The Honest Men were comfortable as they brushed aside Darren Young’s Fifers, with a 3-0 victory at Somerset Park on Saturday afternoon.
The match started slowly and it took until the 8th minute for the first attempt of the game. Craig McGuffie linked up with Andy Geggan down the right before firing his left-footed effort wide of target.
Then, at the other end, Pat Slattery played in a good ball from the left and midfielder Kieran Millar rose at the back post but he couldn’t direct his header on-target to trouble Jack Ruddy.
On 15 minutes, goalkeeper Ruddy played a long free-kick from his own half which travelled to Lawrence Shankland inside the area: the striker took a touch on his chest before swivelling and shooting, however, East Fife shot-stopper Ryan Goodfellow was alive to the danger and got out quickly enough to block the striker’s effort.
Declan McDaid took a corner from the left minutes later which was initially cleared but Ayr picked up again; the ball fell for McGuffie at the edge of the area with the youngster’s shot being blocked initially before shooting high over the bar from 20-yards on the rebound.
60 seconds later saw Ian McCall’s men continue to push for the opening goal as Paddy Boyle’s low delivery was allowed to go across the face of goal, with Shankland arriving at the back-post, but, the marksmen could only hit the side-netting as he slid in to try squeeze the ball past Goodfellow.
Chris Duggan was fouled at the edge of the area on the visitors right. Despite claims for a penalty, David Lowe correctly called the decision as a free-kick 19-yards out, which saw former Celtic youth Connor McManus step up to take. However, the effort was poor as it hit the wall and a rare foray forward went abegging for East Fife.
Three minutes later, McGuffie had a chance from a similar position but his free-kick didn’t test Goodfellow on this occasion. Then, McDaid’s corner from the left found Shankland at the back-post, he laid the ball back to Mark Kerr whose low driven shot was palmed away by Goodfellow before the ball deflected out for a goal-kick as the ball hit Jamie Adams in the face as the away side tried to clear their lines.
The opener came on 32 minutes, though, with McDaid being the man to find the net. The ex-Partick winger cut inside and his left-footed effort took a slight nick on the way through which put off Goodfellow enough to see the ball fly high into the corner of the net to put the hosts in front.
The game then took a little bit of a lull as Ayr made sure they didn’t concede a silly goal heading into the interval with the Fifers struggling to make anything happen. Michael Moffat had the final chance of the half, with the 11-goal striker firing over the bar from 12-yards after swivelling inside the area and managing to get his shot away despite being closely watched by the visiting defence.
It was a cold, but sunny, afternoon in Ayrshire as the League One title race took another twist and a turn.
There was a small resurgence at the beginning of the second-half as Young’s side won an early corner which Chris Kane nodded wide after McManus swung in the delivery.
That was about as good as it got for the Methil side as Michael Rose fired over a free-kick before Shankland made it 2-0 just eight minutes into the final period.
The striker picked up possession at the edge of the area before knocking the ball into the area – getting on the end of his own touch, the striker was faced by former Pars team-mate Goodfellow but he calmly rounded the keeper before tapping the ball home from close-range on the right-hand side of the box to put Ayr in easy street.
Minutes later, McCall and his coaching staff saw this as a good point to introduce winger Alan Forrest, who replaced McGuffie on the left. The younger brother of Scotland international James was involved almost immediately as McDaid was fouled by East Fife captain Jonathan Page on the right-hand side of the box, with Lowe pointing to the spot.
The Ayr number 10 stepped up on the hour mark and coolly rolled the ball home, sending Goodfellow the wrong way to put the game beyond any doubt. The visitors then made a double change before they kicked-off for the fourth time on a chilly, but sunny, afternoon in Ayrshire.
Chris Kane and Rob Jones headed off, with Scott Linton and Kevin Smith coming on. This saw a slight reshuffle in the middle of the field, with Linton coming on down the left, Slattery moving in-field, with new loan signing from Dundee United Scott Allardice taking up the centre-back role vacated by Kane.
McCall, who was at the game despite continuing to recover from an operation on a detatched retina, then made his second switch of the afternoon with striker Craig Moore replacing Moffat in attack.
