For the lower-league obsessive, this weekend is officially the last of the football season. Issues such as who would finish bottom of the Premiership and next weekend’s Scottish Cup final seem as remote as the upcoming World Cup.
The final days are always a bit strange, not only as the disruption of familiar Saturday routine looms in the emptiness of the close season, but as the marker of the passing of another nine months. Those who have seen success are still enjoying its afterglow; everyone else has strident views on who should be released and who should come in, already anticipating a better campaign and silverware this time a year from now.
It was the last chance for Peterhead to salvage something from the multiple frustrations of a near-miss season. At the end of December, when the Buchan club savaged Montrose 6-2 at Links Park, most observers expected Jim McInally’s team to hit overdrive and surge beyond a more limited chasing pack. But the turbocharger lagged and inconsistency ultimately cost them the title, with dropped points at home to Berwick Rangers and away at Clyde, Annan Athletic and Edinburgh City all proving significant. This led to a poor play-off final showing this midweek at Ochilview where Stenhousemuir established a solid two-goal lead.
For their part, the Warriors came to Balmoor on the cusp of a surprising promotion. For all their defensive solidity, built on the effectiveness of the Dunlop brothers, and some tricky midfielders in Eddie Ferns and young Harry Paton, Stenny had looked like a team capable of making up the numbers in the play-offs, but no more than that.
It was a beautiful afternoon in Aberdeenshire. Breathless, the propellers of the big wind turbines in the North Sea stood stock-still. A strong sun basted the soft green-brown curves of the land, dappled with gorse yellow. Peterhead was not so much the Blue Toon as the Brown Toon; the sturdy, squat sandstone buildings softly glowed in the rare sunlight. Haar threatened on the bay but kept away until late in the afternoon.
It was obvious from the kick-off that all the pressure was on Peterhead to make the running, and in the first half they didn’t appear to have the shoes for it. Instead, Stenhousemuir, in their yellow away shirts, looked by far the livelier of the sides. Their manager, Brown Ferguson, had stated on Radio Scotland in midweek that he didn’t plan to set up to defend in this second leg and he was as good as his word. Ferns – an experimental rocket of a player who is extremely rapid but whose end product is reliably uncertain – scampered down the touchline early on and fired in a cross which Mark McGuigan spooned over the bar.
The Warriors forced a series of corners and Peterhead, full of nerves, dealt with them hesitantly. Their passing through the middle was chronic for the first half hour and any attempts to provide a quick solution by playing a long ball were routinely dealt with by the Dunlops.
There was a very close shout for a Stenhousemuir penalty around the 25-minute mark. Jimmy Scott, who had bustled into the box, crashed to the ground having seemingly been pushed by Russell McLean. The protests from the visiting fans and bench were loud and long but referee Greg Aitken, who was rather indulgent of Peterhead’s physicality throughout the game, turned his head away.
Watching Peterhead try to get the better of their visitors was like watching a fingerless man cut an avocado with a bookie’s pen
Chris Smith in the visitors’ goal didn’t have a serious stop to make in the first half. He had to move smartly to claim a couple of crosses from the right wing, with Peterhead forwards lurking at the back post, but he had a composed display. The Blue Toon’s closest moments were shots from the edge of the box which whistled harmlessly over. They were full of desire to attack but seemed to have forgotten how to do so. Watching them try to get the better of the obdurate visitors was like watching a fingerless man cut an avocado with a bookie’s pen. Frustration boiled over in a rash of petty bookings for not very much. Seemingly resigned to their fate, the home fans were quiet throughout.
As poor as they had been in the opening 45 minutes, Peterhead began the second period at a tremendous tempo. Briefly, they seemed to have remembered their abilities. Sheer weight of attacking numbers began to tell on the Stenny defence. A cross from the right from Willie Gibson was flicked across the face of goal and landed well for Jamie Stevenson who, from around seven yards out, fired over the bar with Smith stranded. Wave after wave of home attacks built up. From a corner nine minutes into the second half, Russell McLean hovered at the back post as though poised on an invisible step-ladder and his bullet header streaked across Smith and bulged the roof of the net. Suddenly a huge roar rolled over Balmoor like oncoming thunder. One-nil, and a real test loomed for the promotion credentials of the visitors.
