Battle for Ascendancy: K-Park Stadium hosts a thrilling showdown between old and new forces

THE path to glory or salvation runs through the shade of a mature wood to the entrance to a small but smart stadium.

Hundreds gather for an existential fight. In the distance, the smack of willow on ball and the cries of rampaging girls can be heard as both a cricket match and a rugby tournament take place in Calderglen Country Park.

The K-Park Stadium is preparing for something more primal. It is the first leg qualification play-off to League Two, where one side seek to enter the SPFL and another attempt to retain their status. East Kilbride were formed in 2010 and this is their third attempt to gain entry to the big league through the play-off system. Stranraer were formed in 1870, making them the third oldest club in Scotland.

‘It is the biggest game in our history,’ says Ian Murray, who has just come off a supporters’ bus from Stranraer. ‘I have been a supporter for 20 years, since I was a boy of 10. I have never been at a match that means so much to the club. I am nervous.’

Stranraer defend their goalmouth with determination as East Kilbride attack

Stranraer defend their goalmouth with determination as East Kilbride attack

East Kilbride players celebrate the opening goal from Andrew Stirling

East Kilbride players celebrate the opening goal from Andrew Stirling

Club stalwart Andy Semple looks after the East Kilbride merchandise stall

Club stalwart Andy Semple looks after the East Kilbride merchandise stall

 This tension can be felt on all sides, on and off the pitch. The smooth operation of the day is in the hands of Matthew Keane who, at 25, runs the facility.

An East Kilbride man and supporter of the club, his duties include registering bookings, keeping K-Park in trim and even brushing the artificial surface.

‘The football has been very good this year,’ he says. ‘We play some good stuff.’

This verdict is endorsed by Steven Sullivan, who runs the club’s supporters’ body. ‘The Lowland League is very competitive and we won it well,’ he says. ‘This has been a great season already. The team is growing and so is the support. We have a strong core support. I have watched big leaps here since I started following the club in 2016. It’s a big day.’

Fiona Bulman, born and raised in the Greenhills area just down the road from K-Park, sits in the stand, admitting to a feeling of apprehension. ‘I have been helping out here since my boy came along and started playing with an under-age team,’ she says. Her husband and father also help out at the club.

‘This is a massive day,’ she says. ‘The boys have the determination and everything to play for. This could be the start of something big. But I am nervous. We are not taking anything for granted. It’s been a good season already. Our manager, Mick Kennedy, has been phenomenal. We just wouldn’t be in this position without him.’

Andy Semple moves swiftly from turnstile to pitch to merchandise stall. He has been at the club since ‘almost the beginning’ and is charged with helping all elements of match day run smoothly, though the scarves, badges and shirts are his primary responsibility.

‘This is my third play-off final here and I have suffered two disappointments. I just hope we do not have another one,’ he says. He is optimistic but realistic, too.

‘I won’t say anything or make any predictions. The two matches will settle all that. This is the best football team we have ever had. By that I mean we play football of good quality, passing and possession.’

A retired taxi operator, he relishes his involvement in the club. ‘I enjoy the challenges. It is a bigger club than when I arrived and it could become bigger still. I don’t take anything for granted. This is a big match and it will be difficult.’

AMID the febrile fans, there is room for the neutral. Alex McLuckie is at the game to support his son-in-law, Alastair Grieve, who is fourth official. Alastair’s son, Alfie, and brother, Callum, make up the small cadre of those who support the men in black on a day of colourful partisanship.

‘I have been to every game he has officiated at over the past four years,’ says McLuckie, who hails from Tullibody. ‘This is his first season as a category-one official so we have been to some big grounds, too. My favourite is Tynecastle. It’s just a great stadium, though I have enjoyed all my travels. We have been to Elgin, Buckie, Fraserburgh and down to Stranraer. It’s just a great day out and we all enjoy it.’

The afternoon holds more tension for others. I sit in the stand in the row behind the Stranraer contingent and the one in front of Kennedy, who has been suspended for the match. The significance of the game can be heard in every murmured imprecation, every strangled cry of anguish.

It’s a compelling match. East Kilbride dominate early, taking the lead and squandering a host of chances. Stranraer list dangerously, seemingly overwhelmed by the tide of attacks, but then stabilising, eventually going in front themselves. An East Kilbride equaliser means the trip to Stranraer on Saturday for the second leg is now a one-off cup final.

There is time for reflection as the sun falls over Calderglen park. Fans of both sides believe their team can now progress. The managers retain their faith, too,

Kennedy emerges from the clubhouse to confirm his side played to their beliefs and principles and will continue to do so on a more challenging surface at Stair Park.

‘We should have been out of sight at half-time,’ he says, emphasising he means no disrespect to his opponents. ‘We had four or five great opportunities and did not take them. We should have won the tie today.’

His team controlled much of the game but Stranraer’s doggedness, particularly in the second half, means next week holds both opportunity and danger for East Kilbride.

Kennedy is bullish. ‘We go down to Stranraer with the same gameplan. It could be a different game because of the surface but we will play in the same way. The boys can take confidence from today.’

Home supporters celebrate the opening goal from Andrew Stirling

Home supporters celebrate the opening goal from Andrew Stirling

Stranraer players defend for their lives in a packed goalmouth

Stranraer players defend for their lives in a packed goalmouth 

Scott Agnew, at 36, has been moulded by the fire of lower-league football. A former player at the club, he has a firm grasp of what this play-off means to Stranraer. He was unhappy at half-time and made two substitutions that helped bring his team back into a match that could have drifted away from them.

‘It’s all to play for next week,’ he says. ‘It’s not a bad result but we must follow it up. It will be a different game of football back at our place.’

He makes a point of praising his goalkeeper, Lewis Budinauckas, who is on loan from Rangers. ‘He kept us in the game,’ he says of that turbulent spell in the first half.

Outside the ground, Iain Dougan, the Stranraer chairman, takes a hungry drag at a cigarette. He knows what this play-off process entails in terms of risk and reward.

‘I’m happy to come away level. I thought for the first 40 minutes East Kilbride dominated, then we equalised and they got a bit of the jitters before coming back,

‘We now know it’s a final at Stair Park. It is one of the biggest games in our history, maybe the biggest. For me, I just want it to be decided on football, not a dodgy decision or a mistake by somebody.’

One hundred yards away, deep in the stadium, a garish banner declares a bold truth: This is our time to be legends.

These words will be made flesh next week. It will either be a tale of salvation for Stranraer or ascension for East Kilbride. It is that simple and that important.

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