Annan Athletic 1 Ayr United 1(5-4 Pens)

Tuesday 19th July 2022 – The Premier Sports Trophy – Galabank, Annan

Michael Stipe once famously said/sang, “the lengths that I will go to, the distance in your eyes”. The REM front man had obviously decided on a whim to pop into Scotland on a school night and watch a game like I had. Who wouldn’t do that? Ok, so very few of us then. But I had some extenuating circumstances.

Less than a hundred miles south-eastish of Annandale I sat in the searing, record-breaking heat in Chester-le-Street as England had wilted against South Africa. A 50 over a side game should take around 3 hours a piece but due to the heat, there was an extra hour needed. With England heading for defeat and my Anglo-Saxon skin pounded by the 37 degree heat I decided to make an early exit and change sports to watch.

There were plenty of localism options. West Auckland, Shildon and Chester-le-Street were all within a 15 minute drive but that would have been too easy, also still too hot. So instead, I took the decision to head north of the border and visit one of the remaining eight grounds in the Scottish leagues I had yet to get to – Annan Athletic.

It was a remarkably simple drive – up the A1 then across the A69, following the route of Hadrian’s ambitious building project, started a mere 1,900 years ago and still going, then a right onto the M6 into Scotland. It was a glorious drive, top down and music blaring. Annan is a few miles off the A75 not far from Gretna, famed as the birth place of Ashley Jensen (Extras, Ugly Betty and Nativity) and the haunted road to Dumfries but also for an ambitious community football club. With a population of less than nine thousand, they are one of the smallest places in Scotland with a side in the Football League.

The club gained their place in the Scottish Football League in 2008 after successfully applying to replace Gretna, as they spectacularly busted after a short period of spectacular booming and had spent their time in the fourth tier ever since, albeit coming close to promotion via the play-offs a couple of times, including last season where they lost out to Forfar Athletic after a third place.

New season, new optimism. The game at this level in Scotland is very much semi-professional, similar to that at Lewes, with players earning a wage rather than having a career out of football. For the visitors Ayr United, another season in the Championship beckons. As with the English equivalent, a good season can unlock untold riches of the Premier League, but a bad season will see a drop down into the dark abyss of Step 3 and the challenges to rise again. Two play-off spots in 2019/20 and 20/21 gave them that tantalising hope of a return to the top tier, something they will aim to repeat this season.

But first it was the small matter of the 40 team Premier Sports Trophy pre-season competition. Annan came into the game knowing a win would take them through to the last 16 and the chance to play one of the “big boys”, the five clubs who due to their involvement in European Competition were excluded from the group phase, the first time a step 4 side had made it out of the groups.

Galabank isn’t hard to find. In fact nothing in Annan is hard find. On a Tuesday night of football you simply follow the groups of fans. Next to the ground is a Caravan Club. I can never think of these after watching the InBetweeners (“it’s a sense of freedom you don’t get with other holidays….”) and I am sure the holiday makers were all heading into Galabank for their evenings entertainment.

What’s not to love about Scottish Football at this level? £3.50 for a hot-dog, cup of tea and a Tunnock’s? A chat with the chairman about potential loan signings? The fact that the Centre-back could also be your delivery driver for your shopping tomorrow. The local youngsters were out in force, banging their drums and providing a raw soundtrack as the teams took to the field.

Ayr United were modelling their new kit – which appeared to have been hyper-warped straight from the Spurs dressing room in the1991 FA Cup Final, with only the sponsor logo being different. It was a bold move, playing on the fact that the hummel strip was last year voted the most iconic Spurs strip but it made the Ayr players dream of Gascoigne, Lineker, Nayim and Sedgley.

It was the away team that dominated the possession in the first half, yet rarely threatened the Annan goal, with Akinyemi a constant physical threat. Unsurprisingly they took the lead mid-way through the second half then minutes later Docherty saw red for a second booking to reduce Annan down to ten men. It appeared game over and a few of the locals drifted out into the sunset.

But in the 89th minute Annan were awarded a penalty and Tony Wallace netted. With no extra time in the tournament we went straight into more penalties to decide the winning bonus point.

The first Ayr penalty was saved giving advantage to Annan. The next six were perfect then both sides traded misses at 3-3. The hero was Annan keeper Fleming who not only scored one, but then saved the next to set up the bonus point win for the home side.

In the grand scheme of things it is unlikely to be a compelling event or a major shift in the power-base of Scottish football, but for small clubs like Annan and their fans, nights like this make all the pain and suffering worthwhile and who could begrudge their celebrations and the hope that they do get the opportunity to pit themselves against one of the big Premier teams in the knock-out rounds.

A long drive back to South Yorkshire awaited but I can’t end this tale without saying what a wonderful country we live in. The drive across the A66 North Yorkshire Moors is stunning and with the top down, music playing it was one of those rare treats that life occasionally throws our way.

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