February 21, 2009 – Saracen Park, Glasgow
I’d looked forward all week to another taste of Scottish Junior Cup action and I wasn’t disappointed by the match I eventually chose, Irvine Meadow’s fifth round replay visit to Ashfield.
That the tie made it to a replay at all was a major surprise given Meadow’s renowned spending power, at least by junior standards.
Ashfield are a club with a great tradition, but their best days were a century ago when they scooped the supreme prize in Junior football four times. The pre-match odds of 7-1 against a home win gave an indication of the task they faced against Meadow in this one.
One of the main reasons for heading to this game was the opportunity to visit Ashfield’s Saracen Park, reckoned by some on Tony Kempster’s website as an essential ground to visit.
Sited in Possil in the north of Glasgow not far from Partick Thistle’s Firhill home, it’s dead easy to reach from the city centre – a four minute train ride to be exact.
Possil itself has a pretty dodgy reputation, but there was nothing to fear in the short walk from the Ashfield train station to the ground.
Giant hoardings advertising the Glasgow Tigers speedway meetings was the first sign that I had reached Saracen Park, although there’s a big ‘Welcome’ sign attached to the back of the stand which makes reference to the football side of things.
Ashfield were formed in 1886 apparently, something which must make them amongst the ten oldest junior clubs in Scotland. That they are still around, scraping by, 123 years after formation must be down to the hard work and dedication of generations of committee volunteers.
Like the friendly programme seller I encountered shortly after paying through the turnstiles, for example.
He gave me a really warm welcome, although he seemed a little perplexed when I told him I was a neutral rather than a follower of the afternoon’s visitors.
After getting the programme purchase out of the way – a decent glossy effort for those interested – I went for a wander round the ground, an arena which really has to be seen to be appreciated.
It’s old skool but even now probably wouldn’t look out of place in the lower reaches of the SPL.
The wooden stand is a joy, although the narrow staircases leading to the seating are a bit of worry! Once negotiated you get an excellent view of the park, from four banks of white painted benches which flank a small number of tip-up seats.
In decent nick, especially given that it must be pre-WW2, it sits adjacent to a deep covered standing enclosure, concrete stepped with old fashioned crush barriers. Fantastic.
Further round behind the goals there’s Bar Tiger, open for business until kick off, while the opposite side of the field is dominated by a huge derelict tote board from the days when Saracen Park held greyhound racing, and various patches of terracing.
Saracen Park is looking a bit rundown in parts it has to be said, but for a traditionalist like me, it really is a wonderful place to visit.
My hope was that we would get a good, old-fashioned cup-tie to match the surroundings and thankfully I wasn’t to be disappointed.
The one thing which looked set to have a bearing on things was the pitch, which was remarkable for the fact that it is easily the narrowest I have seen at any level of professional football.
The shale speedway track restricts the field to such an extent that it cannot be much more than the absolute minimum fifty yards wide.
My initial feeling was that this would play into Ashfield’s hands as the home side and supposedly inferior side, but I had my doubts when an incisive run into the box saw Meadow earn a penalty which was well converted.
With two divisions between the sides I expected Meadow to push on and put the contest beyond doubt, but the scoreline remained 1-0 until half time.
On the resumption, the noisy visiting support, which made up around two-thirds of the crowd, were quickly silenced as Ashfield first equalised, then took the lead thanks to a combination of great finishing and some lousy defending.
For me it was no more than Ashfield deserved at this stage as they had been the better side.
They still led with about ten minutes to go, but a rare moment of genuine quality from Meadow saw Frank Haggerty smack home a fine free-kick from 25 yards to level the game.
From then on it, Meadow did most of the pressing, with Ashfield trying to hit on the break. The latter stages were also notable for a red card a side, both seemingly for dissent.
With no extra time applicable, it looked like a penalty shootout would decide which side would take their place in the quarter final draw.
From an entertainment perpective that would have been an ideal scenario, but in the most dramatic (and most heartbreaking) finish imaginable, Meadow scrambled home a 95th minute winner they scarcely deserved.
Right on the restart the ref blew for full time and the big away support cheered their side off before shuffling out.
On the way out I caught the friendly programme sellers eye and told him I was gutted for him and his side. The poor guy looked sick and it was easy to appreciate why – a victory for Ashfield would have been the shock of the competition by quite some distance.
That Meadow made it through was probably the only disappointment of a day I thoroughly enjoyed and would certainly repeat.
Attendance – 350 est
Admission – £5
Programme – £1
Game – 8/10. Cup tie that ticked most of the boxes
Overall experience – 8/10. Really enjoyable.
Ashfield F&AC Official Website
(more to follow)