Spartans’ own website may have slipped into hyperbolic language when describing this game as “arguably the biggest competitive fixture in their 66-year existence” but it must have been a thrill all the same for the 550 home supporters in the 900-strong crowd to see their Lowland League side face off against a club which recently battled Celtic in Champions League qualifying.
In the end, the hosts can feel proud of their efforts against the reigning Northern Irish double-winners, even if it was David Healy’s charges who would ultimately take their place in the Irn-Bru Cup third round. Reinstated into the competition following their first-round defeat by Albion Rovers, thanks to the Coatbridge side’s expulsion for fielding an ineligible player, Spartans battled and could have taken the game into extra-time with a couple of late chances.
Though the home side would eventually give a good account of themselves, the game did seem to be heading to an inevitable conclusion when Stephen Lowry added to Louis Rooney’s opener three minutes after half-time.
Linfield dominated the opening half. Joshua Robinson volleyed wide from close range, before new signing Brandon Barke fired right at Andrew Stobie in the Spartans goal. The QPR loanee wasted another chance when he shot over the bar at the back post.
The opener, when it did arrive, came in controversial circumstances. Just three minutes earlier, Chris Casement handled inside the Linfield penalty box after the full-back slipped in a jostle with Ross Guthrie. Under the laws of the game it wasn’t enough to justify a foul, as the action certainly wasn’t deliberate, though the contact was clear enough to provoke anger in the home ranks. They would soon become enraged when the referee pointed to the spot for a similar offence down the other end.
There was certainly a more valid case for a penalty against Michael Herd as the ball bounced up and struck his left arm. Rooney stepped up and sent the keeper the wrong way from the spot.
“End of the day, we’ve got players who’ve given the ball away, who make mistakes. Referees are human,” said Spartans boss Douglas Samuel. “I think it’s maybe a subconscious thing where the bigger teams get the breaks. It’s swings and roundabouts.”
Instead of succumbing to fatalism after Lowry’s goal, where the midfielder was allowed to turn and find the bottom corner from 18 yards, Spartans began to knock the ball about with confidence and eventually got themselves back into the match. David Greenhill’s shot from distance should have been held by Gareth Deane, but the goalkeeper spilled the ball at the feet of substitute Blair Atkinson to finish high into the net.
Linfield almost had the game out of sight but Stephen Fallon’s apparent tap-in was thwarted by the foot of Stobie, though Spartans’ luck ran out when Ross Allum saw an almost identical chance blocked by Deane.
Atkinson nearly tied the cup game up in the 88th minute, beating Deane to a diagonal ball from Blair Tolmie. But the youngster could only knock the ball square across goal and Linfield were able to clear.