Play-off hopes are shattered

Stranraer 3

McColm 40 and 66, Gallagher 51,

Berwick Rangers 1

P Currie 55

by David Cook

at Stair Park

Berwick Rangers’ play-off hopes were all but buried at Stair Park on Saturday, where an impressive Stranraer outfit put an off-colour Gers to the sword. Only keeper Ian McCaldon stood between Rangers and a heavier defeat after a punishing schedule of 14 games in seven weeks finally took its toll on a squad which has been light on numbers all season. It is little wonder that some players look knackered and in desperate need of the close season break.

Rangers still have 15 points to play for, but their destiny now lies at the feet of other teams. Jimmy Crease demanded four points from the back-to-back fixtures against Stranraer, and though Rangers can count themselves desperately unlucky not to have taken all three points at Shielfield in midweek, how they must be rueing that deflating injury time equaliser from Scott Agnew. When the dust settles on this campaign, Agnew’s goal will be up there in neon lights as one of the season’s defining moments.

On this occasion, however, Rangers were never really at the races, Stranraer looking a couple of yards sharper throughout the 90 minutes, with restored striker Stuart McColm and the evergreen Michael Moore giving the Gers’ defence the runaround for much of the game.

With Gallagher locking the door in front of his back four, Gribben and Gray, hard though they worked, were forced to live on scraps, and it took the introduction of Paul Currie shortly after the break to give Rangers some desperately needed bite.

Rangers forced a couple of early corners but any sense of emerging superiority was given a reality check in the 10th minute when Gallagher rose high to head against the bar. Eight minutes later, McCaldon saved superbly from McColm, a contest that was to continue for the remainder of the match.

Rangers threatened to break out from the stranglehold imposed by the home side around the half hour mark, and corners from Callaghan and Currie finally forced Mitchell into action, but it was McColm who opened the scoring, cracking home a powerful left foot shot from 15 yards five minutes from the interval. The lively McColm called McCaldon into action again on the stroke of half-time, and once more the big keeper was equal to the test, though you can take it as read that he’d have been hoping for an easier afternoon’s employment.

Whatever plans Rangers had for rescuing the points were torpedoed by a second Stranraer goal in the 51st minute, Gallagher volleying home Agnew’s cross. Paul Currie dragged Rangers back into contention four minutes later and only two minutes after replacing Ian Little, firing home from distance to give his side a lifeline. Unfortunately for Rangers, the momentum stayed with the Blues and Moore was denied a goal from his header on the hour mark, McCaldon brilliantly tipping his goalbound effort round the post.

The killer goal arrived in the 66th minute, Noble setting up McColm for another sharp finish to clinch the points. Damon Gray sparked into belated life with two efforts in the 69th and 71st minutes, but it was too little, too late for Rangers.

Lee Currie forced Mitchell into a decent save eleven minutes from the end but Stranraer saw out the closing minutes in comfort. Rangers looked spent at the final whistle, the realisation sinking in that their play-off hopes had gone from slim to anorexic.

Making the top four remains mathematically possible, but Rangers will need to win their remaining five matches and hope that others slip up. That mid-season slump in form looks like condemning the black and gold to another season in the Third Division. There are still some very good players at the club, and the manager, irrespective of whether he is in charge next season, will be looking to tie up his star names to underwrite a sustained assault on the title in 2011/12.

After two seasons of unfulfilled promise, it is the least that supporters expect.

Berwick: McCaldon 9, Notman 5, McLean 5, Ewart 7, Callaghan 6, L Currie 6, Grant 5, Greenhill 5, Little 6 (P Currie 53), Gribben 6, Gray 5 (Brazil 75).

Stranraer: Mitchell, Kennedy, Gallacher, Kurakins, Gallagher, Winter (Nicoll 86), Murphy (Daniel Mitchell 60), Agnew, Noble, McColm, Moore (One 77).

Referee: Kevin Clancy

Crowd - 331