BY MARK GODFREY
Escaping my in-laws place (lovely people by the way) on Saturday lunchtime was something of a relief. The previous night had seen them and my wife gripped with the winter vomiting bug and subsequently subdued or bed-ridden. So, I set out – in rude health, thankfully – from the southside of Glasgow to make the two hour trek to the far south west of Scotland; Stranraer.
I’ve never been there before but Sarah (the missus) had informed me that, as long as the weather wasn’t too grotty, I was in for a spectacular drive. She wasn’t wrong. Once past the more populated areas of Ayrshire you meet the coast around the famous golfing venue of Turnberry, where you’re greeted by the Irish Sea laid out before you.
The remaining stretch of road down to Stranraer is then pretty much all situated along the shoreline, and even on a fairly grey and miserable day, the sight of Ailsa Craig lurking ominously just out to sea like some mythical hump-backed marine monster is quite awe-inspiring. The wind was strong, the air pressure low – perfect conditions for the white horses that galloped relentlessly in to batter the nearby rocks and beaches.
Eventually, Cairnryan was reached and as a giant passenger ferry reversed from the dock and into Loch Ryan bound for Belfast, it signalled that Stranraer was almost upon me.
I parked directly outside Stair Park and made my way to the Main Stand to collect the ticket generously left for me by Stranraer left-back, Mark Docherty. Once inside and having had a quick look around I decided to partake in a common match day ritual – a pie and Bovril. It’s only right isn’t it?
Having scoffed my Scotch pie and molten-hot beef-flavoured beverage (£2.30 all-in, you can’t go wrong) I returned to my seat at the back of the stand, close to the assembled Press and media.
What struck me during the players’ warm-up session was the size difference between the Stranraer men and those of the Premiership visitors. Inverness looked huge in comparison, yet, they looked sluggish – perhaps a result of their mammoth journey from up north. The Blues of Stranraer (playing in their faded hi-vis-jacket coloured away kit for this game) fizzed about the pitch in apparent eagerness.
Early on, the signs were good for the home side. Some great build-up play saw Winter denied by Brill in the Inverness goal in the opening minutes. Caley Thistle came right back at the hosts and missed with a free header from a corner just a few moments later.
Both teams probed and harried without carving themselves any real goalscoring chances, but one thing was evident – Stranraer were not going to be overawed by their highflying opponents. The front four of Stranraer were particularly lively with Longworth darting around the Inverness centre-backs and wingers Stirling and Winter always keen to take on their full-backs.
Around the half-hour mark the game began to open up. Steven Bell fired a 30-yard rasper just over the bar for Stranraer while John Hughes’ men tried in vain to attack Docherty down their right – the Stranraer left-back had a great game – as did his colleagues in the back four.
Finally, the deadlock was broken around the 40-minute point. Aaron Doran pounced on an error on the edge of the Stranraer area and curled a beauty past the motionless Mitchell to put Inverness one up. This would not prove to be the end of Stranraer.
They came right back into it and after some great inter-play down their left and a chipped cross from Docherty, Grehan was fouled in his attempt to nod the ball home – penalty! The felled striker stepped up and rifled the ball past Brill to bring the scoreline back to a fully deserved parity at the half-time break. Manager Stevie Aitken would have been delighted and I’m sure the mood and team talks in the two dressing rooms would have been vastly different!
The second half continued much in the same vain as the first, with both teams pushing hard but not giving an inch to their opponent. One would have expected the Premiership side to increase the tempo and quality but on a sticky, bobbly pitch and against a lower league team, all the old clichés about cup football being a leveller were so evidently applicable.
Mid way through the second half, chances began to come more freely for Inverness as they began to pile the pressure onto the Stranraer back line; but they were in no mood to relent. As Caley Thistle poured forward, the League 1 side were able to counter and in one of these thrusts, Longworth raced through one-on-one. With plenty of time to weigh up his options, he took the shot early and drilled it past the on-rushing Brill to put the underdogs ahead with just 17 minutes remaining. The crowd of 722 could have been witnessing another shock (holders Celtic having already been dispatched earlier in the day by Aberdeen and Raith were about to dump Hibernian out before the quarter-final stage) but the lead didn’t last. Just two minutes later, McKay headed in from close range to save Inverness’ blushes.
The last 15 minutes failed to provide a victor despite attempts by both teams to snatch the win. Stranraer will be delighted with their draw – and fully deserved it was. Inverness couldn’t really have complained had they been dumped out of the Cup. But both teams know that the replay – set for February 18th – could be a totally different affair. You would expect Inverness, with the knowledge that the Cup is totally up for grabs now that Celtic are no longer in the draw, will turn up their performance levels several notches.
Whether Stranraer can pull another herculean effort out of the bag is the big question, but, if they play with the same intensity, quality and lack of fear they displayed in Saturday’s game, then the impossible could just become possible.
The Football Pink certainly wishes Stranraer all the best for their trip to the Highlands. We will speak with one of their heroes and contenders for Man of the Match, Mark Docherty, in the run up to the replay on February 18th.