Spartans boss Dougie Samuel described his side’s 2-0 defeat to reigning Lowland League champions East Kilbride as a huge setback, but insisted their destiny is very much still in their own hands.
Second-half goals from Craig Malcolm and Ross McNeil in front of a bumper crowd at Ainslie Park extended the league leaders’ advantage over the Capital outfit to nine points.
However, Spartans, who have slipped to fourth in the table behind BSC Glasgow and East Stirlingshire, do have four games in hand over the South Lanarkshire club.
Samuel couldn’t mask his disappointment at his players failing to reach the level of performance he has come to expect but is confident he’ll see a positive reaction starting with Friday’s visit of city rivals Edinburgh University.
“The better team won on the day so we have no complaints,” he admitted afterwards. “East Kilbride were excellent at the top end of the park and carried a threat all game. [Bryan] Prunty and Malcolm have brought SFL quality and guaranteed goals at a key stage of the season. For me whoever finishes above them will win the league.
“But we will dust ourselves down and go again. It’s a four-horse race. We have an opportunity to show our character and quality over the next few weeks. I’m confident we can bounce back, Saturday was a huge setback but no one is feeling sorry for themselves. Our destiny is still in our own hands.”
Kilby striker McNeil took a tumble in the home side’s box with the game just minutes old, but referee Scott Millar felt there was insufficient contact from goalkeeper Blair Carswell to award a penalty.
Spartans were uncharacteristically out of sorts going forward, with Matt McGinley a virtual spectator in the visitors’ goal.
On the half-hour mark McNeil spun his marker having collected a pass from Sean Winter but the No.9’s first-time effort came back off the crossbar.
Scott Maxwell caught a glimpse of McGinley’s goal as the first half drew to a close, but the former Berwick Rangers winger’s shot proved tame.
Billy Stark’s men deservedly assumed the lead 12 minutes after the restart as Adam Strachan’s cross picked out the run of Malcolm, who had stolen a yard on his marker to glance his header beyond Carswell.
Kilby continued to press their hosts back as McNeil and Sean Winter both went close to adding a second.
However, with ten minutes remaining McNeil wrapped up a crucial three points with an accurate finish into the far corner.
Spartans midfielder David Greenhill reiterated his manager’s comments and said: “I don’t think we played particularly well, but I didn’t think there was much in it to be honest. They scored two poor goals from our point of view, but I’m not going to criticise the defence as they kept us in it. We’ll pick ourselves up and go again.”
Meanwhile, Civil Service Strollers ran out comfortable 5-0 winners at bottom side Hawick Royal Albert.
A brace from Jack Downie, the second from the penalty spot, had the visitors in command at the interval.
Former Leith Athletic striker James Hainey was also on target twice in the second half with Stephen Froude completing the rout on his return from injury.
Elsewhere, Whitehill Welfare suffered a 4-1 defeat to Gretna 2008 at Raydale Park, Robbie Carter netting a late consolation for Gary Small’s side.
Edinburgh University fought back from two goals down to earn a 2-2 draw with Dalbeattie Star at East Peffermill. The students’ goalscorers were Rafa Calbacho and Ross Watters.
Spartans: Carswell, Herd, Stevenson (Atkinson 70), Tolmie, Corbett, Greenhill, Brown, McFarland, Stevens (Allum 82), Dishington, Maxwell (Lamarca 70). Subs: Stobie, Thomson, Guthrie, Khutsishvili.
East Kilbride: McGinley, Stevenson, Russell, Howie, Proctor, Gibbons, Winter, Anderson, McNeil (Prunty 82), Malcolm, Strachan. Subs: Kean, Coll, McBride, Wallace, Hughes, Craig.