Academy Bid for Final

Academy bid for first final - Article by Ken Wood

As Wick Academy's footballers prepare for their North Cup tie against Caley Thistle, Ken Wood looks back to earlier semi finals and hopes it will 8th time lucky.

When Wick Academy meet Inverness Caledonian Thistle in the semi final of the ITP North of Scotland Cup next Tuesday they will be trying to reach a senior final for the first time. Despite the Harmsworth Park club's long history in the North Cup, reaching the semi final stage seven times they have never made it to a final.

Academy entered a team in the North Cup for the first time back in1913/14 but were unable to travel to Forres for the First round tie in February 1914 as most of their players had been called up for training with the Volunteers, forerunners of the Territorials. Academy did not enter the North Cup again until the 1954/5 season but soon made up for lost time when after a First Round bye they won 4-3 at Brora. Due to the heavy snow which continued well into the spring of 1955 the semi final match away to Caledonian at Telford Street Park, Inverness was not played until April 30th and having enjoyed considerably less match practice than their Highland League opponents Academy lost 3-1, all the goals coming in the first half, the Wick goal a penalty converted by Jimmy Durrand.

Academy had to wait another 42 years for their next semi final appearance by which time they had themselves joined the Highland League.

After the long years which had brought successes in the various North Caledonian (previously North Reserve) League competitions Wick Academy at last made it to a North cup semi final again in 1997. Midway through his second season in charge, Scorries boss Don Cowie had to prepare his team for a tricky tie away at Golspie on January 18th. Academy patiently awaited their opportunity before netting two late goals, one of them from present co manager Richard Hughes. Three weeks later Academy travelled down to Elgin to meet the City team who had recently won 2-0 in the league at Harmsworth Park. The bookmakers certainly viewed Academy as underdogs, quoting odds of 8 to 1 for the away win, an offer readily accepted by several fans whose wee investments were rewarded with a 2-1 win. So 42 years after the previous semi Wick fans had another to look forward to, indeed the club's first ever home game at that advanced stage. Forres Mechanics were the visitors on March 1st but despite recent good form against the Morayshire team Wick were destined to bow out of the cup, though not before a prolonged battle. Nil-nil that day at Harmsworth Park at the interval the game was called off by referee Billy Murray because of the gale force wind and it was a goal less stalemate again the next Saturday when the teams reconvened for what has become known as the ‘game of three halves'. On March 15th at Mosset Park, Forres eased through to the final 4-1, Alan Murray netting what was merely a consolation goal.

By the time the North Cup games came round the next year John Black was manager with Peter Budge as his assistant. Gordon Connelly and Nigel MacKenzie were now in the team and scored a goal each to earn a 2-2 draw at Rothes. The replay saw Academy's first involvement in a penalty shoot out, a successful 4-2 effort after extra time had failed to separate the teams at 1-1. Neither Academy nor the Caley Thistle second string, could find the net in Harmsworth Park's second semi final. The replay was at Grant Street as Caley Thistle had a first team game at Caledonian Stadium that day, April 11th 1998. Sandy Macleod scored with one of his many brave diving headers but the Inverness team won 2-1 with a disputed late goal.

Academy were now well established in the Highland League having tasted the fruits of victory against every team except Peterhead and had quite a respectable record against other North FA clubs.  Yet in the North Cup they were doomed to first round defeats four years in a row, all at Harmsworth Park. On January 25th 2003, after a first round bye, Craig Shearer (61) and Stevie Reid (80) scored goals at Station Park and at 2-1 up Wick looked to set for a win in Alistair Budge's first game in charge until Nairn were awarded a controversial 88th minute penalty. Gary Farquhar netted the spot kick against his past and future team mates and County went on to win 3-2 after extra time. Incidentally that game saw the debut of a 15 year old sub, Gary Weir, who has since figured prominently in Academy's cup exploits.

The North Cup had been sponsored for more than 20 years by Scottish Brewers to give a marketing boost to their McEwan's Lager brand but Wick fans had been drowning their sorrows rather than celebrating.

