The lift from Stuart Kettlewell and Steven Ferguson’s permanent appointments at Ross County evaporated fast as the Staggies stumbled to a 2-0 reverse at Hamilton Accies on Saturday.
A penalty from pantomime villain Dougie Imrie and David Templeton’s second crushed County, who lacked any kind of spark in a vital bottom-of-the-table encounter.
The hope was that confirming Kettlewell and Ferguson as co-managers would galvanise the squad for the pivotal run-in. They now have three games left to prove that hypothesis correct.
The Staggies made two changes from the 0-0 draw with Motherwell as the injured Christopher Routis sat out and Michael Gardyne dropped to the bench with Andrew Davies and Greg Tansey recalled.
Accies were dragged back into the relegation battle with their 2-1 defeat to Partick Thistle last weekend and they also made two switches with Georgios Sarris and Darian Mackinnon coming in for Xavier Tomas and Rakish Bingham.
Recalling Davies was a vote of confidence in the club captain, playing his first game since his red card against Celtic earlier in the month. He took his place at the centre of a back three with Liam Fontaine and Harry Souttar as Kettlewell and Ferguson continued to rely on the energy of Marcus Fraser and Max Melbourne to provide defensive cover on the flanks but also ably support County’s forward play.
The incident that drew County’s ire most came early. Just 21 seconds were on the clock when Mackinnon went careering into Jamie Lindsay with a high foot that should have merited a red card. Bobby Madden only produced a yellow and Lindsay was down for three minutes receiving treatment.
Both sides played a back three but, in the first 20 minutes, it looked as if County knew how to exploit it better. They hit diagonal balls early to make use of the quickness of Billy Mckay and Alex Schalk behind a relatively stationary Accies back line. It would have made sense for Hamilton to start the quick Rakish Bingham but paired Marios Ogkmpoe with Templeton then proceeded to launch high balls towards them. Given that County’s back three are all 6ft-plus and relish aerial duels it seemed a short-sighted gameplan.
When Templeton got the ball to feet he showed the potential to do damage. But the one clear chance he got, from a free kick of his own winning, he blazed over.
County did not do enough to keep possession and it contributed to the game being a poor spectacle. The ball spent so much time in the air it could have collected enough air miles for a trip to Hong Kong by half-time.
The closest the visitors got to goal was a header from Lindsay that Gary Woods smuggled away.
In a game bereft of any real quality and tempers flaring, it seemed fitting a controversial set-piece would break the deadlock.
Fraser was penalised for dragging down Lewis Ferguson and County reacted angrily with Schalk, Ross Draper and Scott Fox all remonstrating with Madden. It mattered little with Imrie rolling the penalty down the middle.
While the manner of the first goal was irritating, the second was of County’s own making. Souttar failed to clear Mackinnon’s cross properly and allowed substitute Danny Redmond far too much time to pick out Templeton. The Staggies should have needed little warning of his talents after the first half but he was still left unmarked, drifting into space and crashing beyond Fox.
The urgency to get the ball forward increased for the visitors but the lack of an end product told. Arguably their most winnable away game has gone. Their impetus cannot afford to.
Hamilton Accies (3-1-4-2) – Woods 6, Want 6, Sarris 7, van der Weg 6, Mackinnon 6, Lyon 5, Ferguson 6 (Redmond 59), Jenkins 6 (Scott 75), Imrie 6, Templeton 7, Ogkmpoe 6 (Bingham 84). Subs not used: Fulton, Miller, Rojano, Hughes.
Ross County (3-5-2) – Fox 5, Souttar 5, Davies 5, Fontaine 6, Fraser 6 (Gardyne 69), Draper 6, Tansey 6 (Curran 75), Lindsay 5, Melbourne 6, Schalk 6, Mckay 5 (Ngog 65). Subs not used – McCarey, O’Brien, Keillor-Dunn, Kait.
Referee – Bobby Madden 5.
Man of the match: David Templeton.