Stranraer improved their chances of securing a playoff place while severely denting those of their hosts, Annan Athletic, with a comprehensive victory at Galabank.
The result also saw Keith Knox’s Blues complete a clean sweep of victories over their Dumfries and Galloway rivals, who continue to struggle with poor current form.
Stranraer welcomed back Frank McKeown and introduced Ryan Borris, the former Ayr United man brought in on loan from Dumbarton for the remainder of the season as fresh impetus was sought after the disappointment of the previous week. The Blues started on the attack and McKeown was in action immediately heading Chris Aitken’s corner just wide but Annan responded with an opportunity of their own when Jack Steele latched on to a Michael McGowan cross but his effort was poor and Steven Noble, marking his 150th appearance for the club, cleared for a corner. The respite was only temporary as David Cox sent over the corner kick and Steven Swinglehurst rose highest to head home and give the on loan Carlisle United youngster his first senior goal. Minutes later and the home side carved out another great chance when Steele found Steven Sloan in the box and he slid the ball sideways for Sean O’Connor to have a crack at goal but he blasted the ball over the top from twelve yards when a bit of composure would have seen the advantage doubled. They squandered another half chance just after that when a Cox free kick was headed over by Peter Watson and would be made to regret these in the 13th minute. From a seemingly innocuous position wide on the Blues right, Annan failed to clear and Martin Grehan picked up possession before being fouled by McGowan as he advanced into the penalty area. Chris Aitken stepped forward and smashed the spot kick into the roof of the net to square proceedings once again. Annan had strong appeals for a penalty of their own when David Winters went down under a challenge from David MacGregor that looked as valid a claim as the one given to the visitors but all they were awarded was a corner which failed to produce any reward. Both sides probed away at each other to try and create an opening with Stranraer employing their customary neat passing to some effect which Annan preferred their more orthodox direct approach but neither side was able to force the opposition keeper into a save of note. Indeed, Alex Mitchell in the Annan net had the only action when making a comfortable save from Sean Winter. Stranraer were content to soak up any Annan pressure and ensured their possession remaining well away from goal and only some poor delivery in the final third denied them chances but they began to look like the more likely to break the deadlock. Grehan flicked a Scott Taggart cross wide of the target before a long Watson clearance deceived MacGregor and presented Winters with a chance but with only David Mitchell to beat he couldn’t as the Blues keeper blocked his effort. Stranraer struck with a textbook dead ball goal right on the stroke of half time. Taggart had linked up with Winter and earned the corner with a great attacking run down the flank and Aitken delivered an outswinger that Frank McKeown met just around the penalty spot and guided his header out of the despairing reach of Mitchell to ensure an interval lead for the Blues to defend.
The restart saw Stranraer go for the kill straight away. Stephen Stirling had an effort from the edge of the box followed by another crack from Aitken but the home defence got bodies in the way of both. Annan retaliated but Aaron Muirhead couldn’t find a target with his cross and McKeown cleared. Muirhead got on the end of the resulting corner but Mitchell saved his back post header without too much fuss. With McKeown and MacGregor looking rock solid at the back and Noble and Taggart able to quickly turn defence into attack, Stranraer were always the more dangerous looking. Muirhead had two efforts in quick succession though both were from distance and both went harmlessly wide. Stranraer tried to work their way through the home defence with an intricate passing sequence between Stirling, Grehan and Craig Malcolm but a last gasp tackle by Scott Gibson thwarted the move. Stirling then wasted an opportunity when a corner was cleared to him by shooting high and wide as the Blues tried to tie up the points but Annan remained alive and only a fine fingertip save from Mitchell prevented Cox from levelling the score on 65 minutes with a left footed drive from 15 yards. Stirling and Malcolm were guilty of overplaying a move as Stranraer attacked and when Stirling may have had a shot from the edge of the box his attempted pass went astray. Malcolm turned creator as the game moved towards the final 10 minutes with a tenacious tackle to rob McGowan before darting to the goal line, beating Watson and cutting back for Grehan to shoot. With confidence in short supply his tame effort was easily saved by the home keeper and moments later he was replaced by Michael Moore. Annan fashioned a chance for their substitute Ben McKenna but he swept the ball well wide from outside the box following good work from Graeme Bell. With 3 minutes left on the clock Stranraer clinched a convincing victory with a lightning burst from midfield. Moore won the ball in the centre circle with a typically robust challenge and knocked the ball short for Winter. He looked up and spotted Craig Malcolm in space. Winter threaded the ball through perfectly for the Blues top scorer to spring the offside trap and advance on goal before calmly slotting under the advancing Mitchell to secure all three points and a deserved victory.
Harry Cairney was a disappointed man as his side again struggled to find a result and haven’t been able to turn around their form. He felt that both penalty claims were valid and bemoaned the crucial decision that had denied his side a spot kick. Annan are now looking to get on a better run which will be required for their playoff challenge to get back on the rails.
Keith Knox was a very satisfied man after the Blues had produced a great all round performance. Stranraer played some excellent football going forward but had defended much better right across the park and crucially avoided giving away bad goals which had become a habit which was every bit as pleasing as the good attacking play.
Annan Athletic: Alex Mitchell, Aaron Muirhead, Michael McGowan, Steven Swinglehurst, Scott Gibson, Peter Watson, Steven Sloan, Jack Steele (Chris Jardine 90), David Winters (Graeme Bell 67), Sean O’Connor (Ben McKenna 67), David Cox. Subs Not Used: Craig Summersgill, John MacBeth.
Booked: Steele, Watson
Goal: Swinglehurst 4
Stranraer: David Mitchell, Scott Taggart, Steven Noble, David MacGregor, Frank McKeown, Chris Aitken, Sean Winter, Stephen Stirling, Craig Malcolm (Stuart McColm 88), Martin Grehan (Michael Moore 80), Ryan Borris (Nathan Shepherd 77). Subs Not Used: John Kane, Ryan Marshall
Goals: Aitken 13 Pen, McKeown 45, Malcolm 87
Referee: D Robertson
Annan Athletic 1, Stranraer 3