At around about 4.30pm on Saturday, a palpable sense of dread and despondency pervaded the Caledonian Stadium stands.
Lee Connelly’s spectacular equaliser for Queen of the South came very much against the run of play, but was no less damaging for it.
Even with a Covid-imposed break from attending matches, the moment would have stoked uncomfortable memories among supporters. Too often, Caley Thistle in the Championship have snatched draws or defeats from the jaws of victory. Not this time.
As is becoming characteristic in the current season, there is a sturdiness and resilience about Billy Dodds’ team and squad.
Just seven minutes after the setback, Michael Gardyne pounced to secure the victory and deny second-placed Kilmarnock any solace after their scoreless draw with Arbroath the night before.
Now three points clear at the summit, there is even more encouragement to be drawn from relative standings on teams lower down the table.
After only seven games, the Inverness men already have an 11-point cushion on the nearest team outwith the play-off zone.
Interestingly, Dodds chose the build-up to this match to veer away from the tired “one game at a time” cliche that so many managers and players like to trot out.
The refreshing message was that Caley Jags were kidding nobody and already had one eye on the ultimate prize, promotion and the title.
Performances like Saturdays have emboldened the manager with enough trust in his players to make that kind of statement.
“My players have resilience behind them,” Dodds said. “Yes, they have confidence through winning games, but it is a worldy that Connelly scores. I’ve watched it again and it’s incredible.
“That can sink you as a team, but it shows we’ve got plenty about us. We could have just taken the point and stayed top of the league.
“I just know my boys have that focused, determined head on. We kept going and it was a great finish from Michael Gardyne, just back in the team.
“I thought he might not last the game after three weeks or so out, but he’s so fit at 35. He knows how to look after his body.
“I was saying to him at one stage, give us another 10 or 15 minutes, but he said, no, he felt great. I’d still have taken him off if I’d made my mind up, but I’m glad I didn’t.
“My experienced players have come up trumps today with Sean Welsh scoring a great free kick as well.
“I thought we controlled the game, but when you don’t get that second goal the opposition get a bit of belief.
“A special goal put us on the back foot and you need a really positive mentality to get over that.”
FULL-TIME: ICTFC 2-1 Queen of the South
Sean Welsh's first half free-kick and Michael Gardyne's volley in the second half get Caley Thistle all three points this afternoon.
GET IN! pic.twitter.com/xnww773EyS
— Inverness Caledonian Thistle FC (@ICTFC) September 25, 2021
Gardyne, the summer signing from Ross County, returned for the first time since hitting the winner at Kilmarnock after recovery from an ankle injury.
The Doonhamers struggled to lay a finger on Caley Jags in the first period, with the home breakthrough coming inside nine minutes.
Manny Duku won a free-kick from Joshua Debayo’s foul almost 25 yards out and Sean Welsh, starting his first league match, sent a wonderful curling dead ball strike past the wall and keeper Solomon Brynn at his left-hand post.
By the break, 1-0 seemed a scant return for home dominance.
Gardyne then lifted the crowd just after the hour with a superb individual run and 20-yard dig that Brynn parried for a corner.
Then came Queens’ bolt from the blue.
From a throw-in on the left, Lee Connelly wove his way in towards the left corner of the penalty area. He then managed to curl a superb finish high beyond the reach of Mark Ridgers into the far top corner of the net.
But, with nine minutes left, the home crowd erupted as the lead was restored.
Robbie Deas launched a high angled ball towards the box, flicked on by the head of substitute Lewis Jamieson.
Gardyne controlled it on his thigh and flashed a superb eight yard finish high past the keeper.
After six wins and a draw, it remains early days for Inverness, but the intent and belief is there.
Caley Thistle (4-2-3-1): Ridgers 7; Carson 7, Broadfoot 7, Devine 7, Deas 7; Allardice 7 (Jamieson 77, 4), Welsh 8; Walsh 7, MacGregor 6 (McAlear 54, 6), Gardyne 8; Duku 6 (Mckay 63, 5). Subs: C. MacKay, Harper, Doran, Sutherland.
Queen of the South (4-1-4-1): Brynn 6; Johnston 7 (Paton 87, 2), McKay 7, Debayo 6, East 6; Nditi 6; McGrory 6 (Fitzpatrick 73, 5), Liddle 5 (Soares-Junior 67, 5), Connelly 8, Gibson 7; Joseph 6. Subs: Cowie, Cooper, Chima, Paton, Henderson.
Referee: Alan Newlands 6.
Man of the match: Michael Gardyne.