Stirling Albion 0 Stranraer 1
It wasn’t a pretty performance against doomed Stirling Albion on Tuesday night at Forthbank but that didn’t matter to Stephen Aitken’s Blues as the game was always going to be all about the result.
As things transpired it was a gritty, hard-working but ultimately deserved win for the Blues that sees them sit proudly on top of the league with seven games remaining.
And it made it all the better as Stranraer had dropped points on Saturday losing 1-0 to fellow title challengers Forfar thanks to a Swankie goal after 20 minutes.
Stranraer now sit top on 52 points from Forfar and Morton, both on 51 with Breachin forther back on 47 points.
Stranraer began the match purposefully and threatened down the right where Craig Pettigrew cut inside Kevin McKinlay and created a chance for himself but his effort failed to match the build-up play and missed the target by a distance. Stirling responded with a similarly weak effort from Gordon Smith who screwed his shot way wide from 25 yards.
David Mitchell had to be much more alert moments later rushing out to hack the ball away from the onrushing Lewis Coult striving to reach Phil Johnston’s cross from the right. Albion keeper Callum Reidford made a hash of clearing a free kick which presented the quick thinking Jamie Longworth with a chance to try his luck from fully 40 yards but Chris Smith had read the danger and managed to deflect the ball back tamely to his relieved goalkeeper. Stranraer had a better effort in the 20th minute when a second phase move following a corner saw a Chris Aitken cross from the right met by the head of Sean Winter at the near post and the ball flew agonisingly wide of the angle of the goal frame.
Longworth had a shot from a tight angle that Adam Cummins blocked as the Blues began to take control of the possession and territory. On the half hour Stranraer created a glorious chance. Willie Gibson was becoming more influential and his cross from the left was met first time by Winter just outside the six yard box but Reidford was well placed and made an excellent instinctive save to keep the ball out and then hold on to it to prevent a follow up tap in. Stirling hadn’t threatened for some time but they reminded the Blues of their presence when Gordon Smith, despite looking well offside burst clear of Scott Rumsby down left and his cross found Coult who in turn found the target but straight into the arms of Mitchell who tidied up the danger. Former Blue Andy Stirling hadn’t done much in the game but suddenly after picking up a loose pass from Longworth he burst clear and it required a challenge from Grant Gallagher on the edge of the box to halt his progress.
Craig Comrie was guilty of wasting the free kick and the Blues defence survived to half time when a poor first half ended goalless and with only Winter’s chance to speak of from either side.
Stranraer started the second period in the ascendency and had forced a couple of corners when one of them saw Rumsby head goalwards but the packed Binos goalmouth scrambled the ball clear from the predatory Craig Malcolm on this occasion.
The Albion response was Johnston shot after cutting in from the right but it was weak and an easy gather for Mitchell in the Stranraer goal.
In the 58th minute came one of game’s defining moments. For some time the match had looked like the Blues previous two matches, one where the first goal would prove vital and only the brilliance of Mitchell prevented the home team from grabbing it. The Blues cleared a corner as far as Stirling on the right.
He found Willie Robertson who drove the ball into the box where Coult turned and connected first time and with the ball found for the corner an outstretched right hand from the goalkeeper pulled off a truly magnificent save to keep things all square. Comrie delivered into the box next up as the home side picked up the pace a little and grew in confidence but Stranraer continued to defend well and this time it was Jackson Longridge who completed the clearance. Stranraer broke forward and had a three on three break but couldn’t move the ball quickly enough between Winter, Malcolm and Longworth and the Binos thwarted them this time. The Blues kept pressing and won a free kick which Aitken curled goal wards but was just too high. The Blues won another free kick 25 yards out on the left hand side.
Willie Gibson stepped up to curl the ball into the box and it was one of those no-mans land deliveries that the keeper can’t come for and the strikers can’t reach that just kept curling and travelling and found its way into the net at the far post to finally break the deadlock. Comrie swung in a corner as Albion replied but Coult, who had been a handful all evening, headed wide. Stranraer could have doubled their lead as Malcolm broke and found Longworth who had his shot half-blocked by Reidford and the Steven Bell had the follow –up attempt cleared from the line by Smith eventually for a corner. Gibson delivered the flag kick and Frank McKeown headed powerfully but just too high as Stranraer sought the second goal that would kill the game off. As it transpired the single goal was to be enough and even though Mitchell had to come out and punch a free kick clear under pressure in stoppage time, the Blues never looked like surrendering their advantage which returned them to the summit of the league in time for the final run-in.
Stuart McLaren felt that his side were a little unfortunate to get beaten but by the same token had not played as well as they had in their recent encounters. He cited the Mitchell save from Coult as a pivotal moment and once Stranraer had gone ahead they were good enough to hold on. With avoiding relegation now looking less and less likely, they would continue to try hard and get a couple of victories under their belt to complete the season with a bit of momentum.
Stephen Aitken enjoyed the feeling of victory and the past couple of weeks and felt that the players had proved that they were most definitely back in the mix at the top of the table and things would be interesting over the next seven games.