Berwick Rangers’ defensive unit produced its best performance of the season to help the Gers to a hard-earned point against a highly fancied Alloa outfit at Recreation Park on Saturday. Former Scotland international Paul Hartley’s Wasps have been reinforced with some genuine top level experience in the shape of ex-Aberdeen stalwart Darren Young and the evergreen Robbie Winters, so it was testament to Rangers’ resilience that they emerged from the contest on level terms, especially with potty-mouthed striker Darren Gribben suspended and after losing the in-form Fraser McLaren to a suspected broken toe with a mere 17 minutes on the clock.
Jimmy Crease’s squad is starting to have its traditionally threadbare autumn look to it, and the manager was once again forced to shuffle a limited pack after Ian Little lost his battle for fitness, which meant a shift on the left side of midfield for David Greenhill, while Stuart Noble was given a rare start against his former team alongside Damon Gray, whose own fitness had been in doubt in the build up to the game. Townsley was also missing due to injury, and with Michael Deland appearing more and more like a figment of the imagination, Rangers’ bench featured rare sightings of Richard Walker and reserve striker Darren Lavery, whose East of Scotland league form justified his inclusion.
After a tentative beginning from both sides on Alloa’s 3G plastic, Rangers found themselves a goal behind with only 7 minutes on the clock. Winters timed his run to make a fool out of a badly co-ordinated offside trap, crossing low for Graham Holmes to bundle home from close range. Going behind seemed to induce a collective hysteria in Rangers’ ranks, and they found themselves on the rack for the next 10 minutes. A minute after his side took the lead, the impressive Ryan McCord slid a low shot inches wide of Barclay’s post before Harding bulleted a header over with eleven minutes gone. Two minutes after that, Barclay brilliantly fingertipped Young’s rising shot over his bar to keep his side in the game.At this stage in proceedings, the away support was praying for the intervention of the thick fog that had caused the game to be abandoned on their previous visit to the Recs, but just when it seemed that the home side was about to run away with it, the Gers conjured up an equaliser. Rangers attacked down the left and Andy McLean snuck in at the back post only for his initial shot to be blocked, but he showed presence of mind to head the ball across goal for skipper McLeod to nod home from close range. McLaren departed a minute later and was replaced by Darren Smith. Rangers had staged an impressive recovery from the home onslaught and almost stole the lead in the 19th minute, Noble’s point blank header from Gray’s driven cross scraping the outside of McDowell’s post. With half an hour gone, another former Wasp in the Gers line up, Kevin McDonald, should have done better than clip a 20 yard volley wide from a good position. Seven minutes from the interval Gray cracked in a powerful snap-shot which McDowell did well to turn around his post, but Rangers had a lucky escape a minute from the break when McCord battered a header off Barclay’s bar when it looked easier to score.
Despite playing down the slope towards the Railway End in the second half, Rangers struggled to create any real threat as the home midfield dominated possession, and it was significant that the best performances in black and gold came from the excellent Jamie Barclay and his hard-grafting back four. McDonald did fire in a promising free kick in the 52nd minute but neither Gray nor Noble were sharp enough to take advantage. Barclay tipped a dangerous Cawley cross over in the 57th minute as the Wasps turned up the heat, before Greenhill and Winters were booked in quick succession for what the pundits call simulation but which were in fact ludicrous dives in an attempt to con the referee into awarding penalties. The man in black, Don Robertson, got it right on both occasions though he neglected to book Young for an oscar nominated dive later in the game. Stephen Thompson produced one of the tackles of the season to deny Cawley in the 72nd minute after a laborious Rangers attack was broken up and Alloa broke with two home players homing in on Barclay and the Gers cover trailing some distance behind. Barclay produced his best save three minutes later, somehow managing to tip Harding’s 8 yard effort over the bar, before Lavery was introduced for the toiling Gray. Rangers managed to hold out without further alarm for a hard-fought point.
Alloa were the better side by some distance on Saturday, and their midfield in particular played some lovely stuff. Rangers cannot hope to get to that level until they solve the long standing problem of a lack of width. They’ve had long enough to deal with it, and you have to feel sorry for Greenhill who is regularly asked to play out of position to fix a problem not of his making.
Saturday’s game saw Rangers complete the first quarter of their league campaign, leaving them in 7th position. After finishing in 5th place in 2009/10 and 6th in 2010/11, that trajectory is not what supporters were hoping for. On the evidence so far, Rangers are still behind Annan, Alloa, Elgin and Stranraer in terms of quality, a situation not helped by a lack of strength off the bench when injuries and suspensions kick in. There are 27 games to go which is ample time for things to change, but Rangers need to develop greater consistency and an improved level of performance if they are to claim a place in the top four.
Barclay 8; Notman 7; McLean 7; McLeod 7; Thompson 7; McLaren 5 (D Smith 4); McDonald 4; Currie 5; Greenhill 6 (E Smith 5) ; Noble 4 (Lavery 5); Gray 5
Crowd – 442