SFL1 Play-Off Review 2013/14 (aka ‘We Are Going Up!’)

8-DSC_0213Up until a few weeks ago it hadn’t been a particularly memorable season for Stirling Albion; in fact it hadn’t been memorable at all. A promising start fizzled away as we found ourselves several points and places distant from the one automatic promotion spot. However, in the Scottish Football League there is of course the season saving entity that is the “Play-Offs”. For those who aren’t aware what these beasts are, well simply put, they give teams who haven’t automatically earned promotion, or relegation, the chance for redemption. Even this way out of the murky waters of SFL2 appeared unlikely at one point, until a barnstorming end to the campaign saw us rack up the wins needed to secure third place and a date with Annan Athletic.

As an aside, the play-offs are funny things. If you’re not in them then it’s because your season is over, and as such you’ve likely switched off from football. I know myself that when this happens the play-offs pass by almost unnoticed. Yet, if you’re in them then they are undoubtedly the most intense games of the season. To come out on top you play four games in twelve days: a two legged semi-final followed by a two legged final. As the third placed team our opponents were the second place team, the aforementioned Annan Athletic. The highest placed team gets the second leg at home which meant our play-off run started on Wednesday 7th May at home to the Galabankies. A fast start saw Stirling 3-0 up in half an hour. Despite cooling off after the break we still managed to record a 3-1 win on the night. Three days later a big Stirling support made the 100 mile trip to the border town of Annan for the decisive second leg – they weren’t to be disappointed. Another quick start had the Beanos two up, and 5-1 on aggregate after only a few minutes. The home side rallied briefly before the visitors cruised to a 5-3 win on the day and a whopping 8-4 over the two legs.

1-DSC_0203In the final, Stirling would take on East Fife. The side from Methil in Fife were fancied by many to challenge for promotion in 2013/14. Those predictions were left looking rather silly as a theoretically strong Fifer’s side simply failed to add up to the sum of its parts. In their semi-final it required a marathon penalty shoot-out to overcome Clyde. Indeed Clyde blew a chance to win when Michael Daly saw his penalty saved. It was therefore Gary Naysmith’s East Fife outfit who would be our opponents. Stirling manager Greig McDonald had eight years as a player with the Fifers, but there is no doubt where his loyalties now lie. Therefore it came down to thisĀ – one tie, two legs in five days. The prize for East Fife, to stay in SFL1; the prize for Stirling Albion, to get promoted to, and replaced East Fife in SFL1.

The first leg of the final took place on Wednesday 14th May at an expectant Forthbank Stadium, the home of Stirling Albion. A big home crowd, and a decent away turn out, witnessed a fairly nervous encounter. Stirling took the lead before the break when veteran skipper Ross Forsyth looped a header into the net. Sadly though, Stirling failed to build on the momentum of this goal and it was the visitors who looked more of a threat after the break. Substitute Scott McBride bulleted a leveller following a corner, before in the last minute another sub, Nathan Austin, stunned the Stirling fans with a second. There was still time for the Beanos to hit a post and miss a sitter, but as the final whistle blew it was Gary Naysmith’s men who had earned the spoils with a 2-1 win. Stirling therefore had it all to do with the second leg to be played at East Fife’s New Bayview Stadium five days later.

4-DSC_0208Despite being a goal down, some 700 Stirling Albion fans travelled to Fife still optimistic about their favourite’s chances. Win the game after 90 minutes and the worst we could have would be extra-time. However, if we were two goals or more clear at the end of regulation we would of course be the play-off winners. On a pleasantly warm afternoon the agenda seemed set fair from the start. East Fife were looking to negate Stirling, lock-down midfield and to keep our potential match winners as far as possible from their goal. To be fair in the first half they did a good job of it. The second period was another tight affair. With only 16 minutes left on the clock a goalless draw seemed set to end our season on a low note. However, then step forward our little and large goal heroes. Firstly, top scorer Jordan White got on the end of a knock-down to loft the ball past the East Fife keeper. It was then the turn of his pint-sized strike partner to take centre stage. With almost nothing on, Sandy Cunningham lashed an outrageous half-volley past the spectator that was the East Fife custodian. It’s unlikely the home keeper even saw the ball as it ripped past him into the net. To say Stirling fans went a bit potty would be an understatement.

There was still ten minutes or so to go, but other than one near post save from Beanos goalie David Crawford, the host’s goose was cooked. It was therefore with relative calm that Stirling made their way to the final whistle, and promotion. Well done to the players, coaching staff, Executive and fans of Stirling Albion for making such days possible. See you all again next season in SFL1.

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