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Past may catch up with Nicholl in race to avoid relegation

T he return to Cowdenbeath has allowed Jimmy Nicholl a chance to look again at his previous tenure at Central Park, but he would not have expected to see it staring right back at him.

He had been manager of the Fife club when it was relegated from the first division in 2011 and last month made his way back to find the side similarly vulnerable in the SPFL Championship, occupying the league's relegation play-off spot and just five points off the bottom.

An ambition to stay up two years ago would prove stillborn, with Nicholl's labour complicated further by the arrival of Jimmy Calderwood at Ross County, a club which was second bottom of the division at the time. The two coaches had been a close partnership at Dunfermline Athletic, Aberdeen and Kilmarnock, but would be separated by six points at the end of the season, with Nicholl then divorcing himself from Cowdenbeath as the club were relegated.

His route back to Fife has taken the Northern Irishman back on to familiar ground then, since he will now compete to avoid the drop with Morton manager Kenny Shiels, whom Nicholl had assisted at Rugby Park until the end of last season. Shiels' appointed at Cappielow was formally announced yesterday amid much fanfare but not before the Cowdenbeath manager had trumpeted his own reaction.

"When I heard [about Shiels' appointment] I thought 'Oh God'," said Nicholl. "It happened the last time I was here, when JC ended up in charge at Ross County. They stayed up and we got relegated . . . but Kenny will be glad to be back in because he was out a long time."

Cowdenbeath have a five-point lead over Morton, who are bottom of the Championship and without a league win since November 9, and Nicholl might be considered to hold an advantage over the Cappielow side too, given that he is a veteran of relegation battles in this division. He carries the scars of that defeat but has also used his experience to seize small victories in his early skirmishes - a dramatic 3-2 defeat by Livingston followed on Saturday with Cowdenbeath's first away win in the league this season. They won 2-0 in Dundee. "If you are going to get your first away win, then it might as well be at the home of the league leaders," said Nicholl.

"Nobody expected us to win and I don't really like hearing people say that. They get you on the phone and say 'you're not expected to win this' and I just say 'I am, actually'. What's the point if you don't? If you've got a group of bog-standard players that will never win you a game of football then that's different, but I've got a group with ability, with goals in them."

Nicholl is content, too, that his squad have now been imbued with a mental strength which will allow them to take criticism. As a manager he can be fiercely protective of his players, not least against their capacity to hurt themselves - the Central Park side having picked up a rather nasty habit of surrendering goals late on.

"I kept on saying it until I was blue in the face. I said, 'Lads, I've seen all your games, I've looked at the stats and you've conceded 14 goals in the last 15 minutes of games and you've been in winning positions and still got beat . . . it's a fact that's staring at you and until you get rid of that stat, it is going to be difficult'," said the 56-year-old.

"They are good players. Look at Greg Stewart and Kane Hemmings up front, we've got energy in the middle and good experience at the back. I just say, 'away you go lads, away and play . . . people are thinking you're bottle merchants so away and do something about the situation'. God All Mighty it might be weeks until we are away from this area [of the league table] but at least the signs are there that they are going to try and sort the situation. That's the main thing."

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