Ayr United 3 Queen’s Park 2

At the start of today’s game, Ayr United and Queen’s were separated by the entire League 1 table … and 24 points. The home side were also looking for their eighth win on the bounce, while the Spiders have won just three league games all season. It should have been a home banker – and in the end, the home side won, but the bald 3-2 scoreline doesn’t begin to tell the story.

Gus MacPherson’s men provided a performance packed with promise, yet came away empty-handed. Whoever first said that football was a cruel game wasn’t far off the mark.

As if the task of facing the league leaders on their own patch wasn’t enough, Gus also had to deal with the loss of last week’s two-goal hero Luke Donnelly through injury, while suspension ruled out Gregor Fotheringham in midfield. So Queen’s lined up with Michael White in goals and a back four of Sean Burns, Lewis Magee, Jack Iredale and Ciaran Summers. Anton Brady replaced Gregor Fotheringham alongside Conor McVey as the sitting players, while Dominic Docherty, Robbie Leitch and David Galt were deployed behind lone striker Willie Mortimer.

There was a spring in the step of the away supporters after last week’s morale boosting victory, but they knew they were in for a testing afternoon. Our first examination came with just a couple of minutes on the clock when White had to move smartly off his line to gather a passback that was just a tad on the short side.

Queen’s settled after that and began to enjoy some possession, winning the game’s first corner in the fourth minute through the persistence of Mortimer. The delivery failed to trouble the home defence, but as a statement of intent from the young striker, it was encouraging.

On the subject of strikers, this was the third week in succession that Queen’s had faced a Hampden old boy. Dario Zanatta came off the bench at Raith Rovers to unlock our defence, and then Chris Duggan opened the scoring for East Fife at Hampden last Saturday. Today it was Lawrence Shankland we had to silence, and he showed that would be no easy task in the sixth minute when he nudged young Magee off the ball to set up a chance for Moffat. Fortunately, White got his angles spot on and saved well with his feet.

The Spiders laid down their marker in response, with Galt showing he was in the mood by skinning Gilmour before forcing keeper Hart to get down well to cut out the cross. Encouraged by that break, Queen’s tried to apply some pressure, moving the ball neatly and with confidence. The only thing missing was the end product as a succession of free kicks and corners found only the gloves of Hart.

Ayr might not have had as much of the ball as the visitors, but the interplay of Moffat, Moore and Shankland meant they were a threat every time they moved forward. However, as the first quarter of the match came and went, an entertaining game remained goalless.

That changed in the 24th minute. Shankland managed to get goalside of the Queen’s defence, and as he headed for the byline, he cut across Magee who brought him down for a penalty which was easily converted by Moore.

That was a sickener, but one thing that has been particularly refreshing in recent weeks has been the refusal of this Spiders side to lie down when things have gone against them. Once more they rolled the sleeves up and set about trying to find an equaliser.

With Mortimer covering every blade of grass as he harried the home defence and Galt looking as if he could beat his man for fun Queen’s took the game to their more fancied hosts. Just after the half hour, Docherty won a corner and Galt’s delivery was a peach. Mortimer got ahead of his marker at the near post, but just failed to keep the header down.

The home side almost took full advantage of that escape by countering quickly, but Summers tracked back well to snuff out the danger.

Referee Ross hadn’t endeared himself to the visiting support so far, allowing the impressive Shankland to get away with more than the occasional nudge on his defender. And with 36 minutes on the clock, the whistler enraged the travelling support by yellow carding Mortimer after an aerial challenge with Hart. It looked to these eyes as if the striker and the keeper both went for the ball in the box. If anything, it seemed to be Mortimer who got there first. However, Ross saw it differently, taking the goalkeepers’ protection society to a new level by firstly awarding a foul – and then booking Mortimer.

The game had been bubbling along nicely up to this point, but the incident saw the action stepped up a gear. First McGuffie sent in a shot from the left that went all the way across the QP goal and thankfully found no takers to touch it home. Then the Spiders produced the perfect response to their growing sense of injustice by finding a deserved equaliser.

