It remains to be seen whether Saturday’s victory becomes a landmark moment in a season of great success for Ross County, but the 90 minutes were certainly illuminating.
Winning matches in Scotland’s Championship is rarely a straightforward matter. As most managers in the division will tell you, each and every positive result requires monumental endeavour.
Ross County had to draw on all aspects of their game, the flair and depths of grit and resolve, to beat an excellent Ayr United side and move top of the league, but beat them they did.
It was a strange and compelling match. The first half, closing 2-0 to the good, must have felt as comfortable to County fans as a fine duck down duvet; the second – to Ayr’s great credit – was like lying on a bed of rusty nails.
Joyous first half football on the front foot – with sublime passing, movement and finishing – gave way to hard slog and stubborn resistance on the back foot.
In the end, Ayr manager Ian McCall’s interpretation was that County were fortunate to collect full points. Scott Fox’s acrobatic late save to deny Lawrence Shankland certainly added weight to the argument.
County’s management team, though, would surely have drawn huge positives from both the fluency and creative flair shown before the break and the defiant resistance thereafter.
The first half provided a signpost of County’s potential and, arguably, what was most striking was the home side’s sheer enjoyment of it all. It has been a long time since the ball was fizzed about at Victoria Park with such guile and glee. The finishes from Billy Mckay and Josh Mullin also oozed quality.
At the heart of it, though, was the strength and quality of midfield play. The lively Mckay was the only recognised striker, but the nippy, creative Mullin and razor-sharp Davis Keillor-Dunn provided menace out wide.
Don Cowie’s experience and intelligence, on and off the ball, was showcased with clarity while Iain Vigurs pulled the strings with finesse in his distribution from deep. Jamie Lindsay covered every blade as a constant attacking outlet.
As Mullin took the breath away for County’s second goal after 34 minutes, the thought struck that this was becoming the perfect Staggies’ performance. Championship football is rarely like that, though.
Sure enough, an Ayr United side beaten only twice previously this season – including once at Ibrox – quickly doused those thoughts after the break.
Defensively, County had been calm and adept in the first period, but a 17th minute injury to skipper Liam Fontaine had forced a re-shuffle with Keith Watson moving inside to centre half and Stelios Demetriou assuming right-back duties.
A similar exit for a second centre half, Callum Morris, compounded matters for County just six minutes into the second half although 19-year-old Tom Grivosti barely put a foot wrong on his senior debut from the bench.
Ayr, though, became a different animal. Shankland lashed in his 19th goal of the campaign to reduce the deficit before Fox made a fine save to deny the striker a late equaliser.