Ross County restored their early season rigidity to rediscover the winning feeling against St Johnstone.
The Staggies had been without a win in five games ahead of the trip to Perth, a run which had stalled their momentum following their strongest start to a Premiership campaign on record.
In this victory over Saints, County showed the same grit which embodied their opening two wins over Motherwell and Hamilton Accies, albeit they had a slice of good fortune with Iain Vigurs’ first-half free-kick.
County had to weather spells of pressure thereafter, but a solid defensive performance kept the hosts at arm’s length from Ross Laidlaw’s goal – with the Staggies goalkeeper fielding Saints’ first attempt on target in injury time.
The Staggies drew plaudits for their display despite falling to a 5-0 loss to Celtic the previous weekend, with Stuart Kettlewell demanding a more clinical edge in both boxes in order to start racking up the points again.
Kettlewell felt the Staggies came up with the perfect response.
He said: “It was a role reversal. I thought we were better in open play last week than we were this week, but we defended our penalty box manfully.
“We didn’t have too many chances going towards St Johnstone’s goal, but I felt we had a decent control of the second half. There wasn’t much coming our way until the last 15 minutes or so when naturally you expect them to try to get something playing at home.
“The guys stood strong – it’s something we worked on all week and it’s nice to see us profit from that.”
Kettlewell’s satisfaction with the performance against Celtic was borne out by his selection of largely the same side, with exception of the injured Billy Mckay, who was replaced by Oli Shaw.
Although Saints were also coming off a defeat to Motherwell, it was the hosts who sounded the early warning shots.
Scott Tanser carved out a chance on six minutes when he drilled narrowly over from a tight angle after skipping past Connor Randall, while Callum Hendry swivelled before striking wide following Stevie May’s cutback moments later.
County’s start was disrupted by an early change which was forced on Kettlewell, when Randall was forced off with a dead calf, being replaced by Keith Watson.
The Staggies stood up strongly to Saints’ early efforts and had shown fluent play further forward but they largely lacked a meaningful goal threat to match.
A menacing delivery by Michael Gardyne was brushed off the head of Shaw by Saints defender Liam Gordon, while Ross Stewart trundled an effort wide from distance.
County’s breakthrough came in unorthodox fashion just three minutes before the interval.
Skipper Vigurs angled a free-kick into the danger zone from the wide right, with the ball deceiving everyone – including Alex Iacovitti, who initially claimed a slight touch – before bouncing into Elliot Parish’s far corner.
It was a timely breakthrough for the Highlanders, who emerged sprightly and tidy in possession in the early stages of the second half.
County’s lead came under threat on 57 minutes, however, with Jason Kerr’s low diagonal cross picking out Tanser’s far-post run, but the Saints win back this time clipped the crossbar with his first-time effort.
County had few attempts in the second half, with Stewart seeing a header comfortably held by Parish, before the attacker teed up Gardyne to balloon an effort well over from distance.
Saints threw their weight at the visitors in the latter stages, with Laidlaw called upon for the first time to make a strong parried save to deny Saints substitute Murray Davidson from eight yards.
Kettlewell took heart from the Highlanders’ defensive improvement following their chastening loss to the Hoops.
He added: “I had watched them during the week and there were a few reminders said to one another that that does not happen again.
“We tried to create similar scenarios to what we conceded goals from last week, and we had similar ones we dealt with.
“I set up a situation where we can practise it, but it’s up to us to go and act on it.
“They did in this game, and that’s something we have to take forward into the rest of the season.
“There are plenty teams who put pressure on you with deliveries into the box and have a real physicality.
“We have to stand up to that and make sure we can compete.”