Lothian Thistle Hutchinson Vale - 1
Kelty Hearts - 0
Saughton Enclosure, Edinburgh
LTHV struck the first blow in the East of Scotland League title deciding double header, with a narrow victory over Kelty Hearts. Kelty have been untouchable all season long, with 22 wins out of 22 coming into the game and the only thing between the Fifers and a perfect season was back to back matches against the reigning champions. Thistle struck the only goal of the game mid-way through the first half, to break the hearts of the travelling fans and blow the title race wide open.
It was a warm, sunny day and the Kelty fans had crossed the Forth in their droves, hoping to see the side clinch their first senior football honour in their debut season. Kelty manager Thomas Courts went for a solid looking 4-4-2, with Christie in goal, O'Neil & Carstairs in the centre of defence, Leighton at right-back and MacKenzie at left-back. Conrad Courts started in midfield alongside Husband, Greig & Philp, with Cargill and Dalziel up top.
It was Kelty who created the first clear cut opportunity, when Leighton got on the end of a Courts corner at the back post, heading it down into the turf, but the bounce took it just over the bar.
With so much at stake, the game had a cup-tie feel about it, and neither side was giving any ground. There were plenty of tackles flying in and Dalziel in particular was getting a fair bit of attention from the home defence. MacKenzie looked like he was enjoying playing against his old side, and he and Courts were combing well down the left wing. The home side had opted for a no nonsense style of defending, resulting in a run of throw-ins on both sides of the park, which was breaking up the play. Dalziel, Cargill and Philp all had chances in the opening quarter of an hour, but Swain the LTHV goal was dealing with everything comfortably.
The first blow for Kelty came after 25 minutes when skipper Shaun Greig went off injured, replaced by Ian Nimmo.Things got worse just a minute later, when Vale won a corner on the left, which was swung in deep to the back post and Nico Gibson jumped highest to bullet his header into the top corner. It was a little against the run of play for Thistle, who hadn't created much up to that point.
Kelty went looking for a way back into the game, and they got a chance within seconds of the re-start, when Swain brought down Cargill inside the box and referee Wilson pointed to the sport. Cargill took the kick himself, shooting low to Swain's left, but the keeper got down well to keep it out. Dalziel was first to the rebound, shooting from a tight angle but somehow the ball stayed out.
Dalziel had another chance two minutes later, as he beat the off-side trap and found himself one-on-one with the keeper, who pulled off a point blank save, pushing it wide for a corner. Courts took the kick, and Carstairs got on the end off it, but once again Swain kept it out. Kelty were really pressing hard for the equaliser, with corner after corner, but the keeper was stopping everything, and the score stayed 1-0 at half-time.
Although this was their first league meeting, the two sides have played twice in cup competitions this season, and Thistle have won both meetings 1-nil. They had something to hold onto in this game now, and they were making sure they didn't let their lead go. Switching to five at the back, they were happy to soak up the Kelty pressure, break up play and run down the clock. Virtually every challenge resulted in a Vale player staying down, clutching some part of his body. They still looked dangerous when they did get forward, but it was clear that the single goal was enough for them.
Kelty introduced Errol Douglas and Brian Ritchie in an effort to give them something different up top, but the home side were doing a good job of keeping them at bay. Kelty were still creating opportunities, and Husband was coming more & more into the game, but Vale were packing the defence, and Swain was having a stunning game between the sticks. The keeper pulled off saves from Douglas, Nimmo and MacKenzie, and with the clock ticking, the visitors became more & more desperate, resorting to long balls which the home defence were mopping up with ease. The sight of Kelty keeper Christie coming forward for a late corner was a sign of how hard they were trying to preserve their unbeaten run, but by then the visiting fans had realised this wasn't going to be their day, and the party began to fizzle out.
Credit has to go to Thistle, who were playing their fourth game in seven days, for blunting the most potent attacking force in the league. As Kelty slip to their first league defeat of the season, Courts must now lift his team for the return visit to New Central Park next week, where the title will be decided. In between times, LTHV will have to play their two games in hand, with home and away fixtures to Tynecastle on Monday and Wednesday in a demanding week. It will be winner takes all in that final league game of the season, where Courts will be hoping that Swain doesn't have a repeat performance and that Kelty can find the net against a side they've failed to score against in five hours of football.
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