Thurso 0 Alness United 0 – report by Iain Grant
This year’s North Caledonian League has all the ingredients to turn into a real dogfight for the title. The three sides who have dropped out all struggled in recent seasons while the return of Clach’s reserves intensifies the competition. At the start of the campaign, cases can be made for just about any of the eight sides getting their hands on the championship. The league got off to a low-key start at Sir Georges Park on Saturday when Thurso and Alness were locked in a less-than-riveting goal-less stalemate.
The Easter Ross men have struggled since lifting the title in 2004/05 – their second success of the noughties. Their fortunes reached rock-bottom the season before last when they took a time-out from competition. But they regrouped last year under player/ manager Kraig Vass and have further strengthened with three useful signings from DIngwall Thistle. The starting X1s on Saturday each showed five changes from the previous fixture – a comfortable 5-2 win for Thurso in March. Alness proved much less brittle at the back and their combative midfield ensured the Vikings had a much tougher time of it this time. The visitors left satisfied with a point but perhaps frustrated they did not claim all three.
Thurso played in fits and starts, their best spells coming at the start and finish of the match. Their newcomers will need time to settle. Lee Elder worked hard but his deliveries from wide areas too often missed their mark. Liam Bremner – another signing from Halkirk United – proved the main goal threat but was too often a periphery figure while the experienced Iain Innes combined well with Golspie colleague John Smith at the heart of defence though he was guilty of some sloppy passing.
The game was two minutes old when it was effectively over for Thurso’s Martin Sutherland, the the victim of a gruesome late tackle from Scott MacAngus. If committed later in the game, it could have been marked with a red card, not the yellow which was shown to the United defender. Sutherland limped on for a few minutes before being replaced by Derrick Shearer.
Bremner almost marked his debut with his first touch on five minutes. Michael Petrie’s lay-back to Mark Nichol resulted in the latter’s cross being headed against the left upright by Bremner.
Home keeper Asa Sinclair settled after an uncertain start when he was posted missing at two corners. Alness almost went in front on 20 minutes when MacLeod – one of the former Dingwall contingent – got in behind the defence.
He raced clear and beat Sinclair with a shot which was heading in to the far corner before being turned wide by Innes. Nichol went close several times and Petrie spurned a great chance before the first half ended with a booking for Bremner for a late challenge on Craig Munro.
Elder fired an angled shot into the side net before a slick move at the other end involving David Manson and MacLeod deserved better than Colin Doull’s pith-less shot which was easily gathered by Sinclair.
Just short of the hour-mark, MacLeod’s meaty strike from distance struck Sinclair full on the body before the keeper had a chance to react. MacDougall’s dipping cross was then clawed to safety by Campbell under the shadow of his crossbar.
Bremner was again out of luck during his side’s push late on to get their campaign off to a winning start. His header from a 74th minute corner was net-bound before MacAngus stretched out a leg to somehow deflect it wide.
Bremner then slipped at the vital moment as he shaped to connect with a looping cross from MacDougall. He recovered but his shot was too weak to trouble Jodie Campbell.
After Alness veteran Stevie Murray and fellow sub Mark Lamont forced fine stops from Sinclair, the Vikings came tantalisingly close to an injury-time winner.
Innes’s delivery into the centre of the penalty box invited a full-fledged attempt from Gary MacGregor which got the merest of touches from Campbell to divert it just over.
Right at the death, Bremner again showed his aerial prowess with his header beating Campbell but being bundled off the line by Campbell.
Thurso – Sinclair, Sutherland (Shearer 8), Elder (Morris 67), Smith, Innes, MacGregor, Petrie, MacKenzie, Nichol, L. Bremner, MacDougall (Harrold 88). Subs (unused) – Wann and A. Bremner.
Alness – Campbell, MacAngus, D. Murray (Lamont 67), Munro, Stewart, Graeme, Bremner, Doull, Robertson (S. Murray 70), MacLeod, Manson. Subs (unused) – Vass, Gilliland and Jamieson.
Ref – Mr J. Nicolson.