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It’s Football Captain, But Not As We Know It

Kelty Hearts 6-1 Tynecastle

Pre-Season Friendly

New Central Park, Kelty

Pyramid football took its first tentative steps into the post-lockdown era at New Central Park on Saturday, as Kelty took on Tynecastle for their first pre-season game. It was socially distant, fan-free, COVID friendly football, but it was football nonetheless. With dressing rooms and showers out of bounds, players were forced to change in the stands, while the fans who’d been waiting for six months for their football fix were forced to click onto the live stream for a glimpse of some action.

Environmental changes aside, the extended layoff has brought plenty of change at in the playing staff at New Central Park, with no less than six first team regulars departing the squad during lockdown.

It was a much-changed side named by Barry Ferguson then, with five debutants in the starting line-up. The formation was the familiar 4-2-3-1 shape that Ferguson favoured for the majority of last season, but that was where the similarity ended.

New keeper Darren Jamieson started in the sticks, with fellow new starts Jamie Stevenson at right-back, Paddy Boyle on the left and Dougie Hill in the middle alongside the only defender still present from last term, Craig Reid.

The midfield had a more familiar look though. New club captain Michael Tidser and the ever-present Thomas Reilly were the two deep midfielders, with Ross Philp, Dylan Easton and new signing Kallum Higginbotham higher up in support of top scorer Nathan Austin.

Despite the extended off-season Kelty actually looked pretty fresh. It only took them ten minutes to find the net and it should come as no surprise to anybody that it was Nathan Austin with the opening goal. Philp’s pass was blocked but only as far as Higginbotham, whose first-time ball split the defence and fell perfectly for Austin to clip over the keeper from the angle of the box.

Austin added a second from the spot a few minutes later after Tidser’s flighted free-kick was handled in the area. He grabbed his third on the half-hour, Easton’s deep corner knocked back into the danger zone by Higginbotham, Austin reacting quickest to stab home from six yard out for yet another hat-trick in Kelty colours. It’s re-assuring to know that, whatever else has changed in the last six months, Fash is still a lethal weapon in front of goal.

The visitors didn’t really trouble the new look Kelty defence too much and it was well into the half before they managed a shot on goal, but nothing that posed any real problem for Jamieson. The only bump on the road for Kelty in the first half was a head knock for Tidser, the skipper needing treatment after being caught with a high boot.

Ferguson made a few changes for the second half: keeper Josh Donaldson, Thomas Scobbie, Arnie Bembo, Matty Flynn, Cammy Russell, Robbie McNab and youth team graduate Jay Bridgeford all getting some game time.

Higginbotham added another two goals from the penalty spot after trips on Easton and Russell respectively. Number six came via a Russell corner driven into the six yard box, Reid arriving late to fire home. There was one blip at the back, Hill nodding a harmless looking corner into his own net, but apart from that, it was a composed looking performance from the new guys in the home defence.

On the whole, it was a comfortable enough afternoon for the Lowland League Champions against opposition that, with the greatest of respect, they would be expected to beat.

On first impressions, Ferguson looks to have recruited well in the close season.

If you were looking for frailty in last season’s side, you’d have been most likely to spot it against the more strong, powerful teams. The gaffer seems to have addressed that in the summer - Hill, McNab and Higginbotham all players with a bit of physical presence about them.

There’s no shortage of experience in the side either, with over 600 SPFL games between them - don’t be fooled by the silver locks of Stevenson, he played the full 90 minutes and covered every blade of, err… astroturf.

Reilly, Tidser and Philp are a Rolls Royce engine of a midfield trio to compliment the flair of Easton and Russell. Flynn looks lean and fit, Bridgeford seems like a real prospect and Fash has picked up exactly where he left off. Of course it’s very early days, but this group of players has the look of a squad that can go all the way once again.

As for Tynecastle, it looks as if they could have their work cut out this season. The East of Scotland Premier was a competitive place to be last season and there’s nothing to suggest it will be any different this time around. The coaching staff will have been concerned at how easily they were undone at set-pieces, with three Kelty goals originating from dead-ball crosses into the box. Both full-backs were penalised for diving in against tricky wingers and they should have no real complaints about any of the penalty kicks.

So lower league football finally enters the era of the new normal. How close we can get to a normal normal remains to be seen. But in a sport where the typical crowd is counted in three figures, one can only hope that fans will soon be allowed to enjoy a socially distant Saturday afternoon at the match sooner rather than later.

Full match gallery HERE

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