The English FA Cup third round draw often generates ties which grab the headlines. Manchester City’s home match against neighbours Manchester United is probably the most eagerly anticipated of the round, while the pairing of Everton against Blue Square Premier League outfit Tamworth satisfies the purists with interests in the more romantic appeal of the FA Cup. Not to be outdone, the Scottish Cup fourth round features even more epic David and Goliath matches.
Scottish Premier League (SPL) leaders Rangers and Celtic have been drawn away to lower league opposition in Arbroath and Peterhead respectively. Yet, more intriguing is the clash between SPL outfit Hearts and relative minnows Auchinleck Talbot from the Scottish Junior West Super League Premier Division (Stagecoach Premier League). For Auchinleck, this represents the biggest game in their history in only their second adventure in the Scottish Cup.
Auchinleck currently play in Scottish ‘Junior’ football, having won the Scottish Junior Cup a record nine times. The term ‘Junior’ is slight misnomer as it refers to non-league teams playing at a lower level than the Scottish Football Association (SFA) recognised non-leagues. These comprise the Highland League, the East of Scotland and South of Scotland Leagues.
Despite their illustrious background in the Scottish Junior leagues, Auchinleck were refused admission to the Scottish Cup until the rules were changed for the 2007/08 season. Suitably qualified non-affiliated SFA teams were then allowed entry, and by winning the Scottish Junior Cup in 2009, the club made their initial bow in the prestigious tournament. For their first tie the impact was decisive.
A 7-0 demolition of perennial strugglers Fort William from the Highland League signalled their intent. On defeating Huntly after a replay, Auchinleck finally succumbed to Stirling Albion in the third round.
Last season’s triumph in the Scottish Junior Cup enabled the Beechwood Park club to enter the senior cup for the second time. Beginning in September this year, a 2-1 away victory against Highland League outfit Lossiemouth was followed by the 8-1 thrashing of Threave Rovers of the South of Scotland League. This match featured seven different scorers for Auchinleck and the dismissal of Threave goalkeeper Daniel Dunglinson at 5-1. Thereafter, a 3-1 defeat of East of Scotland League side Vale of Leithen secured Auchinleck a place in the fourth round draw.
For an East Ayrshire village with a population of approximately 3,500, their football team has been rewarded with a trip to Edinburgh to face Hearts. Manager Tommy Sloan actually wanted a tie with a one of the lesser teams in the pot, just to maintain the cup run. However, the club committee is anticipating a financial windfall from the match, which will be used to enhance facilities at their Beechwood Park stadium.
Club secretary Henry Dumigan fully expects to make a healthy financial return from the tie. Special edition t-shirts with the slogans ‘Talbot on Tour’ and ‘Talbot Round by Round’ are among several souvenir items being issued to commemorate the match. Dumigan added that the Auchinleck supporters have been allocated the Roseburn stand at Hearts’ Tynecastle ground and he will be very surprised if the 3,500 capacity is not oversubscribed.
That will not be a problem for the Auchinleck fans as an estimated 7,000 are expected to descend on Edinburgh, many of who expect to watch the game in the city’s bars. The club currently has an average gate of between 350 and 400 with up to 700 for the cup ties, but the Hearts encounter has captured the imagination of the village and the surrounding area.
The area was renowned for its coal mining activity, but after the closure of the mines and a soft drinks factory, local community initiatives and the success of the football club enabled the village to retain its pride. The cup tie will give the community a much needed boost.
When the tie is eventually played on 7th January, both teams may have their problems. Hearts owner Vladamir Romanov is looking to sell the club in the wake of recurring difficulties with salary payments to the playing staff. Several squad members may be sold in the January transfer window should a sale not materialise.
For Auchinleck, the fitness levels of the squad could become an issue. The side’s latest home match was postponed, and pitches on the Ayrshire coast of Scotland are notoriously at risk from the Atlantic elements during Scottish winters.
Come match day, the non-league side believe that the Edinburgh outfit will still be blessed with class players, whichever team they field. Scottish bookmakers McBookie.com are offering 20/1 on Auchinleck producing a giant-killing performance by eliminating Hearts from the cup and 33/1 that they will win the game at Tynecastle.
Auchinleck’s players will be treating the match as if it were the cup final and insist the pressure is on Hearts, who will be keen to avoid an embarrassing result.
The first full weekend of the new year will bring its fair share of surprise cup results both in England and in Scotland. Auchinleck Talbot may yet provide the biggest shock of them all.
The Ayrshire club are certainly up for it.