FOR some, they are the matches which can make or break careers – both on and off the pitch.
They are matches which supporters dread and relish in equal portions, and for some, watching through the cracks in their fingers is the only option.
Yes – the play-offs are back and 18 year-old Ross McCrorie looks set to play a key role for Ayr United against Stranraer over two legs this week in the Championship final.
The young Rangers defender has spent the last few months on loan with the League One club, and he is set to play a key role beginning tomorrow evening at Stair Park.
The Honest Men qualified for their two-legged promotion shootout courtesy of a quite excellent 6-2 aggregate victory over Peterhead, although they will be taking nothing for granted against ex-Ger Brian Reid’s Blues who dumped Championship Livingston into League One with an incredible 8-6 win over two legs.
Ayr are known to be something of a sleeping giant in Scottish football given the number of fans they have but the lowly league they currently play in. A return to the Championship has long been craved by their supporters, and McCrorie reckons the pressure they put on their players can only help better him as a footballer.
The defender explained: “It’s not quite like Rangers, but Ayr have a good fanbase and when the chips are down they are right on your back – but that’s a good thing.
“It gets you used to what to expect at Rangers as Ayr – the club – are expected to go up – and that’s been quite similar to the season that Rangers have had.
“The play-offs are really big games, and getting them under my belt can only help me in the future. Peterhead are a really good team and we saw that in the two games they had against Rangers this season as well as their run to the Petrofac Final.
“In that game though [a 4-1 first-leg win], I felt the weather and the pitch helped us a lot. Normally, when you go up there it’s really windy, but it wasn’t that bad at all plus the pitch was really slick and that suited the way we try to play.
“Ayr aren’t a long-ball team – we like to get it down and pass it around – and that suited us well. We attacked at pace too and were always at them for the whole game.”
Ayr finished second in League One with Stranraer fourth, thus making the Honest Men favourites, but despite that fact, McCrorie expects an extremely close game although he hopes the second leg being played at a packed Somerset Park will give his side an advantage.
He continued: “Stranraer are a really good team with a great attack. It’s a bit of a rivalry too so it will be a massive occasion.
“The fact we have the home leg second I think gives us a bit of an advantage. If we have the crowd backing us then we should have a good chance of doing well, and the fact it’s the Sunday game should hopefully mean we get a good crowd in.”
A promotion honour to his name would, of course, be a great fillip for McCrorie, but the main reason for allowing him to leave Auchenhowie on loan was to improve him as a footballer.
The Scotland youth international feels he’s done just that, and he paid tribute to his manager – former Ranger Ian McCall – for the time he has devoted to bring him on as much as possible as a player.
McCrorie added: “He’s [McCall] been great with me as he knows what it’s like trying to come through as a young player at Rangers. He’s great for giving me advice and he’s been good for keeping my confidence high as well.
“My decision making has improved so much. You learn that you can’t try to get it down to play all the time with the league you are in – so you need to mix it up now and again.
“I feel I’ve also come on a lot physically. Often, you come up against players who are a lot stronger, so you have to use your brain more and try to work round it as much as possible.
“It’s been a really different experience, but it’s been good to play against adults and to learn the physical side of the game.”
At the conclusion of the play-offs, McCrorie will return to Rangers and attempt to push himself closer to Mark Warburton’s first-team plans.
Having already been on the bench this season and also having trained on numerous occasions with the top-team, McCrorie admitted to feeling left-out as they celebrated recent success, although he is fully aware that his loan at Ayr is for his longer-term benefit.
“If I’m back in the first team, I want to show the gaffer how much I have improved as a footballer on loan out at Ayr, and hopefully he can see that too and maybe I’ll get a chance.
“Being at Ayr and seeing Rangers win the league left me a but downhearted as I was missing out on all of that and I wasn’t able to get involved in the squads.
“What I am doing at Ayr though will make me a better player in the long-term though.”