Callum Gallagher’s extra-time winner ended Cove Rangers’ promotion hopes and sent Airdrieonians to the play-off final with a 3-2 triumph.
Gallagher’s second of the night settled a captivating contest, with the Diamonds advancing 4-3 on aggregate at the Penny Cars Stadium.
Mitch Megginson’s 15th goal of the season had put Cove in front, Callum Gallagher levelling for Ian Murray’s side.
Both sides found the net in a frantic stoppage-time salvo, with Rory McAllister looking to have won it for Cove only for Jack McKay to resurrect his side’s hopes at the death.
It is Airdrieonians who will advance to the Championship play-off final,
Cove went into the game unchanged from the meeting three days ago, with Hartley having little reason to change what has become a tried and trusted team.
The time for surprise and experimentation had long since gone. Any risk taken at this stage of the season with these stakes can bring high reward or the most brutal of punishments.
That is not what this Cove team are about. The team has been quickly but meticulously sculpted for this level, adapting to the step up against full-time opposition and taking each challenge in their stride. The time for reflection and appreciation will only come at the end of the season.
It took 15 minutes for the Aberdeen side to break the deadlock. A period of pressure against an unsettled Airdrieonians defence drew a foul on Scott Ross. Connor Scully floated the free-kick in and as he has done in so many big moments this season, Megginson delivered, glancing the ball beyond Max Currie.
Meetings between the two sides this season have rarely been straightforward. They had two draws and a win each in their previous four meetings. That Airdrieonians equalised within minutes should have come as little surprise.
Kyle Connell was able to check back on to his right foot on the left flank; as blue shirts watched his delivery float across the six-yard box, Gallagher pounced for his third goal against Cove in 10 days.
Gallagher has proved pivotal to the Diamonds’ fortunes of late, whereas Megginson has been the talisman at Cove for five years. Seeing him limp off mid-way through the first half, after a collision with Callum Fordyce, was not part of the plan.
His replacement Connor Smith, a livewire midfielder on loan from Hearts, sought to make his impact immediately with a shot rattled wide while Fraser Fyvie forced Currie to palm over. The pace of the game carried on seamlessly from Saturday.
The cry from the Cove touchline continued to be ‘patience’. Hartley cajoled and coaxed more out of his team as they continued to dominate the ball.
Cove’s possession was probing but not penetrating. Airdrieonians continued to regroup, shuffle across and shut down; clearances were being made but the ball kept coming back at them.
Fyvie was the conductor-in-chief at the heart of most of Cove’s best moves, driving his team up the field and trying to prise the Diamonds open. Smith threatened to deliver a moment of genius after riding two challenges and weaving a route into hosts’ half, only for the move to breakdown when Blair Yule clipped wide.
Extra-time appeared an inevitability. Airdrieonians were not creating enough chances to trouble Stuart McKenzie and Cove were unable to break down their opponents’ obdurate resistance. A lengthy delay, after a head knock for Connell, would only add more time on.
With stoppage-time creeping on, it looked like McAllister had won it, steering through a crowd of players into the bottom corner. Cove’s wild celebrations were to be mirrored moments later in the Airdrieonians dugout, with McKay capping off a mad-cap period to crash home.
Extra-time seemed to finally sap the energy out of both sides, like two boxers entering the 12th round desperate for a killer blow. Set-pieces looked the likeliest saviour as weary bodies charged towards high, floated crosses.
With 10 minutes to go it came to Gallagher to win it, getting on the end of Craig Thomson’s cross to finally silence Cove.