It’s sure to be a Christmas message of cheer for St Rochs supporters to hear  Barry Russell is refusing to give up hope of him and his team-mates turning the tide to mount a Conference A title challenge in the New Year.

Speaking in the aftermath of last Saturday’s 4-3 defeat by Kello Rovers that marked his return from a seven-week injury absence, the defensive mainstay disabused the viewpoint that his enforced appearance off the bench had revitalised the Candy Rock rearguard.

“We still lost the game so I couldn’t have made all that much of a telling impact,” insisted the blunt-speaking 31-year-old.

“Overall defensively we were very poor and I put our failings down to a lack of communication and the fact confidence is at a low ebb with players refusing to take responsibility for their own roles and taking the easy way out by pointing fingers at others when things go wrong.

“And let’s not think for a minute our problems are all at the back because the gaffer Paul Kelly is forever preaching the need for us to defend from the front by asking forwards to work their socks off to close down opponents and looking for our midfield to go with runners.

“Front to back, everyone has a job to do for the good of the team and truth is it’s just not been happening so we’ve shipped goals as a result and dropped crucial points but let me say nowhere near enough for us to give up the ghost in the league title race.

“Going into a three-week Christmas break will afford time to reflect on our shortcomings up to now but it also allows the group of players here to reset and if we can just get our act together for starting back then nobody should write off  our chances of finishing top dogs."

Their second league defeat in five starts has left St Rochs 10 points adrift of league leaders Annbank United however experienced Candy Rock manager Kelly is confident the strengthening of his playing hand over the coming weeks will see the gap closed.

Prior to last weekend’s game he snapped up one-time Arthurlie and East Kilbride Thistle ace Sean Winter while a further boost is in the offing through the returns from injury and suspension respectively of prolific marksman Jamie Longworth and midfield dynamo Kieran Daw.

Yet it’s probably Russell’s eagerly awaited recovery from a debilitating torn stomach muscle picked up in a pre-season friendly match against Maryhill that is most welcomed as he undoubtedly fits the profile for the type of defender Kelly wants, comfortable in possession and able to make passes out of defence but also rugged and willing to put his foot through the ball when it’s required.

Said the Garngad boss: “I don’t fear St Rochs going up against any Conference side when our best team is on the park however our playing squad lacks a bit of strength in depth which is why the absence of Daw and Longworth was so sorely felt against Kello.

“And neither can there be any denying the significant improvement in our performance when Barry was introduced as a substitute because his physical and of course vocal presence is exactly what a young team like ours is lacking.

“It’s pleasing to think he managed to get a first 50 minutes under his belt without any recurrence of his injury but it’s frustrating to think we are now entering this winter shutdown just when he and the other guys are needing game time to get their match fitness levels up to speed.

“Hopefully we can cram in a few friendly matches because the month of January is shaping up as a crunch time for us with scheduled fixtures against three of the leading lights, Muirkirk, Renfrew and Annbank as well as a city derby with Ashfield.”

A spell in cold storage is similarly not to the liking of Conference B frontrunners Neilston, boasting a perfect record with eight victories from eight league games, and five points clear atop the standings albeit their lead could be cut to a mere two points if joint closest challengers Johnstone Burgh (Greenock are the other) can win their game in hand.

The Farmers Boys re-commence hostilities on January 9 with a trip to face Wishaw while the Burgh face a testing examination of their title credentials in awaiting the visit of an ambitious St Cadocs side whose sights are set on leapfrogging over their hosts with a win at Keanie Park. 

Conference C frontrunners Kilsyth Rangers put their unbeaten record on the line when taking to the road to face Glasgow Perthshire while second-placed Drumchapel United’s return to playing action is an infinitely more winnable contest away to East Kilbride Thistle.

Meanwhile, this weekend’s severely curtailed WOSFL fixture card has already seen the vast majority of clubs opt to put kick-offs back 24 hours to Sunday 27 December instead of playing as initially scheduled on Boxing Day (see below).

And now comes word of a surprise switch of venue after Premier Division title challengers Darvel moved their clash against rivals Troon to Townhead Park’s astro-grass facility in Cumnock rather than risk the possibility of Recreation Park being declared unplayable.

WOSFL Premier Division Festive Fixtures
Tuesday 22nd December (7.30pm
Rossvale v Rutherglen Glencairn.
Saturday 26th December (1.45pm)
Hurlford Utd v Bonnyton Thistle.
Sunday 27th December (1.45pm)
Irvine Meadow v Blantyre Vics, Beith v Kilwinning Rangers, Darvel v Troon (Townhead Park, Cumnock), Rob Roy v Largs Thistle.