Golden opportunity goes up in smoke

Saturday 3rd December - Irn-Bru First Division
Queen of the South 4, Ayr United 1

Bang. 97 seconds of madness and Ayr United's four game winning streak on the road came to an end on a dismal day in Dumfries, a 4-1 defeat ending any hopes of some breathing space at the foot of the table going into Yuletide.  At the start of the week United fans were speculating that three points against Partick Thistle on Wednesday followed by a win against struggling Queen of the South would see Ayr go eight points ahead of tenth place. Instead, on the back of an insipid performance against the Jags at Somerset and a second-half collapse at Palmerston the Honest Men have slumped to 9th, one point ahead of Raith Rovers who now occupy bottom spot.

Despite promising to freshen things up Brian Reid made just one change to the starting line-up with Gareth Wardlaw replacing Mark Roberts in the lone role up front.  It's the tried and tested formula away from home for United and it meant that Tam McManus would have to wait for his first start in his second spell at the club.

The first half started with a conservative approach from both sides. The sides matched up with 3 men each  in the middle of the park meaning most of the constructive play came out wide, where the contest between the veteran Allan Johnston - 38 years old later this month - and Jonathan Tiffoney perhaps the most intriguing, particularly as the youngster seemed to be struggling with an injury.

The deadlock was broken just after the half hour mark and it was against the run of play. Just prior, Ayr had fashioned a great chance as great interplay at the edge of the box saw Alan Trouten send a dangerous low ball across the face of goal but there were no takers. Then a ball half-cleared by the Ayr defence found midfielder Stephen McKenna around 35 yards out in space in the middle of the park and he took no time in sending an unstoppable shot into the top right-hand corner. While you might question why the former Airdrie man had so much space, Ayr seemed to be set-up well in defence and the strike, McKenna's second in the space of a week, has to go down as the sort of wonder goal you can do little about.

McKenna's strike left Cuthbert with no chance

Queens visibly took confidence from the goal and Ayr were sloppy in possession but the home side had conceded two equalisers at Cappielow seven days ago and did so again on the stroke of half-time. McGowan found space to strike the ball at goal and Lee Robinson could only parry the ball out to Wardlaw who rolled the ball home at the back post. Ayr would have had justification for feeling aggrieved if they had gone into the break behind and a decent argument could be made that the deserved to be in-front.

Ayr started the second-half much the stronger, dominating the early exchanges. Queens were unable to get out their own half but for all their possession United failed to create any clear cut chances. Micheal McGowan and Alan Trouten were both having another one of those all too common days, where flashes of neat and clever play ultimately end in losing possession through a poor cross or an attempt to pass one man too many.  Queens responded with a double substitution. A tiring Allan Johnston was replaced by Nicky Clark while the largely ineffective Tam Brighton made way for Kevin Smith, a thorn in Ayr during his time at Raith Rovers. Meanwhile, McManus, Roberts and co. continued to mill about in the background of the visitor's dugout.

The changes were like-for-like but had an immediate effect.  A previously composed United defence was tested for the first time in the game.  Under pressure, Tiffoney blundered on the ball in the box, sending a woefully short pass pack to Cuthbert which United's No. 1 did well to pluck from the feet of Smith.  Then the moment that was to change the game.  Eddie Malone got caught not only wrong side but also awkwardly under high ball played into the box and in the process of turning simply hacked Nicky Clark from behind. It was a clear penalty and one of the clearest red card's I've seen since Ludo Roy head butted that Forfar player at Somerset Park.  Former Ayr man Scott McLaughlin left footed the ball past Cuthbert.

It didn't have to be the killer blow but what followed effectively ended any chance Ayr had of getting back into the game.  Just 46 seconds later Ayr had lost possession from the kick-off, and with the defence at sixes and sevens, Danny Carmichael was presented with the simple task of netting after a ball from Smith found the Dumfries-born youngster in acres of space in the box.

Ayr's enforced defensive reshuffle, Geggan to right-back and Tiffoney across to left-back - along with the introduction of McManus up-front alongside Wardlaw - came too late and in truth Ayr were lucky a buoyant Queen of the South only added one more goal, another long-ranger this time from Simmons. Gareth Wardlaw was stretchered off with an ankle knock to compound the misery and the demeanour of his replacement Mark Roberts, who had declined to warm up at half time with the other subs, summed up the mood amongst the visiting support. 

Queens had benefited from a wonder strike to take the lead in the first half and made the most of a 97 second spell to forget for Eddie Malone and the United defence to win a game that, although Ayr were never ahead in, looked to be the Honest Men's for the taking around the hour mark.

So what next for Ayr? Brian Reid's men have conceded 19 goals in just seven league games on the road this season - shipping four on four separate occasions.  Changes are required, but with limited options in terms of defensive personnel the answer may lie further forward.  Playing Wardlaw along up front has proven effective in United's league cup encounters against SPL sides, when the onus is on the opposition to attack. But in the First Division Ayr are coming up against teams - home and away - where all out defence is never going to be the solution to earning three points. Geggan and McKernon provide a solid enough foundation but the four ahead of them simply isn't working.  At times, Trouten and McGowan are passengers the side can ill-afford. Their combined return rarely justifies Reid's persistence. The lone striker - Roberts or Wardlaw - is isolated while Moffat is persisting manfully in a role he clearly isn't suited.  Tam McManus adds to Reid's attacking options and not playing two up-front is becoming increasing perverse.  Whatever the approach, three points at home to Ross County looks to be a tall order before games at Livingston - only three points ahead - and Raith Rovers at home on Boxing Day, two games already shaping up to be season-defining.

The Opposition
Queens started the game like a team struggling at the bottom of the table. A lack of confidence was clear but credit to manager Gus McPherson who set up his side to match United, particularly in midfield where McLaughlin, McKenna and Simmons countered Geggan, McKernon and Trouten. They were no nonsense at the back - if in doubt put it out - and happy to play the long ball up the park to ease the pressure - effective tactics in the circumstances. 

The Doonhamers face a difficult game away to on form on Dundee on Saturday and seems unlikely they will go on a run of results that will see them move away from the relegation zone and unimaginable that they won't - along with Raith Rovers - be Ayr's main rivals in fight to avoid Second Division football next season.  Mark Campbell and Ryan McGuffie will strengthen and add experience to their defence when they return from injury, and they look solid in the middle of the park but despite a four-goal display today their goalscoring credentials are questionable. You would certainly take McManus, Wardlaw, Roberts, Moffat (supplemented by McGowan going forward) over the options available to Gus McPherson. Although  you sense the former St. Mirren manager would get more out that particular striking quartet...

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