Close But No Cigar; Airdrie On The End Of A Narrow Defeat At Firhill
Ah, the old familiar feeling.
Having gotten off to a comfortable, confidence boosting start at home to Peterhead, Airdrie arrived at Firhill with every intention of piling pressure on league favourites Partick Thistle.
The side relegated from the Championship last season remained winless in 2020, so of course it would be Airdrie who gave Thistle their first 3 points of the calendar year. Having toiled so toothlessly at Broadwood in their opening day defeat to Clyde, a reaction was expected from a Jags team which showed four changes in their starting line up. In contrast, Airdrie fielded the same starting XI as they sought to build some early momentum in the league campaign.
With their altered line up and the return of forward Brian Graham, Thistle started like they had a point to prove. Cringe worthy as the short-lived crowd noise was, the Jags supporters streaming the game will have been encouraged by the opening 10 minutes as they put Airdrie under pressure.
Max Currie chose, worryingly, to punch a cross instead of catching it, putting the Diamonds' goal in peril, but the ball wouldn't quite fall for a strike amongst the resultant stramash. Airdrie survived the opening salvo unscathed and managed to get a shot away on the 12th minute, but Craig Thomson's shot was sliced wide. This was followed up by some good passing play to win a corner kick, but Kyle MacDonald sent it straight out of play. A further corner kick for The Diamonds was far more like it, chasing chaos in the Thistle box, but the definitive touch was lacking and the visitors just couldn't turn it in.
A good pace had developed and both sides were launching attacks, the majority of which would break down in the final third and spark a counter. Lovely play from Airdrie looked to have played Gallagher in, but his shot was high, wide and wild.
Having really settled into the game, Airdrie started to force the issue. Whilst much of the Airdrie threat seemed to be from set pieces and long throws, the opening goal came from open play, and rather neat open play at that. A sharp interception of a Partick pass in the middle saw the ball moved on to Griffin Sabatini, who had an excellent first half. He held the ball up whilst waiting for the surging run on his inside channel by Leon McCann, who duly obliged and sent a ball into the box. It evaded Gallagher and McKay but was picked up on the right of the Thistle box by Sean Crighton, who dinked in a delightful cross onto the unmarked head of Dale Carrick, who nodded home with aplomb in the 36th minute.
It was a shambles at the back for Partick, but Carrick was more than happy to take advantage and get his second goal in two games.
The plan for Airdrie now was to get to the break with the lead intact. The idea was to hold out against any Thistle response, keep it tight at the back and maintain discipline until that halftime whistle. The theory was that Partick Thistle, already under severe pressure following their rotten result last week, would start to crumble the longer they were behind. The best laid plans of Mice and Murray gang aft agley, though, and the home side had their equaliser five minutes before half time.
A lapse in concentration, not to mention a defensive line that was inefficiently held by Crighton and especially Thomson, cancelled out the Airdrie advantage, with Shea Gordon returning to an onside position just in time before playing a ball across to Brian Graham, who timed his run well to saunter into the box unopposed and finished comfortably past Max Currie. The keeper had done very well to push an effort from distance over the bar prior to Carrick's opener, and he was again called to arms to repel a fierce Graham drive from outside the box before the half time whistle.
The second half started with Airdrie backs against the wall as their hosts turned the screw, hunting a lead in a ten minute spell that put Airdrie squarely on the ropes. Sabatini had failed to impose himself as much in this half as he had in the first, but it was still a surprise to see our most composed midfield operator subbed just shy of the hour mark. Clearly something had to be done to try and change the game, and so on came Kyle Connell for his second appearance on loan from Kilmarnock.
Pandemonium was sparked in the Partick box as a loose ball fell to the feet of Calum Gallagher, who looked set to get his shot away on the edge of the six yard box. Cue a clumsy looking, mistimed tackle by Rhys Breen. Cue a rather exaggerated fall by Calum Gallagher. Cue vociferous demands for a penalty kick to Airdrie.
The referee empathically rejects the calls and Thistle keeper Kieran Wright quickly throws the ball out. The air of inevitability hung heavy as Thistle moved with purpose towards the Airdrie goal as the visiting players struggled to get back. A few passes across the field found the ever dangerous, ever impressive Blair Spittal, who was afforded far too much time and far too much space to cut inside onto his right foot and curl a lovely finish past Max Currie. Because of course.
So, was it a penalty? Certainly, the challenge Breen makes appears to get nothing of the ball. Gallagher's fall is theatrical, all arms outstretched and slapped down on the turf, but you'd expect he'd have swung a boot at it given his proximity to goal unless he felt significantly impeded. If he has chosen to go down without being impeded, it's a dreadful decision on his part from a purely practical standpoint. A clumsy challenge that doesn't get the ball, but a striker going down in an exaggerated manner when it's unclear just how greatly he was impeded by the contact, if indeed there was any. File this one away in the cliché cabinet under 'you've seen them given' and focus instead on the ease with which Partick were able to seize on the protesting Airdrie players to get down the park and capitalise with a second goal.
Following the Spittal strike, a Thistle side for which victory by any margin was badly needed sought to defend their lead in the final 20 minutes, having failed to add to it in the proceeding 10. Airdrie pushed them back and fired in corner after corner, long throw after long throw, cross after cross. There was a vulnerability to Thistle and a determination to the visitors, who felt they merited something from this match. In truth, they probably did, but Callum Fordyce failed to take a golden change in the 65th minute when he was presented with time and space in the box, only to lean back and lift it over. He really had to get his head down, get over the ball and hit it with a bit of violence into the net.
Try though they might, Airdrie couldn't carve out a better opening. A Thomson shot from distance was well pushed over in the 77th minute, but in truth was central enough that it would have been a goalkeeping error had it ended up in the net.
And so a tight game ended in disappointing defeat for Airdrie. A fiercely competitive, hard fought contest that could have gone either way seems emblematic of the season ahead, actually. Already, points have been dropped by the much fancied Falkirk and bookie favourites Thistle. Cove Rangers are the only side to have won both their opening fixtures (albeit Clyde could have managed the same had their visit to Dumbarton not fallen foul of a waterlogged pitch) and one expects we're in for many a close run thing to come, right across the division.
Nothing has been won or lost yet and, with 25 games to go, it remains very much all to play for. A visit to Dumbarton is next up for Ian Murray's team; here's hoping the weather is somewhat less hellish come the end of the working week and winning ways can be returned to as they move from a hard place to The Rock.
Idle Hands Man of The Match goes to Leon McCann.
Airdrie For The Cup. Whit Cup? Any Cup.