Anyone seeking a quiet Sunday afternoon drive today would be wise to avoid the A76 between New Cumnock and Kilmarnock. That particular road will be packed as the villages of New Cumnock and Auchinleck decant to Rugby Park for the Scottish Junior Cup final, which this year is between Glenafton Athletic and Auchinleck Talbot.
Inter-village, near-tribal rivalry still exists in junior football’s East Ayrshire heartland. As one veteran Talbot fan explained this week: “Well, while we don’t like Glenafton, we don’t hate them as much as we do Cumnock.” That take on things is reciprocated and accepted eight miles further along the road in New Cumnock.
It will be the sides’ second cup final clash, 25 years after the first, in which Talbot beat the then Alan Rough-managed Glen 4-0 to give legendary veteran boss Willie Knox his fifth and final win as manager. This afternoon, Tucker Sloan, the current ’Bot boss, is gunning for his sixth win, in his seventh final.
His opposite number, former Scotland Under-21 cap Craig McEwan, is leading the Glen into his second final. His first, in 2014, came shortly after he took charge at Loch Park, but, having lost then, to Hurlford, he does not want to suffer the same agony twice. Back then, the Glen were the outsiders, this year, having already won the West of Scotland Premier Division – Talbot finished third – Glen are favourites.
But, as McEwan says: “Talbot is the benchmark, they’ve won everything, been there, done it and got the T-shirts. What Tucker has done there is amazing.”
There is no complacency from McEwan, however he does say: “We won the league, but I don’t think we have been given the credit we deserve. We’ve heard: ‘Talbot haven’t been as good this season; Rob Roy blew the league; Beith had too-many draws’. But, the table does not lie, we have been the best team and it is not finished yet.
“I want the double and we are going to Rugby Park to give it our best shot. We let ourselves down in 2014 and I don’t want a repeat.”
That view is shared by centre-half Ryan McChesney, the New Cumnock boy whose early red card against Hurlford was a handicap his ten team-mates could not overcome.
“I was conned into that tackle, I will not do that again and, I feel I owe it to my mates to win this year,” says the Glenafton cult hero who is lauded on the supporters’ T-shirts, which bear the legend: “We don’t need Messi – we’ve got Ginger Chessy.”
But, ominously, Talbot boss Sloan believes his men are ready to cast off their indifferent form and lift the giant trophy for the 12th time.
“The build-up has been more low key this season, but, I have sensed this week, things are starting to bubble. The past few weeks have been disappointing, we’ve lost three games on the bounce, we’ve had some injury problems, but we know what we have to do, it’s the final and it’s up to me to have them geed-up.
“You write this team off at your peril, the attitude will be right come kick-off on Sunday.”
Talbot club captain James Latta is, like his boss, in his seventh final, over 14 years with the club. He is not guaranteed a game in the final, but, is as desperate to play as he has ever been, and he expects it to be a tough match. “It’s the final, such games are never easy,” he says.
That view is shared by opposite number Craig Menzies, who believes the league win has perhaps tipped the balance his side’s way.
“We have always, in my five years here, been a good footballing side, but we have sometimes been easy to beat. Not this season, the league win has given us a real confidence boost and we are determined to complete the double at Rugby Park.”
Let battle commence.