TO THE winners, a televised quarter-final appointment at Hibernian and a booty worth over £100,000. To the losers, another burst of pride and yet more satisfaction at having stretched senior league opposition to the limit.
Scorers: Berwick Rangers - Lavery
It took two games to separate these teams but Berwick will visit Easter Road next month in the last eight of the Scottish Cup after a hard-fought and probably-just about-deserved victory.
Darren Lavery’s first-half goal was the difference, ultimately. However, history almost repeated itself following Spartans’ late comeback in the first game between the sides 11 days ago when Jack Nixon smashed a shot off the bar with just three minutes remaining. Further pressure from the visitors did not produce the precious goal but they deserved the plaudits at the end from their large travelling support.
As manager Dougie Samuel had feared on the eve of the fixture, first-choice Spartans goalkeeper Kevin Swain failed to recover from an eye injury sustained at the weekend. Samuel turned to 21-year-old Blair Carswell, who only made his first-team debut at the end of last year, to step into the breach in what were high-octane circumstances, and he let no-one down.
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Surprisingly, Berwick were not able, or perhaps more accurately, were not permitted to test Carswell as Spartans kept a high line and sought to protect their young goalkeeper in the opening stages.
But sadly for them, the dream began to unstitch after 28 minutes when Lavery drilled home an effort from the edge of the six-yard box following a corner; it was a meek manner in which to concede for Spartans, who had refused to stand on ceremony in the opening exchanges. The 41-year-old Berwick player-manager Colin Cameron was up-ended inside the first minute by John Grant, who was fortunate to escape a booking. Grant’s offer of a handshake was refused by Cameron, an old warrior whose Scotland caps counted for little last night in the murky light of Shielfield Park. “Plenty to play for!” Cameron breezily noted in his programme notes.
Described as the biggest game in Spartans’ history, it was far from insignificant for Berwick Rangers also; not since the days when George Best was wearing a Hibs jersey have they featured in a Scottish Cup quarter-final. Best played at Shielfield Park in 1980 before Hibs finally managed to see off their spirited opponents at Easter Road, after a 0-0 draw in the first game.
Of course, Hibs loomed large in the minds of many last night; the Easter Road side awaited the winners. Alan Stubbs, the Hibs manager, looked on, as did around 2,000 others in a crowd that was four or five times bigger than Berwick normally attract. Such was the influx of supporters from Edinburgh – over 800 made the journey down – kick-off had to be delayed, due, the announcer rather proudly boasted across the Tannoy, to crowd congestion “inside and outside the ground”.
There was no denying the charm of the old ground, or the spirited attempt to bring some Champions League glitz to the occasion by the waving of what looked like sparklers in the area known locally as the ‘ducket’. The fish and chip van parked in one corner was a reminder that this was not PSG v Chelsea; one visitor from Edinburgh later reported his act of defiance in ordering a battered haggis in this English border town.
Spartans hoped to do some resisting on the pitch and they were proving dogged opponents before what was, from their point of view, the frustratingly straightforward opening goal from Berwick.
The visitors had gone closest to scoring prior to the unmarked Lavery shooting home from Paul Willis’ corner. Kevin Motion mis-kicked wide from a promising position while Willie Bremner saw his shot blocked by Steven Notman, who was replaced shortly afterwards due to injury. A Jack Beesley free-kick for Spartans also skipped narrowly wide.
But Berwick built on their impressive win over Arbroath at the weekend – “the best performance of the season,” was the assessment of one local sage last night – to take a grip of the game, scoring through Lavery and then enjoying the better of the game until half-time.
You could not but admire Cameron’s zest in the middle of the park.
Not many 41-year-olds are putting their body on the line like he did time and time again last night. Remarkably, it was his third game in a week after a long break from injury. He also almost scored with an ambitious cross-cum-shot on the hour mark.
The second half was a far scrappier affair but the longer the game remained at just 1-0 to Berwick, the more it was possible to suspect Spartans might punish the inability of the hosts to extend their lead, as happened in the first game. Carswell did brilliantly to tip Berwick danger man Willis’ effort onto the post to keep the Lowland League side in the game.
Errol Douglas’ cross-goal header then caused anxiety to spread among the home fans, concerned by their side’s penchant for conceding late goals this season. By the time Nixon hit the bar with three minutes left, many in Berwick colours could barely look. But their side held on.
Berwick: Bald; Jacobs, Notman (Gold, 27); Young, Drummond; Cameron, Fairbairn, Currie, Willis; Gray (Henderson, 68), Lavery ( Maxwell,80). Subs not used: Dargo, Russell, Miller, Andrews.
Spartans: Carswell, Nixon, Malone, MacKinnon, Cennerazzo; Brown, Beesley (Stevenson 74) Grant, Motion (McLeod 58; Bremner, Sludden (Douglas 58). Subs not used: Thomson, Sivewright, Henretty. Jackson.