IT WAS neither pretty nor particularly comfortable, but Inverness Caley Thistle mastered Stranraer and treacherously wet conditions last night to keep the Scottish Cup flame burning.
SCORERS - Ross 3, Doran 90
The fifth-round replay was settled in slightly freakish fashion with a third-minute finish Nick Ross knew little of and a late Aaron Doran clincher which put a glossier sheen on the game.
But this was a rather laboured display from the Premiership outfit as manager John Hughes earned his first home win with Inverness at the sixth attempt.
Dundee United now await as quarter-final visitors on Saturday, 8 March – eight days before the League Cup final against
If there was to be any cup romance in the dank Highland air, the onus was always on Stranraer to generate it – and they did their level best. Certainly, the sodden conditions were as far removed from thoughts of Hampden in the sun as imaginable, sapping on atmosphere and attendance, too.
A bus-load of Blues’ supporters did make the marathon trip, relieved to see the patchy, heavily-sanded surface survive two pitch inspections before 7pm. It would have been a nightmare, too, for the Stranraer players to see the game fall, given the part-timers’ five-hour, 260-mile trek north.
Caley Thistle had snatched a replay by the skin of their teeth 16 days earlier, with Billy McKay’s late equaliser preserving their challenge on three domestic fronts. Given the odds stacked against Stephen Aitken’s spirited group, it seemed unthinkable there could be a repeat inconvenience. The League 1 side named just five of seven possible substitutes with the likes of Marc Corcoran, Stephen Stirling and Chris Aitken unavailable.
Hughes, though, had been at pains to talk up the visitors’ attributes, knowing they had also drawn with Rangers at Ibrox in the league back in December.
Hughes had pondered large-scale changes for the tie but, in the event, made only two – a sure measure of his wariness.
Captain Richie Foran made his first start since injuring his shoulder just before Christmas, while Nick Ross was also restored to the side. Marley Watkins and Aaron Doran dropped to the bench.
The one thing the minnows didn’t need was to concede an early goal, but that they did – with a fair degree of good fortune for the hosts in their third-minute opener.
David Raven’s measured pass sent Ross racing in behind the away defence. Scott Robertson was sharp enough to make a tackle but saw the ball strike off the ankle of Ross and nestle past keeper David Mitchell.
Stranraer were not without flashes of invention. In the 13th minute, Jamie Longworth’s dinked pass played Sean Winter into space in the box but the striker’s first-time dig flew square into Dean Brill’s arms.
The visitors’ quickly shook off their bus legs and retreated into a dogged counter-attacking gameplan – one that would have offered much encouragement without the early concession.
Caley Thistle’s clear-cut openings were limited, although Graeme Shinnie whipped an 18-yard shot just over the bar after 34 minutes. At the other end, Ross Draper entered referee Alan Muir’s book for hacking down Mark Docherty. From Andrew Stirling’s free-kick, Foran made a timely, headed clearance before danger ebbed. It was certainly a warning to Inverness and they reacted.
Ross drove forwards and picked out McKay from the left, with the club top-scorer’s low strike from ten yards pushed sharply for a corner by the outstretched arm of Mitchell.
Stranraer were more than just spirited opponents digging deep. They always looked capable of clawing a way back into the match, moving the ball sharply in spells.
Caley Thistle’s best efforts were often bogged down in the arc of mud outside the visitors’ box. McKay finally had the ball in the net after 66 minutes, but the off-side flag was raised.
Doran entered the fray for Inverness and immediately won a free-kick right on the right edge of the box, with Mark Docherty booked. Steven Bell’s audacious 30-yard attempt might have snatched a replay for the minnows late in the game, but Brill scrambled to divert the ball for a corner.
And it fell to substitute Doran to finally set the seal on it in stoppage time with a low, skidding strike from 20 yards.
Inverness CT: Brill; Raven, Warren, Meekings, Shinnie; Foran; Draper (Doran 67), Tansey, Ross; Vincent, McKay. Subs: Esson, Devine, Watkins, Tremarco, Polworth, Pepper.
Stranraer: Mitchell; Robertson, Rumsby, McKeown, Docherty; Winter (McKenna 67), Gallacher, Bell, Stirling; Grehan, Longworth (Forde 75). Subs: Fahey, McGregor, Kinnaird.