Balintore 1 Thurso 0 – Report by Iain Grant
The outcome of Saturday’s semi-finals in the Port Services Cup buried the chances of the first all-Caithness North Caley final. With Halkirk going down 2-0 at Alness and Balintore avenging their recent last-gasp league defeat in Thurso, the Ross-shire duo will battle it out to claim the first silverware of the season.
The match in Balintore, which was spoiled by a strong wind, looked at an early stage destined to be settled by the first goal. A tight affair with chances at a premium was decided by a 59th minute header from defender Darren Mackay. The Vikings were unable to capitalise on the sending off of David Calderwood a minute after the goal.
Late pressure looked likely to fashion the equaliser as Balintore clung on to their narrow advantage. A 83rd minute cross from substitute Ross Sutherland was met by a solid header across goal by Kevin Morris into the path of Graeme Reid. The lead-up had the hallmarks of the only goal in the league game but this time the defender’s right-foot effort spun agonisingly past the post. What was the visitors’ best chance of the game was followed three minutes from time with their final push when Sutherland just failed to connect with a Gavin Bremner free-kick from the right.
Kicking off with the wind on their backs, Thurso were quickly on the attack. After five minutes, a Lee MacDougall corner was laid off by Morris to Shaun Moar whose firm shot was blocked. Nigel Mackenzie was then unable to exploit a half-clearance from keeper Edward Shearer when he palmed away a kevin Warner cross. After 10 minutes, Morris shot wide after being set up by Alan Murray before Balintore gave the visitors a scare when Gordon Lowe went desparately close with a header.
Both teams struggled to seriously trouble the respective keepers with Mackenzie skying a shot over the bar and Mackay showing his danger in the air by heading a corner narrowly wide. After Morris’s 30th minute booking for dissent, Moar earned brownie points in defusing an attack when Balintore broke in numbers.
Morris and Warner both sent efforts over the top before Willie Inrig forced the first real ave of the game two minutes from the interval.
Half-time – Balintore 0 V Thurso 0
Shearer was the first keeper in action after the turnaround when he had to look smart to touch Reid’s 15 yard shot over the bar and then keep out a raking drive from Bremner.
Michael Gray was then tested by a Paul Skinner shot before the home side got the crucial breakthrough. Thurso lived to regret committing two players to defend a free-kick wide out on the right and leave the posts unguarded when Mackay towered above everyone to plant a firm header wide of Gray.
Calderwood was red-carded on the hour-mark when an assistant referee spotted an off-the-ball incident in which the Balintore man swung a boot at Reid.
Thurso almost got on terms in 61 minutes when MacDougall sent Murray racing in on goal only for the striker to be forced wide by a clever piece of defending by John Skinner. A weak shot from Inrig and a strike by Warner deflected away from goal proved little threat but substitute Makhouli was unlucky on 76 minutes when Bremner played him on only for Shearer to make a brace smother save.
A minute later, Keith Dinwoodie almost gave Balintore a two goal cushion with Gray producing the save of the day when he dived to his right to turn away the midfielder’s 25 yard screamer.
Thurso manager Duncan Gray had no complaints about the result but was disappointed by how his side lost their way after a bright start through getting sucked into a war of attrition with very physical opponents. Thurso return to league action on Saturday with what is sure to be a tough derby tussle at Halkirk.
Murray is on holiday while Reid is at a wedding and Sutherland and Makhouli are injury doubts.
Thurso v Balintore: Gray, Moar, Warner (Makhouli 70), Reid, MacDougall (Cassidy 80),
Bremner Baker, Mackenzie, Inrig (Sutherland 73), Murray, Morris.