Manchester United’s 0-0 draw with Arsenal on 21 September 2003 is likely to be remembered as “The Battle of Old Trafford”. For such a grandiose title, it was a rather undistinguished affair – neither side was able to play with their usual flair and fluency, and the game appeared to be heading towards a dour stalemate until an incendiary final few minutes.
In stoppage time, referee Steve Bennett saw fit to award United a penalty after Martin Keown was adjudged to have felled Diego Forlan. Ruud van Nistelrooy, who had drawn the ire of the Arsenal players for his role in Patrick Vieira’s sending off some 15 minutes earlier, stepped up to the spot. Normally precise, his effort lacked finesse and was blazed wildly against the crossbar.
As Bennett brought the match to a close, Keown launched himself into van Nistelrooy, screeching into his face as he and his team-mates converged on the striker. It was an unpleasant and unedifying spectacle, with only van Nistelrooy emerging from the incident with dignity; few others would have kept their heads in similar circumstances, particularly when confronted with Martin Keown’s pockmarked visage.
The Challenge Cup final between Partick Thistle and Queen of the South, almost ten years after The Battle of Old Trafford, was played out in almost identical circumstances: a dull match ignited by an engrossing climax, with Aaron Muirhead’s wasteful penalty and subsequent head-butt on Queens defender Chris Higgins ensuring a rotten match became a remarkable one.
For the best part, neutral observers would have bemoaned the lack of excitement that belied the occasion; it was disappointing to observe two teams – both capable of far better – cagily huff and puff their way through the match. Thistle were unable to negate Queens’ tactic of containment and counter and the First Division side’s defenders resorted to long punt after long punt instead of attempting to play through the midfield. For Chris Erskine, a wonderfully talented ball player, it was a frustrating afternoon.
As the match trudged through its inevitable extra time, there was a palpable sense of relief when Nicky Clark’s header tumbled into the net on 110 minutes. Queens sat on their advantage and began to fall deeper and deeper, inviting the Thistle to pour into their territory. The Glasgow club’s pressure eventually told, but it did so in an unexpected fashion. After Marc Fitzpatrick barged into substitute Christie Elliot, both players looked incredulous as referee Crawford Allan awarded a penalty – Fitzpatrick’s challenge was certainly a foul but the offence occurred at least a yard outside the box. In the final minute of the game and without the consultation of his assistants, Allan had let Thistle back into the match.
Throughout the season, Aaron Muirhead has been clinical from 12 yards. Having scored four penalties in as many attempts, his kicks are powerful and direct and struck with the same ferocity as an Exocet missile. Opposition goalkeepers have rarely come close to saving them.
Yet, for whatever reason, the young centre-back’s confidence wavered. He looked unsure of himself as he placed the ball, as if the importance of his kick had got the better of him; the penalty was poorly struck and Lee Robinson dived to his right to beat the ball away.
As Muirhead stood looking skyward, his hands on his hips, the Queens players raced to hail their goalkeeper. Chris Higgins peeled away from the celebrations to poke his face into Muirhead’s, sneering and jeering at him. It was too much for Muirhead to bear: in one deft movement, he arched forward and delivered a sharp, crisp crack across the bridge of Higgins’s nose. Higgins crumpled to the floor; Muirhead was sent off; and a large number of players pushed each other around the goalmouth in the ensuing melee.
No-one should condone Muirhead’s actions. It would be wrong to do so. Even under provocation he was rash and thoughtless and will now serve a sizeable ban – possibly for the rest of the season – for violent conduct. Without wishing to sermonise like a disappointed parent, he let his team-mates down, he let his supporters down, but most of all… You know the rest. One can only imagine how he felt as he walked off the pitch. Alone with his thoughts in an empty dressing room as the noise of the crowd swirled and billowed outside… A sad, solitary figure.
And yet, Muirhead’s actions were entirely understandable. As the Queens players hailed Robinson and roared around him, the very essence of his being was being slowly drained from him. He could have brought his team back into the game! Secured their footing in the match! Guaranteed another chance to win through penalty kicks! To have Higgins’s face grotesquely pressed against his own exacerbated the situation – there is something deeply vulgar in gloating over a man’s personal, and very public misery. Those final five minutes of the match showcased the full spectrum of human emotion: hope, despair, schadenfreude, anger, elation, resignation, equanimity. A whole lifetime played out in a matter of moments. Butting him was wrong, but in the circumstances, it was a sense of release.
As it happened, Muirhead’s dismissal was negligible as Kris Doolan’s low shot creeped inside Robinson’s post to take the match to penalties and instigate a pitch invasion. It would be Robinson who capped Queen of the South’s perfect season, blocking Conrad Balatoni’s weak effort to ensure victory (the goalkeeper’s chicanery throughout the shoot-out also might have played a factor). In the aftermath, there was a cold acceptance from the Partick Thistle support – they did not deserve to win the tie.
The Challenge Cup, while being a very welcome distraction, is not Partick Thistle’s priority: the First Division championship is the coveted prize, with tomorrow night’s clash against Greenock Morton having taken on seismic proportions. The game was marked down long ago as the most important of the campaign for both teams, but it has since become the most important of this year’s SFL. With Divisions Two and Three having been virtually decided before a ball was even kicked, the contest for the First Division has been utterly enthralling.
Morton will have been delighted by Sunday’s events. They will take on a team worn out, physically and mentally drained after the weekend’s exerts. Chris Erskine, Steven Lawless and Stuart Bannigan looked particularly leggy against Queens, and Muirhead, the cornerstone of an outstanding defence, was already going to miss out through suspension after a red card against Raith Rovers. Their desire to win cannot be questioned – the players need little motivation for such a game – but Alan Archibald must maintain their focus and put Sunday’s disappointment behind them. Thistle, with a game in hand, can increase their advantage over Morton to five points; lose, and the Greenock club will overtake them.
Archibald’s short spell as manager has so far been marked by excellence, with their outstanding league form debunking predictions that he was the wrong man for the job as little more than fanciful hokum. Tomorrow night is his biggest professional challenge and he, and his players, must keep their heads if they are to keep moving in the right direction.