Ayr United Academy 20s are one win away from clinching the Development League West title
Ayr United Academy 20s are one win away from clinching the Development League West title after a 2-0 victory over Queen’s Park at Somerset Park on Monday night.
The 20s now travel to Cappielow this Wednesday and a win for either side would win the league title, while a draw would hand the title to Airdrieonians. Stranraer were home and hosed in the dramatic race to win the league but they were docked three points after being found guilty of fielding an ineligible player in a match against East Kilbride in February.
That has opened the door for Morton, Airdrieonians and amazingly, Ayr, who have given themselves a sensational shot at glory in the last game of the campaign in Greenock. United looked mid-table also rans, but a phenomenal run of form in the second half of the season has given them a chance of winning the league.
Ayr beat Queen of the South 3-0 on Friday night and goals from James Hilton and Leon Murphy under the lights at Somerset Park extended United’s winning run to five games. The 20s have tended to struggle against the Spiders this season, but an assured second-half display sealed a win and took their title challenge to the final game.
The first 45 was tense and very few chances were created. Hilton was thwarted on five minutes, seeing a shot from a tight angle parried away after collecting Luke McCowan’s cross from the right wing. McCowan then blazed over after 23 minutes and Murphy looped a header over from a corner as Ayr threatened to break the deadlock.
However, it was Queen’s who should have been ahead at the break. Ellis Hare-Reid made an important block at his near post on 39 minutes and was then forced into a fantastic save two minutes later.
The goalkeeper looked like he had been expertly chipped by the Queen’s attacker but the United keeper stuck out a left arm and clawed the ball away from the top corner. The wind was a factor and the visitors were playing into a strong one into the second half. The gusts from the Railway End and a whirlwind start to the second period from Ayr knocked Queen’s back.
Forty-five seconds into the second half, Ayr led.
Hilton racing on to a deflected ball through and the striker kept his cool to curl his attempt into the far corner from 14 yards out.
Ayr’s tails were up and had Queen’s largely pegged back, but the visitors mounted a dangerous counter-attack on 66 minutes.
A risky pass back across goal to Hare-Reid was hacked away by Hare-Reid and Nathan Baird had to be alert to clear a teasing cross at the back post. After that, mini-scare Ayr were in control and doubled their lead five minutes later.
The energetic McCowan was tripped 20 yards from goal and Murphy swept the free-kick low and hard into the far corner, beyond the grasp of the diving goalkeeper.
Ayr didn’t rest on their laurels and Chrissy Campbell almost added the killer third. The substitute saw a goal-bound strike blocked by a defender and moments later his burst into the box, but the goalkeeper saved with his legs from close range.
‘We were competitive and the second half was better than the first,’ said Head of Youth David White. ‘We’ve played with better quality than that but we got the job done. We managed to play in the conditions and we’re delighted. The boys knew what was required at half-time and did then scored straight away. They were confident in what they needed to do.
‘We managed the game really well and it was one that we needed to win. The shape and competitiveness was great, our substitutions helped, too.
Everyone is chipping in.
There is a real togetherness in the team. Getting another clean sheet is an enormous positive. The centre-backs (Jamie Ballantyne and Robert Griffiths) won headers, the full-backs (Baird and Finn Ecrepont) played well and the goalkeeper has made an absolutely fantastic save at 0-0. Everyone did their job.’
The sudden importance of Wednesday won’t be lost on anyone in the 20s dressing room and offers an opportunity to impress when the stakes are at their highest.
‘It’s a shoot-out,’ states White. ‘Three teams can win this and it’s up to us to take our opportunity. An open game would suit us against Morton. We just have to give everything on the pitch. The players are looking forward to it and a couple of good performances again from some of these guys might take manager’s attention. It’s an important time for the first team and us.
‘It will be a great occasion. Hopefully there will be a good crowd and Cappielow is a good surface. It’s the last game of the whole league season and it’s set up perfectly.’
Team: Hare-Reid; Baird, Griffiths, Ballantyne, Ecrepont; Faulds (Millarvie 89), Balfour; Martin (Campbell 64), McCowan, Murphy (Connolly 89); Hilton (McKenzie 82). Sub GK not used: Graham.
match report by Calum mcClurkin