by David Cook
Berwick Rangers’ Jekyll and Hyde season continued on its merry way with a surprise but thoroughly deserved win at second placed Annan Athletic on Saturday, to keep their own slim play-off hopes alive.
Rangers supporters could be forgiven for wondering which team will turn up on match day - the clueless shambles which capitulated to the worst Montrose side in living memory last week, or the impressive-looking outfit which should have been five goals clear of Annan at the break.
And there-in lies the most frustrating aspect of this disappointing season, because on their day Rangers have proved themselves the equal of any team in the league. The trouble is that, despite their undoubted talent, Rangers simply haven’t shown the appetite to maintain a more consistent level of performance. Perhaps that explains the mixed reaction to the decision to reappoint Jimmy Crease as manager next season.
On to the action then, at an expectant Galabank, where the crowd was boosted by punters fuelled up on corporate hospitality. Three years into their league existence, Annan deserve huge credit for their achievements, though Harry Cairney’s team could never be accused of being easy on the eye.
Their long ball game is tailored to exact maximum effect on a small pitch, and Rangers felt the full force of their aggressive approach in the opening five minutes.
Despite the predictable onslaught, Rangers defended their goal expertly, and once the home attacks subsided Rangers really cut loose. Damon Gray missed a good chance in the sixth minute, shooting wide after Callaghan set him up, and three minutes later, the excellent Stevie Notman broke through on the right, only for Summersgill to keep out his goalbound volley with his foot. Paul Currie took his turn to miss a sitter in the 11th minute, somehow missing the target from eight yards with the goal at his mercy.
Fortunately the opening goal wasn’t to be delayed much longer, Notman breaking through two challenges down the right flank and maintaining his composure to set up Gray for a neat shot past Summersgill in the 17th minute. The overworked Summersgill saved brilliantly a minute later, fingertipping Paul Currie’s stinging volley round the post to restrict a rampant Rangers side to a single goal lead.
Annan’s central defence, bizzarely featuring their midfield maestro Bryan Gilfillan, looked like an accident waiting to happen, and Gray took full advantage in the 43rd minute, latching on to Greenhill’s clever through ball to outmuscle the pursuing Neilson and fire past Summersgill for a superbly-taken second goal.
Annan registered their first real effort on target on the stroke of half-time, and Rangers had the woodwork to thank after Watson’s diving header rebounded off the bar.
With Annan kicking down the slope, Rangers must have expected a tougher contest in the second half. Imagine their surprise when they scored a third in the 53rd minute, 60 seconds after Notman’s brilliant saving tackle on Harty prevented the home side from getting on the scoresheet.
Gribben, who was superb throughout, tortured Muirhead for the umpteenth time down the left before dinking in a cross which Paul Currie, back to marauding Brian Robson mode, bundled home at the near post. Three- nil and cruising, or so the away support thought until Cairney took a gamble by sending on all three Annan subs at the hour mark.
That was a brave move and it started to pay immediate dividends. With Gilfillan finally breaking free from defensive duties to influence play, and Felvus causing Rangers problems with his tricky work dowen their left flank, what looked like a surefire win looked less certain all of a sudden.
Nerves started to fray in the 63rd minute, when Gilfillan sent an exocet of a free kick beyond McCaldon from 25 yards out. This was one that had ‘woosh’ written all over it. The goal encouraged Annan but with Rangers back three of Ewart, McLeod and McLean in solid form the home side struggled to create any clear cut chances.
Gribben caused further consternation amongst the home support in the 75th minute, when his dangerous cross eluded Gray by inches, but O’Connor brought the game to the boil with ten minutes left, cracking an angled volley past McCaldon after Rangers forgot to mark the back post.
Despite losing a second goal, Rangers kept their composure,and although McCaldon was forced to save bravely at Cox’s feet in the final minute, the Gers emerged deserved winners.
Rangers can end their season on a high by winning their remaining three games.A play-off spot still looks a long shot, but the manager will be asking his players to convince him that they’re worth a contract offer next season. For some, that opportunity will be too late, but Rangers have enough good players to form the core of a title-challenging team next season, if only they can add the x-factor of consistency.
Annan: Summersgill, Muirhead (Sloan 59), Watson, Neilson, Steele, Macfarlane, Gilfillan, Docherty (Felvus 59), Cox, Harty (Jardine 59), O’Connor.
Berwick: McCaldon 7, Notman 9, Ewart 8, McLeod 8, McLean 7, Callaghan 7, Greenhill 6, P Currie 7, L Currie 7, Gribben 8, Gray 7.
Referee: Stevie O’Reilly
Crowd - 515