RANGERS COLTS’ historic run in the SPFL Challenge Cup was ended this evening by Championship Inverness – but the youngsters deserve enormous credit for running a side pushing for promotion to the Premiership all the way.
The dominant team throughout, in horrendous conditions with driving rain and gales, the youngsters took the lead through Dapo Mebude, and despite creating so many chances, were pegged back by goals from James Keatings and Miles Storey.
Graeme Murty was able to include two over-age players in his squad today, and was afforded the services of goalkeeper Andy Firth and winger Jake Hastie by first-team boss Steven Gerrard.
Still, however, the average age of the team was just 18.3 – highlighting the scale of the achievement of this squad to make it through five rounds with senior, men’s sides to the semi-final stage of this competition.
Indeed, within 10 seconds of Inverness taking kick-off, Gers had won the ball back and Kai Kennedy pulled off an outrageous turn to get away from James Vincent before playing a dangerous ball forward for Dapo Mebude, though Caley got men back to smuggle the ball away.
A loose clearance from Danny Finlayson then allowed David Carson the opening to shoot from outside the area, but Andy Firth held on well to his effort.
Sensationally, however, on six minutes, the young Gers grabbed the lead.
Tom Walsh’s clearance went only as far as Jake Hastie midway inside the home half, and he strode forward with the ball before knocking it on for Dapo Mebude.
He tried to play it wide to the right for Nathan Patterson, but found his route blocked, and as the ball came back to him, he unleashed a super drive into the bottom corner with his right foot.
It was just the start Murty and co. were after – and while Inverness probably had the bulk of the possession after the goal, Gers were doing superbly to turn the ball over time and again, and they looked so, so dangerous on the break given the pace they had in the forward areas.
Both Haste and Josh McPake had efforts from distance slip just wide of the left and right posts respectively, while McPake had an even closer effort on 28 minutes which grazed the outside of the right upright.
Three minutes later, and it ought to have been two, with Kennedy picking out Mebude at the back post, but from 10-yards out, with the ball bobbling as it reached him, he hit the crossbar, and while the rebound fell onto the head of Hastie, his nodded effort was hacked away off the line by the Highlanders.
Cammy Palmer had a daisy-cutter held by goalkeeper Mark Ridgers before on 44 minutes, Caley drew themselves level against the run of play.
James Keatings’ effort took a deflection of Rhys Breen, and with goalkeeper Firth wrong-footed, the ball ended up in the back of the net.
It was so harsh on the young Gers who deserved to still be at least a goal ahead on the balance of play.
Into the second half, and they came close to re-taking the lead within two minutes of the restart. A Kai Kennedy free-kick from just outside the box down the left channel found Rhys Breen at the back post, but Lewis Toshney managed to get a touch on his header to divert it away for a corner.
Ciaran Dickson then brought a super stop out of Ridgers at his near post when a Hastie cross reached him on the edge of the area to the right of goal.
At the other end, Andy Firth made a wonder-save from close range as Carl Tremarco attempted to turn home a Walsh cross before on 57 minutes, the home side were reduced to 10 men.
Goalscorer Keatings, who had been booked earlier, was shown a second yellow card for simulation by referee Greg Aitken as he went down under a Dickson challenge on the edge of the area.
Caley then thought they had taken the lead as Walsh chipped an effort over Andy Firth, but the flag of the stand-side official denied him.
Josh McPake had another effort go just wide of the target following super work from Dickson on the left, while Mebude couldn’t turn home a looping Hastie cross which dropped for him under pressure at the back post.
McPake then brought another save out of Ridgers low to his left as Hastie picked him out 15-yards from goal, while the keeper also grasped a deflected Dickson effort.
Again against the run of play, however, Caley netted their second goal on 74 minutes. Andy Firth made a great stop from James Vincent’s initial effort, but Miles Storey followed up on the rebound to hand the advantage to the home side.
Gers didn’t panic, however, and Mebude brought another save out of Ridgers, while Danny Finlayson fired a Kenendy corner to the front-post wide on the volley.
Kennedy then hit the bar with another free-kick from down in that left channel, with sub Nathan Yooung-Coombes nodded a Patterson cross over the bar.
Gers were creating an incredible amount of opportunities as the minutes ticked down, and Young-Coombes had another effort deflected behind for a corner while Kennedy shot into the side-netting as he cut in from the right.
It’s the end then of an incredible journey for the youngsters who can hold their heads high after pushing Caley all the way.
RANGERS COLTS: Firth; Patterson, Finlayson, Breen, Shiels (Maxwell, 87); Palmer (McCausland, 83) Dickson, Kennedy; McPake, Hastie (Young-Coombes, 74), Mebude.
SUBS: Kinnear, Butterworth, McClelland, Miller.
INVERNESS CT: Ridgers, Rooney, Tremarco, Toshney, Carson, White (Todorov, 74), Walsh (Doran, 79), McHattie, Vincent, Storey, Trafford (Keatings, 28)
SUBS: MacKay, McKay, Harper, MacGregor.
REFEREE: Greg Aitken