Highland Amateur Cup heartbreak for Lochs

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Football can change in the blink of an eye. A couple of seconds can alter the destiny of a trophy, boot a club’s trajectory off course and tug away at the dreams of a season like pulling threads on an old wooly jumper.

Thirty six seconds is what shattered Lochs Highland Amateur Cup dreams.

Having more than held their own in a see-saw first-half, Lochs were caught cold at the start of the second and within 36-seconds of the restart they were a goal down. Chasing the game, chasing the holders and chasing their own cup hopes.

Having won the trophy both last season and in 2013, no one in the maroon camp was in any doubt over the pedigree of Wick Groats - an opponent whom were always expected to pose a stiff and difficult challenge.

But reflecting on the semi-final Lochs will know this was a match they ‘could’ have won. Perhaps not ‘should’ have won as there was so very little between the teams on the day that it always seemed like a single goal could tip the scales either way.

But they certainly ‘could’ have won it. The winning goal was the type of goal which it is very difficult to stop. Nobody in maroon to blame, no errors, no lack of effort, just carved open by good football and terrifying pace.

Wick nicked the ball from Lochs, shifted it wide to the right to their No.7 who was quicker than Usain Bolt on motorbike. He galloped into space leaving scorch marks in his wake before whipping in an early cross which was met at the near post on the volley by Sandy Sutherland leaving Lochs keeper James Macleod with no chance to react.

It was to prove the difference between the sides on the day in Golspie but Lochs will also look back on a number of chances of their own to net and to possibly take the tie to extra-time.

The closest Lochs came was, as so often this season, from Jim O’Donnell’s forehead as he rose highest, seeming to hang in the air until the ball thundered off his head and towards goal.

The Lochs supporters were on their feet, eyes straining towards goal, fists clenched but the Wick keeper flung himself to his left to make an excellent save.

O’Donnell sent another header narrowly wide while Andy Murray and John ‘Uig’ Morrison both had efforts from the edge of the box.

As football so often proves, the team chasing the match will always get ONE glorious opportunity. gilt-edged sight of goal will fall before the final peep of the referee’s whistle.

This match was no exception and in the first minute of time added on at the end of the 90 when Peter Mackenzie’s physicality, direct running and power bludgeoned through the Wick defence on the right. The ball fell inside the box to Murray who swung his left boot at the ball, directing it goalwards but unfortunately too close to the keeper who dived to his right and smothered the ball.

Wick carved out the game’s first opening with a blistering turn of pace setting them stampeding clear on the left. The Wick winger had the opportunity to take aim and fire at James Macleod but instead tried to hook the ball across the box where the sole maroon shirt in the vicinity, Andy Murray, was able to clear the danger.

Moments later and another passage of play resulted in Macleod scooping the ball up with both gloves before the young keeper was caught so late and so over the top by a Wick attacker who seemed hellbent on leaving his mark on the goalie. His tackle was so over the top he almost took James’ fillings out and it was a straight red card for sure due to the intent and recklessness of the challenge.

But with the game in its infancy it is understandable why the referee was reluctant to show red but for the Wick man to not even receive a yellow was strange.

Although Lochs are two time winners of this competition this was their first semi-final appearance in six seasons and they showed a little nerves, particularly in defence with Macleod making a hash of a clearance which fell straight to a Wick player and a couple of under cooked back passes from his defenders which put the side under pressure.

Gradually Lochs shook the nerves from their limbs with the rampaging midfield warrior Robert Mackenzie rattling through the gears for a trademark run up the left beyond players and to the by-line where his cut back had no takers making a near post dash.

Wick enjoyed most of the ball in good areas in the first-half as Lochs attempts to hit Don ‘Lava’ Macleod and Jim O’Donnell with repeated long balls were easily mopped up by the Wick centre-halfs who swatted everything away as if they were the Pillars of Hercules.

Lochs did conjure up one good chance with some slick interchangeable passing and moving as David Macmillan and O’Donnell teamed up to create a chance for ‘Lava’ who had a sight of goal from 10-yards but the club’s record goalscorer fired straight down the keeper’s throat.

The two sides headed into the bowels of Golspie’s King George V park deadlocked with nothing between them.

But that all changed within 36-seconds of the restart as Wick fired the ball in the net with a speedy counter.

To Lochs’ eternal credit they refused to buckle or yield having gone a goal down and for the remainder of the tie it was them who hogged the ball and who took the game to their opponents.

A 40-yard run up the left by Andy Murray in which he twisted the Wick right-back inside out resulted in the ball breaking to John ‘Uig’ Morrison - lurking outside the box - and his shot wasn’t far wide of the upright.

Just after the hour mark and Murray was again the orchestrator of Lochs forward advances with a cross to Jim O’Donnell who rose majestically but could only watch on in agony as his header was blocked at the near post by the Wick No.1.

O’Donnell, who is scored 30-goals this season, had another chance with his head as he rose to meet Macmillan’s corner kick but he couldn’t get enough purchase on the header to steer it towards goal.

As time ebbed on Lochs went long ball and they peppered the Wick Groats penalty area with crosses. One such move resulted in the ball dropping to Murray in stoppage time who spun and shot into the turf and up into the keepers arms.

Peter Mackenzie was sent wide right as Lochs went for broke and his shift to a wider, more offensive role helped Lochs exert even more late pressure. While Mackenzie played most of the match at centre-back where he won headers, made interceptions and formed a formidable last line of defence. He began to make a serious offensive mark on the game after shifting to the flank.

Wick simply didn’t know how to, and couldn’t, contain his rampaging charges forward. Running directly at his opponents who backed off and allowed him to eat up the yardage while at other times out jumping and out muscling the Wick left-back when a long diagonal was sent his way.

They couldn’t handle him but even Pedro couldn’t help conjure up a goal for Lochs.

“We were a bit unfortunate to lose,” said player manager Macmillan after the match.

“We played well and came so close. Both teams were good but Wick probably had a little bit more up top than we did in terms of the way we set up. The first-half was tight and then we had a couple of chances to get back into the game in the second and I do feel that if we had been able to take one of them we might have gone on to win it as Wick looked tired towards the end.”

Lochs: James Macleod, Graeme Mackenzie, Peter Mackenzie, Donald ‘Nomie’ Macdonald, Andy Murray, Chris Macleod (Niall Houston), David Macmillan, John ‘Uig’ Morrison, Robert Mackenzie, Don ‘Lava’ Macleod (Darren ‘Cage’ Wilson), Jim O’Donnell. Subs not used: Gordon Mackenzie, Daniel ‘Nipper’ Mackenzie, David Macritchie.