Saturday really did feel like the morning after the night before. In the context of Thursday’s referendum, football has rarely seemed like more of an afterthought, whatever side one took in the vote. With that debate over for a little while at least, football – especially in Scotland’s lower leagues – has never seemed more like bread and circuses for disappointed voters and jaded politicos alike.
Not even a beautiful early autumn afternoon in Angus could lift the spirits for a clash of two of the teams hoping for at least a play-off place from League 1. Before this game, Ray McKinnon’s Brechin City, after such a poor campaign last time out, had made an unbeaten start with a few new faces and some renewed self-belief. Ayr United, meanwhile, had defied the corrosive online cynicism of their own fans and had the audacity to be sitting at the top of the table, when many had forecast that another season of mid-table mediocrity was the best that could be expected. Ownership issues and frustration at the club’s lack of off-field progress may be rumbling on behind the scenes at Somerset Park but the football team is doing its best to defy the circumstances.
It was a game of very few chances – the pointless midfield stalemate ground on like a game of chess in perpetual check
I have to say that the first half of this game – a sterile, disjointed farrago of inconsequence – was one of the worst 45 minutes of football I have seen in a long time. Franz Beckenbauer complained, memorably, of the ’98 FIFA World Cup that the players in the tournament had “played with square feet”; at Glebe Park on Saturday, the game was played with rhomboid feet with uneven soles. It was a half of very few chances; Brechin tried to pass the ball with Alan Trouten and Bobby Barr prominent, but Ayr’s gangling centre-halves saw to it that any attacking threat was quickly blunted. Mark Roberts’ team favoured a much more direct approach, moving the ball quickly from the back, but it was all a bit flat and aimless. The pointless midfield stalemate ground on like a game of chess in perpetual check; neither side really had it within them to hurt the other.
The most clear-cut chance of the half came from an Ayr corner on 19 minutes. The skimming head-height dead ball was met perfectly by Kevin McKinlay, springing like a jack in the box between penalty spot and six-yard box; Graeme Smith in the Brechin goal slapped the ball over from under his bar. It was a brief flicker of a pilot light in an otherwise defunct boiler of a half.
I don’t want to waste too much time on that as we have six goals to talk about in the second period. Brechin, presumably lambasted at half-time by the permanently raging salt-and-pepper haired gaffer McKinnon, began at a good tempo. A raking ball played in from the standside touchline eluded everyone in the Ayr defence and there were appeals for a push on Trouten as he chased the ball; penalty not given. Brechin debutant Jamie Masson, who enjoyed a decent second half, picked Jackson out with a lovely dinked little ball; the dependable centre-forward cracked a left-foot volley back off Hutton’s left hand post and then sclaffed the difficult rebound.
Ayr did not take these early warnings seriously and a minute later City finally broke through. Jackson this time went on a slippery eel of a run down the hedge touchline, eluding a couple of half-hearted challenges and worked himself into the box. The quick-footed attacker held off a third challenge and squared for Trouten, eight yards out. The little midfielder really couldn’t miss – with the ‘keeper caught out of position at his near post, it was 1-0 with a routine sidefoot. Roaring relief, finally, for a sullen and silent home support.
Mark Roberts had seen enough. Obliged to make an early substitution in the first half when the injured Alan Forrest made way for Paul Slane, he was bold enough to withdraw the outmuscled McKinlay and replace him with a gangling beanpole called Dale Shirkie. Shirkie wasn’t to score, but he did alter the balance and momentum of his team and was a constant worrying presence for the home defence.
Minutes later, Brechin gifted Ayr the chance to equalise. The ball was handled in the box by Jamie McCormack, but the protests were long and loud from the home side. Referee Gavin Duncan was then seized in a paroxysm of indecision – he seemed minded to produce a straight red card; then he talked to the Hedge side linesman, then the stand side – the volume of coruscating foul-mouthed abuse from impatient fans rose dramatically. Eventually, the penalty decision stood but no-one was sent off, baffling both sets of officials and supporters. Greg Cameron was booked not for protesting too much. Throughout this referee-induced mayhem, Ayr skipped Scott McLaughlin waited patiently by the penalty spot with the ball under his arm. Finally invited by the referee to take the kick, he sent Smith the worng way with a humming low drive that buried itself in the bottom right-hand corner of the net. A fine penalty, and 1-1.
