May 14th of 2011 goes down in history alongside only a handful of other dates as another memorable encounter that saw silverware make its way to Tain Thistle Football Club. A performance immersed in fight, determination and tremendous team spirit saw Thistle overcome several hurdles to take the lead three times against Balintore, despite losing their goalkeeper to a sending off, reducing them to ten men.
Manager Robbie Ross, who himself had failed to make the League Cup final squad under manager Arron Christie last season, brought himself back into the goalkeeping position for Steven Wemyss, while Martyn Farquhar also returned to the side. Daniel Christie, unavailable for the final, was replaced by young striker John Maclellan, who started for the first time this season. Also returning to the squad was Liam Rostock, who having played only one pre-season game would make his first appearance of the season.
A mixture of blustery winds and frequent showers earlier in the day suggested that the game may have to be approached with the weather as a factor. Indeed it did, as Thistle won the toss and chose to play with the wind behind them in the first half.
Before long, the game had its first goal. Darran Goller, who has shown new levels of composure and determination this season gave everyone a reminder of why he is the club's top scorer on only 7 minutes when he thundered a shot past MacGruer for the opener. Much like they had done last season, Thistle took an early 1-0 lead.
Thistle could very well have gone 2-0 up when Maclellan found himself bearing down on MacGruer, but the keeper was fast to the ball.
But the game would soon take a turn that would reshape it for the rest of the 90 minutes. Despite claims for offside, Balintore's Andrew Ripley advanced towards the Thistle goal before being felled by Thistle keeper Robbie Ross. Ross, in the cruelest of fashions, was then dismissed and Balintore were awarded a penalty, which - needless to say - was converted with ease against Thistle's unorthodox right-back-come-stand-in stopper Brian Cameron.
A goalkeeper being dismissed with no goalkeeping option on the bench is high on the list of nightmare scenarios for any cup final team, let alone playing with only ten men. But in this case, the sending off was only the first chapter in what would become one of the most remarkable tales in the club's football history.
At 1-1, Thistle reshaped their defence and began to show that they had everything to play for, quickly reaffirming their dominance, with Michael Brand forcing a save from MacGruer. But the best was still to come, as captain-for-the-day in Daniel Christie's absence, Martyn Farquhar launched a curling shot over the head of MacGruer into the net in what will be a candidate for goal of the season to make it 2-1.
With the score at 2-1, Tain showed no sign of letting up on a Balintore side who looked like they were the team with ten men. In fact, as half-time approached, Goller was unlucky not to make it 3-1 as he played himself into a 1 on 1 situation with MacGruer from a tight angle, but could only shoot straight at the goalkeeper.
Adopting a more attacking game in the second half, Balintore forced Thistle to defend early on, the Jags thwarting a series of cross balls, before successfully clearing Balintore's first corner on 55 minutes.
The move that finally made the difference for Balintore after close to an hour of excellent defensive play from Thistle was a ball from Stainke that found the feet of the onrushing McCourt, allowing the towering forward to place the ball round Cameron to make it 2-2.
The Thistle hearts did not sink however, and Ross moved quickly to introduce the fresh attacking legs of Liam Rostock in place of Maclellan. The switch gave Balintore no opportunity to capitalize on any momentum following their goal and before long the combined pace of Rostock and Goller was proving a test for the Baltie back line.
On 70 minutes, a twisting run from Rostock allowed the striker to fire across MacGruer's goal; his shot flying just inches wide. But only a few minutes later, the quick feet of Goller pushed Thistle back into the lead. Taking a ball to the by line, the Jags top goalscorer squared a waiting ball for Rostock who was quick to tap the ball home in the six yard box. The goal was undoubtedly a just reward for Thistle, who had shown their dominance throughout the game.
Balintore's desperation began to show as they attempted to score with a 50 yard lob direct from kick off, but the shot fell nowhere near the target. A furious quarter hour followed as Sutherland, Christie and Brand put on a display of ruthless defending against an all-out Balintore attack; Cameron also handling the ball well when called upon.
Chasing a late equalizer, Balintore's McCourt worked hardest for his side despite some over-zealous forward play which saw him caught offside on a number of occasions, only increasing the frustration of the "Gulls".
One final attack for Balintore saw a corner headed wide by Macdonald much to the relief of Cameron and his defence - then - after what seemed like an eternity for the Jags, referee Mark Dalton finally blew his whistle for full time, sending the Thistle support and players into uproarious celebrations.
Ross, Cameron, Johnston (Graham), Sutherland, A Christie, Farquhar, Brand, Durrand, Burry (Reid), Maclellan (Rostock), Goller
Subs not used:
D Nimmons, C Nimmons
Goller 7, Farquhar 41, Rostock 75
Man of the Match:
Opinions were shared around the ground after the game that a finer performance had never been seen from a Tain Thistle team, who overcame the odds in so many ways, showing determination and fight that will be remembered for many years.
Back at the Commercial Hotel, thanks were given to cup sponsor Jimmy Oman of Highland Heatsave Ltd and the match officials before Balintore, captained by Paul Cowie, collected their Runners-up medals. The winning captain Martyn Farquhar was then presented with the trophy to a rousing reception from the victorious party of players and committee. Farquhar was also named the sponsor's man of the match.
The result is historic for Tain Thistle on a number of levels. Having played in three other League Cup finals during their fifteen year history, this afternoon's win against Balintore hands them their first ever League Cup win. It was also a first for long time Thistle servant and founding player Colin Burry, who missed both 2007 and 2009, Thistle's other years capturing silverware.
It was of course the first ever cup final contested between Balintore and Tain Thistle, two sides who thrive on personal pride and carry a local rivalry. If this game was anything to the neutral, it will have served as a tremendous advertisement for the level of football being played under the Ross-shire Welfare football association banner.