Keith gave Brora Rangers their stiffest league test yet and it took a while for the champions to impose their usual level of authority on the match.
Keith manager Gordon Winton said that although he was disappointed not to get anything from the game he was pleased by the team’s performance and effort.
Brora boss Ritchie Brittain commented: “In the first half we were not at the levels I expected and I told them so at half-time. We did improve in the second half and made a lot of chances.”
Keith had won their opening two Highland League matches and their only reverse before this game was the 3-0 away defeat to Cove, who finished strongly last season and should certainly be one of the main championship contenders during the current campaign.
The Maroons started brightly and went ahead in the seventh minute with a well-taken goal from Bruce Milne, who collected a through ball and tucked it low into the left-hand corner of Joe Malin’s goal.
Brora’s first fluid move came on the quarter-hour mark. The resulting corner saw Zander Sutherland’s inviting ball into the box evade everybody. But Keith continued to counter-attack at pace and with menace. A good shot by Kris Duncan was well held by Malin to prevent the Maroons going further ahead in the 20th minute.
At this point Brora now showed a quality they hadn’t been required to show thus far this season – resilience. They dug in and slowly reasserted a dominance of possession. Then a slick, incisive move saw the ball move at pace from Paul Brindle to Steven MacKay and his shot could well have resulted in the equaliser but for Keith’s custodian Daniel Bell – a former Brora keeper – reacting swiftly and saving with his feet.
Brora now had the bit between their teeth with 70% of possession meaning chances were coming more regularly and when the equaliser finally arrived, it was well worth waiting for. A cross from the right was cleared to Andrew Greig and he instantly lashed the ball back across goal and into the opposite corner of the net. Greig, who has started the season in tremendous form, almost had a second goal soon after with another drive that just shaved the Keith crossbar.
Keith’s defence was now at full stretch to cope with Brora’s style of fast, direct and positive possession on both flanks as well as through the middle. Keith keeper Bell again distinguished himself with a great save from a rasping 10-yard shot on the turn from MacKay. And if Greig’s equaliser showed controlled power and panache his and Brora’s second goal in the 38th minute must be an early contender for goal of the season. Greig picked up the ball in midfield and instantly sent a 30-yard volley into the roof of the net. There was stunned silence around the ground for a second as the crowd took in the quality of the strike.
As with the first half, Keith pressed at the start of the second period and almost equalised but for a good save by Malin at the expense of a corner which was cleared. Brora broke at pace to the other end and the irrepressible Greig unselfishly tried to tee up MacKay for a header that was well held by Bell. Keith’s Stewart Hutcheon was booked for trying to bring down the Brora wide man during his run and cross.
Shortly afterwards Brindle tried to walk the ball into the net and Bell blocked Sutherland’s shot in a one-on-one. A few minutes later a slick Brora free-kick routine saw the ball move from Sutherland to Gavin Morrison to Colin Williamson with Bell bringing off a great save from the defender’s far-post header as Brora continued to carve out chances.
Keith were still trying to break in numbers wherever they could and striker Michael Ewan missed by a whisker after Scott Graham carelessly gave the ball away with a loose pass on the edge of the Brora box.
After Greig’s excellent strikes in the first half, it was now time for Brora’s other wide man Sutherland to show his goalscoring qualities. In the 75th minute he finished with aplomb to put Brora 3-1 up after a slick build-up featuring Graham and MacKay.
Another slick one-touch Brora move in the 82nd minute was finished off by MacKay but his joy was short-lived when he saw the offside flag raised. Undaunted by the disallowed goal, Brora continued attacking and Sutherland went close with a solo run and cross-shot held by keeper Bell, and followed this with a run and shot that the Keith stopper parried away to safety.
However, Sutherland was not to be denied and in the 87th minute he set off on a great right-wing run, cut inside past two defenders and buried a screamer of a drive inside the helpless Bell’s left-hand post for Brora’s fourth goal.
In added time, a great, raking cross-field ball from Dale Gillespie was controlled by Sutherland and his cross-shot was well held at the near post by keeper Bell and, in the last meaningful act of the match, he pushed a shot from Graham wide.
For the first quarter of this match, Keith were the better side and it was far from an easy task for Brora to wrest the initiative from them, particularly after the visitors went ahead.
Maroons manager Winton said: “I was pleased by our performance and effort. We competed well, and supported our striker well from midfield.
“We knew what to expect coming to Brora but we were beaten by tremendous strikes from both wingers. If we put in that kind of performance we won’t get beaten 4-1 every week.”
Brora had to fight for the right to play their fast, direct possession football and were put on the back foot by Keith’s lively start and positive attacking intent.
Cattachs manager Brittain said: “Keith dominated the first 20 minutes and made it difficult for us and I take my hat off to them. At times we need to be more clinical and braver in possession.”