But if Brechin were gripped by a sense of injustice, it did not deter them and they built up the pressure on Ayr again. Barr and Trouten once again worked together terrifically, the square key rolling back Ayr’s tin of spam. After terrific tricky trolling of Ayr’s backline giants at the edge of their penalty box, Trouten’s shot was turned over one-handed by Hutton at full stretch. The resulting corner saw Craig “Tiger” Molloy’s weak header easily gathered. But, again, Brechin were not to be denied. Their next attack seemed on the point of petering out on the edge of the Honest Men’s penalty box, when possession fell kindly to Masson in an extra yard of space. Curling his right foot around the ball, he unleashed a piledriver that fizzed into the top left hand corner of the net, with Hutton beaten for sheer pace and placement. Two-one.
At that stage, it looked as though Brechin would push on for a clinching third and record another win, perhaps toppling Ayr from the summit in the process. However, the home fans have observed a trend whereby City finish games very poorly, and this unwelcome trait showed itself again.
Two things happened which changed the whole trajectory of the game: firstly, the latest in Scotland’s long line of wasted talents, Craig Beattie, lumbered on in place of giant centre-half Martyn Campbell as Mark Roberts gambled again, substituting defence for attack. And, just as decisively, Brechin’s Cameron was sent off for a crude and needless late foul on Brian Gilmour, right under the referee’s nose. McKinnon was less than impressed and held his arms wide open in a “what the fuck?” gesture as the shamed Cameron trudged off to the dressing room.
From then on, Ayr, who had favoured a more route one approach, began to exploit their advantage ruthlessly, playing the ball wide and hitting the “man over” at every opportunity. Ryan Donnelly headed weakly at the goalkeeper when well placed, and a terrific raking ball over the top of the back pedalling backline found Shirkie, who was marginally offside. Later, Smith saved brilliantly just under his bar from the luckless Slane. But everyone knew the equaliser was coming.
Craig Beattie, standing almost motionless as though looking to hail a taxi, bundled the ball over the line with an indistinct part of his anatomy
When it did, it had a fairly generous helping of luck garnishing it. Some meat exchanges between Jon Paul McGovern and Gilmour on the edge of the Brechin box saw a low-ish ball fired across the area. Beattie, standing almost motionless as though looking to hail a taxi, bundled the ball over the line with an indistinct part of his anatomy. I don’t think he knew too much about it, but they all count. Two-two.
Both sides then traded punches for ten or so minutes. Barr and Trouten, both fading, were withdrawn, but their replacements didn’t make the impact McKinnon had been hoping for. Instead, Ayr kept probing and got a further break when McCormack, attempting to block a cross into the box, handled the ball once again after it was hit off him from very close range. I felt it was a bit of a “Pat van den Hauwe” penalty, but the referee immediately pointed to the spot. McLaughlin hit the same kick with more power, the ball rocketing past Smith’s futile correct-direction dive. Unexpectedly, Ayr, who had been so disjointed for an hour, were ahead.
The coup de grace was delivered with two minutes remaining. Beattie was fed the ball on the edge of the box and he had managed to get goalside of his harried marker. Holding the City defender off, Beattie pressed on determinedly, rounded Smith, and rolled the ball home in an echo of days gone by. Four-two, game over; the City fans dejectedly headed for the exit as soon as it had gone in.
Fans sometimes talk of “good 0-0 draws”; this game was the obverse of the coin, a curio with six goals in it that wasn’t actually very good. For an hour it seemed astonishing that a team as out of kilter and one dimensional as Ayr could be top of the table. But, after Brechin’s self-inflicted wounds, the strength in depth of the Ayr squad and the nous of their more experienced players saw them over the line with quite a bit to spare. Home boss McKinnon would have enjoyed the first hour of the match, but must be absolutely baffled at the indiscipline and loss of concentration that saw City throw away such a good position.
I’ll be surprised if Ayr aren’t in the top four at the end of the season, although yesterday’s display makes me doubt whether they can be champions. As for Brechin, only time will tell – they undoubtedly have the players and the ability to finish in the play-offs but if they keep slumping towards the end of games, as they have been doing, then another season of mid table water-treading is the best that can be expected.
Man of the Match: SCOTT McLAUGHLIN (Ayr United)
For me, the game’s best player was Ayr United skipper Scott McLaughlin. He refused to buckle when his side were up against it in the first hour and kept cajoling and encouraging his younger team-mates. McLaughlin is capable of the occasional beautiful pass and read the game well, in addition to scoring the two penalties. For Brechin City, Alan Trouten and Bobby Barr were decent; Jamie Masson had an okay debut, and also notched the goal of the game (and perhaps an early contender for goal of the season too).