GUTTED Nairn County manager Les Fridge could not hide his disappointment after watching his side suffer Highland League (Morganti) Cup final heartache, writes Graeme Macleod.
County pushed reigning league champions and current leaders Brora Rangers all the way at Grant Street Park in a goalless final before going down 5-4 on penalty kicks.
Fridge said: "I cannot emphasise what the players have done and I cannot praise them enough for their efforts. I am very proud of what we nearly achieved."
"I could not have asked for anymore. The players gave everything and from the second half onwards, we were by far the better team. We created three or four really decent chances and my only criticism is that we did not take one to win the game in normal time. That has been a criticism you could level at us for a lot of the season though - it was the same against Fraserburgh in midweek and we have failed to finish teams off when we have had the chance to."
"It came down to decision-making in the final third. There was not an awful lot in it and I think anyone who was at the game would have seen that we were the better team. It proves that in football, not always the better team wins on the day and then when it went to penalties, it was just a lottery. I cannot and I would never criticise anybody once it went to penalties because it is just a hit or a miss."
Brora restored first-choice goalkeeper Joe Malin to their starting line-up after a knee injury and it was a gamble that paid off as the stopper made a string of impressive saves before keeping out Michael Morrison's spot kick.
Fridge added: "It is no coincidence that the loss of him saw them fall out of the title race. He is a very important and influential player for them although you could see that he had been out injured and he was not as influential as he normally is. He had some great saves, one in particular from Gregg Main and then he saved the penalty that won them the game."
Fridge altered his defensive line-up when County won at Dudgeon Park in January and he again got it right at the back with the imperious Sean Webb a standout among a number of top class performances at the back.
The boss said: "They changed their system slightly because when we played them in January, Steven Mackay was not there. Today though, they played Steven Mackay as a lone target man and looked to hit him with Zander Sutherland Andrew Grieg playing off him and around about him."
"We changed our formation about a wee bit and Sean Webb was given the task of looking after Steven Mackay - especially in the air because Steven is very dominant in the air - and I thought he was excellent. No disrespect to anyone else but I thought he was the man of the match."
"Andrew Skinner was given the job of looking after Zander Sutherland, John Cameron was looking after Andrew Grieg in the wider area because Andrew Grieg plays wider and looks to collect the ball and then come forward. Then, Paul Brindle came on and he was been scoring goals and is very fast, so Glenn Main was given the task of looking after him. They had Scotty Graham as well and these five players I have mentioned have been one of the best attacking forces in the league over the last few years and no disrespect to these players but we played and set up in a way that they did not have much of an influence on the game."
County welcome Formartine United to Station Park on Wednesday evening as they look to pick themselves and push on to claim a top five finish in the table.
Fridge said: "We will look to finish on a high and pick up as many points as we can. I said to the players when we came in together before the penalty shootout that I could not have asked more of them and they had done a great job. I really meant that because they did everything that I asked of them - we setup, kept our shape and were good going forward."
"Part of my game plan was to keep it tight and then look to bring on Tony (Wallace) - who has only played 15 minutes in the last couple of months - and Conor (Gethins) - who has not played or trained in the last three weeks - and introduce them with fresher legs in the latter stages of the game."
"I think that worked. Robbie Duncanson and Sam Urquhart came off and they had given everything during the game. I thought Tony made an impact when he came on and was causing them trouble. We brought Conor on in extra time and the wee man is capable of producing a match-winner at any stage of a game."
"Unfortunately, these two players were not fully fit, which was a wee bit disappointing because if we could have gone into this game with a fully fit and strong squad it might have been a different outcome. We had these two players not at full fitness with Martin MacDonald, Wayne Mackintosh and Bradley Halsman all missing."