PARTICK THISTLE 2
Scorers: Peterhead - Bavidge (5); Partick Thistle - Roberts (7), B Gibson (90) Agg 3-3, Partick win 4-2 on pens
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PARTICK THISTLE'S dreams of returning to the first division became reality in Peterhead late yesterday afternoon. The Glasgow club emerged from a tense penalty shoot-out after extra time had locked these sides on aggregate during an exciting SFL first division promotion play-off.
Recapturing the status which they ceded last season was an achievement which brought plaudits for his players from Thistle's emotional manager Dick Campbell who, despite believing that a victory was beyond them as the game approached its denouement, removed two defenders from the fray and fielded three men up front in an effort to change the course of the match.
"We got our just desserts late in normal time, " he said, "and I thought our mentality in extra time was stronger than theirs. They had a few injuries at that stage but this is all about Partick Thistle being back in the first division so why not enjoy it."
Campbell took a swipe at his many critics among the Firhill faithful whom, he said, had pilloried him this season as, on occasion, it looked as though his efforts to take the club back up a division had faltered. He also questioned those in the game who had designs on the manager's chair at Firhill.
"The criticism doesn't bother me, " he added, the frustrations of the past few months pouring forth in a torrent. "If you weren't as experienced as me you would bite back. The fans today were magnificent. The ones that aren't here are magnificent as well.
"I've had managers talking to me last week about my job. I couldn't give a monkeys about it. My board of directors are very strong. This club has been up and down like the proverbial whore's knickers and there are reasons for that. I'm in here to sort that out and I've done that on the financial side. We've stopped bleeding this year and any money we've made has to be made on the football park. That has been made quite clear to me."
Thistle goalkeeper Kenny Arthur was the hero for the visitors when he saved Peterhead's first penalty from fullback Dougie Cameron to offer them immediate hope but it was former Rangers midfielder, Billy Gibson, who breathed life into his team's challenge with a fiercely-struck 25-yard free-kick which ricocheted off Cameron and into the net with just 30 seconds remaining of the three minutes stoppage time.
The home side, leading 2-1 on aggregate from the first leg of this final, appeared to be heading for promotion after Martin Bavidge had fired them into a fifth minute lead. Although Mark Roberts hauled one back two minutes later as the home side lost concentration, Peterhead grew stronger as the game progressed and twice hit the inside of the Thistle post in the second half - from Martin Wood and then Bavidge - of this thriller.
The north east side were right to feel aggrieved at losing out at the death, particularly as they had dominated much of the match and, apart from that awful moment in injury time, looked set to secure promotion on aggregate.
However, the penalty shootout proved disastrous for them when, after Roberts had netted for Thistle with the first spotkick, Cameron's side-footed effort was easily saved by Arthur. Sean Kilgannon for the visitors, then Craig Tully for the home side, netted their kicks but Peterhead's Keith Gibson didn't even hit the target with his and after Will Snowdon had his shot stopped by Paul Mathers, the Balmoor keeper went on to convert calmly from the spot. This left the pressure on Paul Ritchie but the striker drilled his kick home to ensure Campbell's side returned to the first division.
For the home side it was a traumatic moment, and the empty feeling among their players was mirrored in manager Iain Stewart's post-match mood. "It is hard to put into words just how I feel, " said. "You see the devastation in that dressing room is really hard to take for a bunch of boys who have been absolutely magnificent today.
"To be that close and have it taken away from you is tough. Maybe it just wasn't meant to be. My boys gave me everything and I can't ask any more from my players to be beating a full-time team again and then in the 92nd minute get an unlucky deflection and lose. We're through the 90 minutes and we are winning but when you're only a goal up you can never be safe and that was proved today.
"Once we got to full-time we were happy to take a penalty shoot-out because the fulltime, part-time thing kicked in and Bavidge pulled up with a hamstring injury and Graeme Sharp's groin went. We were down to nine men and the boys were running on empty."