They May Have Huffed And They May Have Puffed, But Eventually Airdrie Blow Stenhousemuir Down.
Ah, Stenny. In Season 2018/19, the designer of this very website and I had a running bet. Living as she did a stones throw from Ochilview, it was agreed that if The Warriors triumphed over The Diamonds over the course of their 4 fixtures, then I'd be on the hook for a fancy dinner. Had it gone the other way, a rare free meal was coming my way.
Suffice to say, it was the Idle Hands chequebook that took the hit.
That Stenhousemuir ended up relegated provided only the merest margin of comfort; at least I'd not be on the losing end of that bet again.
It was with some trepidation, then, that I tuned in to Warriors TV for Airdrie's second League Cup game. That it doubled as our last action before the greatly delayed and eagerly anticipated return of League action provided an additional frisson to the entire affair.
The fielding of what appeared like a slightly weakened side (Sabitini and Carrick on the bench) perhaps confirmed that Ian Murray was content to treat the cup as one last opportunity to get more minutes into his squad; quite a sensible step, all things considered. It was lower league opposition, afterall. 'It's only Stenny', my voice seemed to echo, through the mists of time; 'this is a sure bet'. You'd think i'd have learned the last time. Certainly, you'd think I'd have been chastened enough not to make any sort of bet on this fixture.
And you'd be dead wrong.
So, aye; there was a nervous tension as I grabbed the notepad and scribbled down some opening observations during a scrappy first 5 minutes and the home side managed the first shot, or cross-cum-shot, on target.
7 minutes in and I was starting to relax a good bit more. Neat play from Thomas Robert drew a foul and Calum Gallagher's diving header was turned away and behind for an Airdrie corner, the first of a succession of 3, which came to nought but seized momentum for The Diamonds.
Airdrie were dominating and looked especially the stronger when getting the ball down and moving at pace, going side to side and working the ball down the channels, particularly the right. The failure to make the early pressure count was frustrating, though, and a Josh Kerr shot from distance was put behind well by Callum Erskine in the home goal. Cue another corner kick. Cue another failure to capitalise.
Good play by Gallagher, a quick flash of feet, had him slaloming into what looked like a shooting chance, before a last ditch clearance snatched the effort away before it could truly materialise.
Airdrie had another close run thing from another diving header, this time Paul McKay hitting the outside of the post on the 27th minute after another good Airdrie move down the right hand side.
The verve and potency was starting to drain out of Airdrie as their dominance waned, and Stenny grew marginally into the game. Having emerged unscathed from the Airdrie pressure, they forced their visitors back into an increasingly defensive posture. Whilst they seemed to have lost some of their opening gusto, Airdrie still snapped back into action and produced some neat play to carve out a chance for Robert, who blazed over on the 33 minute mark.
A few minutes later and Stenhousemuir thought they'd opened the scoring. A header was cleared for a corner by Airdrie and the resultant set-piece nearly resurrected the ghost of Ochilview past, only for McCann to clear a header off the line. This at least shook the yellow clad, increasingly timid visitors into action, again breaking at pace and forcing Erskine into a save, before, you guessed it, failing to make a corner count.
Gallingly, it was the home side who finished the half the stronger and Airdrie were looking leggy, predictable and increasingly blunt. The rather obvious pattern of working the ball wide to O'Reily or MacDonald, having them cross it excessively deep and away out to the left, invariably for a goal kick, throw-in or, as a wee treat, a further fruitless corner, patently wasn't perplexing the hosts.
42% of the ball, 1 shot on target, 2 wayward efforts and a header off the outside of the post was all Airdrie had to show for their opening 45 minutes against League 2 opposition at Ochilview, in spite of the 7 corner kicks.
Just when you thought The Diamonds' sparkle had faded completely, though, they started the second half with a flicker, a flash and a glimmer of gold. And what worked? Wouldn't you know, it was working it to the right, O'Reily putting it across and Airdrie capitalising. Erskine pushed the ball out to Gallagher, who rather unluckily struck it off the goalkeeper only for it to bounce mercifully to Paul McKay, who tucked it away with a mere 2 minutes of the second half on the clock.
Leon McCann showed great strength to win the ball in his defensive third, then skill to skin his man, before launching forward and playing a quite gorgeous cross field pass to Calum Gallagher, who rushed his shot well over the bar. He really should have taken a touch to steady himself before dispatching it. He seemed odds on to score.
The game remaining stubbornly unsealed, a tactical switch from Stenhousemuir got them back into contention. Switching from a back three to a four seemed to suit the home side as Airdrie began to labour once again, conceding possession and territory to their hosts. Thomson and Carrick were called down from their seats in the Norway Stand (mentioned so often in commentary you'd think it was in line for the Man Of The Match award) and replaced O'Reily and Robert in the 65th minute.
Speaking of the commentary team, they were an enthusiastic pair who clearly enjoyed each other's company and were keen to keep the viewer informed. There was an amusing tendency to confuse the first names of the Airdrie players, making it at times sound like there were four or five players named Gallagher in the Airdrie ranks.Sam, Lee and even former Oasis fromtman Liam joined Calum up top, Andy MacDonald made a few appearances beside Kyle and Neil McCann came out of retirement to job share the left back spot with Leon.
It was harmless and raised a laugh during a spell in the second half following the goal which saw Airdrie having to defend a series of attacks from Stenny ('The Warriors', as the commentators seemed honour bound to call them as often as they could) so only the truly churlish will begrudge it, but the commentators might find it valuable to stick to the surnames just to be on the safe side.
McCann broke again into space on the left to relieve some pressure and sent a lovely cross in McKay's direction, but the goalscorer couldn't quite get his effort on target. Creatively, Airdrie seemed to lack a bit of bite; they got down the channels well enough, they have pace, but as good a goal return as Calum Gallagher has, he's not exactly a dominant aerial force. Without the ball control and composure of Sabitini in the middle, or the guile and cunning of Carrick, Airdrie seemed less able to work it quickly and intricately through the centre of the park.
The defense just about holding firm, Airdrie seemed to be riding this one out. This seemed an increasingly risky gambit as Stenhousemuir pushed and pressed, with a Tapping shot from outside the box rising up, up and over the bar. In truth, it was always rising, but Tapping was increasingly influential as the game went on, benefiting from that shape change which pushed him further up the park and found him more often on the ball.
Mercifully, having scored within two minutes of the start of the half, Airdrie sealed the win three minutes from the end. A freekick dropped to substitute Craig Thomson outside the box and the winger sent the ball screaming into the back of the net, hitting it with a proper bit of violence from 20 yards and ending the contest. He brought my bet in, as well. Top notch.
Idle Hands Man of The Match? The ever dependable Leon McCann.
A win, a clean sheet, two goals and a good outing for the squad. It might not have been the most comfortable night and Airdrie are likely to find themselves punished on League 1 business for any similar spells of lethargy, but it's all about preparation and now we go into the season with a home game this Saturday against a buoyant Peterhead, which you can view on Diamonds TV.
Strap in, folks. It promises to be a wild one. Wasn't it ever thus?
Airdrie For The Cup. Whit Cup? Any Cup.