By Ronan Alexander
Spartans Under 18’s travel to Lennoxtown to take on Celtic in the Scottish Youth Cup on Friday night.
After the appointment of Barry Ferguson as Kelty Hearts manager last month, the GeoSonic Lowland League has received much more publicity, which the quality of the competition deserves.
Friday presents an excellent chance for the fifth tier to showcase their talent by having the opportunity to cause a cup upset against 15 times Youth Cup winners Celtic.
Spartans Chairman Craig Graham said: “It’s a fantastic platform for us. I’d imagine most the players we’ll play against are full time so it’s an exciting game for them to play in.
“The pro clubs know we have good players at this level and there’s nothing better for them than to play in a game like this.”
Full interview with Craig Graham:
Spartans know it will be a tough task as they face 2016-17 winners Celtic, who have players such as Karamoko Dembele in their ranks. He made his Under 20’s debut at the age of 13, and now the 15-year-old has made himself a regular part of Celtic Reserves team where many of Friday’s squad play their trade.
Celtic Reserves currently sit sixth in the SPFL Reserve League, winning three of their five matches. However, their home record is impressive having won all three games on their own turf, scoring nine goals and conceding zero.
The Hoops will be aiming to improve on last seasons finish in the competition after they were knocked out by a penalty shootout against eventual winners Hibernian at Easter Road in the semi-final.
The Spartans youngsters have had an equally impressive start to the campaign as they sit top of East of Scotland Conference B Under 20’s League having won five and drew one of their six games under the guidance of manager Les Atkinson.
In the previous round, Spartans defeated Hill of Beath 3-0 after a Joe Tait hat-trick.
Tait has scored 10 goals in all competitions already this season, whilst strike partner Nicky Reid has netted 11 times. This has gave the pair an excellent opportunity to be invited to train with Premiership outfit Hibernian.
Graham said: “They (Hibs) recognise that we have young players at this age group that have the potential to step up into full-time football.”
It wouldn’t be the first time players have made the step up, as previous Scottish Cup performances have earned youngsters a contract.
Graham added: “If we look back a few years ago, Josh Hunter scored a hat-trick against Partick Thistle in the Youth Cup and got signed with St Johnstone, and Aaron Murrell did well and earned a full-time contract with Dundee United.”
Friday will be a chance Spartans will grasp with both hands and it will be a special day for the youth squad.
Graham said: “For these guys to go through to Celtic’s training ground, we’re going on the team bus and the whole build up just helps.
“Hopefully these guys can step up to our first team and will get used to playing in these big games in front of a reasonable crowd.”
Further evidence of the quality in the Lowland League came when Spartans youngsters Murray Hand, Mickey Allan and Reid earned themselves a spot on the bench for a friendly against League One outfit Brechin City, which the Edinburgh side won 4-1.
With Spartans used to being dominant with the ball and being in the driving seat, facing Celtic will provide a different task and Atkinson will need to make a few tactical adjustments, but Graham feels this is something the underdogs will be able to adapt with.
“Unusually for our guys the other team will have most the possession meaning we will have to play differently. So again it’s a good test for us to see if we can play with more discipline defensively.”
With a full match build up, the chance to play against a team of the calibre of Celtic, Friday brings another opportunity for the thriving Lowland League to put it’s name out there.