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On Saturday at Glencruitten Oban Saints and Perthshire Amateur Football Association Division One leaders and reigning champions Letham served up the sequel to their Scottish Amateur Cup thriller which more than lived up to the previous week’s first instalment.
Injuries to Graham Douglas and Ross Maitland and the non-availability of Martin Bonar forced manager Alex Craik to change his squad, which he was also able to leave himself out of. Thomas McCulloch returned between the posts with Dene Cassells and Myles McAuley returning after a two-week absence to take their places on the bench alongside Matthew Kelly, Ross Maitland and Dean Smith.
Saints kicked off attacking the railway line end and the match was quickly up to the frantic speed of the previous encounter. A first-minute barge into Paul Carmichael by Michael Rylance gave Saints a free kick midway inside the Letham half and wide on the Saints right. Willie Gemmell sent a dangerous ball to the back post where Gavin Smith beat Donald Campbell in the air to head behind for a corner kick on the Saints left. Gemmell trotted across to take the kick and went low, picking out Marc Maccallum at the near post. Marc let the ball run between his legs, taking out three Letham defenders and opening up space for Paul Carmichael to slot the ball left-footed low past Steven McEwan to open the scoring inside the second minute.
Saints kept Letham pinned backed and four minutes later had the opportunity to put some daylight between themselves and their visitors. A good passing move involving Paul Carmichael, Donald Campbell and Craig MacEwan sent Brian Mackay racing into the Letham box chased by Sean Ferrie. The tall Letham skipper made a sliding tackle through the back of Brian, winning the ball but felling the Saints man in the process. Referee Thomas Gilchrist had no hesitation in pointing to the spot and took the name of Letham midfielder Robbie Green for his protestations.
Craig MacEwan had placed last week’s penalty low to the keeper’s right and that’s exactly where Steven McEwan guessed this one would go. Craig, however, went diagonally opposite, aiming for the postage stamp corner but sending the ball wide of the upright, wasting the chance to capitalise fully on Saints’ early domination.
The Saints penalty miss gave the visitors a major confidence boost and Dale Smart stung the palms of Saints keeper Thomas McCulloch with a firmly struck shot from 25 yards.
Willie Gemmell came within inches of doubling the Saints advantage in the 13th minute. Donald Campbell knocked down Willie’s long ball to Craig MacEwan on the Letham 18-yard line. Craig rolled the ball back to Willie who, from 25 yards, left Steven McEwan firmly rooted to the spot but sent his shot the wrong side of the Letham keeper’s left-hand post.
In the 18th minute, Jamie Graham was beaten by William Carle trying to see the ball out for a goal kick after another break on the Letham left. The big Letham striker dispossessed Jamie and fired a low cross into the six-yard box where Scott Maitland was well placed to turn the ball behind for a corner kick.
Letham carry a particular aerial threat but the Saints defence were equal to the task and cleared the corner kick from the right comfortably.
Donald Campbell spurned a good opportunity to work Steven McEwan in the Letham goal, latching onto a 20th minute Craig MacEwan turn and lay-off but sending his shot from 18 yards straight at the Letham keeper.
A calamitous five-minute period from Saints completely undid their own good start and handed the initiative firmly to the visitors. A long throw from the left from Alan Cunningham bounced across the Saints box where Willie Gemmell inexplicably threw out an arm to control the ball, giving Mr Gilchrist an easy decision to award a penalty kick. The chance to bring his team back into the match was grabbed with both hands by William Carle who succeeded where Craig MacEwan had failed in finding the postage stamp corner.
The visitors then won a throw-in level with the Saints 18-yard line. The home side again failed to deal with the long throw-in, allowing the ball to bounce in the box with Aaron Galletly nipping in at the near post to bundle home from six yards and turn the scoreline on its head.
Things turned from bad to worse in the 27th minute when Saints were carved open down their right hand side once again. Dale Smart turned the ball across the face of goal for strike partner William Carle to knock the ball past the hopelessly exposed Thomas McCulloch, leaving Saints a mountain to climb to get back into a game which they had been firmly in control of just five minutes earlier.
A shell-shocked Saints dusted themselves down thankful that there was plenty of time left on the clock to complete their ascent and took heart from a good opening created on the half-hour mark although Craig MacEwan’s shot at goal lacked the power to fully extend Steven McEwan who made a comfortable save.
