Queen of the South: The 'invisible' promotion challengers

By Giancarlo RinaldiSouth Scotland reporter, BBC Scotland
Derek Lyle is mobbed by team-mates after heading Queen of the South into a 3-2 lead
Queen of the South currently sit in third place in the Scottish Championship

If you looked in some national media, you could be forgiven for thinking the Scottish Championship only had teams in first, second and fourth positions.

And Hearts, quite rightly, have grabbed the headlines for their runaway lead. Meanwhile, city rivals Hibernian have steadied the ship after a shaky start.

But the sneaky outfit in third place hardly gets a mention anywhere - and it suits Dumfries side Queen of the South.

Recently-appointed player-manager James Fowler explained: "It's probably how we like it as well. It maybe keeps the expectations down.

"But obviously, within the camp ourselves, I think we have set ourselves that target of finishing in the top four.

Queen of the South players celebrating
The Dumfries side have defeated and drawn with Hibs in two league meetings this season

"We can go about our business nice and quietly. We don't really need too much press.

"Hopefully, come the end of the season, we will get the recognition that we maybe deserve."

The play-off system, of course, always allowed for one "fly in the ointment" to the potential dominance of the Glasgow and Edinburgh clubs.

Hearts have staked an early claim for the one automatic promotion spot. But, at present, Rangers and Hibs would have to go through the play-offs involving Queen of the South and a side from the Premiership - with St Mirren and Ross County currently in the drop zone.

That the Doonhamers have infiltrated this cut-throat skirmish is worthy of credit.

The Dumfries side lost out in the play-offs last season, but the odds have been stacked against them repeating the feat.

Manager Jim McIntyre shipped out to the Premiership early in the campaign with the lure of trying to save struggling County.

And injury has deprived them of experienced performers like Chris Mitchell, Paul Burns, Stephen McKenna and Michael Paton for much of the season so far.

It would be easy to say that it means the team has picked itself, but both McIntyre, and now Fowler, have got their selections right more often than not.

A win in Saturday evening's BBC Alba clash with Raith Rovers put them seven points clear of the fifth-placed Kirkcaldy side.

It also kept their gap over Hibs - who they have defeated and drawn with so far this campaign - to three points.

And, whisper it, they are only four points behind Rangers, with the Ibrox team to visit Palmerston soon in a tasty Friday night pre-Christmas clash.

Nobody in south-west Scotland is getting too carried away, but they have built their challenge away from the limelight on solid foundations.

Mark Durnan and Chris Higgins form one of the division's most dependable central defensive partnerships in front of on-loan St Johnstone goalkeeper Zander Clark.

Lewis Stevenson and Andy Dowie
Andy Dowie has slotted in as a makeshift right-back for Queens in Chris Mitchell's absence

With makeshift right-back Andy Dowie and the more marauding left-back, Kevin Holt, they have not conceded a goal in their last three league outings.

The return of Mark Kerr to midfield alongside the ever-more-impressive Ian McShane has allowed Fowler to concentrate on his managerial duties, while Iain Russell and Danny Carmichael generally attack the flanks.

Finally, up front, Derek Lyle, Gavin Reilly and John Baird usually fight it out for the two starting roles.

They have shared 16 league goals between them, half of them scored by Reilly.

What is additionally pleasing to home fans is that the results have been achieved playing some attractive football and with a sprinkling of local players.

Holt, Carmichael, Russell and Reilly all hail from Dumfries and Galloway, while McShane came through the Palmerston youth set-up.

They may not have the resources or profile of their top-four rivals, but they have proved themselves more than worthy of their lofty league position so far.

James Fowler
James Fowler has concentrated on his managerial role since Mark Kerr returned to the side

The Doonhamers have lost only once in the league to one of the teams currently below them in the table - a 2-1 away defeat by Cowdenbeath in September.

However, they face a couple of stern tests when Championship fixtures return after this weekend's Scottish Cup action.

An away trip to Hearts is followed by the home clash with Rangers and any points gained from those games would be a major achievement.

The south of Scotland side will undoubtedly get its share of the reflected glare of publicity from those particular encounters, but then they will be happy enough to disappear into the shadows once again.

Their manager is content for his team to remain "invisible" for the time being.

But don't for a minute think that means he doesn't believe they can materialise once again in the play-off mix come the end of this campaign.