Dougie Samuel did not have his troubles to seek yesterday as he contemplated tonight’s fifth-round William Hill Scottish Cup replay with Berwick Rangers. Not that the Spartans manager was asking for sympathy. Injuries are the worst of it, specifically in the goalkeeping department.
But, he concedes, at least he isn’t facing a replay with Berwick Rangers just 24 hours after the first game, which was the unusual scenario 20 years ago this month when he was a player with Meadowbank Thistle. As is the case tonight, Berwick Rangers were the obstacle that needed to be surmounted. Also as is the case now, where both sides now know Hibernian await in the next round, Meadowbank and Berwick were aware they were playing for the chance to reach a cup final before the cup final. Celtic were the carrot dangling on the end of a stick.
Better still, because of the reconstruction work being carried out at Parkhead at the time, the venue for the clash was Hampden, Celtic’s temporary home. It really did feel like the promise of a cup final before a cup final.
Meadowbank, in the last season of their existence, stood on the cusp of a date at the national stadium. After the original game was postponed due to poor weather, they hosted Berwick Rangers on Monday 6 February, 1995.
A 1-1 draw meant that in actual fact another game was required to sort out the matter of who played Celtic, one scheduled for just 24 hours later. “It wouldn’t happen now,” smiled Samuel, who this time around is glad of the ten-day recuperation period after the first game, which finished 1-1 at Ainslie Park after Ally MacKinnon scored a stoppage time equaliser for Spartans.
“Where it was similar to this situation is that the winners knew they had a plum tie in the next round,” Samuel recalled. It wouldn’t do to skip breezily over the details of a match that had everything. Ten-man Meadowbank scored with the last kick of the 90 minutes to make it 2-2 and then did the same in extra-time, from the penalty spot, to make it 3-3 after Berwick edged ahead again. A 7-6 victory in the penalty shoot-out meant Meadowbank progressed after an epic tussle squeezed into two consecutive nights of football (they ended up losing 3-0 to Celtic at Hampden).
“Coincidentally, Stephen Ellison, who is the Berwick goalie coach, was the goalkeeper for Meadowbank that night,” reflected Samuel. Since he will be choosing who features in the event of a shoot-out tonight, did the Spartans manager take one of the kicks at Berwick?
“I didn’t, no,” he replied. “I think I was next up. It’s strange that though I was renowned for being a goalscoring midfielder, I never took penalties throughout my career. I think I missed one for Meadowbank against East Fife, after that I thought: ‘Nah, it’s not for me’.”
That was then, this is now. No-one needs to remind Samuel what is at stake tonight. He grew up a Hibs supporter. When the draw for the fifth round was made, he wanted desperately to be paired with Hibs at Easter Road. Berwick was not the glamour tie Spartans had hoped for but now the identity of the opposition in the last eight is known, this clash with them has acquired an elevated status.
Samuel had no compunction about describing this evening’s game as “the biggest in Spartans’ history”. Even were Hibs not waiting in the last eight, it would surely deserve this billing. Only two non-leagues side have made it into the quarter-finals of the Scottish Cup before, and not since the early 1960s. History beckons.
The number of fans making the trip to support them in their quest supports the view that Spartans have been involved in no bigger game. Eleven buses full of supporters will be leaving from north Edinburgh later this afternoon with as many as 800 expected to travel in total.
“We wondered whether we would be able to match the numbers who went to St Mirren nine years ago, but it looks like we will,” said Samuel. “For a non-league club to do that on a Tuesday night in the middle of winter when you are competing with Champions League games says a lot about the amount of goodwill there is for the Spartans family.”
Samuel is not someone motivated by personal glory. While he would clearly relish the chance to take his Spartans team to Easter Road for a fifth-round clash already chosen to be broadcast live, it is for more far-reaching reasons that he wishes for a successful outcome tonight. “Financially it will allow us to do a significant amount of groundwork here at the club,” he said. “All that becomes possible and do-able on the back of winning this football match.”