Ross County can begin planning for a third successive Premiership season after coming from behind to defeat Motherwell on the final day of the season.
The Staggies looked to be in for an anxious day after falling behind to Sam Foley’s early goal, and once Kilmarnock racked up a commanding first half lead against Hamilton Accies it was apparent John Hughes’ men would need to take matters into their own hands in order to avoid a relegation play-off.
It was two Staggies stalwarts who came up with the goals County needed, with Iain Vigurs’ stunning and Michael Gardyne’s winner ensuring the Dingwall men finish 10th, with Killie facing Dundee in the play-off.
In recent weeks, Hughes has stressed that everything at Ross County has been on hold until their fate for next season is known. Although it has gone down to the wire they have got the outcome they desired after ending the campaign with three straight wins.
The Highlanders will now look to lay down the groundwork ahead of the new campaign, with Hughes’ own future and that of much of County’s first team still up in the air.
Hughes, who was in the stand to serve the final game of a two-match ban, had two changes forced upon him. Defenders Leo Hjelde and Alex Iacovitti did not recover from injuries suffered in the win over Hamilton, with their places in the backline taken by Carl Tremarco and Keith Watson.
Both sides threatened from set-pieces in the opening stages, with Motherwell’s Chris Long seeing an effort blocked by the wall, while at the other end Blair Spittal struck well over.
The Staggies were hit with the early setback they so desperately wanted to avoid, as they fell behind on just seven minutes. Mark O’Hara was released down the right, before his low delivery bobbled into the path of Foley to bundle home from close-range.
With news of Kilmarnock’s breakthrough against Accies filtering through, the Staggies knew they had to respond. Skipper Iain Vigurs was off target with a strike from distance, before Jordan White struck the bar after the ball fell to him following Spittal’s delivery from the left.
The Staggies had another effort on 18 minutes, with Keith Watson seeing his header from a Spittal corner blocked by Michael Gardyne who was in an offside position.
The match lulled somewhat for the remainder of the first half, however the Staggies had a fine chance just before the break. A neat interchange down the inside left channel saw Spittal and substitute Charlie Lakin – brought on to replace the injured Tremarco – combine to set up Gardyne to run into the box, however the winger blazed over as he aimed for Liam Kelly’s near post.
County needed a strong start to the second half, and in their time of need their skipper stepped up to the plate. Vigurs played a neat one-two with Stephen Kelly on the edge of the box, before driving towards goal and unleashing a curling left-footed strike which found the goalkeeper’s top-right corner.
The Staggies knew the result would be enough to keep them up but they went in search of a second goal in order to make sure of it, with Kelly unable to turn home a low Jason Naismith delivery.
The second goal did arrive on 66 minutes, with White slipping Gardyne through on goal with an excellent slide rule pass, with County’s all-time record goalscorer showing typical composure to tuck past Kelly.
County had to withstand pressure in the latter stages, with O’Hara seeing a free-kick deflected over, however there was to be no late drama.
MOTHERWELL (4-3-3) – Kelly 6; O’Donnell 6, Magloire 5, Lamie 5, McGinley 5; O’Hara 6, Crawford 5 (Watt 65), Foley 6; Hastie 5 (Lawless 60), Cole 6, Long 6. Subs not used – Fox, Carroll, Maguire, Dunne, Cornelius, Johnston, Gallagher.
ROSS COUNTY (4-3-3) – Laidlaw 7; Naismith 6, Watson 7, Donaldson 7, Tremarco 5 (Lakin 42); Tillson 6, Vigurs 8, Kelly 8; Gardyne 7, White 7, Spittal 7. Subs not used – Hilton, Draper, Shaw, Maouche, Charles-Cook, Paton, Andreu, Wright.
Referee – Steven McLean 5
Man of the match: Stephen Kelly