Written by Graeme MacLeod December 31st 2023

We started the year with an away local derby match at Clachnacuddin. The Lilywhites’ Grant Street home had not been the happiest of hunting grounds for us but all that was to change in 2023.

First half goals from Andrew Greig and Ciaran Young secured a first away league win at the Merkinch ground since November 2014 as we cruised to a 2-0 success. It was also a debut for Aidan Cruickshank, who came in on loan from Elgin City.

Banks O’Dee’s first ever Highland League visit to Station Park ended in defeat for the visitors with a Ross Tokely rocket – later voted our goal of the season – a curling effort from Greig and a fine counter-attacking move rounded off by Kenny McKenzie securing another three points.

Buckie Thistle were 3-1 victors at Station Park the following week despite Tokely opening the scoring from the penalty spot before the defender again converted from 12 yards in a credible 2-2 draw at Fraserburgh.

Midfielder Kenny MacInnes joined on loan from Elgin City in time to debut in the 2-0 home win over Lossiemouth courtesy of goals from Young and Conor Gethins.

Liam Shewan moved to Rothes before January was out and February started with a 1-1 draw at Strathspey Thistle with Fraser Dingwall rescuing a share of the spoils, before a battling, goalless home draw with eventual champions, Brechin City the following week.

Manager Steven Mackay became the first player to score in four different decades for the club with his last-minute winner away at Wick Academy on February 18th with Gussie Dey also on target in a 2-1 win.

Inverness CT defender Matthew Strachan was added to the squad on loan but back-to-back away defeats at Inverurie Locos and Rothes followed before we bounced back with a 2-0 home win over Huntly on Team Hamish Day at Station Park, Strachan opening his account in senior football following Gethins’ 199th goal for the club to make sure of the three points. Midfielder Ally Gillies arrived from Clachnacuddin and debuted in that win over Huntly.

A tough run of away fixtures at Brora Rangers, Brechin City and Buckie Thistle all within a week yielded no points before more club history was made on April 1st and the home 2-2 draw with Keith. Gethins’ second half penalty earned a point and with it, a place in the record books as only the second ever Nairn County player to reach 200 goals for the club, alongside the great Davy Johnston.

Gethins was at it again as he scored the only goal of the game in the home win over Clachnacuddin before we rounded off the season with away victories at Turriff United and Deveronvale to finish seventh in the league table.

The end of the season saw Gordon McNab, Seamus McConaghy, Lewis Mitchell and Calum Howarth not offered new contracts while Cruickshank, MacInnes and Strachan returned to their parent clubs. Goalkeeper Lewis Munro’s loan became a permanent deal, though.

He arrived from Inverness CT along with Scotland Schoolboy internationals, Jamie Carnihan and Aaron Nicolson. Tyler Eadie and Owen MacDonald were promoted from the Reserves Team, Ben Kelly was signed from Invergordon and George Robesten and Andrew Macleod arrived on loan from Ross County until January.

Nathan Grant and Rory Williamson were allowed to join Nairn St Ninian while Stephen Rennie was sold to Inverness Athletic. Off the park, Kai Logan and Stephen Laurie joined the club’s Management Committee.

An injury time winner for Brora Rangers at Station Park ensured it was a disappointing start to the season and a 3-0 reverse at Banks O’Dee made it back-to-back defeats.

Gethins scored the only goal of the game at Wick Academy as we knocked the Scorries out of the Highland League (Morganti) Cup in the preliminary round but defeats to Rothes and Brechin City left us with no points – and no goals – after four league games.

We then went out of the Highland League (Morganti) Cup at Keith despite Fraser Dingwall and Andrew Macleod finding the net in a 3-2 defeat and when Lossiemouth came back from 2-0 down to level our North of Scotland Cup tie at Station Park, a second cup elimination in four days was on the card.

That was until Macleod’s free kick winner saw us into the quarter finals and sparked a run of just two defeats in 18 games to the end of the year.

We picked up our first league points with a 4-1 home win over Strathspey Thistle before repeating the same scoreline away at Lossiemouth the following week.

Forres Mechanics were thrashed 5-0 at Mosset Park in the North of Scotland Cup before Inverurie Locos succumbed to a 4-0 league defeat at Station Park.

We went out of the Scottish Cup at the First Round stage in a narrow 2-1 reverse at Broxburn Athletic then were beaten heavily in a 6-0 defeat at Buckie Thistle but 3-2 and 3-1 wins over Keith and Deveronvale respectively set us up nicely for our North of Scotland Cup semi final with Inverness CT on October 18th, our first semi final appearance since 2016.

Despite being under the cosh for the majority of the first half, Tokely’s dinked finish put us ahead at half time before Mackay headed a second shortly after the break to put us in dreamland.

Two late Inverness CT goals appeared to have pulled the rug from under us though as the Championship side forced a penalty shootout. After five successful conversions apiece with Macleod, Dey, Tokely, Gillies and Young all netting from 12 yards for us, it was on to sudden death. Robesten and Mackay were also on target before Dylan Maclean saved Zak Delaney’s spot kick, to spark jubilant scenes among the large crowd which had turned out to cheer the team on.

Before the final, we added another six points to the league tally with home wins over Wick Academy and Turriff United while the second top goalscorer in our history, Conor Gethins, departed to take over as the new manager of Clachnacuddin.

The big cup final rolled around on November 12th but it looked set to end in disaster as Premiership Ross County raced into an early two-goal lead through Alex Samuel’s double.

However, Nicolson swept the ball home just after the half-hour to give us a foothold in the tie and when the young striker lashed home his second on the stroke of half time, it was game on again.

A dominant start to the second half was rewarded with Nicolson netting from the penalty spot to put as ahead 20 minutes after the break, becoming just the second player to score a Nairn County cup final hat trick after the aforementioned Johnston.

Just when it looked as if our 11-year wait for silverware was about to end, Calum Brown scrambled home a Ross County equaliser in the sixth minute of injury time to leave us floored once again.

As the tie progressed into extra time though, we bounced back in the best possible fashion with Ben Kelly’s superb strike putting us back in front and although Samuel completed his hat trick to make it 4-4 in the 100th minute, the stage was set for Sam Gordon to be the hero as he headed home the winner on 104 minutes to finally settle what was probably the greatest North of Scotland Cup final of all time and give everyone associated with the club a day we will never forget.

Macleod’s injury time penalty kick saw us beat Forres Mechanics 2-1 the following week with Callum Maclean then scoring the only goal of the game away at Clachnacuddin before Jamie Carnihan’s late winner at Wick Academy completed a run of three wins in a week.

Young winger Calum Mackay had joined on loan after the cup semi final and he scored his first goal for the club in the comeback draw with Banks O’Dee. Tokely had put us ahead but with the visitors leading 3-1 going into the closing stages at Station Park, it looked like the unbeaten run would come to an end. But Mackay struck to give us hope before another late, late show from Macleod salvaged a point and kept the unbeaten run in tact.

A convincing display at Rothes on December 30th saw us end the year with a win as both Tokely and Macleod made it two goals in as many games while Nicolson made it two in three. This ensure we ended the year with 15 victories and one draw from our last 18 games, stretching back to August and leaving us sixth in the Highland League table as we prepare to toast the Bells.

Many thanks for all your support throughout the year and best wishes for 2024 from everyone at Nairn County FC.

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