Another week, another test of character passed with flying colours by Ross County.
The Staggies made the trip to Lanarkshire seeking their first away league victory of the season, facing an in-form Motherwell side that had racked up three successive victories.
That streak looked like continuing when Allan Campbell gave the Steelmen the lead just after the hour mark, giving Stephen Robinson’s already confident side the ideal platform to secure all three points.
The Staggies had other ideas though, as their stubborn resistance reared its head once again.
Having netted in stoppage time against St Mirren seven days previously, another late show secured back-to-back victories.
Goals in the final 15 minutes from Brian Graham and Ross Stewart turned this game on its head to move County into the top half of the table with victory over a Well side that had Jake Carroll dismissed late on.
The Staggies showed character to grind out results that seemed unlikely during their march to the Championship title last season, but doing likewise against a higher calibre of opposition pleased co-manager Stuart Kettlewell no end.
He said: “We were under no illusions – we knew this was going to be a stern test. Motherwell have been on a brilliant run.
“Going behind was a blow but we always knew we could change things in terms of our shape.
“Fortunately we were able to do that to great success.
“This is our first win away from home – it’s good to get that monkey off our back.
“We went to Tynecastle earlier in the season and performed brilliantly, but came away with a point.
“It was nice to come to a place like Motherwell, with the form they are in, and win the game.”
A combination of youth and experience delivered this fine result for the Staggies. It was a milestone day for long-serving winger Michael Gardyne, who made his 400th appearance for the Dingwall outfit, while at the other end of the scale Tom Grivosti – drafted in to replace the injured Iain Vigurs – anchored a youthful three-man midfield in front of Harry Paton and Ewan Henderson.
Kettlewell felt the trio rose to the challenge, adding: “We took a little bit of a risk with the three young guys in the middle of the pitch. It was a massive learning curve for them.
There were bits that were really good, and bits they will learn from. They were a huge part of what was a brilliant result for our club.
“We think we have got the balance right in terms of experienced players and youth.” Both sides came close in the early stages, with Carroll inches over with a free kick for the hosts, and Billy Mckay glancing a header just wide from a Henderson free-kick at the other end.
Motherwell began to take command as the first half progressed and were left aggrieved on 23 minutes when Declan Gallagher nodded home following a Carroll throw-in midway through the first half, only to be penalised for a contentious foul.
The lack of a breakthrough left the game finely poised at the interval, but it was the Steelmen who took command at the start of the second half and were rewarded with the opener on 61 minutes. Campbell exchanged passes with James Scott on the edge of the box, before curling beautifully past Ross Laidlaw from 20 yards.
Well applied pressure in pursuit of a second goal, with Scott’s low drive thwarted by Laidlaw, while the home side were adamant Keith Watson should have been penalised for handball as he slid to block another Scott effort.
Gardyne instigated County’s equaliser in 75 minutes when he galloped goalwards after being fed by Blair Spittal in the middle of the park before teeing-up substitute Graham with a deft lay-off.
The attacker needed no encouragement to tuck home his first league goal of the season from 12 yards, just three minutes after coming off the bench.
County were on the ascendancy and they were handed the numerical advantage for the last 10 minutes when Carroll was shown two yellows in the space of 90 seconds by referee Alan Muir after twice mistiming challenges on Stewart.
County rallied for a winner and it arrived two minutes from the full-time whistle when Stewart steered home a header from a tight angle after getting on the end of Richard Foster’s delivery to secure a priceless win for the Dingwall men.
Robinson: Good goal denied
Motherwell manager Stephen Robinson refused to blame the referee for the defeat despite not agreeing with some decisions.
Robinson took issue with Declan Gallagher’s first-half “goal” being disallowed for a foul, while he also felt Staggies defender Keith Watson should have been penalised for handball in the second half.
Robinson feels his side should have seen out their leading position regardless of those decisions.
He said: “Somebody needs to explain to me why Declan Gallagher’s goal was ruled out because there was no foul whatsoever, and explain the new handball rule as to why there was not a penalty.
“We cannot affect what referees give us and don’t give us, but we can affect how we defend.
“We only have ourselves to blame, we have to look at ourselves for the last 15 minutes of the game. We didn’t manage it well enough.”
Robinson had been encouraged by Well’s performance until County struck twice late on and he added: “I thought we totally dominated the game, for 65 minutes anyway.
“The game should have been out of sight. We had enough chances.”
Supporter’s view: Switch off and you’ll miss late show
By John Maxwell
Given the manner in which County keeper Ross Laidlaw’s goal was peppered with shots in the first hour of the match, then Allan Campbell scoring, I didn’t expect a win.
But you should never doubt this County team’s ability to turn a match late in the game.
County started with the same team that beat St Mirren, apart from Iain Vigurs being replaced at the base of midfield by Tom Grivosti. It meant that the Staggies’ midfield trio had an average age of 20 years. Grivosti, Ewan Henderson and Harry Paton are still at the stage of finding their feet at this level. Without an obvious leader among them it would have been easy to capitulate when Well were at their most dominant.
All three were eventually substituted as the management tried to find a way back into the game, but the youngsters didn’t let anyone down.
The team’s experience came from those players around them, particularly on the left flank where Richard Foster and Michael Gardyne set up the goals to reverse the score.
Gardyne’s role in Brian Graham’s equaliser was Midge at his best.
He has been dribbling into the pocket in front of centre-backs for 400 appearances at County now and his pass between the legs was as cute as Graham’s one-touch finish.
Having 10 points from six matches at this stage is a fine achievement. Well done to all involved.