Cove Rangers missed out on their dream of promotion to the SPFL in highly controversial circumstances as they went down 3-2 at Cowdenbeath on Saturday.
The pyramid play-off tie was finely poised after a goalless draw at Inverurie a week ago but the journey to Central Park ended in disappointment for the Highland League champions, who were incensed by some controversial refereeing decisions at Central Park.
John Sheran’s side felt Brad Smith’s winning goal for Cowdenbeath should have been disallowed for a foul on Cove goalkeeper Stuart McKenzie by home forward Jordyn Sheerin.
Emotions spilled over in injury time as Cove finished the game with eight men, with Paul McManus, Scott Ross and Eric Watson all sent off, while Sheran and his Cowdenbeath counterpart Gary Bollan were both sent to the stands.
Cove defender Alan Redford said: “To say we are disappointed is an understatement. I thought we played well after the first 10 minutes right through to half-time.
“We didn’t really start the second half very well but the officials made some terrible decisions. It was a clear foul by their player on Stuart McKenzie at the winning goal.”
Cowdenbeath made one change to the side which drew 0-0 at Harlaw Park in Inverurie seven days earlier, with Fraser Mullen starting at right back in place of Brandon Luke. Cove replaced Ryan Stott with Daniel Park in attack, with Ryan Strachan and Jonny Smith both fit enough to make the bench.
Cowdenbeath were awarded a penalty kick after only six minutes when Redford brought down Robbie Buchanan and Harvey Swann hammered home the spot kick.
But it took Cove only three minutes to respond. Darryn Kelly’s long throw into the box was only half-cleared with Connor Scully hooking the ball back into the penalty area for Mitch Megginson to nod home from six yards out.
Cowdenbeath forward Buchanan was fortunate to avoid punishment for elbowing Harry Milne in the ribs after 15 minutes, with referee Steven Kirkland failing to spot the incident.
Megginson almost fired Cove ahead when he shot inches wide from 12 yards in the 20th minute.
He was not to be denied two minutes later.
Scully released McManus on the right and the former East Fife forward produced a perfect cross for Megginson to fire low into the corner of the net for his 52nd goal of the season.
Watson almost made it 3-1 but a superb instinctive save from David McGurn thwarted the Cove captain.
The Blue Brazil got back on level terms five minutes into the second period when Harvey Swann’s free kick from wide on the right trundled through a packed penalty area and nestled in the far corner.
The game was now on a knife-edge with Cove bidding to create history by becoming the first Highland league club to be promoted through the pyramid system, while Cowdenbeath were desperately fighting to preserve their 113-year stay in the Scottish league.
The winning goal arrived in the 70th minute through Brad Smith’s lobbed shot but the Cove players were furious at referee Kirkland for not disallowing the strike for a foul on McKenzie by Sheerin.
It got worse for Cove in the fourth minute of injury time when McManus received a second yellow for dissent.
There was still time for a mass brawl on the touchline involving every player except Cove goalkeeper McKenzie.
When order was eventually restored, referee Kirkland showed red cards to Cove defenders Ross and Watson and sent both managers to the stand.
At the final whistle, several Cowdenbeath players goaded the disappointed Cove fans as a fiery contest came to an end.
Cowdenbeath striker Sheerin felt referee Kirkland made the correct call for the winning goal. He said: “You could look at that incident both ways. Maybe it was a foul on me. The referee saw it and chose not to give a foul, so it was the right decision.”
COWDENBEATH (4-4-2) – McGurn 7, Mullen 6, Swann 7, Pyper 6, Gilfillan 7 (Luke 90), Miller 6 (Rumsby 89), Cox 6 (Reilly 69), Malcolm 6, Sheerin 7, Smith 7, Buchanan 6. Subs not used: Penman, Hornby, Reilly, Fotheringham, Muirhead.
COVE RANGERS (4-4-2) – McKenzie 7, Redford 6 (Lawrie 75), Milne 7, Ross 7, Watson 7, Kelly 7, Stott 6, Scully 6, Megginson 8, McManus 7, Masson 6 (Smith 60). Subs not used: McCafferty, Robertson, Gray, C. Milne, Strachan, McCafferty.
Referee – Steven Kirkland 4.
Man of the match: Mitch Megginson.