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AN 89TH minute wonder goal from amateur football sensation Keir Knapp ended Oban Saints’ West of Scotland Cup run at Grange Academy, Kilmarnock, last Saturday.
Despite a spirited performance from a much-depleted Saints side, including two perfectly placed set-piece strikes from Willie Gemmell, it was the very impressive 2016 cup winners Shortlees who prevailed at the end of the 90 minutes to advance to the quarter final stage.
Saints manager Alex Craik’s pre-match plans were thrown into disarray with the withdrawal of five of the squad which had put eight past Woodhall Thistle in the previous round requiring starting roles for locum goalkeeper Thomas McCulloch and the gaffer himself.
Saints lined up with Thomas McCulloch in goal behind a back four of Matthew Kelly, Steven MacLeod, Alex Craik and Scott Maitland. Willie Gemmell anchored the midfield flanked by captain Donald Campbell and Daniel MacCuish with Lewis Cameron, on his first start since returning to the club, taking up an unaccustomed position at the point of the diamond. Up front were leading goal scorer Craig MacEwan and last week’s hat-trick hero Shaun MacIver. On a very young and inexperienced three-man bench were Ruaridh Horne, Connor Howe and Craig MacMillan.
Skipper Donald Campbell won the toss of referee Anthony McCann’s coin and elected to play into the stiff breeze and low sun in the first half. Saints kicked off attacking the school end on the excellent all-weather surface, but it was the hosts who were first to settle with Owen Quigley hooking over a Keir Knapp cross from the left inside the first 60 seconds.
Saints were punished for their slow start when a towering header from Richard Mullen put Shortlees ahead after just five minutes. The big central defender climbed high above Willie Gemmell and Alex Craik to power a Keir Knapp corner from the left past the stranded Thomas McCulloch.
The deadly right foot of Willie Gemmell brought Saints level in the tenth minute after referee McCann had penalised Richard Mullen for a tackle from behind on Craig MacEwan. Five of Gemmell’s six previous goals this season had come in cup competitions and the midfield stalwart continued his knack of chipping in with vital strikes when he a curled a low shot from 19 yards around the five man Shortlees wall and into the bottom corner past a static Garry Murdoch.
Cheered on by the large and vociferous home support, Shortlees came roaring back and struck the frame of the goal two minutes later. John Muir turned inside Scott Maitland on the Shortlees right and hit a dipping left foot effort, which Thomas McCulloch appeared to have covered, crashing off the top of the crossbar.
Shortlees captain Keir Knapp picked up the first yellow card of a fiercely contested match for a 16th minute foul on Saints right-back Matthew Kelly who gave a good first half account of himself against one of the top talents in the amateur game.
Opening goalscorer Richard Mullen joined his captain in the referee’s notebook in the 25th minute for a foul on Donald Campbell on the halfway line. From Willie Gemmell’s free-kick rolled into Campbell’s feet, the skipper fed Shaun MacIver for a strike on goal which Garry Murdoch in the Shortlees goal held at the second attempt.
A 39th minute free-kick won by Donald Campbell was tossed in from the right by Willie Gemmell but, predictably, headed out by towering Shortlees central defender Gordon Minor. Lurking just outside the box was Lewis Cameron whose touch and hit from 24 yards flew wide of Garry Murdoch’s left hand post.
As the clock ticked down towards half-time, Saints captain Donald Campbell was penalised for a foul on opposite number Keir Knapp whose free-kick from the left hit the top of the Saints’ wall and was tipped over the crossbar by Thomas McCulloch.
The hosts kept the pressure on with three successive corner kicks which Saints defended well before referee McCann brought the first half to an end with honours even.
The opening exchanges of the second half followed a similar pattern to the first with the home side, who had switched Keir Knapp and John Muir to the opposite flanks, making the better start.
In Saints’ first serious attack of the second 45, Lewis Cameron won a free-kick on the left 30 yards from goal. Willie Gemmell’s dipping ball into the six yard box looking for the run of Shaun MacIver was well held by Garry Murdoch who immediately launched a counter attack up the left wing. John Muir raced away and sent in a low cross which the combined efforts of Matthew Kelly and Steven MacLeod sent spinning beyond the grasp of Thomas McCulloch and in off the far post to restore the host’s advantage.
