Spartans’ quest to reach SPFL League Two has been left hanging by a thread after they went down 4-0 to Highland League champions Cove Rangers in the Pyramid play-off semi-final first leg.
It will now take a momentous effort from the Capital side if their play-off journey is to continue beyond tomorrow night’s second leg at Ainslie Park, with Cove now overwhelming favourites to progress to Saturday’s play-off final first leg against Cowdenbeath.
The visitors acquitted themselves well in the first 45 minutes at Harlaw Park without testing home goalkeeper Stuart McKenzie. However, Spartans suffered a sucker punch three minutes before the interval – moments after Blair Carswell had pulled off a stunning save from a Paul McManus header – as Mitch Megginson stabbed home his 50th goal of the season from Jamie Masson’s near-post cross. We were three minutes away from producing an excellent first half,” Spartans boss Dougie Samuel said afterwards. “Had we gone in 0-0 at half-time I do think it would have been a completely different game.”
The Lowland League champions’ goal was breached for a second time just five minutes after the restart as McManus netted from the penalty spot following Adam Corbett’s rash challenge on Harry Milne.
Eric Watson headed home a third for John Sheran’s men three minutes later and McManus capped off a fine individual performance with his second of the afternoon with just more than 20 minutes remaining.
“The better team won,” said an honest Samuel. “We struggled with their physicality and intensity for the whole game. Having said that we’ve lost three goals in a 15-minute spell. I think the frustration is we’ve lost two from set-pieces on the back of individual errors and then the fourth is just a case of us feeling sorry for ourselves.
“That’s not criticising them because the players have put their heart and soul into this and they want to do well. There’s no sour grapes whatsoever because that’s the best front four we’ve played against all season and the best Highland League team I’ve faced in my entire career.
“You’ve got to put it into context. This is a team that has scored over 100 goals. We’ve had 23 clean sheets this season and never lost more than two goals in a game and we’ve come here and lost four so that tells you something about the weapons they have in their side.
“It was a great learning experience for our younger players especially and also for the club as a whole as it lets us see where we need to be and where we need to get to if we’re going to come through this process.”
If Spartans’ season is to draw to a close tomorrow night, Samuel couldn’t be more proud of his players’ endeavours.
“This result doesn’t devalue what we’ve achieved this season,” he said. “This should be put down as a great learning experience so we’ve got an opportunity tomorrow to earn some pride back for the football club. Nobody likes to lose and you don’t like to lose 4-0 when you are used to winning.
“We’ll regroup, put the squad back together again and give it our best shot. We certainly want to give a better account of ourselves going forward. We’ve just got to try and win the game and take it from there.”
Cove Rangers: McKenzie, Redford, Milne, Ross, Watson, Kelly, Smith (Park 55), Scully, Megginson, McManus (Stott 81), Masson (Robertson 89). Subs: Gray, Milne, Strachan, McCafferty.
Spartans: Carswell, Thomson (Allum 62), Brown, Tolmie, Corbett, Greenhill (Stevenson 62), McFarland, Herd, Bremner, Stevens (Lamarca 76), Maxwell. Subs: Stobie, Malin, Atkinson, Cennerazzo.
Referee: David Munro.