BY MARK GODFREY
After a mid-winter hiatus, the Will Hill football betting sponsored Scottish Cup returns and, as such, The Football Pink resumes the journey towards the final at Hampden Park in May.
Having begun in the first round with St.Cuthbert Wanderers and moved on to Auchinleck Talbot, we are currently on board with yet another club based in Scotland’s south west, Stranraer.
Round four saw the Blues dispatch Clyde after a replay to set up a glamorous home tie with Premiership highflyers, Inverness Caledonian Thistle.
Since the draw for the fifth round took place, Inverness have changed management regime following the departure of Terry Butcher to Hibernian. Far from putting a block on the Highlanders’ progress, new boss John Hughes has maintained their position within the top four of the league. The club have also reached their first major final where they will meet Aberdeen in the Scottish League Cup final on March 16th following an incredible semi-final victory over Hearts on penalties – they came from behind to force the shoot-out having been reduced to just nine men during the 120 minutes. Hughes will undoubtedly have his eyes on another final appearance in the Scottish Cup.
Standing in their way, however, are our current charges, Stranraer. Since the fourth round – where they needed a replay to advance past The Bully Wee – Stevie Aitken’s men have been in impressive form in League 1, finding themselves comfortably inside the promotion play-off places. However, they are currently on a run of three games without a win having won five of the previous six. Aitken and his players will be itching to have a crack at their Premiership opponents at Stair Park on Saturday – a game that I will be attending and covering for the next section of the Road to Hampden blog.
For the previous round, we spoke to Stranraer midfielder Steven Bell who had just been handed a short-term contract having spent three years on the sidelines with serious Achilles tendon injuries he suffered while playing for Dunfermline Athletic. We caught up with Steven again and congratulated him on being awarded an extension on his deal that will keep him at Stair Park until the end of the season.
Well done on the new contract and great to hear your ankle is doing much better.
You’ve been on a great run over the last couple of months since the last round. The dressing room must be buzzing at the minute?
The run we had between mid October and late January has put us in with a great chance of making the play-offs. I think at the start of the season, the club would have bitten your hand off for a chance to be in the play-offs so itâ€™s up to us now to keep up the hard work and maintain our good form. The last three games have all been away from home and have been tough, but to come out with only two points has been disappointing but it just shows how hard the league is and that we have become a scalp. The dressing room has been great recently and long may it continue. WE know what we have to do now so having a good strong dressing room is important to what we want to achieve.
Do you think you can keep the form going and make it to the promotion play-offs?
I believe we have a fantastic chance of the play-offs now but as I said before there are still 17 games to go and teams will be looking to catch us now so itâ€™s up to us to maintain our consistency levels and hopefully at the end of the year we will be celebrating promotion. I think if we donâ€™t make the play-offs now it will be a big disappointment.
Were Clyde as tough to crack in the last round as you expected?
The game against Clyde was a very tough. Although we have been drawn against teams in leagues below us, at the end of the day itâ€™s the Scottish Cup and anything can happen. The first game I would say Clyde deserved to win but we did well to stay in the Cup and get them back to our place. The second game was a different story, Clyde took the lead against the run of play but we battled back and fully deserved the 4-1 victory.
What was your reaction when you were drawn against Premiership Inverness Caledonian Thistle?
When we were drawn against Inverness my first reaction was that this would be a very hard game. Terry Butcher was in charge at that time and Iâ€™ve played against his teams before and they make it a very physical game, but John Hughes has recently taken over so it will be a different style they play now. We know itâ€™s going to be a very difficult game. They have only recently reached the League Cup final so confidence will be high. We are also on a good run, especially at home, so we will be looking to do as best we can and hopefully go through to the next round.
Who do you see as their danger men?
I think Billy McKay has to be their main theat. Over the past few seasons he has been scoring regularly and has been linked with moves to a bigger club so he will definitely need to be stopped. In midfield, they have Greg Tansey, a player Iâ€™ve previously played against a number of times so I know heâ€™s a big threat if we allow him to play his game. On the whole we will need to stop them all playing as they have players who can create chances out of nothing.
Who do you think will be Stranraer’s key players?
The way we play at Stranraer, we like to play football the right way with the ball on the ground and passing it about, so our wide men will need to be on top of their game! Andy Stirling will be a key player for us as will all the midfield players. David Mitchell in goal has been fantastic all season so he will be very important as no doubt Caley Thistle will create chances. Up front Jamie Longworth has been banging goals in all season so the onus will be on him to take his chances when he gets them.
Has the manager come up with a special plan for Inverness?
The gaffer takes one game at a time so this week we have been focusing on the shape of the team and also our sharpness. The staff knows that because ICT are full time, they will be looking to be fitter than us, but if we can match them in that department we have a chance of going through.
With a quarter-final place up for grabs, where does this rank in the most important games you’ve ever played?
– Iâ€™ve been fortunate enough to have played in a Scottish Cup semi-final with Dunfermline. To get there we had, to beat Aberdeen over two legs – it was two very tough games, but the feeling we had after the game, knowing we would be going to play at the national stadium was one of euphoria and excitement. As a team we have done very well this season against better opposition so we wonâ€™t fear the challenge ahead of us. Being out for so long through injury I started to think Iâ€™d never get a chance to play football again, so to play against Inverness with the winners reaching the quarter-finals is fantastic and a game Iâ€™m very much looking forward to.
If you upset Inverness, who would you like to play in the next round?
– If we were successful in beating them, most of the boys would say a tie against Celtic or Rangers at their ground would be excellent, but Iâ€™m sure the club would like a smaller team for the chance to reach a semi-final. We will all be focusing on one game at a time as we know in the Scottish Cup anything can happen.
Watch this space for the match report, reaction, photos and the story of my visit to Stranraer’s big day.