The Biggest Game Of The Season Hovers On Airdrie's Horizon
Oooft. The Motherwell cup game seems a long time ago, doesn't it?
Okay, okay, hands up, mea culpa; I had originally intended on keeping Diamond Watches going throughout this season. Alas, time got away from me, life got in the way and frankly, lockdown-generated free-time dissipated like the mists of morning.
I've not managed to get around to a single match report during this league season. For those of you who might have missed them, apologies about that. I'll add that, whilst I do my best to employ logic and eschew magical thinking of all kinds, dismissing jinxes and curses as absolute bunkum, I do still refer to certain Airdrie and Scotland shirts as 'lucky' or 'unlucky' based on how the teams have performed whilst I've been clad in them.
On that basis, you can likely imagine my reticence to publish a blog post whilst we're winning in fear of then blaming myself if, bam, we suddenly lost a game. And we've been doing a lot of the old winning thing this season...
In my last Diamond Watches, covering the League Cup victory over Motherwell, I said that I'd focus "on what I'll call the ethereal elements. How it looked, from my seat... and how it felt."
The league campaign so far, then; How's it been for you?
From my seat, shaky start aside, it's looked pretty damn spectacular. The style of football, very eye-ball gratifying and swashbuckling. The symphonic midfield, precision controlled and creatively vivid all at once. The displays of individual skill. The defensive solidity. The absolute humdingers we've been scoring, goals that would seem more at home in a Roy Of The Rovers story than the third tier of Scottish Football... There's been a hell of a lot to like.
The way Max Currie has pulled off goal-stopping saves when called upon. The way Rhys McCabe has strolled through the season at centre-half as if he's spent a dozen full careers there. The way Captain and Airdrie Centurion Callum Fordyce has led by example with one excellent performance after another. The way Craig Watson has fitted in like he's been here forever, chipping in with assists and defending diligently (not to mention scoring a preposterously sublime first Airdrie goal). The way a number of players slotted in at Left-Back, all of them out of position, to tide us over to the January window so we could secure a new natural player in that role.
The way young Brody Paterson has filled that role, fitting seamlessly into the XI and making the position his own. The way Messers Easton, Frizzel and McGill (and even McInroy, once upon a time) have added extra dazzle to the Diamonds' displays. The way Scott Agnew has flipped his game entirely, becoming an effective sitting midfielder and providing the base for those effervescent midfield maestro's to sparkle with such effulgence.
The way Callum Smith, Calum Gallagher, and Gabby McGill have lead the line with ample graft and plenty craft, scoring great goals and crucial goals, screamers and is-this-a-dreamers.
The way Josh Kerr, Jordan Allan, Scott Walker, Jon Afolabi, Kyle MacDonald, Salim Kouider-Aissa, Dean Ritchie, Matty McDonald, Justin Devenny, and others have stepped up when required and made our squad a lot stronger than it has been in many a season.
It really has looked good, and we've been treated to some wonderful shows. Scudding East Fife 3-0 not once, but twice. The Merry bedlam of THAT game against Dumbarton and the Christmas Cracker against Alloa. The satisfyingly silky goal at New Bayview. There's been comfortable victories over Peterhead and Queens Park, the rousing rout of Montrose and even some humdrum, run of the mill victories over flotsam and jetsam clubs like Falkirk.
There have been victories both battling and battering, afternoons glorious and early evenings tense. 60 points amassed. 18 games won, from 30. only 6 lost. Scintillating football that has kept us in touching distance in and around the top end of the table for most of the season. That looks good any way you slice it, and glimpsed through spectacles of any particular tint.
But how has it felt?
I try not to use 'we' when talking about Airdrie much in these blog-posts, not least because it puts me in mind of a particularly well observed Mitchell and Webb sketch about the oddity that is football fans claiming some sort of ownership and inclusion in the sporting achievements of the mast they've pinned their particular colours to.
As some of you will know (because I've barely ever shut up about it) I've been privileged enough to take part in some of the DTV output this season, chiefly as co-commentator (*insert obligatory mention of the fact that we've won every game in which I've been on co-comms here*) and it's an honour I'm incredibly grateful to Lead commentator Brian Smith, Mad Mathie, Neil Pardoe and everyone at the club for granting me. As part of that, I've been along to training to do interviews with players and the manager for the match previews, as well as a couple of post-match interviews, too.
Now, I know, I can almost feel the 'aw-naw-it-has-gone-to-his-head-and-now-he-thinks-he-is-part-of-it-just-because-he-has-been-on-a-stream-a-few-times' cringing going on as you read this, but I only mention it because I've been able to get a brief look at the training, at the preparations, at the post-match mood. There genuinely is something familial about the atmosphere. Don't get me wrong, they are very professional in how they go about their business, and the fitness coach has them doing A LOT of running, but it's impossible not to pick up on the strong bond between the playing squad, the coaching and stadium staffs and the other volunteers.
