Sixteenth time lucky

IT was all Alex Williams’ doing. If the Stenhousemuir striker, whose roundabout career has taken him via Australia and Ireland, hadn’t equalised in the last minute of their Scottish Cup third-round tie against Threave Rovers on November 20, we would have been denied the season’s oddest football saga.

A 2-2 draw at Ochilview forced the teams to replay at non-league Threave’s Meadow Park home in Castle Douglas, around 20 miles south west of Dumfries. After 53 days, 15 postponements and the controversial defection of Threave’s player-coach, the game finally went ahead last night.

At 49, Davie Irons is the oldest man ever to play in the Scottish Cup. Occupying a defensive midfield role, he was arguably Threave’s best player in the first game. But Irons, who was in charge of Gretna when they won promotion to the SPL four years ago, wanted to return to management in the Scottish League. And after Stenhousemuir boss John Coughlin resigned a month ago, the club gave Irons the chance to step up to the Scottish Second Division.

It caused a huge stink at Threave, who lodged an official complaint with the SFA, arguing that they still held Irons’ playing registration, and that they had not been contacted by Stenny to get permission to speak to him. Stenny chairman Martin McNairney denied any wrongdoing.

‘THREAVE LET DOWN BY IRONS DEPARTURE’ screamed the headline on the back page of last week’s Galloway News. Underneath, Threave manager David McVittie told how he had discussed tactics with Irons and let him take training sessions, unaware he was about to cross the floor. “I’m sure the fans will give him a hostile reception,” McVittie said in a separate interview with the Daily Record.

Meadow Park, though, is no cauldron of hostility. It is, instead, a friendly South of Scotland League venue right on the edge of town, sandwiched between a builders merchants’ and a field which looks as if it might stretch all the way to the Irish Sea.

Keen followers of lower end non-league football will be glad to know it follows the traditional ground template for that level – a covered main stand of corrugated metal sheeting and wooden pillars stretching a few yards either side of the halfway line, a few steps of terracing on the opposite side, a flat patch of grass behind one goal and the clubhouse and changing rooms behind the other.

To add to that is the glorious sight of the groundsman’s shed (above), no more than half-a-dozen yards from one of the corner flags – and on the halfway line, last night at least, a makeshift TV gantry, somehow fitted on to the narrow grass verge between the back of the open terracing and the road. Half-an-hour before kick-off, a cameraman and a commentator edged their way up a ladder to their vantage point, directly above the dugouts.

When Irons took his place on the bench, the crowd reaction was pretty mild. No banners, no chants. The biggest hint of Threave’s sense of betrayal came in the match programme, courtesy of a piece by editor Bobby McCleary.

“If ever Threave Rovers FC needed any motivation to win tonight’s match,” McCleary wrote, “a photograph of the Stenhousemuir manager pinned to the home dressing room wall would give Threave boss Davie McVittie his easiest ever team talk. I won’t even name him.”

Threave have had plenty of time to stew over Irons’ exit, so maybe they just needed to get playing again after the long cold spell. They hadn’t had a game in the six-and-a-half weeks since their previous meeting with Stenhousemuir, who themselves had only managed two matches in that period, losing both.

Threave should have won the first game at Ochilview, having been 2-0 up. They never really looked like winning last night. At one stage, it looked as if a heavy mist over Castle Douglas might thicken enough to save them, but this tie had waited long enough for a resolution.

Perhaps Irons’ inside knowledge of the Threave set-up made the difference. Stenhousemuir’s new manager decided the way through the non-leaguers was to pass round them. The home defence, stretched, soon started giving free kicks away.

Midfielder Ross Clark took advantage twice in the first half, scoring two pretty much identical goals – both free kicks from just outside the box, left of centre, beating keeper Vinnie Parker on the near post.

Meanwhile, Stenny wingers Grant Anderson and Steven Murray caused all sorts of problems. On the right, Anderson dazzled in bright yellow boots – something barely worth noting in the Premier League, but a genuine eccentricity in a game at this level, with just about every other player in black footwear.

Murray, on the other flank, managed to be physically imposing despite being the smallest player on the field and wearing a kit that was a couple of sizes too large for him – he could have tucked his shorts into his socks.

By the way, that Stenny kit, a sky blue away number, was manufactured by Hummel, a name that will bring back memories of strange pinstripe designs at Coventry and Southampton for any football fan old enough to remember the late 1980s. Although Stenny’s strip steered clear of such garishness (that was reserved for keeper Chris McCluskey’s bright pink jersey), it has retained the old Hummel arrows down the sleeves.

The team in the Hummel strip had the match sewn up at half-time, but there was a scare within three minutes of the restart, as Threave striker Andrew Donley dived in front of McCluskey to head in a left-wing cross, right in front of the clubhouse. At the back of the main stand, a grey-haired man in a long coat and woolly hat fiddled with a radio and tried to pick up Five Live’s Carling Cup commentary on Ipswich v Arsenal.

As news of a cup upset filtered through on a fuzzy signal in the stand, hopes of a Threave revival fizzled out. Williams, the man who had brought about this replay all those weeks ago, scored twice to put Stenny 4-1 up – both close-range finishes to well-worked moves. Captain Jordan Smith turned in a fifth late on, as it was obvious that Threave had nothing left to give.

Irons came out to face a small group of journalists while eating his post-match banana. He couldn’t resist the obvious metaphor. “I’ve got a banana in my hand, and this game was a banana skin,” he said. Perhaps he will walk out with a plum if Stenny go on to secure a home tie with SPL side Motherwell in round five by seeing off Stranraer next Tuesday.

He seemed relieved the expected backlash against him from the terraces hadn’t materialised. “I’d like to think they would give me an OK welcome, because over the years, I think I’ve done a lot for Threave,” he said.

“I brought Gretna and Morton here for pre-season games when I managed those clubs, and I’ve played here. I’d like to think they’d look beyond the fact that I left for a club who are playing them in a cup competition.

“It was an opportunity for me to get back into senior football. No disrespect to Threave at all, but this is a level that I want to be operating at.”

It might take those involved with the club a little longer to forgive, though. Threave boss McVittie did his best to put the issue to bed.

“We’re glad to put it behind us,” he said. “Davie was here and now he’s at Stenny. There’s not a lot we can do. It’s just one of these things.”

One of those things that hasn’t gone away completely though. Asked how his relationship with Irons was now, McVittie went for understatement. “So-so,” he replied. Threave, perhaps, will be glad for the chance to stop thinking about Stenhousemuir for a while.

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