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I like to think that when you ‘click’ through the turnstile at any football match, you pay your money and take your chances. As all experienced football watchers know, you occasionally find remarkable drama and excitement in the most unexpected of games, while others disappoint and never reach the boil.
They also know that because you pay your money and take your chances, you get a proportion of 0-0 draws. We’ve all seen some goalless stinkers in our time - two languid sides, twenty-two disinterested players, a rationing of goalscoring opportunities and a forgettable atmosphere. From my experience, Boston United’s visit to Guiseley in November 2010 springs to mind, as do the goddam awful nil-nils between Walsall and Rochdale and Bolton versus Wigan last season.
This was not one of them. As the amicable ‘experienced football watcher type’ sat next to me exclaimed on the final whistle, this was a “nil-nil hammering.” How Airdrie United won’t travel to the West coast on Saturday with a lead in this Irn-Bru Scottish First Division Play-off semi-final (phew...) tie would baffle the board of MENSA and the Guardians of Logic.
They had a majestic goal disallowed, they had a penalty saved, they stuck the post and the crossbar, they had shots cleared off the line and they were the victim of questionable offside decisions with alarming regularity. I counted well in excess of twenty attempts on goal and, yet, the Diamonds DID NOT SCORE.
This visit to the Excelsior Stadium was as spontaneous as it gets. Determined that my season wasn’t finished, I glanced at the night’s fixture list at five to six and was on the train to Airdrie at twenty past. Good old end-of-season play-off lottery.
I’m not a fan of Scotland’s convoluted play-off system. Three sides from the ‘lesser’ division and the team that finished ninth in the ‘higher’ division enter the competition, which consists of two-legged semi-finals and two-legged final. What player, after a grueling season, wants to hear their coach say: “Come on lads, let’s raise it. We’re only 360 minutes away from promotion.”
The Excelsior Stadium - reached by walking through a shady council estate - is a modern, if soulless, stadium. Home fans are situated along one side, away fans along the other, with the two ends unused. Mind you, it had all mod cons and fairly decent pies. They perhaps lacked the home-baked love of the Killie Pie but they did have more beef. It also has a plastic pitch, the first one I’ve seen since that Boston game at Durham City which was abandoned 20 minutes before kick-off.
The crowd was good at 1,871 (including probably 300 from Ayr) and it was hard not to be swept along as the home side suffered a series of injustices to leave their Division One dreams hanging by a thread.
First, the outstanding Jamie Bain spooned an amazing shot into the top corner from the edge of the area. It was a moment of pure delirium for hardcore and neutrals alike and we celebrated like long-lost family at a genuinely magic moment. In a brilliant provocation, the home players celebrated in the opposition technical area.
But amidst these scenes, nobody had noticed the belated raised flag of linesman Brian McGarry. It was alleged the boot - or rather, astroturf trainer - of Airdrie’s Ryan Donnelly was too high. If I may borrow a local expression - Pish.
After an acerbic reaction from the crowd, the referee perhaps felt influenced to award a penalty ten minutes later when Donnelly went down rather too easily under a challenge. Paul Lovering’s kick was saved by Kevin Cuthbert in net.
The second-half was, if anything, even more one-sided. Donnelly struck the bar, Cammy MacDonald hit the post and McGarry - who was having a fair crack at becoming the most unpopular man in Airdrie - continued to flag players offside. But there was an hilarious moment when a woman in front of me screamed at him: “You’re not selling our hoose (Translation: house) now, you know.” Apparently the linesman is an estate agent by day and I think he may have lost his commission on that sale.
Normally as a neutral you sit and watch impassively but this was a rare occasion to get swept along. Rarely have I seen a team be so deserving and yet get nothing. Mind you, there is a second leg to play and Ayr can’t be much looking forward to it.
Next Match: Hopefully before August...