One man stood between Nairn County and a surprise Breedon Aggregates Highland League Cup final win against Brora Rangers.
Take a bow Brora goalkeeper Joe Malin who produced a series of outstanding saves to keep his side in contention at Grant Street Park in Inverness.
His hard work throughout 120 minutes of this final was capped when team-mate Zander Sutherland sent Nairn goalkeeper Calum Antell the wrong way to win the penalty shootout 5-4.
The Sutherland side should count themselves fortunate as in the second half of normal time the Wee County were well on top and only some brilliant goalkeeping from Malin, just back in the side after six weeks out through injury, kept them out. Former Ross County player Malin said: “I had pain in my right side throughout but when it comes to the chance to win a cup final the body and mind just take over.
“I wasn’t able to kick with my right foot today, but I think I did all right with my left. We had been thinking all week about me playing today, I had my knee checked and was assured it was stable.”
Malin was first called into action in the third minute when he turned an Alan Pollock drive behind for a corner kick.
With hopes of winning the Highland League title for a third successive season on the slide, there was no shortage of fire and effort from Brora and in the 12th minute County goalkeeper Antell fluffed a kick to present the Cattachs with a great chance.
The ball went straight to Sutherland but the Nairn number one got back on his line in time to smother his 30-yard drive.
Pollock had a gilt-edged opportunity to open the scoring for Nairn when Sam Urquhart’s cross picked him out, but with the goal gaping and only Malin to beat, he shot wide of the target from 10 yards.
Brora almost broke the deadlock in the 33rd minute but Steven Mackay’s ferocious 10-yard volley from a Sutherland cross was brilliantly blocked by County defender Adam Naismith then right on the half-time whistle Dale Gillespie had a 25-yarder brilliantly tipped over the top by Antell.
Nairn were far from overawed by the occasion but their task got even harder on the hour mark when Brora replaced forward Scott Graham with Paul Brindle, who had scored 31 goals already this term.
With 10 minutes left Pollock passed up another great chance when substitute Tony Wallace played him in, this time the forward pulled his shot across the face of goal from six yards.
Nairn were calling the shots and it took a fabulous flying save from Malin to stop Gregg Main’s superb 20-yard drive nestling in the top corner.
Into extra time and Brindle really should have sealed the game when he beat Antell to a long through ball, but with the Nairn goalkeeper stranded and an open goal beckoning the former Clach forward shot into the side-netting.
In the final minute of extra time Brora were reduced to 10 men when Martin Maclean’s rash two-footed challenge on Glenn Main resulted in a straight red card.
In the penalty shootout both sides converted their first four penalties, but Malin saved County captain Michael Morrison’s final spot kick, allowing Sutherland to step up and send Antell the wrong way to win the final.
A disappointed Antell, said: “Penalties is never a good way to lose a final. We created the better chances throughout the 120 minutes, but although Joe Malin was struggling with a knee injury he pulled off some wonder saves to keep them in it. We showed we can compete with the best teams such as Brora, we beat then up there 2-1 at New Year and pushed them all the way in this game.”