On a crisp, sunny afternoon there was a distinct air of familiarity at Westfield as the young Pace welcomed Murieston United Blue for the second week in succession, today in the quarter final of the Regional Cup following last Sundays 7-2 League victory for the Westfield men. With the Junior side having played the day before after heavy rain in Denny it took a morning of hard work from the ground staff to get the park repaired, rolled and ready, if a little soft, for the game.
For the home side skipper Ross Balmer, who has been in fine form, missed out having picked up a knee injury in last weeks fixture. There were welcome returns to the squad though for Taylor (back), Meade (shin) and King (toe) who missed out last time, Taylor slotting in at left back with Walker moving to his regular centre back berth in place of Balmer and alongside Hepburn.
It became clear early on that both sides were going to struggle to reproduce their form from the previous week on the heavy surface. Where both sides showed promise in last weeks fixture playing some impressive passing football, the opening to this one saw both sides struggle to maintain any measure of possession giving the ball away consistently in the early stages and struggling at times for footing.
Dunipace had the first decent chance of the day, Brown heading a Swords corner over the top under good defensive pressure. And moments later Taylor got forward from left back, linking with Steven to produce a wonderful cross that beat the defence and keeper with Mitusch missing out narrowly at the back post.
It was though the visitors who had the best chance to open the scoring, Jackson in the home goal making a poor decision to play across goal, presenting it to the striker 18 yards out with an open goal. McIntyre and Hepburn did well to get back and apply pressure, the striker firing wide from a tight angle, but it was a massive let off for the home side who really should have found themselves 1 down.
By this stage, both sides were beginning to get frustrated at a number of poor decisions with the official seeming unwilling to produce a card for either side. Both sides really should have found 2 players in the notebook, one each for fouls and one each for kicking the ball away. It was, unfortunately, to be the pattern for the remainder of the game.
In a couple of rare moments of flowing football Dunipace created 2 chances to take the lead, firstly through Brown who was played through by Steven and forced a fine stop from the visiting keeper. Next it was the turn of strike partner Weir who was on the end of a fine move involving McIntyre, Swords, Maclaren, Steven and Brown, not catching it cleanly with his left from 12 yards leaving the keeper with a straightforward save.
Maclaren and Brown had efforts from distance before Jackson in the home goal was asked to deal with a couple of long range efforts from Murieston, who as last week always looked dangerous, marshalled well by Hepburn and Walker who were the pick of the performers in a very poor first half for Dunipace.
As the clock ticked towards 45 minutes and it looked like the teams would retreat to the changing rooms tied at 0-0 the visitors took the lead. Not for the first time (for either team) a ball forward found a player in what looked to be an offside position, but with play waved on the attacker kept his composure to square the ball to his strike partner who drilled low beyond Jackson for 1-0. Offside or not, Murieston worked the ball well once in behind with the Dunipace rear-guard caught out.
1-0 to the visitors at half time, Dunipace having been particularly poor throughout and probably deserving of finding themselves with a 1-0 deficit. Obviously not being able to play their usual brand of free flowing football on the surface is understandable, but being out worked, out fought and out thought by their opponents, not so much!
The second half started with Dunipace clearly understanding that in order to progress into the semi-final they were going to have to lift things significantly and for 15 minutes at the start of the half this is exactly what they did, working harder, competing better and getting their reward early in the shape of an equaliser.
Brown linked with McIntyre and Swords to release Weir on the right and Weir did superbly to play the percentages and ensure that at the very least he would get a corner from the covering defender rather than trying something risky and losing the ball. It proved to be exactly the right call as from the corner the striker himself got above the Blues defence to meet Swords delivery and power a header low beyond the keeper from 10 yards.
As Dunipace were questioning of the offside at the first goal, the visitors were similarly aggrieved by the equalising goal as in the build-up to the corner, in the process of winning the ball on the half way line, Hepburn had clearly fouled the Blues striker. To make matters worse he was unavailable to defend the corner having had to go off following treatment.
The game continued though and Weir was at the heart of things again moments later, this time popping up on the left to receive the ball from Maclaren before driving into the penalty area beyond two defenders, showing good skill to get in front of another along the goal-line before picking his head up and sliding the ball square to Brown who drilled through the keepers legs for 2-1. Great work from Weir, setting up Brown who was first to acknowledge the contribution of his strike partner in the goal.
On 55 minutes and in the most contentious moment of the game Dunipace found themselves dealing with a serious injury. On half way Steven got to the ball first, playing the ball downfield into the left channel and being caught just below the knee in an awful, high challenge by the Murieston player leaving the young midfielder in agony on the turf. No-one in attendance thought for a second that it was a malicious tackle, just awfully mistimed which can at times happen. What was absolutely without question though was it was a bad one and a red card in any game, anywhere in the world. It wasnít even given as a foul.
As the home side tended to Steven they were clearly unhappy at the attitude of the official towards the incident, but managed to contain their anger as they helped the youngster from the field on a stretcher with an ambulance called.
The reaction from both sets of players and coaches during the incident and in the aftermath deserves a mention, both reacting in the right way and showing concern for the players involved and not, as can be easy in these circumstances, getting involved negatively with each other. Dunipace appreciate the kind words of support offered towards Jack from both the Murieston players and coaching staff both at the time and after the game. (Update: Thankfully it doesnít appear that Jack has suffered a leg break as initially feared, saved by a shin guard which is now in tatters! His condition though will be monitored in the coming days to ascertain the extent of the damage.)
Meade replaced Steven, with Comrie coming on for Mitusch as the game fizzled out somewhat in the 10 minutes or so following the incident, though Comrie nearly added a third with a strike from 18 yards that was blocked wide.
King replaced the tiring Weir before Taylor had to come off injured having been caught in another mistimed tackle that went unpunished, Black moving to centre back with Walker moving to the left. Brown nearly added a third as he raced onto a King through ball but as he looked up from a tight angle and saw Comrie and King just out of range as both tried hard to get there the striker was forced to go alone and drilled wide.
King tested the pace of the visiting defence as he raced beyond the last defender and into the box. As the nippy forward cut across in front of his marker he felt as though he had been fouled in the last ditch tackle, though from the side it did look as though the defender got the slightest of touches on the ball. No-one would have been surprised if it had been given though, it was one of those.
Murieston didnít manage to create much in the way of clear chances to grab a route back into the tie, with Black slotting in well alongside Hepburn and looking cool on the ball as well as commanding defensively, but with 5 minutes left on the clock an excellent low drive from the right fizzed millimetres wide of the Dunipace goal with Jackson helpless. It was a fine strike and had it been 6 inches to the right it would have been the equaliser for sure.
With time ticking down it was fitting that the last action of the game, after everything that had gone before, was the first booking of the day for Swords in injury time, apparently for not catching a ball that was thrown to him by a visiting player as Dunipace had a throw in the corner. Not kicking it away as both sides had done throughout the game (and deserved at least a couple of cards apiece for), not for a poor tackle which both sides should probably have shared at least a couple of yellows (and the one red). But for not catching the ball for a throw he wasnít taking and hadnít taken all day.
In the end, in a poor game for all involved where neither side managed to recreate the football that had been on show the week before, thanks mainly to the heavy surface, the Young Pace rolled up the sleeves second half and found a way to win ugly. Having this ability, grinding out the result when you are not playing well, is a great attribute to find at any level and will serve this group well as they progress through the ranks.
Their attitude and determination second half, on a tricky day, would certainly be the major positive to take away for this young side who now find themselves with a Semi Final tie to look forward to, away to Whitburn Juniors in early February.