2002/03 Back in the First
A serialised account of our season by our man who has been at almost every match home and away - Ewan Lithgow
Part Three - August
The season finally got underway on the 3rd August with a home match against Clyde being preceded by the raising of the Second Division Championship flag by Peter Donald of the SFL and Chairman, Ronnie Bradford in front of a healthy crowd of 3,206. The game itself saw Queens dominate as they bounced back into the First Division with a win. Sean O'Connor's mis-hit shot was turned into his own net by Clyde's John Potter before half time and Eric Paton struck a second half thunderbolt from 25 yards to make the points safe, though Andy Millen's shot was deflected past Goram to make the last five minutes a little tense.

Midweek brought a long haul for players and fans alike as we began the Bells Challenge Cup campaign with a first ever trip to Peterhead. John Connolly signalled an intent to treat the cup as an opportunity to test other squad players out by making no less than six changes to the team which faced Clyde, including a return in goal for the fit again Colin Scott. Whilst Queens were always in command of the game it took two late goals from Weatherson and O'Neill to clinch a 2-0 win. O'Neill's goal was a spectacular volley from the edge of the penalty area direct from Joe McAlpine's corner and would surely have placed higher up most people's Goal of the Season votes had tv cameras captured it or more been there to see it in person. The following day saw us fatefully drawn to face Morton at Palmerston in the next round. More on that later! We were also drawn to face Forfar Athletic at home in the first round of the CIS Cup.

As if the midweek travel hadn't been enough, the SFL computer sent us on another long haul on the Saturday, away to Dingwall to face Ross County. It seems astonishing to think of now but County were top of the League when we travelled there and were a lot of observers favourites to stay there. The game was a tremendous advert for First Division football and Queens started very well and should have taken the lead when Lyle was clean through on goal but failed to finish. However, Ferguson scored for the home side just before half time and, despite a battling second half from Queens, including Bowey striking the post from 25 yards, County clinched the points when Wood added a second in stoppage time. The honeymoon period was officially over.

August 13th was a date that will go down as one we'd probably all rather forget. Morton came visiting in the second round of the Challenge Cup, a match most were looking forward to following a good spirit between the respective fans last season. This was to be very different, thanks in no small part to referee Eric Martindale's inept handling of the game. There was no early indication of what was to come with a rather dull game still scoreless well into the second half though Morton's wunderkind Alex Williams had rattled the bar in the opening period. The ill feeling began with the somewhat harsh sending off of Morton's Dean Keenan for a challenge from behind. The tackle was poorly timed but a booking would have sufficed and the red card only served to fuel Morton's sense of ill-justice leading to an obvious descent of red mist. The situation was further inflamed when former Morton striker Sean O'Connor struck what proved to be the winner with just five minutes left. First Alex Williams hit Paddy Atkinson with a viscous challenge that somehow only resulted in a yellow card and left Paddy missing the next game as a result of his injury. The worst was yet to come though. As the clocked ticked into the 90th minute O'Connor tried to run time down by dribbling the ball to the corner flag in time honoured fashion. He was tackled at knee height, ironically by his former team-mate and flat-mate Colin Reilly, and collapsed in obvious pain. Reilly was initially shown a yellow card by the increasingly inept Martindale but this was changed to a red card after he consulted with his assistant. In the time that followed whilst O'Connor was being treated Alex Williams made gestures at the home support and was also ordered off as a result. With all the delays it took more than 15 minutes to play the injury time and complete the game. To add to the ill feeling all round, some visiting fans sang abusive songs celebrating O'Connor's injury whilst there were reports of items being thrown at the stricken player on his stretcher from the Morton dressing room. Despite promises in the press of an internal investigation by Morton FC of the events nothing further ever came of the incident. As for Sean, initial diagnosis of a double leg break thankfully proved to be wrong but he did dislocate his knee and sustain cruciate ligament damage which, it was thought, would cause him to miss the majority of the season. The next days draw would see Dumbarton come to Palmerston for the Quarter Final.

Saturday saw newly relegated St Johnstone bring their former SPL "stars" to Palmerston and a rather dull encounter finished scoreless, though it would be fair to say the Perth side were the better team on the day. With the initial diagnosis being that O'Connor would be out of action for at least the rest of 2002, John Connolly moved to clinch the signing of Celtic reserve forward Paul Shields on loan until January.

On Tuesday the Challenge Cup campaign continued and, without playing very well at all, we progressed to the semi-final following a 2-0 win over Dumbarton. A first half strike from O'Neill and a last minute one by Derek Lyle did the damage. With Brechin City shocking Falkirk on penalties on the same night, Queens and St Mirren were the last two First Division sides left in the competition so, needless to say, the two sides were paired together in the semi-final with Queens being the team that had to travel.

The following Saturday saw the first home defeat of the season when Ayr United took a 2-1 win back up the road. In truth we played poorly with Bowey looking out of sorts in an unfamiliar wide role and didn't really deserve anything from the game. Derek Allan clearly put the first through his own net though the goal was officially credited to Mark Campbell and James Grady added a second after the interval. Bowey pulled a goal back with five minutes left having been moved back to the centre of midfield but the fight-back came too late to gain any points.

With the new transfer window deadline approaching Connolly pulled off a masterstroke on Monday to sign Robbie Neilson on loan from Hearts until January. The presence of such a clearly quality player in the side was a big boost to the team over the coming months though it was bad news for last year's Player of the Year, Alan Gray, who lost his place as a result.

Neilson made an immediate debut in a simply epic Challenge Cup semi-final with St Mirren. I said at the time when I wrote the match report for the game that it was the best match I'd ever seen in almost 20 years of following Queens and the passing of nine months
since hasn't changed my mind one bit. It was a glorious game which ebbed and flowed from one end of the park to the other. Queens were simply magnificent in the opening period and twice led through Shields and Lyle yet somehow found themselves only level at the break thanks to equalisers from McGinty and Cameron. Early in the second period Bowey scored what would later be voted as Goal of the Season when he picked up the ball on halfway and strode forward, beating a couple of opponents before shooting into the top right corner from 25 yards out. This time Queens were able to sit on their lead for a bit longer with Colin Scott in stunning form also. However, with 10 minutes left came heartbreak as Fellner flicked in a free kick to equalise and it seemed that the fitter full-time team would surely go on to win the game in extra time. We couldn't have been more wrong. Queens rallied again and, after sub Brian McLaughlin was tripped up 20 yards out, Weatherson curled the free kick directly into the top right corner again for an 89th minute clincher. Just for good measure Shields scored a fifth and his second in injury time after Neilson refused to give up on a lost cause and set him up.

Before Saturday's clash with pace-setters Falkirk at Brockville, a third loan signing joined up until January. This time the new face was Robbie Henderson, a young left sided defender from Kilmarnock. Going in the other direction was Jamie Campbell who joined Montrose on loan also until January. An obviously tired Queens side after their midweek exertions were easily brushed aside by a rampant Falkirk side. Andy Lawrie gave them the lead before Derek Allan scored a second successive own goal to double the advantage. Substitute Collin Samuel scored a third whilst Robbie Neilson was red carded after a late challenge on Allan Ferguson earned him a second booking.

All in all it had been a pretty successful first month back in Division One with a place in the Challenge Cup Final clinched. The League situation wasn't quite as promising however with only four points out of a possible fifteen gathered and we sat second bottom, behind Arbroath on goal difference.

Ewan Lithgow

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