Defeat at the hands of Cumbernauld Colts in Friday’s SFA South Region Challenge Cup semi-final was just East Stirlingshire’s fifth loss to Lowland League opposition this season. But it fitted a pattern.
Pre-game, coach John Sludden had spoken of it as an opportunity to, “give us a cup final to look forward to”, after the disappointment of missing out on the league.
But one of the main reasons Shire had flunked their bid to top the league was an inability to successfully negotiate the big games. Three of the four other defeats this season had come against East Kilbride and Spartans, their only serious rivals to win the league.
When it mattered most Shire were least able to deliver. And Friday’s cup-tie at the Falkirk Stadium was another occasion high on expectation and low on delivery.
They looked jittery from the start and conceded a goal less than a minute in when Shire failed to cope with a free-kick whipped low and hard into their penalty box which was fired into the net from close range.
Shire recovered enough to level the scores through Paul Sludden. They then dominated the first half and had shots cleared off the line while Sludden rattled the crossbar. But the second half was a no-show. Colts took the lead again with a curling free-kick and never looked back, securing their place in the final with a third six minutes from time. Connor Greene’s header pulled one back injury-time but it didn’t matter.
“We had a chance to re-group at half-time and we said we just needed to keep the tempo going because we were creating chances,” said the Shire coach. “But in the second half we just didn’t play.
“We didn’t start at a tempo and we were sluggish over the first ten to fifteen minutes of the second half and we just couldn’t get out of it. The disappointment also was our decision making in the final third and we didn’t really create another chance until Connor scored at the end.”
The Shire coach recognised he could not make a case for his team. He didn’t even pretend to suggest they should have made it through to the final, where Colts will now face East Kilbride.
“They battled hard and over the second period they were better than us and deserved to win it,” said Sludden of the Broadwood-based team.
A bigger-than-usual Friday night crowd turned up at The Falkirk Stadium but Shire’s many well-wishers got a jolt right from the start. The game’s first action saw Connor Greene commit a foul on the edge of his own box and from the free-kick Jamie Broadfoot fired the ball low to the six yard line. But keeper Jamie Barclay couldn’t collect and Sean Brown pounced on the rebound to shoot home.
Conceding a goal after 40 seconds wasn’t part of the plan but Shire responded well and, after 19 minutes, Derek Ure’s run was stopped outside the box only for Paul Sludden to collect the loose ball and drill it into the net from long-range.
They relaxed and began to dominate. Steven Brisbane’s mazy run ended with a shot cleared off the line. David Grant then had an effort blocked then went round the keeper and fired towards the empty net but a Colts leg cleared of the line.
The Grant fed Sludden but his angled drive rattled the crossbar. More of the same after the break and Colts would probably have crumbled.
But the first serious second half attempt on goal saw Colts take a 57th minute lead. Greene’s foul on the edge of the box gave Broadfoot a free-kick which he curled high into the roof of the net.
Andy Rodgers forced Colts keeper Chris Fahey into a save with a flying header but Shire simply failed to respond.
Colts made sure of the win when Fraser Sheridan scored with an angled drive from the back edge of the box after 84 minutes. Greene headed home Brisbane’s corner for Shire’s second five minutes into added time but there was not enough left for a comeback.
SHIRE : Barclay, MacGregor, Ramsay, Greene, A.Grant, Brisbane, Rodgers, Ure, D.Grant, Sludden, Glasgow(Faulds 64).