JAMIE BISHOP met the Arbroath team bus, as it made its way to Stranraer for the play-off final return, newly-signed contract in hand ready to pass over for registration.
By the time the coach set out on the return leg of the eight-hour round trip he had double cause for celebration—his future had been settled and the Lichties were second division bound.
If the first part was plain sailing however, the second was anything but—a tired, nervy performance, undermined by Craig Tully being sent off with more than half an hour remaining, ensuring John McGlashan's side stumbled rather than cruised over the finish line. There was, though, no questioning Arbroath's entitlement to emerge victors of the play-offs. They may have been fortunate in the extreme to escape Stair Park having lost only 1-0, but success across the four games involved was well earned.
"It was a hard shift down to ten men especially as Stranraer have some good players, but I thought we coped with things really well," said Bishop. Okay it was nine men behind the ball after Craig went off, but we deserved it and the fans certainly deserved it.
"It's a long way to come from Arbroath to Stranraer but there must have been 400 of them here and this is as much them as it is for us. Arbroath's play-off triumph had its foundations in fantastic defensive organisation and no little spirit.
The come-from-behind semi-final return win at Cowdenbeath spoke volumes for the togetherness and spirit of the side. The fact that in over 390 play-off minutes they conceded just two goals from open play was a tribute to the job done by keeper Darren Hill and his defenders and testimony to the improvement following a hat-trick of hammerings during the regular campaign.
"I'd be the first to admit we haven't defended well this season," added Bishop. We lost five away to Montrose, five against Forfar and five against Albion Rovers and following that the boys at the back had a wee talk. We decided it was up to us to get it sorted out and thankfully in the end we've established the basis needed to achieve what the team has."
Stair Park was no place for the faint-hearted. Needing to score first to breathe life into the tie, Stranraer fashioned a couple of smashing chances inside the opening half-hour. But Gerry McLauchlan's bullet header from Alex White's corner came crashing back off the bar before he first-timed a White free-kick straight at Hill.
Heartened by the fact they were causing the Lichties problems, the home side stepped things up, and after Michael Mullen could not quite get enough on a James Mc-Kinstry cross to direct his diving header on target, Gregory Tade's shot on the turn clipped the outside of Hill's right hand post.
Little wonder that the noisy travelling support had become muted. And their concerns heightened on 58 minutes with the dismissal of Tully. A yellow card was warranted for his whacking Danny Mitchell from behind on the halfway line but referee Steve Conroy, perhaps influenced by the over-reaction to the challenge of the Stranraer players, flashed red, prompting an angry exchange between the two benches.
Six minutes later and the Lichties really were on the back foot as Tade reduced the arrears at the end of a smart passing exchange involving McKinstry and Stephen McConalogue.
What followed was a siege. Stranraer pummelled Arbroath, whose sense of injustice over the Tully decision increased when Conroy let play continue as first Paul Lunan then Steven Rennie went down in clear distress and failed to produce a second booking for McLaughlan after he clattered Rennie.
With two banks of four protecting Hill the Lichties did little attacking, although in their solitary forward foray of note either Andy Reilly or Roddy Black could have scrambled in a clincher. Yet for all their pressure Stranraer just could not force extra time.
McLauchlan's header from White's cross cleared the junction of post and bar while Raeside came to the rescue with a fantastic clearance after Tade threatened to barge his way through for an equaliser.
"The last 20 minutes were the longest of my career. It felt like an eternity," said boss McGlashan. It was just one wave of attack after another. Stranraer couldn't have done any more than score. If they'd got the equalising goal then I don't know if we could have won through because we were on our knees at the end.
"But the defending was marvellous and if we rode our luck at times then perhaps that was payback the heartache of the last two years. I think you saw two teams out there giving everything for their manager and I hope to see Stranraer joining us in the second division."
Tully—who will now miss the first two league games of next term through suspension—admitted the outcome was a relief, though he claimed not to have doubted his team-mates would keep Stranraer at bay. It's fantastic for the club, the players and the fans that we've gone up. I felt my sending-off was really harsh. The reaction of their players had a lot to do with the decision the ref made. "It was a worry that not longer after that they scored. But I had every confidence in the boys seeing it out."
Promotion won, attention switches to trying to survive at the higher level, from which last year's third division champions Berwick were relegated with 21 points to spare. Tully admitted Arbroath are going to have to raise the bar again. Hopefully we can bring in a few more experienced players over the summer because the second division is a lot tougher league," he said.