The Blue Toon’s hopes of a return to Division Two were cruelly dashed at Balmoor on Sunday, after a goal against the run of play from East Fife midfielder David Muir proved decisive.
With the teams having drawn 0-0 at New Bayview in the first leg, the second leg had turned into a one-off cup final, and Jim McInally’s side could feel confident having stretched their superb run to eleven matches unbeaten.
He stood by the side that had served him so well over the past few weeks, and they could have been in front just two minutes in, after Dean Cowie released Rory McAllister on the right flank. He cut inside and fizzed a cross-cum-shot across the face of goal, which Andy Rodgers was inches away from turning home.
The game settled down, but it would be Peterhead who would assert themselves the better of the two sides, and they came so close to scoring after 20 minutes. McAllister was the provider, sliding a low ball to Rodgers who took a touch before sending a low shot past Fifers keeper Callum Antell, only for David White to get back and clear the ball to safety.
That roused the home crowd, and they were up in arms two minutes later when, after fastening onto Bryan Gilfillan’s pass, McAllister appeared to be wiped out by Steven Campbell. It seemed a stick-on penalty, but referee Kevin Clancy waved away the Blue Toon appeals.
That seemed to act as a catalyst for McInally’s men, and they soon had the visitors’ goal under siege.
Antell had to be brave to deny Jamie Redman after the midfielder slid in to try to turn home Gilfillan’s deflected shot, and the pair came close again moments later.
Gilfillan’s back post header from a David Cox corner was blocked, and twice Redman attempted to steer the ball home, only for East Fife bodies to get in the way both times.
For a while there seemed to be a chance a minute, and just sixty seconds after that chance, McAllister tested Antell with a shot from the edge of the area, the on-loan Hibs goalkeeper turning his effort round the post.
That allowed Cox to deliver again from the right, and his inswinging corner found Scott Ross at the back post.
His header brushed the net, but despite the cheers of some of the crowd who thought Ross had opened the scoring, it was in fact the side-netting he hit.
The killer blow came just three minutes after the break, as Muir succeeded where Gilfillan and Ross had failed.
Craig Johnstone’s corner found the midfielder in a similar position to that which the two Peterhead men had threatened in the first half, the ball seeming to come off his body and cross the line.
It was a cruel blow for the Blue Toon and knocked them out of their stride, although McAllister drew another save from Antell after 55 minutes.
As time ticked on, so the nerves started to mount and, after 75 minutes, a foul by Ross saw things boil over.
Bodies from both sides piled in, and Muir seemed to kick out, the upshot being bookings for Ross, Muir and Rodgers.
Peterhead had to throw everything forward, and the introduction of Martin Bavidge in place of Gilfillan saw them go with three in attack.
They passed up a great chance to level the scores as Ross headed a Graeme Smith free kick back across goal for McAllister, the former Brechin man snatching at his effort and sending it wide of the left hand upright.
With so many bodies in attack, the Blue Toon were exposed at the back and in the 90th minute they had Smith to thank for keeping them in the game, as he pulled off an outstanding double-stop to deny Campbell the goal that would have tied things up.
Back up the park we went, now into just two minutes of injury time.
Ross saw a drive blocked, and Bavidge couldn’t get a clean strike at the rebound as Johnstone desperately tried to keep the ball away from the veteran.
Out the ball went for a corner, very much the last chance of the game. Up came keeper Smith, but the delivery was poor and as the Fifers cleared their lines, referee Kevin Clancy brought the match to an end.
The Blue Toon players were clearly devastated. They’d given it their all and it would be fair to say they had pummelled East Fife over the two legs of the final.
It will take time for the players to get over the hurt of losing this tie in the manner they did, but McInally has built a strong squad, and if the majority of it can be kept together, they can use the pain as a focus to bounce back and gain promotion next year, in a league that will not have Rangers in it.
Peterhead: G. Smith, Sharp, Noble, Ross, R. Smith, Cowie, Cox, Redman, McAllister, Gilfillan (Bavidge, 81), Rodgers. Subs not used: McCann, McGlinchey, Fitzgerald, Jarvie (gk).