Ross County’s sluggish display resulted in the Scottish Cup upset it merited at the hands of Championship side Ayr United.
The Staggies’ trip to Somerset Park always had the potential to be tricky, with the pressure all on the Dingwall men against an Ayr side sitting third in the Championship.
County contrived to make the task all the easier for Mark Kerr’s side with an uninspiring display on their return from a three-week winter break.
Skipper Steven Bell put the Honest Men in the driving seat towards the end of the first half and, although County dominated possession after the break, there was no onslaught of pressure from the visitors, with a creative spark eluding the Highlanders.
Staggies co-manager Stuart Kettlewell was critical of the way his players approached the tie. He said: “We got what we deserved out of the game.
“Ayr deserve to go into the next round of the cup, and most of that came from our body language and how we approached the game in the initial stages.
“I didn’t see an energy or aggression about our team. There was no contact with our opponents in the first half.
“We have to shoulder the blame on that one and accept it was nowhere near good enough.
“We had more possession in the second half, but we never used it well and never looked like creating or scoring a goal.”
County signed off for the winter break with a 1-1 draw at St Johnstone last month, and had three changes from that afternoon.
Coll Donaldson and Jordan Tillson were both drafted straight into the side following their midweek arrivals, with Lee Erwin also leading the line. They replaced Ross Stewart, who is sidelined with a hamstring injury, while Billy Mckay and Callum Morris also dropped out.
Both sides took time to settle into the match, with virtually all of County’s threat coming through forward Erwin.
It could have been a different story had he found the net with his first attempt of the afternoon on 18 minutes after being put clean through on goal by a sublime crossfield pass by Harry Paton, only to see his effort blocked by Ross Doohan.
Erwin was presented with another chance moments later, but he could not keep his header down from Blair Spittal’s delivery.
Ayr grew into the first half as it reached the midway point, with Stephen Kelly volleying wide from the edge of the box, while Jordan Houston saw a low shot blocked by the Staggies defence.
The Honest Men made the breakthrough on 37 minutes, however, as Kelly’s corner picked out Bell at the near post, and the defender was afforded the space to plant a free header past Nathan Baxter.
The nature of the goal frustrated Kettlewell, who added: “Ayr got their noses in front through another set-play which is really painful for us to take. There have been a couple this season – it’s just that responsibility.
“That wasn’t the sole reason we lost the game. There were obviously several other elements that caused the problems.”
County needed to show a spirited response in order to avoid an upset, with Erwin carving out another chance for himself on the edge of the box five minutes before the break, but his powerful low strike was met by a fine save by Doohan.
The co-managers went on the offensive with a double change early in the second half, with midfielders Paton and Spittal withdrawn for Mckay and Brian Graham.
It was Ayr who came closest to adding to the scoresheet on the hour mark, though, as Bell met another Kelly corner, only to nod over from a better position than the one he found the net from.
Mckay bulleted a header wide after being picked out by Mullin just after the hour mark, while Erwin blasted an effort well over after being teed up by Mckay, but Doohan’s goal remained largely untroubled in the second half.
The deserved loss marked a nightmare start to 2020 for the Staggies, who will aim for redemption when their Premiership campaign resumes at home to Hearts on Wednesday.