Tales of returning exiles crossing the world to see their team contest the Scottish Junior Cup final are a hardy annual, but this afternoon, as they attempt to stretch their record number of Scottish Junior Cup wins to 12, in their 15th final, Auchinleck Talbot have put a new twist on this old tale.
Because Shiyu Ji has made the 20-hours long trip from his home in Shanghai, to watch the club he fell in love with while studying at the famous Glasgow School of Art. The 27-year-old was enthralled by the story of Queen’s Park, even before he arrived in Glasgow in 2014, and he began to follow the Spiders everywhere – until the afternoon of 14 March, 2015, when, feeling a bit under the weather, he passed on a trip to Elgin.
Instead, he accompanied a Japanese fellow student to Greenfield Park, Shettleston, to watch Shettleston take on Talbot. He was, he admits, instantly captivated by Talbot’s style of football, and the passion and colour of their fans. It was Hampden no more, particularly after his first visit to Beechwood Park, then, after watching the Bot beat Musselburgh in that 2015 final, he was hooked.
Back in Shanghai, where he works as a designer of interactive systems for a technology company, he watches Scottish Junior football matches on YouTube, and is particularly keen on Talbot TV. “The atmosphere at Rugby Park when we won in 2015 was magical,” says Shiyu, who is looking forward to the same experience this afternoon when Auchinleck take on Hurlford United in Kilmarnock.
But neither he, nor any of the other Talbot fans who will swarm up the A76 to Rugby Park, thinks that 12th win will be easy. And that view is endorsed by manager Tommy Sloan, as he seeks his sixth win in his eighth final, and his 25th trophy as Bot boss.
“I didn’t know that about the number of trophies, I don’t bother too much with stats,” said Sloan. “All I know is, we’ve got a final to win, and I must admit, I’m a bit happier about this one than I was last season [when Talbot lost to Glenafton].
“I think we’ve got a stronger squad than last season, certainly we carry more of a goals threat, and the two or three newcomers this season have all blended in well. We have a slight worry over Ross Harvey, who missed our last two games, but, other than that, we’re fine.
“Hurlford are a good side, they’ve got a mix of experience and skill, and a bit of flair; they’re on a good run of form, but, so are we – so I am looking forward to a really good game. We are taking nothing for granted.”
Opposite number Darren Henderson, a former team-mate of Sloan at Stranraer, whose only previous final was in 2014, when United beat Glenafton to see Hurlford, a dormitory village next to Kilmarnock, holding both the Scottish Amateur and Junior Cups, is quite happy in the role of underdogs.
The Hurlford squad contains one or two veterans of that 2014 campaign, plus some new boys, including the venerable Mark Roberts.
Roberts, the former “Golden Child” as a Kilmarnock player, and one-time Ayr United player-manager, is relishing his first experience of junior football and, even though he is doubtful for the final with a niggling injury, a win would be the icing on the cake of a career that has also included spells with Partick Thistle, St Mirren, Falkirk and Airdrie. Now 42, he was voted Hurlford’s Player of the Year this season, proving class is indeed eternal.
Last season United boss Henderson was on TV duty with BBC Alba but he makes no secret of the fact he prefers the technical area to the TV gantry.
“It’s the biggest game of the year, we’re facing Talbot, who wouldn’t want to be involved?” is his take on the day.
“We’ve got half a dozen survivors from 2014, so nerves will not be an issue, and we beat Talbot in the league recently, but this is the final. However, it’s a great day for Ayrshire football, which is certainly on a high just now, and I can hardly wait,” he said.