EVERY morning George and Carole Palmer pull open their front bedroom curtains and gaze over Beechwood Park, home of the legendary Auchinleck Talbot.

"There is no better sight in the whole world to wake up to," declares George as Carole lovingly rolls her eyes and grins in support. "Every day I think that."

Fans do not come more loyal than George, a 51-year-old bus driver. And it's a trait Carole likes. "I'd never miss a game, home or away," he grins from under a hat emblazoned with the Talbot shield. What would have to happen for him not to go and see his team? "Dead," butts in Carole, 47. George, laughing at himself, admits escaping weddings to watch Auchinleck.

READ MORE: The Junior club which outclasses football giants

Their semi, on Beechwood Avenue, sits just opposite the Talbot clubhouse. On their gate, in careful metalwork, is another shield, above their door, two flagstaffs.

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Carole Palmer at her front gate, picture by Colin Mearns

But the Palmers are not the only family to go full black and gold, the Talbot colours. Much of town has. Along its Main Street, the last few shops and pubs have put up flags and bunting. Why?

Auchinleck, a junior club, has made it in to the fifth round of the senior Scottish Cup. After slaying Ayr United, the professional team from its county town 14 miles away, they are off to Edinburgh, to challenge premiership giants Hearts.

This weekend at least 19 buses will leave the former pit village for the capital. Some 1800 tickets have been sold. That is one for every second resident of the town.

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George and Carole Palmer and their daughter Karen

"Everybody is hyper," says George. "The town feels great."

Things are not usually easy in Auchinleck.

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Auchinleck

The coal mines - the very reason for its existence - are closed, their remnants now post-industrial tourist attractions. The old shops, the Co-Op's butchers and haberdashery stores, went decades ago, replaced, eventually, by a Tesco on the town's edge. Unemployment here in East Ayrshire is twice the national average.

Soon the secondary school will shut, to be merged in to a new campus in neighbouring Cumnock. There is no cafe in the town centre open in an afternoon.

Auchinleck is losing all of the little focal points that cement a community. Except Talbot. Football binds this place together, winning football, that is.

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Beechwood Park

Talbot may not play in the big leagues. But that means it is used to success and crowds of what would seem an impossible size for the community. Beechwood Park has a bigger capacity, around 4000, standing, than Auchinleck has a population. George caught the 'Bot bug from his dad (who lived just long enough to see his team secure its second ever Junior Cup in 1986).

READ MORE: The Junior club which outclasses football giants

So did Iain Wilson. His father, Alec, like oh-so-many men in the village, was a miner, a Communist who was a steward down one of Ayrshire's last pits. Iain, 54, is keeping his head warm with a gringo green military cap, a red star stitched on its front. Family holidays, explains, were bus trips to the other side of the Iron Curtain.

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Iain Wilson

Forget the Cold War. In much of western Scotland it was football which divided towns and cities. Not in Auchinleck. Here the game brings people together. On the stands, explains Mr Wilson, politics and religion, is forgotten. So, sometimes are local sporting rivalries.

"My girlfriend Susan is an Ayr fan," says Iain. "She stood in in the Talbot end. She would probably say Talbot is her 'wee team'.

Iain, a former health worker, admits he has a big team, Celtic. What would happen if Auchinleck played Celtic? Who would he support. "Talbot, of course," he says.

This - for Auchinleck folk - is key. The spirit of a mining community - when your colleague always had to have your back, regardless of politics, religion or background - lives on in sport.

"You talk about that Rangers and Celtic thing," explains Iain. "They all used to work together, now they play together and they drink together - there are no Rangers or Celtic pubs - and they watch Talbot together."

This community pride has rubbed off on the club. "We don't get the best players because we pay the most money, "Iain says. "The players are there because they want to be. They have kept themselves at the top of the game by the way they have been run."

Success is not new. "The main thing for this club is the league and the junior cup," Iain says. "Up till this season people were not that enamoured about playing with the big clubs. It took a wee bit away from the junior cup. This season has an amazing run. It has given the club an exposure you cannot buy."

Iain has his whole route on the "lang whang" - the historic A70 from Ayr to Edinburgh - planned for Sunday's match.

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Rab Cross, picture by Colin Mearns

Rab Cross, 67, is all set too. He's nursing a Tennants at the Market Inn, a 'Bot scarf round his neck and a Rangers shirt on his back. "I am a season ticket holder for both clubs," he says, making a distinction between senior and junior. Rab, a returned salesman, has been going to see both teams for decades. Talbot's glory years, however, came when he was an adult.

On the Market Inn's wall is a wood plaque with each off the club's dozen Junior Cup titles. First, 1949, then all the rest since 1986. Below is the legend, The Real Madrid of the Juniors and the curious phrase "Eeka Peeka Pukka Po". This, explains Rab, comes from a 70s deaf fan who could not quite manage to sing "We'll support you ever more." Instead of mocking or excluding the supporter, the crowd adopted his version.

Behind the bar is landlord John Lyle, 60 and born and bred in Auchinleck and self-confessed "Talbot diehard". In pride of place, among his best spirits, is a little wooden mascot, called Eeka Peeka Pukka Po.

Do any of his customers not support the team? He laughs. "All of the lads are supporters. The club is the backbone of the town. It is all we have. If it wasn't for Talbot, we would not be on the map."

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John Lyle, picture by Colin Mearns

Talbot preserves the spirit of a town, says councillor 

NEIL McGhee is, he says, an "interlouper". The now councillor flit to Auchinleck half a century ago. The son of a Prestwick miner, he had come for the dancing. And he stayed for a girl, his now wife Jane.

As he walks down his "new" home's Main Street, the 69-year-old strokes the sandstone walls of one of its Victorian buildings. "It's lost its sparkle," Neil says. He's talking about the building material, which would once have shined on a wet day. But he might as well mean the whole town.

"We have a terrible problem with apathy," he says. "People, especially young people have no hope. There are so few jobs. If only they would improve the roads or help bring some industry, some light industry, to the town.
"People talk a lot about austerity. Well, we have had it for 30 years, ever since the mines closed." 

Neil, in a black Auchinleck Talbot windcheater, is pointing out where there used to be shops in the town's heyday. 

When most people think of poverty or unemployment, reckons Neil, their minds turn to big cities and towns. And it is big cities and towns, he argues, that get the resources to fight deprivation. 

READ MORE: Auchinleck manager urges team to stay focused

"It's hidden around here, the poverty," he says. "It's forgotten. But I really worry about the young people. I worry about their mental health, that some of them give up." 

This is where football comes in.

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Shops decorated in bunting

Everybody Neil passes says hello. The last few businesses  on the street have bunting to match his jacket. Austerity aside, the mood in Auchinleck is good. 

"The place is buzzing with excitement and expectation of another  victory, a surprise victory," he says.  "The aspiration for many people is not very high and this game is one of the rare occasions when they get to be enjoy life without the worries of poverty.

"We are looking forward to a wonderful weekend and we will enjoy it regardless of the result." 

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Neil McGhee

Neil has been going to the football every since he arrived in the town. He has stood with the same friends for 40 years. He remembers losing a bet on the street when the 'Bot went down 11-0 in the late 1960s. 

The club was not thriving when coal was. In fact, its biggest spells of success only came after the 1983 strike that was the beginning of the end for Scottish mining.

The secret of Talbot's rise? Good management at a club run by its fans, reckons Neil. "We are a small community and we are grateful to the committee for the long, long history they have of victory in junior cups and the west of Scotland league," he says.  They are key to keeping the spirit of the village alive and we can't praise them highly enough because they work non-stop and very hard."

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Beechwoord Park, by Colin Mearns