NOW comes the hard part.
Dunfermline Athletic edged ahead at the top of the First Division with a win over Dumbarton yesterday, but it has proven to be an uncomfortable perch this season, with Morton and Partick Thistle also taking it in turns to sit at the head of the table. It seems likely that the title race could last until the music stops in May.
Any advantage has seemed vulnerable – especially as Partick still hold two games in hand – and there was a tacit acknowledgement from Jim Jefferies afterwards that his side's lead could prove short-lived. "First place has changed hands a fair few times already," said the Dunfermline manager.
With the Scottish Premier League having brought the shutters down for a couple of weeks, this was billed as an opportunity for those among the lower divisions to become the centre of attention. Invitations for temporarily disenfranchised SPL fans to adopt a "wee team" during the winter break seemed a little condescending, but both teams offered enough for any who had dipped their toe into the lower leagues to feel it was worthwhile.
Much of the initial intrigue centred on the hosts. Ian Murray has presided over just three games and seven call-offs since being appointed manager in November, but he was able to conjure two consecutive victories ahead of the visit of Dunfermline. It was a quite a trick given that the club's return to the First Division had become an exercise in endurance – they are still without a home league win – but the true extent of the task facing him was identified yesterday.
Successes against Falkirk and Morton had pointed towards a growing resolve under Murray, but that was undermined after 50 seconds at the Bet Butler Stadium. Alex Whittle forced a low pass across goal and, after the ball skidded over Andy Graham's attempted clearance, Andy Barrowman turned a shot into the net. It was a moment of comedy, but no laughing matter for Dumbarton.
It proved a portent for a first half that was not shy on action, although there would be further moments that left the home side looking a tad sheepish. One of those also doubled as their best chance for an equaliser, Garry Fleming swivelling his hips to evade Callum Morris but losing his feet moments later as he prepared to shoot.
The temptation is to imagine that such misses will be felt more acutely by a team struggling at the wrong end of the table, but Dumbarton ploughed on manfully. Fleming had already muscled his way into the penalty area only to lift a tame shot into the arms of Paul Gallacher, while Jim Lister also had a shot at goal which clipped a post.
They refused to go away after the break either and it took an impertinent foul from Shaun Byrne in the final minutes to interrupt the home side's momentum. "I said to the players that if we are going to get beaten then I want to get beaten like that," Murray said. "I don't want people to come here thinking that they are just going to turn up and win the game, which is what was happening earlier in the season."
Dunfermline were not to enjoy that level of comfort, but their second consecutive league win was accompanied by a more assured performance, with Ryan Wallace and Byrne offering potent threats. The latter bent a shot towards the top corner after 12 minutes which Jamie Ewings clawed out from under his crossbar. Barrowman spurned another chance midway through the second half when he pulled his shot past a post, but his side were still able to hit the target of returning to the top of the league. Staying there will be much harder.