As I approached the first of my final five grounds today I was grateful for the improving weather. With winter coming to an end, the days are both warmer and lighter. That instantly improves the experience of watching a game of football, in my eyes at least.
I’m definitely not qualified to make a statement like this, and I’ll be kicking myself if this turns out like a Michael Fish prediction, but it seems like we’ve had the worst of it for this season.
With 23 games played and now just 13 to play in the lower leagues, this time of year, as spring approaches, has some significance in a footballing sense. The initial period of getting to know the opposition and gelling as a team has gone. The mid-season frustrations and slump will soon pass. That leaves the run in. The period where leagues are won and lost and promotions and relegations are decided.
Of course, the success or failure that will come will be in no small part down to the good work which has been done earlier in the season. However, that will be no consolation to a manager who fails to deliver results in the weeks to come. This is the period where teams show how much ‘bottle’ they have as they try to hold their nerve and keep performing.
Looking at the tables, there is a clear favourite to win each league. Perhaps, then, the drama will come in the pursuit of playoff positions and survival during this year.
My destination today was Airdrie. I planned my fixtures months ago, and it was a complete accident that today happened to be a top of the table clash with Livingston. While the sides might occupy first and second, there is a considerable gap between them.
Livingston started the day 11 points ahead of Airdrieonians, the other full-time team in the division. Livi have been impressive this season and their goal difference of +25 at the start of play reflected that. On the face of it, the away side looked like they were favourites.
Airdrieonians are a team with an interesting history. Wikipedia says that they are only 15 years old, having been formed as Airdrie United in 2002, but in reality the Airdrieonians name stretches back long before that. In 2013 they were able to reclaim their old name and they became Airdrieonians once again.
To someone only familiar with the ‘new era’ in Airdrie’s history, it is quite hard to believe that Airdrie were at one stage a regular top flight side, reaching four Scottish Cup finals and playing in Europe.
More recently, Airdrie have been a side playing somewhere between the second and third tier. They have been both full-time and part-time, and they have had a number of managers over the past few years.
They have had more ups and downs in the last 15 years than most clubs have had in a lifetime, but their return to full-time status seems to have brought about an upturn in fortunes this year.
They have managed to put together a decent squad, with the the solid, experienced Simon Mensing in defence, Ryan Conroy in midfield and Iain Russell in attack.
In Mark Wilson they have an inexperienced manager, and results have been mixed in his time in charge, with no wins in January, for example. Despite this, they have managed to maintain a challenge at the top end of the table.
The Excelsior Stadium is around a 20 minute walk from the train station in Airdrie. It is easily spotted from quite a distance due to its size.
It is a big stadium, and indeed it was the process of building it which contributed to the club’s downfall in the new millennium. It is a great shame that the SPL forced clubs to build big stadia that they would never fill, as the process sent some clubs in to financial ruin and has left others still counting the costs of chasing top flight football.
There is absolutely no reason for Airdrieonians in their current form to have a ten thousand seater stadium. It’s an impressive size, with four large stands, but it’s unnecessary. It looks dated from the outside, and it doesn’t improve much inside.
Upon entry there is a stair case and a door at the top of two flights of stairs. There is no sign posting and the stairs continue to a higher level. As a first impression, not knowing where to go in a ground isn’t ideal.
The atmosphere was great though. Perhaps because it was a bit of a top of the table clash, both ends seemed busy, and those around me were certainly up for the game.
It started fairly evenly, with both sides creating chances. After the opening exchanges it looked like it was going to be a close game and Airdrie in particular had a couple of decent chances in the first fifteen minutes.
However, it was Livingston that took the lead, with a moment of sublime brilliance. A clearance from a Diamonds defender saw the ball dropping in the direction of the onrushing Sean Crighton. The player caught the ball perfectly with a full volley and left the keeper with no chance. Nine times out of ten the ball would have gone anywhere but the back of the net, but today his technique was perfect.
Even the most mean spirited of Airdrie fans would struggle not to praise the level of skill, even if it left them trailing at half time.
In the second half Livingston showed why they are so far ahead at the top of the table with such an impressive goal difference.
Shortly after the restart the Lions doubled their lead after an unfortunate own goal for the home side.
Then they really turned on the style.
A brilliant cross field pass landed at the feet of the prolific Danny Mullen, and his first touch brilliantly took him past the onrushing Airdrie defender and in on goal. He then managed to curl the ball perfectly in to the bottom corner to make it 3-0.
It got better still for the away side when substitute Nicky Cadden headed in at the near post to top off a good day’s work for Livingston.
The day ended on a sour note with a red card for Conroy, but it came far too late to affect the game.
The home fans were undoubtedly frustrated with aspects of their side’s play. However, they may take a grain of comfort from the fact they were up against the most potent attacking side in the league.
Either way, the result keeps them in contention for a playoff spot, despite having dropped to third position.
They have a strong squad on paper, and even if they are currently on a challenging run of form, they do have the quality to make one of the playoff spots their own. Perhaps if they manage to do so the people of Airdrie will come out to fill a few more seats in the stands.
Airdrieonians 0 Livingston 4