Brora’s hold on the Highland League Cup came to an end when they lost at home to Cove deep into extra time. The teams were evenly matched and, as is often the case in tense semi-finals, caution prevailed, both teams cancelled each other out and one goal settled the tie on a heavy pitch.
The Cattachs started in a 4-3-3 formation but with several changes. Scott Houston was once again at right back with Colin Williamson and Jamie Duff the centre back pairing but Ally MacDonald was still suffering the effects of the challenge that saw him limp off in the previous round at Huntly and his place at left back was taken by Steven ‘Sid’ MacKay. Although most people are used to seeing Sid banging in the goals up front for Brora, he actually started his career at left back and was very comfortable and assured in the role. Gavin Morrison’s strong presence was missing from midfield following his sending off at Huntly so John Pickles, normally a right back, played on the right of midfield alongside Dale Gillespie and Martin ‘Digger’ MacLean. Up front, Zander Sutherland was wide on the right with Andrew ‘Chubs’ Greig wide on the left and young Kyle MacLeod playing through the middle. Cove’s line-up had a good sprinkling of players with Scottish League experience including their goalkeeper Stuart MacKenzie and the very experienced and highly dangerous front pairing of Mitch Megginson and Paul MacManus.
Each side was paying the other a lot of respect and the early exchanges were tense, the players feeling each other out and trying not to make a mistake. The first time either keeper was called into serious action was after 15 minutes when Cove’s Blair Yule hit a diagonal shot straight at Brora keeper Ross Munro following a move down the inside right channel. Brora were next to threaten when, following Dale Gillespie’s 35-yard free kick being blocked, Martin MacLean followed up with a low drive across goal from the right corner of the penalty box and Kyle MacLeod was very, very close to getting a finishing touch.
The contrast in styles of play for the rest of the first half was interesting for the spectators. Cove built most of their moves through midfield before going down the channels in the final third whereas Brora’s approach was more counter-attacking when they gained possession, often by-passing the heavy midfield area by playing long to Zander Sutherland, Kyle MacLeod and Andrew Greig. Sutherland’s ball control, hold up and link play is one of the strong points of his game and Kyle MacLeod showed an admirable ability to win headers under challenge. Similarly, Andrew Greig is excellent at running at defenders and taking them on for pace. Therefore, the Brora runners from midfield had a lot of good possession to run onto.
This approach produced the best two attempts on goal in the final 15 minutes of the half. Firstly, Dale Gillespie played the ball through to Andrew Greig on the left and his lovely diagonal into the box just brushed the brow of the onrushing Martin MacLean before flashing wide and shortly afterwards Sid MacKay played an astute pass to Zander Sutherland who wasted the chance by ballooning his shot high and wide. So, we reached the interval with neither goalkeeper being seriously troubled.
The home side started the second half in a purposeful manner but it was Cove who created the first chance when Mitch Megginson bustled through in the inside left channel but his diagonal pass inside was too strong and eluded Blair Yule as he arrived in the box. This was a prelude to a couple more Cove attacks. On 58 minutes, Jason Brown’s long cross was driven into the side netting by Paul MacManus – his first sniff of goal – and 5 minutes later a Cove attack from a short free kick developed on the left but Mitch Megginson uncharacteristically shot tamely at Ross Munro who gathered the ball easily. A couple of minutes after this, the Cattachs worked the Cove keeper following an attack on the right built up by John Pickles and Zander Sutherland with Martin MacLean’s header being held by Stuart MacKenzie under his crossbar.
The last 20 minutes of normal time saw a series of tactical substitutions by both sides. Brora brought off John Pickles and replaced him with James Ross. Clearly Ross Tokely was concerned that Cove were able to mount a series of attacks wide on the flanks and tried to counteract this by bringing on another full back with Sid MacKay moving forward. At the same time, Cove substituted front man Paul MacManus and brought on defender Harry Milne so perhaps each substitution neutralised the other!
On 77 minutes, Cove brought off ex-Wick Academy defender Grant Campbell and replaced him with their newly signed bustling striker from Turriff, Nicky Gray. So back to where we were a few minutes ago in terms of offensive and defensive players!
In the 82nd minute, Cove were dealt a serious blow when main striker Mitch Megginson received his marching orders following a second yellow card. Most observers would assume that this development would tilt the scales in Brora’s favour and, indeed, they duly came close 3 minutes later when a cross-shot from Andrew Greig, who had popped up on the right flank, was flapped over his own bar by Stuart MacKenzie.
Three minutes from the end of normal time Cove brought on the fresh legs of Sam Burnett for veteran ex-Keith defender Stuart Walker, which would indicate that they were preparing for extra time. 2 minutes into added time, in an attempt to force a last-gasp winner, Brora mounted a final barrage of attacks on the right orchestrated by Zander Sutherland. The ball flew around the Cove box like a pinball before a rebound was driven inches over the crossbar by Dale Gillespie. And so, we moved on to extra time.
Although Brora started extra time with a one-man advantage it lasted all of 3 minutes before they, too, were reduced to 10 men. Zander Sutherland, who had been booked in the first half, jostled for possession with Cove defender Dean Lawrie at the right hand corner flag before the referee blew for a free-kick to Cove. Sutherland instinctively crossed the ball into the box and received a 2nd yellow card followed by a red for kicking the ball away. It was such a cheap and unnecessary way to get sent off but proved to be costly as Sutherland was the creative fulcrum of Brora’s best attacking play. Although the referee was technically correct, he certainly applied the letter of the law rather than the spirit, given the tension of the occasion and the fact it was finely poised at a critical phase.
And so we proceeded with each side’s no9 taking an early bath. Both teams had half chances in the first period of extra time until the final minute when Brora had a real let-off. Scott Houston played a suicidal long back pass on the left to Ross Munro not noticing that Cove striker Nicky Gray was lurking. He collected the ball and ran in one on one with the keeper. Luckily for the Cattachs, Gray pulled his shot just wide of the far post.
The second period of extra time started with Scott Houston having played his ‘get-out-of-jail’ card but, rather than a let off, it proved to be a stay of execution. Neither side looked capable of breaching the other’s defence from open play throughout the dour struggle. But 5 minutes into the second period, the breakthrough came. Cove won a corner on the right and Connor Scully’s delivery went right across the crowded Brora penalty box and was met at the far post by Jason Brown who forced the ball over the line with his head. The fact that the only goal of the match was forced home by a right full back at the left-hand post is probably a good summary of the goal-scoring chances in this match.
A scruffy winner and a sickener for Brora, and it could easily have gone the other way but with two evenly matched teams the margins are usually very fine.