AYR United boss Lee Bullen says his side are finding an "enjoyment" in defending after picking up a clean sheet in their victory over Ardrieonians.

The Honest Men won their first match at Somerset Park since August, with Anton Dowds' header after 15 minutes enough to see off Rhys McCabe's Diamonds. 

The result saw Ayr climb to sixth in the Championship table, on a day when Morton and Arbroath also won, as Bullen's men moved to within four points of the promotion play-offs.

“I think we as a team are really strong on the counter attack," he said.

"Our defence looked solid. Our goalkeeper made a big save in the first half.

“We always looked a threat going forward, but also put our body on the line when it mattered to keep the clean sheet.”

It is that defensive solidity that Bullen believes will be key to success moving forward.

"Over the last three games we’ve been a lot more consistent defensively," he said. 

"We’re not giving away a massive amount of chances.

“We’re defending really well. There seems to be a real enjoyment in defending.

“We limited Airdrie to very little. It is really pleasing from that side of things - we're looking a lot stronger.

“To get the clean sheet, to get three points and to get the home victory is really pleasing.”

Bullen says he knows consistency will be key to keeping Ayr moving up a table which is becoming more and more tightly packed every week.

While Ayr may be only four points away from the promotion play-off places, they are also just four points off Queen's Park at the bottom.

“The victory puts us into sixth, drags us back into the pack, puts us four points off the play-offs," Bullen continued.

“One win jumps you up, one defeat drops you down – it’s just that tight.

“Apart from the two teams at the top, there’s not a massive amount of consistency from the other teams.

"That’s the way it’s going to be until the end of the season.”

Next up for Ayr is a particularly challenging test when they travel to Fife this Friday, December 22, to take on the Championship's form team, Raith Rovers.

The Kirkcaldy men retained their place at the top of the table after beating Dundee United at Tannadice on Saturday - but Bullen says his side have nothing to fear heading into the match in Kirkcaldy.

"I don’t think we should be scared of the game," he told the Advertiser.

"We should give them the respect they’re due, but we’re certainly not scared of them.

“If you look at the first game at Somerset, we gave a real good account of ourselves. We lost two sloppy goals but actually played quite well.

“We can take a lot of aspects of that initial game up to Starks Park and hopefully cause what to most people would be a bit of a shock.”

Bullen made a handful of changes to his starting 11 on Saturday and feels this shows the strength of his squad as players return to fitness - and he insists he's more than happy to have a selection headache.

"It’s a brilliant problem to have," he said.

"That’s what we want. That’s where we got our success last year – where it was difficult to pick a squad, let alone a starting 11. We’re slowly getting back to that."

United will still be without Nick McAllister for their trip to the 'Lang Toun', while George Stanger is also set to miss out, alongside long-term absentee Andy Murdoch. 

A late decision will be made on winger Jamie Murphy, who was substituted on Saturday after he "stretched his hamstring".

But  on the flip side, Bullen was given a welcome boost this week with Partick Thistle confirming loanee Anton Dowds will be remaining at Somerset for the rest of the season.

"It’s massive for us," the manager said.

"I think it’s great for him as well; it sorts his head and he can get on with it.

“He’s been a great addition for us, when you lose someone like Dipo [Akinyemi] it’s always difficult to replace but Anton has came in and given us good support.”

However, the Ayr boss is yet to discover whether Logan Chalmers will be in the same boat as Dowds, with Chalmers' parent club, Dundee United, having until mid-January to make a decision on whether or not to recall the player.

After this weekend's trip to Kirkcaldy, Ayr bring the curtain down on 2023 against the other half of the Championship's Fife contingent, when Dunfermline come to Somerset Park on Saturday, December 30.