THE under-20s went out of the Football Times Cup at St Duthus but not without a fight as they went down by two goals to nil to the North Caledonian League's early pacesetters.
The Tain-based hosts led 1-0 at the break with Lewis Ross netting to give them a half time advantage at their picturesque Links Park home.
The County colts competed well after the break but could not find a way through the miserly St Duthus back line and after throwing bodies forward in search of a late equaliser, the visitors were stung at the other end by a killer second in injury time.
Injuries ruled out Jack W. Maclean and Aaron Fraser while Callum Ednie, Craig Munro and Max Ewan were all on first team duty and Craig McDermott and Sam Gordon had work commitments. It meant there were first competitive under-20s starts for Josh Millard and Sandy Main while Ryan MacBean and Matty Macleod also returned to the starting line-up.
The Saints looked to utilise the long throw-in and centre forward Miller Mackay's wholesome frame as much as possible. And that led to the first opening of the match eight minutes in with Liam Rostock launching a shy that was nodded back to him by Mackay but the former Brora Rangers striker blasted the shot that followed over the crossbar.
Mackay then squared the ball across from the left for Adam MacDonald but on the slide, he poked past the near post from six yards to let the visitors off the hook.
For Nairn, Seamus McConaghy saw his 20-yard effort held by St Duthus stopper Steven Martin and that saw County grow in confidence, with Sam Campbell then firing just over the bar from 18 yards on 25 minutes.
Mackay beat County goalkeeper Fraser Wilkie to a long pass at the edge of the box as he nodded the ball wide of the out-rushing Nairn number one but from a tight angle, the Tain striker saw his low shot deflected behind by the sliding Euan Wheeler.
But it was St Duthus who found the opener as momentum swung back their way just after half-an-hour. A low Rostock corner was not dealt with at the front post, with the ball allowed to travel all the way through to Lewis Ross, with the former Clachnacuddin and Brora Rangers forward blasting beyond Wilkie from six yards.
Wilkie had to be alert to deny Rostock shortly afterwards before Will Ross headed over the bar as Tain looked to turn the screw.
Rory Patience played Rostock through in the second half but Wilkie stood up well to make the block before Matty Macleod fired just over the crossbar at the other end from 15 yards out on 68 minutes.
Nairn were breaking on the hosts well with the St Duthus defence struggling to live with the pace of their young opponents. One such move saw McConaghy advance into the Tain half 15 minutes from time in a 3-on-2 but he was chopped down by a crude challenge from Rostock, which earned the first booking of the game and bailed his team mates out.
Both Mackay and MacDonald drew saves from Wilkie before County had a great chance to notch a leveller on 87 minutes. Some great footwork from Ryan MacBean saw him evade a couple of challenges before slipping a pass into the path of Macleod, who had timed his run to stay onside. He was in behind the St Duthus defence and advanced in on the goalkeeper from the right but his shot across goal trundled past the far post.
Nairn were left to rue that miss as St Duthus secured the win in injury time. With County throwing bodies forward, Cameron Maclean was harshly judged to have conceded a free kick wide on the right as he was too strong for the Tain player and won the ball back. The resulting set piece was cleared but it was Rory Patience who was first to the loose ball. And he arrowed a shot goalwards, which beat Wilkie with the aid of a slight deflection.
Nairn coach Stuart Finnie said: "The boys acquitted themselves well over the piece and worked hard. They have done that for the last two games now after a disappointing opening league fixture and it is important that they maintain that throughout the season."
"We have come up here with a depleted squad with seven players who play regularly missing out but the players who came in gave it their all."
"We always knew that it was going to be difficult physically coming up here with a team made up mainly of 16 and 17 year olds and St Duthus were always going to be dominant in that aspect of the game. But I felt that we played well when we got the ball down and knocked it about like we work on in training."
"We hurt them with the pace of our attacking players but we were just lacking something in the final third. Our decision-making with when to take on a shot or when to play in a cross or when to look for that killer pass was what let us down in an attacking sense but that will come with time."
He added: "I was disappointed with the way we played in the first half and the sloppy nature of the goal that we lost and I let the players know that at half time. We picked up a couple of injuries too and that did not help later in the game when we had players running on empty and we were looking to change it to find an equaliser."
"In the second half, we came out and gave as good as we got but St Duthus were happy to see the game out and the experience in their team meant that they were able to manage the game the way they wanted it."
"We did have a great chance to level it late on but unfortunately, Matty Macleod put it wide. We then switched to four up front to try to force it to penalties and were undone at the other end but that is just the way it goes sometimes - I would have regretted it if we had not gone for it and came away having lost 1-0."
One of the injuries saw a competitive under-20s debut for Tyler Eadie off the subs bench.
Finnie said: "For someone who has not long turned 16 and is still playing in the under-17s team, I thought Tyler did really well in the 70 or so minutes he was on the park. We drafted him into the squad late on because of the number of players we had out and considering he has never trained with the boys and hardly knows any of them, he acquitted himself well and he can be proud of how he played. I hope this gives him a taste for it and he can kick on from here with the under-17s. I would certainly have no qualms about using him again in the under-20s if he keeps progressing."
He added: "I have always said we are more interested in the development of the players than the results and they will have learned a lot from that game today. A few of them are really starting to kick on and I am sure they will be knocking on the first team door shortly."
"I would just like to thank St Duthus for their hospitality and welcome here to Tain today. They have a great setup and great people here running the club. I wish them well for the next round and the rest of the season and hopefully our paths will cross again."
St Duthus - Martin, Sutherland, MacDonald, Macleod, Skiner, Morrison (E. Ross 66), W. Ross (Webster 70), Patience, Mackay (Fraser (yellow 84)), Rostock (y 75), Ross (Skinner 55).
Nairn County U20s - Wilkie, Payne (Eadie 23), Wheeler, Cameron Maclean (yellow 90), Millard (Tweedie 43 (y 82)), Cuthbert (Geddes 77), S. Main, McConaghy, MacBean, M. Macleod, Campbell. Subs unused: Colliar, Stewart (gk).