Courageous Brora produce performance of a lifetime to stun Hearts in one of the Scottish Cup's all-time greatest upsets
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Brora Rangers 2 Hearts 1
As Hearts’ team bus rolled up the final stretch of A9 into Brora, the Sutherland skies darkened. A torrential downpour and buffeting wind greeted the players as they disembarked.
All the portents were there for the Edinburgh giants.
While the rain ceased and the wind dropped, Brora Rangers were soon kicking up a storm of their own at Dudgeon Park in what should have been a straightforward, comfortable win for the Championship leaders.
It was a crying shame that supporters missed out on what would rank as one of the greatest Scottish Cup shocks of all time.
Fraserburgh 1 Dundee 0 in 1959 takes some beating, given the Dens Park club’s lofty stature at the time, as does Berwick Rangers 1 Glasgow Rangers 0 in 1967. Then there was the earth-shattering shock of Celtic 1 Caley Thistle 3 in February 2000.
The arguments can rage another day. It was clear after only 11 minutes of this tie that something of comparable shock value might be afoot.
The ring-rusty Highland League hosts had played just one match in 2021 and just 10 competitively since the pandemic began, but the part-time heroes were showing incredible energy, grit and defiance: traits that would last the 90 minutes.
When a quite stunning Jordan Macrae opener was eventually wiped out by former Scotland international Christophe Berra after 74 minutes, the Tynecastle club should have finished the job.
Instead Brora rallied and Martin MacLean sent the Highland League champions back ahead with a fantastic controlled finish watched by a small crowd of disbelieving locals congregating on raised ground just outside Dudgeon Park.
It said much that Hearts could leave Liam Boyce, the former Ross County striker on the bench until a panicked half-time substitution. Boyce, had it not been for the arrival of a new baby, would have been preparing for international duty with Northern Ireland against Italy.
Hearts were weakened somewhat by injuries and other absences, but as one of the best-funded clubs in Scotland they had abundant resources to compensate.
Brora, in telling contrast, could muster just four substitutes against the team that had finished runners up in the past two national finals.
Hearts did what their manager must have asked them to, and opened at pace against the part-timers.
Against the early run of play, though, Brora took the lead after a stunning moment of inspiration from Jordan Macrae.
Taking a pass from namesake Andy, he simply rocketed a 22-yard finish into the top right corner of the net.
With Hearts dominating the ball but Brora occasionally hitting on the break, the goalscorer sniffed another terrific chance inside 23 minutes but saw his attempt deflect for a corner.
Hearts, for all their possession, weren’t seriously troubling the Highland champions.
Gary Mackay-Steven’s good work on the left set up Aaron McEneff for an attempt saved down low by home keeper Joe Malin, while Armand Gnanduillet nodded wastefully off-target from the same supplier on the half hour.
The brilliant Malin had another strong save to make on half-time when he parried a powerful McEneff blast.
Boyce replaced anonymous Gervane Kastaneer at the break, with Brora pinned back and under siege into the second half.
Jamie Walker wasted a golden opportunity for Hearts when he blazed over the bar just before the hour, after Boyce slipped Gnanduillet through for a pass cut across goal.
By the time Malin made another stunning block from Christophe Berra header, tiring Brora were courageously throwing bodies in front of everything fired their way.
The Hearts equaliser was scrappy when it came. From a corner, Walker headed back across the box and Berra steered a close-range volley beyond the keeper.
Brora’s Bjorn Wagenaar thrashed a free-kick just over in retaliation to show the spirited Highlanders weren’t quite down and out yet - and, to their joy, they restored the lead after 74 minutes.
Maclean showed incredible cool to place a half-volleyed finish high into the net from a tight angle after keeper Ross Stewart failed to deal with a Wagenaar free-kick flashed across the box.
It was nerve-shredding for the hosts, but the small group of officials and fans outside the ground erupted in joy after three minutes of stoppage time.
Brora Rangers (4-4-1-1): Malin 9; Gamble 7 (Morrison 65, 6), Nicolson 7, Williamson 7, A. Macdonald 7; Kelly 7, MacLean 8, Gillespie 7, Wagenaar 7 (G. MacDonald 82, 5); A. Macrae 7 (Brindle 65, 6); J. MacRae 8. Subs: G Macdonald, Stephen.
Booked: Kelly, A. MacDonald
Hearts (4-3-3): Stewart 6; Halkett 6, Berra 5, Haring 5, White 6; Walker 6, McEneff 5 (Henderson 58, 5), Irving 6; Kastaneer 4 (Boyce 46, 6), Gnanduillet 5, Mackay-Steven 7. Subs: Zlamal, Souttar, Frear, Popescu, Henderson, Mcgill.
Booked: Irving, Mackay-Steven
Referee: Peter Stuart