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After 200 minutes of football in wind, rain and scorching sunshine Oban Saints emerged victorious from this year’s Argyll and Bute Cup in Lochgilphead.
The tournament was once again arranged by Lochgilphead Red Star who were excellent hosts for the popular eight-team event.
Taking part this year were cup holders Dunoon, last year’s runners-up Oban Saints, tournament regulars Tarbert, hosts Lochgilphead Red Star, Glasgow Islay, who were returning for a second year, and debutants Neilston, Tannahill and South Lochaber Thistle.
The day began in rather inauspicious circumstances for Saints when manager Alex Craik lost the keys to the minibus sparking a frantic hunt for the spare set which thankfully were found in the nick of time.
The 14 available senior players were complemented in a sizable squad by youngsters Nathan Allan, Kenneth Black, Gavin Forgrieve, Ruairidh Horne and Cameron Kerr.
However a last minute call-off from Craig MacEwan and an early injury for Craig Campbell left the Gaffer to rely far more heavily on the five youth team players than he had planned.
As the day progressed any concerns that the management may have had regarding the youngsters’ ability to cope in the company of considerably more experienced players were dispelled with all five excelling in a variety of roles.
Saints were drawn in group two on the 3G at Lochgilphead Joint Campus and kicked off against Dunoon Amateurs to whom they had lost out in last year’s final. The omens weren’t good when Saints conceded a ninth-minute opener to a tidy finish from Dunoon’s Connor McClymont, quickly followed by Craig Campbell’s departure with a thigh strain.
However Saints rallied and leveled after 16 minutes, with Fraser MacFarlane finding the bottom corner from a Cameron Kerr cross after the young striker had been played in by Willie Gemmell.
More injury worries arrived on the stroke of half-time when Craig Campbell’s replacement Daniel Croarkin also suffered a thigh strain while making a timely interception to deny Kevin MacKenzie a clear sight of goal.
Fortunately the half-time interval also coincided with the arrival of experienced reinforcements Donald Campbell, Marc Maccallum and Scott Maitland who helped Saints gain the upper hand in the second half.
Donald Campbell saw a lovely turn and shot from the 18-yard line which was saved by the keeper. With just two minutes remaining Gemmell threaded a killer pass through to Matthew Kelly who, before the keeper had time to set himself, fired a low shot into the bottom corner from 25 yards giving Saints a winning start to the group stage.
Over at Ropework Park group one opened with the local derby match between Lochgilphead Red Star and Tarbert. The Dookers suffered a torrid 2016-17 season losing all but one of their league matches, so full credit to all involved at the club for keeping things going in such difficult circumstances.
The much deserved change in fortune for Tarbert will, however, have to wait a while longer as their Loch Fyne neighbours Red Star ran out comfortable 3-0 winners through goals from Martin Bonar, Ryan Caskie and Ciaran Mcphie.
Following the Loch Fynesiders onto the well prepared if slightly heavy grass park were Glasgow Islay and South Lochaber Thistle where the exiled Ileach’s defeated the Kinlochleven men by the odd goal in three.
While Saints were taking a breather another local derby was played out on the 3G.
Scottish Amateur Football League Premier Division One outfit Neilston saw off Tannahill of the Paisley and District Amateur Football Association Premier Division by three goals to nil. A first minute opener from David Brannigan was added to in the second half by two successfully converted penalty kicks from Robbie Cameron.
The Tannahill men were pitched straight back into action on the 3G against a Saints side who quickly stamped their mark on the game, with Donald Campbell netting a first half hat-trick. Two goals from young Cameron Kerr and another from Campbell in the second half sealed a comfortable 6-0 win.
With progress to the semi-finals now assured, Saints took advantage of a two-game break to re-fuel before their final group match.
