Cove Rangers and Airdrieonians delivered a fraught and frantic Championship play-off opener which finished in a pulsating 1-1 draw.
As was t0 be expected given their respective league positions, neither side could pull away from each other, with a Ross Graham own-goal cancelled out by Leighton McIntosh’s leveller.
The three games between the sides in League One were split evenly between a win apiece and a draw, with the duel to get a fitting finale at the Penny Cars Stadium in three days’ time.
Blend of youth and experience
Cove’s back four was a combination of two players who had been regulars in their rise up the leagues, with two others looking to make strides into the professional game.
Ryan Strachan and Scott Ross are sure-fire picks when fit but Paul Hartley had choices to make with the other two positions.
He opted for Ross Graham and Kieran Ngwenya – on loan from Dundee United and Aberdeen respectively – at centre-back and left-back and both justified their selections.
Graham is accomplished at bringing the ball out from defence and has a strong left foot, but is also adept at the physical side of the game. He had to deal with Calum Gallagher, who scored the first goal in the meeting last week, and was quick to snuff out any opportunities for the striker.
Ngwenya was hesitant to get forward at times, in support of Leighton McIntosh down the left, but stuck to his defensive tasks well.
No shortage of intensity
Last week’s encounter came at the end of a gruelling run for Cove, playing four games in seven days, with Hartley admitting his side were low on energy.
But after a week’s respite and a couple of training sessions under their belt, Cove were more like their old selves.
Rory McAllister was relishing his physical battles with the Airdrie defenders and the ball was moved at a frantic pace through the thirds.
The link-up play between McAllister and leading scorer Mitch Megginson was evident and led to Cove’s best opportunity of the first period.
Megginson exchanged passes with the former Peterhead hitman and cut the ball back across the six-yard box, however there were no takers.
Airdrie weathered sustained periods without the ball but were industrious, with Gallagher prodding their best chance wide from a set-piece.
Stroke of fortune
Airdrieonians had struggled to work Stuart McKenzie in the first period but were tidy enough in their build-up play.
Positive work by Paul Paton helped break the deadlock 10 minutes into the second half. He nipped in to seize possession and drove forward before releasing Gallagher.
The forward appeared to be shaping a cross towards the back post but hit it with pace. It came off Graham and looped up into the air, wrong-footing McKenzie and handing the visitors the lead.
It was harsh on Cove who had greater control of the game but they had a taste of good fortune themselves, with Dale Carrick somehow turning wide when a ricochet broke to him in the six-yard box.
Cove were not going to let that count for nothing.
Right place, right time
Just after taking a clattering from Diamonds midfielder Paul Paton, Megginson played an instrumental role in their equaliser.
After holding off one challenge to make space for himself on the right, Megginson drove in-field and drilled the ball low into the six-yard box.
It came off a crowd of bodies and fell gratefully at the feet of McIntosh, who arrived at the right time to hammer the ball in from close range.
The goal lifted Cove, with McAllister almost catching out Max Currie with a well-hit shot from 25 yards which the goalkeeper parried away.
McAllister rattled the post in the closing stages and although Cove pressed while they were in the ascendancy, the game remains finely in the balance for Tuesday night.