Nicky Clark was to score his 21st goal of the season in the 95th minute of Saturday’s Championship encounter between Inverness Caledonian Thistle and Dunfermline Athletic. The equaliser was to send the strong travelling support delirious as the Pars remained in pole-position to secure their place in the Premiership Promotion Play-Offs ahead of their Highland counterparts.
John Robertson’s side were missing two key players from their double-header against Dumbarton. Captain Gary Warren and experienced midfielder Iain Vigurs were unavailable due to injury and suspension, respectively, Canadian internationalist Charlie Trafford would replace the influential Vigurs while Colin Seedorf regained a slot in the starting eleven, replacing the stricken Warren. Elsewhere, left-back Carl Tremarco stepped up from the bench to take the captain’s armband, with Riccardo Calder dropping out of the starting line-up and having to settle for a place on the bench.
For the visitors, Declan McManus dropped down amongst the substitutes, to be replaced by Andy Ryan, in the only change to the starting eleven from last weekend’s 4-0 win over Brechin City. Captain Callum Morris shook off a knock that forced him out of last week’s clash at East End Park during the warm-up to regain a place within the 18-man squad, taking the slot of Dean Shiels. Long-term injured duo Sean Murdoch and Aaron Splaine remain out for the Fifers as the travelled north on a beautiful afternoon on the Moray Firth.
The first real chance of note turned out to be the opener, as Ryan grabbed his second goal within a week. Lewis Martin done excellent to stride down the left-hand side, evading challenges of Liam Polworth and then Seedorf, to lay the ball back to Ryan, who beat Mark Ridgers at his near-post, with the goalkeeper seemingly letting the ball squirm through his hands to gift the visitors an early opener.
However, Caley weren’t behind for long: Joe Chalmers lined up a left-footed free-kick from 25-yards out, with the ex-Motherwell full-back converting with a superbly hit set-piece strike. The number 4 curled the ball over the wall and into Lee Robinson’s left-hand corner, via the inside of the post, to draw the game level within four minutes of Dunfermline’s opener.
Ryan continued to cause issues up front as the hosts struggled to handle the former Airdrieonians front-man. Firstly, the attack smashed a shot from distance over the bar, deflecting off ex-Pars loanee Brad McKay on the way through to concede a corner. Then, shortly afterwards, McKay was penalised for hauling down Ryan; referee Stephen Finnie played advantage though as the striker advanced into the area before teeing up Fraser Aird. The winger delayed his initial shot – with the Canadian twisting and turning looking for an angle, before finally unleashing a left-footed attempt which Ridgers easily gathered to his left.
James Craigen shot well off-target as his left-footed volley failed to trouble the Jags defence, while, at the other end, Aaron Doran cut inside and nearly found the far-corner with a shot which had Robinson scrambling. Then, Nathan Austin got the better of Jean-Yves M’Voto, but, the ex-East Fife man failed to find the net on this occasion, with Robinson blocking the effort at his near-post.
But, the Fifer wasn’t to be denied: just after the interval, he picked up the ball and drove forward with it, exposing the visiting backline as he crashed the ball home from just inside the area. The left-footed strike left Robinson with no chance, to send Inverness in front for the first time in the contest.
A Polworth in-swinging corner from the left was headed narrowly wide by Coll Donaldson shortly after while Polworth came close after lobbing Robinson, only to see the ball cleared off the goal-line.
Allan Johnston was not hanging around as he made two early substitutions in this encounter, sacrificing wingers Aird and Kallum Higginbotham for Joe Cardle and striker McManus. Inverness would also switch things around up front, bringing on teenager Daniel Mackay for Austin.
Cardle linked with Nicky Clark inside the area but his left-footed shot went just past Ridgers’ post as the game opened up. Then, Clark himself shot over as the away fans got increasingly anxious.
It looked as though Mackay may be able to seal the deal for the hosts but Robertson’s side would come back to rue a big miss from the youngster, who – unmarked inside the penalty area – shot wide of goal with the target at his mercy.
White and Black striped shirts flooded forward for set-piece deliveries which Caley dealt with before Ryan tested Ridgers, but his volley wasn’t powerful enough to sneak by the former Scotland Under-21 International on this occasion.
Callum Morris was brought on for James Craigan as injury time loomed. With the towering target of M’Voto up front, Dunfermline were throwing everything at their opposition, with a goal for the Fifers so important in the battle for that final play-off slot. With this in mind, Robertson tried to kill time by replacing winger Doran with Calder for the final few seconds.
With the match entering the final minute of stoppage time, McManus won a free-kick 25-yards out on the right. Cardle swung the delivery across for Clark to stoop low and guide his header home for the equaliser; que bedlam in the away end behind the goal with the large travelling support going delirious while stunned silence could be heard from the home sections of the Tulloch Caledonian Stadium.
Referee Finnie blew for full-time shortly after, with Inverness now knowing they must win both matches to stand any chance of finishing in the top 4 this campaign. For Dunfermline, Clark’s late goal ensures them of a last-day showdown with Dumbarton, with just a point required to seal their place in the play-offs.
