Rudden rocks contenders
IT was billed as a golden opportunity for Ayr United to hit the top of the Championship, but instead, it was Falkirk hauling themselves off the bottom of the division that was the story of a potentially pivotal afternoon at Somerset Park at both ends of the table.
Unsurprisingly it was Zak Rudden, so often the ray of light in a dark season for the Bairns, who got the crucial goal. The on-loan Rangers kid now has eight for the campaign, and the fact that Falkirk had their main man up front while Ayr did not, made a telling difference.
Ian McCall’s men went into the match buoyed by Ross County’s defeat at Morton the previous evening, but that was tempered by the fact they were without Lawrence Shankland through a minor calf injury.
Referee John Beaton might have expected a quieter afternoon here than he had in the Old Firm, and he shrugged off the controversies of the past week to sail through this encounter with the minimum of fuss despite some hopeful howls for penalties from the home end late on.
Falkirk were barely recognisable, with five of manager Ray McKinnon’s seven January signings lining up in the starting XI.
“We took a gamble today,” said McKinnon. “We had five players coming into the team really lacking in match fitness as none of them have really played, apart from Ian McShane in parts.
“You could tell in the second half the fitness levels had dropped considerably. But we’re delighted with that result as we had to do something different to what we’d been doing earlier in the season.”
Thankfully for their supporters, the early signs were their performance would bear little resemblance to most of those they have suffered through to date, as they more than held their own in the opening exchanges. Indeed, they almost had the lead as new arrival from Motherwell, Ross MacLean, got a stinging shot away from long range that Ross Doohan rose to save.
Ayr were struggling to find their rhythm, but they did fashion a decent chance as their front pairing combined for the first time, Moffat hooking the ball to the back post where Moore drew a save from David Mitchell from a tight angle.
Ayr thought they had the lead as Moffat cut inside and crashed a low shot off the post only for Moore to follow in and tap home the rebound, but the assistant’s flag cut short the celebrations.
McShane, who had been impressing in the heart of midfield on his debut, curled a corner kick off the the bar at the other end, but Falkirk would have been happy with their work for the opening 45 minutes.
Ayr tried to up the tempo at the start of the second period, but it was Falkirk who got the lead they just about deserved with a helping hand from home keeper Doohan.
The ball was worked across the edge of the area from left to right to MacLean, who hit a dipping shot. Doohan really should have held on to the ball. Instead, it spilled loose, and there was Rudden arriving on cue to bundle home.
Ayr struggled to create opportunities, and Falkirk’s relentless harrying and pressing was starting to take its toll. MacLean had to be withdrawn after suffering cramp with 20 minutes to go, and Joe McKee was on the turf soon after receiving treatment for the same problem.
How Ayr did not level late on, not even they will know. Moffat curled a shot in on goal from the edge of the area that Mitchell made a meal of, palming straight to Steven Bell. Incredibly, from three yards out, the Ayr skipper missed his kick and the ball bounced loose inside the sixyard box. From there an incredible stramash ensued, with Ayr passing up at least two more glorious opportunities before goalkeeper Mitchell finally slide-tackled Moffat to clear.
Ayr manager McCall was left so scunnered that he did not feel like talking, so it was up to assistant Neil Scally to assess the defeat that ended their unbeaten home record.
“Falkirk set up to frustrate us and worked hard as a unit,” Scally said.
“They’ve brought in a few new faces which seemed to give them a lift but they didn’t really trouble us in our half and we had a few opportunities.”
Ayr captain Steven Bell is left devastated at full time as the Honest Men pass up their chance to go top