The Scottish spring had provided snow, rain, hail, wind and sunshine all in one day on Saturday, so as Dunipace made the trip to Broxburn for this County Cup Quarter Final they were hoping that Sunday would provide far calmer conditions for football! Early signs were certainly good as the morning rain broke into settled sunshine and throughout the day only the odd passing shower in what turned out to be a fine afternoon for football.
With Swords and Hepburn still missing through injury Dunipace were dealt a further blow when central midfielder Danny Maclaren was ruled out through a niggling shin injury he aggravated two weeks ago against Armadale, along with Jordan Paterson who was cup tied for the game.
There was though, finally, some good news on the injury front for the Wesfield men as Jackson had recovered to take his place in goal having been carried off in the last game with what looked a serious injury, prompting Meade to play 30 minutes in goal! And the good news didn't stop there as Nick Taylor, the influential fullback who had enjoyed such a promising start to his Dunipace career before being ruled out long term with a niggling back injury, also returned to the starting lineup injury free.
Steven moved from wide to a central position in midfield beside Meade with Comrie starting in the wide right area rather than up top, leaving Weir to partner Brown.
With Broxburn the opponents in 2 of the only 3 games the young Pace have failed to win this season the County Cup holders would have come into the game with some trepidation. Having failed to impose their own style in the previous two encounters, performing well below par and losing by the odd goal, they would certainly be looking to make sure this one was played on their own terms and from the off that was obvious.
Playing at a high tempo that better suits them, moving the ball through the defence and midfield, working to the shape with the energy levels expected off the ball while defending appropriately rather than overplaying which has cost them previously. This was a different Dunipace than Broxburn had encountered before, the Dunipace regular followers love to watch.
Noteably, when working the ball into wide areas their was clearly more emphasis on delivery, from both wings. The recent obsession with beating men, sometimes multiple times, gone, with a determination to put the ball into areas where the hosts would be under pressure. It led to a number of early corners for the Westfield men and from one they nearly took the lead. Comrie delivered from the left and skipper Balmer got above everyone to head towards goal, his effort cleared off the line for another corner.
From the second corner the ball was knocked down into the 6 yard area with Meade prodding beyond the keeper from 4 yards, again seeing the effort cleared off the line.
Brown up front was looking more like himself despite carrying a slight hamstring niggle and he nearly got on the end of a superb through ball from Steven, the home keeper looking sharp to get out just before the striker and smother the chance at his feet.
The home attack were struggling to create anything against the Dunipace defence, marshalled strongly by the impressive Black and Balmer, with McIntyre and Taylor providing excellent cover in the fullback areas. In what was their only effort on goal in the early stages Jackson in the Pace goal was alert to dive to his right to turn a low drive from 25 yards round his right post.
The resulting corner provided the home sides only real chance of the half as the attacker got above his man to loop a header from 12 yards over the head of Jackson. Black though, who was like a magnet to the ball in his own box all afternoon, had got himself back on the line to head off his own bar on the stretch, McIntyre completing the clearance.
It was the only real chance the home side could muster in the first 45, their strikers left isolated by their midfield and struggling to stop Dunipace working the ball out. Another impressive feature of their play being the speed at which they moved the ball from one side to the other having created space and then exploiting that space in the wide areas.
It was from one such move that the Pace took the lead. Good play on the right between Black, McIntyre and Comrie found Weir dropping short. The striker played the ball into Steven who took a good touch before finding Taylor in space at left back. With Mitusch coming short to leave space behind Taylor lifted a wonderful ball in the direction of Brown's run. Knowing the striker was running in behind him and onside the Broxburn centre back stretched to get a head on it but could only help it back towards his own keeper. As the keeper rushed out Brown showed great composure to lift it over his head, following his own effort in to make sure it nestled in the corner.
It could have got better for the young Pace moments later as more good play down the left involving Taylor and Mitusch resulted in the ball being worked into Steven in the centre. The midfielder, impressive following his move into the centre, took one touch and rifled an effort narrowly wide from 25 yards with the keeper stretching to get there.
Comrie and Weir were next to work an opportunity, combining well with the advancing McIntyre but the cross from the fullback saw two efforts snuffed out as the attacking pair fired towards goal.