Over at the Ropework Lochgilphead Red Star booked their place in the semis with a narrow win over Glasgow Islay courtesy of a lone Ciaran McPhie strike. Also on the grass, South Lochaber Thistle and Tarbert played out the highest scoring match of the day averaging a goal every four minutes as the Kinlochleven men notched seven goals to the Dookers’ three.
Immediately following their thriller against South Lochaber Thistle, Tarbert were straight back into action against Glasgow Islay with the Ileachs running out comfortable 3-0 winners to clinch a place in the semi-finals as group one runners-up.
The final group one match at the Ropework was an entertaining 2-2 draw between already confirmed group winners Lochgilphead Red Star and third placed South Lochaber Thistle.
During Saints two match break Neilston confirmed their place in the semi’s defeating Scottish Amateur Football League Premier Division One rivals Dunoon by three goals to nil. On target for Neilston were Robbie Cameron and David Brannigan with two. With their hopes of a successful defence of the cup now over, Dunoon gained the minor consolation of finishing group two in third place with a 2-1 win over Tannahill thanks to goals from Kevin MacKenzie and Connor McClymont. Craig Jack netted for the Paisley side.
The final group two match would then be a decider between Saints and Neilston to decide who would go through as group winners. Saints were in pole position thanks to a slightly superior goal difference and therefore had only to avoid defeat to confirm top spot.
Saints made a shaky start to the group decider and had Graham Douglas to thank for a smart save from a second minute free-kick. The score remained 0-0 at the interval
Neilston began the second half on top and once again Graham Douglas made a vital save after Saints had conceded possession cheaply in the middle of the park. Manager Alex Craik decided to push for the win and freshened things up by replacing Cameron Kerr and Matthew Kelly with Donald Campbell and 14-year -old Gavin Forgrieve.
The substitutes along with Fraser MacFarlane and Keith Millar were heavily involved in the breakthrough goal in the 33rd minute. A lovely flowing move through the midfield saw Donald Campbell pick out Keith Millar’s run through the inside left channel into the box. Millar then delivered a perfect cut back for Campbell who passed the ball into the bottom corner beyond the despairing left hand of keeper Fulton.
Referee Peter Laing, who performed well as a late replacement for John Stobo who had to rush away to a Celine Dion concert, awarded Saints a free-kick on the edge of the D after a foul on Donald Campbell. Willie Gemmell’s eye was now in and he curled a delightful finish round the five man Neilston wall and past the well beaten goalkeeper to seal Saints progress as group winners.
In the first semi-final on the grass at the Ropework Group One winners Lochgilphead Red Star faced Group Two runners-up Neilston. The tournament hosts opened the scoring on the stroke of half-time with a Kieran Moore free-kick. Neilston hit back after the interval when Red Star keeper Ben Pollock could only parry a David Brannigan free-kick and Michael Green followed up to bundle the ball into the net.
With the prospect of penalty kicks looming Red Star struck a killer blow in the final minute. Ciaran McPhie had a good effort turned behind for a corner kick by Neilston keeper Fulton. However the Neilston defence was breached from the corner when Kevin Keen found space at the near post to volley home from close range and send the hosts through to the final.
Semi-final two was between group two winners Oban Saints and group one runners-up Glasgow Islay. Saints were quickly into their stride with Gemmell testing the keeper’s handling with a dipping shot inside the first minute. The Glasgow Islay keeper passed that test with flying colours but spilled an identical effort from Gemell just 60 seconds later.
Cameron Kerr was quickly onto the loose ball and, despite the keeper making a good save from his initial effort, kept his cool to nod the ball over the line to establish an early lead for Saints.
Saints doubled their lead after 12 minutes. Gemmell picked out Scott Maitland on the left wing and continued his run into the box heading Scott’s cross into the path of Cameron Kerr who nodded the bouncing ball beyond the keeper and into the net.
Saints Gaffer Alex Craik made three changes at half-time withdrawing Jamie Graham, Matthew Kelly and Cameron Kerr in favour of David Smith, Gavin Forgrieve and Donald Campbell. Donald made an instant impact latching onto a measured pass from fellow substitute Gavin Forgrieve and beating the keeper at his near post from an acute angle to cement his position as the tournament’s leading goalscorer.
