Roses are flourishing as Lithgae and Bonnyrigg show the way

THE Roses have bloomed in the opening half of the East Region Super League, with Linlithgow topping the table on goal difference from Bonnyrigg before the start of a big freeze that saw four weekends wiped out before a scheduled two-week festive break.

Linlithgow already have one trophy in the cabinet this season, a win over Camelon in the League Cup final at Bathgate having made it a full set for Dave Baikie in Cup competitions since he took over the reins at Prestonfield just under two years ago. The missing link now is the Super League crown and Lithgae would have been sitting in a stronger position in the title race but for a surprise defeat at Camelon, who were managerless then but now have Danny Smith in charge, in their final game before the snow and ice struck.

That was a disappointment for Baikie, especially after they'd beaten Bonnyrigg away in their previous outing, but he looks to have moulded a squad that will be tough to knock off their perch, especially when the time comes later in the season when teams are playing catch-up with fixtures.

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He's got an outstanding goalkeeper in Steven Pinkowski and rock-like figures in John Ward and on-loan Motherwell man Dario Quinn at the heart of his defence. Adam Nelson has added craft to the midfield since his move from Musselburgh last summer, while the tireless performances of Stuart McArthur have been another noticeable feature in the Lithgae engine room this season.

Andy Reilly has been a good signing, too, while up front Tommy Coyne remains one of the most consistent perfomers in the Super League and Colin Strickland was starting to find his feet before the big freeze. Gordon Herd hasn't seen much action this term due to injury but he'll be a useful asset as well in the second half of the season, when Baikie is hoping to see Lithgae kick on and claim that title.

"If someone had said to me at the start of the season we'd be joint top at Christmas I would have taken it," admitted the former Arbroath, Cowdenbeath and East Fife boss. "We've had a couple of disappointments - I'd rather we hadn't gone out of the Scottish Cup at Beith, for instance, while losing to Camelon in our last game was also a bad one for us - but not too many. There's still a long way to go in the title race and we don't have as big a squad as some people might think, having seen that drop down to 17 recently after starting the season at 24.

"I certainly can't be unhappy about how things have gone for us so far and I would like to think we can have a decent second half to the season as well.

"But Bonnyrigg, who may not have great strength in depth but are both a good and physical side, will be there or therabouts and so, too, will Forfar West End, who have perhaps surprised some people since coming up, Lochee, Tayport and, of course, Bo'ness."

Bonnyrigg, the champions two seasons ago, finished nearer to the bottom of the table last term as changes made by Alan Miller failed to have the desired effect.

He can't be blamed for trying to improve a team, even on the back of a success, but Bonnyrigg have recovered from a stuttering start to the current campaign to give themselves a chance of regaining the title.

Ross Hamilton, Bryan Wilson and Charlie Brigain have all moved on since last season but Scott Ritchie and David Dunn are back in tandem in the middle of the defence, where the evergreen Ally Reid has also done well on occasion for Miller.

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Midfielder Kevin McLeish, who was unable to get much of a run in his first season at the club due to injury, is now showing why Miller was delighted to snap up him. And, after taking time to find his feet earlier in the season, former Musselburgh frontman Ryan McCallum has settled in nicely now as well.

With the two Seans - Grady and Paliczka - as well as youngsters James Steel and Sean Martin to choose from, the Bonnyrigg manager certainly has some exciting attacking options. "I am really pleased to see where we are sitting, especially when you consider that we just finished above the relegation zone last season," admitted Miller.

"We have bounced back well and that is down to the fact we've got a good group of players who have shown a willingness to work hard, both in games and training.

"I said at the start of the season that Linlithgow were the benchmark for the other teams and I still stand by that."But it's a tight league again and I can see some similarities in our results from two seasons ago so hopefully we can have a good second half of the campaign."

For Bo'ness, last year's champions, it is certainly going to be a busy second half of the season due to the fact involvement in a whole host of Cup competitions has meant they've only played five league games, the last of which was back on September 9.

Last season Bo'ness were the team being hunted but now they're the hunters and Willie Newbigging can't afford to see his team suffer any hangover from their Scottish Cup exit at home to Buckie Thistle when the action resumes.

For Bathgate, Musselburgh and Newtongrange, there is room for improvement, certainly in terms of results, when that happens, hopefully on January 8.

Graeme Love will no doubt be frustrated by Bathgate's inconsistency, David McGlynn will certainly know his Musselburgh side can do better than muster three wins from 11 games and Graeme Armstrong will be hoping a timely win over Hill of Beath last time out will be the catalyst for Newtongrange to climb off bottom spot.