A Tight First Half Gives Way To A Satisfying Second As Airdrie Seal Top Five
A couple of goals, a clean sheet and a guaranteed top five finish. There can't have been many more satisfying results than that this season.
Indeed, many would have given such a notion short shrift after the initial restart fixtures, a terrible trio of results that threatened to derail the Diamonds promotion ambitions.
Following that up with a five game unbeaten run, four of them wins, was as good a response as could have been reasonably hoped for and it has proven enough to give Airdrie a blockbuster run-in. Four games to go, Saturday-Tuesday-Saturday-Tuesday, against the other four best teams in the division, starting with a trip to newly minted league leaders Partick Thistle.
They got there eventually, it's fair to say; two second half goals consigning East Fife to the ignominy of the bottom half in what Darren Young called his lowest point as a manager.
It wasn't plain sailing for Airdrie (is it ever? Okay, when we play that kiddie on outfit Clyde, yes, but apart from that...) with East Fife starting brightly and looking the more dangerous side in a tense first half. They won themselves a corner kick within the first 10 seconds, setting out with the intent one would expect of a side who knew they would secure a top half spot themselves if they were to win the game, or even take a point.
Airdrie had a corner of their own within the 4th minute, leading to the first shot on target when Dale Carrick flicked a loose ball goalwards. Airdrie were struggling to make it stick, with Calum Gallagher uncharacteristically struggling to hold it up, nor get much change from the East Fife centre halves. They were getting the benefit of Paul Paton's presence though, returning to the side after injury to add some solidity in front of the back four.
Paton seemed to take the role that had been Kyle Turner's, taking the ball from the defenders and starting the moves from deep. Ostensibly, the idea seemed to be that this would free Turner up to foray further forward, but the result in the first half seemed to be that Kyle Turner saw much less of the ball and was therefore unable to exert the sort of influence that had been so significant to the Airdrie performances of late. A delectable Paton pass on the 16th minute played Euan O'Reilly in, but he just couldn't keep a hold of it after what at first looked a good touch with his chest. The keeper, Brett Long, did well to paw it behind for the corner.
A good period of possession almost told for Airdrie when Kyle Turner and Dale Carrick combined on the right. Carrick played it inside to Ally Roy, who's attempt to take it into the box ricocheted off an East Fife defender back into Carrick's path. Airdrie's top scorer darted into the box well, electing to nudge it back to Roy, only to put too much into it. It felt like a real opportunity lost given the premium on real chances for either side.
Ally Roy left Aaron Dunsmore trailing in his wake after pegging the East Fife player on the half hour mark, only to see his square pass cleared by Ross Dunlop and the fizzle went out of the attack.
Inside the 35th minute, an East Fife freekick looked netbound, but Scott Agnew's shot was somewhat flattered by the camera angle. Directly after this, Calum Gallagher did win a flick on direct from Max Currie's goal kick, then combined with Dale Carrick to win possession inside the Fifers half and played a quick pass to the advancing Kyle Turner. He drove forward, cleverly holding the ball up for Euan O'Reilly, who floated in a tempting cross which had no takers. It was begging to be attacked.
This was definitely Airdrie's best period of the half, and they almost capitalised inside the 37th minute when Paul McKay's excellent cross zipped off Sean Crighton's head only to fall just beyond the far post. He'll feel he should have steered his header on target, especially given how close he was to scoring a similar goal in the previous match. You get the feeling one is in the post for Airdrie's captain.
Good work down the East Fife left saw the ball worked to Agnew, who twisted in the box looking to get his shot away, going down rather easily under a modicum of pressure from Sean Crighton only to bounce straight back up to have another go. In the moment, this observer feared the whistle, but on repeat viewings, Agnew did the right thing when he leapt back up to his feet.
A late scare in this first half, then, but all square at half time in a game that looked like it might go to the wire. The second half again saw the visitors starting fast, good play down their right flank ending up with a chance for Agnew to get a shot away, and indeed he did, slicing it over the bar inside the 48th minute.
The home side were starting to exert themselves upon their visitors, who seemed to tire as the game wore on. From a sustained period of possession inside the opposition half, Airdrie got themselves a corner. It was flicked away, only to be returned by Sean Crighton, who lobbed it towards the back post. Calum Gallagher, under pressure it should be noted, couldn't quite get himself above the ball and despite being a few yards out could only head it over the bar, caught underneath it as he was. The best chance of the game and it wasn't taken. The deadlock remained resolutely unbroken.
55 minutes in and Max Currie had to stand up to his first big save of the game. An incisive break from The Fifers saw Danny Swanson one on one with the Airdrie number one. Having narrowed the angle well, Currie saved the Swanson shot with his legs, and the fear subsided.
Not content to sit on a draw with Montrose beating Cove, Ian Murray sent Kyle Connell on for Ally Roy, and the talented youngster wasn't slow to make an impression. Credit Roy, who had been a willing runner as always and had caused problems for the visitors, but his replacement made a telling contribution to the Airdrie breakthrough.
He wasn't the favourite to get the ball when Turner played it down the left channel, and the East Fife defender looked sure to see it out of play, but Connell was tenacious, keeping it in and beating his man to break into the box. His shot was well struck, destined to at least test Long in goal, but cannoned off another defender and out for a corner, with Airdrie players optimistically calling for a handball decision.
Turner's corner was a good one, finding Crighton after the Captain had peeled off well. His header sent the ball back into the maelstrom of players on the six yard line and Calum Gallagher was on hand to bag a third goal in as many games. It was an excellent header, beyond Brett Long into the far corner, giving the home side a deserved lead.
Airdrie started to strut a bit after the goal, fired full with belief and clearly intent on putting the result beyond doubt. Doubling their lead hasn't always been straightforward for them this season, so it was certainly an imperative. They worked it well into the East Fife box in the 68th minute, sparking a back and forth as the ball was fired at and away, and back at, the goal. It ended with Dale Carrick firing it over the bar. The visitors looked bedraggled, their hosts buoyed.
Some lovely quick passing from Carrick-to-O'Reilly-to-McCann saw the left back bursting into the box and looking for all the world like he was going to shoot (as I was roaring at him to do, in an encouraging way, of course) electing instead feed it into Connell who laid it back Kyle Turner first time. Shaping to shoot, the midfielder was fouled and a promising free-kick was awarded right on the edge of the box.
It came back off the wall, but Connell knocked it back to Turner, who seemed to be fouled all over again in near enough the same spot, but play on they did. Connell again picked it up and knocked it back to Turner once more. He beat his man and then found himself taken out inside the box by Nutmeg magazine regular Danny Denholm.
Penalty to Airdrie. 77 minutes on the clock. Score and the points were sealed. Score and top five was sealed. Score and Airdrie were into the tip four. Miss, and doubts might creep in. Miss and East Fife would get a huge boost going into the last ten minutes. miss, and you just never know...
In the game before the shutdown in Match 2020, Dale Carrick took a penalty against East Fife, into that exact same goal. It was saved, but he tucked away the rebound. Clearly, Dale was at the wind up when he repeated the trick, scoring with a sharp header after a good save by Long.
Game over, points save, top five.
If it's the hope that kills you, then stick me on the slab, because I've got the stuff pouring out my ears now. Four games to go, two point advantage over the team in fifth and four points off the top.