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OBAN Saints recovered from a two-goal deficit to secure a share of the points in their final away fixture of the season at Ravenscraig Regional Sports Facility last Saturday.
A dismal first half performance from the D & K Lafferty-sponsored outfit left them trailing Motherwell Thistle by two goals at the interval, however, a much-improved second half showing saw them draw level and almost snatch victory in the dying seconds.
Manager Alex Craik named his 30th different starting line-up of the season and is now just two fixtures away from completing an entire season without naming the same starting 11 twice.
Thomas McCulloch returned in goal for the unavailable Graham Douglas behind a back four of Steven MacLeod, Willie Gemmell, Dene Cassells and Scott Maitland. Matthew Kelly, Kerr Newbigging and Keith Millar made up the midfield while captain Donald Campbell spearheaded the attack flanked by Paul Carmichael and Craig MacEwan. Keeping the Gaffer company on the bench were James Ford and Ruaridh Horne.
Saints fell behind after just five minutes when a misplaced pass, one of many throughout an error-strewn first half, was pounced upon in the centre circle by Paul Woodlock. The Thistle midfielder threaded an excellent pass through to David Forrester who lifted a delightful finish into the roof of the net beyond the despairing dive of Thomas McCulloch.
Saints responded two minutes later with their first attempt on goal which Kerr Newbigging sliced wide of target from 22 yards.
Kerr Newbigging and Thistle striker Antony Mitchell found their way into Referee McQuilter’s notebook after a spot of needless pushing and shoving in front of the Saints technical area in the 20th minute.
The home side doubled their advantage in the 23rd minute from a Paul Wodlock high ball up to David Forrester. Dene Cassells beat Forrester to the header but only succeeded in helping the ball onto Nick Aitchison. The Thistle man’s shot from the edge of the box was stopped by a strong left hand from Thomas McCulloch, however, lady luck deserted the big Saints ’keeper when the ball fell perfectly into the path of Forrester who slotted home from eight yards.
Kerr Newbigging had a chance to bring Saints back into the game in the 31st minute. Donald Campbell got away from Paul Swinfen on the Saints left and lifted the ball towards the far post. Newbigging made a good run from deep but couldn’t get the bouncing ball fully under control and sent his half-hit effort into the grateful arms of Paul Aiton in the Thistle goal.
Keith Millar’s tightening hamstring forced him off after 34 minutes with James Ford coming on as his replacement.
Paul Carmichael, who earlier found his way into the referee’s notebook for a spot of dissent, made a strong challenge on the edge of the Thistle box which set up Donald Campbell for a strike on goal. The Saints skipper’s 41st first minute shot across Paul Aiton beat the Thistle ’keeper’s right hand but, unfortunately, flew wide of the far post.
The home side repaid the compliment on the stroke of half-time after another wayward pass left the Saints rearguard hopelessly exposed. Antony Mitchell raced in behind Dene Cassells and Steven MacLeod but sent a crisply struck shot wide of Thomas McCulloch’s right hand post.
The half-time interval saw another enforced change for Saints when Steven MacLeod was unable to continue due to a heel injury with Alex Craik becoming the third central defensive partner of the afternoon for Dene Cassells.
Saints made an encouraging start to the second half which saw Paul Aiton make good saves from Kerr Newbigging and Craig MacEwan inside the first two minutes.
At the other end Thomas McCulloch was also in action saving from Paul Woodlock before denying David Forrester what surely would have been a killer hat-trick goal.
Now beginning to look the stronger of the two teams Saints forced their way back into contention in the 55th minute. Craig MacEwan climbed above Scott Watson and Nick Aitchison and headed a Willie Gemmell corner kick from the right beyond Paul Aiton to half the deficit.
Two minutes later the Thistle ’keeper narrowed the angle well to deny Scott Maitland after a good move on the Saints left involving Donald Campbell and Craig MacEwan.
Aiton’s quick thinking foiled James Ford in the 63rd minute, racing out to the edge of his box to thump clear a Donald Campbell through-ball inches ahead of the Saints striker.
The home side, containing just four survivors of the reverse fixture in Oban last August, were sitting deeper as Saints pressed for an equaliser but still remained a threat on the counter-attack.
A 65th-minute Saints attack broke down on the edge of the Thistle box from where Paul Woodlock sent Philip McAuley spinning in behind a square looking Saints defence which had pushed right up to the half-way line. With Dene Cassells hot on his heels McAuley got his shot away from 15 yards but Thomas McCulloch’s angles were spot on to deny the Thistle substitute.
Willie Gemmell failed to trouble the keeper from a good shooting opportunity on the edge of the Thistle box in the 67th minute. Scott Maitland and Donald Campbell linked up well to send Craig MacEwan in behind the Thistle defence on the Saints left. MacEwan got to the bye-line and sent a cut-back to Donald Campbell who teed up Gemmell for a shot from 20 yards which sailed high over the Thistle crossbar.
Saints made their final change giving Ruaridh Horne a 20-minute run out at the expense of Kerr Newbigging.
Donald Campbell will feel he should have done better with a 71st-minute chance when he anticipated a Craig MacEwan flick-on and raced away from covering defender Mark Begg.
Campbell failed to make the solid connection he would have liked with his finish from 14 yards giving Paul Aiton a comfortable save low down to his left.
The hosts came close again with 15 minutes remaining when Chris McEwan made a surging run on the right to get on the end of a David Forrester cross from the left wing. Despite making good ground to reach Forrester’s cross McEwan was unable to hit the target and his exertions saw him limp off with a thigh strain.
Having already used their only substitute, Thistle were forced to play out the remainder of the match with 10 men and Saints were quick to exploit their numerical advantage.
Willie Gemmell dinked a delightful ball into the Thistle box where Craig MacEwan had peeled off his marker to loop a header over Paul Aiton and bring the Saints level.
Moments after the restart the woodwork denied Donald Campbell his 20th goal of the season when he beat Mark Begg to a Scott Maitland through ball and smacked a shot from a tight angle of Paul Aiton’s left hand upright.
The Thistle goal continued to lead a charmed life with goalkeeper Aiton making an excellent save with his outstretched right foot to turn a Craig MacEwan shot over the crossbar in the eighty fourth minute.
Paul Carmichael had the ball in the net three minutes later after a surging run from James Ford, however, referee McQuilter correctly ruled Carmichael to be offside.
The 10 men of Motherwell Thistle were now really toiling in the heat but try as they might Saints couldn’t force the winner.
A 90th minute Willie Gemmell effort was turned round the post at full stretch by Paul Aiton who, as always, looked accomplished in the Thistle goal.
From the resulting corner kick on the Saints right, Craig MacEwan’s near post run was inches away from connecting for a third time with a Willie Gemmell delivery with the ball flashing across the six-yard box and out of harm’s way.
Mr Quilter’s full-time whistle brought to an end a proverbial game of two halves which both sides will feel they should have won.
Saints have two home fixtures left to complete before the end of the season starting next Saturday with the visit of East Kilbride Rolls Royce.
The game will take place at Glen 2 with a 1pm kick-off.
Results and fixtures
LAST Saturday’s results: Premier Division – Motherwell Thistle 2, Oban Saints 2; Premier Division Two – Lochgilphead Red Star v Easthall Star, unfulfilled; Tarbert v Duntocher, unfulfilled.
Saturday’s fixture: Premier Division – Oban Saints v East Kilbride Rolls Royce.