   Moffat

Otherwise, Martyn Campbell has the biggest claim to be involved in place of Brownlie but Ochilview’s artificial surface may be the deciding factor in Marko’s decision. Also, there is some confusion regarding Tiffoney’s future. Dundee, apparently, remain interested but unwilling to pay a fee for the 20 year-old. It may be that John Robertson plays at right-back with Campbell and Brownlie pairing up in the centre.


Beyond the starting eleven, pre-season has shown Ayr’s squad to be fairly limited in numbers. Add Martyn Campbell and the manager himself to the eleven listed above and that’s it in terms of ‘senior’ squad members. Roddy Paterson and Robbie Crawford head the list of U19s that can be expected to be involved, while defender Alan Murdoch has also featured.

Of the trialists used but not signed, David Winters, Paul Harkins and Grant Mosson were given limited game time and mostly failed to impress. Unfortunately for Micheal McGowan, and for Ayr, his appearance as a trialist lasted only 5 minutes before he succumbed to a reoccurrence of the knee injury picked up at the end of last season. McGowan has claimed it not to be serious – and he scored in a ‘Reserve’ game against Cumnock on Wednesday night – but Mark Roberts cannot afford to offer the winger a deal until he’s certain he’s fully fit.

Congolese-born forward Joel Kasubandi remains an option but injury prevented him taking part in the final pre-season game. Somewhat of a wildcard, the speedy19 year-old and could be utilised on the left or up-front thus providing cover for Moffat and Shankland but this would seem to knock Roddy Paterson down the pecking order. Roberts will have to be sure Kasubandi will: a) fit into his vision for the side and b) provides something he doesn’t already posses amongst the U19 squad before gambling on the player released by Morton.

The financial uncertainly following the ongoing fallout from the Rangers saga may have lead to the re-evaluation of Roberts’ budget or Marko could be playing the waiting game to see who he can pick up in August and September but it seems certain that some reinforcements will be required.


It has been clear from the off that Roberts wants his side to play a different way than under Brian Reid. This is also reflected in the players who he has brought to the club. Reid favoured a fairly defensive back-four where the full-backs we’re encouraged to get forward and in midfield the emphasis was primarily on carrying the ball forward, with the likes of McGowan, Trouten, Geggan and the out-of-position Moffat preferring to run with the ball rather than pass it.

The new look Honest Men have instead looked, first and foremost, to pass the ball, short and at speed. New midfielders David Sinclair, Ryan McStay and Antony Merenghi all look comfortable with the ball at feet with Sinclair adopting the ‘quarterback’ role of taking the ball deep from the defence and distributing it forward. With a relatively narrow midfield – there are no natural wingers – the full-backs have been encouraged to push forward, with the nominal left and right midfielders providing cover. This was shown to good effect with Tiffoney’s role in the equaliser against Bolton, where, receiving the ball from Roberts he burst past the Bolton full-back and defender to cross the ball to Roberts around the penalty spot.

Up front, Roberts has returned Micheal Moffat to his rightful position and put his faith in Ross Robertson. Brian Reid saw Robertson as a centre-back, used him there and in midfield but Marko has seen enough to convince him the 21 year-old can lead the attack. While it may take time for ‘Rossco’ to adjust to the role, what he lacks in touch he more than makes up for in his ability to occupy defences with his strength and aerial prowess. Too often in recent seasons opposition defenders have been given an easy time of it by Ayr’s attack and hopefully Robertson can address this. Robertson provides the ‘big man up front’ option missing from Ayr teams for a long time but I don’t expect Marko will be keen to see long balls being played from back to front. As a target man, however, there are signs that Robertson could prove a useful foil for a hopefully rejuvenated Moffat.

Going from ‘up against it’ in the First Division to among the title favourites in the Second was always going to necessitate a switch in approach that would see Ayr more comfortable on the front foot. Under Reid, last time out in the Second Division, United never looked to be comfortable favourites and rarely dominated games. Hopefully playing a more possession oriented game will prove not only more effective but also more attractive on the eye. The key to turning possession in to goals will be using Moffat’s pace to run at defenders and to exploit space behind opposition defences.

The highlight of pre-season has been the emergence of Mark Shankland. Roberts has talked up the Mauchline kid almost since the day he took over and the youngster – who only turned 17 two weeks ago – is sure to play a big part this season on the evidence of pre-season.
Used primarily on the left of midfield, Shankland also played behind a front two (Moffat and Roberts) in the Queen’s Park game and Roberts has stated he can play anywhere across midfield or up-front. Shankland possesses fantastic technique and composure on the ball. His weight of pass is exquisite and he isn’t afraid to take on his man or to take a shot.
Why we didn’t see more of Shankland under Reid remains a mystery but this could now be his time to shine.
(OK, I was struggling for a fifth ‘S’…) The biggest cause for concern on the park has been the number of free headers given up at corners and free-kicks. This very specific thing has been a long-running Achilles heal of United. There has been much debate surrounding Campbell at the start of what will be his seventh season at Somerset Park. Campbell’s strengths and weaknesses are fairly plain to see. He isn’t going to look comfortable with the goalkeeper rolling the ball out to him short, but at the same time up against a burly target man, few get the better of the now 31-year old defender as evidenced by his performances against Motherwell’s Michael Higdon and England International Kevin Davies. Then there are the inevitable question marks over his fitness. ‘Bobo’ managed only 15 appearances last season and Ayr had a fairly rotten record when he did start.
The jury is still out on keeper Ally Brown also. He doesn’t come with glowing recommendations from supporters of previous clubs and in pre-season has looked unsure when going for balls played into the box. If the defence can prove itself to be be solid and reliable then the side should have an excellent platform for playing the type of game Roberts wants.
To finish on a negative would be entirely inconsistent with the overall feeling around club about the new season. Fairly natural at the start of any season you could say, but in Mark Roberts we have a manger committed to entertaining the supporters with attacking and attractive football and that is to be welcomed. As usual, I’m sure it will be a rollercoaster season.

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