Ayr United held their nerve when it mattered most to claim their first league title since 1997 and break Raith Rovers’ hearts.
A 2-0 home win over Albion Rovers – which sent their opponents down – coupled with Raith’s barren game at Stark’s Park, edged them to glory. Craig Moore, with his 27th goal of the season, gave them a half-time lead and Somerset Park erupted when Declan McDaid sealed victory late on.
There was then an anxious wait for their fans to hear confirmation of the result from Kirkcaldy before they could celebrate the whirr of helicopter blades above the stadium.
Manager Ian McCall believes that, after a couple of hiccups, justice was done in the end. “We’re a team that has scored 124 goals – more than anyone in Scotland by a long way. We made it hard for ourselves and we’ve had players out through injury, six out today,” he said.
“Commiserations to Raith Rovers but I don’t think anyone can say we weren’t the best footballing team in the league. Two weeks ago I was getting touted for Manager of the Year and then before the game I thought I was getting the bullet! It just shows you how football is.
“I feel for the 2,500 fans who didn’t come today. We’d have had 5,000 if it was in our own hands but that was their choice.
“There was great spirit from the players all season. There have been a lot of teething problems as a full-time team but it’s been a magnificent achievement.”
It is the first league title McCall has won in his long managerial career on both sides of the border. “The chairman [Lachlan Cameron] gave me a chance when I’d been out of the game and working with the media for three-and-a-half years but he saw something in me and hopefully I’ve repaid him,” he added.
Moore had an early chance for Ayr but his header was well saved by Kieran Wright. It was one-way traffic as the home side sought the breakthrough and Michael Moffat had the ball in the net but it was disallowed.
Sean Higgins thought he had given Albion a shock lead but his effort was also chalked off.
Ayr took the lead ten minutes before the break when Jamie Adams towered about everyone to head the ball on for Moore to apply the final touch. McDaid secured the victory – and the title – with a second goal with three minutes remaining.
On the opposite coast, the stage was set for a gala day at Stark’s Park in front of nearly 4,500 expectant fans. Having retrieved a five-point deficit on Ayr over the previous two games, Raith Rovers knew victory over Alloa Athletic would see them crowned champions.
But it went flat. The visitors refused to buckle and Raith’s anxiousness stifled their decision-making and incisiveness in the 0-0 draw.
The double whammy is surely now the fact that Alloa stand in Rovers’ way in terms of a second chance of gaining promotion as both sides will now meet each other in a two-legged play-off to see who makes the final, with the first game scheduled for the Indodrill Stadium on Wednesday.
“They sat in and made it difficult for us, but it didn’t stop us from making chances” insisted Raith boss Barry Smith, his face taut with frustration. “Their keeper’s made a couple of wonderful saves and we’ve gone close in the last minute – on another day that goes in.
“There’s disappointment in the dressing room, but I want us to use that disappointment to make sure we get promoted. We need to get back to work and get ready for Wednesday’s game.”
Inspired by the packed home end of Starks Park, the game opened at a predictably whirlwind pace with Raith sweeping forward, eager to secure an early breakthrough that would settle the crackling tension around the place. Lewis Vaughan was a bundle of energy darting around the visitors’ box and launching a series of probing set pieces to test the heart of their defence. He tested the reflexes of Neil Parry with a dipping free kick as did fellow front man Liam Buchanan shortly afterwards with a stinging drive.
But Jim Goodwin’s Alloa were clearly there to make things difficult and actually went in at the interval somewhat unfortunate not to find themselves ahead as midfielder Jordan Kirkpatrick twice hit the woodwork with well taken strikes.
Raith emerged re-energised but they found Parry in superb form, the Alloa keeper doing especially well to get a boot to Jason Thomson’s goalbound downward header.