In only their second competitive game of the season the young Pace, impressive last time out versus Blackburn, didn't have their problems to seek on a breezy day in Edinburgh.
Drawn away to to Hutchison Vale in the preliminary round of the Scottish Cup, the change in fixture day ruled out Jordan Barrowman and Grant Walker through work commitments. Stuart Hepburn, nursing a knock from last weeks game, was lost in the warmup and left back Nick Taylor had to succumb to a back injury suffered in the same fixture after only 15 minutes.
It meant a much changed Dunipace side, with a number of players playing out of their regular positions and not a player on show recognised as being an out and out defender. Ian McIntyre, who impressed at right midfield last week, dropped back to play at right back for the first time, with Ross Balmer moving infield to take up a position at centre back beside midfield stalwart Andy Meade. Erik Mitusch moved from the left flank to the right, his understanding of and work within the team shape an added protection for McIntyre as he felt his way in at right back. This move saw Jack Steven return on the left of midfield from the start and Danny MacLaren make his debut for the club beside Swords in midfield.
In the early stages it was clear that both sides would be looking to pass the ball on the 4G surface, the hosts knocking around comfortably but finding Dunipace a stubborn team to break down, only really managing a few efforts from distance in the early exchanges.
Dunipace were pressing the ball well within their shape, with Danny MacLaren and Darren Swords in midfield winning a number of balls in good areas, allowing Comrie and Brown to attack the back four of the home side with some regularity in the early stages. And it was Brown who had the first real chance of the game, Comrie and Mitusch linking on the right flank with some neat passing, winning a free kick in the wide area.
Swords delivered the dead ball and Brown rose above his marker to direct his header towards goal, seeing it drop narrowly wide.
McIntyre continually found himself raiding from right back, linking well with Mitusch throughout the game to supply the forwards and it was from one of these raids that Comrie nearly benefited, turning well and driving inside away from two challenges before trying a reverse pass into the run of Brown. The pass evaded the big striker by inches, but it was a warning for the home side that their opponents possessed the tools to unlock their rearguard with worrying regularity.
Balmer, adjusting to his role at centre back superbly, continuously won the ball in the air and on the ground as if he were a seasoned central defender, with the added advantage of having the ability to play when possible, launching attacks for the young Pace. Between them he and Meade, who was soldiering on following a bad knock to the jaw, were dealing with anything the home side could muster, Jackson in the home goal only having to deal with a few cross balls and the odd shot from distance, his handling superb when called upon.
There was more turmoil in the Dunipace defence though as Nick Taylor, who suffered a bad knock to the back in the closing stages of last weeks game, was unable to continue. Jack Steven dropped back into the unfamiliar left back role with Ross Weir, normally a centre forward, coming in to fill the slot at left midfield.
Steven slotted into the fullback role and the defensive shape as if he'd been playing there regularly, going on to have a very good game both on and off the ball, despite giving away a questionable late penalty.
MacLaren and Swords were working very well to take the ball from Jackson in the home goal, trying to avoid going long wherever possible and it was from a move started from the visiting keeper that Brown was to have the best chance of the half. MacLaren and Swords exchanged passes before dropping to Balmer to feed McIntyre at right back. McIntyre played into Comrie who turned very well before playing a wonderful through pass into the run of Brown. Brown shrugged off the challenge of the home defender before surging away to face the keeper. He looked calm but as he tried to slot low into the corner he pushed his shot narrowly wide.
Dunipace were in again moments later as Comrie again found space between the lines and as Brown dragged the central defender into space, Weir made an excellent out to in run from the wide area stepped away from his marker and forced a save from the keeper with a right footed strike from 12 yards on the angle.
At the other end Hutchison Vale were only yards away from opening the scoring themselves with a good strike from 25 yards that sailed wide of Jacksons right hand post with the stopper looking on. And in the only real chance the hosts had in the opening period, good defending from Balmer at the front post blocked an effort from 8 yards following a pullback before Meade looked sharp to mop up the lose ball.
As Dunipace looked comfortable at the back, Brown was causing real problems for the home team at the other end, his running power, strength and ability in possession of the ball a potent skillset and one which nearly provided the opening for MacLaren to open his account for Dunipace on his debut. As a cross from the boot of Mitusch on the right was cleared high into the air, Brown plucked the spinning ball from the sky superbly before sliding into Steven who found MacLaren 25 yards out and centre of goal. The midfield man let fly, forcing a good save from the home keeper.
The only other moment of note as the half came to a close was one of real sillyness from the home defender, clearly ruffled at the difficult time Brown and Comrie had provided, upon fouling the latter he proceeded to kick the ball off Comrie intentionally as he lay on the turf. He gave the official the option of the colour of card and its fair to say there are some who would have produced a red. Thankfully though the official showed some common sense and produced a yellow for an act that was never likely to cause any real damage, petulant at best.
0-0 at half time, but Dunipace certainly had the better of the half and on another day could have found themselves a couple ahead. Given the makeshift nature of their back four, the defensive display though was as impressive as anything they produced in an attacking sense, limiting a very good home side to little in the way of chances.
The second half started in much the same way that the first had ended, with Dunipace in the ascendancy and nearly in front within 2 minutes. The impressive Mitusch linked with Swords and McIntyre on the right to release Comrie in the right channel. Comrie showed some nice skill to beat his man before pulling back into another clever run from Brown, his effort deflected inches past the post with the keeper beaten.
