IT'S that time again. The sun is out, the sky is blue, there's not a cloud to spoil the view – and the village of Auchinleck is about to decant up the A76 to Rugby Park, for yet another Scottish Junior Cup Final.
Will Tucker Sloan be clutching the Scottish Junior Cup again tonight?
At Liddell's Coaches, the local coach-hire company, the first job in the office each January, when the staff returns from the New Year excesses, is to telephone Tom Johnston at the SJFA offices at Hampden to ascertain the date of that year's Final. So that no holidays can be booked on that date.
I was asked in Auchinleck Tesco last week, what all the black and gold bunting was up for in the village – my response was, I am surprised they take it down from one year to the next, so predictable is a Talbot presence in Junior Football's big show-piece occasion. They are a football statistician's wet dream; John Motson could do half a match commentary on the 'Bot's association with the Junior Cup Final:
- This is Talbot's 15th Junior Cup Final
- It is their seventh in the last decade
- They are aiming for their 12th win
- Manager Tucker Sloan is aiming for a record sixth win as manager
- He is tied with the legendary former Talbot boss Willie Knox, on five wins
- No other Junior CLUB has won the trophy more often than either Knox or Sloan
- Sloan is looking to win his 25th trophy as Talbot boss
- Victory in the final will see the club lift their 105th trophy
- Talbot is the only club to have won three successive finals
- Sloan is managing in his eighth Junior Cup Final
Making use of my bus pass the other week, to travel to Kilmarnock, I used a bus whose route involved a circuit of Auchinleck's Back Rogerton housing scheme. On Back Rogerton Drive, one house among the many bedecked in the legendary black and gold colours stood out. Right across the frontage was a huge, beautifully sign-written wooden sign, which stated clearly: “We bleed black and gold.”
Then there is the first image you see, when you log onto the Talbot website. It is an atmospheric shot of a player, with the accompanying legend: “This is not a badge – this is my heart.” That sums up the village's mentality – Talbot is the heart-beat, the soul of Auchinleck. The pits are gone, the aforementioned Liddell's just might be the village's biggest employer but, for as long as football is played and their fans sing their iconic: “Eeeka Peeka Pukka Po” club anthem, the 'Bot will be the village's talisman.
So, why are Hurlford bothering to even turn up? Ah, there's the rub; this is an all-Ayrshire final, the second in succession, the third in five years, and the 11th final in succession to involve at least one club from God's County – the epicentre of the Junior game. You can chuck the form book out of the window when local rivals clash. In any case, the last time the sides met, in the league a few weeks ago – Hurlford won.
Or will it be deja vu for Darren Henderson?
Hurlford boss Darren Henderson used to lay-on goals for Sloan when the pair played together for Stranraer, they are genuine friends, as indeed are lots of the players on both sides – but, you will never imagine this from what are sure to be some fierce challenges once the whistle goes to kick-off the final at 4.10pm this afternoon.
Henderson has had to pass on his annual gig as a summariser for BBC Alba's live broadcast of today's game, but, you just know he is relishing locking horns with Sloan in the technical area. And, as he rightly points out – United have a chance.
“Sure, they've got players who have won multiple Junior Cup winner's medals, but, we've got more than half a team who have survived from our only Junior Cup win, against Glenafton in 2014, so the occasion will not get to our boys, they've been here before,” says Henderson confidently.
And, they have one man for whom the occasion and setting is tailor-made – veteran striker Mark Roberts.
Mark Roberts - back where it all began a quarter of a century ago
Marko is 42, and came to Blair Park at the start of the season, after 25-years in senior football with nine different clubs. When he first got into the Kilmarnock first team as a 17-year old, he was “the Golden Child” - Manchester United looked at him, but didn't bite, but he has scored goals everywhere he has been. He had a spell as Manager of Ayr United, and joined Hurlford following a spell as player-coach with Clyde.
The game will not bother him, although a niggling injury which has cast doubts on his participation might. He won Hurlford's Player-of-the-Year prize this season and a last hurraah at the ground where it all began more than 500 games and 150 goals ago – well, that's the stuff of football legend.
These East teams, and their ranks include some big-hitters, might see the grass being greener in the East of Scotland, but, you will not find Talbot seeking to join the crush to become also-rans at Senior level. As long-serving Secretary Henry Dumigan explained:
Henry Dumigan: "We're proud to be a Junior club."
"We see ourselves as a junior football team, we've no ambition to play senior football. It's fine participating in the Scottish Cup, where we've done reasonably well and competed well with the senior clubs, (Talbot famously lost 1-0 to Hearts, at Tynecastle, in the fourth round in 2012) but we see ourselves as a junior club and that's it.
"We feel there's a strong possibility that it will damage, not the reputation, but the identity [of the club]. We're very proud to be a junior club."
"I wouldn't say it was a lack of ambition but Talbot has been a junior club since 1909 and has never had aspirations to go senior," Dumigan added.
"We play in the junior grade of football and I think that's a good grade. We compete very well with the lower leagues of senior football, but that's where we see ourselves and that's it.
"It's not a lack of ambition, that's where we are."
To be eligible to play senior football, clubs must meet the SFA's "entry level" licensing criteria, which includes requirements for health and safety regulations, the standard of stadia and facilities, and access for disabled supporters.
Dumigan believes the proposals are likely to be ratified, and if so, Talbot will look to excel in the new system despite their objections.
"We haven't got the entry level yet, but we're pretty confident we could get it because we have good facilities and we have the facilities that would help us achieve that level," he said.
"The likelihood is that junior football will move into the pyramid system, and we will move to achieve that entry level and possibly higher.
"Because if we're in there we want to do as well as we possibly can. Although we've no ambitions to do it, if we're going to be going in there we'll be doing as best as we can, and that means our facilities as well.
"There will be a cost implication. For clubs that don't have that level of facilities, there's going to be a big cost. If they have aspirations going higher, there's going to be a cost."
So, everyone in Auchinleck is determined that today's game will not be the last time Talbot are in the Junior Cup Final – let battle commence.