Spartans boss Dougie Samuel believes it’s only a matter of time before a non-league club progresses to the latter stages of a national cup competition.
To support this bold claim, it has been just a fraction over 18 months since divisional rivals and current Lowland League champions East Kilbride pitted their wits against Celtic in the last 16 of the Scottish Cup, bowing out of the competition as goals from Leigh Griffiths and Colin Kazim-Richards saw the Glasgow giants stumble through.
Samuel’s men now have the opportunity to write their own chapter of history tomorrow when Northern Ireland champions Linfield, who were knocked out of the Champions League qualifiers by Celtic in July, arrive in the Capital for an intriguing Irn-Bru Cup second-round clash.
In truth, it’s a tie that not even the Ainslie Park side could have foreseen having initially exited the competition 5-4 on penalties to SPFL League 1 outfit Albion Rovers in the previous round 17 days ago. However, with the Cliftonhill club having fielded the ineligible Liam McGuigan during the second half of the goalless stalemate, Spartans were rightly given a lifeline. With all 12 Scottish Premiership clubs exempt from the competition – they are, however, permitted to enter their Development (or Colts) sides – it is a tournament that favours the romanticists.
Asked if his, or any other lower-league club for that matter, could ruffle a few feathers this year, Samuel told the Evening News: “Somebody is going to do it one day. Don’t get me wrong we’ve got an extremely tough draw but as we’ve shown last year by beating Berwick and this season drawing with Albion Rovers that, on a good day, that your tier-five clubs can compete.
“If you look at the Highland League clubs in this competition, they’ve done extremely well too so I think it’s a breath of fresh air for the cup that you not only have non-league teams but clubs from Ireland and Wales represented.
“What’s fantastic about cup competitions is you get to test yourself as players and coaches against teams from a higher level of football. We want the players to be stretched, tested and find out just how good they can be.
“I think these types of games are a fantastic development opportunity for everybody associated with the club. We’re looking forward to it. It’s realistic to say that there are a few people that expect us to be on the receiving end of a heavy defeat and that’s fine. So in some ways it’s almost a freebie for us
“But I don’t think the people in the home dressing-room see it that way. We see it as an opportunity to earn the respect of Linfield and their supporters, as well as a wider audience, by putting on a good performance.”
Samuel himself isn’t alien to the big occasions, he was the mastermind behind Scottish Cup giant-killing acts over Morton and Clyde fast approaching three years ago. He accepts, though, their Belfast opponents have a winning mentality that will be difficult to shake. At the helm is former Northern Ireland international and all-time record goalscorer David Healy, who is also a lifelong supporter of the club.
“Listen, we go into every game with a positive attitude so we just need to see where that takes us tomorrow,” Samuel stressed. “Everybody has been excited ever since we found out we were being reinstated into the competition last week.
“It’s certainly one of the biggest I will have faced while managing the club. We’ve had some big ties in the Scottish Cup in the years gone by and that’s created some magical memories.
“But this one will rank within the top three games for sure since I took the job.
“Things don’t change too much in terms of preparation but more time has been spent gathering information because when you play such a high-profile club as Linfield there’s obviously a lot of footage available.
“We’ll be up against a side that is used to winning which is the first thing we’ll have to compete with. We’re against a team that would be in the top end of the Scottish game.
“Can we stay in the game for as long as possible? I hope so. You want to try and score a meaningful goal, when the game is still in the balance.
“It’s all fine and well grabbing a consolation but the reality is you’re wanting one that means something. We’ve got a strong squad with a lot of good options.”