It was a double festive boost for Formartine United’s title hopes on Saturday with a 2-0 win at Keith - coupled with Brora Rangers first league defeat of the season at home to Fraserburgh.
The results mean that United are three points clear of the Sutherland side, who have two games in hand.
However, Formartine did not look anything like the team sitting on top of the table. Keith conducted the first half in an ultra-cautious eight behind the ball format before opening out in the second to give the visitors something approaching a decent run for their money.
The game was conducted in difficult conditions in which a rutted playing surface made a close passing game difficult to sustain and a swirling wind did no favours for those attempting longer range passes.
The first half pattern was quickly established as Formartine applied plenty of pressure and Keith responded by packing players behind the ball and showing a reluctance to press forward.
Something had to give and the visitors took the lead in the 32nd minute.
McVitie clipped a ball across the goalmouth to meet the well-timed run of left back Smith who got in behind Phillips before driving home from a tight angle.
Formartine pressure intensified and yielded more attempts on goal albeit far too many, from Bagshaw in particular, were poorly struck and did nothing other than transfer possession to Keith.
A minute before the interval Dan Park picked up a through ball from Munro, broke diagonally from wide to the front right corner of the box and whipped over an awkward low ball towards the back post.
The predatory Mike Ewen was waiting to force the ball into the net before keeper Macleod had time to react.
The second half began with Keith throwing caution to the wind and attempting to force their way back into the game. At two nil down they had nothing more to lose and started to play with far more freedom and fluency.
Within a minute of the restart MacAskill and Anderson combined to set the former up for a drive that fizzed past Shearer’s left upright and the latter forced him into a double save that concluded with a corner. Formartine had hardly managed a kick of the ball in this time.
As the game wore on United looked content to protect what they had. The introduction of Napier and Cammy Keith for Bagshaw and Park respectively, briefly threatened to increase the pressure on the home side but failed to do so.
Formartine did look worth their victory, against a competent, decently organised team with an encouraging level of enthusiam.
With a festive double header against Inverurie Locos to follow, United enter a crucial phase in their campaign in a strong position but not yet in the kind of form to inspire serious confidence.
Keith: McLeod, Hutcheon, Wood, Milne, Phillips, Raffel, Keith, Collinson, MacAskill, Massie, Anderson. Substitutes: Smart, Robison, Cormack, Smith, Ritchie.
Formartine United: Shearer, Munro, Smith, McKeown, Campbell, Clark, Park, McVitie, Bagshaw, Ewen, Hamill. Substitutes: Napier Jeffrey, Davidson, Keith, Doak.