Earlier this summer, a fairly senior Ross County figure let slip a throwaway line suggesting the Dingwall team “hadn’t seen the ball in years” amid grim Premiership exertions.
It was a crass exaggeration of course but, like any flippant observation can do, it contained a seed of truth.
Ross County, in preserving top-flight status for six challenging seasons, had grown accustomed to grinding out results. Backs-to-the-wall battles, while losing and drawing more matches than they won, became commonplace.
The Staggies dearly hope the dynamic will change now they are back in the Championship, embracing the clear and unambiguous aim of bouncing back to the top league at the first attempt.
If successful come May, County will have experienced a season very different from the last. And already, on the evidence of Saturday’s opening league fixture against Alloa, a change in mindset is apparent.
Alloa, unashamedly, came to spoil and snatch a draw. County, through long periods of the contest, toiled to break them down but stuck determinedly to the task. Patience was key, and paid off in the end.
Luck was with them, certainly, but victory was deserved as new captain Marcus Fraser stepped up to deliver the three points with an 88th-minute finish.
It was tough on part-timers Alloa, so short on numbers they could name only four substitutes, but a County side missing the creativity and spark of suspended Michael Gardyne were rewarded for perseverance and calm assurance.
The first half saw County mostly in control with Josh Mullin’s early cross from the right finding Declan McManus glancing a header beyond the far post. Both McManus and Billy Mckay fired headers straight into keeper Neil Parry’s arms before the Wasps blew a great chance to take the lead.
Ross Draper’s slack touch caught the County defence flat-footed and sent striker Greig Spence clean away. With only Scott Fox to beat, though, Spence stuck his finish wide of the left hand post.
County picked up where they had left off after the break, with Draper finding space in the away box before being shut down superbly by the outcoming Parry.
The Alloa keeper was equally effective in grasping a powerful McManus ball across the face of goal moments later, but then needed a timely clearance from Scott Taggart to prevent a Jamie Lindsay header from crossing the line.
Parry’s worth was exemplified again on the hour as he pulled off a terrific diving block after a Lindsay pass sent McManus racing in for a left foot attempt.
Iain Vigurs showed intent on several occasions, not least when he whipped a free kick just over the Wasps’ bar, but anxiety in the home crowd became ever more apparent as the scoreline stayed blank.
New signing Brian Graham and young Davis Keillor-Dunn were introduced and, as Alloa dropped deeper and deeper, the latter produced a moment of inspiration in the closing minutes.
Keillor-Dunn’s measured ball into the box found captain Fraser somehow forcing a trickled finish over the line with Parry powerless to stop it.
Before the end, a header from substitute Graham was brilliantly thwarted down low by the Alloa keeper, who deserved a clean sheet on the strength of his individual display.
County, though, proved collectively there is real strength of character in the ranks.
There will be tougher tests ahead but a match in which they looked to be heading for disappointment instead provided an early building block.
ROSS COUNTY (4-3-1-2) – Fox 6, Fraser 7, Morris 6, Watson 6, Kelly 7, Lindsay 7, Draper 6 (Keillor-Dunn 61), Vigurs 6, Mullin 7, McManus 6 (Dow 86), Mckay 6 (Graham 71). Subs not used – Munro, Demetriou, Dingwall, Paton.
ALLOA (4-1-4-1) – Parry 8, Taggart 7, Karadachki 7, Graham 7, Dick 7, Robertson 6; Brown 7, Trouten 6 (Peggie 82), Hetherington 6, Hastie 6, Spence 6. Subs not used: Cawley, Goodwin, Henry.
Referee – Mike Roncone 5.
Attendance – 3,065
Man of the match – Neil Parry (Alloa).