For the next 10 minutes Stenny creaked and buckled like a Caribbean shack in a gale. The goal had been coming and Peterhead pushed hard. Smith gathered a corner at full stretch, then punched another away, before gratefully clutching a whistling Scott Brown drive to his midriff. Stevenson had another chance that flashed wide of Smith’s right-hand post. Stenny, who had neatly played the ball out from defence in the first half, showed they were rattled through some safety-first punts into touch and more than the occasional panicked sclaff, attempting to clear their lines.
Then came one of those moments that can’t really explained properly. In the middle of the park, inside the Stenny half under a mild challenge, Peterhead captain David McCracken, already cautioned, handled the ball. McCracken was shown a second yellow card by Aitken and trudged off disconsolately as the stewards and Peterhead bench avoided his downcast gaze. I doubt even he will be able to explain why he did it.
Nonetheless, this dismissal didn’t immediately affect Peterhead, who continued in the ascendancy. Mark McGuigan fell a little theatrically in the box on a rare Stenny breakaway and was booked for simulation. The centre forward was still bitterly denouncing the decision minutes later as he collected the ball from the travelling fans for a throw-in, insisting he had felt a push.
Gradually, though, the blue storm abated. The attacks grew less in frequency and became less threatening. The nerves set in again amongst the home team. Stenny began to see more of the ball in the middle of the park and some of the free-flowing play down the touchlines, featuring Ferns, Scott and Mark Ferry, began to reappear. They became quite miserly in possession and individuals were denounced bitterly if they gave it away cheaply. Both sets of fans felt keenly the agonies of the season’s death throes as the final minutes ebbed away. Goalkeeper Greg Fleming, in desperation, pushed up for a Peterhead corner that came to nothing. At the other end, a clogging hack saw Jack Leitch dismissed for a second bookable offence but by then it didn’t really matter.
It is Stenhousemuir and not Peterhead who will feature in League 1 next year
The final whistle sounded; the home fans, raw with disappointment, dispersed quickly as the tired but elated Stenhousemuir side celebrated and jigged in front of their noisy travelling army. It is they, and not Peterhead, who will feature in League 1 next year. Given that they controlled both games for all but that difficult 20 minutes at the start of the second half, it’s hard for anyone to say that they didn’t deserve it.
When both these sides were relegated at the end of last season, few if any would have predicted that it would be Stenny, not Peterhead, who would come straight back up. Anti-play-off traditionalists (your scribe included) will question the wisdom of promoting a team who finished 22 points behind their vanquished opponents over the course of the league season. But, rightly, Stenny will simply state that they are making the most of the system as established currently and which everyone had signed up to at the start of the campaign.
Manager Brown Ferguson can sometimes come across as a dour character in his interviews; he has the air of a 1980s Dundee United youth-team coach about him, minus the continual respectful references to “Mr McLean”. The team he has fashioned are quite easy on the eye and in the final few weeks of the campaign discovered the steel required to push through the unforgiving play-offs. They were tested today, and passed.
In Chris Smith they have a fine goalkeeper and any team containing the Dunlops will be respected at this level. Probably Ferguson will concentrate his efforts, after the holidays, in adding a sprinkle of Tabasco and a dash of vodka to a rather bland grey attacking sauce. Had Stenny finished just the wrong side of the dotted play-off line, a blunt attack would have been the biggest reason cited. Without this problem being addressed they may find another League 1 campaign tricky, but it will be interesting to see how they progress. Having recently had one of my most enjoyable footballing afternoons ever at Ochilview as Montrose won 2-0 there on their way to the title, I will be glad to visit Larbert again next season.
Where did it all go wrong for Jim McInally? To the outsider, Peterhead have a number of excellent players in their pool but rarely did they function as a coherent team unit throughout the season. They also lacked concentration at key moments – the last time I was here with Montrose, an avoidable Iain Campbell free-kick provided an equaliser with the last kick of the ball, another moment denying the Blue Toon of two more vital points. This failure overall can only be laid at the door of a manager whom many were surprised to see continue after their relegation, via the play-offs, against Forfar Athletic last season.
The embarrassing 1-5 capitulation at Balmoor that day would have finished most managers but the Peterhead board seem to value a loyalty which they may now have cause to regret. With strong rumours circulating that today’s game will drop a mournful curtain on McInally’s long career at Peterhead, a new man will have to find a way to shape these talented individuals into a team over the summer. Should the right candidate be identified, few would bet against a revitalised Peterhead realising their potential next term.