20s fall at the final hurdle
Ayr United Academy 20s lost the Development League West title on the last day of the season after a 1-0 defeat to Morton at Cappielow ensured that the league trophy would stay in Greenock.
The 20s had won 11 of their last 14 games and had won five on the spin to amazingly be in a position to clinch the title but fell to a Jack Purdue’s penalty in a game that United more than had their moments in front of goal.
Everyone inside Cappielow knew what was a stake and the first five minutes were frantic. Finn Ecrepont had to be alert to slide in and clear early danger in the box. A Morton clearance hit Jamie Martin and almost looped into the net before goalkeeper Daniel Farrell palmed the ball over the bar.
Ayr stopper Ellis Hare-Reid clutched on to a six-yard header at his near post before Hilton’s snap shot from Luke McCowan’s cross was well parried clear by Farrell in the Morton goal.
The game settled after that early frenetic flurry of chances. Ayr settled in the quickest but Morton grew into the contest as the first half wore on. Nathan Baird flicked a dangerous cross clear after 23 minutes, with Morton’s Ben Armour drilling the ball wide from 20 yards moments later.
Robert Griffiths’ last-ditch tackle thwarted any more danger on 33 minutes. The Greenock side continued to press but Ayr were defending their penalty area strongly – and were looking to counter.
On 42 minutes, a quick break forward saw McCowan enter the box but he struggled to keep control of the ball and Morton ushered it behind for a corner. On the stroke of half-time, the hosts rattled the woodwork. Shaun Rodgers’ effort from eight yards out smacked the base of the post and the rebound was scooped over the top.
After that let off, Ayr played better in the second period. On 51 minutes, Griffiths nodded a corner across goal but the ball was above Ecrepont, who could only guide the ball over the crossbar from close range.
Two minutes later, McCowan evaded a lunging tackle down Morton’s left, the Ayr man got to the byeline and Hilton directed the pullback towards goal only to see his six-yard effort blocked by a Morton defender. The visitors continued to pour forward. McCowan was at the heart of the move again, charging down the left side on 57 minutes only for his square pass to run away from Martin who was clean through on goal.
Another chance came and went on the hour mark, Griffiths heading a corner inches wide at the back post.
Then came the almighty sucker punch. On 64 minutes, Griffiths mistimed a tackle on Armour right on the edge of the box. The referee initially awarded a free-kick before changing his mind to give the penalty.
Purdue stepped up and coolly converted to break the deadlock. It was cruel on Ayr and on Griffiths, who had not put a foot wrong until that fateful moment.
Ayr refused to give up and tried to rally.
The big chance to revive their title dream fell to substitute Chrissy Campbell. The substitute was played clean through, one-on-one with Farrell, the Morton keeper stood tall and made the save. Inspired goalkeeping from Farrell won the day and the title for the Greenock men.
Ayr threw everything including the kitchen sink but Farrell was in the way. Mark McKenzie was free at the far post from a corner but the header cleared the crossbar on 79 minutes.
Hilton hit a sweet half volley from Campbell’s clever knock down but the zipping strike was held by Farrell. Then came the pick of the bunch on 88 minutes. McCowan beat three men before entering the area, his low, left-footed shot from 16 yards looked destined for the bottom corner. Everyone in the ground anticipated the net to bulge but Farrell went down low to his left to turn the ball round the post. And that was agonisingly that. Ayr players slumped to their knees wondering how their second-half siege ended in defeat.
‘We are gutted,’ said Head of Youth David White. ‘All the players are. I don’t think we showed up in the first half. We rode our luck towards the end of the first half but we were a lot better in the second. We were probably at our most dominant when we lost the goal.
‘The most defining thing, for me, was how we started the game. I don’t think we started how we normally do. Maybe, we were a little nervous. Grififths gave the penalty away but he reacted really well, we lost a couple of midfield battles in the build up too.’
The pain will still be raw but earning the opportunity of a title decider was an achievement in itself for the 20s as top spot looked a distant dream in November after a tough start to the season.
‘I’m not just saying this because we lost and we are feeling sorry for ourselves, the players are absolutely gutted, but they’ve won 11 from 14 to get to this position,’ added White. ‘We were miles off it at the start and we’ve gone on a hell of a run to take it to the final game.
‘They should be proud of their efforts. There wasn’t much in it tonight and they should focus on how they got here at the end of the day.’
Ayr team: Hare-Reid; Baird, Ballantyne, Griffiths, Ecrepont (Connolly 90); Balfour (McKenzie 77), Faulds; Martin (Campbell 71), McCowan, Murphy; Hilton. Subs not used: Graham, Thorburn, Millarvie.
report by Calum McClurkin