East Stirlingshire 0, Berwick Rangers 1
Berwick broke their duck on the road with a narrow, hard fought but deserved win at a dank Ochilview on Sunday, which elevated them into fifth place in the league and a single point behind third-placed Queen’s Park.
Most of Rangers’ victories this season have been relatively comfortable, but the most encouraging thing about this performance is that Ian Little’s men did it the hard way. It was gritty and not very pretty, but it was the sort of no-frills, solid team effort that makes the difference between the play-offs and the also-rans.
Shire are no pushovers. John Coughlin’s teams are well-drilled, competitive and know how to graft. But it wasn’t just decent opposition that Rangers were up against. Referee Gavin Duncan and his standside linesman delivered performances of bewildering incompetence, littering an always intriguing encounter with wrong calls.
But it was the 61st minute red card that Duncan brandished at Stevie Notman that took the biscuit. Notman had been booked just minutes earlier for a foul which, on balance, was just about merited despite it being his first of the game.
But his second booking was for a legitimate textbook piece of midfield ball winning, and provoked a bilious reaction from the away support, who baracked the ref as the hard-done-by Notman trudged off. He must view trips to Ochilview with dread, having been on the wrong end of another appalling red card decision last season.
Rangers took to the pitch with the same 11 that dispatched Annan with a minimum of fuss a week earlier, but it was Shire who opened more brightly against their lethargic-looking visitors, the lively Kevin Turner leading Dean Hoskins a dog’s life with his clever movement.
It wasn’t all one-way traffic though, and Darren Lavery was inches away from opening the scoring in the seventh minute after his powerful run left Shepherd trailing in his wake only for his low shot to drift a foot wide with Hay beaten.
Shire broke straight back up the pitch and Ian MCaldon saved well with his legs from Herd’s low shot after some slick Shire movement pulled Rangers apart. Holt’s long diagonal ball put in Turner for a 17th minute chance but the striker shot wide from the angle after outmuscling a struggling Hoskins.
Rangers had slowly edged their way back into the game and took the lead in the 21st minute, when Ross Gray applied a neat finish at the back post to Lee Currie’s corner.
Currie himself was inches away from extending Rangers’ lead in the 27th minute, forcing Hay into an excellent diving save to keep out another expertly-struck free kick from distance.
The goal knocked some of the stuffing out of a game Shire outfit and Stevie Notman glanced a header over from Hoskin’s dangerous cross ten minutes from the break.
Coff must have turned the hairdryer up to ‘max’ during the interval, because it took Rangers seven minutes of the second period to get the ball back, Lavery clipping in a low shot which Hay fingertipped wide for a corner that the standside linesman failed to award.
After Notman’s ludicrous dismissal with half an hour remaining, Little opted for some defensive solidity by relacing the hardworking Ferguson, whose developing partnership with Lavery continues to show promise, with Damien Gielty.
Gielty went on to produce an impressive cameo, and looks worth a start in place of a jaded-looking Kevin McDonald.
With Rangers a man short and the away-end swearbox at risk of overflowing, Shire began to rack up an impressive tally of corners, but Dougie Brydon and Townsley, aided and abetted by the consistently excellent Devon Jacobs, made sure that there were few alarms for ‘The Eagle.’
The hugely impressive Gray produced a goal saving tackle to deny Herd at the back post with 14 minutes remaining, and with nine minutes left McCaldon tipped a Turner shot over, but Shire found it hard to carve out any clearcut chances.
That is until one was handed to the on a silver platter in the final minute. Greenhill’s long pass beyond the Gers’ defence brought McCaldon rushing out of his goal to clear the ball ahead of Turner.
It was one of those damned if you do, damned if you don’t moments, and it took on a pear-shaped aspect for the Rangers keeper when Turner beat him to the ball and clipped his shot towards the empty goal. I’ve moaned on this season about Rangers’ lack of good fortune, but they got some back in spades when Turner’s shot hit the inside of the post and bounced back into ‘Eagle’s’ grateful arms.
The win laid a couple of bogies to rest; it was Rangers’ first away victory of the season and they did it while wearing the blue strip, which was starting to look like a hex. With a run of tough but winnable fixtures looming, Rangers have an excellent opportunity to start cementing a position in the top half of the league.
Man of the match - a two way tie between Jacobs and Gray. The ex-Livingston pair were superb all afternoon, and if Ian Little can sort out some of the weaknesses afflicting Rangers’ left flank, he’s going to have some team on his hands.
East Stirlingshire: Hay, Jackson, Miller, Holt, Shepherd, McKernon, Begg (Hunter 82), Turner, Greenhill, Herd (Maxwell 79), Quinn.
Berwick Rangers: McCaldon 7, Jacobs 9, Brydon 8, Townsley 8, Hoskins 5, Gray 9, Currie 8, Notman 7, McDonald 4, Lavery 6, Ferguson 6.
Referee: Gavin Duncan.