Caley Thistle defied the odds to come through the Premiership play-off semi-final 5-3 on penalties after a 0-0 draw at Arbroath.
Inverness now face St Johnstone from next Friday in a two-legged tie with a chance to replace Saints in the top-flight.
The visitors were reduced to 10 – due to a sending off – then nine men – due to injury – in a frantic second half at Gayfield, but made it to extra-time against their part-time rivals.
There was still time for another ICT red card during the extra half hour but somehow the Highlanders held on.
After a low key first half from Caley Thistle when facing the wind, the drama was cranked up with a red card dished out by referee Willie Collum to Caley Jags defender Danny Devine. Inverness were furious with the crunch call.
A suspected knee injury to Shane Sutherland then saw him leave on a stretcher with nine minutes left and ICT were unable to replace him until extra-time due to the three-stoppage rule for subs.
A red card for Wallace Duffy in extra-time compounded the ICT agony.
Tight evening between play-off rivals, as expected
Arbroath and ICT, who finished second and third in the second tier respectively, met beside the North Sea with plenty at stake.
Tuesday’s 0-0 draw in the semi first leg at the Caledonian Stadium was unsurprising, given how closely matched the rivals had proved to be over the campaign.
Although the Angus club, who have won admirers from around the world for their fairytale season, finished six points ahead of the Caley Jags last month, the Highlanders beat them twice during the season.
That included dishing out the only home loss to their opponents throughout the campaign, albeit all the way back on July 31.
While the hosts were unchanged, the headline team news from Inverness was striker Billy Mckay dropping to the bench in favour of Aaron Doran for their only change.
A packed Gayfield was bubbling with expectation as both sets of supporters urged their sides on. A crowd of more than 5,000 was the biggest gate of the season.
Arbroath carved open the best chance of the opening spell on 21 minutes when a Chris Hamilton drive from a Scott Stewart throw-in spun past the left post in front of the vocal and colourful away end.
In a first half lacking quality, home goalkeeper Derek Gaston’s only work was to clutch a low Austin Samuels drive just before the break.
Mckay was pitched into action at the start of the second half, replacing Samuels as ICT were playing with the wind in their favour now.
It seemed like Inverness would take the lead on 52 minutes when Sutherland, the goal hero on the opening day of the term, latched on to a through ball and slid his shot wide.
At the other end, Stewart had a fresh air swipe at the ball when he lined up to meet a cross from James Craigen.
Everything boiled over from 65 minutes when Devine was given his marching orders for what was seen as a last-man challenge on Jack Hamilton under a high ball. It seemed harsh to say the least. In the aftermath, ICT assistant boss Scott Kellacher was also sent to the stand.
With nine minutes left, Sutherland was stretchered off after he crashed the the floor with an apparent knee twist.
As Inverness had used their three-substitute-stoppage quota, rules stated they were not allowed another until extra-time. So, they had to play on with nine men.
They made it to extra-time, despite some close calls, and Lewis Hyde came on to belatedly replace Sutherland for the additional half-hour.
With eight minutes left, Collum created more anger in the ICT ranks when he sent Wallace Duffy off for a challenge on Bobby Linn. It looked initially like a booking was the ruling, but, after the defender argued, the yellow card changed to red.
Yet, somehow, Inverness got their bodies in where it mattered and made it to spot-kicks.
Penalties from Billy Mckay, Joe Hardy, Sean Welsh, Cammy Harper in the shoot-out went in for ICT, before Linn’s effort was saved by Mark Ridgers and Kirk Broadfoot sealed the victory – sparking mayhem and a pitch invasion.
The first leg of the play-off final will take place next Friday, with McDiarmid Park in Perth lined up for its conclusion on Monday, May 23, as Caley Thistle seek to end a top-flight exile stretching back to 2017.
ARBROATH (4-1-4-1) – Gaston 6, Thomson 6 (Bakare 90), Colin Hamilton 6, Little 6, O’Brien 6 (Henderson 106), Low 6, McKenna 6, Stewart 6, Chris Hamilton 6 (Gold 106), Jack Hamilton 6 (Wighton 120), Craigen 6 (Linn 76). Subs not used – Antell (GK), Swankie, Donnelly, Ford.
CALEY THISTLE (4-2-3-1) – Ridgers 6, Welsh 6, Deas 6, Devine 6, Carson 6, Doran 6 (Hardy 60), Sutherland 6 (Hyde 91), Broadfoot 6, Chalmers 6 (Harper 68), McAlear 6 (Duffy 74), Samuels 6 (Mckay 46). Subs not used – Mackay (GK), Allardice.
Referee – Willie Collum.
Attendance – 5154.
Man of the match – Sean Welsh.