After a tremendous League winning season last term, the Ayr United Football Academy's current crop of 17s players had a lot to live up to as they chased success this season.
Despite running close in the league, they fell at the final hurdles but picked themselves up and moved on to their next quest of the League Cup and have fared admirably as they fought to within touching distance of the final itself.
Sunday saw the climax to their section matches knowing that anything other than a defeat would see them into the showpiece national final.
In their final game of the SFL League Cup section 3, Ayr travelled to Dumfries to meet the challenge of Queen of the South knowing that in avoiding defeat they would top their section and progress to the final of the competition.
This Ayr side have been playing well of late and produced four straight victories to put themselves in number one spot but on the same points as Morton. However, the Greenock side had played a game more than Ayr and completed their fixtures. Before kick off it was widely accepted that if the visitors could provide a continuation of their recent fine form they would prove too strong for Queens and claim top spot outright.
The game kicked off in brilliant sunshine on a very bumpy pitch which would make it difficult for both sides to produce fluent passing football. In the early exchanges it was Ayr who were coping better with the underfoot conditions and were advancing on the home team’s goal at every opportunity.
Ayr went close on a few occasions but the home side held firm until the 32nd minute when the visitors snatched the lead. A free kick taken by Mark Shankland from the left evaded everyone apart from captain Jack Harkness who stole in at the back post to slip the ball behind the Queens goalie and in to the back of the net to put Ayr 1-0 ahead.
Shankland went close soon after when he smashed a twenty yard shot which the Queens number 1 did well to tip on to the bar before it was scrambled clear. However, this only delayed Ayr stretching their lead. They went 2-0 up in the 42nd minute when Jackson Longridge, up for a corner taken by Chris Kelly, stooped to head home at the near post .
The teams left the field at half time with Ayr firmly in the driving seat and barring any unforeseeable disasters were heading to the final.
Ayr started the second half on fire, and within 15 minutes had put the game out of reach for the home side as they sailed into a 5-0 lead.
Number 3 came along at the end of the best move of the game. A good switch of play from left to right found Ryan McCubbin (pictured above). Cubby controlled the ball first time, before rounding a defender and sending a perfect cross to the back post which was met by Darrel Crossan. Darrel directed his header down and into the path of Mark Shankland who from 10 yards promptly dispatched the ball behind the diving keeper.
A few minutes later it was 4. This time another cross from Ryan McCubbin had the home defence in a spin and their unfortunate number 6, in an effort to clear, sliced the ball beyond his team mates and into his own net.
The final goal in the 62nd minute was again well worked. This time Darren McGill was sent clear on the left, his deep first time cross was met by Darrel Crossan in full flight and he leaped to bullet a header home to complete the scoring at 5-0.
For the remainder of the match Ayr continued to dominate and went close a few times with Andy McCormack seeing a headed attempt coming back of the crossbar.
Ayr coach Davie White was full of praise for his side after the game and commented on their professional approach and performance. He highlighted the quality of play on display at times, on the poor surface, was of a very high standard. He also referred back to a conversation, in the dressing room after a disappointing 2-2 draw with Morton a few weeks ago, when he laid down a challenge to win their five remaining games to ensure qualification.
His team certainly picked up the gauntlet on that one and went on to produce the desired results to progress through to the final.
Standing between Ayr and winning this national competition are the winners of Queens Park and Livingston. Either of these teams will prove tough opponents and Ayr will have to be at their best, however, on current form they surely have a chance.
Ayr Team: Andy Clark, Andy Muir, Neil Slooves, Jack Harkness,Jackson Longridge,Ryan McCubbin, Chris Kelly, Darren McGill, Darrel Crossan, Mark Shankland & Adam Fraser.