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The Honest Men made their long-anticipated return to Somerset Park on Tuesday when they hosted Annan Athletic on Matchday 3 of Group F of the Betfred Cup. This was only the 4th competitive match between the Honest Men and the Galabankies.
In charge for the visitors was former Ayr favourite Peter Murphy and his team had shown some good early season form including a 3 – 1 victory over Hamilton on the opening day.
The match kicked off with a tough battle in the middle of the park, each side attempting to take an early control of the game and both sides showing attacking intent. With only 3 mins gone, a Joe Chalmers’ corner led to United’s first chance. After the ball had been played into the box, some intricate interplay eventually allowed Aaron Muirhead to force the first shot of the game, however Annan keeper Alex Mitchell collected confidently.
Ayr appeared confident and were creating chances, but Annan gave as good as they got with Nathan Flanagan catching the eye with some impressive close footwork as he twisted, turned, and probed on the wing. On 12 mins Muirhead slammed the ball towards goal only to see his powerful strike blocked while good build up play had created half chances for Luke McCowan and Dario Zanatta.
Annan continued to look dangerous and could not be ignored. Following a corner on 14 mins, Annan’s experienced midfielder, Mark Docherty’s left footed drive from outside the box went narrowly past.
Over the first 15 mins, Ayr slowly developed a grip on the game with midfielder Joe Chalmers looking composed and calm on the ball dictating much of the game. The Honest Men worked up through the gears in an attempt to grab an opener.
Luke McCowan looked in the mood, his darting runs being fuelled by passes or intricate interplay that allowed him to burst in behind the Annan defence. He repeatedly cut inside trying to create space for shots at the edge of the penalty area, but some determined defending and blocking kept the youngster out.
The visitors weathered the high intensity pressure from United then hit back with some of their own. From a position of relative comfort, United then had to withstand a series of pacy attacks.
Aidan Smith and Nathan Flanagan both used their pace to impose themselves on United’s back line. Annan were showing the attacking style and threat that had put Hamilton to the sword on the opening day and it was the United defence’s turn to defend with determination.
Behind the back four, Ayr’s Finnish keeper Viljami Sinisalo was in commanding form, roaring his instructions, and showing strength as he plucked crosses from the air. Sinsalo’s distribution was excellent, both throws and kicks setting Ayr off speedily into attacking situations throughout the match.
On 33 mins Muirhead made headway down the right wing in an attempt to catch Annan on their heels, pinging a dangerous cross in for Dario Zanatta but the young Canadian fell inches short of sticking the ball into the back of the net.
Solid performances so far by the United defenders, with Sam Roscoe keeping the backbone strong within Muirhead impressing in the right fullback position with Michael Hewitt standing up well to the tricky Flanagan.
On 23 mins Joe Chalmers slid the ball through to Zanatta in the box. As Zanatta held the ball up Matthew Douglas needlessly dragged the Ayr man to the ground giving referee Grant Irvine no choice but to award a penalty.
Veteran sharpshooter Michael Moffat stepped up and made no mistake, blasting the ball into the top left corner, giving keeper Mitchell no chance of getting a hand on it. An excellent spot kick to put Ayr one up and bring his goalscoring total for the club to 99.
Just minutes later and Ayr surged forward looking to double their advantage, drawing a free kick on the edge of the box, Mark McKenzie pulled back and tripped by Lewis Hunter as he cut inside towards the box. Taking the freekick, Chalmers played the ball back to the edge of the box, finding McCowan who slammed the ball goalward only to hit off a defender’s legs just 2 yards out and rebound away.
Next, Zannata was set through clear by a superb defence splitting pass from Michael Moffat but he was unable to take advantage of the situation as a heavy touch at the edge of the box allowed centre half Matthew Douglas to get back and block his direct route to goal. Cutting back onto his right foot the Ayr man’s shot flew over the bar.
Annan then tried to turn the tables with Nathan Flanagan putting three crosses into the box in a row and Ayr struggled to clear, Hewitt and Baird doing well to block.
Ayr immediately headed out on the counter, Muirhead gambling by sending a beautiful long-range ball over the heads of the Annan defence, where Zanatta latched on. The speedster powered forward on goal however, without support he was muscled off the ball by Douglas.
