THEY have been there, done it and now they have worn the T-shirts.
It may have taken a few more days than first anticipated but, after hoping for nine long years, the well of anticipation that had been fervently building finally burst asunder for Partick Thistle. The Firhill side will play Scottish Premier League football once again next season, a 2-0 win at Falkirk yesterday seeing them finally cross the line and crowned Irn-Bru First Division champions.
Loading article content
Despite the departure of manager Jackie McNamara in February and a hectic fixture backlog in March that threatened to disrupt their title bid, the Jags have shown their class and determination throughout a memorable campaign, finishing off their title bid how they started it with a comfortable win over the Bairns.
As they savoured the applause from their fans, the Thistle squad wore shirts saying "Kids v experience" and "We got this", a barbed, thorny message aimed at those critics who had written them off along the way.
Their reward is a place in Scottish football's top tier once again. For this young, committed, exuberant group of players and rookie manager Alan Archibald, the journey may only have just begun.
"The T-shirts weren't my idea, I am not a big fan of all that," Archibald said. "I can see where they are coming from. A lot of people in the press, other teams, ex-managers, everyone wrote us off. We went into the Morton match eight points behind and it could have gone to eleven if they won.
"Every paper we picked up said Morton would win the league and we wouldn't go to Fife and win and all these things. We kept it all in-house and never spoke about it.
"I think the players were a bit disgruntled that they had been written off after a great season. There was no need for it. That was their thoughts and that is why they did the T-shirts."
It may have taken until the third-last weekend of the campaign, but there is no doubt Thistle are worthy winners as they wrapped up the title in style through goals from Andy Dowie and Chris Erskine. The travelling Jags support had to be patient for the breakthrough to arrive and the party to begin, but it could all have been far more straightforward had Archibald's side taken any of the number of chances that fell their way.
Ross Forbes came closest to putting them ahead in a low-key first half. He should have beaten Michael McGovern on 26 minutes, but ballooned his shot over after being released by Kris Doolan. Just minutes later, luck was not on his side as a sweetly struck curling free kick rebounded off the inside of the post to safety.
The opening 45 minutes may not have set the pulses racing, but the decibel levels soon rose as Thistle took the lead just five minutes after the break.
Forbes' dead-ball prowess has been key for Thistle this season and the former Motherwell man delivered once again, his whipping corner met by Dowie as the defender powered a header beyond McGovern to send the sizeable Jags travelling support into raptures. The dream was becoming a reality.
Archibald's side didn't have things all their own way, however, with a curling Fulton free-kick smashing off the crossbar and bringing gasps from the Bairns' support while the Thistle fans continued to party.
The celebrations could soon really begin, though. With just ten minutes remaining, Chris Erskine made sure of the win and the title.
The maverick forward has just a couple of weeks left with Thistle as he prepares for a move to Dundee United this summer, but he bowed out in style, ensuring that they too were SPL bound with a trademark mazy, darting run and typically cool finish.
It was the perfect end to Thistle's promotion challenge, their celebrations well deserved and status as champions confirmed at last.
Falkirk boss Gary Holt, just weeks into his own first managerial tenure, was happy to train his sights on the future. He said: "The championship is what I want next season.
"That is what I want the players to buy into. I am not here to just go through the mill. We have got to aim for the championship."
Crown of thorns