Spartans have Lowland League title as good as won

Keith McLeod's penalty drew Spartans level before they went on to defeat Whitehill. Pic: Malcolm McCurrach
Keith McLeod's penalty drew Spartans level before they went on to defeat Whitehill. Pic: Malcolm McCurrach
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Emotions were high at Ferguson Park on Saturday as Spartans all but sealed the inaugural Lowland League championship after coming from behind to defeat arch-rivals Whitehill Welfare 2-1.

All three points ensured that Vale of Leithen, who are 15 points adrift of the Ainslie Park side with five games remaining, can only hope to match Spartans’ current total of 48 points by winning all five and having a 33 goal swing in their favour. Spartans, who have just two league fixtures to contest, will be crowned league champions should Vale fail to defeat Whitehill on Saturday.

The celebrations at full-time were difficult to stomach for the home side who, like their opponents, had aspirations of winning title. But Spartans have set the game alight with their power in attack, epitomised by striker Keith McLeod’s incredible run earlier this year of having scored in 14 consecutive matches.

However, for manager Dougie Samuel, who was with Whitehill for eight years during his own playing days, was quick to praise the efforts of all those who have made a contribution on the pitch.

“It’s been fantastic but it’s been a real challenge bearing in mind it’s still a new squad,” he said afterwards.

“This is all leading towards the biggest prize which is hopefully to bring league football to Ainslie Park one day.

“It’s about all the players to be honest. I haven’t made one pass or scored one goal and my job has been to encourage them and try and help them, and to quote Mickey (Lawson), it’s nice to turn them over on their own patch.”

Samuel disclosed preparations are all ready in motion for next season when the league is expected to expand from the current 12 teams to 16 when the opportunity to win a spot in Scottish Football League 2 comes into place.

“We’ve got three or four targets in mind, but we’ll wait and see who becomes available from the senior game. We’ll certainly try and freshen things up but it won’t be major surgery, just tinkering with things. Our season isn’t over yet as we still want to win the South Challenge Cup and we’ll be giving it our all to ensure we do that,” he added.

A modest Spartans support had made the journey to Rosewell keen to get the party started early on, but the players in red and white were met by a resolute defence in the opening stages, Whitehill captain Mike Bruce, in particular, not prepared to give an inch.

Willie Bremner fired over the bar from a Gary Cennerazzo cross as the visitors went in search of the opener before the hosts’ Darren McGlashan’s effort from 20 yards grazed the side netting. McLeod then hit the post with a looping effort that had caught out Bryan Young in the Whitehill goal.

A swirling wind was really playing havoc with all 22 players who made their feelings known, but after a reasonably quiet 20 minutes for both Young and Ross Gilpin, the latter must have been feeling generous as his error led to the opener.

Wayne Sproule’s surge forward was not closed down by the Spartans defence and, from the edge of the box, the little winger’s shot should have been comfortable for the Spartans No.1 who, in turn, fumbled the ball into the path of the anticipating Steven Manson who had the easiest of tasks of rolling the ball into the empty net from just a couple of yards.

Kerr Dodds then tried his luck as the home side went in search of doubling their lead before McLeod, again, went close with a shot that landed just over the crossbar. But Spartans were back level just seconds before the interval when a rash challenge by Bruce on Bremner inside the area gave McLeod the chance from 12 yards, and he duly delivered as he smashed the resulting spot-kick high into the net for his 31st goal of the season.

Tempers flared as the players left the pitch but it was the Whitehill contingent who were almost celebrating minutes after the restart when Danny Noon hit the outside of Gilpin’s left-hand post.

McLeod then almost stole in at the back post from a Jack Beesley cross but this time the marksman’s effort went just wide.

Spartans’ Daniel O’Donnell had a few shaky moments in the heart of the defence, allowing Andy Martin through on goal but the player failed to take advantage. Gilpin’s kick-out then bounced straight off Kevin Sivewright which allowed Noon through again, but the striker took too long to shoot and O’Donnell atoned for his earlier mistake.

But, on 68 minutes, Spartans were ahead for the first time when after Cennerazzo had been fouled on the far side, Beesley’s resulting free-kick to the far post was headed back across goal by Bremner and there was John Grant to place the ball into the corner from close range for the champions-elect.

Whitehill’s afternoon was compounded further when Gareth Thom was sent off for foul and abusive language.

Whitehill Welfare: Young, Hall, Thom, Bruce, Sproule, McGlashan, Manson (Quinn 72), Dodds, Noon (Somerville 76), McIntosh, Martin. Sub: McDiarmid.

Spartans: Gilpin, Brown, Cennerazzo, Sivewright, O’Donnell, Grant, Beesley (Ballantyne 76), Whatley, Bremner, McLeod, Muhsin. Subs: Anderson, Blaikie, Cunningham, Jackson.