Preview: First Division Play-Offs

The lottery of the play-offs they call it and, after 36 games, the fate of one First Division and three Second Division sides now lies on two - or four - games.  For Ayr United, in this end-of-season contest for the third time in four years, the prize is First Division survival. For Arbroath, Dumbarton and Airdrie United its promotion alongside Cowdenbeath to Scotland's second tier.
Play-Off Champions: One year one United are looking for same again.
The bookies make Ayr United favourites but the 9th placed First Division side has not faired well in the play-offs, retaining their status just once in six years. Here is a run-down on the form, key men and play-off records of the contenders:

Ayr United
Season so far: Ayr United have upset the established order this season by finishing above full-time Queen of the South to give themselves the opportunity to make it successive seasons in the First Division for the first time since 2003. Coupled with three SPL scalps en-route to the League Cup semi-final and a Scottish Cup quarter-final, survival would represent a huge achievement for Brian Reid’s side but how will the favourites tag sit?

Form: United finished the season, as is becoming customary, with a number of defeats. Seven in nine games to be precise but wins away to Livingston and at home to Dundee were enough avoid an automatic return to the First Division with a game to spare, having done enough between January and the start of March to open up an advantage over Queen of the South.

Stats: Quite simply United have shipped too many goals this season. Despite eight clean sheets, more than Queen of the South, Hamilton and twice as many as Raith Rovers, 67 goals have been conceded,  3 or more goals on 12 occasions. Injuries (and suspensions) haven't helped and Brian Reid has been forced into using six different centre-back partnerships. Going into the play-offs, John Robertson and Martyn Campbell are injury doubts and, worryingly, Chris Smith has made two or three costly and uncharacteristic errors. 

In their favour, time-after-time, Brian Reid's man have shown tremendous character and a never-say-die attitude: Ayr have clawed back an impressive 17 points from a losing position this season.

Key Men: Former St. Johnstone and Blackpool striker Keigan Parker hasn't set the heather on fire since his return north but two goals of exquisite quality versus Dundee last weekend signalled that the now 29 year-old striker could play a big part in United’s survival hopes. Parker has play-off pedigree – in 2007 he scored Blackpool's second goal in their 2-0 win against Yeovil Town in the League One play-off final at Wembley. 
Keigan Parker: time to shine?
Alongside Parker, ‘keeper Kevin Cuthbert has picked up most of the Player of the Year awards this season and has made very few mistakes and many more terrific saves between the sticks, while the goals of Mark Roberts and Michael Moffat were instrumental in Ayr's success last season. Moffat warmed up with two goals against Falkirk on the final day of the season.

Play-off record: P8, W5, D3, L0, F19, A11 - The Honest Men haven't lost a game in the play-offs, earning promotion to the First Division in 2009 and 2011. Ayr have won all four of their away ties, including decisive second-leg games at Airdrie and Brechin.

Odds: 15/8

Season so far: Airdrie clinched fourth position and the final play-off spot on the last day of the season with their first goalless draw of the season at Champions Cowdenbeath while Stenhousemuir, with whom they were level on points going into game, crashed 2-1 at home to Forfar.  It was only in April that the Diamonds climbed into the top four as they finished strongly as others faltered.

Form: So often its the form side that is the the most dangerous going into the play-offs and that accolade is undoubtedly Airdrie United's. The Diamonds have lost just one game since 25th February, a run of 11 games that has earned 24 points.

Stats: One statistics stands out for Airdrie and its their disciplinary record. Jimmy Boyle's men have picked up 12 red and 77 yellow cards this season, the worst record in Scotland.  Ayr United travel to Lanarkshire on Wednesday night in the first-leg of the semi-final and will do well to prevent the hosts scoring.  Airdrie have found the net 43 times in 18 home games this season and have only failed to score at New Broomfield once.

Key Men: The Airdrie squad has a good mix of youth and experience. David Lilley and Paul Lovering - injuries permitting - will marshal the defence while big Derek Holmes will be a handful up-front but Airdrie's biggest danger man is likely to be Holmes strike partner, Ryan Donnelly. The highly rated 20 year-old is the Second Division's top goalscorer with 27 goals (non of which have come from the penalty spot).  Donnelly is described by preeminent SFL blogger Craig Telfer in an article for the two unfortunates blog as "a deft and instinctive finisher, [who] displays intelligent positioning and movement in and around the penalty area." and "strong on both feet and a potent threat in the air".  Donnelly has been less prolific since the turn of the year, with three goals in his last 12 appearances compared to 13 goals in the 12 games previous.
Ryan Donnelly: can he recapture his early season goalscoring form?
Play-off record: P14 W5 D3 L6 F22 A18 - Airdrie have a disastrous play-off record and hold the unwanted distinction of losing three consecutive First Division play-off finals. They were relegated from the First Division via the play-offs in 2007, lost to Clyde in the final the following year but benefited from the demise of Gretna to go up. In 2009, Livingston's demotion to the third Division saved the Diamonds again after play-off final defeat to Ayr United.  Their fourth play-off appearance in 2010 finally saw them relegated to the Second Division when Brechin City defeated them at the semi-final stage. 

