A dismal Championship campaign for Dunfermline ended with a whimper on Friday night as already-relegated Queen of the South claimed a 2-1 victory at East End Park.
The Pars second-tier status will now be decided via the playoffs.
A season which began with zealous talk of a title challenge from Peter Grant could yet culminate with relegation to League 1.
Courier Sport was in Fife to pick the bones from another dire evening for Dunfermline — and consider what comes next.
A shot at redemption for John Hughes
John Hughes has been in this movie before. And it turned into a horror flick.
Having been appointed Raith Rovers manager in February 2017, he led the Kirkcaldy club to just four Championship wins on their way to a ninth-placed finish.
Rovers’ decline took place amid Hughes’ public criticism of his players, most notably when he accused them of being mentally weak following a 5-0 defeat against St Mirren.
Hughes was dismissed immediately after a humbling playoff defeat against Brechin City at Stark’s Park.
While leading Dunfermline to survival will do nothing to assuage the lingering enmity felt towards the experienced coach from Rovers’ fans, it would exorcise a few ghosts for Hughes.
The former Hibs and Ross County boss has been far less vociferous in his criticism of the Pars players, while the mood around the club is less morose than it was at Stark’s Park five years ago.
And he will hope to enjoy a very different outcome from all-or-nothing ties against Queen’s Park and — should they see off the Spiders — Montrose or Airdrie.
Is Hughes to blame for this mess?
Dunfermline were three points adrift of guaranteed safety when Grant — without a win in 12 Championship games — was dismissed on October 31.
Judging by the rather explicit chant aimed at their former boss on Friday night, some supporters still see Grant as the man to blame.
There can be little doubt that he was the architect of this almighty mess.
He signed 10 players last summer, the vast majority of whom flopped.
Grant persisted with a system, personnel and style of football far beyond the point at which all three were failing.
He oversaw a dismal start to the season which set the tone for everything that followed.
Hughes absolutely cannot be absolved of all responsibility and, should Dunfermline go down, the fans will undoubtedly turn some of that ire on the man currently occupying the hot-seat.
But Hughes has been swimming in quicksand for much of his tenure, charged with completely rebuilding and revitalising a toiling football club and woefully imbalanced squad.
While results have been less than stellar, to characterise his reign as a repeat of the 2017 Rovers car crash is unfair — even if it could ultimately lead to the the same outcome.
Taking Hughes’ appointment on November 12 as the start point — with every Championship side having played 23 league matches since then — it is worth noting that Dunfermline would have survived.
The Pars’ points per game record also stands at 1.2 under Hughes, compared to 0.6 under Grant.
Championship table from November 12:
Inverness CT 34
Partick Thistle 30
Raith Rovers 27
Ayr United 27
Queen of the South 22
A pitch battle
The challenges posed by a pockmarked, weathered Firhill pitch are no secret.
With Thistle ground-sharing with Queen’s Park, the turf has taken a battering.
During Dunfermline’s recent defeat against the Jags, Hughes fielded Lewis McCann and Nikolay Todorov in attack — a powerhouse pairing — in a tacit admission that playing through the midfield would be impossible.
Well, that same pitch will host two games in the space of 24 hours.
Partick Thistle host Inverness in the Premiership playoff quarter-final first leg on Tuesday, before the Pars arrive to face Queen’s Park on Wednesday.
It will be fascinating to see how the Firhill surface holds up to the challenge and whether Hughes again alters his approach.
Dunfermline fans did their bit — and will be needed
It may seem platitudinous or trite, but Dunfermline supporters deserved so much better than the second half fare served up by their team on Friday.
Despite a miserable campaign, 5406 punters packed into East End Park (with a modest following from Dumfries, that attendance was almost solely Pars fans) to register their biggest home crowd of the season.
THE FANS – Putting On A Show🏴☠️ pic.twitter.com/SDeCPkRtaw
— SECTION NORTH WEST (@SECTION_NW) April 30, 2022
They were loud, boisterous, colourful and, although the mood dampened when it became clear Ayr would beat Partick Thistle to stay up, the atmosphere remained positive until Dunfermline capitulated.
The Section North-West group also produced a fantastic display to honour to outgoing chairman Ross McArthur; a fitting, deserved tribute despite the struggles of recent months.
That vibrant backing may just be pivotal if the Pars are to salvage their Championship status.