May 20, 2023
cinch Championship play-off final
Connor Smith 23
Jean-Pierre Tiéhi 80
Gabby McGill 90+1
Airdrieonians are a Championship club after a rollercoaster play-off final which saw the Diamonds triumph on penalty kicks after a 2-2 aggregate draw with Hamilton.
There was no shortage of drama at the ZLX Stadium, with Gabby McGill’s stoppage time goal sending the tie to extra-time before Josh Rae’s sudden-death penalty save sent the huge Airdrie support into raptures.
Faced with one match to get his side promotion in his first season in management, player-boss Rhys McCabe made two changes to the side which won 1-0 at the Excelsior on Wednesday night, Euan Deveney and Charlie Telfer replacing Justin Devenny and the suspended Craig Watson.
After a cagey opening ten minutes Airdrie began to look the livelier of the sides, Telfer driving play forward but the home side defending resolutely.
Hamilton’s first attack on 11 minutes needed a solid clearance from Deveney before skipper Callum Fordyce saw his looping strike land on top of the net at the other end.
Some desperate defending denied Adam Frizzell the chance to shoot on 17 minutes after McGill and Telfer had combined down the right, and Telfer himself had a shot saved by Jamie Smith three minutes later.
Hamilton showed their threat on the counter on 21 minutes but were denied by the offside flag, with the home defence then hacking a Telfer cross behind for a corner.
Accies took the lead on 23 minutes, and for the second consecutive year Connor Smith levelled the scores in the play-off final, accepting a pass at the end of another pacey counter attack and setting himself before dispatching beyond Rae.
John Rankin’s side could have taken the overall lead three minutes later, but Reghan Tumilty lacked composure as he smashed his strike over the bar.
Frizzell saw another drive deflected behind just before the half-hour, with McCabe cracking a superb free-kick off the bar two minutes later.
The Diamonds boss had another deadball opportunity on 37 minutes, but this time Smith palmed the strike away.
The Smith brothers both found space in the box at either end on 40 minutes, Connor heading wide at the far post before Airdrie broke and Callum had his cross gathered by Jamie Smith.
Accies started the second half brightly, Matty Shiels heading over before Deveney had to use his strength to clear up a dangerous attack. The left-back then joined the Diamonds attack, but his 58th-minute strike was blocked.
A spell of Airdrie possession followed with the hosts camped in their own half, but the Diamonds were unable to find a way through to goal.
Lewis McGregor replaced Smith on 72 minutes and his pace and direct running gave the Airdrie attack a new dimension, a promising cutback being bundled back to Smith two minutes later.
Hamilton made changes too, Tom Sparrow and Jean-Pierre Tiéhi coming on to refresh the attack, and within a minute the French Fulham loanee had his side ahead in the tie.
A brilliant piece of close control by Lewis Smith allowed the midfielder to flash a pass across goal, and Tiéhi was in the right place to turn home from two yards. With ten minutes remaining, it looked like there was no way back for the Diamonds.
Frizzell send a spinning effort just over the bar a minute later, with the home defence looking set to see out the remaining minutes.
The Diamonds weren’t done yet though, and a looping Calum Gallagher cross in stoppage time was nodded to McGill, who saw his first effort brilliantly saved by Smith but reacted well to smash home the loose ball with his left foot.
Deveney was almost the hero with the last action of the match, forcing a fingertip save from Smith before referee Craig Napier blew the final whistle.
Extra-time was an end-to-end affair with no sign of either side playing for penalties, Connor Smith seeing a 93rd-minute strike deflected over before Gallagher headed a Justin Devenny cross just wide.
Hamilton hit the woodwork in the 100th minute, a corner kick being won in the air and headed against the bar.
Fordyce headed wide three minutes later after some fancy footwork from Devenny had earned Airdrie a corner, and Rae saved well in stoppage time as Hamilton desperately tried to force the ball home.
There was time left for Airdrie to hit the bar, Gallagher’s header beating Smith but not the woodwork.
Tiéhi and McGregor traded chances early in the second period before Devenny headed wide on 112 minutes.
McCabe saw another good free-kick knocked over the bar by the defensive wall two minutes later, with Rae making a comfortable save with a minute to play.
Tiéhi should have won it for Accies in stoppage-time, bursting into the box despite Fordyce being floored by a raised arm in the build-up, but the striker drove his effort into the side netting.
The final whistle signalled a penalty shoot-out, and the standard from both sides were high as all of the initital ten kicks were netted.
Fordyce, McCabe, Devenny, Frizzell and Gallagher were the Airdrie scorers while Zanatta, McGowan, Winter, Smith and Mimnaugh replied for the hosts.
As we moved into sudden-death, Cammy Ballantyne rifled home his kick leaving Dan O’Reilly needing to score. The defender went to Rae’s right, and the Airdrie keeper guessed right and got a big hand to the ball.
The save sparked wild celebrations among players and fans alike, just rewards for an unbelievably entertaining season.
WE ARE GOING UP!
Stuart Mathie at ZLX Stadium.
Photos © John Steven. Click to view full-size.