Jason Thomson is well versed with junior football, from crumbling terraces littered with fag ends to sweary words howled by grizzly, often hungover punters.
At least, that’s the stereotype. As Thomson will tell you, there’s a bit more to it than that. He is a regular at junior grounds around the Lothians and praises both the atmosphere and standard of play.
Today, he will be at Prestonfield in Linlithgow, although not as a paying punter. The Raith Rovers captain will try to guide his team through a Scottish Cup third-round tie which has hazards all over it for the Championship club. Linlithgow Rose, third in the McBookie.com East Superleague, are one of the most capable junior sides in the country. They sense the chance of a big upset at their own ground.
Prestonfield, it must be said, is of a better standard than most junior venues. It is well maintained, with a covered enclosure on one side and the eye-catching Davie Roy stand on the other, named after the club’s former secretary who served for 50 years. There is a grass bank behind one goal and a standing area and social club behind the other.
“Lithgae” play in front of a passionate support which will be out in numbers this afternoon. Prestonfield’s capacity is around 3500 and fans of The Rose will be eager to see their team take on the professional big boys of Raith. Thomson knows he is in an impossible situation. Win convincingly and it’s expected. Anything else and you’re in for a caning.
“I follow junior football a bit and I know Linlithgow Rose are one of the better teams in their league. I think they’re expecting between 2000 and 3000 at their ground so I’m looking forward to it. It’s a game we need to approach properly,” he cautioned.
“Obviously, as a youth player at Hearts, we played at a few junior grounds. We used to play at Olivebank in Musselburgh and a few other junior grounds. I was off a couple of Saturdays ago after we had a Friday night game so I went to watch Newtongrange v Bonnyrigg Rose. I don’t know if Prestonfield will be similar to that but we know what to expect.
“It will be tight and enclosed at Linlithgow and everyone will be on top of you. I’m sure they have a good support. I remember going to watch a Musselburgh Athletic game against Linlithgow once and Linlithgow had a massive support with them that day. That was a few years back but they are a well-supported team.”
Thomson’s affection for junior football has grown since some of his former Hearts colleagues ventured into that environment. He will encounter one of them today. “If I’ve got mates playing then I’ll go and watch them in the juniors. I went to watch Nitten and Bonnyrigg because I’m mates with Johnny Stewart, who plays for Bonnyrigg,” he continued.
“I know a couple of boys from youth level who are at Linlithgow now. Coco [Colin Strickland] is there. He was at Hearts as a youngster. I think he was only there for a season and he finished top goalscorer in the entire league so I know what to expect from him. He always scored a lot of goals and I’m guessing things haven’t changed much. Tommy Coyne was at Kilmarnock as a youth player and I remember him as well.
“There are some good players in junior football. It gets this reputation for being all big and physical but there are some good footballers. It’s still a good level for boys to go and play at. You might think it’s only a few boys having a kickabout with their pals but I’ve been to watch these games and been impressed with the standard. I always knew the juniors was a decent level and the games I’ve watched back that up.”
Ironically, Linlithgow may take their inspiration for today’s tie from Raith’s own cup exploits this year. In April, Thomson lifted the Ramsdens Cup after a victory over Rangers against all the odds in the final at Easter Road. He has triumphed as the underdog and he knows the dangers of junior sides.
“We’ve had these days when we’re the underdogs. Linlithgow will be the underdogs today but we’ve been there as the unfancied team and got the result. You only need to look back at that final against Rangers. Linlithgow will take heart from games like that. It will be a big day for them and for their club so they can go out and enjoy it. That might help them relax and play better.
“We’re expected to win by four or five. If we don’t, folk will raise their eyebrows. We will show Linlithgow the respect they deserve. They’ve obviously had to come through a few rounds to get to this stage of the competition. We don’t want to be sitting there at five o’clock wondering what happened.
“There are always a few teams it happens to every year. We don’t want to be that team who slips on the banana skin and gets knocked out of the Scottish Cup. We have quite an experienced squad and we know it’s not going to be an easy game. If we go there thinking it will be easy, we’ll be in for a tough afternoon.
“An early goal would settle us down and that’s what you need going to these places. If it’s a tight game going into the last few minutes, that’s when it becomes hard. Linlithgow Rose are one of the biggest junior teams about.”