A cup match is one which any football fan looks forward to. There’s a reason why everyone always refers to the magic of the FA cup; knockout matches have a completely different feel to a regular league game. The pressure does weird things, with many a giant killing the result on the professional stage. The Queens Park Shield game between reigning cup champions St Andrews Men’s first XI and Edinburgh Napier first XI, however, appeared to be an even contest on paper, with both sides playing their league football in BUCS Scottish 2A. St Andrews had the better of the league standings by just the single point, having come away 2-0 victors away to Napier in the league. With Saints coming into the game off a 5-2 home drubbing at the hands of Glasgow’s second team compared to Napier’s 4-1 home win against the University of the West of Scotland, this looked a mouth-watering contest.
The day itself was suitably Scottish, cold and dank, with light drizzle ensuring that F1 was excitingly slippery. This was not a day for intricate Barcelona-style tiki-taka, which was demonstrated not two minutes into the first half, as Napier broke from a long ball over the home defence, finding an attacker on the edge of the area, which was squared past the lacklustre St Andrews defensive effort and turned into the roof of the net. All of a sudden, the defending champions were behind.
And it was nearly double trouble for the home side, with the Saint’s keeper doing his best Manuel Neuer impression, forced from his area to clear another Napier long ball. It wasn’t long before we were reminded that we were, in fact, playing in Scotland, with a crunching and somewhat unnecessary late challenge which would not be out of place in the Old Firm on a St Andrews defender in his own half seeing a free kick awarded to the home side. Indeed, the game had the feel of a derby, with a degree of needle even at this early stage from both sides.
The early goal seemed to have woken the home side up, as from then on, all the dangerous attacking possession was that of St Andrews. The Napier keeper, who performed well throughout the game if one disregards a worrying tendency to hook his goal kicks into the neighbouring gardens, was well tested from the top of the visitors’ area, the first of many well-saved opportunities for the home side. Napier came close again not long after, with a brilliant piece of attacking skill seeing their skipper penetrate deep into the St Andrews box, but his cross found no one. An opportunity squandered, but another shot across the bows of the home defence. The defenders made a better show of their jobs at the other end, with a one of the Saints centre halves rising like a Saturn V rocket to meet a corner kick, only to put the ball well over the bar.
It would be from another corner that Saints would level proceedings, one of the few that was played short. The resulting cross was fired across the Napier area, where it was clinically turned in at the back post. After half an hour, the score sat at 1-1 which would be where it remained at the half time whistle, and one would be hard-pressed to say that that scoreline was unfair on either side.
The second half, however was a different kettle of fish, with Saints now playing downwind without the persistent Fife mizzle blowing into their faces. Just three minutes after the orange peels had been returned to their bucket, a foul on a St Andrews man charging after a piercing through-ball saw a direct free kick just 28 yards from the Napier net. The resulting shot was curling towards the bottom right corner, but it was well beaten away by the visiting keeper for a corner; a warning shot across the Napier bow.
Play proceeded in a similar vein, with Saints dominating the attacking areas of the pitch, but the tricky conditions meant that the final, clinical blow could not be struck. On the hour mark, the home side saw possibly their best chance to break the deadlock, with a cross finding a Saints man within the Napier six-yard box from a free kick, but a good piece of defending meant that the ball was cleared from the line.
From that point on, it was clear that if someone was going to win the game in regulation time then it would only be St Andrews. Some fantastic attacking football was played by the home side, with chance after chance just missing its mark or being stopped by the salmon-esque Napier keeper. As time ran out, and the sky darkened from the oncoming dusk, the prospect of the lottery of a penalty shoot-out loomed large, and the final few minutes were frantic, as Saints tried to capitalise on the possession which they had throughout the second half. As their final attempt sailed wide, the final whistle blew, and it would be penalties which decided this epic of a cup game.
The first spot kick was clinically scored by Napier, and was quickly matched by St Andrews. Both sides also scored on their second, and it was with the score at 2-2 that Napier were the first to blink, hitting the bar, and the Saints man converted to put the home side ahead at 3-2. It nearly remained as such after Napier’s fourth, the Saints keeper getting most of a strong hand to the attempt, but he could only palm the ball into the roof of the net. Then came a mistake, as the home side’s fourth was blazed wide onto the cricket square. Napier scored their final penalty of their regulation five, meaning that Saints had to score to take it to sudden death. Alas, it was not to be, as the shot struck the post. St Andrews, for all their fight and class in regulation play, had been sunk by that most cruel of tiebreakers.
So there will be no defence of the title this year, but a rematch in the league coming up in just three weeks, Saints will be chomping at the bit to avenge this cup defeat. Before then, a trip to Dundee followed by a visit from the good men of Stirling are the next obstacles in the path of St Andrew’s finest men’s footballers.