We were here a year ago for the same fixture and for the same reason – the first division play-offs. Last year they met in the final rather than the semi, and both sides were going for promotion. Cowden won it then, achieveing their second successive promotion despite a backdrop of off-field problems which resulted in further budget cuts this year. It’s been a difficult year for them since – manager Danny Lennon left for St Mirren, taking several of their players with him, and they were left to rebuild a new side of part-timers in a mostly full-time division in the attempt to stay up. Given which, they actually made a pretty good fist of it under new manager Jimmy Nicholl (whose appointment was a bit of a coup), finishing well clear of bottom-placed Stirling but just failing to avoid the relegation play-off spot.
For Brechin’s part it’s their third straight year in these play-offs, though this year their participation in them ended up looking rather more doubtful than it had at one stage. For a while they were Livingston’s closest challengers for the title, but a run of seven games without a win in April – including five home defeats – left them sweating before recovering to finish fourth. They’d needed a bit of a recovery in the first leg of this tie as well, in which they found themselves 2-0 down before levelling it in the second half. By the end of that game it was Cowdenbeath who were lucky to come away with a draw. (Or so my Cowdenbeath sources tell me – I wasn’t there.)
And so to yesterday’s second leg. With the best will in the world, Central Park, Cowdenbeath, is not a great place to watch football. I don’t so much mind the fact that it’s a bit crumbly and dilapidated – sooner that than a single stand new-build like East Fife’s, say – but the stock car track, and therefore the fencing, between the pitch and the terracing do get in the way. It was the need to finish in time for the stock cars that also determined that this game kick-off at 2pm in case extra-time should be required. (The track is used every Saturday evening, and it’s that income that has traditionally kept the club afloat.) And as if the visibility at the stadium isn’t already bad enough, someone has had the bright idea of hanging flags round the top of the fencing, at a level low enough to be in the line of sight.
Mind you, for the first twenty minutes or so of this game there wasn’t a lot to be seen anyway, it was a very cagey opening and a first half of few chances. It got better towards the end of the half, and eventually the first real opening fell to Colin Cameron, Cowden’s player / assistant manager and at 38 one of several veterans in the home side. (Lee Makel is the same age and Steve Crawford a year younger.) Mark Ramsay took Crawford’s flick-on down the right hand side, cut the ball back to Cameron, and his shot from sixteen yards was well-saved by Craig Nelson (age – 39).
It wasn’t all about the oldies though, and both sides have a couple of younger strikers who have been attracting considerable interest recently. Greg Stewart has had an excellent second half of the season for Cowdenbeath, while Rory McAllister has scored over fifty goals in his two years at Brechin, and both players look likely to be moving on next season. Iit was McAllister who was the next to come close to scoring just before half-time, a low free kick going just wide of the post with ‘keeper Davie Hay stranded.
It wasn’t until sometime into the second half that the game opened out, but once it did so the chances started to come thick and fast. Firstly Stewart latched onto a loose ball to force another save from Nelson, then just a minute later at the other end Hay produced a better save from Gary Fusco’s well-struck back post volley. From the resultant cornder Cowdenbeath broke again and briefly had two-on-one before the chance went beging and produced nothing more than a corner of their own.
The goal with which Brechin eventually took the lead was a rather soft one. Andy Cook did well to get down the right, and although his low cross was met at the front post by Jamie Redman, he didn’t seem to connect properly with the shot. From our position it looked to be going wide and it was with some surprise that we saw him wheeling away to celebrate.
Behind in the tie for the first time, that gave Cowden twelve minutes to rescue their season, and they immediately stepped up the pressure. Over the next five minutes they had numerous half-chances, but defenders threw themselves in the way of most of them, while Nelson kept out another couple. Instead, Brechin hit on the break – McAllister skinned his man and squared it to Craig Molloy in front of goal. It seemed to be crying out for a first time shot but Molloy took his time to enjoy the moment, jinked past one defender and then past the ‘keeper before firing in from close range.
Though there were still five minutes left, that killed the game, home fans started leaving and the players heads dropped. For all that, Cowdenbeath’s final chance was possible their best of the game, but Scott Linton’s header went wide and it was clear that they knew it wasn’t their day. Back at the other end Hay had to make another sharp save to prevent McAllister adding a third.
Brechin created the better chances on the day, and few seem to dispute that they were worth the win over the two legs. Maybe it’s their turn to go up, and you certainly couldn’t begrudge them it, but Ayr United may have something to say about that when they meet in the final next week.
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