Queen of the South … “no, no, please, no!” – v S Johnstone… “phew…!” This is the price you pay for success in the Scottish Cup, a Russian roulette-esque rush when the draw for the next round is made.
It can be thrilling but it can also lead to, well, a Berwick Rangers-or-Albion Rovers kind of moment, which is what Spartans were handed yesterday.
Theirs was the last fifth-round tie that emerged from the hat. The group of Spartans devotees who gathered at the club’s academy for the televised draw dutifully cheered the news that their favourites had at least been drawn at home. But it was patently not the glamour tie most here had yearned for.
There were groans when Arbroath were the ones who secured an away tie at Easter Road – and these were just from manager Dougie Samuel, who joined those from the Spartans Connections disabilities team at the academy. Samuel has never hidden his affection for Hibs and willed a tie with the Easter Road side, as he had done in the last round.
There were a few clubs they wanted more than Berwick Rangers or Albion Rovers in yesterday’s draw – including Inverness Caledonian Thistle, who travel to face Partick Thistle if they can overcome St Mirren tonight. “Our coach development officer in our youth section is the brother-in-law of John Hughes and I grew up with Yogi,” explained Samuel. “So, it would have been nice to have got Inverness here, assuming they get through.
“There’s obviously a bit of history with St Mirren, so that would have had appeal,” continued Samuel, with reference to some lingering resentment following a couple of fiercely contested clashes on the last occasion Spartans reached the last 16, eight years ago.
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Nor would they not have turned their noses up at Rangers away – or home. Raith Rovers got that plum tie, however. There were sighs of relief when Spartans avoided a potential away trip to Stranraer, who replay against Dunfermline next week. Dundee are the ones who entertain Celtic, which meant the Spartans officials won’t have to deal with the awkward question of keeping their promise to stage a home tie at Ainslie Park, whoever came out of the hat.
As the draw progressed without Spartans’ name emerging, there was enough nervous energy in the room to power the Ainslie Park floodlights, under which Berwick Rangers will be training later this week. Or will they? Now that they could be Spartans’ opponents in February, Craig Graham wondered whether this winter let arrangement might need to be revised. “Maybe we will send them down to train on Newhaven beach!” the Spartans chairman smiled.
Once the mild disappointment at failing to land a Premiership club had cleared, Spartans began to warm to the idea of a tie that hands them a realistic opportunity to progress to the last eight. The prospect of making some more history of their own clearly appeals.
Only two non-league clubs have reached the Scottish Cup quarter-finals before – Eyemouth United in 1959-60, and Elgin City in 1967-68. The latter club are of course now firmly ensconced in the professional set-up, which is where Spartans are planning to end up before long. Right now, though, they are continuing to specialise in doling out embarrassing defeats to league clubs.
It’s especially pleasing because these victories, most recently against Morton on their own artificial surface, are one in the eye for those who grumbled in past seasons about the surroundings at City Park, Spartans’ former home. While the welcome was always hospitable, the facilities left a little to be desired. The pitch was compact, bobbly and distinguished by an incline. It was on this slope that St Mirren very nearly came undone in a Scottish Cup tie in 2006.
“People said we only made these cup runs because we were able to play at City Park, which was a dreadful surface,” said Graham. “Now we have shown that on an immaculate surface we can give anyone a good game.”
There is little doubt about that. More than a few clubs will have breathed their own sigh of relief at having avoided a trip to Spartans, the graveyard for Barry Ferguson’s Clyde and Jim Duffy’s Morton already this season. In an early attempt at mind games perhaps, Samuel underlined Spartans’ own lowly status.
“They [Berwick Rangers or Albion Rovers] will be thrilled with the draw – they’ve pulled the lowest-ranked team left in the competition,” argued Samuel, who admitted it was “surreal” to look up from an interview following Saturday’s 2-1 win over Morton and see Gordon Strachan, the club’s academy patron, waiting to have a word.
But the pressure, surely, will all be on the visitors, whoever they are. Albion Rovers defeated Spartans 1-0 in the Scottish Cup second round last season, before going on to dump rivals Motherwell from the competition.
Berwick Rangers, meanwhile, have a spy in the camp in full back/midfielder Dean Hoskins, who as well as once playing for Spartans also lives a corner kick’s distance from their ground.
“If it is Berwick we’ll be out in the street making lots of noise the night before,” joked Graham, who estimates the club have raked in half a season’s worth of revenue from this cup run – so far.
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