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Saturday 29th December 2012 ko 13.45

Scottish Junior FA West Region Superleague Premier Division

IRVINE MEADOW 0 McGowan sent off 57 (2nd booking)

AUCHINLECK TALBOT 2 (McCann 44 Spence 86) White sent off 62 (2nd booking)

Att c400

Entry £5

Programme None

I wish I could see more of my mate Iain. The trouble is that he lives in Dumfries, a 5 hour drive from Oxford. We met longer ago than either of us would care to remember, when we were marooned on a bank course at a faceless hotel in Tewkesbury. When however there’s a game, a curry and a pint to be had, one of us jumps in a car….

The west coast of Scotland, south of Glasgow is Robert Burns country. From Iain’s house, a mere stone’s throw from the Burns Mausoleum (more on that in my next article) from our drive up the A76 past the Burns Memorial at Mauchline, and seeing signs for Ayr, his birthplace and setting for the poem “Tam O’ Shanter.”

Irvine doesn’t seem to fit the poetic theme, this is a New Town, based on shipping and shipbuilding, and was extensively bombed during World War 2. Burns did spend time here, working in a flax factory on the Glasgow Vennel. More recently Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was born here, and cycling champion and innovator Graeme Obree calls Irvine home.

If you’re not familiar with Scottish Non-League please don’t get confused by the “Junior” title. Its almost completely meaningless, and a better word would be “Alternative,” as Junior sides until only recently were completely seperate from their “Senior” cousins. Even now, its only the top 4 Junior clubs that are now allowed to enter the Scottish FA Cup, and so play the so-called senior sides in a competitive fixture.

The Junior Leagues are separated into North, South, East and Western regions, so the only time a North club would meet a South Club would be in cup competition. The East and West regions are traditionally the strongest, I would place teams in the Premier Divisions of those competitions at roughly SFL Division 2 standard. The big difference is the travelling; an SFL player can travel the entire length and breadth of the country, a Junior player will leave his region only occasionally.

It clearly works for both Irvine and Auchinleck, who have clocked up a number of titles within the Junior set-up without ever seeing any need to move across to the Senior game. Meadow Park could easily pass muster for the Scottish League with the addition of a set of floodlights, but as it stands is a wonderfully preserved example of the kind of football grounds long since demolished elsewhere.

Obviously the stand will take most of the plaudits, but there’s more to it than just the external features. The bar is beautifully appointed with a wall featuring Meadow’s 3-0 defeat at Hibernian in the Scottish Cup in 2010. Another highlight is the pie stall at the other end, evoking the 1950’s, the atmosphere in there is almost palpable.

A local derby like this can attract the troublemakers. There was a sign stating, “No Alcohol,” and there were two police officers trying to be visible. Maybe its because Irvine are struggling this season, but off the pitch the crowd created a crackling atmosphere without it ever getting nasty.

It soon became clear that with Irvine lacking a cutting edge up front, all Talbot would need to do is find a way through a well organised defence, to inflict revenge for a string of cup defeats and a league championship last season. It looked for all the world that Iain and I were watching an entertaining but gritty draw, when Colin Spence’s free kick from the left, found Mick McCann completely unmarked 6 yards out and he made no mistake, heading home.

Spence was to be the catalyst for Talbot, being behind most of Talbot’s attacking moves as the tackles flew in, and just after the half time whistle, a brawl in the tunnel. With cards being shown on a regular basis, it was only a matter of time before the colour of one was red. The man who drew the proverbial short straw was Chris McGowan, a sly kick during the first half, and a crunching foul in the second curtailing his afternoon.

Talbot’s numerical advantage only lasted 5 minutes. Unbeknown to the crowd Steven White had been booked for his part in the half time brawl, and a heavy challenge saw the game become a 10-a-side competition for half an hour. It made no difference to Talbot save for giving Spence more room to operate. This he took full advantage of as a corner was cleared straight to him and his fine shot from 18 yards beat Michael Wardrop at his right post.

By that stage though, the home fans were already making for the exits, leaving the detritus of empty cans of Tennants and bottles of Buckfastleigh testament to their misery. Iain and I watched them, then made our way south, planning that curry as we went.