Dylan Mackenzie hauled Nairn County out of jail at Strathspey Thistle as his injury time winner secured the three points despite a turgid first half showing from the visitors.
Craig Mackenzie opened the scoring for Thistle and they more than deserved their lead at the break after what was one of our poorest displays in recent memory.
But we kept at it in the second half and slowly ground Strathspey down, with Conor Gethins netting an equaliser before Mackenzie headed home the winner two minutes after the 90 were up.
Ronnie Sharp made three changes to his team as Conor Gethins, Sam Gordon and Liam Shewan returned to the starting line-up with John Treasurer injured and Seamus McConaghy and Mackenzie dropping down to the bench.
With Strathspey’s Ashley Ballam sustaining a concussion during the match, McConaghy made a small piece of club history as our first ever additional concussion sub when he was sent on after Sharp had made all three of his standard regulation changes. The teams were:
Nairn County – Dylan Maclean, Sam Gordon, Callum Ednie (Ben Williamson 46), Adam Porritt, Ryan Fyffe, Glenn Main, Rory Williamson (Tom Maclennan 46), Ciaran Young (Dylan Mackenzie 62), Conor Gethins, Scott Davidson (Seamus McConaghy 83), Liam Shewan. Subs unused: Angus Dey, Lewis Mitchell, Will Counsell (gk).
Strathspey Thistle – Robert Donaldson, Kane Davies, Stephen Rennie, Craig Mackenzie, Jake Thomson, James Fraser (yellow 30), Cameron Lisle (Ethan Cairns 80), Kris Duncan, Ashley Ballam (y 40) (Andrew Maclean 72), Ewan Neil, Kieran Chalmers (y 65). Subs unused: Andrew Skinner, Joe Cuthbert, Fraser Russell, Liam McDade, Michael MacCallum (gk).
It was a first half where the defence was at sixes and sevens, the midfield was dominated by the Jags middle men and the front line failed the fire but it could have been a different story as we created the first opening of the match. Ryan Fyffe played a raking, straight pass forward down the inside right channel that was controlled by the lively Ciaran Young. He then pulled the ball back to the on-rushing Scott Davidson but the striker wrapped his right-footed shot from 12 yards out at the front post into the side netting.
A mix-up between out-rushing goalkeeper, Dylan Maclean and the back-tracking Callum Ednie nearly presented Strathspey with the opener on 13 minutes. Neither took control of the situation as a long ball forward bounced up at the edge of the penalty area, allowing the lurking Jake Thomson to stick a foot in and roll it goalwards. But unluckily for the on-loan attacker, the ball came back off the post.
That only delayed the opener by five minutes though and again we were the architects of our own downfall. Cameron Lisle caused damage down the Strathspey right throughout the first half and when he won a throw-in in an attacking area, he quickly grabbed the ball and tossed it back into play as our defence switched off. That allowed Kieran Chalmers the time to deliver an inviting cross and although it was cleared, the impressive Craig Mackenzie was unmarked at the edge of the penalty area, which meant that he had the time and space to take a touch before picking his spot beyond Maclean from 20 yards.
Just a few minutes later, Strathspey were in again as Thomson went around the advancing Maclean to the left of goal and this time, only a goal-saving block by the sliding Adam Porritt prevented the wide man from doubling Thistle’s advantage.
A rare piece of attacking quality from the visitors in an otherwise wretched first half saw Young play a 40-yard diagonal over the head of Jags defender Ashley Ballam and into the path of Liam Shewan. But his delivery was screened at the near post by Ewan Neil.
The diagonal pass out to Lisle on the Strathspey right was giving the hosts no end of joy and on 28 minutes, James Fraser sprayed the ball on to the boot of Lisle and he smashed a first time volley from the angle 10 yards out but Maclean was equal to it as he got his body behind the ball to hold it at the near post.
The visitors were relieved to get in at the break just the one goal down and Sharp wrung the changes as he hauled off Ednie and Rory Williamson with Tom Maclennan and Ben Williamson introduced after injury ahead of schedule.
The second 45 saw us limit Strathspey to very little in an attacking sense as we took more of a grip of the match in the middle of the park, allowing us far more possession in the final third of the park. And we nearly levelled on 63 minutes.
Thistle could not get Maclennan’s corner kick cleared and Gethins showed the composure to roll the ball back into the path of the unmarked Fyffe. But his effort from 15 yards was at a nice height for Strathspey goalkeeper Robert Donaldson to gather.
A crucial save by Maclean kept the deficit at just one shortly afterwards as the County goalkeeper reacted well to make a block after Ballam diverted a ball into the box towards goal from close range.
Davidson’s powerful running was beginning to cause the Thistle defence increasing problems and on 66 minutes, he was wiped out just outside the penalty area by Kieran Chalmers, leading to a caution for the Strathspey man. Davidson himself stepped up to the free kick just to the right of goal and clipped it up and over the wall with his left foot. Donaldson manage to get a fingertip to it to divert it on to the crossbar but Conor Gethins was the first to react to the dropping ball as he nodded home from close range to level it up.
We looked to push on from there and a quick break by Dylan Mackenzie down the left channel saw him outmuscle Andrew Maclean to beat the defender to a through pass. He then managed to square the ball along the 18-yard line for Gethins, who worked it to his right for the on-charging Davidson. But the striker was shepherded towards the by-line by Neil, which tightened up the angle for a shot and resulted in the forward blasting into the side netting.
Sam Gordon then burst forward on 81 minutes and played the ball infield to Davidson, who worked it on to Maclennan but from 18 yards, he could only guide his shot into the welcoming arms of Donaldson and another chance was gone as the minutes ticked by.
But just when it appeared as if all hope of a win had gone, we grabbed the victory with the last attack of the match two minutes into injury time. Tom Maclennan’s deliveries had been on the money throughout the second half and when he whipped over a corner from the right, fellow substitute Mackenzie rose like the proverbial salmon to meet it with a towering header which crashed beyond Donaldson via the underside of the crossbar. The referee and farside assistant took a split second to decide that the ball was definitely over the line but the linesman flagged to signal the goal and we were ahead for the first time in the match a mere 30 seconds from its conclusion.
The Jags protested the decision to allow the goal on the final whistle and the debate raged as the players and backroom teams trudged off but ultimately, the view of referee Duncan Nicolson – who was probably the most impressive operator on the park – is the only one that mattered and we made our way back across the Dava with three vital points.