Hat-trick hero Aaron Nicolson hailed Nairn County for refusing to fold after winning the North of Scotland Cup by beating Ross County 5-4 in a magnificent final.
The Wee County battled back from 2-0 down against the Staggies at Grant Street Park and overcame the adversity of conceding a stoppage time equaliser, which forced extra-time, before winning their first trophy since October 2012.
It’s the eighth time Nairn have won the North of Scotland Cup and for striker Nicolson it was an occasion to savour.
The 18-year-old joined the Breedon Highland League outfit in the summer after leaving Inverness Caledonian Thistle and only netted his first goal last weekend.
Nicolson said: “It was immense character to get things back after the start we had. A lot of sides would have folded against Premiership opposition at 2-0 down.
“But we knew if we kept going until the very end we’d get something, we’re on a good run and full of confidence both individually and collectively.
“When they scored right on full-time it was a blow, but you have to keep going and we did.
“The goal last week against Turriff was huge for me to get the weight of that first goal off my shoulders.
“All week I was thinking I would score in the final and once you get one they all just seem to come.
“Cup final hat-tricks don’t come around often and I’m buzzing.”
Mackay thrilled to deliver magic moment
Steven Mackay became player-manager at Nairn in October 2022 with the ambition of bringing trophies back to Station Park.
He saluted his players for doing it the hard way in this competition having beaten Championship side Caley Thistle on penalties in the semi-final and Premiership Ross County in a rollercoaster final.
Mackay said: “It was a thrilling final and the character the boys showed was incredible, I’m happy for everyone connected with the club to win the cup.
“We’ve done it the hard way getting to the final with the games we’ve had.
“To go the step further and win it against a strong and impressive Ross County side, I’m really happy for everyone connected with the club because it’s been a long time coming.
“We want the club to be challenging and that’s what it’s all about.”
Reflecting on Nicolson’s hat-trick, Mackay added: “Aaron’s shown what he’s capable of when he gets chances, he’s been working really hard and I’m delighted for him getting those goals.”
Staggies strike first
In front of a bumper crowd at a foggy Grant Street Park Ross County took a third minute lead.
Alex Samuel – one of six first-team players in the line-up – raced in behind and was brought down by Nairn goalkeeper Dylan MacLean before getting up and firing the resultant penalty into the right corner.
After a Ross Tokely header had been cleared off the line the Staggies made it 2-0 on 19 minutes. Ruairi Duncan got the better of MacLean to knock a high ball down into the six-yard box for Samuel to head home.
In the 33rd minute the Wee County responded when Nicolson charged down an attempted clearance at the edge of the box and finished with aplomb into the bottom left corner.
On the stroke of half-time it was all square with Angus Dey teeing up Nicolson on the right side of the area to coolly slot into the same corner as his first.
In the 63rd minute Nicolson completed the turnaround and his hat-trick. Referee Harry Bruce awarded Nairn a penalty, with George Harmon the offender for having a hold of Nicolson’s shirt, before the teenager slotted the spot-kick down the middle.
A few minutes later MacLean tipped Duncan’s net-bound 20-yard shot onto the left post and in the closing stages it looked like Nairn would hold out.
However, in the 93rd minute Josh Reid’s cross from the left fell for Calum Brown at the back post with his effort deflected into the net, despite MacLean’s best efforts.
A minute into extra-time Nairn were back ahead when Ben Kelly curled a superb shot into the top right corner from 20 yards.
In the 100th minute Samuel completed his hat-trick and restored parity by nutmegging MacLean with a finish from the right side of the area.
Four minutes later the winner, which sparked delirium among the sizeable Nairn support, arrived. Jamie Carnihan crossed from the right and fellow sub Sam Gordon glanced home a close range header.
Under-18s manager Carl Tremarco was in charge of Ross County and he said: “Credit to Nairn, but I think we shot ourselves in the foot a few times.
“At 2-0 up we were quite comfortable and the game changed, we stopped winning first and second balls and gave Nairn the momentum.
“It’s a learning curve for the young boys. No matter what level you play at you don’t want to lose a cup final and you very rarely play in them at any level.
“It’s disappointing but we’ll drum into the younger boys that they need to use this experience going forward.
“Alex will always put a shift in and he did himself no harm and that was the same for all of them (first-team players).”