The League 2 play-off day is upon us again. Having shivered and sweated my way through the first of these, as a Montrose fan in 2015, I am thankful yearly that I can watch these encounters as a diffident neutral. It’s also incredible how quickly how what is still a relatively new idea has become seemingly so ordinary and natural, as though the first of these games was between someone like Renton and Vale of Leven at the end of the 19th century.
As the relegation play-off becomes established, the clamour for the team that finishes 10th in League 2 to go down automatically will become louder, and the red-jacketed, waxed-moustached, pith-helmeted conservatives trying to hold the current line will be swept away.
The one argument that those arguing for no automatic relegation from the basement division still have is that there’s little point replacing dreck with dross. If the best non-league senior team in the country can’t beat the worst League 2 side over two legs then, arguably, what is the point of them coming up at all? Certainly, the odds before this first-leg encounter seemed to favour the buccaneering Highland League champions, Cove Rangers, against one of the poorest teams seen in League 2 for about a decade: Cowdenbeath.
Cowdenbeath have been dropping like a burning moth from a hot lightbulb for the last three seasons
Cowden have been dropping like a burning moth from a hot lightbulb for the last three years. Barely tolerated tenants of a stock-car company at their crumbling Central Park home, the penurious Fifers have recorded back-to-back wooden-spoon finishes in League 2, amassing a pitiful 22 points throughout the season, with a five-month winless streak the fatal carcinogen in an awful cadaver of a campaign.
The corpse only began to twitch slightly with the appointment of Gary “Bobo” Bollan, the ex-Rangers and Dundee United defender, as manager. Bollan brought in the craggy Bryan Gilfillan to remind a confidence-sapped defence how to do their job, and took a gamble on the mercurial and unpredictable Jordyn Sheerin, loaned from Kelty Hearts, up front. Results did tick up a little, with three wins recorded in the final 10 games of the season, and Cowden staved off rigor mortis for perhaps a month longer than most had expected.
Cove, meanwhile, are full of brash flashing optimism. The affable John Sheran had, charitably, a chequered record at Montrose and Peterhead in the old SFL but his work at Cove has been near flawless. Sheran’s charges, although surprisingly tumbled from their lofty perch by Buckie Thistle last year, have restored the recent natural order in the strange, semi-detached Highland League competition this term, winning the title by 11 points and never being seriously challenged for the crown throughout the season.
This is made all the more remarkable by the fact that the Aberdeen club have been squatting in Inverurie Loco’s spare bedroom all year. Their tight old Allan Park ground was demolished for housing and its replacement, which will be ready for the new term, is slowly moving towards completion, the new tenants having been “on the road” for the past two seasons.
A leisurely queue waited in good humour to enter Harlaw Park through one of two turnstiles. Inverurie were in the juniors themselves just over 20 years ago and although the club have worked hard to improve the ground since they joined the Highland League in the mid-90s, it still has something of a junior feel to it. The ground sloped steeply towards what looked like a granary at one end; up the hill, there are portacbains and a big green net to stop the ball rudely scattering a tray of 80/- in the social club. Inverurie have strong ambitions to progress into league football themselves but for now had to watch their tenants try to make it up ahead of them.
Cove had some familiar old faces in their team. Stuart MacKenzie in goal has played in three of the four League 2 plays-offs so far; for victorious Montrose in 2015, on the losing side as Cove crumbled to Edinburgh City in the 2016 semi-finals, and again this year. Up front, former Aberdeen youth striker Mitch Megginson (with over 50 goals this campaign) and Paul “Shagger” McManus would still be a respectable League 1 partnership, at least on paper. Cove have also leant heavily on Darryn Kelly and Eric Watson at the back. Watson, in particular, could have had a good league career but opted to keep it local, firstly with Montrose Roselea and then a long spell at Cove.
Atmospheres at these games are usually nervous and edgy but, perhaps as Cove are brief visitors here, the supporters chattered in a low hum throughout, like a crowd for a pre-season friendly or limited-overs cricket match. The game began with the “home” team kicking down the slope and there was little to disturb the various conversations around the ground during the first quarter.
The match was fragmentary and error-strewn. Cove, with such an abundance at their disposal, seemed very one-dimensional to me, aiming for the big punt down the park from goalkeeper MacKenzie, with very little variation. I would have been furious with the number of aimless blooters that went straight through to David McGurn in the Cowdenbeath goal in the first quarter. Moreover, with an old stager like Gilfillan in defence, the aerial route was never likely to bring Cove much success, and there was a frustrating inability to probe at Cowdenbeath’s weaknesses down the flanks.
