Rarely have I watched a game between two teams with such differing levels of enthusiasm for being involved in the match at all. That’s inevitable, to a large extent, when the play-offs involve teams from different divisions, one battling for promotion and the other to avoid relegation. But it’s even more the case here in this tie given the circumstances of the two clubs.
For Annan, the Scotland’s newest league side, this is uncharted territory. It’s their third season after being voted in following the demise of near-neighbours Gretna in 2008, and having finished seventh then eighth in the first two, to make the play-offs and the possibility of promotion is a big step forward for them. I think it’s fair to say that that already represents a successful season, but of course having got here they’ll want to go one better, and they have a team and a set-up that looks as though it could hold its own in the second division should they be the ones to come through these play-offs.
For Alloa, on the other hand, to find themselves here is the culmination of a bitterly disappointing year – or more accurately, thirteen months. Nearing the end of last season they seemed to have the second division title in the bag, only to blow up in the home straight, then lose out to Cowdenbeath in the play-offs. This season, having strengthened with a couple of seemingly very useful signings, they were again among the favourites, but having been towards the right end of the table to begin with, a miserable run of only two wins since November saw them slip gradually nearer and nearer to that relegation play-off spot. They finally slipped into it – for the first time – only after the last game of the season, on Saturday just gone.
Their chairman, Mike Mulraney, reacted by sacking Alan Maitland, their manager of five years. Or at least, that’s how it’s been universally reported, though Alloa sources are saying it’s not quite true, or at least not yet. He’s just been “relieved of his duties” – put on gardening leave while senior players Scott Walker and Brown Ferguson take charge for the play-offs. It’s rather difficult to see a manager’s position being tenable in such circumstances, so I imagine it is going to end up as a sacking, but we’ll await developments.
Few Alloa fans will dispute this decision, although there is sympathy for Maitland on a personal level – he is well-liked and respected, and has a decent record at part-time levels (having previously managed Clyde and Hamilton). But the timing and manner of the dismissal are controversial, coming as it did within minutes of Saturday’s final whistle, and with the first of these play-off games looming midweek.
Add to those events (and four straight defeats) the fact that Alloa haven’t won a game on grass for over a year and it was hard to see them going into the first leg of this tie, at Galabank last night, with much confidence. Indeed it was Annan who started more brightly, playing as you’d expect with the air of a team with nothing to lose. Alloa had one early chance after ten minutes, when Michael McGowan’s low free kick from the corner of the penalty area was deflected just past the post, but three minutes later Annan’s Aaron Muirhead showed them how it was done. From an almost identical spot at the other end of the field, he hit a sweet right foot shot which crashed in off the underside of the bar at the near post.
They continued to press after taking the lead, and might well have scored again a few minutes later when a right wing cross flashed across the front of goal. Perhaps surprised that the ball had reached him, Steven Sloan couldn’t make a proper connection at the back post. It took until the last ten or fifteen minutes of the first half for Alloa to build up any momentum, but gradually they started to take charge of the game, and came close to an equaliser when Jim Lister’s shot hit the inside of the post with the players ready to celebrate.
Despite losing co-manager Ferguson to injury just before half-time, the second half started with the away side very much in the ascendancy, prompted especially by the lively McGowan, and for a while it became eleven men against one as Annan ‘keeper Craig Summersgill made a series of stops – including three in the space of a couple of minutes, along with a further deflected effort that went just wide of the post. Although Summersgill had a gfine game, in truth none of them needed to be great saves, and it was evident that Alloa were lacking a bit of composure up front.
And such is the season they’ve been having that on 55 minutes the inevitable happened – Annan scored with the first attack of the half. A fine pass found Sloan in space on the inside left, he did the hard work in cutting past ‘keeper Jamie Ewings, but it was teammate Jack Steele who pounced on the resultant loose ball to slot home.
The pattern remained much of the same for the rest of the game. Alloa continued to press, rarely broke the defence down and occasionally looked nervous when hit on the break. They finally added some balance to the scoreline midway through the half when a flick on found a suspiciously offside-looking Andy Scott bearing down on goal. Again Summersgill got down well to save but finally his luck ran out – this time the ball ricocheted back onto Scott and trickled into the net.
There were few clear cut chances after that. Either side might have nicked another goal, but the final scoreline was probably about right and leaves the tie nicely balanced for the second leg on Saturday. Alloa might consider themselves a bit unlucky given the weight of possession and chances they had, but they didn’t play well enough not to need the luck – for all the half-chances, and for all that Summersgill earned his wages, I’m struggling to recall an occasion when they really cut open the defence in the way that Annan had for their second goal. Nonetheless, if Saturday’s game follows the same pattern, they’ve every reason to be confident that they can turn it round on their own patch. And to be honest, I hope they do – much as Annan seem to be an excellent addition to the league and I wish them well for the long-term, I really wouldn’t want to see Alloa dropping to the third.
There’s much work to be done yet – the winner of this tie will then play either Albion Rovers or Queen’s Park in the final, again over two legs, for the last place in the second division. It remains to be seen who’ll be the Alloa manager, wherever they end up.
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