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Oban Saints reached their fourth Scottish Amateur Football League Jimmy Marshall Cup final in five seasons with a 4-1 win at a rain-soaked Penilee Community Centre last Saturday.
After a fairly even goalless first half, Saints turned up the heat on Premier Division One opponents Hillington with Craig MacEwan netting a hat-trick to take his tally for the season to 36 goals.
The victory gave Saints some small measure of revenge for the agonising 2013 final penalty shoot-out defeat at the hands of Hillington at Somervell Park, Cambuslang, and guarantees the Saints faithful another cup final day out to look forward to.
Hosts Hillington kicked off in heavy rain defending the community centre end where, after some early sparring, Saints forced the first corner kick of the match in the third minute. Marc Maccallum played the ball up to Fraser MacFarlane who, in turn, fed Jamie Graham.
Jamie’s overlapping run to the bye-line was halted by Lee Wales at the expense of a corner kick.
Craig MacEwan rose through a ruck of players at the back post to head Fraser MacFarlane’s delivery back across the face of goal with Scott Gold showing a good measure of composure to control the ball and volley clear just short of the goal line.
Matthew Kelly was enjoying his new midfield role and got on the end of a threaded pass from colleague Myles McAuley in the fifth minute. Matthew made a run into the box but was unable to get the ball out of his feet and a good chance was lost.
Another run forward from Matthew Kelly was halted by a mistimed tackle from Scott Gold 28 yards from goal.
With Willie Gemmell missing due to work commitments, Kerr Newbigging assumed responsibility for the deadball but sent his free-kick 18 inches over Paul McGuire’s crossbar.
Hillington had the ball in the net in the 18th minute when Gary Wilson stole in behind Dene Cassells from another deep Ross Hamilton free-kick but assistant referee Philip Hogg raised his flag for offside and referee Robert Doolan disallowed the goal.
Five minutes later on the opposite touchline, Mr Doolan’s other assistant, Derek Milton, raised his flag against Kerr Newbigging to deny Fraser MacFarlane a tap-in at the back post.
The offside flag was up again in the 28th minute this time against Paul Carmichael who was enjoying a fascinating physical battle with Ross Hamilton.
Matthew Kelly battled well in the centre circle to win possession and laid off to Kerr Newbigging whose well weighted ball sent Paul racing through on goal but Mr Milton judged that Paul had started his run from an offside position.
A 34th-minute run along the Saints 18-yard line from William Mitchell was well matched by Marc Maccallum, allowing no way through for the Hillington midfielder with the Saints skipper eventually making a decisive challenge to snuff out the danger.
As the half wore on, Saints began to gain the upper hand in the vital midfield area but still struggled to get in behind the home defence thanks in no small part to a solid display from young centre half Stuart Aitken.
The visitors came within inches of opening the scoring just before the interval when Paul Carmichael held off a strong challenge from Nicholas Baird and burst through into the box only to be denied a goal by the outstretched left foot of Hillington keeper Paul McGuire which deflected the big Saints striker’s net bound shot wide of target.
Before the corner kick could be taken Mr Doolan took the name of Nicholas Baird for his challenge on Carmichael.
The Oban side had the benefit of the breeze for the second half which would steadily increase in strength as the half progressed. Much to the relief of the hardy band of spectators, the rain also eased off for the start of the second period which Saints kicked off attacking the park end.
The second half was only one minute old when Matthew Kelly had the first strike on goal which was deflected wide of Paul McGuire’s right-hand post for a corner kick.
Saints were already showing signs that they would go on to dominate almost the entire second half with Craig MacEwan skinning Lee Wales on the Saints right before sending a ball into the box which was tantalisingly out of reach for Fraser MacFarlane, allowing Paul McGuire to thump clear.
Hillington lost the services of influential midfielder Scott Gold to an ankle injury after just four second-half minutes. Gold was replaced in the middle of the park by Gary Wilson.
Kerr Newbigging’s ball up the right wing for Paul Carmichael saw the Saints man turn Ross Hamilton and dig out a cross from the bye-line which just evaded Craig MacEwan at the near post and ended up in the grateful hands of Paul McGuire.
On the hour mark, Ross Hamilton picked up the second yellow card of the match when he felled Paul Carmichael wide on the right after a good turn from the Saints striker. From Matthew Kelly’s delivery onto the six-yard line Craig MacEwan somehow managed to direct a header towards goal despite having Nicholas Baird’s arm across his throat. Marc Maccallum coming in behind bundled the ball over the line and wheeled away in celebration but his joy was short-lived as Mr Hogg flagged for a handball against the Saints skipper.
The Saints back four, assisted by the strengthening wind, remained comfortable and on a rare occasion when Stuart Ashton got the better of Scott Maitland on the Hillington right Marc Maccallum was quickly across to snuff out the danger.
Maccallum’s central defensive partner Dene Cassells was instrumental in setting up Saints opening goal in the 67th minute. Dene made a decisive interception on the halfway line and charged forward into the Hillington half, playing the ball up to Paul Carmichael. With his back to goal, Paul deftly flicked the ball on with the outside of his right foot to Craig MacEwan who wrong-footed Paul McGuire and stroked the ball into the net to give Saints the lead.
Controversy surrounded Saints’ second goal in the 74th minute. A wind-assisted goal kick from Thomas McCulloch was expertly brought down on the left by Craig MacEwan and curled high into the net past a rooted-to-the-spot Paul McGuire. Saints celebrations of a wonderful goal from Craig were curtailed by an offside flag from Mr Hogg. However, after a brief discussion with his assistant Mr Doolan, who was clearly otherwise minded, pointed to the centre circle awarding the goal to Saints.
This was the cue for Saints manager Alex Craik to make a double substitution, replacing Matthew Kelly and Fraser MacFarlane with Martin Bonar and Dean Smith.
Both substitutes were heavily involved in Saints’ third goal. With Hillington pushing forward desperately looking for a way back into the game, Saints broke forward with Dean Smith holding the ball up well and releasing Martin Bonar on the right wing. Martin’s run was supported by Jamie Graham who popped up in the inside right channel, taking the ball into the box and squaring to Craig MacEwan. Craig’s low shot struck the inside of the post and bounced into the path of the luckless Christopher Flannery who tried to control the ball but only succeeded into turning it into the unguarded net.
A miserable afternoon for Christopher Flannery was rounded off with two minutes of normal time remaining. Paul Carmichael charged through the tiring Hillington defence once again and was scythed down 28 yards from goal by Flannery with referee Doolan reaching to his back pocket and producing his red card.
The left of centre position of the free-kick would have been ideal for Willie Gemmell but in his absence Kerr Newbigging grabbed the ball. The instructions from the sidelines for Kerr to hand the ball to Craig MacEwan were baffling as nobody could remember Craig ever having taken a free-kick before. However, the decision proved to be an inspired one.
Craig curled the ball around the wall and past the despairing left hand of Paul McGuire to seal his hat-trick.
Some of the shine was taken off an excellent all-round Saints performance when they conceded a last-minute consolation goal after switching off at a hotly disputed throw-in. Hillington took full advantage of a fortuitous award, quickly working the ball down the left and into the box for the unmarked Gordon Phillips. With the Saints defence appealing in vain for an offside flag, second half substitute Phillips planted his header low inside Thomas McCulloch’s left hand post denying Saints a long sought-after clean sheet.
Referee Doolan brought proceedings to a close after three added minutes confirming Saints place in the final where their opponents will be either Easthall Star or Dunoon.