Gray day for the leaders

Alloa Athletic 0

Berwick Rangers 1

D Gray 59 (pen).

by David Cook

at Recreation Park

Berwick turned in their best defensive performance of the season to conjure up a coupon-busting result against the league leaders at Recreation Park on Saturday. The omens in the lead up to the game were not good. Rangers had’nt played for 3 weeks due to adverse weather, and had lost their first choice central midfield to simultaneous suspensions. That left the cupboard looking pretty bare, with Stevie Notman and David Greenhill press-ganged into service in the engine room.

By contrast, the Wasp’s world was looking distinctly rosy, a state of affairs made possible by seven consecutive wins, a 15 game unbeaten run and a nine point lead at the top of the league going into Saturday’s encounter, all of which justifies their status as pre-season title favourites.

For all that, Rangers did’nt travel without hope. Under Ian Little’s tenure, Rangers have saved their best performances for the teams at the top end of the league, and they are unbeaten on artificial surfaces (including Ochilview and Links Park) so far this season. They’ve met Alloa in two previous encounters this season, both ending in draws, so there was no need for an inferiority complex.

The January transfer window brought a couple of new additions to the Rangers squad, but a training injury to Steven Tulloch meant that only striker John Ferguson featured, coming off the bench in the 81st minute to replace Fraser McLaren. Elliot Smith also having succumbed to injury, Rangers started withurn a back four of McLean and Thompson at full back, Chris McLeod returning to partner Chris Townsley at centre back. Ross Gray started in left midfield and Noble and Damon Gray were given the nod up front. Needless to say, Alloa started at full strength, with the likes of Robbie Winters and Ross McCord on their bench.

On a dank and dismal afternoon, with the Ochils shrouded in freezing fog, it took the game a while to warm up after a cagey opening. Stevie Notman put a great block on the dangerous Docherty in the 14th minute as the home side threatened for the first time, and Barclay made his first save two minutes later from Ryan McCord’s low shot.

The diminutive Paul Scholes lookalike ran the show for Alloa and the suspicion is that they would be a less impressive outfit without him pulling the strings. Not that it was all one way traffic. With Rangers’ back four holding a good line, Steven Thompson took time out from defensive duties to embark on a marauding run from deep in his own half. If his final effort had matched his ambition, he’d have been in the frame for goal of the season.

Thompson rescued his side midway through the first half when he hacked McCord’s effort from Darren Young’s assist off the line with Barclay beaten. Stuart Noble through off his shackles to test Bain with a low 27th minute effort,but normal service was resumed in the 35th minute when Holmes sent a dipping volley narrowly over Barclays bar before McCord clattered a rising shot off the same piece of woodwork six minutes from the break. Referee Andrew Dallas let the home side off the hook a couple of minutes from the interval, opting to give Steven May a lengthy lecture after Alloa’s star striker left the boot in on Ross Gray. It looked a bad one, and such was the level of concern for Gray’s wellbeing that the Alloa physio joined Jamie Dougal in helping Gray. The youngster was replaced at the break by Michael Deland.

Rangers were a different proposition playing down the slope in the second half. McLaren got free of Ben Gordon to fire in a lovely low cross in the 47th minute, and it was his run that set up a chance for Thompson a couple of minutes later. only for the full back to hump the ball wide. Noble panicked an increasingly uneasy home defence with a bullocking run in the 51st minute, but again there were no takers for his fine cross. The pressure paid off a minute before the hour mark.

McClaren headed on to Damon Gray and he was tripped in the process of executing a sharp turn by Gordon, Despite home protests, it was a stonewall penalty and Gray coolly dispatched the spot kick beyond the immobile Bain. Alloa doubled their efforts to get back into the game and Townsley bravely headed a McCord piledriver away from goal before Armand One glanced a header off the post with ten minutes remaining. Referee Dallas intervened seven minutes from the end, issuing Notman with a second yellow card, followed by the inevitable red, for what looked like a clean tackle on Winters after Ferguson had lost the ball in a dangerous place.

No wonder managers get frustrated - Steven May escaped with a lot worse with his earlier challenge on Ross Gray. Despite losing one of their standout players, Rangers remained resolute, though Barclay, whose was much more vocal and confident than in recent weeks, was forced into an excellent low save from Harding’s last minute effort.

Rangers should take a lot of encouragement from this performance, and it looks as if the addition of Robbie Horn is already having a beneficial effect on what was a porous defence. A demanding programme of six games in 21 days will test Ian Little’s team to the limits, but they’ve beaten the best, so let’s see what they can do with the rest. If Rangers can knit together a run of wins, and with games in hand, the play-offs remain in sight.

Alloa: Bain, James Doyle, Gordon, Harding, McKinnon, Docherty (One 76), Young (Winters 82), Ryan McCord, Holmes (Ross McCord 67), May, Cawley.

Berwick: Barclay 7, McLean 8, McLeod 8, Townsley 8, Thompson 8, McLaren 6, Greenhill 6, Notman 8, R Gray 6, Noble 6, D Gray 6.

Referee: Andrew Dallas.

Attendance: 544.