Tales of a Lowland League Virgin: Whitehill Welfare vs Civil Service Strollers

I can’t hear what’s being said, but I imagine that the Civil Service Strollers players are getting an earful.

The majority of the team huddle around the halfway line as I walk around the perimeter fence. I don’t get a look at the member of the coaching team giving the half-time talk. I presume that manager Gary Jardine has decided to go full ‘Phil Brown’ after a lacklustre opening period from the visitors.

Their hosts, bottom side Whitehill Welfare, are in the dressing room, presumably getting warm after taking a 1-0 lead into half time. It’s the type of day to make you lament the death of the glove industry, before remembering the glove industry is fine and you’re just a numpty who forgot to buy a pair.

Ferguson Park, the home of Whitehill Welfare, is one of the lovelier stadiums in the Lowland League. The trees that encircle the ground have fewer leaves on them than my last visit: a South Challenge Cup tie between Whitehill and Gretna earlier this year. That’s not the only thing that’s changed.

The home team look like a different animal. On my last visit, I watched them struggle to create chances against a travelling Gretna side that was also struggling for form. Whitehill lost that game 1-0.

The contrast to that day could not have been greater in the first half. Whitehill, woken by the cold from some form of inverted hibernation, pressed Civil Service Strollers all over the park in the first half. They fought for every ball, won almost every header, and looked anything but the league’s poorest side.

They got their reward in the 20th minute. The impressive Sean Lally beat a Strollers’ player to intercept a sloppy pass before giving the ball to Kieran Somerville, who played in Kyle Mitchell on the left side of the area to score.

Civil Service Strollers struggled to keep the ball throughout the first half, and passes into the channels for the hard-working Steven Froude to chase were too often inaccurate. Aside from the imminent wrath of their coaching staff, the away side will have been glad to hear the half-time whistle.

Whitehill had very little to frustrate them in the opening 45 minutes, with only a selection of questionable refereeing decisions drawing the ire (to put it mildly) of manager Jock Landells and the Whitehill support.

Whitehill Welfare continue to press as the second half kicks off, but Strollers do manage to gain some modicum of control in midfield. They pass the ball better than they did in the opening period, and for the first time look capable of beating the home side’s press.

In spite of this, the home side come close to doubling their advantage in the 57th minute. Marc Malloy gets behind the Strollers defence on their right side and crosses for Sommerville. The striker seems certain to score, but the left glove of debutant ‘keeper Kevin Dabrowski comes out of nowhere to claw the ball away for a corner.

It’s an opportunity the home side can’t afford to miss. There are any number of clichés in football about the importance of taking your chances, and there is some truth to them. Whitehill have been bottom of the Lowland League for the majority of the season, and aside from a comprehensive 3-0 defeat of Dalbeattie Star in early September, they’ve struggled for goals throughout the campaign.

They’re made to pay for it minutes later, as Civil Service Strollers equalise in contentious fashion. Jordan Hopkinson looks to be offside as he receives the ball on the touchline, but still has a lot of work to do to get a sight of goal. He does the work, presenting to go down the line before cutting inside Whitehill defender Stephen Woods and firing a low shot past goalkeeper Ross Jardine.

The home supporters are still giving the referee, and in particular the assistant, a variety of pelters long after play resumes. In the few Lowland League games I’ve attended so far, I’ve often felt sympathy for the officials. Perhaps it’s not the same pressure as refereeing at Celtic Park or Ibrox in front of 50,000 supporters, but the smaller attendances at Lowland League fixtures mean that the officials can hear every word directed at them. It can’t always be pleasant.

A series of fouls and substitutions mean the game adopts a staccato rhythm as the second half progresses, with neither side creating any gilt-edged opportunities to break the deadlock.

Having kicked off an hour later, second-bottom side Dalbeattie Star are trailing Cumbernauld Colts 1-0 in the first half. I don’t know how many of the fans or coaching staff are following that game, but this feels like a good opportunity for Whitehill to eat into the five-point gap separating them at the bottom.

Time is running out on the pitch, and an injury to a Civil Service Strollers player (Joe Boyle, I’m later told) looks like it could be the final meaningful action of the game.

Play restarts, and what happens next might just sum up Whitehill Welfare’s season. With time running out, a hopeful long ball drops towards the edge of their box – almost the footballing equivalent of a Hail Mary in the NFL – and ‘keeper Jardine rushes out to meet it. He isn’t the only interested party though, and is beaten to the ball by Civil Service Strollers midfielder David Churchill, who heads the ball over the stranded goalkeeper and into the net.

It’s impossible not to have some sympathy for Whitehill Welfare. I’ve heard it said several times that the Rosewell side have been better than their results show this season, and the side I’ve seen today have improved since I saw them against Gretna earlier in the season.

A few days later I’ll see that manager Jock Landells has agreed to part company with the club. I don’t know if the incoming manager will be able to turn around Whitehill’s season, but I believe this team aren’t far away from the level needed to make the fight against relegation very interesting in the second half of the campaign.

Credit has to be given to Civil Service Strollers too, who recovered well from an awful first half to snatch a victory at the end. This game won’t generate the headlines that their victory over East Kilbride or thrilling defeat to East Stirlingshire did, but Civil remain a good side who have exceeded expectations so far this season.

Next time on Tales of a Lowland League Virgin… I’ll be escaping the Lothians for the first time this season as I make the trip over the Forth to see Lowland League new boys Kelty Hearts in action.