Andrew D Duffy
Diamond Watches: Cove Rangers 1-1 Airdrieonians
The Diamonds Survive The Deluge To Deprive Cove A Home Win In Playoff Semi-Final First Leg
Insert your own 'I'd have taken a draw before kickoff, I suppose' cliche here.
two points separated the sides in the league table, when all was said and done. They had drawn in their first encounter of the season, before trading 2-0 wins at the Balmoral Stadium. That this was a closely fought, thin-margined affair was a shock to precisely nobody, then.
The home side started brightly, but the best chance of the opening half hour fell to the visitors. Cove could not deal with a Kyle Connell long throw and Calum Gallagher slashed just wide inside the 27th minute. Gallagher was in the thick of things two minutes later, skillfully beating two Cove defenders on the by line before cutting the ball back across the box. Nobody was in place to run onto it and stroke it home, but it did eventually come to Leon McCann, who fired wide.
An incisive move from Cove ended with a neat one-two between Megginson and McAllister, with the former playing a dangerous ball across the six yard box. Airdrie calmly dealt with the danger, clearing their lines, but it was an opportunity missed for The Toonsers.
The third place side were pushing towards the end of the half but the Airdrie defence looked comfortable. Josh Kerr in particular was a colossus, winning his individual battles and looking like he'd never missed a minute all season. Inside the 43rd minute, Kyle Turner showed his class by dancing past two Cove defenders after working a short corner with Kyle Connell. His skill was sublime and he maybe should have taken a shot himself, even from the angle, as his attempted cut back was cleared by Ross Graham in the last real action of the half.
The second half picked up where the first let off, another tight half of few chances and fiercely competitive football. Gallagher and Connell linked up nicely just inside the Airdrie half in the 54th minute, but Gallagher still had to show a ferocious determination to beat Graham to the ball and drive forward into the Cove half. A decent ball was played in for Carrick to run onto as Cove struggled to handle the explosiveness of the Airdrie attack, but Scott Ross did well to alleviate the pressure and Cove managed to get it clear via goalkeeper Stuart McKenzie.
54 minutes in and Cove were caught out. A loose pass out from their defence towards Connor Scully was intercepted well by Paul Paton and Airdrie went at their hosts. Paton surveyed his options then nudged it along to Gallagher on his right. The forward took a touch inside the box then sized up a cross towards the back post for the onrushing Connell. In an effort to stop the cross at source, Ross Graham stuck out a lazy leg and the ball looped off his knee and up, up and away over McKenzie, who badly misjudged the flight of the ball and made a mess of his attempted save once he did finally sort his feet out.
It was lucky, but Airdrie were rewarded for the effervescence of their press.
If Cove needed a shake, it seemed like the concession of the goal did the job, and Max Currie had to make a save to his right following a good run and shot from Kieran Ngwenya four minutes after the opener. Despite the uptick in the performance of their hosts, Airdrie could and most assuredly should have doubled their lead on the hour mark. Gallagher got in behind Ngwenya and fired a ball into the heart of the box, with Dale Carrick taking a poor touch but gaining a second bite at the cherry thanks to a kind bounce back from the chest of a Cove defender.
With the goal at his mercy and McKenzie leaving either side of his goal open for a low stab into the net, Carrick turned it wide of the post. A huge opportunity to open a real cushion in the tie was missed and Cove real took heart from the let off.
Megginson showed good strength to beat Carrick on Airdrie's left defensive flank and played a ball in for Rory McAllister. The striker got it caught between his feet but the loose ball fell kindly to former Airdrie player Leighton McIntosh, who had the simple task of firing home into an unguarded net to level the match in the 66th minute.
The wind was well and truly in their sails now, having been at their back all half, and the home side were pressing for a winner to take a lead into the decisive second leg. Airdrie stood up well to the increasing pressure exerted by their hosts and restricted Cove to very few clear chances after their equaliser. Rory McAllister did hit the post 87 minutes in, though, with Max Currie grateful for the inaccuracy of the strike; had the former Peterhead, Brechin City and Caley Thistle man got his shot on target, the Airdrie keeper wasn't keeping it out.
Having emerged with a draw, Airdrie have maneuvered themselves into a great position. It will almost certainly be as tight as the first leg, as keenly contested and close run, with the nerves sure to be even more comprehensively jangled, but they are the home side who remain on an excellent unbeaten run. Win through and there is even the tantalising prospect of a home leg with a limited number of fans actually getting into the stadium.
All to play for in a Penny Cars Pair-Up.