James McGrory Park, Glasgow
St Roch’s v Larkhall Thistle
Central League First Division
After a run of four homes games and not having played away since early January, Thistle made the trip to Provanmill for this vital top of the league clash between the second and third placed teams.
The Jags had injury worries, Brian Jack had stitches round his eye and both keepers were carrying knocks and were doubtful. Captain Mark Canning was also doubtful due to work commitments but Stewart Thomson started in goal and Canning made it too, with Brian Jack on the bench.
A fine day and the lack of any senior games brought out a big crowd for the game with the vast majority supporting the home team, a dream day for the club treasurer with hundreds cramming the home terracing and shed behind the goal.
Thistle got off to a bright start moving the ball forward well but without anything happening up front, Graham Gracie was through on the keeper but flagged offside then Matty Clarke had a chance to play him in moments later but overplayed it on the left side and lost the opportunity.
The playing surface was in poor condition and the ball was constantly taking strange bobbles making it hard to play a passing game on the deck and the big St Roch’s defence meant high balls into the area weren’t going to come to much either.
The tone of the game changed after 11 minutes though when a mix up in the Jags defence let Maguire in to score with a shot into the top corner that left Thomson with no chance. They nearly added to the lead ten minutes later when another mix up, this time between Hugh Kelly and David Reid, gifted the ball which was swept out to the left wing and the St Roch’s man did well to create space for a shot that just came off the outside of the post with Thomson stranded.
Minutes later Niall Reynolds had to clear one that might have been heading in as St Roch’s settled in and controlled rest of the half, forcing Thistle back into defending deep for most of it. The Jags came closest when Gracie chased down what looked like a lost cause and won the ball back for Reid whose shot brought out a low diving save from Stark.
Half Time: St Roch’s 1 Larkhall Thistle 0
St Roch’s were out of the blocks early in the second half with a quick turn and shot that went just past the post and it looked like we might be in for more of the same, but Thistle have developed a steely edge in their unbeaten run and they weren’t going to go down without a fight.
Liam Mushett was involved going forward as well as in defence and he got his head onto a free kick which was partly cleared by a defender but fell back to him, his follow-up shot was well saved and fell to Clarke but he couldn’t adjust his feet in time to tap it into the empty net.
Thistle got their equaliser from the penalty spot ten minutes into the half after a Gracie throw-in had again only been cleared as far as Canning on the edge of the box. His shot hit a defender who was going to ground but left his arm up, the referee deciding there was enough in it for a penalty. Canning took the kick himself and beat Stark to the keeper’s right. Shortly after the goal the skipper was taken off due to what looked like an injury to his ribs he’d picked up earlier in the game and was replaced by Brian Jack.
It would have been a bold referee who awarded Larkhall a second penalty just five minutes later in front of the 700 fans who might just have thought it wasn’t – Jack hit the post and Gracie seemed to be impeded by two defenders who threw themselves down and bowled him over but in the circumstances anything short of catching the ball with both hands was never going to be given.
Going into the last quarter of a pulsating match, St Roch’s pressed again and went close with a free header that just cleared the bar when it should have hit the target at least, then even closer with a ball right across the face of the goal just two yards out that had no takers for an easy tap-in. Thomson was then called into action to get a vital touch on a point-blank shot after a corner had been headed back across the goal.
Thistle finished the game with the best chances to sneak a win, Mushett helped the ball on towards goal and Ryan Innes nipped in front of the keeper but sent his header just wide, then a St Roch’s defender mysteriously tried to dribble out from his own goal line and got caught out but the ball trundled across the face of the goal and past. In their last effort, keeper Stark and one of his defenders between them managed to hand the ball to Gracie who tried to lob it back into the empty net but didn’t get enough height on it.
This was Thistle – and St Roch’s – biggest league game for many a year. The league positions and crowd made it a real big match occasion and it required big players to step up and perform. The Thistle back three and keeper were outstanding other than the blip for the goal and Hugh Kelly and Canning put everything into midfield, Gracie got through a lot of work and led the line well but the real driving force behind what was a tremendous point was Ryan Innes. A magnificent fighting display in the middle of the park that set the marker that Thistle weren’t going to be intimidated by the occasion and were here to scrap and battle for everything that was going.
A word about St Roch’s, they have had their problems with some of their supporters recently but manager Andy Cameron and the committee pulled out all the stops to make this as safe as they could for the travelling Thistle support. In the event it all passed off peacefully and in what has to be said was a great atmosphere, and although there is an intense rivalry between the two clubs it was settled where it should be settled, on the park.
Full Time: St Roch’s 1 Larkhall Thistle 1
Website man of the match: Ryan Innes
S. Thomson; Brown, Mushett, Reynolds; Kelly; Payne, Innes, Canning (Jack 56), Reid (Nicholl 78); Clarke (McStay 68), Gracie. Subs: McKeever, Doyle, D. Thomson
Booked: Innes, Mushett, Payne, McStay