Fraser MacFarlane opened up the Glasgow Islay defence in the 34th minute sending Donald Campbell through on goal. Donald was sent wide of goal but rounded the keeper and sent a cut-back across the face of goal where it was turned into the net by a retreating defender before it could reach Cameron Kerr coming in at the back post. Kerr did manage to seal his hat-trick in the final minute latching onto a Scott Maitland pass after more good work from Gavin Forgrieve to lash the ball into the roof of the net sealing a convincing 5-0 win for Saints
Only 20 minutes later than the scheduled 5pm kick-off time, Lochgilphead Red Star and Oban Saints lined up in still scorching hot sunshine for the final of the 2017 Argyll and Bute Cup.
Referee Pat O’Donnell was assisted by Jimmy Litster and Jim Pearson who, together with Peter Laing and John Stobo would later receive the grateful thanks of tournament organiser Douglas Moore at the presentation ceremony in the Stag Hotel.
Saints captain Marc MacCallum had better luck at the coin toss and elected to shoot up the Ropework slope in the first half also harnessing the slight wind advantage.
Inside the opening minute Saints were denied what appeared to be a decent penalty shout when Fraser MacFarlane was upended in the Red Star Box. Mr O’Donnell however decided the tackle was fair and instead awarded a corner kick much to the chagrin of the Saints bench. The corner kick came to nothing as was the case two minutes later after Ben Pollock had turned a Matthew Kelly shot around his right hand post. Pollock again saved well after four minutes when Donald Campbell connected at the back post with a Kerr cross from the right.
Red Star made their first foray forward in the seventh minute winning a corner kick on the right which Saints keeper Graham Douglas held well under pressure.
After the bright start from Saints the hosts stepped things up a gear making good use of long throw-ins to heap pressure on the Saints defence which refused to buckle.
On the quarter hour mark Fraser MacFarlane skipped away from his marker on the Saints right and sent a tantalising low ball across the six-yard box agonisingly out of reach for Scott Maitland racing in at the back post.
Red Star came close before the half-time interval twice sending shots wide of the post handing the initiative to Saints who would have the benefit of the slope in the second half.
Manager Alex Craik brought on Gavin Forgrieve to replace Fraser MacFarlane for the start of the second half with Cameron Kerr moving forward to join Donald Campbell in attack.
The two quickly combined from a Willie Gemmell pass with Kerr directing Campbell’s cut-back on target only to see his effort well saved by Ben Pollock.
Opposite number Graham Douglas produced another fine save to deny Kieran Moore before Saints dealt Red Star a killer blow in the 25th minute.
Donald Campbell threaded a pass through the inside right channel for Matthew Kelly who rifled a shot into the bottom corner past Ben Pollock’s left hand.
With 15 minutes remaining there was still plenty of time remaining for Red Star to conjure an equaliser but try as they might they couldn’t find a way through a resolute Saints defence.
Twice Red Star sent free-kicks from dangerous positions crashing into the Saints wall with their principal set piece menace coming from long throws which Willie Gemmell and Jamie Graham in particular did well to repel.
In the dying seconds Red Star were almost rewarded for their perseverance, however Graham Douglas was in no mood to see his solitary goal against tally added to and pulled off a stunning point blank save to deny Keiran Moore with virtually the last kick of the regulation 40 minutes.
Mr O’Donnell allowed a generous amount of added time which Saints saw out comfortably to win the Argyll and Bute Cup for the 12th time.
Despite the tournament being principally about preparation for the season ahead, Saints manager Alex Craik will be delighted to have secured the silverware and in particular the performance of the youngsters in the squad.
Saints begin their Scottish Amateur Football League Premier Division campaign away at Hillington this Saturday followed by a home fixture against Motherwell Thistle.