Ross County were sent tumbling out of the Scottish Cup at the first hurdle in the cruellest of fashion at Kilmarnock – leaving them to focus solely on the overriding priority of safeguarding their top flight status.
A dire match at Rugby Park looked destined to be settled by a replay, which would have been played at Dingwall tomorrow night, but the Highlanders were left reeling by the contentious late penalty awarded to the hosts for Tim Chow’s alleged foul on Rory McKenzie over minimal contact.
Chow was red-carded before Lee Erwin slotted home the penalty with only two minutes remaining.
It would have been a far more sickening blow for Owen Coyle’s men had the Scottish Cup been their main carrot in the remaining months of the campaign but they have far more pressing needs.
Their season now comes down to 16 crucial league matches that will determine whether the Dingwall men can extend their six year stay in the top flight.
County have been left to dwell on their lowly position – three points adrift at the foot of the Scottish Premiership – over the entire winter break and came into this game eager to rediscover the winning habit that has passed them by since early November.
Although there is nothing they can do about that until they return to league action against Motherwell on Wednesday, this was an ideal opportunity to boost morale.
Coyle rang the changes. There were five reinforcements from the side that went down 2-0 at Partick Thistle in the game which left the Staggies trailing at the foot of the table on December 30, including a debut for former Woking attacker Inih Effiong.
Ross Draper, Jim O’Brien, Kenny van der Weg and goalkeeper Aaron McCarey also returned.
The change between the sticks was enforced as Scott Fox was ruled out through illness, while Chow, Sean Kelly, Alex Schalk and Marcus Fraser dropped out.
Effiong looked eager to make an early impact, making his towering 6ft 3in presence known to the Killie defence and also showing some neat footwork as he kick-started the process of staking his claim to be Coyle’s first-choice attacker.
The Staggies were dealt an early blow when Jamie Lindsay limped off after just nine minutes after landing heavily in the middle of the park, meaning an early return for Chow.
The visitors showed promise in the final third without putting the Killie rearguard under much threat with Draper seeing a header comfortably gathered by MacDonald.
Staggies goalkeeper McCarey had to be alert on 15 minutes, rising to claw Eamonn Brophy’s 20-yard attempt over the crossbar. Effiong’s first attempt was not one to remember with the attacker well off target with an ambitious overhead kick on 24 minutes.
Killie were inches from inadvertently taking the lead 10 minutes later when Rory McKenzie’s cross took a bizarre swerve before bouncing off the inside of the post with McCarey caught underneath it.
County should have done better with a breakaway opportunity that came their way moments later.
The ball broke for Chow to find Mckay but the former Inverness striker’s ball towards the untracked run of Effiong carried too much weight on the artificial surface with MacDonald bravely out to deny him.
The second half took time to produce any goalmouth action of note, although the Staggies passed up a glaring chance to put one foot in the last-16 on 65 minutes.
Their full backs combined with van der Weg picking out Jason Naismith with an inch-perfect delivery but the unmarked right back steered his header wide of the right-hand post with the goal gaping.
It proved a costly miss.
Chow was shown his marching orders by referee Bobby Madden for his foul on McKenzie on 88 minutes with McCarey agonisingly close to keeping out Erwin’s spot-kick after guessing the right way.
County rallied and pressed for an immediate response with substitute Schalk swerving a shot over, while McCarey saw his header saved by opposite number MacDonald after striding forward for a Chris Eagles corner before speculatively attempting to convince Madden the ball had crossed the line.
A disappointing afternoon for the Staggies, who will now focus on avoiding relegation from the top flight.