Another corner from the right was swung in by Galt and there was the diminutive figure of McVey leaping above everybody at the near post to send a header beyond Hart and into the net. The stats show it was Conor’s 50th league start for the Spiders … and his first league goal – no wonder he celebrated in fine style.

The Hoops support also celebrated, and were still celebrating when the half-time whistle blew three minutes later with the score:

Ayr United 1 Queen’s Park 1

The momentum had certainly been with Queen’s at the end of the first period, and that continued after the break. Two minutes after the restart, Brady and Burns worked well to give Galt another chance to hit the byline and dink over a cross. The dink was dunked a shade too hard, and the home defence cleared.

Ayr were on the back foot however and after 49 minutes, Queen’s took the lead. It’s fair to say that Lady Luck hasn’t smiled on us too often this season, but she had a huge grin on her face as Docherty drove a vicious ball in from the right and Reid smacked it into his own net as he desperately tried to clear.

It was no more than the Spiders deserved, but it certainly stung the Honest Men. Reid and McGuffie were hooked to be replaced by Forrest and Boyle. And  for a few minutes Ayr laid siege to our goal. Moore saw one effort blocked before first Iredale and then McVey had to concede corners which were both cleared.

As Queen’s tried to get back into their stride, they won a corner of their own … and almost conceded an equaliser within seconds. The QP flag kick was knocked out of the box, and a couple of swift passes saw Moffat clear on the right. Thankfully, he couldn’t hit the target and we breathed again.

Ayr made another change after 64 minutes, replacing Moore with McDaid, as they sought to keep their marvellous unbeaten run going. The change almost made an immediate impact as the sub swung in a cross that was headed inches wide by Shankland.

Queen’s were finding it hard to threaten the home goal although we came agonisingly close to establishing a wee cushion when Galt got clear once more and cut the ball back into the danger area. But Lady Luck wiped the grin off her face as first Mortimer and then Docherty were denied as they tried to apply the finishing touch from close range.

Brady became the second player booked when he upended McDaid with one of those “I got there as quick as I could” challenges.

Most of the attacking play was now coming from the home side and Adams went close with a header before White got down low to keep out Moffat.

The Spiders still looked capable on the break and Gilmour was booked for taking out McVey as the wee man led one counter.

Queen’s had their own shout for a penalty after winning a foul right on the edge of the box. As the ball was swung in, Mortimer was sent to the ground – but there was little surprise when Ross waved away the claims.

Gus made his first change with 12 minutes to go, replacing the effervescent Mortimer with Thomas Orr. You could almost hear the sighs of relief from the Ayr central defenders who hadn’t enjoyed a moment’s peace all afternoon.

Before the QP sub had even touched the ball, however, the home side were on terms. A lightning attack saw Shankland play in McDaid and the sub calmly slotted past White.

Gus brought on Chris Duff for Docherty and the sub came close to glory with his first touch, sending a Galt cross inches wide of keeper Hart’s near post.

McVey then tried to double his career league goal tally in one afternoon, but his shot from outside the box lacked the direction to trouble Hart. Conor rounded off an eventful afternoon when he was booked for a foul in the dying minutes.

It looked as if Queen’s could grab an unexpected point from the afternoon, but Ayr aren’t top of the league for nothing and they wanted the win bonus. Despite the pressure, Queen’s held firm – until the last 90 seconds. Again Shankland was pivotal, this time releasing Forrest and he kept his cool to fire home what proved to be the winner.

If the first Ayr goal had been a sickener, this one was a real gut wrencher. The Spiders had put 110% into the game – and the official match stats actually show we had more of the ball than our illustrious opponents.

However, there’s only one stat that matters, and this one showed the final score of Ayr United 3, Queen’s Park 2.

It was a cruel result, but when the dust settles, there are plenty positives. The way we knocked the ball about was a delight at times, and after the comparative drought of November, we did create chances – and scored two goals for the second week in a row. Perhaps even more encouraging was the determination and character shown by the entire squad as they fought right to the end.

We’re still very much at the wrong end of the league, but if the players keep performing as they have in the last few weeks, then there is hope we can start to climb the table soon.

Keep the Faith!