HOLDERS Brora Rangers eventually prevailed after overcoming a series of setbacks against a much-improved Huntly side to reach the semi-final of the Highland League Cup.
With the adverse weather conditions causing the Highland League fixtures at Wick and Rothes as well as the League Cup tie at Forres to be called off because of waterlogged pitches, Christie Park held up well.
Although soft and cutting, both teams were able to play some decent football on the surface and served up an exciting cup tie.
With Joe Malin and Paul Brindle being the only injury absentees for the Cattachs, Ross Tokely had a strong squad to choose from and plumped for a fluid 4-2-4 formation that was as often 4-4-2 when they went forward.
The back four were Scott Houston and Ally MacDonald either side of Colin Williamson and Jamie Duff with Gavin Morrison and Martin MacLean in central midfield with Zander Sutherland wide on the right and Scott Graham wide on the left of Kyle MacLeod and Steven ‘Sid’ MacKay as the central strikers.
Although the visitors had won their last four matches, it was Huntly who had by far the brighter start.
They were busy and purposeful, usually first to any loose ball and posed more threat than the Dudgeon Park side.
The Black and Golds deservedly went ahead after just eight minutes. A diagonal ball from the right into the box was back headed by Colin Williamson which inadvertently played in Huntly skipper Gary MacGowan who beat young Brora goalkeeper Ross Munro to the ball and tapped home at the near post. It took the home side eight minutes to open the scoring and another eight minutes to double their lead. Once again, Brora defender Colin Williamson’s head was the source of the goal.
This time, Huntly full back David Donald’s long throw into the box – a feature of Huntly’s attacking play – was headed by the unfortunate Williamson over his keeper’s head and into the roof of his own net. Not many would have predicted before the start that Brora would be two down after 16 minutes and being outplayed but that was the reality.
However, at this point, Brora dug deep into their reserves of character and started responding to their poor start by establishing a strong foothold in midfield and starting to turn the Huntly tide.
Sid MacKay had a couple of close efforts on the half-hour mark, firstly with a screamer from just outside the box that shaved the crossbar and followed up a minute later with another effort that was blocked at the near post and scrambled clear for a corner.
The cup holders had turned the tables and were now controlling midfield. Huntly’s Jordan Morrice received the first yellow card of the afternoon for chopping down Martin MacLean in midfield and from Gavin Morrison’s resulting free kick, Kyle MacLeod’s goal-bound low effort was kicked off the line.
This was quickly followed by Scott Graham having a clear chance to reduce the arrears when he found himself in space on the left edge of the penalty area but stroked his effort tamely past the near post.
Brora were coming closer to capitalising on their ascendancy and they duly halved the deficit on 36 minutes when Kyle MacLeod run into the home side’s penalty area was halted when he was felled by Huntly defender Dennis Wyness.
The young striker picked himself up, dusted himself down and dispatched the spot-kick like a veteran low to the left, sending home keeper Craig Reid the wrong way.
In the 40th minute, the cup holders got back on level terms. The influential Zander Sutherland was brought down on the edge of the box by Neil MacVittie who was booked for the challenge.
Scott Graham’s low free-kick sped through the crowded box and finished in the bottom corner. Zander Sutherland may have got a touch on the way through but Graham’s shot was net-bound and he will rightly be credited with the goal. The first half finished with the now dominant Brora Rangers forcing a succession of corners without creating any more clear-cut chances.
The second period started with both sides trying to consolidate their position and not concede an early goal but the half was to be dominated by several contentious refereeing decisions from Liam Duncan, the man in black. Gavin Morrison received a yellow card five minutes in for a foul in midfield that was to prove costly later in the game.
Ten minutes after the restart a strong Brora attack saw the ball move at speed from Gavin Morrison to Scott Graham to Kyle MacLeod whose shot was scrambled away for a corner. The home side were also a threat going forward as they had proved in the opening quarter and on 58 minutes they came close when the ball was worked from right to left and ended with a shot by ex-Nairn man Robbie Duncanson narrowly into the side netting.
