Stagecoach West of Scotland League Central District First Division
Gasworks Park, Larkhall
Larkhall Thistle v Bellshill Athletic
Larkhall Thistle welcomed league leaders Bellshill to Gasworks Park in conditions that were bordering on unplayable. The referee had allowed the game to start despite howling winds and a puddle in the box at the Gasworks end which held up every ball that fell in there, and most watching in the ground were baffled as to why the game had gone ahead.
The Jags kicked off playing with the wind in the first half, missing key players like goalkeeper Davie McEwan and ex-Kilmarnock midfielder Mark Canning. In the event however former professional Canning’s absence wasn’t a factor as new signing Matthew Clarke – who replaced him in midfield – had an outstanding game and was the one real bright spot in an otherwise horrendous day. Stuart McIntosh and Matthew Clarke both retained their places in the side and Scott McLachlan returned to partner Graham Gracie in attack in place of David Garcia.
Bellshill got off to the perfect start with a goal inside the first minute. A long ball caught out the Jags defence and Hill striker Gary Millar pounced to give the visitors the early lead.
Thistle quickly got into the game after the shock of the early loss and had good possession for long spells, without much of an end product. The path of the ball was constantly being affected by being held up in the surface water or blown off-course by the wind. Jordan Marshall came close with a long-range effort from just past the centre circle which the wind carried just over the bar. Marshall had found his range though and tried his luck again a minute later, this time from ten yards closer but with the same outcome.
Bellshill hadn’t threatened much since their opening goal but in the 25th minute Millar, who looked to be their best option in attack, wriggled clear down the left wing and managed to get a good shot away but luckily for the Jags the ball hit the post and went out for a goal kick. The visitors were on the attack down the same side again seven minutes later, and Thistle defender Hugh Kelly did well to head over the bar when it could easily have ended up in his own goal.
Larkhall countered right away and the ball was played up to Graham Gracie inside the Bellshill box who just lost out to the covering defender, but instead of the ball going out for a corner it held up at the corner flag and Gracie was first to react and retrieve it. Gracie squared the ball to Clarke just inside the box and he had the time to look up and pick his spot but the shot went past the post in what was the Jags best opportunity of the half.
Just before the half time whistle Thistle again looked like scoring when the hit they bar and the ball rebounded out to the penalty spot where it stuck, Gracie got to it first and as he turned to shoot he was upended by a Bellshill defender for what looked like a clear penalty. The referee however waved play on and the ball was worked out to the wing and when it came back in Ryan Innes might well have done better with his header that went just past the post.
Half Time: Larkhall Thistle 0 Bellshill Athletic 1
The weather continued to worsen as the players emerged for the second half – most quite honestly looking like they wished they were anywhere else. The referee made absolutely sure he wasn’t going to be hanging around waiting and came out a minute later to ironic cheers.
Bellshill now had the wind behind them and with it had the majority of the pressure in the early part of the second half, looking dangerous on the break but producing little in the way of real chances. The one half chance they did take however came just eight minutes after the interval, Bellshill found too much time and space again on the left side of attack and a good cross went right into the middle of the Thistle goal. Jags keeper Lee Moss was outjumped by Hill midfielder Holms whose header found the back of the net.
Larkhall responded right away and Matty Clarke did brilliantly in the middle of the park to evade three challenges and slip a perfect ball through to Innes who shot just past. Both sides then settled down to a period of not really being able to produce any football due to the weather and the game looked more and more like it should be abandoned.
McIntosh was replaced by the returning Adam Cassidy midway through the half, the big centre half had been toiling in the energy-sapping conditions.
Scott McLachlan started off a good move for Thistle in the 70th minute when he picked up the ball and drove straight through the middle at the Bellshill defence. He fed it out wide to Gracie on the edge of the box – again he found the ball stuck under his feet but he managed to roll it back to Marshall who got a shot on target but it was saved. Mark McKeever then won a ball in the right back position and sent Niall Reynolds away as he made the overlapping run down the wing, he did well to get in position but squandered the opportunity as he scuffed his shot.
Bellshill almost put the game beyond doubt with seven minutes left when another long ball beat the Jags defence but Lee Moss did well to come out and put in a good sliding block to avert the danger.
The game looked like it would peter out and playeres and spectators alike were waiting for the final whistle but Thistle again showed their never say die attitude and pulled a goal back right at the death. Clarke again did well to create an opening in front of the Hill box, the ball eventually finding McLachlan at the back post who squeezed it in past the two defenders on the line.
It was a case of too little too late though as the referee blew up for full time right away with no time added on – harsh on Thistle as there had been substitutions and stoppages – and considering the number of times he stopped play to try and replace the corner flag.
No complaints at the result as Bellshill looked a good, well organised team and looked dangerous every time they broke forward. The game might have turned out differently if Thistle had been awarded the penalty but in truth it should never have taken place at all.
Full Time: Larkhall Thistle 1 Bellshill Athletic 2
Thistle scorers: McLachlan
Larkhall Thistle Team:
Moss; Reynolds, Brown, McIntosh, Kelly; Clarke, Marshall, Innes, McKeever; Gracie, McLachlan. Subs: Cassidy, Jack, Garcia
Best on the day for Thistle: Hugh Kelly marshalled the defence well as stand-in captain although still prone to occasionally getting caught in possession but the star man today was Matthew Clarke who ran the midfield for the Jags and provided what has been missing in recent weeks.