Blues set for play-off

Berwick Rangers 1, Stranraer 0

Shaun Niven at Shielfield Park

Stranraer brought the regular season to a welcome close with another defeat in a game that meant little to either side. The Blues continued to maintain their focus on the play off matches against Queen’s Park and tried out a different formation and Keith Knox continued his policy of not risking players carrying injuries to ensure his best side is available for Wednesday night’s important clash. Stephen Stirling, Frank McKeown and Ryan Borris were again on the sidelines but David MacGregor was welcomed back for some welcome match practice.

The atmosphere of the occasion was that familiar end of season feel and the competitive spark that is often required to ignite a game never materialised as both sides probed away without that killer instinct in the final third to punish the opposition. Stranraer for their part played some nice attractive possession football in parts and created some good territorial advantage but unusually for the league’s top scorers, failed to trouble the Berwick keeper for long periods.

Martin Grehan had a shot on target that Youssef Bejaoui saved easily in the opening minutes having capitalised on good set up play from Craig Malcolm and Michael Moore in a three pronged attack. Grant Gallagher tried his luck from twenty yards but his effort was deflected wide and then Chris Aitken struck a free kick over the cross bar as the Blues started brightly and Malcolm hit the target with the next free kick effort but fired straight at Bejaoui. Stranraer continued to dominate the opening half hour, Gallagher was next to carve out a chance but his shot went wide before a great break ended with the denial of a clear penalty kcik for the Blues. Scott Taggart crossed and as Grehan attempted to get on the end of it the ball was clearly handled by Richard Walker as Berwick struggled to clear the danger and the only people in the ground not to notice were the referee and his linesmen much to the amusement of the Berwick contingent, including assistant manager Robbie Horn who offered his apologies to the Blues bench. If these things even themselves out over the season then consolation of a decision in the next couple of matches would be taken. The Blues were surely going to take advantage with the pattern of play being totally in their favour but a Moore shot was deflected wide by Jordon Forster and then Zak Belkouche bundled an effort at goal from the corner that Bejaoui saved comfortably. Eventually Berwick would have an attempt at goal but Kevin McDonald wasted it by shooting high and wide with David Mitchell as yet undisturbed in the Stranraer goal. Belkouche stepped forward confidently in response and struck a stinging drive from distance but again the target was missed as his effort went a yard wide. Forster crossed from the right for the home side and MacGregor cleared as far as Danny Handling. His turn and shot didn’t quite come off and his mistimed effort went straight into the arms of Mitchell. Seven minutes from the break, The Borderers produced a glorious opportunity. Handling surged into the box and as he attempted to round Taggart the two on-loan Hibernian youngsters clashed with a penalty kick the result. McDonald stepped up and struck right footed to the goalkeepers left but Mitchell made the correct call and diving full length turned the ball away with a tremendous save. Taggart redeemed himself with a great run and cross to set Malcolm up to turn and shoot by the penalty spot but his curling effort remained outside the far post and although the best chance had fallen to Berwick, the blank half-time score certainly flattered them but Stranraer had not been as clinical as Keith Knox would surely have preferred.

Berwick created a great chance immediately after the restart as Fraser McLaren chipped the ball into the box for the unmarked David Greenhill. Just a couple of yards out he got a shot away but Mitchell made himself a big target and blocked the effort well. Stranraer responded with a great break and with Malcolm and Grehan available on the overlap, indecision from Sean Winter saw a great opportunity disappear. Berwick though had already signalled far greater intention and should probably have themselves taken the lead with another Greenhill chance. Stuart Noble did the spadework and squared for the midfielder at the edge of the box. With time to set and shoot his effort hit the outside of the post and he knew he should have done much better. Steven Noble created a chance for Aitken at the other end but the final attempt was poor, going high and well wide. Aitken turned creator from a free kick but Belkouche headed the ball straight at Bejaoui under pressure. The home side broke quickly in reply and McLaren found himself with a run at goal from the right flank and his intention was clear to run through and shoot but Mitchell had the angles judged nicely and was able to make the save look straightforward. Berwick had a claim for a penalty as Greenhill was bundled over in the Blues penalty area but again, nothing was awarded but the home side were just beginning to look a bit more threatening. Twenty minute remained when the warning signs were turned into the opening goal for Berwick. Noble was the creator in chief with a neat turn and charge that left Taggart and MacGregor trailing in his wake. Unselfishly he looked up and spotted Danny Handling in acres of space on the six yard line and squared it to him. Although he nearly did, he couldn’t miss and bundled the ball home for what would prove to be the winner. Stranraer responded by creating their best chance of the game minutes later. Aitken delivered a corner from the left the eventually got knocked down to Gallagher at the edge of the box. He took one touch that outwitted two home defenders and let fly with a rasping left foot drive that brought a superb one-handed save from Bejaoui to keep the home team in front. Taggart ended the next serious attack with a driven cross across the face of goal that found no takers as Stranraer continued to struggle to finish off opportunities, further typified when Malcolm headed over from an Aitken free kick. There was time remaining for young Berwick substitute Ben Miller to leave an impression but sadly for him his 4th career appearance would be at best a learning experience for him. Booked for a trip on Taggart ten minutes after coming on, a lunge on Winter seven minutes later saw his brief cameo come to a premature conclusion following a second yellow card. Noble had an effort on target for the Blues after linking up with Stuart McColm but this game would end like the previous four with no real damage done and the focus now turned on the next two fixtures which would at last see a fully competitive edge return.

Keith Knox was more concerned with the build-up to the Queen’s Park match so while frustrated that some good build up play had not produced the clear cut chances he had hoped for, the focus on the Semi-Final matches was clear and all efforts were now channelled on gaining the upper hand on Queen’s Park on Wednesday night.

Berwick Rangers: Youssef Bejaoui, Richard Walker, Jordon Forster, Andy McLean, Chris Townsley, Kevin McDonald, Ross Gray (Connor McGlinchey 46), David Greenhill, Stuart Noble, Danny Handling (John Ferguson 74), Fraser McLaren (Ben Miller 67). Subs Not Used: Michael Deland, Jamie Barclay

Booked: Miller Sent Off: Miller

Goal: Handling 70

Stranraer: David Mitchell, Scott Taggart, Steven Noble, Zakaria Belkouche (Dean Agnew 84), David MacGregor, Chris Aitken, Sean Winter, Grant Gallagher, Michael Moore (Stuart McColm 68), Craig Malcolm, Martin Grehan. Subs Not Used: John Kane, Nathan Shepherd, Ryan Marshall 

Booked: Grehan, Noble

Attendance: 402

Referee: B Cook