A whole season’s competition boiled down to the outcome of today’s match to decide who the best team in Scotland was today. Out of Coatbridge came local heroes St. Andrews who were led by their captain Hamilton Academicals and Scotland player Ronan Hughes, the boys in red from North Lanarkshire had never held aloft the storied shield and were looking to change that tonight.
Gearing up opposite them was a team with a very different history in the competition as, attired in their famous blue strips, Holyrood were the tournaments only four time winners and were looking to make it a Glasgow double after Springburn took home the under 16’s shield only a few weeks ago. But no one in the current team was even alive the last time the school held this silverware as their previous successes had come in a glorious spell between 1981 and 1994 and both sides were fully aware that on nights like tonight history means nothing.
The sky was calm and clear as the referee’s whistle echoed around the ground to get us underway and the hundreds in attendance cheered their young heroes on. Both teams settled from the off and it was clear that they were comfortable playing at this level, competent measured passing was the order of the day and the first mistake of the game resulted in Holyrood receiving a free kick on the left hand side of their opponents goal.
The ball was swung in from the left and without any warning at all Conan Shields managed to sneak in and get a glancing touch on the ball to send it goal wards, all eyes followed it as it flew out of reach of Saints keeper Anthony Keetley and skimmed the underside of the bar before going in. Inside of ten minutes Holyrood had the lead and with the opening chance of the game.
St. Andrews had no intention of letting such a setback get them down and a ball over the top for striker Declan Gallagher was well cut out by Holyroods goalie Christopher Shields before Luke Bonner sent a swirling, dipping effort just over his bar from fully 30 yards out and moments later he was ushering an effort from Gallagher drift past the post as the reds looked to respond in emphatic fashion.
Suddenly Holyrood were in disarray as Liam Hopkins judged a through ball perfectly to remain onside and outstrip the entire blues defence, his marker was catching him as he made his was into the box and unselfishly laid the ball across the face of the goal for the arriving Gallagher to lift the ball over Shields and, unfortunately, the bar as the best chance so far to equalise went begging.
The last action of the half involved a spot of good fortune for the Saints though as Lewis Clark, possibly misjudging the pace of the ball, thundered into his opposite number Aiden Neeley and sent him flying. Few would have been surprise to see the man in black produce his red card but in the end it was only yellow and the whole squad could breathe a sigh of relief as they headed into the dressing room.
Whatever travails their young bodies had undergone n the first half seemed to have had no effect as both teams emerged for the second half fully charged and ready to go. St Andrews were straight back on the attack but Holyrood were shutting them down well without pressing too much themselves and it seemed as though everything thrown at them would be cleared comfortably.
However they hadn’t accounted for the magic of Luke Bonner and, almost out of nothing, he conjured up a piece of skill that reminded us all why we watch this beautiful game. With his back to goal and a defender between him and the keeper it seemed as though he was set to be ushered out of play but the little attacker had other ideas, he lifted the bouncing ball both his and his markers headed before beating him on the turn and, after letting it bounce once, drilled home an unstoppable volley to level the scores.
Finally the match had a second goal and we weren’t long in waiting for the third. Almost directly from the restart the ball was launched forward and Saints defender looked to power it back up the park but, for what must’ve been the first time tonight, he misjudged the flight f he ball and all of a sudden blues attacker Sean Harley was bearing down on Keetley and in the blink of an eye had tucked it past him to regain his teams lead.
As if watching tennis our attention was suddenly forced back to the other end of the park as within moments Hopkins found himself on the end of a superb flick on only to see his shot saved at point blank range. He didn’t have to wait long to see the net ripple though as the next ball sent into the box from a corner was completely misjudged by Shields and it was all he could do to see his one handed punch met by St Andrews' Aidan Bickerton who bulleted his header over the line to make it 2-2.
They weren’t so quick to let Holyrood back off the hook this time and soon after equalising Bonner saw his well struck shot palmed away before Clark’s drive was almost met by Declan Gallagher before Shields could gather and Captain Hughes teed up the onrushing Taylor Queen whose shot was deflected just over the bar.
No matter how the shots rained down though the boys in blue held true and the match seemed destined to head into extra time. Football however can be a cruel game and for all of those who might have blamed Shields for conceding the leveller only a heart of stone would fail to sympathise with what happened next.
After seeing yet another corner successfully cleared the ball fell to Matthew Gallagher, the defender whose missed header had seen Holyrood score a second. Perhaps it was his seeking amends that caused him to shoot from 22 yards in attempt to redeem himself as the last few seconds of the clock ticked down.
Although well struck his drive was low and straight at the keeper who dropped to his knees to gather it up. But maybe the ball was slippery from the evening’s showers or it skipped off the turf for, as the goalie got his hands to it, it squirmed through, between his legs and across the line. There were seconds to go and Saints had the lead for the first time.
That, alas, was all she wrote for the night and minutes later the young men from Coatbridge were posing with the shield whilst those in blue were left to reflect on what might have been.