Stranraer may have muddled to a seventh-placed finish in Ladbrokes League 1 last term, but long-serving midfielder Steven Bell is convinced the Blues are heading for a successful campaign under manager Stevie Farrell this time around.
Ladbrokes News chatted to the Stair Park ace ahead of Tuesday’s League Cup clash with Livingston, to discuss the Blues’ early-season displays, the flurry of impressive summer buys and why the current boss has the ideal formula for success…
Ladbrokes News: Stranraer avoided the dreaded relegation play-offs by four points last term, after a good end to the season – taking 10 points from the final six games. What do you put that resurgence down to, and can you carry it on into this league campaign?
Steven Bell: There was a real togetherness in the team, and we’ve also had much more structure in the team since the new manager [Farrell] took over. Everyone knows their jobs well now, and we have a higher intensity in training than we did previously. Those things have all played a massive part.
Looking around us, I think we also realised at a certain point that this squad is – or certainly should be – too good to go down. We really rallied and pulled out some excellent results in the last handful of games, and fortunately that was enough to see us to safety.
However, having been in that difficult situation, we need to learn from the mistakes that saw us struggling for a lot of last season. For me, we have to start dominating games at home on a regular basis.
I’ve been at Stranraer for quite a few years, and on the occasions we’ve finished high up in the table, our form at Stair Park has been excellent.
Getting the new boys settled into the club and used to our way of playing as soon as possible is also key, so we know what’s needed for success this season.
LN: You’ve had two League Cup games thus far. They’ve both been defeats – to St. Mirren and Airdrieonians respectively – though the Blues have registered in both games. What’s your assessment of those two performances?
SB: We didn’t do ourselves many favours against St Mirren, and conceded some sloppy goals. We struggled to deal with them on set-pieces in particular, and a side of that quality will always punish you if that happens.
At Airdrie, we were well in the game and only 1-0 down at the hour mark – but our goalkeeper [Cameron Belford] getting sent off and them netting the resulting penalty killed the game. It ended up 3-1, so it’s not been a great start, but our main priority this season is League 1.
If there are mistakes in our game and things which need ironing out, we’re best getting them out of the way now. I think the manager will have learnt more about certain players during the past couple of games, and that can only be a good thing in helping the squad we have here to improve.
DB: Next up is the visit of Livingston. You had some tight, low-scoring games with them last season – one draw and two Livi wins by a single goal. Do you think this will be a close-run thing again this time? And are you confident of edging it?
SB: Livingston were very strong indeed last season – comfortably the best side in League 1. They worked the best as a team, they had the best players, and proved incredibly difficult to break down.
I imagine they might take a bit of time to adapt without Liam Buchanan, as he was such an important player for them last season. From our point of view, that means they’ll probably set up against us a bit differently this time out – so we need to be ready for that.
I’m unfortunately unavailable for this game, but what the guys playing need to do is make a case for themselves ahead of the league campaign by stamping their authority on this match. If the manager has difficult decisions about who to pick in a position, then that’s usually a good sign that you’ve got strength in depth.
Livi have done well in their League Cup games so far, beating the likes of St Mirren and Partick Thistle [on penalties], so they’ll provide a stern test – but I think we’ll make it a hard-fought test for them again, and hopefully take three points from the game.
LN: You’ve touched on Stevie Farrell. This is his first time starting the season as Stranraer boss, having taken the reins in January. How have you found him to play under so far – and what’s his focus been this summer?
SB: He’s been great. His arrival really rejuvenated us as a squad, and brought our confidence back. That’s something that had maybe been lacking a bit before his arrival, but Stephen has instilled a really positive mood in the camp. I like his style a lot – very hands-on and knows exactly how to motivate each of us.
In terms of training, he’s very precise. There’s a real attention to detail, with a focus on dissecting the formations and phases of play we can expect to see from each opponent, and how we can exploit the way other sides play.
There have been eight new additions this summer, but you can tell already that he’s added some real quality to the squad and I’ve no doubt they can help fire us up the league!
LN: Perhaps the most eye-catching of those buys is Jamie Hamill from Queen of the South. He’s obviously got plenty of experience at the top level, having played for Heart of Midlothian and Kilmarnock. What will he add to this Blues squad?
SB: I’m really enjoying having Jamie at the club. He’s a cracking lad and has already settled in very well. On the playing side, he’s very versatile and having captained Heart of Midlothian, you can tell he’s a guy with a lot of presence on the field.
He’s exactly the kind of player that Stranraer needed – an experienced, talented guy who can help us close out games and also chips in with a few goals. If we end up winning promotion – automatically or via the play-offs – I’m sure he’ll be someone who plays a huge part.
LN: On that note, are your eyes firmly fixed on the title, would you settle for a play-off spot, or is it just a case of improving on last season’s seventh-placed finish?
SB: I don’t think we did ourselves justice last season with the position we finished in, because there are some excellent players in this squad. So I hope – and think – that we’ll improve significantly this season.
Obviously it’s going to be a real battle for the top spot, because of the quality of teams in the division this season.
You’ve got full-time teams like Airdrie, Raith Rovers and Ayr United involved, but there’s a great vibe and a super squad at Stranraer right now. We’ll take each game as it comes, but I think we could surprise a few people this season!
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