Kelty Hearts 0-1 East Kilbride
New Central Park, Kelty
East Kilbride snatched the early advantage in the Lowland League title race with a narrow 1-nil win at New Central Park. It had always promised to be a tight affair between the 2019 and the 2020 champions, and that’s exactly how it turned out. After a nip and tuck kind of first half, Kyle Wilkie bagged the only goal of the game just past the hour mark, to seal a massive three points for Kilbie.
Kelty were still without last season’s top scorer Nathan Austin, who’s been missing most of the season with a calf injury. In Fash’s absence, gaffer Barry Ferguson went with Darren Jamieson in goal behind a back four of Jamie Stevenson, Paddy Boyle, Dougie Hill and Craig Reid. The midfield had a familiar look, skipper Michael Tidser and Thomas Reilly the anchor men, with Dylan Easton on the left, Ross Philp on the right and Kallum Higginbotham through the centre. Cameron Russell came back into the side in the lone striker role.
On the eve of Remembrance Sunday, both sides stood for a minute’s silence ahead of kick-off. When the game did get underway, the hosts were straight on the attack, Russell teeing up Higginbotham for a first minute chance to test Conor Brennan. First team opportunities have been rare for Russell in recent weeks and he was keen to make the most of this start, looking sharp from the first whistle. Unfortunately for him, his chance only lasted 20 minutes after he picked up a knock in an aerial challenge and he limped off to be replaced by Robbie McNab.
It was a foggy and feisty first forty-five, with plenty of incidents: Philip, Easton and Higginbotham all getting involved in a bit of handbags as the two sides fought to gain the upper hand. As can sometime be the case in these kind of matches, there wasn’t a lot of football on show at times. The pace was fast and frantic and there were chances at both ends, without either keeper having to pull off too much in the way of heroics.
The middle of the park wasn’t for the faint hearted, with plenty of strong tackling from both sides, but nobody really crossed the line. Ref Dan McFarlane was letting them get on with it and did well to keep the cards in his pocket. The defenders were dominating both boxes and the two centre-half pairings were definitely on top. Kelty’s best chances came from a Higginbotham shot that was hit cleanly enough but was straight at the keeper, and a Tidser free-kick that rattled the crossbar with Brennan beat.
During the halftime break, the fog finally began to lift, improving visibility and the second half looked like a mouthwatering prospect. It was EK that started brighter as Kelty seemed a little sluggish after the interval. Stevenson went close with a free-kick from 30 yards, but Higginbotham was beginning to look more and more isolated up top and the two wide men struggling to get on the ball.
The longer the half went on, the stronger the visitors started to look. Millar and Bell were comfortable in the heart of the EK defence, the midfield were winning more challenges and picking up more second balls than the hosts. It wasn't always pretty, but it Kilbie were getting the job done. As the hour approached, the visitors were beginning to turn the screw with a couple of dangerous looking set pieces as the pressure on the Kelty defence continued to build.
The breakthrough came on 64 minutes after a good move down the right hand side, Woods’ shot striking the base of the post and when the rebound fell to Wilkie, he made no mistake slotting past Jamieson to give his side a valuable lead.
Kelty almost levelled immediately, Boyle combining well with Easton, who made it to the byeline and fired a tempting ball across the face of goal for Higginbotham, who just couldn’t get enough on it and it went harmlessly behind for a goal kick.
To be honest, that was the best that Kelty had to offer all afternoon. The defence was solid enough and Tidser was trying his best to get his side going, but EK just looked sharper and hungrier all over the park. The midfielders were well on top, the fullbacks were first to everything, cutting off the supply to Kelty’s wide men, and anything that did make it into the danger area was easily dealt with by Millar and Bell. In the end, despite an even first half, EK were worthy of the win and head back west with a big three points to keep Stephen Aitken’s men top of the Lowland League.
Kelty didn’t offer much going forward, both Easton and McNab were denied the chance to get the ball down and run at their man and Higginbotham just couldn’t make any impact against the bigger, stronger central defensive pairing. Grant Anderson came on with a couple of minutes to go but didn’t get enough time to have any influence on toothless looking Kelty attack. Although Kelty have been without Austin for most of the season, this was the first time Fash’s absence was noticeable and Ferguson will be hoping to have his top striker back fit and firing as soon as possible.
EK will have the chance to extend their lead at the top with a midweek trip to Dalrbeattie, while Kelty turn their attention to the BetFred Cup tie at home to Peterhead on Tuesday night.
Man of the Match: The best performances in a Kelty shirt all came from the defenders, and any of the back four could have laid claim to MoM. There wasn't much between the two centre halves, but Craig Reid appears to have recovered from his early season injury, looked sharp and was solid all afternoon
See all the match photos HERE.