Saints reached base camp in the 32nd minute with a trademark Willie Gemmell free kick. Aaron Galletly fouled Donald Campbell 28 yards from goal and slightly left of centre.
Willie, who had drawn two good saves low down to his right from Steven McEwan from similar positions in the first match, decided to go up and over the wall on this occasion. In classic Beckhamesque style, Willie curled the ball over the three-man wall and into the bottom corner to bring Saints roaring back into the game.
Saints’ ascent of the mountain reached a crucial stage five minutes before the interval. Scott Maitland made good ground on the Saints left and rolled a pass up to Craig MacEwan, who quickly sent Brian Mackay spinning in behind Gavin Smith and into the box. Benn Blyth came across to block Brian’s progress with the Saints man forced to turn the ball back to Scott Maitland. Scott fed Donald Campbell in space 10 yards out from where Donald curled a delicious finish into the bottom corner past Steven McEwan’s left hand and it was game on.
The topsy turvy first half ended all square with Saints definitely the happier of the two teams to have clawed their way back into a game which had threatened to run away from them.
The second half was an entirely different proposition with Saints dominating almost entirely,and limiting their opponents to occasional counter-attacks.
Saints survived a first second-
half minute scare when Jamie Graham and Thomas McCulloch got into a fankle, leaving a long ball over the top to each other.
Letham keeper Steven McEwan denied Donald Campbell acrobatically, tipping over Donald’s dipping shot for a corner kick. Not for the first time, Marc Maccallum won the near-post header and was unfortunate to see his effort stopped on the goal line by Nathan Kennedy.
Brian Mackay’s industry was a constant source of worry for the Letham rearguard but his finishing proved less so with two very presentable chances spurned in as many minutes.
As the game wore on Saints were getting in behind the Letham defence with increasing regularity but the killer finish continued to elude them.
A hopeful Letham appeal for handball against Marc Maccallum was dismissed by Mr Gilchrist, with the Motherwell whistler indicating that Marc had controlled the ball with his chest.
With six minutes of the 90 remaining and extra time looking a distinct possibility, Saints finally reached the summit of the mountain they had given themselves to climb. Donald Campbell made a surging run into the box, holding off the close attentions of Michael Rylance, to reach the bye-line. Donald’s cut back was frustratingly just behind Paul Carmichael on the six-yard line but Paul Kerr was on hand to rifle the ball home from eight yards, beating Steven McEwan low down at his near post.
Knowing that a Letham aerial assault would be forthcoming, manager Alex Craik immediately withdrew Willie Gemmell, replacing him with Dene Cassells to add height at the back. Dene was immediately into the thick of the action winning a header against William Carle from a deep cross from the right wing.
Having run himself into the ground, Brian Mackay made way for Myles McAuley in the 87th minute. Paul Kerr’s heroic performance came to an end moments later when he picked up a knock making a vital block to stop a Letham counter-attack deep in the Letham half. Paul was replaced by Dean Smith, whose fresh legs up front would provide the out ball with Paul Carmichael and Donald Campbell dropping deeper to bolster the midfield.
Thankfully, Saints saw off the danger and managed to run down the clock to inflict a first defeat of the season on their Perthshire opponents.
The four additional minutes allowed by the referee, who had an excellent game, were not without incident, with Mr Gilchrist using all his experience to successfully keep the lid on a 93rd-minute flashpoint when Gavin Anderson slid in late on Paul Carmichael on the touchline in front of the Letham bench. The badly-timed tackle sparked a melee which Mr Gilchrist brought under control and earned Anderson a yellow card which was the final act of a blockbuster of a cup tie full of skill and endeavour from both sides.
Saints will now face Barca-Milton 97 of the Lothian and Edinburgh AFA in the quarter-finals. The tie is scheduled for Saturday March 25 at the Jewel, Duddingston, Edinburgh.
Manager Alex Craik was delighted at the response from his team. He said: ‘I was fearing the worst when we were 3-1 down but the boys showed tremendous character to fight their way back to win. We were the better team, especially in the second half, and fully deserve to be in the quater-finals.
Saints return to league duty on Saturday with a tough home game against old rivals St Joseph’s FP. Kick-off is 2pm at Glencruitten with referee John Scott in charge.