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Ten-man Oban Saints produced a battling backs-to-the wall performance at a rain-soaked Oban High School last Saturday afternoon to cement their place at the top of Central Scottish Amateur Football League Division 1B.
Leading goalscorer Craig MacEwan put Saints ahead with his 15th goal of the season but a red card for goalkeeper Graham Douglas gave the home faithful a nervous closing 24 minutes to endure along with the horrendous weather conditions.
Saints co-manager Willie Gemmell made one enforced change to the starting line-up from the previous week’s trip to Rothienorman. James Ford failed to shake off the knee injury picked up in the Scottish Amateur Cup win over Rothie Rovers and was replaced by Craig MacEwan.
Saints kicked off attacking the Dalintart end and Craig MacEwan tested the handling of Adam McKay in the first minute with a crisply struck shot from 18 yards which the Blantyre keeper did well to parry down and gather at the second attempt.
The value of having a man on the post at corner kicks was proven in the 15th minute when Scott Maitland blocked a Ross Burns header from a Barry McLaughlan corner kick on the Saints goal-line before thumping clear.
The visitors were enjoying the better of the early exchanges, though chances for both sides were at a premium. David Beaton sent over a tempting 19th-minute cross from the right which Adam McKay did well to cut out ahead of Cammy Hill before Blantyre central midfielder Kris Beggs broke forward but shot well wide of target.
In a better spell for Saints, Lewis Cameron wriggled into the Blantyre box on the left and sent a cutback from the byeline just behind Craig MacEwan whose improvised back heel flick looped gently into the arms of Adam McKay.
Cammy Hill and Scott Maitland then linked up well on the left in the 29th minute for a Maitland cross which Conor O’Donnelly helped into the path of Myles McAuley who rifled a 25-yard shot inches over the crossbar.
Dene Cassells climbed well to get on the end of a 33rd-minute Lewis Cameron corner kick which was blocked three yards out. Blantyre couldn’t fully clear the danger and Adam McKay produced the save of the afternoon to acrobatically push Cameron’s attempted lob from the right edge of the penalty box over his crossbar.
Lewis Cameron’s set piece deliveries continued to trouble the Blantyre defence and Dene Cassells once again won the aerial dual from the corner flag in the 38th minute but sent his header just over the crossbar.
The Saints pressure eventually told and they broke the deadlock with three first half minutes remaining. Venturing a long way forward from his central defensive beat, captain Dene Cassells swung over a perfect cross from the right edge of the Blantyre box into that corridor of uncertainty between goalkeeper and defenders where Craig MacEwan sneaked in to plant a header beyond Adam McKay for what would prove to be the only goal of the game.
Saints remained on the front foot for the start of the second half with Cammy Hill forcing a corner kick on the left after just 60 seconds.
Dene Cassells was again a handful for the Blantyre defence but still couldn’t find the target with a poweful header.
Saints were guilty of over elaborating at the back and were relieved to see Alex Hill slip at the vital moment and send his shot wide of target after he had intercepted a stray 65th minute pass from Graham Douglas.
After winning another corner kick on the right, Lewis Cameron tried to catch out Adam McKay under his crossbar with the keeper having to climb over the top of Barry McLaughlan at the front post to make his punch. The ball looped back across the face of goal where Dene Cassells was once again just off target with a header from three yards.
Saints co-manager Willie Gemmell made a change with 20 minutes remaining sending on Ross Maitland as a direct replacement for David Beaton on the right.
Dene Cassells once again popped up in an attacking role just being crowded out by David Cairney and Ross Burns after an adventurous 70th-minute run.
The Saints defence, pushing too far forward, left Graham Douglas hopelessly exposed in the 73rd minute and the Saints’ number one raced out of his goal to concede a free-kick just outside of his box.
Despite the keeper’s claims that the ball had hit him on the chest, referee O’Donnell, who had his customary steady game, correctly signalled a handball and issued Douglas with the inevitable red card.
Central defender Steven MacLeod took the gloves bringing to an end Cammy Hill’s involvement as the big centre forward was sacrificed for the more defensive minded Kerr Newbigging.
Saints’ closest league challengers looked to capitalise on their numerical advantage, causing nerves to jangle on the sidelines but Saints defended manfully from the front and stand-in keeper MacLeod remained relatively untroubled.
Further personnel changes followed when Craig MacEwan was withdrawn to make room for utility man Matt Rippon before Kerr Newbigging’s troublesome hip forced him off to be replaced by Aaron McKay in the 90th minute.
With the hardy band of soaked-to-the-skin onlookers beginning to wonder if the referee’s watch had stopped, Mr O’Donnell finally blew for full-time after six added minutes extending Saints’ unbeaten run to 11 games and stretching their lead over second placed Blantyre RGM to 16 points.
Saints have no fixture this coming weekend and, with Scottish amateur football now going into the festive break, will not return to competitive action until the Scottish Amateur Cup fifth round tie against Renfrew Town on Saturday January 11. The club does, however, hope to arrange a couple of friendly matches details of which are yet to be announced.