Berwick Rangers continued their excellent away record with a deserved point at Galabank against play-off chasing Annan Athletic on Saturday, despite a controversial performance from ref Colin Steven, who made one of the worst penalty decisions in living memory, denied Rangers a stonewaller and compounded his afternooon’s work by dismissing defensive rock Chris Townsley for a questionable foul with forty minutes remaining. Like the other 430 people in attendance, including a healthy 60-strong away support, I didn’t pay my hard-earned tenner to see the referee take centre stage, but that’s what happened and it spoiled what should have been an engrossing encounter. It also generated a torrent of industrial language from an irate away end, but the ref’s influence was most apparent in the sheer frustration vented by just about every Rangers player on the park, bewildered by his approach to managing something as simple as a game of football.
Rangers starting eleven showed one change from the canter against Clyde, Michael Deland missing out following a knock sustained in the final stages of last week’s victory, which meant that the returning Jordon Foster took over at right back with Connor McGlinchey moving across to left back. Andy McLean retained his place at centre back alongside Townsley after impressing against Clyde. The home side still had ambitions to hit the play-off places but manager Harry Cairney has been under fire recently following an inconsistent run, so it was surprising to find two of Annan’s more influential players, Sean O’Connor and Bryan Gilfillan on the bench.
You can normally get a feel for a game from the quality and pattern of play during the opening minutes. The fact that there were 22 players on the park who could’nt trap a badger did’nt augur well, and it took until the 17th minute for any incident of note to spark proceedings into life. As it turned out, it was a crucial one. Rangers forced a corner and Chris Townsley won a back post header which he directed back across goal, The ball was handled by John McBeth for a clear penalty but ref Steven waved play on. Five minutes later, after the game had relapsed into complete mediocrity, Annan won a corner, which Rangers defended securely, Foster clearing the ball with a textbook defensive header. Bear in mind that at this point, not one Annan player, nor a single supporter, was claiming that something untoward had happened. As the ball was cleared downfield, ref Steven stampeded towards the penalty area, gesticulating at the spot. He was surrounded by every Rangers player, absolutely mystified by the award. Townsley was booked for dissent during the mayhem, before Muirhead stifled his laughter long enough to dispatch the penalty beyond Benjouai. In a half absolutely bereft of other incident, it was Rangers who came closest through legitimate means, Townsley’s goalbound header cleared from the line by Jack Steele 3 minutes from the break.
It had to get better in the second period, and to Rangers’ credit, it was they who bumped up the quality with their trademark neat passing and hard graft characteristic of the Little and Horn era, though not before they almost suffered again at the hands of ref Steven, who wrongly penalised McLean’s clean tackle on the edge of the box. Watson sent the resulting free kick high, wide and not very handsome. Annan stirred into some kind of life after an absymal first half, and Jardine broke down Rangers’ right to fire in a dangerous cross that Sloan nodded wide. Following that miss, it was time for the Colin Steven show to resume. With 50 minutes gone, Townsley slid in to tackle Watson. First of all, it was 50/50 whether it was a foul at all, and there was some conjecture as to whether Watson was a footballer or a botanist, given the amount of time he’d spent on his backside examining the grass, but that was of no concern to the referee, who could hardly contain himself in whipping out a second yellow followed by the inevitable red to send Townsley packing. The hitherto quiet Danny Handling made an excellent 53rd minute break as Rangers refused to be cowed by being reduced to ten men, but he scuffed his shot after turning McBeth inside out, By now it looked as if it was the home side, and not Rangers, who had been reduced in numbers as the Gers stepped up the pressure, Sloan heading Lee Currie’s driven corner narrowly over his own bar in the 64th minute.
Rangers got the equaliser they deserved 6 minutes later. McGowan fouled Damon Gray on the edge of the penalty area, and Kevin McDonald’s well struck free kick was brilliantly kept out at full stretch by home keeper Alex Mitchell, but the ball was only partially cleared to Jordon Foster and the teenager lashed his shot beyond Mitchell from 8 yards. Annan looked spent and it was Rangers who went closest to claiming all three points, McGlinchey clattering a vicious 25 yard shot off the bar from McDonald’s cut back with Mitchell well beaten six minutes from time. Rangers should be happy with their point and what is evident is that the new management team have quickly built a good team spirit after exiling those characters who failed to buy into their ethos. In a match that saw three other Rangers players booked for a variety of imaginary offences, it’s worth making the point that Youssef Benjouai didn’t have to make a single save in the Rangers goal. True, he had to catch a couple of corners and clear a passback or two, but he is being so well protected that he could pull on the smoking jacket, knock up a martini and kick back for the best part of ninety minutes.
Kevin McDonald deserves an honourable mention for his best performance in weeks, and he looked the most accomplished midfielder on the park on Saturday, Danny Handling was uncharacteristically quiet but he looked a touch leggy, and he needs a more dynamic presence alongside him that the disappointing John Ferguson. Rangers entertain worthy champions Alloa next week at Shielfield, and that encounter gives them the dual opportunity to become the only side not to lose to Alloa this season, but also to measure their progress against the very best.
Benjouai 6; Forster 7; Townsley 7; McLean 6; McGlinchey 7; McDonald 8; Currie 6; Notman 6; R Gray 6; Handling 5; Ferguson 3
Crowd – 430