Moments later, Moffat wriggled free from close attention at the edge of the box and created space for McCowan who took a touch before firing off a powerful shot. The ball then took a big deflection off Mark Docherty, leaving keeper Mitchell flailing but fortunately for him the ball looped down inches past the post.
Following the goal kick Ayr pushed back up the park again. McKenzie passed the ball behind the defence and into the path of Zanatta only to see the assistant’s flag rise. Zannata stuttered to a halt and sank to the ground. As a precautionary measure, Ayr boss Mark Kerr immediately replaced Zanatta with youngster Paul Smith.
The score remained Ayr United 1 – 0 Annan Athletic as the teams left the field at half time.
Ayr attempted to gain momentum early in the 2nd half and with 5 mins gone break a handball by Aidan Smith gave United a free kick in front of goal and just 2 yards out of the box. Trying to emulate his perfect strike in the pre-season match against Partick, set piece specialist Chalmers stepped up but this time curled the ball over the bar.
Aaron Splaine was now dictating Annan’s forward movement, collecting the ball deep and then moving forward before spraying long passes, to pick out his wide men. Flanagan was relishing this service, his close control and tricky feet causing difficulties for the United defence.
One such pass saw Flanagan get in behind Hewitt and charge into the penalty box only for Sam Roscoe to make up ground and slide in with a critical challenge to block the winger’s effort send the ball out for a corner.
Alloa played the corner short allowing Flanagan to again make his way to the line where he clipped a looping ball into the middle, the ball being missed by everyone and going out to the left. Annan’s Iain Anderson will have nightmares about how he managed to fail to connect with the ball. Docherty then chipped to the front post where Muirhead did well stop Aidan Smith from getting a clean head to the ball.
Possession then swung back to Ayr. Moffat received the ball from McCowan, wide at the halfway line, and held the ball until the on rushing McCowan passed him on the overlap. Moffat slipped the ball into the path of McCowan who went to the line before lifting the ball into the middle where it was headed away by Cameron Cark to the edge of the box. In came Paul Smith who controlled well with his first touch before moving into the box and letting fly with a stinging shot. It looked a nailed-on goal, but keeper Mitchell pulled out a first class save from his pocket to deny the youngster.
With 60 mins gone the Galabankies again tried to turn the pressure back on Ayr but United had other plans. Docherty lifted a freekick into the Ayr penalty box from the left but the commanding Sinisalo rose high to collect before spotting the forward run of McCowan. The keeper launched the ball high up the field and into the path of McCowan who ‘bombed’ forward with Smith making ground in the centre. McCowan drew left back Cameron Clark to the right of the box before cutting the ball back to Smith on the penalty spot. Smith’s first time left footed shot was denied by yet another excellent save from the keeper.
Play was then held up as, from the corner, Jack Baird collided with the keeper before falling into the back of the net and in doing so broke the back, net support. Queue groundsman Jason Waddell and goalkeeping coach Derek Stillie who MacGyvered a solution and play resumed.
This had given Annan some breathing space and they used the time to regroup and prepare to push forward again. As the attacked a ball from the right found substitute Max Wright who directed the ball towards goal but as he attempted to block, Jack Baird rolled onto the ball resulting in loud claims for a penalty from Annan which were waved away by the referee.
Next Aidan Smith managed to wriggle free and forced the first proper save from Sinisalo with an dinked shot from close range with Cammy Clark driving the rebound across goal, but with no one to finish it and no reward.
For Ayr, McCowan and Paul Smith were catching the eye with their speedy interchanges creating attacking opportunities McKenzie, Moffat and McCowan himself all having attempt built from such movement.
On 80 mins Ayr went close again. McCowan cut in from the right before finding Chalmers who played the ball wide to Smith who turned the ball wide to Hewitt who lifted the ball deep into the box. Jordan Houston returning to first team action, a 55 min substitute for Andy Murdoch, made solid contact but his header went straight into the arms of keeper Mitchell.
United had another chance moments later. McCowan was brought down by substitute Harry Emerson 2 yards outside the box. This time Muirhead took responsibility and blasted the free kick towards the bottom right corner, however keeper Mitchell again pulled off a fine diving save to deny United their second of the evening.
The last 10 mins saw possession changing back and forth, but Ayr were confidently managing the situation as time ran out for Annan.
Final score Ayr United 1 – 0 Alloa Athletic.
All Images are © David Sargent, Alan Graham and Ayr United FC and may not be used without permission