Odds: 10/3

Season so far: Managed by former Ayr United midfielder Paul Sheerin, Arbroath unfurled their first Championship flag in their 133-year history at Gayfield on the opening day of this season and went on to hammer fellow Second Division new boys Albion Rovers 6-2. Despite losing their next game away to Stenhousemuir, that result was typical of an impressive start to the season for the Red Lichties which reaped 18 points from their first seven games and saw them find the net 23 times. Unfortunately for Sheerin and his side, Cowdenbeath also started the season well and before the first quarter of the season was out it was the Fife side who topped the table, with Arbroath second and it was to remain that way for the rest of the season.
Arbroath fans, including a man in Speedos, celebrate promotion
Form: Arbroath's form has tailed off at the end of the season, with only three wins in their last 11 games.  A 3-2 victory at Central Park at the start of April narrowed the gap to three points with four games to play but ultimately merely delayed Cowdenbeath's title celebrations - Arbroath took just a point from their next two games as the Blue Brazil took six. The following week, Sheerin described his side's defeat at home to Stenhousemuir as "the worst performance I've been involved in since I've been at the club"

Stats: The Red Lichties have averaged over two goals per game this season, netting 76 times in 36 games, eight more than Champions Cowdenbeath. At the other end, they've conceded too many goals (51) and kept only 6 clean sheets.

Key Men: Arbroath strength is in the midfield.  At the age of 37, player-manager Paul Sheerin can still pick a pass with one of the finest left foots to grace Scotland in recent years, as can former Motherwell, Hibs and Scotland (albeit under the Vogts era...) midfielder Brain Kerr and the diminutive 21 year-old Josh Falkingham, who would surely be playing at a higher level if he was a few inches taller. In front of that trio, neither Steven Doris and Gavin Swankie are out-and-out strikers but have an incredible 72 goals between them in the last two seasons.

Play-off record: P12, W3, D4, L5, F13, A13 - The Angus side have enjoyed both success and failure in four Second Division play-off campaigns. Defeated at the semi-final stage in 2005/06 and 2006/07 it was third time lucky the following season with aggregate victories over Cowdenbeath (after extra-time) and Stranraer earning promotion in 2008.

Two years later and it was back to the Third Division football as Arbroath were relegated via the play-offs, losing out 2-0 in the final to Angus rivals Forfar at Station Park after the first leg at Gayfield ended goalless.

Odds: 5/2

Season so far: Dumbarton secured their highest finish in the league since 2004 – and a play-off spot – in their penultimate game of the regular season and will be looking to reach the second tier of Scottish football for the first time since 1996. The Sons can look towards a ten-game unbeaten run comprising 8 wins and 2 draws at the turn of the year which helped establish the side’s play-off credentials after what is fast becoming a trademark slow start to the season. The Sons ended the first round of nine fixtures in seventh position and were shipping an average of 2.55 goals per game but, despite a dismal March which brought only four points from 6 games (and saw 14 goals conceded), Dumbarton looked comfortable in third spot since mid-February.  

Form: Ended the season with three wins to finish six points clear of fourth placed Airdrie United.

Stats: Not only have Dumbarton been slow starters over the course of the season, Adamson's men have generally been slow starters in matches. Their first-half record is ranked 8th in the Second Division - they have been leading after 45 minutes on just eight occasions meaning they have required some pretty big second periods to earn their seventeen league wins.

Key Men: Former Ayr United duo Bryan Prunty and Scott Agnew are Dumbarton’s top goalscorers this season with 14 and 12 goals respectively. A striker that thrives on confidence, Prunty scored 18 goals in 2008/09 and his goalscoring seems to come in bursts: seven in 10 games during Dumbarton's purple patch but only one in nine since the start of March. Agnew was more of a peripheral figure during his time at Somerset Park but regular football, at Stranraer and then Dumbarton this season, has seen the playmaker become an integral player more than capable of getting his name on the scoresheet. The Sons will be a big danger at set-pieces with his dead ball prowess.  And what about former Kilmarnock striker Craig Dargo? He scored a hat-trick on the final day of the season and would surely love to exorcise the demons of that penalty miss at the Somerset Road in 2001.
Craig Dargo. Surely not?
Play-off record: This will be Dumbarton’s first foray into the end-of-season play-offs.

Odds: 3/1

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