It’s not often anyone has all that much to say about Albion Rovers. So now that they’ve got quite a good side and – at the midway point of this two-legged play-off final – look favourites to go up to the second division, let me take a few moments to do so.
It doesn’t help that they have a rather undistinguishable named. Formed, so wiki tells me, from the merger of an Albion and a Rovers somewhere back in the distant past, the Rovers play in Coatbridge in North Lanarkshire. I’ve met even a few Scottish football fans who didn’t know that, they’re a club who so often tend to slip under the radar – never bad enough to become comical, but rarely good enough to enter the wider consciousness. Apparently they had some relative days in the sun way back before the war, but of the last sixty seasons they’ve spent all but one in Scotland’s bottom division.
And, with one of the lowest budgets in the league (that’s still the case – no three figure wage packets round here) they’ve usually been near the bottom of it, but for a couple of seasons now under the management of Paul Martin they’ve been making noises about finishing at the other end; and this year for the first time, they managed the top four finish (second, actually) that gave them entry to these play-offs. Last week they beat Queen’s Park in the semi-final, two John Gemmell goals deciding it in the second leg after a draw in the first.
And such is the excitement that’s generated that more than a thousand (a thousand!) people packed into their pleasingly ramshackle old ground at Clinftonhill last night to watch the first leg of the final against Annan Athletic. Annan, as repored last week, beat Alloa at Galabank in their own semi-final, which was sufficient to see them through with the second leg finishing goalless. For them, victory in this final would see them promoted in just their third season as an SFL club. They have a decent side, backing up some of their local stalwarts from non-league days with some more experienced players with higher league experience, such as Neil MacFarlane, once of Hearts, and their strike partnership of Ian Harty and Sean O’Connor.
But last night they were second best, and there’s no doubt the Rovers deserved their win in a rather disjointed but nonetheless entertaining game. Rovers started the brighter, and had already seen a good chance bobble just wide of the post early on before they took the lead in the fourteenth minute, when a left-wing cross found Robert Love in space at the back post to fire into the roof of the net. They continued to look threatening, but other than an optimistic penalty shout when Todd Lumsden’s shot may have struck someone’s arm, they had no more clear cut chances at that stage.
Annan, for the early part of the match, were struggling to get players up in support of the front two, but as the half wore on they started to find more opportunities to do so, and they had their best spell in the run up to half-time, firstly forcing Derek Gaston into his first save when Aaron Muirhead hit O’Connor’s cutback goalwards, and then finding an equaliser three minutes before half-time. It was Muirhead’s long throw which caused some panic in the penalty area, and somehow Harty reacted to force the ball home from close range.
It’s amazing how often the old goals-change-games cliche works, and that produced a sudden swing in momentum that saw the Rovers all over the place for the next few minutes – it’s probably as well for them that those few minutes were all they had left to the interval. The couple of further chances that spell produced for Annan included one golden chance for Kevin Neilson, when a deep-free kick cleared everyone else and found him clear on goal. From a bit of an angle, his lifted shot bounced just wide of the far post.
The second half started with the feeling that the match could yet go either way, neither side being able to impose themselves on the game to any great extent. Annan did have a couple of further half-chances, but gradually the Rovers started to take some degree of control once again. It’s easy to see why they’ve had a good season – in Love and Motherwell loanee Steven Lawless they have a couple of small but nippy players who caused no end of problems for big defenders geared up for a more physical style of play, and they have midfielders – notably the impressive Scott Chaplain – able to back them up and make sure they have sufficient possession to take advantage.
That said, it was a defensive mistake that allowed them to retake the lead midway through the half. Annan dithered in defence and Steven Canning stole possession. With the away support screaming in vain for a free kick, Canning bore down on goal, but chose the wrong option, allowing Craig Summersgill to save at his feet instead of squaring to the unmarked Gemmell. The chance was not quite gone though, the ball had been pushed wide but was played back into the six yard box with the defence not yet recovered, and it was Love who showed a bit more composure to take a touch before scoring his second of the night.
Ten minutes later he made it a hat-trick, and this time it was a real moment of quality, beating the offside trap with a neat one-two from Gemmell before – once again – finishing coolly. Though Annan huffed and puffed and are by no means out of the tie yet, they had nothing to match it on the night. Love tore them apart – a headline writer’s dream, if only headline writers ever paid any attention to this level of football.
Advantage Rovers then, for the second leg on Sunday, but if Annan score first down at their place it will yet make for a interesting game. Either side, if promoted, will be making their debut in the second division (in its current format) and either side would make an interesting addition to it. My impression is that Annan will get more chances over the coming few years, whereas for Albion with their low wage structure, it may need promotion for them to be able to keep this side together.
The other way of looking at that is that Annan might be better-placed, in the long run, to make a go of it in the higher division. But few would begrudge Rovers their day in the sun, should they come out on top at the weekend. They’ve been one of the stalwarts of Scottish football for many years, and had precious little to celebrate.
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