Kelty Hearts 3 - 1 Lothian Thistle Hutchinson Vale
East of Scotland League
New Central Park, Kelty
Kelty finally got the better of LTHV to lift the East of Scotland League title, with a dramatic win on the last day of the season. Thistle have had the upper hand over Kelty every time the sides have met this season, but when it really mattered, Thomas Courts men held their nerve to earn their first trophy as a senior club.
There were around 1,400 fans packed into New Central Park - the biggest attendance of the season, all of them knowing that only a win would do for the home team. There was virtually nothing between the sides heading into the game, Thistle with a single point advantage over their hosts thanks to a 1-0 win when the two met at Saughton last Saturday.
Courts made two changes to the side that lost last week, with Neil McCabe and Brian Ritchie recalled to the starting line-up as Ross Philp and Scott Taylor Mackenzie dropped to the bench.
Those were the only points that Kelty have dropped all season long, and they showed their desire to make up for that defeat right from the first whistle, Scott Dalziell hitting the post in the opening seconds from a Conrad Courts free-kick. Thistle were clearly wary of the league's leading scorer as there were two defenders on him every time the ball came in his direction. Ritchie gave the side an extra dimension in midfield, always available and willing to take defenders on and Courts was also putting in a shift, the left back popping up everywhere, winning tackles and driving his team forward.
Thistle had managed to shut Kelty out in three previous matches this season. The hero from last week was keeper Kevin Swain, and when he managed to block a powerful Courts drive from the edge of the box, it began to look like he might repeat the heroics again. But breakthrough came in the 35th minute thanks to Stuart Cargill, and it was straight out of the top drawer. Ritchie drove into the box, cutting in from the left but his shot was blocked and the defence only half cleared as far as Shaun Grieg, who knocked it back into the danger area, where Cargill flicked a sweet over-head kick beyond the keeper and NCP erupted.
It had taken over five hours of football for Kelty to get their first goal against their rivals, but it took only four minutes to get their second. Another attacking move down the left led to a corner, which Stephen Husband delivered for Murray Carstairs to head home. The big centre half has bagged some crucial goals in recent games, but this one gave Kelty a vital cushion heading to half-time.
Thistle have been the dominant force in this league in recent seasons, and they weren't going to give up their title without a fight, and they got themselves right back into the match within sight of half-time. A long throw-in was chested down, and knocked into the box. Sean O'Neil seemed to have things under control, but as the striker cut across his bows and went down, the ref pointed to the spot to hand Vale a lifeline. Swanson took the spot kick, sending Christie the wrong way to drag his team right back into it at the break.
While Kelty needed the win, a draw was enough for Thistle, and the second half was perfectly poised. But the visitors were a little disappointing in the second 45 and it was always Kelty who carried the greater threat. The hosts had a great chance to wrap it up within minutes of the re-start when Ritchie skinned his man, got to the bye-line and stood up an inviting cross to the back post, but couldn't make the most of it, only managing to chest the ball goalward.
Thistle were doing plenty of pressing in the search of the equaliser, but they weren't troubling the Kelty back line too much. Christie had to be alert to tip over a dipping shot from the edge of the box, and he dealt comfortably with a couple of fairly routine saves, but it wasn't the siege that you might have expected with so much at stake. Thistle were starting to leave gaps at the back that Ritchie, Cargill and substitute Errol Douglas all nearly capitalised on, but the finishing wasn't quite as sharp as it needed to be.
The crowd knew a late goal for Thistle would be enough, and a few fingernails were beginning to be chewed, but it looked like Kelty would hold on. Holding on wasn't enough for Scott Taylor Mackenzie though, the wee substitute playing against his old team had other ideas. In the dying seconds, Douglas and Philp were doing their best to run down the clock at the corner flag. Vale cleared, but only as far as Mackenzie, who gave his man the slip, cut in from the right and fired home left-footed to get the party started. Mackenzie was swamped by his team mates, and coach Murray McDowell who sprinted from the dugout to join in. He was sent-off for his trouble, but that just gave him the opportunity to act as cheerleader for the fans on the touchline, before the final whistle came and the champagne corks were popped.
It's been an amazing first season in senior football for Kelty, winning 23 of their 24 games and scoring 143 goals in the process. They've been the best team in the league all season long and are worthy champions. A special mention has to go to LTHV though, who have only dropped five point themselves and who have had to endure an incredible back-log of fixtures in the last two weeks, and who were rightly applauded off the pitch by the Kelty fans. But it is Kelty who win the title, and now have a two-legged play-off against South of Scotland League Champions for the promotion spot to the Lowland League. Kelty will travel to Castle Douglas to play Threave Rovers in the first leg next weekend, before the return leg a home the following week.
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