Caley Thistle are not a team that can afford to turn up and expect to win.
They were out-worked and out-thought in their 1-0 defeat to Ayr United on Saturday, with Stephen Kelly’s first-half goal the least the Honest Men deserved from a fluid and enterprising display.
But the lack of application, for an Inverness side with promotion hopes, is worrying.
“I’ve no complaints. I thought Ayr looked hungrier than us, which is a concern,” said manager John Robertson. “They dominated the first-half and we were very fortunate to go in at 0-0. We told the players that – the standards weren’t right.
“We started the second half well. You talk about small margins – Charlie Trafford hit the underside of the bar and if that goes in, it might have changed the game.
“But we didn’t deserve that. The goal is schoolboy stuff; you pass it to a midfield man and don’t tell him there’s a man behind him. He then tries to turn and gets robbed in the middle of the goal.
“We could have scored in the last minute but that’s papering over the cracks. The hungrier team won. The better team won.”
They went unchanged into the game, with the only adjustment coming with Lewis Toshney being on the bench.
Without Coll Donaldson – now at Ross County – and with Jamie McCart on the bench himself the last three games having already agreed a deal with St Johnstone, Inverness again went with Brad Mckay and Kevin McHattie at centre-back.
The two know each other well from their time coming through the youth ranks at Hearts but did not provide the assurance Caley Jags have become used to with Donaldson and McCart.
McHattie looked decent in flashes; he made a couple of key interventions that prevented goalscoring chances, but they struggled to deal with Kelly and Alan Forrest, who wielded great influence in Ayr’s performance.
Forrest twice threatened the Inverness goal, firing once over and another at Mark Ridgers, while Kelly teed up Aaron Drinan to drag wide and provided the corner for Michael Moffat to head against the bar.
Positives for Inverness were hard to come by.
Distribution became long and predictable towards Jordan White and they failed to get runners in behind the Ayr defence. Their only real sight of goal in the first half came through a disallowed goal, with Greg Aitken chalking off James Keatings’ free-kick for a foul by White on Ross Doohan.
Forrest again threatened at the start of the second period and James Vincent cleared off the line from Aaron Muirhead, while Charlie Trafford provided Caley Thistle’s only real chance of note with his own header against the woodwork.
It was Ridgers and Trafford who were culpable for the only goal, with the goalkeeper playing the ball to the Canadian midfielder 30 yards from goal with his back to play. Kelly nipped in, advanced on goal and clipped it round Ridgers.
Even with additional forward players on the pitch in Tom Walsh and Nikolay Todorov, Inverness looked worryingly shot-shy in attack.
“We have to take it on the chin,” added Robertson. “We knew how big an opportunity it was; we told the players it was a chance to go seven clear of Ayr and nine clear of Dundee. They just weren’t at it all day. We can have no complaints.”
The club still has the chance of a cup final and another run in the Scottish Cup over the next month, but the hunger will have to be rediscovered.
Robertson said: “The lack of hunger isn’t worrying us that bad because we know it’s there. We’ve just not shown it – some players did, others didn’t. Our good results there in the past have come from everyone doing their job, everyone being hungry in getting after the ball. We didn’t do that.
“We need to get it back quickly because February is a very pivotal month. We’ve got three home games on the bounce, two in the cup, before we play Dundee United. We need to take care of business next week but we’ll have to perform a lot better.”