East Stirlingshire boss John Sludden admitted he told his players to forget about fancy football before their 4-2 win at Vale of Leithen.
The reason was obvious – the Borders club’s Victoria Park was no place for Shire’s normal slick passing game. Instead they were forced to work hard, play long balls and work off set plays on a soft, glue pot pitch which was tailor-made to suit Vale’s purposes.
But, for all that, both Shire and their opponents served up a hugely enjoyable pre-Christmas football feast with six goals, great saves and enough goalmouth action to fill Santa’s sleigh to bursting point.
After a jittery opening quarter hour when Shire went a goal behind and could have conceded more, they did find their feet and a style that proved effective enough to win convincingly in the end, extending an unbeaten league run to eight games.
“We knew we couldn’t play our normal game,” said Sludden afterwards. “The pitch was very soft and we told the players they would have to get the ball early up to the strikers and play off that.
“It was a bit of a change from our normal style where we like to get the ball down and pass at pace. We were slow to start and they got in behind us a few times early but we got the goals we needed,” he said.
Shire certainly did not look comfortable in the surroundings at the start. Admittedly, Paul Sludden could have given them the lead in the first minute but he shot just over from the edge of the box.
But after that the travelling faithful looked as out of sorts as the players. Vale’s Jay Stevens ended a mazy run into the box with a poor finish when it looked easier to score.
The same player sent a near post header flashing wide of the target not long after, Keith McLeod’s angled drive flew across goal and just shaved the far post, and then the defence was forced to clear after Jamie Barclay fumbled Stevens’ shot. And all that was inside the opening ten minutes.
It was no surprise when Blair Atkinson’s shot from 25 yards flew into the net to give the home team a 12th minute lead. But that was their high water mark in the game.
“We didn’t start well but once we got the players to do what we were asking them to do we started to look more comfortable and we started to look like we would score,” said the Shire boss.
Paul Sludden should have levelled the scores on 18 minutes. There was nothing wrong with his dipping half-volley but home keeper Andy McQueen made a terrific save to keep it out.
Derek Ure’s free-kick from wide on the right was headed off the line, Andy Rodgers shot narrowly over the bar from the 18 yard line and Connor Green’s diving back post header hit the side net when it looked like he would score.
Eventually Shire eased their way in front. After 33 minutes Rodgers’ curling shot brushed a defender’s head on its way past McQueen into the net and ten minutes later a looping Kris Faulds header from Rodgers’ cross was helped over the line by a despairing home attempt to clear to give Shire the interval lead.
But that good work was undone four minutes after the break, when McLeod’s flick into Atkinson’s path was swept into the net for the equaliser.
“We did well to get ourselves ahead at half-time but we just got sloppy at the start of the second half and they scored again,” said the coach.
But he didn’t have time to get angry. Straight from the re-start Rodgers was fouled inside the box and the Shire striker restored the lead from the penalty spot.
After 56 minutes Shire made the points safe when Jamie Glasgow’s run into the box set up Paul Sludden for a fine finish to make it 4-2.
David Grant then might have had a hat-trick with shots which just shaved the crossbar and the club’s leading scorer was also denied a clear penalty when fouled by the keeper. By that stage, though, Shire weren’t complaining too much.
SHIRE : Barclay, A.Grant, Ramsay, Oliver, Greene, Faulds, Rodgers (Peddie 89), Ure, D.Grant, Sludden (White 78), Glasgow (Allison 82).