Ross County drew upon the grit that characterised their Championship-winning campaign as they dug deep for victory against St Mirren.
The Staggies looked like they would be forced to settle for a point after their lead, through Ross Stewart’s seventh goal of the season, had been cancelled out through to a blunder from goalkeeper Ross Laidlaw 17 minutes from time.
It was a horrendous moment for Laidlaw, who allowed an innocuous free-kick from Tony Andreu to slip between his legs when it looked to be under his grasp.
County refused to accept the three points were beyond them however. Driven by a rugged determination which secured them numerous late victories on their way to winning the second tier last season, skipper Marcus Fraser emerged in the penalty box to force home a winning goal two minutes into stoppage time.
It was a priceless victory for the Staggies who, along with the visitors, came into the match fresh from back-to-back defeats. It was the Dingwall men who were rewarded for their eagerness to claim three points from this tight encounter, which could be all-important come the end of the season.
Staggies co-manager Steven Ferguson is keen to continue making a habit of grinding out victories, and he said: “That’s the kind of never-say-die reputation we had in the Championship. The character of the team was fantastic.
“Coming off the back of a couple of defeats, it was important we won the game.
“Stuart Kettlewell and I had spoken at length over the last 10 or so days about how it didn’t matter how we won the game – the thing was to win.
“It is a trait we want to be associated with that we never know when we’re beaten and we’ll never give up.
“We have to give the players a lot of credit for that, coming off two defeats and losing a goal like that.
“It would have been easy to let our shoulders slump and say it wasn’t our day – they didn’t do that.”
The recent international break had allowed County to refresh after their losses to Livingston and Aberdeen, with Ferguson and Kettlewell making three changes from the side which went down 3-0 at Pittodrie.
Ewan Henderson was drafted in for his debut following his loan move from Celtic, while there was also a first league start for Harry Paton, and defender Liam Fontaine returned following a hamstring injury. He replaced Callum Morris, who was sidelined, while Tom Grivosti and Josh Mullin dropped to the bench.
There were precious few openings until the latter stages of the first half, with County coming closest to an early breakthrough on 14 minutes when Henderson drilled narrowly wide from the edge of the box.
Saints made a strong finish to the half, though, and could count themselves unfortunate not to take the lead on two occasions. Skipper Kyle Magennis was inches from an opener when his long-range strike, backed by a ferocious wind which made conditions difficult for both sides, clipped the top of the crossbar on its way over.
The Buddies were aggrieved two minutes before the interval when Jon Obika turned home Sean McLoughlin’s effort from point-blank range, only to be ruled offside.
County started the second half brightly, with Paton unfortunate to see his curling low effort from just inside the box tipped wide by Hladky, although at the other end Paul McGinn stabbed wide from Kyle McAllister’s corner.
County made the breakthrough the game needed on 62 minutes when Mckay helped on Foster’s delivery from the left to pick out Stewart at the far post, and the attacker rattled the ball high into the net to leave his former club trailing.
Saints could have equalised within 60 seconds when Magennis struck the woodwork with an effort which clipped the outside of the post – but the goal the visitors did net on 72 minutes will haunt Laidlaw. The goalkeeper got down to smother Andreu’s deflected free-kick but inexplicably allowed the ball to trundle between his legs.
Laidlaw’s blushes were spared deep into injury time when Fraser stretched to meet Michael Gardyne’s tempting delivery to drill home the winner.
Ferguson hopes Laidlaw can learn from his near-costly error, adding: “We’re all human and humans make mistakes.
“Ross made one today and he’s held his hands up.
“You can’t keep putting your hands up and keep saying sorry.
“We’ll give you the one ‘sorry’ but don’t make the same mistake again.”
Buddies miffed over decision
St Mirren manager Jim Goodwin took issue with his side’s disallowed goal against Ross County.
The Buddies looked to have taken the lead two minutes before the break when Jon Obika turned Sean McLoughlin’s effort into the net from point-blank range, only to be pulled up for offside by referee Colin Steven.
Goodwin claimed video footage showed Obika to be onside, and the Buddies boss said: “We’re obviously hugely disappointed again. We were so on top in the first half and felt we’d scored a legitimate goal.
“We watched it back and our camera angle isn’t great but it looks as if Obika’s in line with the goalkeeper when the ball is hit. Maybe the television cameras will have picked up a better angle.
“Obviously if we get the break there we go in a goal up at half-time. We were well on top, it’s just unfortunate we couldn’t make that 15 to 20-minute spell count and go in front.”
Goodwin added: “I felt we were the better team and I don’t think we deserved to lose. I’m experienced enough to know possession and all that carry-on matters little. It’s all about the result.”
Supporter’s view: Team’s character came shining through
By John Maxwell
Three points are won the same by dominating a match or grabbing a 93rd minute winner.
This team has already showed in the recent past that there is a collective mentality to keep going until the end, whether scoring a late winner against derby rivals or finding a late equaliser against title contenders.
After conceding such a cheap equaliser, the team had the character to put St Mirren under pressure for the last 10 before finding a goal at the last moment.
This was a match affected by a wind which blew along the length of the pitch from the Jailend towards the Firth. County, shooting into the Jailend in the first half, got a better grip of conditions for the first 30 minutes, despite some careless attempts at long balls from the back getting caught by the draught which invited pressure on at times.
Ewan Henderson had an good debut in midfield but he was outshone by Harry Paton, who has clearly worked hard to bring himself into first-team contention. His influence was prevalent in most of County’s attacking moves. If he can keep that level of performance up he could be an important player.
Ross Stewart hasn’t always shown his best form on the flank, but it was a smart plan to play him on the right of the 4-3-3 on Saturday and his goal was well worked.
Marcus Fraser’s slide-tackle technique for the winner was perhaps more improvised but they all count.