There really is an enveloping sense of common cause, of camaraderie, of communal effort. And it is nigh impossible not to feel that, in a very tangible way.
Every time you ask Ian Murray a question about a tactic that has paid off or a game-plan that has worked out, he inevitably cycles it back to praise for a set of players he has a zealot-like faith in, a calm but unflinching belief in, and a coaching staff he trusts and relies upon. Ask any of his players about their individual display or contribution and they'll unerringly mention their teammates, their gaffer, their fitness coach, the support; just like the manager, they circle back to the collective.
If any one individual can be given the lions share of the credit for creating this sensibility, then it most assuredly has to be Ian Murray. He has been backed to mould the squad to his liking, creating a side that is every bit as adept at the 'ugly' side of the game as they are at playing liquid fitba'. He has improved us yet again, no mean feat when you consider that Airdrie finished two points off the top and made it to the playoff final in that mad wee thing we called Season 2020/21. More than just providing another year-on-year improvement, though, Ian Murray has given us a team we've all been able to buy into.
Their off the ball work is relentless. They have a ravenous appetite for chasing down their opponents; they play the deft wee passes, the patient possession and the killer balls, and they pretty much have the League One Goal Of The Season Competition to themselves, but they are also happy to harangue, harry and harass, too. They relish it, in fact. The skill and the skirmishing.
Murray has a squad of players who give their all for the cause, who give their all for each other. They're in it together, and you can feel it coming off them in waves.
Yes, that's how it feels. There's a togetherness, a brothers-in-arms attitude permeating the whole club at the moment. It's palpable.
And you can feel it too, can't you? You can feel it from the stands. You can feel the furnace-forged belief that courses through them. You can feel the tempered steel in their souls, the bloody-minded determination to chase it down, to sink their teeth into it, to get at the opposition and attack the goals they've set themselves. You feel it in the jubilant celebrations when they score and when they win, and in the way they rally with the fans after victory, home or on our travels. You felt it against Montrose, and at Falkirk. You felt it at Peterhead and at Alloa. I know you felt it, because I felt it too. These players, these coaches, us supporters; it's a symbiosis, a self-perpetuating, self-sustaining machine. They're in it with us and we're in it with them.
They've given Airdrie supporters something to grin profusely about, something to sing and dance about, something to cheer and roar and be honest-to-goodness proud about. They've even scored goals that have literally reduced life-long supporters to tears.
And they ain't done yet.
And so we come to Saturday. 26th of March. Airdrieonians Versus Cove Rangers. The visitors are 5 points clear, with only five fixtures to follow this one for either side. Cove have not lost in their last 20 league games and they know that avoiding defeat will leave them firmly in the driving seat for the title and automatic promotion.
Airdrie, however, have nothing to lose. We're 14 unbeaten ourselves and will fancy our chances if we can cut the gap to 2 points and land a psychological haymaker on the well-moneyed Aberdeen outfit. A place in the promotion playoffs is secured, and secured already. Second place is not something for which us Diamonds will settle, though. Whilst Cove have the pressure of a must not lose, Airdrie approach this with the freedom of a side with everything to gain.
We're on the back of three consecutive wins, including at Recreation Park, where Cove could only draw. Airdrie have cut prices for attendance, a tenner for adults and a fiver for concessions, in hopes of adding extra gusto to the support from the stands. It's a gesture worthy of a big response and the players and coaching staff thoroughly merit a big, boisterous and belligerent backing at New Broomfield. Get along to the game, if you can. Let's give our all to supporting their cause, because they will definitely be giving their all to achieve ours. Our goals are aligned and are hopes are shared.
This game cannot be deemed solely decisive in a long league campaign, but the result will be hugely significant, one way or another. Two very good sides, buckets of miles ahead of the rest of the division. Either side would have had the title wrapped up already, were it not for the other also flying so high.
1st place in the league is Cove's, as things stand, and nobody thus far has seemed able to stop them. But this Airdrie side? They've nothing to lose. They've momentum, confidence and a veritable power-plant of belief energising them week on week.
This Airdrie side will put their all into it, of that we can be sure. They'll fight like men possessed, run themselves into the ground and play some sumptuous football. They'll never drop their heads in the 90+ minutes, not even if they fall behind. They'll believe they can and will do what need's doing, and then they can and will do it, or empty themselves trying.
The players will be vociferous. They will be bold, they will be brave, they will be buzzing to get going.
Airdrie are going to go for it.
And That's Why We Watch The Fitba'.