In ten days time, East Kilbride will face Celtic in the biggest game in their short history after the William Hill Scottish Cup fifth-round draw paired them together.
If Kilby are looking for advice on how to tackle the Glasgow giants, they could do worse than ask fellow Lowland League club Whitehill Welfare, who, 20 years ago today, faced the Hoops in the club’s most memorable game.
The Rosewell club defied expectations with their performance. Although eventually losing 3-0 at Easter Road, it took goals from Pierre van Hooijdonk and Simon Donnelly in the final 15 minutes to settle the third-round tie after the Dutchman had given the Bhoys the lead five minutes before the break.
A man-of-the-match performance from Whitehill goalkeeper Scott Cantley – a postman at the time – was a contributing factor to their impressive display. Two decades on, Cantley, along with other former players and management, will attend a celebratory brunch the club is hosting on Sunday to mark the occasion.
“It probably does feel like it was twenty years ago now,” admitted Cantley. “A few things have changed – my hair being one of them! It is a distant memory now, but it’s good the club have put something on to recognise what it meant at the time. I was still involved [as goalkeeping coach] up until last year but it’s good that we can all get together and reminisce.
“It’s funny, I mentioned when the draw was made this year that it coincided with the twenty years since we played them. Now it was going to be an East of Scotland or a Lowland League side that would play Celtic [East Kilbride beat Lothian Thistle Hutchison Vale in the fourth round]. It might be another 20 years before a non-league side gets a draw like that.”Lothian Thistle Hutchison Vale in the fourth round]. Unfortunately, Lothian didn’t get through. It might be another 20 years before a non-league side gets a draw like that.”
Airdrie’s Excelsior Stadium will host East Kilbride’s tie next Sunday after Hamilton – part of a long list of possible venues – couldn’t oblige. For Whitehill, the possibilities were more limited, but certainly more appealing to non-league players.
“The two venues talked about were Tynecastle and Easter Road,” Cantley explained. “I recall Hearts had a home tie that scuppered us using Tynecastle, so it ended up at Easter Road, which was a ground I hadn’t played at at the time. It was all just something to look forward to.”
But what sticks in Cantley’s mind most is the attitude and spirit of his team-mates.
“The camaraderie we had at the time – we were used to winning things,” he said. “We had a lot of nights out and things with winning a lot of trophies but any player that came in was made to feel welcome and part of the group. That was the mentality we had at the time. When we went into the Celtic game, I didn’t feel there was anyone on the park that was going to let the club down.
“We were looking for us to overachieve and Celtic underachieve, which probably happened to a certain degree that day. Nobody was expecting us to get a 3-0, especially after Highland League side Keith had been hit for ten the day before against Rangers. It didn’t cross my mind that we were going to concede double figures, nor anybody else’s. It wasn’t discussed as we knew it was something that wasn’t going to happen. The look on [manager] Davie Smith’s face at half-time ... I don’t know if he had a plan B for his team talk, but he never expected us to be just 1-0 down!
“I wouldn’t say it’s the best game I’ve ever had, but it’s the game I’ll always be remembered for. There were another thirteen players that day that put their point across as well and achieved what they did for the club. It was about the whole squad and management team.”
And the conduct of Celtic’s manager, the late Tommy Burns, impressed Cantley.
“Celtic went about their business as professionally as they could,” he explained. “I do remember Tommy Burns came into the changing room after the game, shook everybody’s hand and said it had been a pleasure to play us and wished us all the best. He was a gentleman.
“I would suggest that the Celtic team of today would struggle against the team that we played against. They were just about all internationalists. They were far superior than the current team. If they were in the Premiership today, they’d have had it won by now.”
From someone who’s experienced it, that might just be interpreted as a glimmer of hope for East Kilbride.