Andy Dowie’s close range tap-in midway through the second half was enough to seal a first win in four matches for Caledonian Braves on a cold afternoon at Broadwood Stadium against Cumbernauld Colts.
The home side had captain Stephen O’Neill sent off after 17 minutes for a kick out on John Guthrie.
The Colts had won on two of their last three outings, their only defeat to reigning champions Kelty Hearts. Both team’s positions in the table remain unchanged with Braves staying 14th and Colts 12th, but all that matters to the Alliance Park side is that the three points was well-earned and long-awaited.
On-loan Cumnock Juniors goalkeeper Kieran Hughes retained his place between the sticks after debuting against East Kilbride in midweek, while Dowie was partnered in central defence by Alan Reid who returned to the starting XI and donned the captain’s armband again.
The match began in utterly mundane fashion. Chances were scarce, if not non-existent, and the game didn’t have the intensity you might expect for a clash between two sides desperate for a win near the foot of the table.
That was until O’Neill’s red card incident. After dribbling down the line he lost a battle for the ball with Guthrie, and committed a foul as he jostled to win back possession. After the referee’s whistle he lashed out at the Braves full back and was promptly shown the door by the man in the middle.
Despite the man advantage, it was the home side who began to see more and more of the ball in their opponent’s half.
Their preferred avenue of attack for the Colts was down thew right wing, and the man leading the charge was Billy Mortimer. Perhaps making up for his captain’s dismissal on the other flank, he persisted with pestering Jamie Walker at left full back. His endeavours down the line weren’t matched by his teammates however, forcing the winger into shots from tight angles or crosses into the box that failed to be met by the other attacking players.
It wasn’t until the 24th minute that the Braves had their first shot in anger, as Ross McNeil connected with a corner on the volley, only for it to be blocked by a Colts defender.
The home side continued to hold firm and the Braves were tentative going forward. With five minutes to go until half time they cranked it up a notch. First, Jack Smith wiggled his way into the six-yard box but couldn’t squeeze his shot on target from a tight angle before McNeil did similar on the opposite side of the box, with the same result.
Dowie and Sinclair showed a sign of what was to come when, two minutes before the interval, the towering centre half guided the midfielder’s corner back across goal with his head but it cracked off the bar. Their next act from a set piece would prove to be the decisive one.
If the Braves were slightly cautious in attack in the first half, they set out to make up for that in the second. Jamie Walker had locked up Mortimer well towards the end of the first 45 and now had ideas of bombing forward even more himself. On 50 minutes he spun away from Mortimer on the half way line and gunned down the left hand side, bursting past another man on the edge of the box before bearing down on goal. A tussle with Cameron Dickson led to penalty claims as Walker hit the deck, but the ref wasn’t interested.
Neil McLaughlin also looked dangerous as the Braves grew into the game. Minutes before the penalty shout the midfielder had tried to set up the surging Walker on the overlap but overhit the pass, and he had a shot of his own saved well by Grier from the left hand side of the box moments later.
You felt a goal was coming and it was all Braves, who were zipping the ball about with increasing confidence. However Mortimer was quick to fire a reminder to the Braves defence as he set off down the wing and found space to cross for striker Martin Wright who growled after Reid blocked his goal-bound volley just before the hour mark.
Five minutes later the importance of that intervention was amplified. The Braves were building up a nice attack on the right-hand side when Guthrie, again shining at right fullback, was the latest player to be scythed down following an escalating series of meaty challenges.
Sinclair stood over the set-piece, about 30 yards from goal and in the right half of the pitch, and with a curling ball in towards the back post a line of three Braves bodies were ready to take the honours but it was centre back Dowie who steered the bouncing ball past Jonathan Grier and into the Colts net. It wasn't pretty, but that didn't matter as the celebrations erupted.
In the 25 minutes that followed till the end of the game, the Braves pushed for a second goal but the killer instinct was lacking. The away side dominated possession and knocked the ball around creatively but the final few moments were still more nervous for manager Ricky Waddell and the rest of the Braves team than desired.
Smith and McNeil both came close to notching their third goals of the season as the Braves pressed on. Smith was first up but his effort from just inside the box curled over. A defensive ricochet fell to the feet of McNeil just inside the box with a glorious 1v1 opportunity, but Grier’s body seemed to enlarge to twice the size as he swatted away the striker’s first-time shot.
The Braves effectively set up camp in the Colts’ half for the next 15 minutes. Ventures towards the Braves box for the home side were mostly restricted to hopeful balls into the channels and set-pieces, but that shouldn’t take away from the fact they continued to look dangerous. The Braves back line had to remain alert to frustrate the hosts, with skipper Reid in particular leading that line of defence.
While a 1-0 victory against ten men may not be worth shouting about come the end of the season (although Waddell did shout loudly in relief at the full-time whistle), it represents a hard-fought three points that the Braves needed to turn recent results around.
Dowie and Reid stood resolute in the face of pressure as the central defensive pairing, particularly as time ticked away and the thought of conceding a nightmare equaliser loomed large. Walker had to be on his A-game to keep Mortimer quiet while Guthrie, who began this season playing more in central midfield, excelled once more at fullback.
The gap between the two sides at the start of the game was four points, so while the positions in the table may not have shifted, the momentum may have. Waddell and the Alliance Park outfit now have the confidence of a win behind them going into Friday’s match against 5th-placed East Stirlingshire, before a trip to Vale of Leithen who currently sit at the foot of the table.