Central Scotland actually missed out, at least up to Saturday, on the latest snowfalls which have caused such problems to the north and to the south over the last few days. There’s still plenty of the stuff lieing, left over from last week, but nothing fresh, so those clubs that had cleared their pitches in the meantime still had them clear yesterday. It has, however, been extremely cold, and Thursday and Friday nights put paid to most of the weekend’s football programme. Even the SPL with its undersoil heating lost most of its games.
In Alloa, however, the artificial pitch enabled this second division game to go ahead. Such pitches remain controversial, but there are now four of them in the Scottish Football League, the obvious advantage of them being highlighted a fortnight ago, when Alloa’s game against Peterhead was the only game in Scotland to be played. Besides that, clubs have found that the pitches are paying for themselves through the income they generate from being hired out.
Artificial pitches remain banned in all the major leagues in England, as up here in the SPL, who had a bad experience with Dunfermline’s pitch between 2003 and 2005. Although opinions still vary on that qualities of that pitch, the consensus was very much against it, and it seems that Dunfermline backed the wrong horse – there were various competing companies and systems being trialled around that time and the others have been more successful. The SPL say they remain “open-minded” about it, but since 2005 they’ve banned such pitches, and Hamilton had to tear theirs up on being promoted a couple of years back.
So it’s been left to the SFL to take the lead, and they are to be congratulated on doing so. They could easily have followed the higher league’s lead – as, say, the Conference have done down south – but have instead stood their ground. The pitches seem to have improved enormously even within the last five years (and are a world away from the horrible plastic things of the 80s), and gradually we’re hearing fewer and fewer complaints about unfair advantages or about increased risk of injuries. Alloa insist that their injury record has improved, but sceptics remain – Mark McGhee was very critical after Aberdeen’s Fraser Fyvie picked up a serious injury here in a cup tie at the start of the season. So I wouldn’t want to pretend that the case for them is clear, but in an era when they are being used for international fixtures and Champions League games it would seem daft if the technology were not at least to be tried and explored.
Not that today’s visitors, Airdrie United, would have been one of those complaining – as of this summer they became the latest club to install such a pitch at New Broomfield (or whatever they’re calling it now). Montrose and Stenhousemuir are the others – though if a reminder were needed that such pitches are not quite “all-weather” then it should be noted that Stenhousemuir’s was frozen this weekend and their game against Livingston postponed.
So to the game, and nice to see some football again even in the bitter cold. Apart from one brave young man in a short-sleeve T-shirt and Bermuda shorts everyone was well wrapped up, and thankful that we still have terracing at this level so they could move around a bit to keep warm. On the pitch, there was some interest generated by the number of players playing against former clubs: Stuart Noble, Bryan Prunty and Kevin McDonald for Alloa; Andy Ferguson – on his debut – for Airdrie, while Jamie Stevenson, who was very popular in his Alloa days, was left on the bench. Several of these players were to have prominent roles in the game.
The visitors started brightly, and were the first to serve notice of their attacking threat. A through ball found Scott Gemmill in space on the right, his cut-back was only cleared to the edge of the box, and Ryan McCord – a promising young midfielder on loan from Dundee United – drove it against the bar, possibly with a touch of the fingertips from Jamie Ewings. Had it gone in it would have been a rather better goal than the one they actually did score in the sixth minute, when Alloa failed to clear a low corner at the front post, and the ball bounced through to Ferguson to prod home.
That goal, however, was about the last we saw of Airdrie as an attacking force for the rest of the half. Thereafter, the home side spent the bulk of it on the front foot. Not to much effect though, too many moves broke down, too many passes went astray and when Noble did get a sight of goal he spooned it over from a few yards out.
The second half started with much the same pattern, Alloa pressing but struggling to create much. Prunty couldn’t quite stretch his leg to meet a good deep cross, and though he did finally force Marc Ridgers into making a save it took the introduction of a third forward, Jim Lister, just before the hour to start turning their possession into chances. Lister had only been on the field for a couple of minutes when his backheel found Noble on the inside left. Noble still had plenty to do but outmuscled the defender before slipping the ball underneath Ridgers for the equaliser.
They continued to press, and the game’s most controversial moment occurred shortly after, when Prunty dispossessed McCord then went down inside the area at the next challenge. My initial reaction was penalty but the ref thought otherwise and booked Prunty for diving. That got the home crowd going, and their team continued to build up a head of steam. There was, however, a reminder of their defensive frailties when Airdrie broke down the right – the low cross fell to Ferguson, his shot beat the ‘keeper, and as the away support rose to celebrate the ball rebounded off the inside of the post and into Ewings’ grateful arms.
That scare survived, Alloa took the lead on 70 minutes. Dougie Wilson hit a free-kick from the right, and Lister rose above his marker in the middle of the area to power in a header with the ‘keeper stationary.
Although Airdrie looked a bit livelier for the introduction of Stevenson, at that stage it was hard to see them getting back into it, and in the last ten minutes the game seemed to wind down. Wilson and Noble were subbed as Alloa tried to close the game down and coast home to a hard-earned three points. It was all going swimmingly until the 89th minute when a neat interchange of passing and a break of the ball to the back post allowed Stevenson to equalise. The frustration among the home support was palpable, eighty minutes work thrown away, but if that was a sickener it was nothing to what happened next. As the game drifted into injury time Tony Watt, also on as sub, suddenly found himself clean through on goal – I confess I was paying no more attention than the Alloa defence so I’m not entirely sure how that happened. His shot looked weak but beat Ewings and trundled over the line to seal an unlikely three points.
If it felt like a bit of a smash and grab, there couldn’t really be any complaints about the result. Alloa may have had more of the play, but drifted after taking the lead, and we’d already seen enough evidence earlier in the game to know that their defence wasn’t good enough to be able to rely on shutting up shop. With just one point from those two home games they’ve rather thrown away the advantage of being able to get them played, and failed to make any ground on their promotion rivals. For Airdrie’s part, it eases relegation fears after a heavy defeat during the week, and if they can string a couple more results together they may join the chase for play-off spots at the right end of the table.
For the neutral, it was a pretty lively game of football.
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