(photo courtesy of The Press and Journal)
After the COVID-19 lockdown brought football season 2019/2020 to a grinding halt, the Highland League Clubs sensibly came to the unanimous decision to call time on the league programme for that season and declared Brora Rangers champions. It was a fair and practical way to manage a difficult situation but it did leave some unfinished business in it’s wake: the Utilita Energy SHFL (Morganti) Cup had reached the semi final stage and the only valid way for it to come to a successful conclusion was to play out the remaining 3 ties (two semis and the final) to find a winner.
The four teams left in the competition were, Brora Rangers, Buckie Thistle, Formartine United and Rothes. This semi was drawn to be played at North Lodge Park with the winners to face the winners of the tie between Brora and Buckie. There were still major COVID restrictions in force for these games and they were played in the rather ghostly atmosphere of “behind closed doors” with only players, officials and masked committee members of each club in attendance. A welcome innovation was that these games were available to view online as live streams.
Ironically the last time these teams had played a formal SHFL game was against each other when Rothes had run out 2-0 winners. Rothes were the first to show when a break from halfway by MacKenzie to feed Sutherland produced a reaction save by Main to beat the ball away for a corner. The opening ten minutes or so saw some slight territorial advantage for the visitors who had marginally the better of possession and forced a couple of corners neither of which offered any apparent threat to Main’s goal. United showed some threat down each flank as Smith and Crawford respectively began to pressure the home rearguard. A ball whipped in from the right by the former all but played in Gethins whose presence at the back stick threatened keeper McCarthy before the ball bobbled past the base of the upright. A thirty yard free kick by Anderson flustered the Rothes defence but Gethins’ finishing effort was dragged a yard wide left of target.
There was very little in it during the first half: Rothes probably shaded the possession statistics and Main was marginally the busier of the keepers but Formartine’s ability to build from the back with decent pass and move football caused periods of anxiety in the visiting ranks. The contest in the middle between Milne and Wood was not for the faint hearted but the goalless interval outcome reflected two well matched sides neither of which had kicked a ball in anger for seven months.
United ramped up the pressure after the interval and quickly had Rothes pinned back in their own territory at the village end. They struggled to contain the strong direct runs of Daniel Park and Graeme Rodger demanded more and more of Brown and Robertson. A ball driven across the box by Smith brought loud, albeit optimistic, claims for a penalty when it appeared to rebound from a Rothes hand but Rothes were weathering what was an increasing storm of United pressure. The home back line had advanced to halfway and McKeown had installed himself just outside the home box. This sustained pressure paid off as Wood outmuscled Milne to slip the ball inside to PARK who drove it hard and low past McCarthy from 18 yards in the 70th minute. United looked to be in control and sustained pressure in the 74th minute saw Rodger who swivelled to launch a ferocious 15 yard volley that McCarthy did well to block.
It was looking good for Formartine as subs Lisle, Smith and Greig helped sustain the pressure. Lisle dithered enough in front of a near empty goal to let Stark prevent the shot. A fierce downward header by Crawford brought a vital save from McCarthy in the 84th minute almost immediately before sub Gunn’s cross was nudged over by Cormack to SUTHERLAND who drove the ball home from about 15 yards out with three minutes left
Formartine’s fat was fairly in the fire now. But some desperate goal mouth scrambles failed to prevent extra time being needed. The late equaliser gave the momentum back to Rothes who quickly capitalised by nicking what turned out to be the winner in the second minute of extra time. Gunn threaded one through to CORMACK who headed directly towards the right corner of the box. Main advanced but the midfielder judged his finish well to slide the ball past him and ultimately win the tie.
Formartine fought back but found Rothes in backs to the wall mode and hard to penetrate. WIth eight or more behind the ball they left Cormack free to shuttle any free balls forward to counter attack and 3-1 began to look as likely as 2-2. United came tragically close to winning this one but two late lapses in concentration cost them dearly.
Formartine United: Main, Crawford, S.Smith, S.Anderson (J.Smith 64), McKeown, Kelly, Rodger, Gethins (Greig 64), Wood, Norris (Lisle 75), Park. Subs: Strachan, J.Smith, Lawrence, C.Anderson, Greig, Lisle, Ellis
Rothes: S.McCarthy, Stark, Johnstone, Brown, (Gunn 77) Milne, Robertson, Cormack, Pollock, Kerr (Maley 77), Sutherland, MacKenzie. Subs: Gunn, Neil, Anderson, Maley, D.McCarthy