Ross County have kept themselves out of the Premiership’s bottom two after taking what could be a vital point from a 2-2 draw with relegation rivals Kilmarnock at Rugby Park
John Hughes’ team went into Saturday’s clash trotting out the “five cup finals” line and this fixture’s significance in the fight against the drop was self-evident – a loss would see their opponents leapfrog them in the Premiership and send them into the relegation play-off place.
However, they also knew defeat and a win for Hamilton at home to Dundee United could send them rock bottom with four games to go.
County went into the match at Rugby Park looking for a second consecutive victory over Killie, following the 3-2 win in Dingwall on March 6.
Tommy Wright’s side, having beat Motherwell in their previous fixture and appearing to have improved of late, were looking for back-to-back league wins for the first time since October.
Hughes set County up in a 4-4-2 for the game, with three personnel changes from the 3-1 Scottish Cup loss to Highland rivals and Championship promotion hopefuls Inverness on April 2.
Centre-back Coll Donaldson was left on the bench, while Celtic loanee left-back Leo Hjelde wasn’t in the squad, replacing them were Alex Iacovitti and Carl Tremarco, respectively.
There was also a tweak in the wide areas, with Charlie Lakin among the substitutes and Jordan Tillson starting in right midfield.
Before kick-off Hughes talked about trying to get as many experienced players as possible into his line-up, given the magnitude of the game.
However, County got off to an awful start. Unable to properly clear a corner and then another cross in from Aaron McGowan, the ball eventually broke to veteran Chris Burke on the edge of the area and he lashed low and left past Ross Laidlaw.
The Staggies had hit back by the five-minute mark, though, with Billy Mckay nodding a Jason Naismith ball down to Michael Gardyne in the area. County’s own old-stager, he shifted the ball on to his left, which wrong-footed centre-back Kirk Broadfoot, before smashing past Colin Doyle from six yards.
Parity restored and there followed a scrappy period, the best bit of quality being a Laidlaw Cruyff turn to tease the onrushing Rory McKenzie near the Staggies goal.
On 15 minutes, Tillson was perhaps lucky to stay on the park, only receiving a yellow for sliding in two-footed on McKenzie near halfway, although he may have slipped on the artificial surface.
A minute later, Killie were back in front. Keith Watson didn’t deal with a ball into the Staggies area – this time a Zech Medley free-kick – and, when it dropped, Mitch Pinnock was able to spin and send a half volley wriggling under Laidlaw. A strike he could’ve done better with.
On 23 minutes, Jordan White hooked a Jason Naismith cross over the bar from 16 yards for visitors. County were playing well, and were particularly threatening down the right, but also continued to be vulnerable.
Fewer than 10 minutes before the break, they almost let Burke in for a second. The attacker was left all alone in front of the defence and, after being picked out by Gary Dicker, drove forward. Fortunately, his tame 20-yard effort was right at Laidlaw.
On 43 minutes, Gardyne almost netted a very similar goal to his first. He received a pass from Mckay on the right of the box, before shifting the ball on to his left foot. However, this time he was further out and pulled his shot just wide of the right post.
It must have been a source of much frustration for County at the interval that they had played the better football, had more of the ball, more crosses and chances, but had twice shot themselves in the foot.
White hit the bar with a header on 49 minutes from a deep Tremarco cross as the Staggies continued to push for a leveller.
Two minutes later Ross Draper, on his own 12 yards out as Iain Vigurs floated in a free-kick from the centre circle, somehow headed wide.
Vigurs’ next free-kick was from 24 yards out – and his dipping effort forced a save from Doyle. From the resultant corner, swung in from the right by Vigurs on 54 minutes, County finally pulled the scoreline back to 2-2.
Alex Iacovitti, possibly with the aid of a nick off Naismith, forced the ball home.
The following 10 minutes were chaotic for County, who – having got their goal – lost their control in midfield and found themselves firefighting in and around their own box with blocks and last-ditch challenges.
However, things calmed down again and, on 70 minutes, Gardyne scuffed a shot wide from 14 yards following a centre from sub Harry Paton.
The County players were incensed soon after when Killie striker Kyle Lafferty was only shown a yellow for an elbow on Vigurs, which forced the visiting captain off with a burst nose. It could’ve proved more controversial still when Lafferty was played in on goal once play restarted.
However, the Northern Irishman’s close-range effort was caught by Laidlaw.
Having already sent Paton and Stephen Kelly on for Tillson and Vigurs, Hughes made a double change on 80 minutes, with Mckay and Gardyne replaced by Regan Charles-Cooke and Jermaine Hylton.
This attempt to turn the momentum back in County’s favour following a noticeable drop in their intensity paid dividends as they had the best of the last 10 minutes.
Their only chance to win it came when Paton stole the ball on halfway and sent White running through. However, the tall striker was forced wide and couldn’t sneak his shot past Doyle at the near post.
At the other end, Laidlaw produced a good stop low to his left to deny Burke in what was a superb game’s final chance.