Spartans’ dream of winning a fourth consecutive Central Taxis Premier Division championship title is still alive, but only just, after they scored from a controversial penalty in the third minute of stoppage time against a Whitehill Welfare team that refused to lie down.
On a very heavy but playable pitch, Spartans appeared to be heading for a 4-2, or even higher, winning margin until Whitehill equalised with two goals in a two-minute spell to tie the game with five minutes left.
There was more drama to follow when, in the 88th minute, Whitehill’s Jim Young was red-carded for taking a free kick before the referee had blown his whistle. Whitehill looked certain to at least hold Spartans to a draw but in the third minute of time added on the referee adjudged that Whitehill’s Dayne Robertson had brought down the Spartans substitute Chris Milligan in the penalty box. In the slippery and muddy conditions the award seemed harsh and the Whitehill players protested but to no avail.
Robertson was sent off and Gavin Malin hit the spot kick which Walker saved but the rebound fell kindly for Malin, who slotted the ball home for a sensational winner to keep Spartans’ title hopes alive.
The result means that Spartans have completed their league programme on 51 points and a goal difference of plus 38. Their challengers for the championship, Stirling University, are currently on 48 points with a goal difference of plus 36 after their final game against Vale of Leithen was postponed last night and will now be played on Monday evening. A victory for Stirling by two goals or more would give them the title for the first time in their history.
The game itself last night was, arguably, one of the best games of the entire season and Whitehill deserve the utmost credit for making sure that the pitch was in a fit condition for the game to go ahead.
Spartans kicked off, aggrieved that they had to play the game when four of their players were on a weekend break, although they did bring back Keith McLeod, John Grant and Jonny Seeley who did not play in last weekend’s 1-0 defeat from Stirling University.
Spartans’ trialist goalkeeper Murray Jackson was brought into action early on to save from Stevie Manson, although it was Spartans who took the lead in the eighth minute when Dean Hoskins hit a sweet left footed free kick into the top corner from 20 yards.
Scott Gormley and Wayne McIntosh both tested Jackson before he was eventually beaten after 17 minutes when a Mike Herd corner fell to Gormley who rifled a low shot into the net.
Both sides played passing football on the heavy surface and Chris Anderson showed some nice close control to round the Whitehill defence and deliver a superb left foot shot into the roof of the net from 18 yards.
There were incidents galore in both penalty boxes then, ten minutes into the second half, Spartans went 3-1 ahead when Jack Beesley crossed low for Hoskins to nip in and slip the ball behind Walker from close range. The action was nowhere near finished and Whitehill’s substitute Stuart McLaughlin set up Manson who scored with a low angular drive from the apex of the penalty box. Spartans retalieted immediately to make the score 4-2 when Sean Wringe showed great composure to lift the ball over Walker.
Whitehill forced Spartans back and after another enterprising run from McLaughlin in the 83rd minute the ball fell to Andrew Kidd, who scored with an exquisite shot from outside the penalty box. Only two minutes later Manson picked the ball up wide on the right and magnificently equalised with a delicate lob.
Then came that frantic closing five minutes with two red cards, a disputed penalty and a narrow 5-4 win for Spartans.
Mike Lawson, Spartans co-manager, said: “I cannot emphasise enough how proud I am of every one of our players. I was absolutely delighted with every player on the park. We have done our bit and we can only wait on the result of the game on Monday. We can now only lose the title on goal difference.”
Grant Carnie, the Whitehill manager, said: “We gave everything we could. We were 4-2 down and got it back to 4-4 but fair play to Spartans. I thought we played absolutely brilliant and our commitment was superb. With just a wee bit more luck we could have got all three points.”
Whitehill Welfare:Walker, Brown, Young, Moriarty, W. Kidd, McCulloch (Robertson 18), Herd (McLaughlin 58), A. Kidd, Gormley, McIntosh, Manson. Subs: Tansey, McDonald.
Spartans: Jackson, O’Donnell, Hoskins, Seeley, MacKinnon, Grant, Beesley, Finnie (Wringe 63), Malin, McLeod, Anderson (Milligan 78). Subs: McTurk, Sclater, Donnelly.