Stranraer 2 Dunfermline Athletic 1
Once again individual errors proved costly as the Pars lost 2-1 at Stranraer in the first leg of the Championship play-off semi-final. A defensive lapse allowed Grehan to score into an empty net after 12 minutes, although the luck seemed to have turned when El Bakhtaoui latched on to a lovely Falkingham pass to equalise before half-time. The Pars missed some good chances to take the lead, but after Page got himself sent off late on for 2 yellow cards in quick succession, Stranraer took full advantage as Bell turned home a free-kick late on to give the home team a slender lead.
The surreal nature of the season continues. After weeks of playing games with little meaning, other than maintaining fitness and trying to find some semblance of form, it was suddenly game on, although being a two-legged affair, anything short of a convincing win would leave some doubt over the final outcome. Nevertheless, a convincing win was what was hoped for as the Pars left on the long hike down to the South West. Of course, what could have been a pleasant early evening jaunt turning into a frantic dash as rush-hour, torrential rain and a couple of traffic incidents conspired to cause delays, but I managed to get to Stair Park just in time to her the team news being announced over the tannoy as I rushed past the band-stand.
As expected, Jim Jefferies made a huge number of changes, nine to the starting eleven, but slightly surprisingly it was Shaun Byrne and Lewis Spence who kept their positions as the team reverted to the usual 4-4-2 formation. Scully came back between the sticks, the back four was revealed as Millen, Morris, Page and Grainger. Geggan and Falkingham made the midfield four, and Thomson and El Bakhtaoui formed a slightly lightweight forward pairing.
Husband and Forbes were possibly the two casualties who would have to sit on the bench, where they were joined by Williamson, Martin, Smith, Whittle and Goodfellow.
Stranraer were along their usual lines, starting with the prolific pairing of Longworth and Grehan in attack, and with Steven Bell looking to cause problems from central midfield.
Andy Geggan won the toss, and opted to kick into the westerly wind in the first half, so Stanraer had the kick-off, and they were soon in and about their opponents and the Pars suffered a shaky start, perhaps not helped by the rain making the surface a little slicker than expected. Morris seemed a little slow to move across to a ball down the line, and Stirling was able to cut inside and send an early shot over the bar. Then Grainger got the ball stuck in his feet and although Spence came across to clear he overran the ball and conceded a corner.
The first time the Pars showed El Bakhtaoui demonstrated a typical mix of a good touch followed by a poor one, but Spence was able to intervene once more, this time moving the ball to Byrne in space, but the latter’s shot from the angle was beaten away by Mitchell.
After Scully was out sharply to deny Gallagher, who had run at speed onto Bell’s forward ball when he had been gifted the ball by Page, it seemed the Pars had shaken off their rustiness, only to go and concede a soft goal. There seemed no danger when El Bakhtaoui moved to hurry Mitchell into a clearance. The keeper hit the ball long, Millen and Morris seemed to pause and let Longworth get free. Morris tried to tackle as Scully came out and the ball was chipped over the keeper to allow Grehan to roll the ball into an empty net.
Stranraer 1 Dunfermline Athletic 0
Geggan was soon summoned to the bench as Jim Jefferies updated his tactical advice, the result of which saw Byrne move to a more central role with Spence, and Falkingham to a wider berth.
This didn’t make an immediate difference, but at least the Pars won their first corner when McGregor belatedly opted to guide a Spence ball back to his keeper, prompting Mitchell to slice the ball behind. That was defended and Longworth again sprung any offside trap that there was but he chose to cut back to Winter and his shot was off-target.
However things began to look up – Falkingham flew down the right only to be upended by Docherty, and Grainger came within an inch of getting his head on Millen’s resultant free-kick – before the Pars scored the equaliser. Geggan had been suffering from a sore back, and after he went down again it was clear he could not continue. Whilst the Pars were getting the substitution organised play continued. Byrne’s quick feet saw him poke the ball to Falkingham and his lovely ball into the channel sent El Bakhtaoui free and he lifted the ball over the outrushing keeper and into the net.
Stranraer 1 Dunfermline Athletic 1 .
So one apiece at half-time and the Pars would feel that they had been let off the hook a tad.
It was to be hoped that the Pars would start the second half in better fettle than the first, but within 20 seconds Millen had not only passed the ball straight to Longworth but had allowed himself to be skinned, although only a corner resulted. The match continued to be scrappy, although the referee’s whistle wasn’t being heard so much, which was a relief to some. Within 10 minutes we had a couple of half-hearted penalty shouts - Spence put in a brave but fine tackle to win the ball off Docherty, who went to ground, before play swept to the other end where Forbes seemed to fall over rather as an afterthought under challenge.
The surface continued to cause problems – Morris slipped under pressure from Longworth, although managed to regain his feet promptly to thwart the forward, before it was Page’s time to slip although he still managed to get his head to the ball while prone.