SPARTANS boss Dougie Samuel admitted his team experienced a “bittersweet day” as a 3-2 South Challenge Cup semi-final defeat by Dalbeattie Star was followed by the news that the Edinburgh club had been confirmed as Lowland League champions.
Whitehill Welfare’s 2-0 victory at Vale of Leithen clinched the title for the Ainslie Park outfit as league champions and Samuel admitted that, once his team had got over Saturday’s cup disappointment, they’d be ready to bask in the glory of their championship success.
“It makes it a bittersweet day and I’m sure when we speak about it at the start of the week, everybody will be feeling fantastic about winning the league
“We’re really proud of winning the first (Lowland) league and I prioritised that.”
On Saturday, Spartans struggled to display the same urgency they have become renowned for this season.
The hosts were met by a Dalbeattie outfit who have shown time and again this term just how good a side they are with their intricate passing and desire to attack – star player Lewis Sloan a constant thorn in the home side’s defence.
Although disappointed not to seal their place in the final, Samuel had no complaints with the outcome and offered a strong appraisal for the winners.
“I think Dalbeattie executed their gameplan very well,” he said. “We always knew it was going to be a tough game and I said in my programme notes I thought they’d been the best footballing side we have played all season and I stand by that. They retain the ball well, work hard for each other and in Lewis Sloan they have one of the best players in the league. The quality of their three goals was fantastic and there’s no shame in losing to them. I don’t want to take anything away from Dalbeattie and you have to give them credit.”
It was the home side who were the more assertive in the opening phase though, Sean Muhsin having first sight on ’keeper Darren Martin’s goal but the midfielder’s effort was tame and the Dalbeattie No.1 gathered with ease.
But after just six minutes, it was the visitors who stole the lead through a quite magnificent strike. Sloan anticipated John Grant’s intended pass to Willie Bremner inside the Spartans half, the Dalbeattie playmaker played team-mate Wayne Gordon into the penalty area and the striker sent an unstoppable effort high into the net beyond Ross Gilpin.
Gordon then lashed an effort off Gilpin’s crossbar just moments later after dispossessing Daniel O’Donnell before Bremner brought out the best in Martin who thwarted the striker’s close-range effort with his feet. However, the hosts drew level after 16 minutes and this time Bremner wasn’t to be denied. Gary Cennerazzo’s cross from the right to the back post was headed back across goal from Jack Beesley and there was Bremner to coolly slot the ball into the far corner from 12 yards with an equally composed finish.
Dalbeattie then had a shout for a penalty waved away by referee Scott Lambie as the first half drew to a close when Sloan went down under the challenge of Danny Main – the defender perhaps fortunate not to concede a spot-kick.
Spartans began the second-half the more likely team to add to their lead but it was that man Sloan who proved the difference as the Dumfries & Galloway side edged ahead.
Scott Milligan’s run up the left side went unchallenged and he was allowed space and time to advance into the Spartans penalty area before squaring his pass to the onrushing Sloan who guided his shot into the bottom left-hand corner for 2-1.
Two became three just ten minutes later when the quick-thinking Sloan played a one-two with Paul Cook after Muhsin’s foul, and the Dalbeattie No.10 thundered home a left-footed strike into the bottom corner from 20 yards.
Substitute Donal Henretty’s goal from just a yard out in the final minute brought about a tussle in the Dalbeattie goal as tempers frayed, but the visitors held on to claim their place in next month’s final.
Spartans: Gilpin, Cennerazzo, Main, Sivewright, O’Donnell, Grant (Motion 61), Beesley, Whatley, Bremner, McLeod, Muhsin (Henretty 77). Subs: Anderson, Blaikie, Carswell.
Dalbeattie Star: Martin, Maxwell, Warren, Wells, Anderson, Ferguson, Fergusson, Cameron, Gordon (Park 46), Sloan, Milligan (Cook 76). Subs: Handling, McRudden, Drysdale.