Spartans’ William Hill Scottish Cup journey finally came to an end last night, going down to a narrow 1-0 defeat at Berwick Rangers, earning the Shielfield Park club a lucrative quarter-final tie with Hibs at Easter Road on March 8.
Darren Lavery’s first-half strike was enough for Colin Cameron’s men to squeeze past their Lowland League opponents, who almost pulled off another late salvo when Jack Nixon struck the crossbar with three minutes remaining.
In truth, the SPFL League Two side created all the clearer chances and deserved to progress, despite a spirited display from the North Edinburgh team.
The prospect of an Edinburgh derby quarter-final away to Hibs certainly captured the imagination in the build up and the Pilton community once again turned out in their numbers to support Dougie Samuel’s men.
The size of the ‘Spartan Army’ that made their way down the A1 – 11 official supporters buses made the trip – contributed to the crowd of 2003 and congestion that meant the official kick-off time was delayed by 15 minutes to 8pm.
Spartans suffered a blow before starting when their first-choice keeper, Kevin Swain, failed to recover in time from the eye injury sustained in the weekend defeat by Vale of Leithen, meaning youngster Blair Carswell stepped in to make his second top-team appearance of the season. However, he was a good understudy on the night and performed well when tested.
Berwick manager Colin Cameron won his own battle with injury, passing a pre-match fitness test to name himself in the starting line-up, obviously believing his experience and influence on the pitch would be a morale boost.
The Shielfield boss knew he was in a game within the first minute, John Grant setting the tone with a late tackle that Cameron was none too pleased with, as Spartans looked to make their presence felt from the first whistle.
The visitors started far brighter than they did at Ainslie Park, and it was they who fashioned the first opportunity of the match. Grant’s long ball into the channel was chased down by Paul Sludden, who in turn fed Kevin Motion. The wide man drove into the box before firing his effort well wide.
Sludden then had a great chance of his own seconds later. Motion’s cut-back picked out the on-loan Stenhousemuir man, whose shot was blocked thanks to some last-ditch defending from Berwick. The hosts mustered their first effort on goal on ten minutes, but full-back Devon Jacob’s low, angled drive was wide of Carswell’s far post.
Jack Beesley, who booked Spartans’ place in the fifth round with his last-minute winner against Morton, came close to another cup goal when he sent a dipping free-kick just wide of Willie Bald’s near post after quarter of an hour.
It was Jacobs again trying to drive Berwick forward on 25 minutes, seizing on a loose ball in midfield before sending a low shot into Carswell’s arms.
Colin Cameron’s side were ahead two minutes later.
Paul Willis’s in-swinging corner from the left wasn’t met by a Spartans head, and Darren Lavery capitalised by steering the ball low past Carswell from close range.
Sludden then should have done better with his chance to level three minutes later. Grant again lofted the ball over the top and the No.10 took it full on the volley having beaten the offside trap, only for the ball to sail well over Bald’s crossbar.
Lavery’s strike sent Spartans in at the break a goal down for the third successive Scottish Cup match, meaning another second-half comeback was needed from Dougie Samuel’s men. That looked unlikely, however, as Berwick began the second 45 with an element of control, Spartans unable to force their way up the pitch as they had done in the first.
Samuel threw on Errol Douglas and Keith McLeod in a bid to get back into the tie, but it was the home side who almost doubled their lead in bizarre fashion just after the hour. Player-manager Cameron’s speculative effort from around 35 yards just didn’t dip enough, fortunately for Carswell landing on the roof of the net.
The Wee Gers were inches from making it 2-0 with just under 20 minutes to go through Willis. His vicious low volley looked in all the way, only for Carswell to get down sharply and tip the ball onto his near post, with some half-hearted appeals from the Berwick players claiming the ball had crossed the line dismissed by referee Greg Aitken.
Blair Henderson’s flicked header from Cameron’s floated free-kick drifted just wide as the hosts sought to kill the game with quarter of an hour remaining. Goalscorer Lavery was withdrawn as the game entered the final ten minutes, Cameron appearing to settle for 1-0.
With time running out, Spartans looked to get the ball up to McLeod and Douglas as early as possible. The latter’s flick on from a Jack Nixon throw-in was begging to be tapped in at the back post, but was hooked away from danger by Jacobs with just three minutes left.
The same two combined a minute later and so nearly snatched another dramatic late equaliser. Berwick failed to clear their lines, allowing Spartans to keep the ball alive in the area. Douglas’s flick-on was met on the volley by Nixon, only for the Geordie’s effort to clip the top of the bar and go over, much to the anguish of the travelling fans.
Berwick in turn should have ended the game as a contest within seconds. Henderson clipped the ball back from the by-line and Willis put his shot straight at Carswell, when anything either side of the keeper would have resulted in a second goal.
The fourth official signalled three minutes added time but there was to be no repeat of the late drama of previous rounds as Berwick held on to reach their first Scottish Cup quarter-final since 1980, when they also faced Hibernian.
Berwick Rangers: Bald, Jacobs, Drummond, Notman (Gold 27), Young, Fairbairn, Gray (Henderson 68), Currie, Lavery (Maxwell 81), Cameron, Willis. Subs not used: Andrews, Dargo, Russell, Miller.
Spartans: Carswell, Nixon, Cennerazzo, Malone, Mackinnon, Brown, Beesley (Stevenson 74), Grant, Bremner, Sludden (Douglas 59), Motion. Subs not used: Jackson, McLeod, Thomson, Sivewright, Henretty.
Referee: G Aitken