Missed penalty turns tide as Ayr salvage draw

Ayr United came back to draw 2-2 with Arbroath in the cinch Championship, after a penalty miss gave the home side an opportunity to earn a result. Jack Donnelly reports.

Ayr manager David Hopkin made three changes to the team that lost away at Rugby Park on Monday evening – James Maxwell, Markus Fjørtoft and Daire O’Connor all made their first league starts for Ayr, replacing Aaron Muirhead, Mark McKenzie and Michael Hewitt. Meanwhile, Dick Campbell made two changes to the Arbroath side that were defeated by Inverness last weekend, with Chris Hamilton and Liam Henderson coming in for Bobby Linn and Luke Donnelly.

The game started in a fairly reserved manner, with neither side creating much of note – Ayr were happy to sit deep and slow the tempo when in possession, while Arbroath looked the hungrier of the two sides, pushing high.

That pressure brought about a goal in the ninth minute, when on-loan Livingston striker Joel Nouble opened the scoring. Collecting a knockdown on the far left of Ayr’s box, Nouble curled a great effort into the top right corner past a static Charlie Albinson. The small number of Arbroath fans in Somerset Park were delighted, while the home support was quick to emphasise their displeasure.

After Nouble’s goal, Ayr were afforded a larger spell of possession as they went in search of an equaliser, yet after a further 10 minutes, the only attacking contribution of note came from Arbroath’s Liam Henderson, who saw a strike from 25 yards collected calmly by Albinson.

Things would go from bad to worse for the home side, who had failed to create anything of note from the siege of long balls forward. Michael McKenna’s cross from the left-hand side was never finding a maroon shirt, but after a lapse in concentration from Albinson, the cross did fine the bottom corner of the goal, adding a second for the Red Lichties.

Ayr saw two excellent chances go a-begging in the 35th minute. A nice touch took Jordan Houston clear of his man on the right, and the full-back found Cameron Salkeld in the box. The former Morton man saw his drilled effort blocked back into the box, then Maxwell’s follow-up effort was deflected up over the bar for a corner, which came to nothing in the end.

Ayr were becoming more consistent with chance creation and forged another good scoring opportunity after 39 minutes. Patrick Reading fed the ball into O’Connor on the left. The number 10 clipped a ball into Maxwell, but his first-time effort went wide of Derek Gaston’s goal.

Arbroath could have run through and made it three after an Andy Murdoch free kick was easily cleared. Nouble was played through on goal down the left, but a great recovery challenge from Reading denied the striker of a goalscoring opportunity.

At the break, you would not have pointed to Arbroath as the part-time side of the two. The Red Lichties looked solid and composed in defence and their energy in midfield made breaking through the lines a breeze. Ayr on the other hand looked sheepish and uninspiring, with lone striker Tomi Adeloye almost devoid of service, aside from the deluge of long balls out from defence. Something needed to change if Ayr were to take anything from the match.

Salkeld had another opportunity to grab himself a goal early in the second half. Muirhead, who had entered the fray in place of O’Connor, launched a long throw into the box and after a couple of bounces, Salkeld could drive the ball goalward, but with plenty of maroon shirts between him and the goal, the shot was cleared with relative ease.

Despite a positive start to the second half for the home side, Ayr conceded a penalty in the 62nd minute, after the ball bounced up and glanced off Murdoch’s arm. Albinson had already conceded one penalty in his Championship career, and that would remain the case as Nicky Low struck the bar with his spot-kick, much to the relief of the home support.

Ayr dug in after the penalty miss and managed to get themselves back into the game in the 70th minute. Murdoch stood over a free kick on the left and floated it towards the back post. Muirhead arrived to turn the ball back across the face of goal and, with Gaston having challenged Muirhead, all Adeloye needed to do was slide in and tap the ball home for his first Championship goal.

Muirhead was involved again in the 77th minute, going agonisingly close to grabbing the equaliser. Standing over a free kick 30 yards from goal, Reading dummied his run over the ball, leaving Muirhead to strike the ball goalward. A chorus of “oohs” went up around the Somerset Park terraces as the effort went just wide of Gaston’s goal.

Despite Arbroath’s persistence and dogged defending, Ayr eventually found their equaliser. Ayr were patient in their build-up, recycling possession whenever necessary, but a testing ball finally broke for Reading on the left. With plenty of options in the box, the left back’s delivery dropped for Adeloye, who’s deflected effort fell back for substitute Mark McKenzie to finish past Gaston and level the game with two minutes to go.

The Honest Men may well have won the game in stoppage time, as a spectacular ball out from the back found Reading on the left once again. He sent a ball to the back post for the onrushing McKenzie, but the forward missed the target with his header.

There would be no late winner for the home side, but having been 2-0 down at half time, Ayr supporters were able to celebrate a hard-fought point. Arbroath had lagged in the second half, but had Low converted his penalty, the trip back to Gayfield could well have been a much happier one.

Both teams are back in action in next weekend’s Premier Sports Cup knockout stages, with Ayr hosting Dundee United, while Arbroath return to Gayfield to welcome St. Johnstone.

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