The biggest positive United can take from this game is that the newly installed management pair of Paul Lawson and Russel Anderson have been given, with absolute clarity, a vision of the limitations of the current United side when confronted with one in serious contention for the SHFL title. In this game they were able to hold onto their coat tails for twenty minutes or so before Cove simply eased up through the gears and left their hosts eventually trailing a distant second. In terms of the individual man to man wee competitions that make up the game as a whole United more or less held their own in one or two of them while Cove simply won the rest – in some cases, hands down. The scoreline apart, the single most telling statistic is that Stuart Mackenzie, in the Cove goal never had a save of any note to make and had to wait until after half time before he had even to deal with a shot on target. Throughout the visitors were simply tougher and more street wise in too many aspects of the game and areas of the pitch than United could contain. The score line, sadly for United, was a reasonably accurate reflection of the difference in level between the teams.
United looked the part to begin with when a smart move down the left featuring Lawson, MacPhee and Smith put the visiting defence under enough pressure for Burnett to head the ball straight to Smith not far in from the left corner. The predatory wing back made himself just enough space from which to deliver a vicious drive that crashed off the far post before being hastily cleared by Milne. This should have encouraged United but the effect was more visible in the Cove ranks as they settled back into shape and began bit by bit to push their back line up the park and, ever so sightly squeeze Formartine. United for their part were at this stage, looking reasonably secure at the back where McKeown had made his first start in a competitive game in over a year.
In the tenth minute – a hint of things to come came - when Cove had pushed forward enough for centre half Watson to try his luck from thirty yards out with a big goalward dunt that was not too far over the top and a minute later there was a degree of disarray in the United goal mouth that took MacDonald snatching the ball from the toes of Masson to restore order. Pressure was mounting. United relied on longer balls from the back up to Barbour and MacPhee but the former got no cuttance whatever from Ross and the latter while doing well in holding up the ball, too often found support late to arrive.
Cove opened their account in the 28th minute: a simple enough move but well executed. Megginson had made himself a wee bit of space near the right corner of the box and clipped over a cunningly flighted dipping cross just behind McKeown. BURNETT seemed to know what was coming and nipped in behind McKeown and catching the ball on the volley, simply side footed it past the line of the advancing keeper and into the net from no more than three or four yards out. Cove are notoriously difficult to pull back once they get their noses infront and like many other sides, United found the game running away from them from that point forward.
Formartine tried manfully to get back on terms but found for all that they tried to maintain a high tempo, Cove were able to exert more influence over it than they could. Cove had the capacity to determine that the game would be played at their pace and to their pattern. This consisted of playing the ball short and squeezing the midfield hard and tight. That forced United into using longer balls forward to Barbour and MacPhee who were very closely marked. The pressure was on and it took the visitors only ten more minutes to establish a two goal advantage. A period of sustained pressure around the home penalty area increased to one within it and during an intense phase of backs to the wall defending in the home goal mouth, Dan PARK a former Formartine favourite in our Paterson days managed to squeeze the ball home from close range in the midst of the melee. From then until the interval Cove concentrated on maintaining possession and more or less killed the game in the middle. Formartine hurried and scurried but by and large were made to dance to the visitors' tune.
After the interval, United set themselves up with three at the back and Michie replacing McKeown who after three abortive come back attempts in two years, has again succumbed to injury. Whether this set up was strategic to get more of a grip in midfield, a consequence of the injury to McKeown or both is unknown but it looked reasonably promising for ten or fifteen minutes. Cove still maintained some territorial advantage but United looked comfortable enough (although being two goals adrift) at this stage. However, Cove again showed the ability to slowly tighten their grip. United attacks were infrequent and the game looked beyond them even before the league leaders got their third, utterly decisive goal. This came in the 65 minute and again was the outcome of sustained goal mouth pressure. From the inside right channel and around 25 yards out, Masson leathered one off the cross bar. The ball rebounded downwards and beyond the reach of the keeper. In the ensuing mayhem around the back stick, S. Anderson managed somehow to hit the ball to rebound again from the cross bar. MEGGINSON making a late but spectacular arrival to the party, buzzed in from the left and launched himself at the ball to deliver a perfect diving header at the back post to bullet the ball into the net for number three.
Number four simply rubbed salt into Formartine wounds. They were a spent force when Harry Milne topped a superb defensive performance with the luxury of a goal five minutes from the end. Like its predecessors, it was the result of a period of sustained pressure – nothing pretty about it – just what you get from hammering away. A Burnett drive from the edge of the box rebounded off one of a ruck of home players – probably MacPhee - and fell well for MILNE who following in on Burnett's drive collected the rebound and thumped it left-footed into the net from about 8 yards out.
From Coves perspective, this was the best possible time to get Formartine – they still have an injury crisis in defence – particularly in central defenders with Crawford, Henry and Wood (all centre backs) on the way back but not quite there. As Wood is also a centre forward this impacts up front too. McKeown – if this injury is other than a minor, temporary set back may find that his playing career is over. United will soon have more competition for places and further options in central defence and elsewhere: only then can meaningful conclusions about their overall standard be reached.
Formartine United: MacDonald, Robertson (Dingwall 68), Smith, J.Anderson, Lawson (Makintosh 82), McKeown (Michie 45), Rodger, S.Anderson, Ferries, MacPhee, Barbour. Subs Michie, Dingwall, Burnett, Berton, Lawrence, Mackintosh, Sim.
Cove Rangers: MacKenzie, Burnett, Milne, Ross (Redford 70), Watson, Kelly, Park (McManus74), Campbell, Megginson (Scully 82), Strachan, Masson. Subs: Scully, Redford, McManus, Stott, Robertson, Lawrie, McCafferty