TO lose any cup final is a bitter pill to swallow but to lose one on the lottery of penalty kicks is even harder to take.
Penalty shoot-outs are the unpopular, miserable toads of football. Miserable, derided and universally disliked little creatures which often see precious and prestigious football silverware decided.
Countless managers, supporters and players have vented their wrath, disgust and all-too-often pain at seeing a prized trophy, they were convinced they deserved, yanked out of their grasp by the 12-yard lottery.
This week the heroic Nicolson Institute Senior Girls football team joined that list of teams.
For 80-minutes they battled, and for the most part, bested their opponents from Boroughmuir in Edinburgh, creating the better and more clear cut goalscoring chances.
But ultimately the goalless draw in the sunlit Grant Street Park in Inverness forced the match, the showpiece occasion for our footballing schoolgirls across the entire country, to be settled by a battle of nerves and luck.
Disappointingly Lady Luck deserted her Hebridean sisters this time around as Kathleen Mackay and Amanda Nicolson both failed to convert from the spot whereas all four of Boroughmuir’s efforts nestled in the net.
The agony was evident on the faces of the players, parents and teachers who travelled far and wide to support the girls. For four of the starting line-up it was their final chance to lift the Scottish Cup as they now leave school at the end of term but a remarkable tally of seven of the starters in the final are still in fourth year so could have another two attempts at getting their hands on the Holy Grail of schoolgirls football.
One of the seven is Eleanor Smith who produced an incredible performance in the final. Operating at half capacity after injuring a ham-string inside the opening ten minutes she was still streets ahead of anything Boroughmuir could throw at her.
Time and time again she snuffed out the danger with minimum fuss, consistently making the right decisions, being in the right place at the right time, and understanding the game with the kind of anticipation which meant that even while nursing an injury she was rarely ruffled.
The Nicolson should have taken the lead after 130-seconds when a clearance from Amanda Nicolson split the flat-footed Boroughmuir back line where Beth Macleod charged clean through on goal.
She let fly from the edge of the box, putting her laces through the ball for a well struck connection but she dragged her shot narrowly wide.
Three minutes later the Nicolson had a second chance when a well-worked short corner resulted in Nicole Maclean sending a cross in for the unmarked Lorna Latimir but she got her header all wrong and sent it back into the penalty area.
It was all Nicolson pressure in the early going as Christie Houston supplied a long, raking ball for Beth Macleod to once again scarper clear.
The Boroughmuir keeper came out and should have scooped the ball up but inexplicably let it run by her. Macleod chased the ball and reached it near the by-line and her drive across goal was deflected out for another corner.
Cirsty Gillies had hardly had the chance to get her gloves dirty in the opening 20-minutes but she was finally called into action when a short corner, and dummy on the edge of the box, led to a sclaffed shot which bounced into the ground and almost wrong-footed the keeper but she made a comfortable save.
Pre-match, much of the Boroughmuir talk had centred on their Scottish schoolgirl international starlet on the flank. As a result, Niccy team coach Jack Bain had tasked their buccaneering full-back Amanda Nicolson with a tight marking job on her.
It was a masterstroke as Nicolson revelled in the extra-responsibility, regularly had the measure of her rival in any one-on-one breaks Boroughmuir managed.
After several switches in position the international player was left more concerned with Nicolson’s forward bursts from the back than making any of her own.
There was no doubt the first-half battle had been won by the Nicolson but the second-half proved to be a far more evenly matched affair.
Boroughmuir enjoyed longer spells of possession, and in better areas with it, but despite this they rarely got close enough to Gillies to cause any problems.
Much of this was down to the performance of Smith who was a revelation while Nicolson caused excitement on the sidelines with a couple of barnstorming charges through the heart of the opposition, charging on 30-yard gallops with the ball at her feet.
In the midfield Houston continued to mop up, winning tackles, headers and looking for the long pass to set Beth Macleod, Hannah Macleod or Latimir free.
It was a more difficult second-half for the Niccy’s attacking trident as they saw less of the ball in the first-half as Boroughmuir matched them better.
In the end the regulation 80-mins couldn’t split the sides and as competition rules dictate there will be no extra-time the two exhausted camps of girls took a seat on the turf ahead of the dreaded shoot-out.
Twelve months ago many of the current crop of Niccy girls had won the under-15 Scottish Cup after a shoot-out but there was no repeat joy as this time Lady Luck turned her back on them.
Houston’s opening spot-kick was well-struck and true and it arrowed into the bottom corner but having watched Boroughmuir level Mackay fired high and wide.
This gave the Edinburgh schoolgirls an advantage they took and when Nicolson’s penalty lacked the power to bypass the keeper the Boroughmuir camp smelled blood.
They netted to go 3-1 up which heaped the pressure onto Beth Macleod as she strode up. But she smashed an unstoppable penalty into the top corner, sending the keeper sprawling the wrong way in the process.
But despite this it was all in Boroughmuir’s own hands as they only needed to net to win the cup, which they did with their fourth penalty to leave the devastated Nicolson girls staring at the sky and wondering what might have been.
Senior Girls Scottish Cup Final
Nicolson Institute 0
Boroughmuir HS 0
(Boroughmuir win 4-2 on pens)
Nicolson Institute: Cirsty Gillies, Kathleen Mackay, Heather Black, Amanda Nicolson, Eleanor Smith, Nicole Maclean, Isabelle Bain, Christie Houston, Beth Macleod, Hannah Macleod, Lorna Latimir. Subs: Annabel Maclennan, Alicia Macsween, Ella Macaulay.