Brown's movement, strength and ability was causing all sorts of problems in the Broxburn rearguard and the striker was nearly in again as Dunipace countered superbly from a Broxburn corner. The kick was floated long and as everyone expected it to go out for a throw Balmer had other ideas, keeping it in and lifting it over the head of the home player into Taylor who had moved forward. The fullback played a neat 1-2 with Meade to get round his man before playing another wonderful pass into Brown's run. The front man took a slightly heavy first touch before firing towards goal, seeing the effort blocked out for yet another Pace corner.
Taylor was clearly enjoying his return to action and he combined with Mitusch again before driving forward into the hole and linking with Weir. The fullback skipped beyond one challenge before drilling a low ball across 6 yards that the defender hooked away with Brown waiting to pounce.
There was a second coming for the Pace and when it did it was another wonderful finish from their talismanic striker. Good football at the back got Balmer and Taylor out of a tricky situation deep on their left with the ball being worked back to Jackson in goal. Jackson decided clearing was the correct option, his long clearance helped on its way by Weir into the path of Brown who had again isolated his centre back. It looked as though the forward had taken a heavy touch with his right but before the keeper could even set himself he fired an unstoppable drive with his left across him into the bottom corner, catching the post on the way in, from 18 yards.
A quite excellent finish from Brown to reach 35 goals for the season in less than 17 and a half games.
The men in black and white were certainly in the ascendency and it ought to have been 3 moments after the restart as more good football through midfield saw Steven and Meade combine to find Weir. Weir fed into Brown who skipped inside his man on the right and played into the path of Mitusch on the left who had burst forward, again the quick change of play causing the problem. Mitusch through 1v1 with the keeper took a heavy first touch though and saw his left foot finish saved by the stopper, keeping his team in sight.
On the next break forward Brown was the recipient of a high tackle that brought the games first yellow for the home defender before the big striker once again showed his strength to win a free kick 25 yards from goal. Unfortunately for him, looking for a first half hat-trick, the usually reliable dead ball striker got it all wrong and found the gloves of the keeper with a tame effort.
Half time and the visitors led 2-0, in command defensively and should have been at least another 1 or 2 clear given the chances created. Dunipace were certainly far more like themselves in this one.
Into the second half and there was an early blow as Steven, who had performed so well in the opening 45, was forced to succumb to a knee injury he has been carrying for a few weeks, King coming on to play on the right and Comrie moving into the centre beside Meade. With the hosts moving to 3 up front the opening 15 minutes of the half were always going to see Dunipace under pressure and having to make an enforced change of their own to such a settled performance was a blow.
As expected though the hosts piled on the pressure, Dunipace standing firm and defending superbly against the early onslaught with Black once again proving to be a magnet to the ball inside his own box, ably assisted by Balmer, McIntyre and Taylor as despite conceding plenty of corners the pace rearguard action reduced Jacksons involvement in goal to very little in the way of stops, mainly dealing (very well) with crosses.
And it was the visitors who were to further extend their lead, breaking quickly from a Broxburn attack and playing a nice bit of football through midfield before Comrie lifted an excellent bouncing ball over the head of the last man and into the run of Brown coming from the left. The striker showed great pace to get onto the ball having given the defender a few yards of a start, then great strength to effortlessly swat away the attempted tackle, before finally showing great composure to race away from him, round the keeper and slot into the net for 3-0 and his own hat-trick.
Another excellent finish in another excellent performance making it 36 for the season.
It would be fair to say that as much as Dunipace had been in the ascendancy for the entirety of the first half, the third goal had come against the run of play as the home side, despite not testing Jackson to any great degree, were putting their hosts under increasing pressure for the opening 15 minutes of the half. It was though the sign of how things would play out the rest of the game, with Broxburn on the attack committing men forward and being hit on the quick counter by Dunipace who had several opportunities, had they worked the counter better, to extend their lead.
There were though two moments of real controversy in the game, the first coming 5 minutes after the Dunipace third goal. The Pace, defending a home corner, saw the ball headed out by Black. As it was headed back in Balmer cleared again. With McIntyre clearly going to get to the bouncing ball first, King, Weir, Comrie and Brown headed forward. McIntyre did indeed get there first, heading down to Weir before being wiped out massively late by the home defender. As Dunipace attacked 4 v 2 in their favour, the official stopped the game to bring it back for a foul and so McIntyre could get attention on a head knock.
