TOMORROW sees the Scottish Junior Cup final, at Rugby Park, and, surprise, surprise – Auchinleck Talbot are not involved.
But, in the absence of the Real Madrid of the juniors, near neighbours Hurlford United and Glenafton Athletic have stepped up, to cement East Ayrshire’s reputation as the powerhouse of this level of football.
All-Ayrshire finals tend to be feisty affairs – the old adage; “nae blood, nae foul” is still held in warm regard down there, and try as the SJFA might want us not to, nobody in the junior ranks can forget the last all-Ayrshire show-down, between Largs Thistle and Glenafton, at Ibrox in 1994. That wee “friendly”, known ever since as: “The Game of Shame”, featured a first-half free-for-all and four red cards.
Nobody is expecting a repeat tomorrow, but the circumstances in which Hurlford manager Darren Henderson quit Glenafton for Hurlford just before the start of this season, taking half a dozen players with him, gives tomorrow’s proceedings an extra edge.
Henderson admits he is a hate figure to the Afton Army, but, he is positive the players will not let his change of clubs interfere with their desire to win junior football’s biggest prize.
This is ’Ford’s first Scottish Cup final. For long one of Ayrshire’s Cinderella clubs, they have risen to the West of Scotland Premier Division only this season, finishing third. Henderson has recruited well, got the team playing attractive football and they are doing their bit to finally put Hurlford on the football map, after too long in the shadow of near neighbours Kilmarnock.
Hurlford’s other local team, amateurs Hurlford Thistle, won the Scottish Amateur Cup two weeks ago so the chance to have Scotland’s two leading non-senior trophies in the same village is a challenge Henderson and his squad are looking forward to meeting. “We get on well with the Thistle lads and to put the Junior Cup alongside the Amateur one would be the icing on the cake,” he said.
For Glenafton, their near-comparable task is to bring home the Junior Cup, a much more sought-after trophy than the last one their home village of New Cumnock received. That was the “Plook On a Plinth” as New Cumnock was named Scotland’s most run-down community last year.
Run-down it may be, but, Glen’s success this season has boosted the feelgood factor locally with flags and bunting everywhere as villagers rally to the cause and prepare to decant for Rugby Park, with 18 buses leaving the village in convoy tomorrow afternoon.
Manager Tommy Bryce began his second spell in the Loch Park dug-out with a handful of players and lost his first match to Lugar Boswell, from two leagues below Glen, 7-1.
However, the veteran former striker has rebuilt well, got the team playing an entertaining passing game and into the final. “What Tommy has done this season is nothing short of a miracle,” says veteran Glenafton supporter, former player, secretary and president Alex Jess.
Bryce accepts that ’Ford, who won both league matches between the finalists 2-0, and finished third to Glen’s sixth in the West of Scotland Premier League, will start as favourites, but, he remains confident in his side’s ability.
He has drawn parallels between Glen’s situation and that of St Johnstone in the Scottish Cup final, and believes his men can pull off another surprise. “It’s the biggest game in the junior calendar and I would love to give the village the same sort of boost as St Johnstone gave Perth,” he said.
One man who could help achieve that is Cammy Marlow, who, this time last year, was playing with LA Galaxy’s youth team and training with David Beckham. Marlow has scored some crucial goals from midfield this season.
However, Hurlford also have a goal-scoring talisman in former Ayr United, St Mirren and Queen of the South striker Stewart Kean, whose second-leg hat-trick against Irvine Meadow secured their first cup final appearance.
The rival managers, between them, have had – to coin a well-kent phrase – more clubs than Jack Nicklaus. In a 21-season senior career, Henderson pulled on the strip of 11 Scottish lower league clubs, some of them twice, while in Bryce’s equally long career he played for ten senior outfits, entered the Guinness Book of Records with a 100-second hat-trick for Queen of the South and have a brief spell as player-manager at Partick Thistle.
Between them, the two bosses have over 1,200 senior appearances and such experience has enabled them to bring senior standards of teamwork and tactics to the junior ranks.
Both teams like to get the ball down and pass; both have players who can express themselves. This could be, if the occasion doesn’t get to the players, a classic final.
It may be Hurlford’s first final, but it is Glen’s fifth. They lost to Irvine Meadow in 1962, Auchinleck Talbot in 1992 and Largs in 1994, securing their only win in 1993, by beating Tayport.
New Cumnock is hoping their curse of never winning when facing another Ayrshire side will not strike again in tomorrow’s final, which is being sponsored by the Ayr-based Barr Construction Group. The match kicks off at 4:05 pm and will be live on BBC Alba.
Round one – bye
Round two – beat New Elgin 8-0 at home.
Round three – beat Forth Wanderers 4-0 at home, after a 1-1 draw at Forth.
Round four – beat Larkhall Thistle 3-0 at Larkhall.
Round five – beat Tayport 2-1 at Tayport.
Quarter-final – beat Dundonald Bluebell 3-0 at Dundonald
Semi-final – beat Irvine Meadow 4-3 on aggregate over two legs: (1-2 : 3-0).
Round one – beat Inverness City 9-1 at home.
Round two – beat Lugar Boswell Thistle 2-1 at Lugar.
Round three – beat Royal Albert 5-0 at Larkhall, after a 2-2 draw at New Cumnock.
Round four – beat Musselburgh 4-1 at Musselburgh.
Round five – beat Shotts Bon Accord 3-2 at home.
Quarter-final – beat Cumnock 2-1 at home, after a 2-2 draw at Cumnock.
Semi-final – beat Camelon 3-2 on aggregate over two legs: (1-2 : 2-0).