IT was neither pretty not particularly comfortable, but Inverness Caledonian Thistle mastered both Stranraer and treacherously wet conditions to keep alive their interest in the William Hill Scottish Cup.
Last night's fifth-round replay was settled by a third-minute finish Nick Ross knew little of and a late second goal from Aaron Doran which put a glossier sheen on the game from the Highlanders' point of view.
But it was a rather laboured display from the SPFL Premiership club as John Hughes earned his first home win as Inverness manager at the sixth attempt. Dundee United now await as quarter-final visitors on Saturday, March 8, eight days before the League Cup final against Aberdeen.
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If there was to be any cup romance in the dank Highland air, the onus would always be on Stranraer to generate it, and they did their level best, although the sodden conditions sapped the atmosphere and the sparse attendance, too. A busload of Stranraer supporters did make the marathon trip, and were relieved to see the patchy, heavily-sanded surface survive two pitch inspections before 7pm.
It would have been a nightmare for the visiting players,too, had the game been called off, given the part-timers' five hour, 260-mile trek north.
Inverness had snatched a replay by the skin of their teeth 16 days earlier, with Billy McKay's late equaliser in a 2-2 draw at Stair Park preserving their challenge. Given the odds stacked against Stephen Aitken's spirited group, it seemed unthinkable that there could be a repeat of the earlier inconvenience.
The League 1 side named just five of seven permitted substitutes with the likes of Mark Corcoran, Stephen Stirling and Chris Aitken unavailable. Hughes, though, had been at pains to talk up the visitors' attributes, knowing they had also drawn with Rangers at Ibrox in the league in December.
Hughes had pondered large-scale changes for the tie but, in the event, made only two, a sure measure of his wariness. Richie Foran, the Inverness captain, made his first start since injuring his shoulder just before Christmas, while Ross was also restored to the side. Marley Watkins and Doran dropped to the bench.
The one thing Stranraer did not need was to concede an early goal, but they did and it came with a fair degree of good fortune on the home side's part. David Raven's measured pass sent Ross racing in behind the away defence. Scott Robertson was sharp enough to make a tackle but the ball hit off Ross' ankle and eluded David Mitchell in the Stranraer goal.
Stranraer were not without flashes of invention. In the 13th minute, Jamie Longworth's dinked pass played Sean Winter into space in the box but the striker's first-time shot flew straight into Dean Brill's arms.
The visitors' quickly shook off their bus legs and retreated into a dogged counter-attacking game plan, one that would have offered much encouragement without the early concession.
Clear-cut openings for the hosts remained limited, although Graeme Shinnie whipped an 18-yard shot just over the bar after 34 minutes.
At the other end, Ross Draper entered referee Alan Muir's book for hacking down Mark Docherty. From Andrew Stirling's free-kick, Foran made a timely, headed clearance before danger ebbed. It was certainly a warning to Inverness and they reacted. Ross drove forwards and picked out McKay from the left but his low strike from 10 yards was pushed away sharply for a corner by the outstretched arm of Mitchell.
Home supporters in the main stand were growing restless early in the second half. Stranraer were more than just spirited opponents digging deep. They always looked capable of clawing a way back into the match, moving the ball quickly in spells. The hosts' best efforts were often bogged down in the arc of mud outside the visitors' box.
McKay finally put the ball in the net after 66 minutes, but the offside flag was raised. Doran entered the fray and immediately won a free kick right on the right edge of the box, with Docherty booked.
Steven Bell's audacious 30-yard attempt might have snatched a lifeline for Stranraer late in the game, but Brill scrambled to divert the ball for a corner and Doran finally set the seal on the tie in stoppage time with a low, skidding strike from 20 yards.