Ben Clarke’s first-half strike helped a youthful Bute first team to a 1-1 draw away to Kilmallie in the National Division on Saturday.
Bute’s away day selection issues continued due to suspension and work commitments, and manager Ted McDonald was forced to name a young squad, with no fewer than six of the 14 players under the age of 18 and the average age of the team being just 21.
Kilmallie were runner’s up in last year’s second tier, and narrowly lost to Kingussie in a play off for promotion to the top flight - and any trepidation the islanders might have had was further tempered by their recent form in this fixture, as the men in red had been on the wrong side of 10-0 and 9-0 shellackings on their last trips to Caol.
Possibly for the first time since the advent of organized shinty Fort William was drenched in sunshine and the despite the cramped confines of the tight Canal Park the conditions were perfect.
This was Kilmallie’s first outing on a grass this season and although they shaded the early exchanges Bute were sharper in their challenges and crisper in their hitting.
Any illusion that Bute were only here to ‘park the bus’ were shattered just after the quarter hour mark when a Kevin Queen bye hit was won well in midfield by the industrious Adam Stirling, and he moved the ball quickly down the same side to Clarke, whose lofted backhand strike from wide on the left had enough movement on it to deceive the Kilmallie keeper and nestle in the back of the home net.
Although the expected Kilmallie riposte came with increased pressure on Queen’s penalty area, Bute had taken heart from the goal and were defending stoutly. Queen even had the time to gift himself some extra goalkeeping practice when a bye hit was stopped by full forward Duncan Rodger who bore down on goal but his subsequent shot brought the Bute custodian to life and the shot was expertly turned round the post.
The Bute forward line of Clarke, Willie Lawrence, William Boag and Craig Mackay were causing consternation among the Kilmallie ranks when they got to the ball first and moved it quickly.
Duncan Davidson had dropped back into the centre, and was ably backed up by the strawberry-powered Adam Stirling and Franco Devlin to more than hold their own against the powerful Kilmallie centre line all afternoon.
The frustration voiced by the Kilmallie players and support was music to the ears of the travelling Red Army - but on the stroke of half time, with Bute more than comfortable with everything that had been thrown at them, the powerful Duncan Rodger, a close-season signing from Fort William, managed to locate a sliver of space from the close attention of Iain McDonald and squeeze a shot inside the post from 25 yards to level the scores.
At half time, despite losing such a late goal, the spirits in the Bute camp were buoyed by the positive first half performance and confidence was high for the remaining 45 minutes.
The second half continued in much the same vein as the first, with Bute comfortable in defence and competing well across the park; Aaron McKirdy had come on for Boag to make his first team debut and did not look out of place playing some probing through balls.
Kilmallie were limited to possession in non-threatening areas of the pitch, with their only serious effort on goal a rasping volley by Michael Rodger which flashed by the top corner.
This was the only chance the dangerous Rodger had as he was well marshalled by Ryan Craig - who, along with his defensive colleagues Iain McDonald, Chrissy Lawrence and John MacCallum, were clearing their lines simply and effectively, and any balls that found their way through to Queen were shepherded to safety with a minimum of fuss.
Bute had two breakaway opportunities to snatch both points when both Mackay and Davidson found themselves in space but they were unfortunately not able to capitalize on their chances.
Bute even resorted to unusual tactics to keep Kilmallie in their own half when an errant Clarke swing floored his teammate McKay and the referee fortuitously stopped play to allow treatment and award a throw up in the heart of the home defence.
This was a diligent performance by Bute against one of the toughest sides in the division and everyone played their part in a real team effort to ensure a precious point was heading back down the road.
Bute must harness some of this away day spirit when they return home to the Meadows to face Caberfeidh this Saturday.