Only a last minute wonder save by Annan keeper Mitchell prevented Ian Little’s comeback kings from leaving Galabank with all three points on Saturday, after both teams defied appalling conditions to serve up a Christmas cracker. Annan reclaimed top spot by virtue of their point, but for the 50 Gers supporters who made the journey westwards the match provided further evidence of the remarkable transformation wrought at Shielfield Park by Ian Little and Craig Valentine. Rangers look fitter than they’ve done for a long time, and they are playing with a confidence and self-belief that would, with a smidgeon of luck, have taken all six points from both Alloa and Annan in recent weeks after storming fightbacks that all but overwhelmed two of the best teams in the league.
In a match studded with more incident than Fighting Friday, the elements played a huge part, though there was a stark contrast in the way that each team used the howling gale and driving rain to their advantage. One of the features of Ian Little’s time in charge is his willingness to make bold changes to his starting line-ups, and Saturday was no exception, Gribben and Noble dropping to the bench after moderate performances in the narrow midweek loss to Peterhead. That meant another start for Darren Lavery, alongside Damon Gray, given his chance after his goalscroing exploits off the bench. Michael Deland came into left midfield as part of an adventurous 3-5-2 formation. Despite a shaky couple of weeks, Annan started top equal on 30 points with Alloa and Stranraer, so this was never going to be a comfortable afternoon’s work for Rangers.
Having won the toss, Annan started with the gale at their back and immeditaley launched into a blitzkrieg which forced three corners in the opening minutes. Rangers survived the aerial threat of O’Connor and Watson and began to settle, Deland breaking down the left to fire in a 6th minute cross which Gray met but could not get sufficient purchase on to test Mitchell. The contrast in styles was immediately obvious, Rangers playing some lovely stuff across a soft pitch while Annan sought to lump the ball forward for O’Connor to lay off to the evergreen Harty at every opportunity. Jamie Barclay’s poor clearance landed at Harty’s feet with 8 minutes gone but McLean closed him down before he could make the keeper pay for his error. With Annan turning up the heat, the impressive Stevie Notman brilliantly blocked Sloan’s goalbound drive, but the home side were not to be denied and took the lead in the 18th minute, Watson sending a towering header from Cox’s corner beyond Barclay. Rangers replied straight from the restart, but Lavery thundered his drive from Gray’s neat lay-off narrowly over Mitchell’s bar. Minutes later, Mitchell snafflled the ball from Notman’s feet, before Barclay made a blinding save from Danny Mitchell’s 30 yard rocket, which looked destined for the top corner until the keeper’s late intervention.
Christmas isn’t Christmas without a turkey, so it was thoughtful of referee Barry Cook to fulfil that role with a game-changing decision in the 28th minute. Deland broke down the left once more and slid a crossfield pass to the incoming Notman who took a touch before he was unceremoniously felled by keeper Mitchell. It was an absolute stonewaller, and the Annan players knew it. Imagine everyone’s urprise then when ref Cook ludicrously booked Notman for diving, a decision that would have futher repercussions for the stand-out right back later in the game. Annan took full advantage of their lucky escape and Townsley cleared another Watson header off the line ten minutes from the break, only for Annan to increase their lead in the 40th minute when Harty volleyed O’Connor’s headed flick past Barclay, who was saved by his woodwork two minutes from half-time after Steele clattered a shot off the bar.
Rangers were a touch unlucky to go into the break two goals down, having played some lovely stuff, but Annan are no mugs and they played the conditions expertly to suit their direct style, with the payoff of a two goal lead. Rangers looked slow out of the blocks after the break, though Greenhill forced Mitchell into a decent save from his powerful low shot in the 49th minute, and the keeper did well six minutes later to fingertip Gray’s rising drive over the bar. By this stage of the game, Rangers had engineered a complete monopoly of possession, something that was borne out by the fact that Jamie Barclay spent a twenty minute spell wandering around his goal dodging the rain without touching the ball. For all their domination of the ball however, Rangers found it hard to create any clear cut chances. Prompted by a superb display of midfield generalship from Lee Currie, they probed patiently and never looked panicked, even as the clock started to run down. Ian Little made the crucial change with seventeen minutes let, replacing Lavery and Deland with Gribben and Noble. The move brought near-instant reward. With 13 minutes remaining, Lee Currie drove in a vicious free kick that may have got a slight deflection from defender Gibson but looked goalbound all the way in any case. The goal got Rangers back into the game and they turned the screw on an Annan defence that ended up hanging on for dear life. A minute after Currie’s goal, Notman got in behind the home defence but Mitchell brilliantly blocked his low shot, then Gribben set up Gray to slide a shot a foot wide with Mitchell beaten. It was Gribben himself who equalised in the 82nd minute, carving out space on the left hand angle of the penalty area before curling a Brazilian-style shot in off the far post. Socrates would have been proud. The home side were reduced to ten men four minutees from time, when McGowan was shown a straight red for hauling back Stuart Noble as he broke through on goal. Stevie Notman followed him off in the 90th minute after receiving a second yellow for a perfectly legitimate tackle in midfield. The drama continued right to the final whistle, McDonald sending Gray clean through with the last move of the game, only for Mitchell to deflect his lofted shot over the bar with the save of the game.
There is not much more Ian Little can do to make his case for the manager’s job on a permanent basis. The team is clearly playing for him and the quality of performance has gone up a couple of levels. This team is good enough to make the play-offs and Ian Little should be the man given the job of leading them there.
Barclay 6; Notman 8; Townsley 7; McLean 6; Thompson 5; McDonald 7; Greenhill 5 (Walker 6); Currie 9; Deland 6 (Noble 7); Gray 6; Lavery 7 (Gribben 8)
Crowd – 598