Stagecoach West of Scotland League Central District First Division
Gasworks Park, Larkhall
Larkhall Thistle v Bellshill Athletic
Thistle went into this match with a poor league record this season against local rivals from Lanarkshire and unfortunately kept the bad run going by only just scraping a draw. Yet again the game was played like a cup tie from the start with Bellshill just as desperate to win as Thistle even though they had nothing to play for and were already safe.
Thistle were forced into making changes with two of the regular back four missing through suspension so they started with Scott Nicholl at left back and Joe Doyle at centre half alongside Andy Brown, Mark Russell returning to right back. Ross McGeachie dropped to the bench to allow JP Grant to play as supporting striker and accommodate Jack in the midfield.
Bellshill made the early running and had most of the possession in the opening exchanges but it was Thistle who came closest to scoring in the ninth minute. Graham Gracie made his first telling contribution with a run down the left and was fouled, JP Grant took the resulting free kick and was unlucky to see it cannon back off the left post.
Shortly after that Nicholl was booked for needlessly kicking the ball away and from then on he walked a tightrope with the referee showing leniency on more than one occasion, his inexperience showing through.
Fifteen minutes into the game the Jags had their best chance of the first half when Gracie again did well to win a free kick. Joe Doyle swung the ball in and it fell perfectly for Russell 10 yards out but the keeper dived well to smother his shot. Thistle’s pressure looked like resulting in a goal but it was Bellshill who took the lead after 21 minutes against the run of play. They won a couple of corners and the second one fizzed into the middle of the goal, Nicholl swung his boot to try and clear but it spun off him and past Davie McEwan. The Jags were facing a strong wind and the ball seemed to have moved in the air, deceiving the keeper.
Bellshill passed up a couple of chances to go into the half-time break ahead, firstly a soft looking free kick from 28 yards which beat the wall and goalkeeper but sailed just over the bar, then an even better opportunity when a ball floated to the back post forced McEwan into a point blank save from 6 yards.
Half Time: Larkhall Thistle 0 Bellshill Athletic 1
The second half started with Larkhall on the offensive but again it was Bellshill who created the best scoring opportunity three minutes into the half when striker Miller wriggled past two defenders and got a shot away but it went just over the bar. The visitors bench made some half-hearted appeals for a penalty but the referee got this one right.
JP Grant picked up a booking after 57 minutes – even although it was him who was fouled – for swinging a leg at his opponent and was possibly slightly fortunate to stay on the park. Two minutes later Mark McKeever followed him into the book for a tackle.
Ross McGeachie replaced the anonymous Brian Jack and immediately made an impact, winning header after header and getting some very dangerous flick-ons and it was big Ross who was on the end of Thistle’s next chance when he got his head to a Joe Doyle free kick from the half way line but sent it just past the post. The Jags were pushing hard for the equaliser but the visitors were looking dangerous on the break and Davie McEwan had to be at his best in the 75th minute when he pulled off a point blank save to keep them in the game.
Thistle made another change to push for the equaliser and replaced Mark Russell with Sandy Strang, switching to three up front.
If Thistle were to get the breakthrough it always looked likely to come from a set piece and in 79 minutes they drew level from a free kick. Joe Doyle swung the ball in from the right and when it landed in the middle of the six yard area JP Grant reacted first and poked it home.
The joy at drawing level was short-lived however as two minutes later Bellshill regained the lead with a free header in the middle of the goal from a cross from the left. Gracie was booked shortly after in an extremely harsh incident when he swore at a team mate.
It was attack on all fronts now for Thistle but their attempts looked like falling short while at the same time Bellshill always looked capable of scoring on the break and McEwan saved the day on a couple more occasions. The goal did eventually come two minutes into added time and it was the simplest of moves. Gracie took a long throw on the right hand touchline and McGeachie rose highest to flick the ball up and over the keeper into the far corner of the goal.
Bellshill were now starting to regret the time wasting tactics as the Jags pressed again and looked for the winner but time got the better of them and the game ended in a draw that didn’t really satisfy either team.
Full Time: Larkhall Thistle 2 Bellshill Athletic 2
Thistle Scorers: Grant, McGeachie
Larkhall Thistle Team:
McEwan; Brown, Doyle, Nicholl, Russell; Jack, Canning, Kelly, McKeever; Grant, Gracie. Subs: McGeachie, McInall, Strang, Bulloch, Moss
Booked: Nicholl, Grant, McKeever, Gracie
Donnelly, Brady, McDowell, Dolan, Wilson, Morris, Woods, Redpath, Miller, Selkirk, Holmes. Subs: Connolly, Love, Steele, MacDonald, Calder
Best for Thistle on the day was McEwan with another string of great saves but young Scott Nicholl also had a very good game and showed his versatility by filling in at full back