The format of the competition was then changed to mini league sections which ensured a couple of local derbies, in Wick's case against Brora and Golspie. The Academy team took full advantage of the new set up although the matches have been close hard fought affairs, tense for players and supporters alike.

The Wick/Brora game on March 10th 2004 was a 3-3 draw so when Golspie pulled off a shock 1-0 win at Brora the scene was set for a real showdown under the Harmsworth Park lights on March 24th, Golspie having conceded home advantage. The visitors scored first to increase the tension and excitement but Martin Gunn equalised and then a brace from young Craig Gunn completed Academy's recovery rewarded with a semi final visit to Elgin. City manager David Robertson opted to field his full first team and although Wick put up a brave fight at Borough Briggs they went out to two late goals.

In September 2004 Academy enjoyed a good start at Dudgeon Park where Alan Sinclair netted a penalty kick after 17 minutes. Although Brora equalised, a quick one -two from Gavin Henderson (50) and Gary Manson (52) sealed a Wick win. Again Golspie took the lead at Harmsworth Park and again Martin Gunn equalised, this time from the penalty spot after 66 minutes and when Gary Weir, now 17 years old scrambled the winner in stoppage joy was unconfined both on the pitch and in the stands. Hopes were high when Forres came north for the semi final, with confident talk of avenging the 1997 defeat. Tuesday October 12th was a big night of sport in Wick with Stephen Hendry playing snooker at the Francis Street Club. Further along South Road Forres had Whyte, Black, Brown and Green in their line up and potted three goals to dash Academy's dreams of playing in the Final.

The autumn of 2005 produced a similar set of results in the Far North group of the UMAX North Cup. Second half goals from brothers Jamie and Nigel MacKenzie gave Wick a winning start against Golspie on August 31st. Brora then drew 1-1 with Golspie so Academy needed only to draw at Brora on Saturday September 17th. The Cattachs led 1-0 at half time but Gary Farquhar turned it round in the second half. He immediately set up a Jamie MacKenzie equaliser and was in brilliant form at the heart of the midfield action before scoring two late goals to earn his team's place in another home semi final. The semi final with Nairn County on Tuesday October 18th under the Harmsworth Park lights had a real cup tie atmosphere. Jamie MacKenzie scored in the 9th minute and until the hour mark things were going well for Wick. Then Brian MacLeod equalised with a 30 yard drive and in the 69th minute Willie Barron sidefooted the ball past Don MacMillan to give the visitors a 2-1 lead. Wick rallied and with a minute left of normal time Nigel MacKenzie levelled it at 2-2 with a 20 yard lob only to miss an easier looking chance in stoppage time. Nairn were stronger in extra time when substitute Martin MacDonald and David MacRae netted for a 4-2 win. Nairn went on to beat highly rated Forres Mechanics in the final.

In 2006 it was back to the knock out formula and new boss Peter Budge watched happily as Academy raced to a 3-0 half time lead against Clachnacuddin. Despite some anxious moments for the Harmsworth Park fans his young team held on for a 3-2 win. They also played well at Dingwall but lost 3-1 to quite a strong Ross County squad so hopes of another semi final were dashed.

Last season it was back to the group format with more anxious moments as the team now managed by Ian Munro and Richard Hughes went 0-3 and then 1-4 down at home to Brora. Academy looked dead and buried but three goals in as many minutes earned a 4-4 draw, Gary Weir the hat trick hero. Then came a 3-2 win away to Golspie at Brora. Leading by Gary Manson's early goal all seemed fine for Wick until Golspie struck twice in three minutes just before the break. Two goals from Gary Farquhar eventually eased Wick into another eagerly awaited semi final with Caley Thistle. At Harmsworth Park on September 4th the young Inverness team won 2-0, one of the goals netted by former Halkirk and Academy youngster Shane Sutherland so Wick had bowed out at the penultimate stage for the seventh time.

The start date and time of the Beijing Olympics has made us all aware that eight is a lucky number so maybe Tuesday's semi final will be a case of eighth time lucky! Following their fine wins against Ross County and Golspie the current squad has the chance to be the first Wick Academy team to make it to a senior final. Good luck boys!