It’s the last weekend of the SWFL1 – South season and half an hour after the game was scheduled to kick off at Lesser Hampden the terraces are in a state of flux as fans and people moving at a pace to suggest that they are significant to the days events ask, “Where’s the referee?”.
For the visitors, Hibernian U23’s, it was a last hurrah before the SWF re-structure would see the side disbanded. The absence of the official seems to prompt a pre-match party in the visiting dressing room as in stereotypically Leither fashion anthems from the brothers Charlie and Craig bellow out onto the open terrace where the supporters are gathered just a few metres away.
As the Hibs players enjoy an end of season sing-song the stakes for their Glaswegian hosts are high. It had been a drama-packed end to the SWPL2 promotion race. Glasgow City’s Development side had been crowned champions but with other developmental sides including the Hibees ineligible for promotion, the final day sees Queen’s Park and Renfrew left to duke it out, although Boroughmuir Thistle’s promotion story would prove to be far from over too.
“It was fantastic to experience at the time looking back,” muses Queen’s Park Head Coach Mark Kirk, “there was a lot of pressure on everyone to perform, to get over the line and all three teams involved were playing well and on form.”
That pressure had started to build just five days previously as Queen’s travelled to Edinburgh to face Hibernian and Renfrew hosted Boroughmuir. At New Western Park a serious injury to the home side’s Karen Bailie required assistance from them emergency services and, with just four minutes remaining of a game that had swung back and forth, the official would bring it to an early conclusion with Thistle 4-3 up.
The road the goals were flowing in North Edinburgh too, as Hibernian came back from behind to defeat Queen’s 3-2. “That was a sore one”, continues Kirk who has remained in charge for his side’s new campaign in the recently expanded SWPL2, “we performed very well and conceded two late goals but it gave us great motivation to see the season off with a win. We all felt confident we could take something from the final game to gain promotion.”
With the Spiders and Frew both losing midweek the permutations on the final day were clear. A draw or win at Lesser Hampden against Hibs would see Queen’s take the promotion slot but any slips and Renfrew would nick it with victory away to Boroughmuir Thistle in a reverse of the midweek fixtures.
As the search for the missing official continued in Mount Florida news soon trickled through that things were unravelling for Renfrew. With the visitors 1-0 down an altercation between the Renfrew dugout and the official saw the latter bring the contest to a crashing halt. Game abandoned but what the final result would be remained unclear.
“We had people from the stands and someone at their game to keep us up to date,” recalls Kirk, “It was a bit of a surprise and this all happened before our game had even kicked off. We didn’t know what the outcome would be so we still had to keep everyone calm and concentrate to play our part to make sure we won promotion with the point that was needed.”
Back in Glasgow the referee had finally arrived and with the spectre of uncertainty that the abandonment in Edinburgh had brought looming large over Lesser Hampden the game would finally get underway.
It wouldn’t take long for the drama to shuttle it’s way down the M8 and take up residence on the Lesser Hampden turf with the visitors taking an early lead through Anna Dickov before an Eve Donald own goal levelled things going into what would be a hastily convened interval, the tardy official keen to make up for lost time.
The quick turnaround appeared to have the Spiders on the ropes as goals from Eilidh Adams and Holly Aitchison had the visitors 3-1 up with just over twenty minutes left to play. Queen’s had no option but to keep pressing and would be denied by the woodwork on more than one occasion as the ebb and flow of the match continued before Frankie Fern pulled a goal back.
“We always believed we could get something from the game even at that point”, says striker Fern, “obviously at 4-2 we had a mountain to climb but after they scored their fourth our striker Ash said, “It only takes a minute to score a goal”, so I think that shows our mentality. We never give up and I think as a team we knew if we kept pushing with the number of goal scorers we had in the team that they could make it happen for us.”
Just as it looked as if Queen’s were building momentum in their chase for an equaliser the difficulty of the task slid up a notch when captain Gemma McElhenney saw red for bringing down Aitchison when clean through on goal.
“In hindsight that was perhaps one of the best red cards I’ve seen”, jokes Kirk, “our discipline had been very good all season and that was the only one we had and in the last game of the season.”
Despite playing shorthanded Queen’s continued to have the bulk of the pressure. As the Spiders continued to push hard more and more space was available for the visitors to counter and on the 89th minute a sucker punch came as Aitchison once again found herself clear on goal, this time rounding keeper Annika Meuskens before cooly stroking the ball home.
Facing a two goal deficit with just a minute of the ninety remaining it would have been easy for Spiders’ heads to drop but Fern would be on hand once again to pull the deficit back to a single goal with injury time just underway. “We had got our results throughout the season by never giving up and after scoring the third with ten men it gave us a lift that we could go on and score again,” explains the double scorer from that day, “after all we had everything to play for knowing a draw could seal promotion. When we got the free kick out wide I knew if I swung it into a dangerous area one of my team mates would make sure they got on to the end of it because we wanted it more.”
In the 94th minute that is exactly what happened when Fern’s deep cross sailed beyond the reach of Alicia Yates outstretched arms arriving on the head of Lauren Ray who would scramble home from inside a yard, “I had my dad at the game along with two of my friends who had come to see me play for the first time in a few years.” recalls the defender, “My dad has watched me play football since I was 8. He’s seen my highs and lows so for him it meant a lot. I went to see him up in the stand afterwards, he gave me a hug and let me know how proud he was of me.”
“I think because I had scored the last goal It had made it extra special not only for me but for him as well. Funnily enough because the referee was late it meant my friends had to leave before the end of the game as one of them had to work, so when they left we were 3-1 down. They didn’t actually find out the score until afterwards and when I texted them they couldn’t believe what had happened. If there wasn’t highlights I think they still wouldn’t believe me!”
“As a game in itself it ranks as probably the most memorable I’ve ever played in. Although I’ve achieved other accolades at a higher level this game meant a lot more just in terms of how it played out, not only over the course of the game, but the season and that week as well. It’s definitely one of those game you’ll tell people about as you get older.”
Ray’s header would be the final meaningful touch of the game with the official, fifty minutes after it was scheduled to finish, bringing the game to a close with the peep, peep, peeps prompting near instantaneous outpourings of joy from the Queen’s players and dug out.
“All season we were working towards promotion so there was a lot of pressure on us going into the last game”, recalls Niamh Mullen another member of that promotion winning squad from that day, “We were all buzzing when the final whistle blew as we had just scored our fourth to equalise.”
With post match interviews heady with the scent of champagne complete and photographs taken so that the moment could be cherished forever there was only one thing left to do as Mullen explains, “We headed straight to one of the pubs near Hampden and had a few drinks to celebrate before we went back to the Queens Park clubhouse to continue our celebrations – it was definitely a night to remember!”
The Spiders promotion was rubber stamped a couple of weeks later with Boroughmuir Thistle, who had overtaken Renfrew during that chaotic final week, also making the step up following the withdrawal of Hutchison Vale from the SWPL.
For those that followed the SWFL1 – South promotion chase that October week the events of it along with its culmination in the shadows of the national stadium will continue to live long in the memory.
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