Speaking after the match, a delighted Allan Johnston said:
“I thought we started the game well; Andy Ryan scored a great goal after Lewis Martin did really well and cuts it back to him: it was a really good finish. Then, after that, they got back into the game, from a bit of a soft free-kick. He [George Oakley] was pulling Lee Ashcroft down and just falls over. It was a great finish [from Joe Chalmers], right into the bottom corner – there is not much you can do about it when it comes over the wall.
Second-Half, I don’t think we started well at all. They started the opening 15 to 20 minutes the better team, then we got back into the game again. We started putting pressure on and thankfully we got that goal at the end. You can see the boys never gave up and kept on going right until the very end. Big players step up in big games; it was a great delivery from Joe [Cardle] and Nicky [Clark] has finished it off like all good strikers do. Inverness know they need to win their remaining games: it is up to us to make sure that we get the job done and get the result we need to get us into the play-offs.”
On the other hand, John Robertson was very subdued post-match as he spoke with the press:
“A sickener and more, I would suggest,” begins the former Hearts boss. “The boys were nervous in the warm-up and we started nervous. We all knew how important a game it was, today. I thought for the first 15-20 minutes, Dunfermline deserved their goal and their lead, but, once we had equalised, we got on top and had the better chances within the first-half: it was end-to-end and a terrific game of football. Then, in the second-half, I thought we took control of the game; it was a wonderful goal by Nathan Austin.
The boys have given everything – they have very little left in the tank, but, they kept going. We knew Dunfermline would be dangerous and would keep coming forward – they were always going to throw bodies into the box. We had a great chance to kill the game off, Daniel [Mackay] is really unlucky, he is inches away from winning it. Then we showed our naivety, which is the disappointing aspect…we are telling young Dan to run into the corner flag and run the game down, and then, the goal is disappointing: Charlie [Trafford] has the ball and he lobs it into the box, but, again, we are saying, go into the corner flag, there is only a minute to go…can they score from their own corner flag area within 1 minute?
We gave a soft free-kick away and then, the killer for me is, Nicky Clark is the top goal-scorer in the division and a predator within the penalty area; we are asking them in the dressing-room to be honest and tell us who it was that was supposed to be marking him. Nobody has owned up to it, which is even worse because that suggests we have left their top goal-scorer unmarked and free within the box. Football is the cruellest of games: if you are Dunfermline fan, you will be absolutely delighted as it looked as though we would hold on, but, they have done what they have done all season…this Dunfermline team scores goals. We still need to travel to Livingston [on Tuesday] and hopefully win the game, but, it is now massively in their favour. Dunfermline only need a point now against Dumbarton and you’d expect them to get that at home with the quality they have got. It is a pity, with all the hard work we have put in: this is our seventh game this month, we’ve still got two to go and, if we had held on, for those last few seconds…however, that is how competitive this division is. It can turn on things like that and we wish Dunfermline well and nothing but success as they are a big club and would do wonders for the Premiership. So would Dundee United, and Livingston, but, Dunfermline have a big support and you just wonder, with that late goal, “will it be their year?” – it might be their year to get through the play-offs and back into the promised land.
We will approach it [the final two games] the same as we approached it today. We will go out and attempt to play at the best of our abilities. We need to go and hopefully get a victory at Livingston. As I said, football can be a cruel game but it can also produces miracles and maybe a win on Tuesday can help us produce one of those. Even if we won today, we knew how difficult the task would be as we still have to play and beat Morton too. Had we won, Dunfermline would still be favourites as not many teams can go to Livingston and Morton within the space of 4 days and win both. As much as we have done well, we must give credit to the two immediate teams above us in Dunfermline and Dundee United as they have picked up some crucial wins recently, at the right time.”
FULL-TIME: Inverness Caledonian Thistle 2-2 Dunfermline Athletic
28. Mark Ridgers
17. Colin Seedorf
22, Brad McKay
23. Coll Donaldson
3. Carl Tremarco (Captain)
7. Liam Polworth
24. Charlie Trafford
4. Joe Chalmers
10. Aaron Doran (Riccardo Calder 90′)
14. George Oakley
8. Nathan Austin (Dnaiel Mackay 60′)
1. Ryan Esson (GK)
15. Jake Mulraney
16. Riccardo Calder
18. Zak Elbouzedi
20. Connor Bell
27. Daniel Mackay
32. Jack Brown
25. Lee Robinson
2. Ryan WIlliamson
4. Jean-Yves M’Voto
6. Lee Ashcrfot
3. Lewis Martin
7. Kallum Higginbotham (Declan McManus 68′)
26. James Vincent
28. James Craigen (Callum Morris 90′)
17. Fraser Aird (Joe Cardle 60′)
10. Nicky Clark (Captain)
16. Andy Ryan
20. Cammy Gill (GK)
5. Callum Morris
8. Nat Wedderburn
9. Declan McManus
11. Joe Cardle
12. Daniel Armstrong
14. Jason Talbot
Referee: Stephen Finnie