It was almost four with 24 minutes remaining as Forrest cut the ball back into the centre from the left of the penalty area, with Shankland taking the ball under control before firing low and on-target. The net-bound effort was blocked on the line by Craig Watson before landing into the grateful arms of Goodfellow.
Substitute Kevin Smith then helped the visitors pose a few questions for their hosts as he cut in from the left: his right-footed cross found Duggan whose header was on-target, albeit a fairly straight-forward save for Ruddy, diving to his right to gather on the goal-line.
The former Partick Thistle youngster then made space for himself at the edge of the area, but his shot was harmlessly wide and high as the 24-year old – who was born in Australia – made this his final contribution of the match as he was replaced by teenager Matthew Knox.
Two minutes later and Ayr made the final change of the afternoon as Kerr made way for Craig Reid, who slotted in at right-back, with Andy Geggan moving into the centre of the park alongside Adams.
Ayr then took their foot off the peddle slightly as Smith found space inside the area and good footwork allowed the experienced attacker to create space for himself but he was eventually snuffed out as his shot from the right was blocked away for a corner at the near post.
On 82 minutes, Aaron Dunsmore found himself in space at the edge of the penalty area as the full-back picked up a loose ball on the right. His effort was deflected away for another set-piece chance for East Fife, but nothing came of it.
McDaid drifted from right to left before receiving the ball from Forrest. As the winger twisted and turned, inside the area, his right-footed effort was wild, as it went well wide of goal.
A minute later and Moore was set through on goal but Goodfellow done well to narrow the angle and block before he palmed away Forrest’s rebound effort to keep the scoreline at 3-0.
Knox was fouled 20-yards out on the right with the tricky winger looking to take the kick himself but regular set-piece specialist Linton stepped up and saw his curling left-footed shot tipped behind for a corner by on-loan Wolves keeper Ruddy.
A free-kick was awarded to Ayr deep into injury time on the right; the initial cross was over-hit but Shankland done well to keep the ball in on the left before his delivery found the head of Adams but his shot went wide as Lowe blew for full-time.
A crowd of 1,170 saw the Honest Men ease to victory against their Fife opponents.
Ayr manager Ian McCall, speaking to the press after the game said:
“I thought it was really comfortable; I just felt in the last 15 or 20 minutes we took our foot off the accelerator a wee bit but we had a couple of good chances to make it 4-0 – and we all know the significance of that one [with a 4th goal giving Ayr 100 goals this season] – but, the biggest thing for us was we were deepening. It is only human nature, that we were deepening too early, as the boys wanted a clean-sheet so much. I made the decision yesterday to play [Steven] Bell, just for his organisation alongside Michael [Rose] and I thought he was outstanding.
It was a great result for us – and a former favourite of ours got a late equaliser [Alan Trouten for Albion Rovers against Raith Rovers] – so it brings it back to 6 points with a game to go. There is a long, long, way to go. You can see the players we have got and the way we want to play – it sometimes isn’t always conducive to play like that, but, if you’d offered us 3-0 before the game, we would have absolutely taken it. I am pleased because I have had Neil Scally [assistant manager], Chris Higgins [captain] and Derek Stillie [coach] preparing them; although, I don’t think they would have picked the same team as I did!”
FULL-TIME: Ayr United 3-0 East Fife
20. Jack Ruddy
6. Andy Geggan
28. Steven Bell
5. Michael Rose
3. Paddy Boyle
11. Declan McDaid
16. Jamie Adams
27. Mark Kerr (Craig Reid 75′)
12. Craig McGuffie (Alan Forrest 56′)
7. Michael Moffat (Craig Moore 64′)
17. Lawrence Shankland
1. Jordan Hart (GK)
9. Craig Moore
10. Alan Forrest
14.. David Ferguson
18. Stuart Faulds
25. Luke McCowan
26. Craig Reid
1. Ryan Goodfellow
6. Craig Watson
4. Chris Kane (Scott Linton 61′)
5. Jonathan Page
2. Aaron Dunsmore
12. Connor McManus
17. Scott Allardice
15. Kieran Millar
8. Pat Slattery
14. Rob Jones (Kevin Smith 61′)
9. Chris Duggan (Matthew Knox 73′)
21. Ben MacKenzie (GK)
10. Kevin Smith
18. Scott Linton
20. Matthew Knox
Referee: David Lowe