Last throw of the dice keeps Spartans in the cup

Spartans' Ally MacKinnon, above, celebrates his injury-time equaliser. Picture: SNS
Spartans' Ally MacKinnon, above, celebrates his injury-time equaliser. Picture: SNS
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ELEVEN years ago, Spartans embarked on their Scottish Cup adventuring from a ramshackle pavilion with seats that were unsafe and a giant spray-painted penis on a wall which had to be removed when TV cameras finally caught up with their story for the tilt at Premier opposition.

They’ve quit that place but not the cup habit. Now, just across the road, they have a ground, an academy and a philosophy which are much-admired.

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Middle-class parents love Spartans and some are relatively new to the football culture. Last week in the coffee bar, one was overheard to remark: “Are you going to the game against North Berwick?”

North Berwick is the dream move for Edinburgh’s property and finance set. Berwick Rangers, on the other hand, still stand in the way of Spartans’ dream of a place in the last eight of the cup after a draw which revealed the challenge they face to achieve full, long-trousered league status but also, in the way they fought back, their determination to get there.

In the first half, Berwick were quicker, smarter and, it seemed, that bit more accomplished, as befits their status in League 2, the door to which Spartans of the Lowland are trying to break down. That the visitors didn’t add to Paul Willis’ fizzing fourth-minute strike was down to good fortune and lousy finishing.

After the break, encouraged by Berwick holding on to what they had but also by their concern that a fine cup tradition was in need of some upholding, the capital city strivers fought their way back into the tie. This they did through the speed and skill of Jack Beesley’s clever darts up the left flank but also the equivalent of a medieval weapon-of-war from the right-back position: the long throw-ins of Jack Nixon. It was one of these giant lobs which unnerved the Berwick defence, bringing about Ally MacKinnon’s 91st-minute equaliser. In search of a winner to continue the fairytale, he was then despatched across the park to launch another from on top of the opposite corner flag. Berwick survived, but the crowd greeted the draw as if it had been another Spartans victory to add to previous ones over Morton, Clyde, Arbroath, Alloa and, back in 2006, the selfsame Wee Gers.

Nixon couldn’t fling the ball all the way down to North Berwick but he could probably reach the site of Spartans’ former home at City Park, where new homes are sprouting up.

Afterwards, the Geordie confirmed his throw-in had been a secret weapon, kept under wraps when Berwick had spied on his team recently. “We worked on throw-ins in the lead-up but didn’t use it in games,” he said. “I used to play central midfield so never really took throw-ins until I moved back. I thought: ‘Maybe I can throw it further … and further.’ Sometimes throw-ins work, sometimes they don’t. Today, with no wind, they were just as good as corners. They gave us one last opportunity to get the ball into the box. I must admit I thought our chance had gone. First half, giving Berwick a bit of credit, they could have been two or three up. We had to hang in there, just as we did against Morton in the previous round.”

Nixon admitted that, with two long winter months to wait for the tie, it had begun to mess with the players’ heads, and their form. “Of course the cup’s been on our mind, we can’t deny it. The three or four weeks leading up to today we’ve struggled. No one wanted to get injured and have to miss out.”

New to the club this season, Nixon paid tribute to the Ainslie Park fans, their numbers and their enthusiasm. “I haven’t played in front of such a big crowd before – they were brilliant. The players did some work in the local schools in the lead-up and it was fantastic to see so many families coming out.” Nixon’s father and brother, who travelled up from Newcastle, won’t have so far to go for next Tuesday replay, but Berwick – whose Big Rangers-vanquishing 1967 hero Sammy Reid passed away earlier in this season’s competition – will be just as keen to make the last eight, having not been there for 35 years.

Willis was also impressed with the cup atmosphere created in north Edinburgh. “I knew Spartans would have a good, big crowd who’d make it hard for us and, unfortunately, my goal didn’t silence them.” Like Nixon, who works in building preservation, this insurance clerk had become obsessed by the tie. “All week my head’s been away. Now, knowing who’ll we play if we win the replay, I don’t know where it’ll be.”