The New Saints 2 Queen’s Park 2
(Queen’s Park win 4-2 on penalties)
The football gods can be cruel little devils when they put their minds to it. If you doubt those words, just think of last season when we celebrated our 150th birthday … and then got relegated.
But every so often they smile on you, and when that happens, the world truly is a wonderful place. If you doubt those words, you weren’t in Oswestry as Queen’s Park produced one of those results that makes you realise why you trek all over the country in weather that brass monkeys wouldn’t venture out in, to watch 22 men kick a ball about a park.
Before we get to the action on the field, let’s set the scene with a quick guide to the Irn-Bru Cup tie between the New Saints and Queen’s Park.
Firstly, it’s a Scottish competition, but to give it extra sparkle, Welsh and Irish teams have been invited to join the party. And just to add another dimension, one of those Welsh teams is actually based in England.
So there you go; an explanation of why followers and players of Scotland’s oldest club travelled to England to play against the Welsh champions in a Scottish cup competition. Simples!
It might have been a hard concept to get your head round, but it gave Gus MacPherson the chance to give players game time away from the main focus of attention in the league. Several established starters have been carrying knocks over the last few weeks, so changes were expected. But while defensive rock Gerry McLauchlan was missing, there was a reassuringly familiar look to the line-up that took the field.
Cammy Foy came in to partner Scott Gibson in the centre of Jordan Hart’s back four, with James Grant and Ciaran Summers occupying the full back slots. Jamie McKernon and Gavin Lachlan provided the midfield cover, while Kurtis Roberts, Smart Osadolor and Adam Martin were tasked with supporting Billy Mortimer to provide the goal threat.
That goal threat wasn’t much in evidence in the early stages as the Saints showed why they are going for their eighth league title on the bounce. The home side dominated possession and Queen’s had to dig deep to avoid giving them the start they craved.
Our new defensive pairing was tested as Saints found room down our left and provided too many crosses for your scribe’s blood pressure.
Hart produced a stonking reaction save to deny Mullen after 10 minutes, and an even better one a few minutes later as the traffic flowed in one direction … towards our goal.
But Gus MacPherson’s Spiders are nothing if not resilient and they kept trying to play the game the right way. That approach almost paid dividends after 27 minutes when Mortimer latched on to a lovely through ball and from a tight angle, only missed the far post by a few inches.
Coaches will tell you that when playing against higher ranked teams, you’ve got to make your chances count. And that old adage looked like biting Queen’s in a painful spot as Saints took the lead two minutes later.
For once, Hart was beaten by a shot from the edge of the box, but it looked as if the post had come to his rescue as the ball smacked against the upright. Instead of bouncing to safety, however, the ball ricocheted off the prone keeper and rebounded into the net.
You couldn’t argue that the Welsh side were worthy of their lead, but the goal was cruel in the extreme.
Buoyed by their good fortune, Saints went looking for a second goal that would probably have killed off the tie. But Queen’s stood firm and simply refused to accept what looked inevitable. They made it to the break without troubling the scorers again, although Mortimer’s reaction to a robust challenge from Nembhard troubled referee Connolly so much that he flashed the first yellow card of the evening.
New Saints 1 Queen’s Park 0
The Spiders had shown in the first half that they could defend, but if they were to get back into this tie, they’d have to show a lot more at the other end of the park.
Whatever Gus said in the dressing room at the break, they certainly came out with that intention. Right from the outset, they took the game to their opponents; pressing higher up the pitch and knocking the ball about with some style.
Suddenly, it was the Saints who were having to defend, but for all their efforts, Queen’s couldn’t find a way past Harrison in the home goal. They came close on a couple of occasions, notably when McKernon was delivering dead balls into the box.
Gus shook things up as the clock raced by, bringing on Lewis Hawke, Josh Peters and Scott McLean to replace Mortimer, Lachlan and Martin, who had all played their part.
Still the goal wouldn’t come, and as we went into the last 10 minutes, it began to look like yet another of those “so nearly” nights.
And then what had been an entertaining cup tie became an enthralling one. The game had been played in good spirit throughout, so Routledge’s lunge on McLean was as inexplicable as it was reckless. He had to go, and go he did as Connolly produced a straight red.