Having denied Dunipace a 4v2 break, the home touchline who had been vocally looking for a yellow card at every opportunity in the game, even when no foul had been awarded, were noticeably quiet given the man who had committed the offence was their one player who had already been shown a yellow for an almost identical high challenge on Brown in the first half. Without doubt a second yellow, which would have seen the home side play out the last 25 minutes with 10 men, but the official decided to give the benefit of the doubt and have a word instead.
As the clock ticked towards 70 minutes the young Pace did finally succumb to the pressure. Comrie misplaced a pass centrally allowing the home midfielder who had stayed forward to attack the back line, Meade deciding he needed to make the challenge and taking what looked like a very good yellow with the defence outnumbered. As it turned out though it was for nothing as Broxburn were sharp to take the free kick quickly round the side of the wall, the forward firing in a blistering low drive at the near post before the defence reacted, Jackson beaten by the power and close proximity of the strike. A fine hit and sharp thinking from a Broxburn perspective to get them back in the game, but having defended so well Dunipace will be upset at how poorly they defended the kick.
The visitors though were still a threat on the break and a fine ball from Meade into King on the right found the pacey wide man in behind. With Brown, Weir and Mitusch making their way into the middle and outnumbering the defence King just couldn't sort out his feet and pick one out for what would have been a tap in.
And in the build-up to that chance their was more injury woe for Dunipace as Meade tweaked a hamstring. Last years player of the year had worked tirelessly, impressive as always in how he had gone about his business and losing him with 15 minutes remaining was a huge blow to the Westfield men who will be hoping its not a long term injury that will keep him on the sidelines. With all 5 Central Midfield players now injured Walker, who is a centre back by trade, came on to fill the hole beside Comrie.
Comrie picked up a bizarre (and warranted) booking for tackling a fan when the ball was out of play before Brown picked up a card of his own for a strong but mistimed challenge as he let his frustration at not getting the foul himself boil over.
With 10 minutes remaining we had a finale on our hands as Broxburn, who are not Scottish cup finalists for no reason, scored again. For the first time all afternoon Dunipace struggled to defend a corner and as the ball dropped fortuitously at the feet of the home striker he took a fine touch before digging out a toe poke into the top corner from 8 yards with Jackson helpless. A superbly improvised finish from the striker who was never going to get the time to set himself properly for a strike inside the box and it was game on.
Almost immediately though Dunipace could have made the game safe again, playing confidently around from kickoff before working into the feet of Weir who found Brown with a fine lofted through ball. It was probably the easiest of the chances Brown had been presented all day with a bouncing ball and a keeper in no mans land, but he showed that he is human as he didn't get enough on the lob and lifted it into the keepers hands.
It was real backs against the wall stuff for the visitors, Comrie shooting wide from distance to give them some respite as we passed into the 96th minute of a game in which it seemed the official had a broken watch, there certainly wasn't 6 minutes worth of stoppages! And it was in the 96th minute that the second moment of controversy arrived.
A long throw from the left was headed clear by Black and as it landed at the feet of an attacker 16 yards from goal he let fly on the half volley, skipper Balmer coming from nowhere to throw himself into an attempted block. The ball clearly hit the arm of Balmer before rebounding outside the box where a foul was committed 25 yards from goal.
The official adjudged that it had not been deliberate, presumably given the proximity of the strike as Balmer was only a yard or so away when it was struck, hands at his side, much to the annoyance of the home players and crowd. It's certainly something you've seen given and on another day with another official may well have been, but in that split second he decided that it wasn't. At the very worst, that was one for each side following the clear second yellow not handed out in the 65th minute which would have dashed any hopes of a revival at 3-0 down.
There was still drama to come though as the home player fired a wonderful free kick towards the top corner from 25 yards, Jackson getting across at full stretch to turn it over the bar with the official deciding that was finally enough and calling the game to a halt, Dunipace 3-2 winners and into the semi final.
It was, in the end, a well deserved victory for Dunipace who if disappointed with anything from the game it will be that the margin of victory was only a single goal. They certainly created more clear cut chances than their hosts over the 90 and really should have had the game out of sight in the first half.
They did though show great character to hang on in the closing stages when put under pressure. It was certainly the Dunipace that we hoped to but hadn't seen in the previous two meetings of these sides this season. The ability, drive and determination is clearly there, it's the consistency that has let them down at times and that is what they will individually and collectively need to find in order to achieve the ultimate goal of feeding the first team for years to come. There are certainly plenty in this group with a fantastic chance of doing just that over the next 2 or 3 years.