HISTORY can sometimes be inauspicious in the making. And certainly as the squally autumnal showers swirled around the open expanses at the Saughton Enclosure in Edinburgh to see Lothian Thistle Hutchison Vale of the East of Scotland League play their first ever Scottish Cup tie against senior opposition in the shape of Montrose, you’ve got to say the grand old competition has probably had its more romantic moments.
But this was yet another uplifting tale to add to the many that have been woven over the years in the tournament’s history. The home side, after a shaky start which saw them go behind after only 12 minutes, came back in impressive fashion to square matters before the interval, and were completely deserving of another crack at this one in a replay at Links Park.
It marks another remarkable milestone in the slow, patient ascension of the Edinburgh club, originally founded in 1969, whose current name arises from Lothian Thistle joining forces with Hutcheson Vale – themselves a renowned force in youth football, whose starlets have included John Collins, Kenny Miller and Gary Locke, to name only a few.
Initially, it seemed that this would be a perfunctory win for Montrose as they came flying out of the traps, seemingly intent on blowing away their non-league opponents in much the same way as the stormy gusts of wind threatened to send the little marquee that had been erected for matchday VIPs hurtling in the direction of nearby Tynecastle. Graham Webster repeatedly galloped down the right flank and it was from one such run that the Angus side took the lead, his cross being hooked back to Ross Campbell, who stroked the ball into the net.
Crucially, they failed to build on this quickfire start, however, and Thistle’s nerves visibly calmed. Once they got the range of their passing with the strong wind at their backs they began to ask questions of their League Two opponents. In 36 minutes, they were level with centre-half Richie Wilkes powering home a header after he was left unmarked at a corner, and indeed such was the assurance that the underdogs were now playing with that they almost grabbed the lead just before the break with another fine set-piece, this time from Darren Smith, which once again saw Jordan Millar fully tested.
With the elements favouring them, it was expected that Montrose would go on to dominate after the break. But the guts and composure of the hosts meant they were never able to impose themselves to any great degree. That the closing 45 minutes were in fact a fairly arid stalemate will hardly matter a jot when the Thistle players and club officials reflect on this momentous occasion.
They might, in fact, have been celebrating a sensational victory as substitute Willis Hare stuck the ball in the net in the 90th minute only for it to be ruled offside.
Afterwards, the pride oozed from all those connected with the EoSL side. “Listen, if you had said beforehand we were going to get a draw, we’d have taken it,” insisted Thistle manager Raymond Carr. “But I think we were unlucky not to steal it at the end. They will call it a shock, but these guys work hard during the week and are looking to go further in the game.”
His words were echoed by Tom Allison, club chairman and original manager way back in 1969. “The lads did first class today – and we’re still in the draw for the next round,” he said with a broad smile.
For Montrose manager Paul Hegarty, the romance of the cup turned out to be more like an awkward first date on this occasion – and while commending Thistle on their sterling endeavours, he made no attempt to disguise his frustration with his own players’ efforts. “If you were a neutral today you would probably have said that Lothian Thistle Hutcheson Vale deserved more in the end.
“My players weren’t strong, sharp, aggressive or clinical enough”, he continued. “We had a band of dedicated supporters down here today expecting to see a winning performance. I’d like to apologise to them as the players let themselves down.”