Keith McLeod emerged from the substitutes’ bench to net a superb winner for Spartans in their 2-1 victory over Stirling University at Forthbank in a crunch Lowland League Cup Group B encounter.
The 35-year-old striker was rested from the start by boss Dougie Samuel after complaining of a hamstring niggle at training last Thursday.
And with so many important fixtures on the horizon for the Ainslie Park club, the current league leaders, Samuel felt omitting his top goalscorer from the starting XI was the correct decision.
“Keith felt his hamstring at training,” Samuel commented. “He is in such a great vein of form and he’s so important to us that we really can’t afford to take any risks with him. But it’s worked out perfectly and he’s scored as good a goal as he has scored all season.”
McLeod’s goal five minutes from time was befitting of winning any cup tie, his tally of scoring in 13 consecutive games edging ever closer to Dundee United player Finn Dossing’s British record of 15 which the Dane achieved during the 1964/65 season.
The Capital club required all three points to keep their hopes alive of finishing top of the group and earning automatic qualification for the semi-finals. Now just two points adrift of Stirling, who have completed their round of matches, victory over Whitehill Welfare in their final fixture will see Spartans overhaul their rivals and make the last four.
Samuel said: “Again we are going there knowing we have to win and we’ve got that clarity of purpose. We’re approaching a stage in the season where most Saturday’s are going to have something hanging on it, but we knew we had to beat Stirling and we’re absolutely delighted to come away from such a difficult place with three points.”
A quiet start brought few opportunities in front of goal. Kevin Motion’s corner from the right then flashed across goal with Willie Bremner and Daniel O’Donnell both missing the touch required to force the ball in before Mark Whatley drove over from 18 yards.
John Grant then had his headed effort save by Ryan Marshall in the Stirling goal after another inviting cross from the boot of Motion. For a side that has been lauded for their attacking football this season, the hosts were hugely disappointing in the final third – failing to carve out a chance that would really test visiting goalkeeper Scott Bennett in the opening 45.
Chris Anderson’s blistering strike within a minute of the restart signalled Spartans’ intentions from the offset.
It therefore came as little surprise that they found themselves in front just ten minutes after the restart.
After Marshall flapped at Motion’s initial cross, the No.11 returned the ball towards the back post where Bremner was on hand to knock the ball back across goal for O’Donnell to score from four yards.
Aware they were no longer in control of their own destiny, Stirling increased their pressure on the Spartans rearguard and equalised with 20 minutes remaining when Jack Nixon bulleted home a header from Calum Burns’ corner.
Samuel injected some pace with Jack Beesley replacing Alan Brown on the left side, but it was Whatley who played in fellow substitute McLeod who, in turn, allowed the ball to run across his body before beating Marshall at the near post from a tight angle with a thunderous strike that sent the Spartans technical area into raptures.
The visitors were forced to defend deep in the closing stages and Bennett produced a wonderful point-blank save in the final minute to deny Creag Robertson.
Stirling University: Marshall, Burns, Sutherland, Robertson, Nixon, Pearson, Sludden (Geddes 46), Millar (McWhirter 83), McKee (Donaghue-Kelly 46), Jones, Faulds. Subs: Nichol, Cuff.
Spartans: Bennett, Mackinnon, Cennerazzo, Sivewright, O’Donnell, Grant, Brown (Beesley 76), Whatley, Bremner, Anderson (McLeod 71), Motion (Muhsin 79). Subs: Main, Beacher.