Moments later, from a similar position, it was McIntyre, excellent in his first ever game in the fullback position, rampaging forward to link with Mitusch and Swords, delivering for Comrie. The strikers effort was blocked, but brown was alive to help the ball back into the path of Mitusch who dragged his effort from 8 yards narrowly wide of the far post again with the keeper helpless.
As the home side increasingly looked to go long in search of the pace of their striker, Meade and Balmer at the back were comfortable, with Jackson in goal taking up a great starting position to deal with anything that skipped through. The workrate of McIntyre and composure of Steven in the full back areas meant that Dunipace were rarely troubled and in the ascendancy.
Having missed half a dozen very good chances to open the scoring though, there was a feeling creeping in that this may not be their day. That feeling was dispelled pretty quickly as on 53 minutes MacLaren pounced on a poor clearance by the home keeper to pull the ball down and play into the path of Brown spinning into the left channel. Brown's first touch with his right took the ball away from the covering defender, who couldn't deal with the front man's pace and power as he drove away from him before powering a drive low across the keeper with his left foot from 14 yards.
An excellent finish and one well deserved for a superb performance to this stage.
Following the goal, Dunipace looked to protect in the short term, expecting an onslaught from the home side, their work in shape and professionalism in controlling the tempo of the game ensuring that onslaught would never come.
As Dunipace then transitioned back into their expansive game the home side, for the second time of the afternoon, were lucky not to find themselves down to 10 for a quite awful foul. McIntyre at right back was causing all sorts of problems on the Dunipace right and as he linked again with MacLaren and Mitusch to break down the flank he was taken out with a lunging challenge, the ball well gone. Fortunately the wide man saw it coming and got both his feet off the turf or he may have been done some serious damage. With the Dunipace players calmly asking the official the question he produced only a yellow, this time certainly a fortunate escape for the home player.
And there was another booking within minutes as Brown again shrugged off his marker superbly, leaving him on the turf and breaking into space. As he looked to hurdle him though the centre back lifted his leg and deliberately tripped the forward, a nailed on booking.
A moment of slackness in the Dunipace defence though nearly let their hosts back into the game as Steven, who moments earlier had beaten his man all ends up with a wonderful touch in the wide area, tried similar with his opponent this time seeing it coming. Jackson raced out to narrow the angle, leaving Meade to block the effort on goal having taken up a very good defensive position.
Comrie, who looked as though he was tiring when Brown ran past him twice to close down home defenders, was replaced by King and the striker was nearly on the scoresheet as he linked with MacLaren and Brown on the left before drilling just wide of the keepers right hand post.
More good work from MacLaren moments later nearly produced a second for Brown as he moved into the box before playing into the run of the striker, who shot from 6 yards on the angle with his left but saw it blocked out narrowly for a corner. And King again tried his luck following the corner as the ball was played through to him by Mitusch on the right, King flashing his effort narrowly wide of the right post.
It looked as though Dunipace were looking for a second goal to kill the tie and when it came there was both brilliance and a little luck about it. Weir, who had himself drilled wide in the previous phase of play, did well to win a throw on the left wing. He threw to Steven who played into the feet of Swords. Swords looked to come out before turning his man brilliantly and as he ran towards the corner and the defender tried to recover he nutmegged him to head into the box. As the covering defender arrived Swords dropped the shoulder and waltzed past him down the line, before beating another with good skill and looking for Brown running across goal. Swords work deserved a bit of good fortune and as Brown turned towards goal his effort was blocked away, rebounding off a helpless retreating defender and in for 2-0 to Dunipace.
Dunipace again looked to calm the game in the immediate aftermath, hoping to protect their lead and see the game out, but 5 minutes after their second the home side were awarded a penalty kick, contested by the Dunipace players and coaches. There was no question Steven had committed a foul, but it appeared to be a good couple of yards outside the area, with the home striker falling inside the box on account of the pace he was running at when the foul was committed. No question of anything sinister from the home player and certainly a foul, but the official pointed to the spot rather than for the free kick.
There was certainly no questioning the finish as the home penalty taker stroked the ball high into the stansion – you don't save those penalties.
With 5 minutes remaining lesser sides may have crumbled under the pressure, but even in the early stages of their development this Dunipace side looks to be made of sterner stuff. They got the ball down and passed it around confidently, looking to see the game out or pick their opportunity if it came round.
Steven and Weir linked on the left, Steven finding MacLaren centrally who dropped off to Swords. Swords looked again for Weir on the left and the wide man skipped beyond his man superbly to win a throw high on the left. Steven, King and Swords combined to work the ball into MacLaren in the central area and the midfielder, very impressive in his first competitive start for the club, drove forward to commit the centre back before sliding the ball into another superb run from a seemingly tireless Brown, the striker only needing 1 touch to drill the ball low to the right of the outstretched home keeper with his right foot, putting Dunipace into the hat for the next round.
Dunipace saw the game out professionally for what was in the end a relatively comfortable win against a good Hutchison vale side, with 3-1 not telling the whole story as the Westfield men created a number of very good chances which they were unable to take.
In the hat for the next round, 2 games played and 2 wins with only 1 goal conceded from a penalty kick. If the young Pace can keep up these kinds of performances and maintain that level of statistic, they should hopefully enjoy a long and successful season.
Still much hard work to do as the coaching staff look to push as many of these players as possible in the direction of the first team. Theres certainly no value in getting carried away, but early signs are positive that there are a number in this group with a real long term chance of representing the club at senior level should they continue to work hard on their development both personally but more importantly as part of a strong team.