When Arbroath stalwart Ricky Little signed a two-year extension to his contract in March, it brought a significant landmark tantalisingly into view.
The tireless defender will celebrate 10 years at Gayfield in 2023 and, with that length of service, comes the prospect of a testimonial year to mark his sizable contribution to the Lichties since his arrival from Queen’s Park.
Given Little goes about his business with a quiet diligence – never the flashiest performer on any patch of grass – he may shy away from such fanfare.
However, Dick Campbell sought to direct a sliver of spotlight in Little’s direction following a game-saving intervention against Raith Rovers on Saturday; the big centre-half making it 2-2 in the dying embers with a sharp, close-range finish.
The 31-year-old makes a 200-mile round-trip from Ardrossan – the Ayrshire town which kisses the banks of the Firth of Clyde – to Perth for every training session, yet eschews any offer of time off.
So, he can be forgiven for seeking a quick escape to make it home after games.
“You’ll be lucky to catch him, he’ll be half-way down the M77 by now,” said Campbell when the press corps ventured to ask if the goal hero would be available for a word following the full-time whistle.
He was right enough. But no matter, as Campbell’s assessment of Little’s influence – and a laudable, gutsy showing by his Arbroath colleagues – was, as always, more than sufficient.
“Ricky has been here since I’ve been here and he travels to Perth for training, yet I can count on my hand the number of times he has missed training,” continued Campbell.
“I remember asking him to a day off training a couple of weeks back – but he still turns up on the Wednesday night. I said to him: ‘Why did you not take the night off?’ He says: ‘I’ll take a night off when I retire’.
“That’s the attitude. Absolutely magnificent.
GOAL!!!!!! Ricky F’ing Little!!!!!!! get in!! 2-2
— Arbroath FC (@ArbroathFC) April 10, 2021
“And you can go through the team saying that: Jason Thomson, Tom O’Brien, Colin Hamilton. All guys who barely missed a game last season and have stayed strong through all the ups and downs this time.”
The influence of such figures – experienced leaders – cannot be underestimated in this, of all seasons. Arbroath are in eighth spot, only leading Morton by virtue of a marginally superior goal difference of minus-9 compared to minus-11.
With Ayr United only one point better off, it promises to be a popcorn-chomping blockbuster of a finale at the bottom as we approach the last three fixtures.
Campbell adds: “This was always going to be the hardest season in my career. We aren’t the surprise package any more. I’ve had full-time teams playing five at the back against us this season, which is a credit to how far we’ve come.”
Campbell does possess one thing that is worth its weight in gold: a clinical marksman.
Jack Hamilton, on loan from Livingston, is proving a truly inspired January capture and was the man who halved arrears at Stark’s Park after a Dan Armstrong double had given Rovers a seemingly insurmountable advantage.
Campbell did have his issues with Armstrong’s second; a curling strike from outside the box. “That second goal? I could have thrown my bunnet on it.”
But back to Hamilton. He has now scored six goals in 11 Championship fixtures and brings the X-factor to Arbroath’s well-oiled machine. “Don’t ever write us off,” smiled Campbell. “At 2-0 down, Jack took his chance brilliantly.
“You can see that we’ve been crying out for that this year. Bobby Linn scored 15 goals last year; he has two this year. How do you replace that?
“We’ve always had good defenders – we’ll never, ever be an easy team to beat – but you need to find someone to put the ball in the net. Liam Boyce, scoring a hat-trick [for Hearts against Alloa] 24 hours earlier, showed just how important a clinical striker can be.”
On the subject of Hearts, Rovers’ uncharacteristic second-half capitulation (manager John McGlynn admitted they could have easily lost the game at by the end), allied with Dundee’s failure to beat Morton handed the Jambos the Championship title.
Raith, who were never reasonably expected to be the Gorgie club’s closest competitors, will now turn their attention to securing second place and the one fewer match that would afford them in the subsequent playoff campaign.
“When we look at the results across the league – the other games all finishing as draws – then it is another game gone and no damage done,” said John McGlynn.
— RRFC Official (@RaithRovers) April 10, 2021
“However, it’s a missed opportunity to be two points ahead of Dundee and further ahead of Inverness, Dunfermline and Queens ahead of going to Palmerston on Tuesday.
“I would like to think we’ll learn lessons from Saturday. We dropped the standards that we had set in the first half, took too many touches, didn’t make the right passes – and the game turned on a six-pence. You’ve got to learn from that.
“If you stop doing what has brought you success and results, you’ll be punished in this league.”