ENTERTAINMENT was the order of the day for the neutral spectator as a good crowd gathered to watch the last of the Macleod & MacCallum North Caledonian League action for 2017. St Duthus met Alness United at the Highland Football Academy 3G pitch in Dingwall and despite an action packed second half which saw the Saints come back from 3-0 down, they ultimately lost by the odd goal in seven.
Matchday captain Jon Campbell was recalled to the squad after having recovered from a long term injury, while Ken Morrison, suffering from flu symptoms, dropped to the bench, as did Joe Sutherland, who made way for trialist Calum MacDonald at left back. There was to be a first team debut for recent signing Ben Bruce, who joined the Saints on a short term deal during the week. The Saints started out with four men in defence, switching from their usual back three.
Right from the start, Alness striker Jude Fraser showed signs that he would prove to be a pest for the Saints back line throughout the game and after just three minutes he drew Steven Martin out of his area to clear a chance after out-pacing the defence.
A scrappy opening period saw neither side immediately take a grip of things before the opening goal arrived on the quarter hour mark. A mistimed Saints pass back to the keeper allowed the speedy Fraser to pounce on a chance on the right wing, and after beating the on-rushing Martin, he was able to square the ball to Gordon Finlayson who tapped the ball home to give Alness a 1-0 lead.
The Saints were undeterred by the early set back and enjoyed a fifteen minutes spell of pressure. A neat pass from Finn As-Chainey played Cammy Mackintosh in on goal on 18 minutes, but the midfielder's rising shot skimmed the crossbar and flew over. On the other flank, Ben Bruce did well to find space on the left and cut back to Mackintosh who was ideally placed, but again his effort flew over the target.
Mackintosh turned provider on 22 minutes when he laid the ball to Will Ross in good space, but the full back's low effort from 15 yards was screwed just wide of the post. On the half hour mark, Finn As-Chainey did well to beat his man on the right before cross into the path of Justin Rogers, but the experienced forward man missed the target with a powerful drive just over the bar. A chance for Ben Bruce flew over the bar moments later before Steven Martin at the other end had to be on his toes to turn a shot over the bar.
As the half wore on, Alness took control and showed appetite for a second goal. Daniel Lowe let loose with a menacing shot on 38 minutes which Martin held well, collecting the ball into his chest. Moments later, Jude Fraser almost scored with a header at the back post which sailed just wide of the target. It seemed as though Lowe was about to net three minutes before the break after he had weaved through the defence unchallenged, but his resultant shot was screwed low and left of the upright.
Half time: Alness United 1 St Duthus 0
Almost immediately after the restart, disaster struck as the Saints conceded a free kick on the edge of the box. Stepping up for Alness was Gordon Finlayson who took the set piece and left Martin standing as he fired the ball in off the post from 20 yards to net his and United's second. Five minutes later, Alness further extended their lead. Collecting the ball just over the half way line, Daniel Lowe ran freely into the area and finished low into the bottom corner beyond Martin to make it 3-0, leaving the Saints stunned.
Jon Campbell made his much anticipated return from injury as a substitute just after the third goal and quickly asserted himself. Further changes were made with half an hour remaining, as Liam Rostock and Ryan Patterson were introduced in place of Jamie Skinner and Finn As-Chainey. Within ten minutes, Saints had hit back with their first goal -- and it arrived courtesy of debutant Ben Bruce, who collected a 20 yard through ball from Campbell and finished well, placing the ball beyond the reach of Adam Carter.
Buoyed by their goal, Saints continued to heap pressure on the Alness defence and just three minutes later they had netted a second. A long free kick from Craig Ross was sent into the box and arriving at the far post was Cammy Mackintosh who rifled the ball into the net. A couple of minutes later it was all square -- and it was Mackintosh who found the net again, beating Carter from close range, this time on the end of a Ben Bruce cross. At 3-3 the game was suddenly wide open.
A fourth for Saints didn't seem like it would be far away, as chances fell for Bruce and Justin Rogers - but Alness were beginning to stem the flow of attacks from the Tain men. The game then hit a lull as a series of stoppages brought an end to the Saints' dominance.
A series of free kicks and corners went by for Saints as they continued their pursuit to take the lead in the final quarter hour of the game. At the other end, substitute Shaun Grant quickly made an impression after his introduction, forcing Martin to tip a powerful 20 yard shot over the bar.
It looked as though the game would end in a draw until the final minute of normal time when Alness were awarded a corner kick. Getting on the end of a good delivery, Shaun Grant sent a header past Martin into the far corner to restore the lead for Alness at 4-3.
In injury time, a Craig Ross cross from deep found Cammy Mackintosh in the box, but the midfielder's headed effort was held by Carter. Right at the death, a last ditch chance for Saints saw Ben Bruce carry the ball into the box before releasing a shot that flew wide of the far post - Bruce being fouled on the way down, prompting some late shouts for a penalty kick.
Alas, the game went the way of Alness, as the whistle was blown on the game, and the year.
Full time: Alness United 4 St Duthus 3