AIDAN Stewart signed off in style for Nairn County U20s by performing penalty shootout heroics in goal to see Stuart Finnie’s young side through to the next round of the Football Times Cup on an afternoon of drama at Station Park.
Finnie’s side made history by winning their first North Caledonian League cup competition tie after defeats to St Duthus, Halkirk United and Lewis and Harris Select across three tournaments last season and a loss at Thurso the season before in the Jock Mackay Cup. But Stewart made a huge contribution between the posts to buck that trend in his final match before heading off to Heriot-Watt University by repelling two St Duthus spot-kicks as Nairn progressed 4-3 on penalties after a topsy-turvy 3-3 draw.
Finnie said: “It took us a bit of time to settle into the game and we had to change formation but once we did that, we were much better. We were getting lots of joy from wide in behind them as they were struggling with our pace and our goals were well-taken.
“We limited them to mostly long-range efforts but we lost a poor goal just before half-time after being 2-0 up and Aidan was gutted at half-time but he had the last laugh by saving the two penalties.
“In the second half, we huffed and puffed and did not have much urgency until we went 3-2 down. The goals we lost were poor as well but we immediately freshened it up with three subs and after the third goal, we looked a lot more dangerous, scoring another good goal through Ian Payne.
“Even after that, I still thought we could win and would have been confident going into extra time with the way we finished the game but it went straight to penalties, which are always a lottery and to be fair to our boys, they had good composure and stuck them away confidently. Then, Aidan became the hero saving two of their penalties.
"The boys were delighted to get the opportunity to play on Station Park in a Saturday afternoon match and on behalf of all of them, I would like to thank the club for allowing us to host the game here and for all of the effort that went in behind the scenes to make it a success with very limited manpower due to the first team also having a game away at Buckie.
“All in all, we are delighted to go through against a good team and it is another good step forward for us. There is still much to improve on and we will keep at it but the boys are delighted and it is good to see as we put a lot into the game. Tonight, we are proud of them and I hope they enjoy the moment but come Tuesday night at training, we put it behind us and we begin preparing for our next match.”
Stewart was only involved because regular goalkeeper Fraser Wilkie was on the bench for the first team at Buckie Thistle with Dylan Maclean on the injury list. First team regular Jack Maclean came in for a game as he continues his return from injury in the only other change from Tuesday night’s friendly at Burghead Thistle. Sam Campbell made way and was on the bench.
St Duthus settled well but it was Nairn who called the opposing goalkeeper into action first with Ciaran Young turning and shooting goalwards only to be denied by Danny McCarthy.
The hosts struggled to get a grip of the game and were forced into an early tactical rejig with St Duthus pinning the home side back. Cameron Mackintosh fired just over the crossbar from a foot inside the box on 19 minutes after Stewart had got down well to his left to make an impressive save shortly before.
A minute later, Stewart was again called into action, this time diving to his right to make a save off Iain Ross’s effort before scooping the ball up as the arriving St Duthus forwards looked to capitalise.
Nairn looked to use the pace of their attackers to run in behind the St Duthus defence and after looking dangerous with several breaks forward, they found an opener on 26 minutes.
Cameron Maclean did well to win a 50/50 tackle just inside the St Duthus half before feeding Lewis Mitchell. He lofted a delightful diagonal pass forward and out to the left for Ryan MacBean to run infield on to. The attacker stroked a low shot goalwards with his right foot and although it was parried by McCarthy, Ciaran Young was first on the scene to knock in the rebound.
And Nairn’s joy was doubled as they added a second goal just four minutes later. This time, Tyler Eadie was the architect with an excellent pass from the right touchline just inside the Nairn half which picked out Ryan MacBean as he made a diagonal run in from the left. He then chested the ball down superbly to take him across the St Duthus centre half and in on goal before coolly stroking the ball under McCarthy.
Stewart had to get down well to his right to keep out Finn As-Chainey’s effort as St Duthus looked for a way back into the tie on 34 minutes. And the visitors were gifted a goal two minutes before the break with a corner kick from the left flighted in by Iain Ross slipping through Stewart’s hands and dropping into the net in the stopper’s only blip of the game.
St Duthus then levelled the tie seven minutes after the break when a cross from deep on the left was headed on to the far post by Iain Ross. The attacker then reacted quickest as the ball dropped back to his feet and was scrambled home.
Nairn looked to respond on 61 minutes with Jack Maclean’s inviting delivery from the by-line on the right having to be knocked behind for a corner, which was then volleyed narrowly over the top by Euan Wheeler.
But it looked as if St Duthus had won it as they completed the turnaround 14 minutes from time with substitute Jack Lingard rising highest in the box to head home an in-swinging corner from the right with the ball crashing into the roof of the net.
Finnie immediately freshened up his midfield with a double substitution before the game restarted and then went for broke by throwing on an extra attacker three minutes later. And it paid off as the hosts rescued the tie with a last-minute equaliser through one of those substitutes.
MacBean played the ball into the path of the unmarked Ian Payne, who raced into the box from the left before despatching a low and accurate effort across McCarthy with his weaker left foot and the ball nestled in at the far post.
The tie went straight to penalties with Samuel Beeston and Cameron Mackintosh converting for St Duthus while Angus Davidson and Tyler Eadie netted for the hosts to leave make it 2-2 after two kicks each.
Stewart then saved from Lingard before Payne scored to put Nairn 3-2 up but St Duthus netted next and Jack Maclean saw his effort blocked by McCarthy to level it up at 3-3 after four penalties apiece.
Nairn won it with the last kick each though as Stewart excellently saved from Scott Miller before Ciaran Young was the coolest man in the ground to place the ball beyond the reach of McCarthy to confirm the victory and ensure a small piece of club history was made.
Samuel Beeston (St Duthus) scored
Angus Davidson (Nairn County U20s) scored
Cameron Mackintosh (St Duthus) scored
Tyler Eadie (Nairn County U20s) scored
Jack Lingard (St Duthus) saved
Ian Payne (Nairn County U20s) scored
Robbie Murray (St Duthus) scored
Jack Maclean (Nairn County U20s) saved
Scott Miller (St Duthus) saved)
Ciaran Young (Nairn County) scored
Nairn County – Stewart, Cuthbert, McDermott (Geddes 79), Robertson, Wheeler, Cameron Maclean (Davidson 76), Eadie, J. Maclean (yellow 86), MacBean, Young, Mitchell (Payne 76). Subs unused: Campbell, Cruden.
St Duthus – McCarthy, Young, Beeston, Broomfield, Beaton, Murray, Hutchinson (Lingard 56), Mackintosh, Lockett (Miller 68), Ross (Stewart 80), As-Chainey. Subs unused: Mackinnon, Fell.
Referee – Stephen McDade.