First Team

McNeil magic as ten man Braves win in Scottish Cup tie

12th December 2020

A good old-fashioned toe poke on the line from stand-in skipper Ross McNeil saw Caledonian Braves grab a deserved win to put them into the First Round Proper of the Scottish Cup, triumphing against Clachnacuddin FC at Grant Street Park in Inverness.

The Braves had to play an hour's worth of football with only ten men following left back Jamie Walker's straight red card for a heavy challenge on Michael Finnis, making the victory all the more rewarding.

Scott Forrester had put the visitors ahead with a header in the sixth minute and despite Walker's dismissal the Braves didn't look in trouble going in at half-time.

However on the hour mark Clach midfielder Martin Callum responded with a header of his own and momentum looked to be swaying towards the hosts, until McNeil popped up in the right place at the right time with 16 minutes left.

The Alliance Park side had made a 172-mile trip north for their Second Round (Prelim) tie against the Highland Leaguers, but the travel certainly hadn't effected those players as they started the brighter of the two sides.

Early pressure led to a series of corners, the second of which was dispatched at the front post by returning defender Forrester, back in the line-up after self-isolation. David Sinclair beautifully curled the ball into the perfect area at the edge of the six yard box and Forrester made no mistake.

The Braves almost made it 2-0 five minutes after the opener, when Ross McNeil made a run into the box and Lachlan looked to find him with a piercing through ball. Unfortunately they couldn't link up but Eachainn Miller stuck a leg out and very nearly directed the ball into his own net.

Despite the early goal and the early offensive mindset the Braves adopted, eventually the wet conditions put a halt to much of the exciting play. There was little of note at all until Walker's red card. Looking to stop a counter following a Braves corner the left back lunged in and appeared to leave his mark high on Finnis, and the referee needed no time to think about sending off the youngster.

Clear-cut chances were few and far between after that, owing in large to the slippy and soggy conditions underfoot at Grant Street. The host's game the weekend previous had been called off due to a waterlogged pitch, so credit to the groundsmen for getting the turf in a playable condition at all. Other than a long-range volley that skimmed wide from Derek Esplin and a darting run off the left that led to a cross-come-shot from Allan MacPhee, there was little excitement in the game as the Braves prioritised defending their lead with a man down by digging their heels in and being solid at the back. Clach struggled to breach the wall.

The Lilywhites came out for the second half with an urgency and tempo not seen in the first period and were in the ascendancy right up until their goal. The one real foray the Braves had into their opponent's box was manufactured by Blair Docherty, now operating from a deeper role following the Walker sending off. The wide man jinked down the left and looked up from the byline to see Gavin Lachlan surging into the box, but the midfielder couldn't find that all-important connection with the cutback.

Not capitalising on that attack proved costly. Callum had been pulling the strings since the restart and this time got involved in the end of an attack, as he timed his run into the box with perfection to power home a header past the outstretched arms of Kieran Hughes in the Braves goal, the ball hitting the top corner. This was the first game the Braves had played in this season where fans were present and, given they were all Clachnacuddin supporters - the noise reverberated around Grant Street as the hosts appeared to have one foot in the next round. Or so they thought.

The Braves didn't cave. Neil McLaughlin's last act before being substituted for Jack Smith was to send a warning sign that the Braves weren't going down without a fight. The midfielder's shot from outside the box looked to be heading straight for the bottom right corner but it rebounded off the post.

If McNeil's last act on the pitch was a noble effort, Smith's first moments were almost heroic. Within seconds of coming on the striker had nipped in behind the Clach back line with superb curved run, and his first time shot squirmed under goalkeeper. It looked like it was heading in but was - briefly - cleared off the line but not before McNeil was on hand to smother the clearance and poke the ball home to the delight of his teammates and the Braves bench. It was the striker's third goal of the season and another feather in his cap on a fine performance standing in for the ill Alan Reid.

That goal gave the Braves renewed energy and endeavour and in truth, Clach looked shocked and lost. They had more possession in the 15 minutes left after the goal, but failed to create a real opening. There were half-chances and faint-hearted shouts for a penalty but the Braves to a man took it all in their stride.

As the final whistle went it was a mixture of joy and relief. Perhaps more the latter, given the recent bad run of form which has the Braves one spot above the relegation places in the Lowland League - and, of course, playing for an hour today with a man down.

The Braves go buoyantly into Tuesday's six-pointer against Vale of Leithen at Alliance Park, hoping this remarkable cup win leads to a turnaround in league form with the possibility of a decent cup run too.

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