Spartans boss Dougie Samuel says leading the club to this season’s Lowland League title is the greatest achievement of his managerial career.
It was champagne Saturday at Ainslie Park in front of a bumper crowd where the goalless stalemate with East Stirlingshire, coupled with East Kilbride’s 2-0 defeat by University of Stirling, saw the Capital outfit crowned champions for the second time in five years.
Spartans are now just four games from joining Capital rivals Edinburgh City in SPFL League Two but must overcome Highland League champions Cove Rangers and then Cowdenbeath if they are to realise their dream.
For now, though, it is a moment to savour for a group of players who, at one stage, trailed last season’s league champions East Kilbride by nine points.
And for Samuel, who has been at the helm since 2012 and led the club to the inaugural Lowland League title in 2014, their latest triumph surpasses anything he has experienced in almost two decades of being a manager.
“This is number one because other clubs have got bigger budgets and people didn’t think we could do it,” an emotional Samuel said afterwards. “We didn’t stop believing once we got that momentum going. I think when we lost to East Kilbride 2-0 [in February] and fell nine points behind they didn’t think we could do it. But that helped drive us on.
“It’s been four years of hard work and contributions by lots of people along the way but we’ve done it. I think we deserved it as we had been playing catch-up since the first month of the season. This nonsense about us not having beaten anyone in the top four, we beat East Kilbride three times last year so I don’t think we have to prove anything to anybody. We’ve shown a lot of character and ability. They’re a fantastic group of players to work with. They’ve got a real camaraderie and sense of togetherness that is quite special.”
Samuel admitted his mind did wander back and forth to what was unfolding at the Falkirk Stadium where Kilby were aiming to better Spartans’ result. That said, his players stuck to their task admirably against an East Stirlingshire side who were reduced to ten men when Paul Sludden picked up his second booking of the afternoon in stoppage time.
“I knew it was 0-0 at half-time up there and then 1-0 but after that I said ‘don’t tell me anymore’,” he said. “But when Stirling went 2-0 up that changed things slightly as we could afford to be a little bit more conservative. I felt we got the balance right in terms of still trying to get the goal. We were the better team in the second half and were the team on the front foot.”
Captain Michael Herd, who played through the pain barrier having picked up a leg injury in last Wednesday’s 4-0 win at Dalbeattie Star, insists the hard work isn’t finished just yet.
“It’s been a tough, tough season but what a feeling,” the 28-year-old said. “I’ve never been involved in something like this before. The bench kept everything pretty quiet so we didn’t know Stirling were two-up until about the last ten minutes when the gaffer changed the shape.
“This is not an easy league at all. I’ve been here three years and it’s improved every year and it’s only going to get better.
“We’ll enjoy this but then we need to get ourselves ready to play Cove. We’re going to give it everything we’ve got as we want to be a League Two club come the start of next season.”
Defender Craig Stevenson believes there is enough quality within the squad that will see the club promoted next month.
“Hopefully we can now go on and beat Cove and Cowdenbeath and get into League Two,” Stevenson said. “We certainly have the belief that we’re good enough. Highland League teams are always well organised so we know it’s going to be a really tough game. Cove have been flying but I don’t think they’ll fancy coming down here on a Tuesday night.
“I won the East of Scotland League with Lothian Thistle but this is a league above.”
Spartans will travel to Cove Rangers for the first leg of the Pyramid Play-off on Saturday, April 28, with the return leg taking place at Ainslie Park on Tuesday, May 1.
Spartans: Carswell, Brown, Stevenson, Tolmie, Corbett (Thomson 66), Greenhill (Stevens 84), Atkinson, Herd, Maxwell, Dishington (Lamarca 67), McFarland. Subs: Stobie, Nixon, Cennerazzo, Malin.
East Stirlingshire: Barclay, Greene, Murray, Grant, Tapping, White (McLaughlin 89), Rodgers (Brisbane 61), Ure, MacGregor, Sludden, Ramsey. Subs: Taylor, Allison.
Elsewhere in the Lowland League, an Andy Mair strike gave Civil Service Strollers a 1-0 win over Edusport Academy at Galabank. Edinburgh University thrashed Gretna 2008 5-1 at Peffermill with captain Jack Guthrie netting a hat-trick. And Whitehill Welfare ran out 4-2 winners against Gala Fairydean Rovers at Ferguson Park.