Perhaps sensing that they weren’t up against Real Madrid here, the Fifers began to push back a bit and had the better of the next 15 minutes or so of the half. Cove’s Alan Redford, at right-back, had a torrid time for a while as balls were dinked in behind him and he struggled to cope. Another key battle emerged between Eric Watson and Jordyn Sheerin, Cowden’s lone man up front. It was actually a bit of a shock to see Sheerin – he’d been stick thin when I last saw him in the colours of Berwick Rangers, but he looked like nothing less than a hot-air balloon in the red and black stripes of Cowden today. He may be physically a bit off but Sheerin has a good touch and the big-boned clash between him and the uncompromising Watson caused the referee to intervene on two separate occasions to wag his finger at them both. Cowden weren’t able to make much of this rare period in the ascendancy, a free-kick sailing harmlessly over the bar being the closest they came to troubling MacKenzie.
With the goal yawning like a hippo, Mitch Megginson spooned his effort over the bar before crashing to the ground in embarrassment
Instead it was Cove who should have taken the lead before half time. Firstly “Shagger” McManus was quickest to react when a quickly taken thrown-in from the left touchline caught out a leaden-footed Cowden and saw him burst clear; from the edge of the area a mis-hit shot whistled past McGurn’s right-hand post. The most glaring miss, however, came from strike partner Megginson. Chaotic and sclaffy skirmishing down the Cove right suddenly saw the ball shoot across the face of goal, straight towards Megginson lurking unmarked about eight yards out. With the goal yawning like a hippo, Megginson spooned his effort over the bar; he crashed to the ground in embarrassment, and rightly so.
The slope had no effect on the second half; if Cowden had hoped for relief playing downhill, they were to be disappointed. If anything, the intensity of the host’s attacking play increased, and MacKenzie in their goal was largely a spectator. All the focus, as it turned out, was on his opposite number.
Cove had at last worked out that the way to hurt Cowden was to bypass Gilfillan in the middle of defence and attack the hesitant Cowden full-backs, both of whom are being played out of position, instead. The ponytailed Blair Malcolm was pulled this way and that, but he did his best to hold up to the barrage. Gilfillan stumbled and fell over, but the ball bounced just beyond the toe-poke of the straining McManus.
Still the deadlock couldn’t be broken. Cove forced a series of corners and throw-ins in menacing positions and the polite conversations began to give way to more recognisable football shouts. McGurn was called to do more and more, gathering and punching. A dangerous ball found Jamie Masson lurking just inside the corner of the penalty area and his murderous drive was brilliantly parried round the post by McGurn at full stretch, the first of two stunning saves from the former Raith Rovers goalkeeper.
Sensing that a first goal could be critical in such a close game, the managers shifted things around. Gilfillan, carrying a niggle, made way for Scott Rumsby. Masson was withdrawn for young Ryan Stott, a winger, and he injected some real life and invention into Cove’s attack for the last 10 minutes.
As the ball broke from a half clearance Cove’s Connor Scully, 25 yards out, swung his right laces through a drive which hissed goalwards, six inches off the ground and heading in, but McGurn tipped the ball onto the base of the left-hand post. Time briefly stopped for a moment as it bounced onto the sprawling goalkeeper’s shoulder, and then lip-bitingly just wide of the post. Megginson, from an excellent position, skied the ball over the bar – again. It’s hard to believe he has scored so many times this season when he performed so poorly in this game.
There were some more feints and turns from Stott, a few more moments when the ball just wouldn’t fall in the box for the Cove forwards, a little more decisive and brave keeping from McGurn, and the final whistle went.
There is no doubt that Cowdenbeath will be the happier of the two teams with this result
There’s no doubt that Cowdenbeath will be happier with the result. If Cove had taken their chances the Fife club would already be planning a campaign in next season’s Lowland League. The real worry for Cowden is that they don’t look likely to score. It’s all very well defending, which they did quite well for most of this game, but they need to pose much more of a threat up front. Bluntly, someone with a little mobility to profit from Sheerin’s ability on the ball and to read the game is required.
As for Cove, any disappointment at failing to slot the tie away today, as they had done in the semi-final first leg against a garbage Spartans outfit, will be tempered that they can’t be as profligate two Saturdays in a row. Three-nil would not have been an unfair scoreline today. Maybe in the marginally bigger open spaces of Central Park, where attacks can’t be launched via a brainless punt from the goalkeeper, will help. If I were John Sheran, I’d be tempted to play the tricky Stott from the beginning too – he caused Cowden’s tiring defence many problems in the last few minutes.
This was an absorbing game and it’s still hard to predict who will be competing in League 2 of these sides come July. A confident Cove should go down to Cowdenbeath next weekend and do what they should have done this afternoon. However, sides who pass up so many chances rarely end well over two legs. Maybe, just maybe, there’s one last scrap in the mangy old Fife cur yet.