With promotion to the Championship at stake, this week Stranraer and Ayr clash for a two-leg play-off on Scotland’s rugged southern shore. Tony Dawber speaks to radio presenter and Blues fan Mike McLean.
Derbies come in various shapes and sizes. While the Madrid giants prepare for their cross-city Champions League final, tomorrow night an army of Ayr United supporters head south down the rugged coastline along the A77 for a promotion decider with Stranraer.
Once the haunt of smugglers, this rocky shore washed by Irish Sea breakers divides two clubs looking to reach the second flight. To add a little spice, Stranraer manager Brian Reid spent four seasons as Ayr boss.
‘Ayr look on us as a village team,’ says Mike McLean, a well known local radio presenter and passionate Stranraer supporter. ‘Our traditional rivals are Queen of the South. If we go up, we’ll finally be able to play them again. We want to win it just as badly.’
Each side, in fact, is looking at this two-leg promotion showdown to set up a more bitter derby next season. If Ayr’s near neighbours Kilmarnock are relegated from the Scottish Premier League, as is distinctly possible, their own play-off victory will see the resurrection of the much missed Ayrshire derby after a long hiatus.
By all reasonable measures, Ayr can be seen as the bigger club.
The town is more than four times the size of Stranraer. The nearby golf complex at Turnberry is a major international resort, and one owned by a certain Donald J Trump. United were top-tier regulars as late as the 1970s when a side managed by later Scotland boss Ally McLeod and featuring the likes of colourful keeper Hughie Sproat and ace defender Joe Filippi stood toe-to-toe with the Scottish elite.
The port of Stranraer is hardy and remote. Travelling to away games is an onerous task and the club has always struggled to attract and retain players.
But that remoteness has also bred a fierce loyalty among the blue-shirted locals, who would dearly love to put one over on Ayr.
And, as McLean is keen to point out, Stranraer are on a roll. ‘We were bottom in December but the transformation since then has been unbelievable,’ he says.
‘The experience and organisational ability of keeper Cameron Belford, brought in on loan from Wrexham early in the New Year, has made a huge difference. Brian Reid had now slotted every player into his best position.’
The evidence was plain in Stranraer’s semi-final demolition of Livingston, playing to maintain their Championship place after finishing second bottom. The higher-level side are now consigned to the drop despite pulling back a three-goal deficit in the second leg to take the tie to extra time.
‘The Livi fans said their team just had nothing left after 90 minutes,’ says McLean, ‘while we have a very high level of fitness. We won the semi-final by scoring a record goal tally for a Scottish League play-off game. Let’s just say that I’m quietly confident for the Ayr game.’
Ayr’s win over previously fancied Peterhead helped raise the goals tally in the four semi-final games to 22. ‘The Honest Men,’ as Ayr are delightfully known, start as favourites.
Stranraer v Ayr, Stair Park, 7.45pm, Wed May 11. See www.liberoguide.com/stranraer/ for stadium details and information on hotels and pubs.
Ayr v Stranraer, Somerset Park, 2.45pm, Sun May 15.
Mike McLean hosts a daily show from 10am on Your Radio and also host a sports preview show at 11am on Saturdays and a results show at 5pm. Listen online at http://tunein.com/radio/YOUR-Radio-1030-s45565/.