Bathgate Thistle 1
Auchinleck Talbot 2
THE Bathgate Thistle dressing-room sat in near complete silence for 45 minutes following their OVD Scottish Junior Cup defeat yesterday as they contemplated why they had failed to perform in their biggest game of the season.
But when boss Willie Hill did finally emerge to meet the waiting media at Rugby Park he was still no nearer to finding an answer for his side's disappointing 2-1 defeat at the hands of Auchinleck Talbot.
Thistle have been a breath of fresh air for the east region juniors this term, emerging as a real force due to the backing of multi-millionaire Hill who has invested plenty of time and money in the club.
They have challenged the dominance of junior football giants like Tayport and Linlithgow Rose in the Super League and look likely to be crowned champions in the coming weeks.
However, at the weekend, in front of 7479 supporters and a live television audience they simply failed to do themselves justice.
All the pre-match hype had surrounded Auchinleck who were bidding to lift the coveted trophy for a seventh time while, according to many pundits, Thistle were simply there to make up the numbers. But while Bathgate - making their first appearance in the Scottish Cup final - may not have the rich history of Talbot they certainly have the quality, exemplified by the fact that former Dundee and Raith Rovers striker Eddie Annand could only manage a place on the bench.
Sadly for the Creamery Park outfit, though, they didn't come close to their best form and the junior game's premier prize is today deservedly sitting in Ayrshire. And that left Bathgate boss Hill trying to figure out just what had gone wrong.
"I have to say that although Auchinleck won it they are frankly a team that we should be able to beat," he said.
"That is the most disappointing thing. If we'd been beaten comfortably by a team that I thought were better than us I would say 'fair enough' - but I don't think they are better.
"That's why my players are so choked after the game. They know that everything was right for them. The pitch was in good condition, the preparation was right and there was a big crowd.
"Unfortunately we just didn't play the kind of football that we have been playing for most of the season which is disappointing."
Indeed Bathgate's undoing proved to be an area that had probably been their main strength this season - their defence.
The West Lothian club have the most miserly backline in the east region Super League yet it was two howling mistakes that cost them this tie.
They had a lucky escape with just 14 minutes on the clock when 39-year-old Stephen Mallan was allowed to find space in the area to get on the end of a floated cross from Stuart Davidson only to head wide from 12 yards.
But while that might go down as poor defending it was nothing compared to the 31st minute incident which led to Talbot breaking the deadlock.
A long kick-out from Auchnileck goalkeeper Stuart McIntosh was flicked goalward by Mallan some 30 yards from goal and although David Gillies chased after the ball there appeared to be little danger. However, as Bathgate keeper Ross Godfrey raced from his line to collect the ball he appeared to leave it for defender Sean Sweeney who was trying to shepherd it back to him, Godfrey then slipped and they both ended up missing it completely.
Ex-Airdrie defender Sweeney made a desperate attempt to hack it clear as it trundled goalward and had what looked to be a legitimate claim for a foul as Gillies tugged him back but referee Stevie Nicholls allowed play to continue and the ball crossed the line without another player touching it.
It may have been one of the most bizarre goals that Mallan will ever score in his long career but it's also one of the most important.
A shell-shocked Thistle side needed an immediate response and they so-nearly got it just 90 seconds later. Bathgate suddenly attacked with intent and Gavin Collins' looping header from an inswinging Tony Smith corner looked netbound all the way until McIntosh somehow adjusted his feet and dived to tip the ball over from just under the crossbar.
As the game entered the second-half Bathgate looked like a team who realised their dream was slipping away as they began to pump high balls forward more in hope than in expectation.
And with 15 minutes remaining they were almost dead and buried when Bryan Young played Bryan Slavin through on goal to deliver a thunderous drive which was superbly tipped over the bar by Godfrey.
Hill's side still looked unlikely to get themselves back into the tie but they were given a helping hand just a minute after that chance when Liam McVey put the ball through his own net.
The left-back, who had enjoyed a fine afternoon until that point, was trying to prevent a Sweeney cross from reaching substitute Eddie Annand at the back post but in throwing himself full length at the ball he succeed only in bulleting a header into the far corner of the net to send the large Bathgate support into raptures. Sadly, however, there was to be no happy ending and with only six minutes left on the clock Mallan capitalised on hesitancy in the Bathgate defence and when the ball broke to John Boyle ten yards from goal he kept his composure to calmly stroke the ball into the net.
When the final whistle did ring out the Bathgate players slumped to the floor but with several key Super League games coming up they will have to pick themselves back up again, and quickly.
Hill said: "I think first and foremost we were very unlucky to go in at half time behind and in fact I thought we deserved to go in ahead.
"The way we played in the first half was what I expected although I suppose if I was being over-critical I would have liked us to have played a bit more football. However, in the second half it looked like the boys got a bit over anxious.
"We seemed to stop playing a bit which was why we went three up front as we chased the game.
"Overall though we've lost the game because we made two mistakes that have cost us and both mistakes have been in central defence which is most unlike us because that is usually one of our strengths.
"The goalkeeper slipped and although there was maybe a wee push in the back of our defender it should never have got that far. He's held his hands up but it's not about blaming anybody as it's a team game.
"And he's gone on to make a couple of cracking saves later in the game anyway.
"There were too many 50/50 balls that were won by them. We tried to play football and wanted to stoke the ball about but it didn't happen.
"I thought Mark Bradley was terrific yesterday though. He was absolutely first class and I think what we missed was people to support him and that really hurt us. I thought he was our best player by a mile but ultimately he won't take much comfort from that because we lost the game and at the end of the day that's all that matters."
Bathgate Thistle: Godfrey, Wilson, Harty, G Love, Sweeney, Neill, Bradley, F Love (Maxwell 59), Elliot (Annand 74), Murphy (Grant 59), Smith. Subs not used: Smith, Balfour
Auchinleck Talbot: McIntosh, Latta, McVey, Anderson, Collins, Davidson (Spence 39), Young, Slavin, Gillies (Boyle 69), Mallan (Robertson 87), Gilmour. Subs not used: Traynor, Feroz.