Queen’s now had a man advantage, as well as the momentum, but they only had eight minutes left to take the tie to another penalty shoot-out.
They threw everything they had at Harrison’s goal, even employing Foy as an extra striker. Roberts almost got us on terms with a shot that fizzed narrowly over, but as we entered the final minute of the 90, the Saints were poised to go marching into the draw for the third round. And then …
Hawke latched onto a knockdown at the back post and fired off a shot on the turn. The keeper should have dealt with it, but didn’t, and as the ball ran free Osadolor forced it over the line.
The celebrations were a joy to behold, but there was even better to come. A minute into added time, another delivery right out of the top drawer sparked an almighty stramash in the Saints six-yard box. The ball bobbled before substitute Hawke pounced and smacked it high into the net. The celebrations threatened to take the roof off the stand housing the visiting support as players and fans danced with joy.
Surely we were poised for one of our finest results in recent years? Surely there wasn’t time left for any more drama? Aye, right. This is Queen’s Park we are talking about.
Straight from the restart, Saints went upfield and Hudson should have done better than shoot wide.
Hart took a bit too much time over the goal kick – and earned a yellow card, but there was still one more twist to come. Hawke fell awkwardly on the plastic surface as we entered the fifth minute of added time and hobbled off in some pain. As we tried to reorganise, a wicked cross caused us all sorts of problems before Nembhard took a leaf out of our book and smashed home the equaliser.
The deflation in the visiting ranks was palpable as the Welsh players enjoyed their great escape. Thirteen seconds after the latest restart, the ref signalled time and we were set for another penalty decider.
Queen’s must have been down at the thought of being so close, but somehow they picked themselves up and got on with the job.
McLean scored comfortably with our first kick, before Hart dived to deny Mullan. Gibson’s spot kick was then saved by Harrison, but just as our heads went down, we took Hart from Jordan as he again produced a great diving save from Brobbel to keep us 1-0 ahead after two kicks each.
Foy was next up and the only thing that stopped his shot going back over the Welsh border was the roof of the net which bulged as he blasted us 2-0 ahead. Ebbe also scored to keep the Saints in it. Roberts and Marriott exchanged successful penalties to set the scene for Peters to become the hero, and Josh duly obliged.
He stroked his penalty beyond Harrison to spark scenes that will live long in the memory of all those who were there. The fans hugged each other; the players dived into the support – and Jordan Hart was hoisted high in the air as we all realised that the footballing gods had decided it was to be our night.
It’s difficult to stress just how good a result this was. Apart from dominating their own league, Saints reached the third qualifying round of this year’s Europa League, and they hold the world record for consecutive victories, having won 27 on the bounce in 2016.
They came into this game expecting to win it, and indeed, harboured high hopes of going all the way to lift the trophy. That’s a measure of what the Spiders achieved.
Fair to say then that this was a special night for all those who bleed black and white. It was right up there with that game at Firhill when Aberdeen were humbled, and it made a very long journey very worthwhile.
A night like that can’t be allowed to pass without a few special mentions. Firstly, our hosts, who didn’t allow their disappointment to get in the way of their hospitality. They made us feel truly welcome – even after the game – and it was a genuine pleasure to be in their company.
The second mention goes to the mad bunch that made the trip to support the Spiders. The backing they gave the team must have lifted the players, and you could see from the scenes at the end of the game how much it meant to everyone concerned.
Finally, you’ve got to give the players a big “Thank You”. Those guys give up a huge amount of time to earn the right to wear the famous jerseys. They get not a penny in wages for their efforts. Indeed, some of them got back to Glasgow on the bus around 4am on Sunday … and then went out to work a few hours later. Let’s all remember that the next time one of them has a shocker of a game and you’re tempted to get on his case.
So that’s us in the hat for the third round draw on Tuesday. After all that travelling, the Gaffer might be looking for a home draw… but then again, that would mean two games at Hampden within 24 hours as Scotland host Portugal the day after our next tie is due to take place. Sligo Rovers away?
Keep the Faith!