THIS afternoon saw the best team Nairn County have faced this season run out at Station Park in the eyes of manager Ronnie Sharp as he saw his side defeated 5-2 by Cove Rangers.
After an even opening 35 minutes, Cove stung Nairn with two quick goals from Daniel Park and Ryan Stott to take a lead the size of which they barely merited in with them at the interval.
Paul McManus added a third and with Jack Maclean harshly red carded - which irked Sharp - on 64 minutes, it looked like curtains for the home side.
But this County team are nothing if not resilient and when Mitch Megginson was dismissed to level the numbers up shortly after Wayne Mackintosh slammed home, an unlikely fightback suddenly became a real possibility.
But Stott netted his second of the day on 74 minutes with the winger completing his hat trick by converting a harshly-awarded spot kick seven minutes from the end.
Rugged Cove defender Eric Watson was judged to have fouled Gary Kerr in equally-soft circumstances at the other end allowing Gregg Main to blast home County's second when a body charge by the visiting captain on the Nairn centre forward in the first half probably looked more of an infringement.
Sharp said: "They are a top, top team and they are as good as we have played all season. In fact, they are probably the best team we have played this season. They are clinical, they have good experience and they have players who are good on the ball."
"Their pace on the left-hand side in particular and the quality of the likes of McManus and Blair Yule made the difference."
"They gave us a lot of problems down the left and overall, they were better than us. There is no shame in saying that. They are going for the title and they were sharper than us all over the park. That is the first time that has happened in a while where we have been second best that way."
Sharp was enraged by the dismissal of Jack Maclean after the Nairn youngster appeared to win the ball before making contact with Daniel Park.
"I have no complaints about the result but a few about the decisions," the manager declared.
"I could not understand Jack Maclean's sending off. He played the ball and it was as clear as it could be but the boy then went down and Jack was sent off."
"It was a genuine, clean challenge and it is not as if he has deliberately played the boy - he has won the ball cleanly and then the boy has gone over him and there was no way Jack could have avoided that. He took the ball and if the ref was on the wrong side then the linesman had to get involved because he had a clear view of it."
He added: "I was not sure about the decision to award them a penalty but at both ends, they looked pretty soft."
"These decisions do not take away from the mistakes that we made though. We gifted them three goals. For their third goal, Dylan (Maclean) was caught in no man's land and then for their fourth, the ball has come from the right and gone through everybody. We have not made a lot of mistakes lately and today they all seemed to come in the one game."
"I thought we had the better half chances in the first half but we were 2-0 down. We lost the first one from us attacking them and losing the ball on the edge of their box and then five passes later, it was in the back of our own net. That was the type of goal we were losing early in the season."
Nairn battled on in spite of adversity, netting twice following Maclean's dismissal, including in the final minute of the 90 as they once again kept pushing until the end.
"That is one thing we have never had a problem with," Sharp stated. "None of the boys are going to give up and I thought that we battled on well. Wayne scored a good goal and we won the penalty late on, which came from a great run by Gary Kerr. There were good signs from us in the game but we were beaten by the better team."
Mackintosh now enjoys his Testimonial Dinner / Dance with an announcement due imminently regarding his forthcoming testimonial match.
Sharp paid tribute to his skipper as he said: "Wayne has been a fantastic servant for the club. I have only managed him this season but I knew him well before that and he has surprised me with how good a player he is. Technically on the ball, physically on the ball and football brain - he is an exceptional footballer."
"I have only had him for about six months and hopefully we will have him for longer. From watching him on the sidelines over the years, he has always been a very good player for Nairn but now I have worked with him, I have seen that he is at a level that I did not expect him to be at. I think he has been superb this season, especially technically and his goals tally helps to tell you that."
"He is now in a team that is not as expensive and gifted as the one he will have been used to playing in over the last few years - although there is no reason why we will not be as good as them, if not better, over the coming years - but he has still shown his class in games this season and he has been a fantastic servant to the club and I cannot fault him at all."