East Stirlingshire know that failure to beat Berwick Rangers at Ochilview this weekend will make a place in the end-of-season pyramid play-off all but an arithmetic certainty.
It’s a win or bust match says Craig Tully, the Shire boss.
A miserable March has seen Shire cast ten points adrift of the rest of League 2 with five matches to play. Already it’s looking almost certain that they will have to face off against either the Highland League or Lowland League champions over two matches with their place in the SPFL at stake.
Their fall was by no means certain and has happened at almost breakneck speed. Shire began the month with an impressive 1-0 away win at title contenders Clyde but things began to unravel in their very next match, a decline which coach Craig Tully says had a very precise beginning. “We had beaten Clyde and if we had won our next game, against Montrose, then being bottom of the table would have been someone else’s problem,” he said. “But within the space of five minutes during the first half of the next game our two most influential players, Chris Townsley and Ross Fisher, both went off injured and that had a huge impact.”
Tully had already been forced to leave another of his star men, Neil McCabe, out of the Montrose game and the impact of having so many key players on the sideline impacted almost immediately.
“Some of the younger guys on the team look up to big Chris in the changing room,” said the Shire boss. “His influence goes beyond what he gives us on the pitch. When he’s injured and then Ross goes off we are left with a young, inexperienced team without any real leaders and a game that might have been won was lost.”
Since then both McCabe and Townsley have been absent through injury and results have declined in quite spectacular fashion. A lack of confidence has become almost endemic throughout the younger members of the squad and that had had an influence of both individual performances and that of the team.
“The frustrating thing is that we have been competitive in every game since then,” said Tully. “But individual errors have cost us goals and at the other end, while we are still creating enough chances, we are not taking them.”
The Shire coach puts that down to evaporating self-belief and just bad luck, especially on Saturday at Stirling Albion when Shire dominated the second half but simply couldn’t find the back of the net. In an almost farcical passage of play Tully’s men, 1-0 behind at the interval, saw two efforts cleared off the line, the home goalkeeper then made a world-class save and another effort crashed off a post. Meanwhile, the home side broke the siege twice to run up the pitch and score.
“That’s what happens in football sometimes, and we won’t be the only team in this position that these kind of things happen to,” he said.
Shire are now in the position where to stand a chance of avoiding the uncertainty of the play-off they will most likely have to win all of their five remaining matches. That will be the tallest of orders and is in all likelihood beyond them, especially as McCabe and Townsley are not near fitness and the list of injuries continues to grow.
“We need to keep believing and not lose heart,” said Tully. “Above all else we need to find a way to start winning matches again. That’s our first priority starting with this weekend’s game.”