Spartans managerial legend Mike Lawson admits that going back to Ainslie Park to sit in the away dugout tomorrow makes him feel a tad uneasy.
Lawson, along with co-boss Mike Lynch, was controversially sacked by Spartans in the close season after 11 trophy-laden years at the helm before quickly returning to football with Whitehill Welfare.
Tomorrow the clubs meet in a Cetnral Taxis Premier Division match (kick-off 2.30pm) and Lawson, who won “about 30 trophies” with Spartans said: “I don’t know how I will feel and I’m not particularly looking forward to the situation. However, this is a big, big game which is not about me, it’s about the Whitehill Welfare players.”
Dougie Samuel took over from Lawson as Spartans boss and the pair are no strangers, Samuel playing under Lawson for eight seasons.
Lawson continued: “We face a Spartans side who are the only unbeaten team against East of Scotland League opposition this season, so what they have done so far is amazing.”
In the summer, Spartans lost Omar Kader (to Forfar Athletic), Dean Hoskins (Berwick Rangers) and Gavin Malin (returned to England after graduating). Lawson added: “These three players all helped create and score a lot of goals last season. Douglas and [assistant manager] Neil Irvine have replaced these players with others of high quality and the Spartans team of today is as good as it was last season.”
Whitehill warmed up for tomorrow’s top-of-the-table encounter with an impressive 4-0 victory last Saturday against Stirling University who will also be challenging for the league title this season after winning it last year.
“Everything went for us against Stirling, but tomorrow is a game that everybody connected with East of Scotland League football is looking forward to immensely – none more so than my Whitehill Welfare players.”
Scott Gormley is an injury doubt for Lawson ahead of the eagerly anticipated encounter.
Samuel, meanwhile, has a “great deal of respect” for Lawson and said: “As a manager, Mike is somebody who I look up to because, as a player, I signed for him on four different occasions when he was in charge at Whitehill (twice), Meadowbank Thistle and Spartans. I also regard Mike as a close friend, but I have to stress that this game is not about us – it’s about the players on the pitch.”
Spartans and Whitehill are both unbeaten in the league, although the Ainslie Park outfit have drawn three games while Whitehill have a 100 per cent record from their four matches. Last Saturday, Spartans relied on Jack Beesley to give them a stoppage-time winner in their 4-3 victory away to Preston Athletic. Samuel reflected on his side’s performance by saying: “The result should have been put to bed much earlier as we created and missed several chances, although, overall, we were just delighted to win.”
Spartans remain unbeaten in all East of Scotland fixtures this season, the only blemish on their record being a William Hill Scottish Cup exit at the hands of St Cuthbert Wanderers. “I believe that our players have played good football all season, although it has been hard, for various reasons, to field a settled side. However, that is why we have a squad and under no circumstances am I making excuses because almost every club will be in the same situation.
“Mike and Sam’s record with Spartans was phenomenal and I am sure that they will get a warm welcome tomorrow.
“I have a good insight as to how teams managed by him want to play. Whitehill are a capable side full of depth and experience.”
Last season, Spartans failed to lift a trophy while Whitehill finished their campaign by winning the East of Scotland League Cup, their first silverware for four seasons. “Both clubs are hoping for success this season,” stressed Samuel. “We are delighted with the new players we have brought in because they are young and have a lot of potential. Gary [Cennerazzo], Mark [Whatley] and Willie [Bremner] have all responded very well and adapted to our methods, although it will take time for everybody to bed in. The group is improving although we have to be patient – the scenario at Spartans is definitely ‘work in progress’.
“I’ll be saying to my players to stick together and enjoy the game and the challenge.”
Samuel has Daniel O’Donnell suspended, Kevin Sivewright and John Grant injured, while Alasdair MacKinnon and Keith McLeod face late fitness tests.