NEWTONGRANGE may have failed to claim the biggest scalp in the Junior game, but they certainly earned a ‘Star’ for their gutsy effort against the Ayrshire aces.
Indeed, this was as hard as Auchinleck have had to work for a string of Emirates Scottish Junior Cup successes over East Region sides over the past three seasons.
In the end, all that separated the record nine time winners and a team with just one triumph in the Junior game’s showcase event to its name was a third-minute goal.
From Nitten’s point of view, it was a soft one to concede, a local worthy next to me probably deserving a pie at the next home game for the best description, as he told his mates it had been “scabby”.
Alan Miller’s men certainly paid the price for not clearing the ball after it landed in their penalty box, allowing Kier Milliken to sweep it home from no more than six yards out.
It was the nightmare start for Star and, over the years, Auchinleck will have probably done exactly the same and gone on to record comfortable wins against teams.
That they didn’t on this occasion was due to the home side managing to bounce back from that early blow to gain a foothold in the game.
In the final analysis, in fact, the Midlothian side could count themselves a touch unlucky that they hadn’t earned a replay back in Ayrshire.
Hence the roar of relief from the Talbot fans at the sound of the final whistle and the round of applause Newtongrange received from their committee members coming off the pitch after their warm down.
They came close to equalising on a handful of occasions, including twice in quick succession midway through the first-half.
First, from a Lewis Turner corner on the left, skipper Blair Tolmie headed the ball down into the six-yard box and big Craig O’Reilly flicked it towards the goal. Talbot defender Willie Lyle was in the right place at the right time to clear it, though O’Reilly and the other Newtongrange players closest to the spot claimed the ball had gone over the line before he did so.
Then, shortly afterwards, O’Reilly, despite looking as though he was offside after latching on to a lobbed ball from Darren Gillon, was denied again. On this occasion, he wasted no time firing in a left-foot shot but, certainly not for the first time in his career, Andy Leishman came to Auchinleck’s rescue with a superb one-handed save.
After the break, Star’s best chances fell to Paul Tansey and substitute Gary Cherrie, the former firing wide when he should at least have hit the target following some neat link-up playing involving Gillon and O’Reilly. Then, right at the death, Cherrie could almost have been forgiven for starting to see his name in the headlines until his shot from near the penalty spot produced a goal-saving block from Lyle.
In between those chances, Talbot only really came close once to adding to their tally when Milliken hit the top of the bar with a shot right at the start of the second-half. Miller said he was “disappointed” with both the goal and his side going out of the competition but insisted, and rightly so, that his players could “take some pride” for the performance.
“They were just that bit quickerout of the blocks and they caught us out,” said the Star boss, “but the reaction after that was terrific. We matched what most people think is the best Junior club in Scotland.”
’Bot boss Tommy Sloan admitted he was relieved to see his side come out on top, insisting he “always knew this would be a tough tie as they are an up-and-coming side with some good players in their team”.
He said his players were adamant the ball hadn’t crossed the line in the game’s big talking point, while Miller felt the “reaction” of his players had suggested otherwise.
Not surprisingly, he felt there was little point lingering on that, preferring instead to talk about a potential bright future lying ahead for the New Victoria Park club.
Since taking over the reins along with Ian Black and Finlay Wells just under 18 months ago, they’ve made a major overhaul of the playing personnel by making a total of 23 signings, including Scott Gibson, who was a rock at the heart of Star’s defence here.
Big spenders Ballingry already look as though they’re going to be tough to beat in the Premier Division title race, but more of this on a week-to-week basis and Star can run them close.
Newtongrange Star: Renton, Donnelly, Swanney, Tolmie, Gibson, Shields (Cherrie 80), Dunbar (Forster 69), Gillon, O’Reilly (King 69), Turner, Tansey. Subs: McManus, Amos.
Auchinleck Talbot: Leishman, Lyle, Pope, Pettigrew, McGoldrick, Spence (Hyslop 83), Young, White, Milliken (Wilson 70), Gumley (McCann 82), Faulds. Subs: Collins, McGarrity.
Referee: G Ross.