Caledonian Braves weren’t able to recover from conceding a goal in the opening minute for the second consecutive game, as league leaders East Kilbride ran out 4-1 winners at a cold K Park.
Ross McNeil made a comeback from injury just in time to make the starting XI for this game against his old club. Last season’s top marksman skippered the side and marked his return with the equaliser after Chris Erskine’s opener, before the hosts began to dominate. Braves goalkeeper Kieran Hughes, on loan from Cumnock Juniors, also made his debut.
Goals from Paul Paton and Craig Malcolm gave the Kilby a two-goal cushion going into the second half, and as the Braves chased the game the home side took advantage with substitute Darren Smith notching the fourth goal.
Facing a team flying high in the league was always going to be a challenge, and that task got tougher when Erskine struck early on from inside the box.
The home side pressed on after that and could’ve extended their lead, attacking down both flanks at pace, but crucially the Braves managed to do enough to keep it 1-0.
The Braves first chance came after that opening onslaught of pressure, on ten minutes. A terrific sliding tackle from Dom Slattery halted an EK attack midway inside his own half. The defender then clipped the ball artfully down the line for Jack Smith, who drilled a cross into the area with McNeil in the vicinity. The striker missed it by an inch as the ball flew across the goalmouth.
Another decent attack followed five minutes later as the Braves began growing into the game. This time Neil McLaughlin worked some space in the box and fired low at the near post but the keeper diverted it with his foot.
Just before McNeil’s opener the home side could’ve had that two goal cushion, as Paul Woods cut inside and rattled the post.
McNeil, who’d been looking lively, pounced on Jamie Walker’s through ball and coolly slotted home past Matthew McGinley from the edge of the penalty area. It buoyed the Braves and for the next ten minutes, the visitors pushed in search of a second and looked the more likely to score. The Braves drove at the EK goal and looked confident on the ball. The best chance fell to Smith on the half hour mark but he didn’t catch the shot cleanly from inside the box and it drifted away from goal.
The table toppers abruptly punished the Braves through captain Paton. Lewis Kidd dribbled before laying the ball back to the Norther Irishman lurking in the box who squeezed the ball low under Hughes. The Braves may have settled for going in at half time with only a goal the difference but with 40 minutes on the clock Malcolm extended that gap, bundling in Kyle Hutton’s near post header from a Kidd corner. Paton almost added a genuinely brilliant goal, juggling the ball outside the box before leaping into a bicycle kick, only to see his extravagance rewarded with a crack off the upright.
Within five minutes of the second half starting, the Braves went close twice in the space of two minutes. First, McNeil gunned down the right and saw a gap at the near post to fire one high into the roof of the net, but McGinley did well to get two hands on it. Then McLaughlin jinked into the box and forced another good save.
Nothing much of note happened for 20 minutes, other than the odd meaty challenge and a couple of efforts from Paton for the home side. Then the Braves had another quick-fire succession of chances as David Sinclair popped one at McGinley’s goal from distance before substitute Gavin Lachlan’s bursting run through the middle of the EK defence had him with an eye for goal and the ball at the perfect height for a half-volley but again McGinley stood firm.
As the Braves were chasing the game it was inevitable the danger and pace that the home side posed could come back with a vengeance, and so it was proved. Paton was again at the heart of things along with Erskine as they linked up before the latter rolled the ball into the path of Darren Smith to score with his first touch.
What gaffer Ricky Waddell and his squad can take solace from in this match is that the team didn’t throw the towel in despite going down early on once again, on a cold and wet night against a side in great form. These positives will be important for the Braves as they head into Saturday’s trip to Broadwood Stadium to face Cumbernauld Colts.