BUTE scraped through to the final of the Balliemore Cup in dramatic fashion after a thrilling semi-final tie in Taynuilt on Saturday.
Level after 90 minutes against a Lochaber side determined to atone for their shoot-out loss to Kinlochshiel in the 2010 final, Bute fell behind to a Ryan Toal strike five minutes into extra time - and then looked down and out when Danny Delaney’s goal put Lochaber 3-1 up with only five minutes remaining.
But Hector Whitelaw and Roberto Zavaroni hauled the island side back from the brink before a tense shoot-out saw the 2007 winners prevail - after seven penalties for each side.
Following their encouraging team performance, and unlucky defeat, to Premier League leaders Kyles in the Macaulay Cup seven days previously, Bute might have been expected to begin the game on the front foot - but despite playing down the slight slope of the pitch and with a following wind behind them, Bute struggled a little in the early stages, with Gordon McMillan struggling to settle into a rhythm in his first match back after injury and holiday.
Zavaroni was another Bute player who didn’t quite manage early on to play to the best of his ability, though the islanders’ game plan to push their forward line as far up the field as possible, in order to give Zavaroni a little more space to play, hit a stumbling block in the face of a strong Lochaber defence who gave very little away.
Bute enjoyed a slightly greater share of possession in the first half, but only when playing the ball on the ground and making use of the open spaces on both wings did they begin to stretch the Lochaber defence.
The island side were given a golden chance to open the scoring in the tenth minute after a Lochaber defender kicked the ball inside the D, but Hector Whitelaw’s penalty was kept out by a fine save - albeit one which left the Lochaber goalkeeper with a stinging hand for quite some time afterwards!
Bute’s best first half opportunities fell to Zavaroni and Robert Walker, but none of the chances were particularly clear-cut - and then, just before half time, Lochaber broke quickly up the park and from a tempting ball across the face of the D Scott Paterson drilled home the opening goal.
But Bute were far from downhearted at the break - instead they took heart from their greater share of the first half possession, and in fact found it slightly easier, playing against the wind and up the slope, to retain possession.
The introduction of Leighton Reid in place of McMillan midway through the second half, and the resulting move of David Whitelaw from the wing to second forward, had exactly the desired effect, and soon led to Walker levelling the scores with a well-taken strike.
But clear-cut goalscoring opportunities remained at a premium in the last quarter of the game - until, with just three minutes left, Walker passed up a glorious chance to score the winner when he turned his man beautifully at the corner flag and bore down on goal along the by-line, but went for power rather than precision with his shot and blazed the ball wide.
And it looked like Bute might be made to pay dearly for that miss when, with extra time five minutes old, Ryan Toal gave Lochaber the lead.
Bute’s second substitute, David MacDonald, was brought on for the second half of extra time, with Hector Whitelaw - who had received a broken nose in one of a number of meaty clashes with a Lochaber opponent earlier in the match - moving up front to try and put the wind up the Lochaber defenders.
But instead it was Lochaber who struck what appeared to be a killer blow in the 115th minute with another counter-attacking strike, Danny Delaney giving Queen no chance to put one Lochaber foot in the final.
The Spean Bridge side, understandably, sought to slow the game down in the closing stages - but it was a tactic which blew up in their faces in controversial fashion three minutes from the end.
Bute were awarded a free hit in midfield, and during the stoppage Lochaber shouted from the sidelines that they wanted to make a substitution - but with no-one in red-and-white hoops actually ready to come on to the park, referee Robert Baxter waved play on, and with several Lochaber players still waiting for the change, Iain MacDonald floated the ball up for Hector Whitelaw to drive it into the net.
Though it was probably the right decision by the referee, Lochaber were understandably furious - though their anger turned increasingly to desperation when Bute won possession from the throw-up and piled the pressure on their opponents’ goal, with Whitelaw’s presence in particular forcing the Lochaber defenders into some panicky clearances.
And in the very last minute of extra time, one such desperate attempt fell straight at Zavaroni’s feet - and he lashed the ball into the net to send the Bute players and supporters wild with delight.
There was no time for any further action from open play, leaving the outcome of the tie to be decided by a penalty shoot-out.
Lochaber had lost the 2010 final to Kinlochshiel in just that fashion, having conceded an equaliser in the final minute of normal time; whether that played on their minds or inspired them to try and do better was open to debate, but it was Bute who took the initiative when Hector Whitelaw fired home their first penalty and keeper Kevin Queen saved Lochaber’s opening effort.
The next round of penalties went the other way, with Zavaroni missing for Bute, before David Whitelaw did likewise with his team’s third effort, a poor shot which owed much to a nasty divot just at the penalty spot.
Lochaber scored their third to go 2-1 up, before Walker levelled matters and Queen saved Lochaber’s fourth attempt; round five saw two misses, Iain MacDonald for Bute, to leave the scores tied at 2-2 and the outcome resting on sudden death.
Both sides missed their sixth penalties, Hector Whitelaw shooting wide for Bute, but in round seven Zavaroni found the back of the net - and Lochaber’s effort flew wide of the target to give Bute a place in the final against Caberfeidh in Portree on July 23.
“Houdini couldn’t have got out of that one,” Bute coach Barry Martin told us after the game.
“At 3-1 down with five minutes to go you would never have expected us to get back into it, but it just shows you how quickly things can change, especially after the way we lost to Kyles the previous week.
“It wasn’t as classy a performance as we’d put in at Tighnabruaich, but I think we got our just reward in the end.”
* Anyone wishing to travel to Portree to support Bute’s first team in the Balliemore Cup final on July 23 is advised to start looking for accommodation ASAP, since visitor beds in the Skye capital fill up very quickly at weekends - especially at the height of the summer!