EAST REGION LEAGUE WINNERS
The date was Saturday 15th May 1997. The venue was Newtown Park Bo’ness.
Any derby match will be keenly fought – the victors will revel in their spoils whilst the losers retreat to lick wounds. As the 1996/97 season approached its climax, Linlithgow Rose had a slender lead in the battle for the title. Bo’ness United were a mere three points behind. Linlithgow’s goal difference was better than that of Bo’ness – by one. So, as Linlithgow made the short journey over the Flints this wasn’t quite a winner-takes-all derby, but it was very close. Victory for the Rose would ensure they won the title for the first time in nine seasons. A draw would mean that Bo’ness had to beat Whitburn in their final fixture and hope that Linlithgow lost at home to Camelon. A win for Bo’ness would take them to the top of the league on goal difference and leave Linlithgow having to better whatever result Bo’ness produced against Whitburn.
In the weeks preceding the game, it looked as though the Rose would do enough to win the league before they got to Bo’ness. They beat Whitburn and Tranent before facing up to Newtongrange Star at Prestonfield in the knowledge that four points from their last three games would suffice. Cue the self destruct button as some abject defending saw Linlithgow lose three poor goals and fold tamely to a 3-1 defeat.
So to Newtown Park. You could cut the tension with a knife as the big crowd gathered. Rose took an early grip on the game with Robertson orchestrating play in the midfield and Whyte and McMurray marauding up front. For all their possession though, Binnie wasn’t asked any serious questions in the BU goal. Gradually Bo’ness found their stride and they grabbed the lead with half an hour gone when Scott played Cully into space behind the Rose defence and the striker gave McPherson no chance with a terrific strike. As the teams went in at half time the game and the league were still there for anyone to win.
As in the first half, Linlithgow started the second with their tails up. The spur of what was on offer to them galvanised the team as Whyte went close when he got on the end of a Boyack cross. The Rose forced a series of corners but Bo’ness held up under intense pressure. Linlithgow threw Derek Halcrow on ten minutes into the second half – the Rose striker had only just completed a marathon drive back from France to play some part in the game.
But it was Bo’ness who went two up on 65 minutes. Burns picked the ball up wide and as Gibson mistimed his tackle the Bo’ness winger cut inside and drove an angled shot past the despairing McPherson.
Whether Bo’ness thought the second goal was enough to defend, or whether Rose threw caution to the wind, the last 25 minutes were spent with Linlithgow camped in their opponents half. However they struggled to find their fluency and couldn’t find a way to unlock a resolute BU back line. With five minutes to go a number of the Rose support headed for the exits with the title a fast diminishing possibility.
Then, with just three minutes left, the visitors grabbed a late lifeline. McMurray turned Yates out wide before crossing to Halcrow who made no mistake as he drove the ball home. It still looked like a consolation but Linlithgow picked the ball up from the restart and piled forward with renewed vigour and belief. Within 60 seconds, those who had kept the faith were ecstatic. Fowler desperately chased a ball which appeared to all intents and purposes to be a lost cause, but he somehow managed to gather himself and fire a deep cross towards McMurray at the back post. Strain jumped across the Rose striker and attempted to divert the ball over the bar but only succeeded in heading into his own net.
Ecstasy mingled with relief. The destiny of the title was back in their own hands as far as Linlithgow were concerned. A point at home to Camelon would now suffice. But it wasn’t over...
As the clock ticked down, Fowler drove forward down the left once more. The United defence was in tatters, their players shell-shocked. When the cross came in Halcrow reacted quickest to head home an unbelievable winner and grab title glory for the Rose. We may never again see a comeback as dramatic as this one was. The timing, the prize at stake, the venue, and the opponent, all combined to create a single magical moment in the history of Linlithgow Rose. We’ve seen other dramatic days – Mark Whyte’s header against Kelty will stand alone for generations to come as the largest mass movement of Linlithgow Rose fans in a single second. But three goals in three minutes to win the league against your biggest rivals is truly the stuff that dreams are made of.
When the dust had settled a little on the pitch it’s important to reflect on the reaction of the Bo’ness coaching staff. It was some time before Colin Sinclair could escape from the celebrations taking place on the pitch, but when he did, John Sludden was waiting quietly to offer his hand, to congratulate the Rose and to acknowledge that over the 90 minutes the better team won the game. There’s no question that the BU coach was hurting badly but Colin Sinclair was determined that Sludden should be recognised as the gentleman he was. That’s a mark of great rivalry – gracious in victory and defeat. It’s only football after all – but it’s great when you win just the same!
Hail The Gallant Class of 97: McPherson, Todd, Gibson, Godfrey, Fowler, Whyte, Robertson, Allison, Boyack, McMurray and Logan. Subs: Halcrow, Bell, Mitchell, Cairns and McLaren.