In the end, then, the match itself was undeniably anti-climactic. This was a fixture that for weeks had promised the sort of promotion party that can only stem from years of near-misses; frustration and disappointment ever-burgeoning. Where victory against the sworn enemy was supposed to draw a glorious line under years of narrow promotion failures, Dundee’s crimson kits and fatal finishes meant that in practice the occasion was more red, dead than redemption.
Yet to focus too much on the game itself, would be a categorical failure to acknowledge that the seconds did not actually need to win it, or even draw it. For all the saccharine satisfaction a win against Dundee would have brought, promotion had in fact already been confirmed the night before on the 25 February – ironically, thanks to the very Dundee side who conspired to spoil the party some 24 hours later on the 26. It is only because the seconds had won every single game up until then that such a promotion pre-empting scenario was even possible.
A healthy blend of freshers and more experienced players, the seconds began the game itself in typically visceral style for a Forth Bridge derby. Sam Woolhead and Ollie Gill in central midfield proceeded to launch themselves into two or three bone-jarring challenges right from the off, both ball and man taken with aplomb every time. Cajoled from the back by the indefatigable Jack Chalmers, St Andrews pressed high up the pitch, with Joe Murray up front offering a constant and menacing outlet.
When Murray’s relentless presence forced a corner, St Andrews actually forced the ball over the line, a bundled close-range finish chalked off for a seemingly innocuous foul. Only five minutes later, they again had the ball in the net from a near-identical scenario, with similarly bundled close-range finish again ruled out, this time for offside. The miscuing of a free header soon after that only added to the gnawing sense that this wasn’t going to be St Andrews’ night; their early momentum palpably dissipating with every passing minute.
Where Dundee began to regain a modicum of composure on the ball, a foothold in the game soon followed. As some incisive Dundee forward passing bypassed the St Andrews midfield, forcing the entire team to push back at Chalmers’ prerogative, Murray’s early influence was slowly turning to isolation up front. The St Andrews wingers, so fluid in their link-up play with Murray in the early stages, were increasingly feeding off scraps, hardly helped by some cynical Dundee fouling. Many of these fouls were deserving of cards that never came; the referee seemingly insistent on playing some sort of vanishing card trick throughout. One particularly brutal hack on Woolhead midway through the first half prompted screams of derision from the hundred or so people in attendance, no low volume for a still February night.
Keeper Daniel Tootill was then forced into his first real save, a mistake sending Dundee clean through; Tootill anticipating the both the direction and the height of the shot. The half ended more encouragingly, though, as St Andrews hit the post, with a low cross deflecting onto the angle of post and bar from close range.
As the half ended, therefore, the atmosphere could be cut with a knife, so finely-balanced were proceedings. Where the opening exchanges had seen St Andrews so emphatically on the front foot, Dundee had wrested – not to mention unlawfully wrestled – themselves back into the game. The second half started scrappily, with outright chances few-and-far-between. The midfield remained the dominant seat of action, with both teams cancelling out each other’s attempts to break through. Eventually, a snappy pass from Kostas Nkolteras – his every touch cheered by his family over from Greece – saw Murray through on goal, but his low strike was held by the Dundee keeper.
As St Andrews increasingly pushed for a deadlock-breaking winner, they were always going to run the risk of counter-attacks. A Dundee breakaway was what finally opened the scoring, the eventual finish placed into the bottom left-hand corner. Yet the manner of the goal could hardly have been more unjust on St Andrews: another wild Dundee challenge on the edge of the box had seen the referee inexplicably signal for a St Andrews advantage where none was to be had; allowing Dundee to reclaim possession and launch the eventual goalscoring counter. Such a decision only served to epitomize the referee’s night; mysteriously unwilling as he was to punish even the worst brand of lunging tackle.
One dubious goal down, St Andrews drove even harder, a superb cross picking out Joe who fired inches over the bar. Yet as the game reached its apotheosis, another Dundee counter (this time legally) put paid to St Andrean comeback hopes. A swift run and pass played in a Dundee forward, and despite full-back Jake Cain so nearly intercepting it after a near pitch-length sprint, the pass was ultimately matched with another placed finish for 2-0. When the referee blew for full-time soon afterwards, then, the dejection on St Andrews faces could hardly have been any clearer. Initially, at least, the frustration of the defeat seemed to outweigh the fact they had still only just won the league as champions.
But ultimately, of course, the defeat doesn’t matter one bit. Where promotion has been denied to the seconds for so long, a single loss shouldn’t be allowed to take the gloss off a majestic and timely achievement. Winning six games in a row at BUCS level, in every case against bigger universities, is something rarely achieved by any club, let alone one as relatively small as St Andrews. Given the size of Dundee by comparison, one defeat when the title has already been claimed is simply irrelevant, for all that the local rivalry is emphasized.
What really counts for the seconds is promotion; for many of the team something they might never experience again. Sure enough, if you live on North Street and you listened carefully enough at 2am in the early hours of the 27th, you will have heard – faintly, but emphatically – chants of “Championes, championes, ole, ole, ole…” emanating from a certain Market Street redoubt. So close to promotion for so long, it’s fair to say the shackles can finally come off.