Cursing their luck, Saints pressed forward in search of a second equaliser but found ricochets in the Shortlees penalty area not going their way.
Before the corner kick could be taken, Shortlees replaced the injured Douglas Robertson with Greig Rankin, another of eight survivors from Shortlees’ Scottish Amateur Cup quarter-final defeat by Saints at Glencruitten two years ago.
Daniel MacCuish tried to pick out Willie Gemmell’s near post run but Owen Quigley read the danger well to head clear.
Not for the first time in the match, Thomas McCulloch showed excellent handling to pluck a 65th minute corner kick off the head of giant central defender Gordon Minor.
Willie Gemmell had his name taken in the 66th minute by referee Tony McCann. The vastly experienced whistler, who handled the match well, brandished the yellow card in Gemmell’s direction for a foul on Jim Caldwell on the halfway line.
Saints gaffer Alex Craik made his only change with 22 minutes remaining, replacing 17-year-old Daniel MacCuish, who acquitted himself well in distinguished company, with another youngster, Connor Howe.
A 70th minute Craig MacEwan turn and hit from a Willie Gemmell pass flew wide of the junction of post and bar as Saints continued their quest to get back into the match.
Two minutes later, Lewis Cameron got the better of Jim Caldwell wide on the right and fizzed a low cross towards the near post which was thumped clear by Gordon Minor. From the corner kick, Cameron tried to pick out Connor Howe’s run from deep but the Saints replacement got underneath the flight of the ball and the danger was cleared.
After a good spell of Saints’ pressure, Owen Quigley clattered into the back of Donald Campbell on the edge of the Shortlees box in the 80th minute earning himself a caution from referee McCann. The free-kick, 22 yards out and left of centre, was in perfect Willie Gemmell territory and the Saints dead ball expert didn’t disappoint curling a delicious effort over the five man wall and into the postage stamp corner to restore parity at 2-2.
With five minutes remaining, Thomas McCulloch made an excellent stop at his near post to deny Owen Quigley who had broken clear of Matthew Kelly on the left. From the resulting corner kick, the big keeper again took charge of his six yard box to punch clear.
Saints, however, couldn’t get out of their own half and Craig MacEwan picked up a yellow card for hauling down Keir Knapp as he threatened to burst into the Saints box from the right. Saints inexplicably switched off at the free-kick from level with the six yard line and allowed Owen Quigley a free header from three yards out which he placed into the unguarded net.
The deflated Saints set off in search of a third equalier to take the tie into extra-time but there was to be no way back and it was the hosts who finished the tie with a flourish in the 89th minute.
If there was an element of good fortune about the Shortlees breakaway second goal, there was absolutely no question of luck being involved for their fourth goal which was a piece of individual brilliance from Keir Knapp fit to win any game.
With Saints pressing hard for a lifeline, Keir Knapp picked the ball up midway inside his own half and raced away from the trailing Saints pack before rifling an unstoppable left foot shot across Thomas McCulloch and into the bottom corner.
There was to be no coming back from this hammer blow for Saints, however, they kept plugging away during the time added on by Mr McCann and Donald Campbell’s perseverance on the left forced a 93rd minute corner kick. Willie Gemmell produced one last exhibit of his set-piece prowess looping his flag kick over the head of Owen Quigley at the back post and picking out Alex Craik on the corner of the six yard box. Unfortunatley the gaffer was unable to convert a difficult chance and sliced his volley wide before Mr McCann pointed to the centre circle bringing an enthralling cup tie to an end.
Saints gaffer Alex Craik was gutted at the end of the game. He said: ‘This was always going to be a tough game but having to make five changs to the squad that defeated Woodhall in the last round was just too much. At the final stages in the major competitions you need your main players to be available but unfortunately for us five were missing for various reasons.’
Saints return to league business this Saturday when they welcome 2015-16 champions East Kilbride FC Amateurs to Glencruitten in the Scottish Amateur Football League Premier Division. The match will be played at Glen 2 with a 1.30pm kick-off. Referee in charge is Matthew Dickinson from Mull.