On the hour, the first of a series of refereeing decisions that the Cattachs considered unjustified occurred.
Zander Sutherland was in the Huntly box and running away from goal with a defender in close attendance.
Sutherland fell to the ground and was promptly booked for simulation although it seemed fairly clear to most observers that he had merely slipped in the muddy underfoot conditions and, indeed, got up immediately.
Brora continued to do the lion’s share of attacking and a free-kick on the left edge of the box was driven narrowly beyond the near post by Gavin Morrison. Sid MacKay was a hairsbreadth away from turning in a pass by Gavin Morrison and a good flowing Brora move featuring a run and cross from Scott Graham was blazed over the bar by right full-back Scott Houston.
Perhaps he was still intoxicated by his first-ever Brora goal in the previous round against Inverurie. Just after this, Brora brought on Dale Gillespie for Martin MacLean.
On 69 minutes, Brora’s sense of grievance increased with a second yellow card and sending off for midfielder Gavin Morrison.
Shortly before this, Brora left-back Ally MacDonald had been injured by a robust tackle near the touchline in his own half which wasn’t penalised and resulted in a Brora throw.
MacDonald required treatment and rolled a yard off the pitch to continue to be treated. Like most other people, Morrison seemed unsure about whether play should resume as Macdonald was still lying on the ground by Morrison’s feet where the throw was due to be taken and he was then promptly booked for time-wasting and sent off!
This decision, which seemed devoid of common sense, incensed the Brora players and officials.
Substitute Dale Gillespie, who had been on the pitch for 3 minutes, was booked for dissent.
To rub salt into the wound, MacDonald never recovered from the hefty challenge and hobbled off to be replaced by John Pickles.
This also resulted in a major reshuffle of the pack. Pickles to right -back, Houston from right-back to left-back, Graham from wide left of a four to right of a midfield three and Sid to inside left. They also replaced Kyle MacLeod with the fresh legs of Andrew ‘Chubs’ Greig in anticipation of extra time and penalties.
Clearly the circumstances of the earlier sending off still rankled with the visitors and, as a result of their observations on the referee’s decision, assistant manager John Docherty was sent to the stands followed in short order by manager Ross Tokely leaving Brora with no managerial representation in the technical area. As is often the case, the aggrieved Brora players channelled their feelings positively and the 10 men dominated the final phase of the game. Dale Gillespie had a drive blocked by Huntly keeper Craig Reid’s legs who then saved Scott Graham’s follow up effort. Reid then fell on a dangerous corner on his line as the match went into added time.
The Black and Golds had the first clear chance in added time with a rare counter attack when Gary MacGowan was one on one with Brora keeper Ross Munro but pulled his shot wide of the left-hand post, although the 10 men of Brora continued to dominate the possession and chances. Two minutes into added time, Dale Gillespie had another rasping shot blocked on the line and this was immediately followed by substitute Andrew Greig’s run and shot on the left held by Craig Reid just under his bar.
With extra time and possible penalties looming, a lovely sweeping Brora move clinched the tie. Brora developed an attack on the right featuring Zander Sutherland, Scott Graham and John Pickles. When the ball was played back to Sutherland standing on the right edge of the box he took it first time and his powerful drive nestled in the far corner of the net before Craig Reid could move to cue relieved delirium in the Brora ranks. There was just enough time to restart and for a frustrated Huntley No.8 Neil MacVittie to receive his second yellow card followed by a red for a strong challenge in midfield.
So, the holders move into a semi-final against the winners of the postponed tie between Forres and Cove.
Brora showed three distinct faces against a resilient Huntly side. The first face was an uncharacteristic sluggishness at the start and defensive frailties that saw them fall two goals behind after 16 minutes. But they then showed their spirit by clawing their way back into the match and imposing themselves.
And finally, they displayed courage and tenacity by taking the game by the scruff of the neck and winning through when the odds were stacked against them.