In an action-packed first final of the East of Scotland campaign, Leith Athletic held off the challenge of pre-match favourites Lothian Thistle Hutchison Vale to successfully defend the Alex Jack Cup.
The sun shone on Leith in more ways than one – at a bright but breezy Marine Drive, their opponents imploded through ill-discipline. Lothian defender Dale Horribine was dismissed for illegally halting the enterprising run of Leith’s Lewis Martin on the left-hand side of the six-yard box early in the second half, then Alan McDonaugh received a straight red card for dissent towards the referee as the eventual runners-up were reduced to nine men. Once Euan Campbell had given Leith a 2-1 lead, despite using his upper arm to control a forward pass before netting, the ill-feeling among Lothian ranks spilled into the dugout, where manager Grant Carnie lost his temper and was invited to leave the technical area.
A cagey and relatively pedestrian opening period failed to betray the fireworks that were to unfold in the second half, although the first 45 minutes were punctuated by a goal for each side.
A suspiciously unmarked Jamie Butler slid in the first goal as Lothian stamped their superiority on proceedings, but Robbie Mason, who arrived at Leith from Lothian last year, popped up at the other end just seconds before the half-time whistle to restore parity.
“It was a great time to score the goal,” reflected Leith boss Derek Riddel after the match. “We went into the dressing room absolutely buzzing at half-time and in the second half we came out and knew we were going to have a hard task playing into the wind. Again, we got the ball down and we probably played better when it was 11 versus 11.”
When Martin was hauled down by Horribine, Leith’s prolific hitman Campbell had the opportunity to convert his side’s spirited showing into tangible reward. However, the No. 9 struck his spot-kick down the middle, where the outstretched leg of goalkeeper Kevin Swain blocked the ball with some ease.
Despite staying in the game thanks to Swain’s heroics, Lothian seemed to lose their stride with Horribine’s departure from the fray. McDonaugh aggressively contested a decision by the referee and swiftly followed his team-mate off the pitch.
In theory, Leith should have used the additional space and manpower to their advantage, but they huffed and puffed and their own momentum appeared to falter.
Riddel said: “Did the red cards change the game? As I say, I thought we played better at 11 v 11. At 11 v 10 or 11 v 9, I thought we were too defensive and tried to hold on to the ball rather than force the issue.”
Campbell eventually did take matters into his own hands, latching on to a forward pass and appearing to nudge the ball forward with his arm before dispatching it under Swain and into the left-hand corner to give Leith the lead. Given the goal meant Leith snatched victory and, with it, retained the trophy they captured by beating Craigroyston in last year’s showpiece, Athletic manager Riddel was philosophical in his assessment of Campbell’s “innovative” set-up play.
“I couldn’t see it – he had his back to me,” said the Leith supremo. “He’s spoken to me and said the ball did hit the top of his arm. These things sometimes go for you. Sometimes you get them, sometimes you don’t, but we’re not complaining.
“Overall, I’m delighted for the guys, who have put in so much hard work, and I’m delighted to retain the trophy.
“We came here as underdogs and I said to the guys before the game that there was no pressure on them whatsoever. I wanted them to go and play, to go and enjoy the game, and the pitch was a great surface for us to play on.”
Riddel hopes that the cup triumph can spur his side, currently bottom of the Premier Division, into effecting an upturn in their league fortunes.
“Unfortunately, we only have two league games between now and the end of November, but we’ll definitely kick on. This will give the guys a boost in confidence, and hopefully we can go on and get ourselves up that league table.”