Cove Rangers co-manager Graeme Mathieson was delighted to see his side win their SPFL play-off semi-final first leg against East Kilbride 2-1.
Mathieson – in the dug-out without fellow boss John Sheran, who is recovering from a heart attack he suffered last Sunday – admitted he’d have been happy to start next week’s return leg at the Balmoral Stadium level.
However, Highland kings Cove dominated Lowland League champions Kilby, scoring via defenders Harry Milne and Scott Ross in the first half, and coming close to extending their lead several times before Jamie Longworth gave the home side a late sliver of hope ahead of next week.
Mathieson, whose side are now in pole position to play League Two’s Berwick for a place in the Scottish leagues, said: “When we went to K Park, we said it was important to the players we left still in the tie.
“Being honest, before the game and seeing how good they are, we’d have been happy to come away level.
“To be taking a 2-1 lead back to Balmoral – we’re pretty happy with that.
“I thought the boys worked really, really hard.
“We worked on set-pieces through the week and that showed.
“We scored two goals from set-pieces and had three or four other good chances I’m disappointed we didn’t take.”
Kilby only lost once at home in the Lowland League this term. however, Cove immediately put them on the back foot with their physicality and pressing.
Mathieson used Sheran not being there as motivation for the players before the game and praised his side after a testing week. He said: “It’s only half-time and we’re still going to have to work as hard as we did on Saturday to get into the next round.
“When we went there we’d done a fair bit of homework on them and everything they did we were prepared for.
“We’re a wee bit disappointed we lost the goal at the end but our gameplan worked well.
“We said to them ‘be professional and keep calm’ (and that’s what we did).”
The co-manager singled out winger Daniel Park for praise.
Park set-up both goals and could have bagged four or five assists over the course of the afternoon with a man-of-the-match display on the flank.
Mathieson said: “I thought he (Park) had a great game.
“When you score two goals from set-pieces, part of that is the delivery and his was fantastic.
“But if you look at them all, the work rate they put in, they all really did a shift.”
Cove’s line-up was their first-choice 11, whereas the home side’s eye-catching bench included experienced league players like David Proctor – formerly of Inverness Caley – and ex-Hibs and Preston man Chris Humphrey.
The Granite City side got off to a fantastic start, left-back Milne’s towering header from a Park corner giving William Muir no chance on three minutes.
Cove looked hungrier than Kilby from the first whistle and both strikers, plus the four midfielders, were pressing ferociously and forcing mistakes.
However, the home side could’ve been level 10 minutes in. In a rare off-moment for Cove, Paul Woods danced from halfway past midfielder Connor Scully and centre-half Ryan Strachan, his shot from just inside the area sent wide by keeper Stuart McKenzie’s right boot.
Still, the visitors were in charge and doubled their lead on 35 minutes. It was another Park corner from the left, but this time nodded across goal and in from defender Ross, who’d taken up a position near the back post.
After the break, Jamie Masson and Scott Stevenson both had early chances for their respective teams.
A cross-cum-shot on 76 minutes from full-back Bernard Coll – cleared off the line – and a saved long-range effort from substitute Longworth revitalised the home side and their supporters.
Moments before full-time Longworth fired into the far corner right-footed.