Ross County secured Premiership safety in the most thrilling fashion – with a dramatic Premiership play-off comeback against Partick Thistle setting them up for a penalty shoot-out triumph.
The Staggies looked dead and buried in the tie after falling 3-0 behind on aggregate through Aidan Fitzpatrick’s first half goal.
Malky Mackay’s men appeared destined for the Championship until the first signs of a fightback came on 71 minutes through Yan Dhanda’s penalty, before Simon Murray put the wheels in motion for a dramatic turnaround by adding a second just two minutes later.
George Harmon sent the tie to extra-time with a stoppage time leveller, with the match ultimately going to spot-kicks.
The shoot-out was equally dramatic, with George Harmon scoring to keep County in it and take it to sudden death.
Keith Watson missed the chance to win it after Stuart Bannigan had hit the post, however Ross Laidlaw teed the Staggies up again with an excellent save from Ross Docherty.
Josh Sims stepped up to dispatch the decisive penalty, prompting a pitch invasion of jubilant County supporters who will now celebrate a fifth successive season in the Premiership.
Staggies pull off one of the greatest escapes
The Staggies were always chasing the tie after losing the first leg 2-0, but there was a feeling any breakthrough at the other end would more than likely kill them off.
Fitzpatrick’s first half goal looked to have that effect, giving the Staggies a mountain to climb to salvage their top-flight status.
Early second half pressure failed to bring about a lifeline, with David Mitchell denying both Alex Samuel and Nohan Kenneh.
At that point it looked as if County’s efforts would fizzle out, however they netted three goals in the final 19 minutes to swing the momentum in their favour.
Murray missed an excellent chance to win the match before it reached extra-time, with the two sides failing to find a breakthrough in the subsequent 30 minutes.
It could have gone either way in the shoot-out, however Laidlaw’s saves from Kevin Holt and Docherty gave Sims the chance to be the hero in front of a buoyant Jail End.
The manner of the play-off victory will go down as one of the greatest escapes in Scottish football history.
Staggies have shown post-split mettle
County were given little hope of staying in the league going into the split, after approaching it fresh from a chastening 6-1 defeat to Hearts at Tynecastle.
It left the Staggies four points adrift at the foot of the table, with precious little momentum behind them.
Wins over Livingston and Dundee United were enough to take them off the basement and stave off the threat of automatic relegation, but a return of one point from the remaining three matches meant they would need to navigate their way to safety by virtue of the play-offs.
Thistle’s first leg win was a major boost to the Championship side’s hopes of returning to the top-flight, however County found a way to pull it out of the bag.
In doing so, they become the first team since Falkirk in 2009 to survive having been bottom of the top-flight going into the split.
Eyes will quickly turn to next season
The prospect of preparing for a Premiership campaign would have seemed a distant thought for the Staggies around the hour mark at Victoria Park.
After somehow turning the tie on its head, Malky Mackay and his staff will breathe a sigh of relief before turning their attention straight on to building for next season.
Although the outcome was a thoroughly pleasing one for the Highlanders, the season has been something of a toil for the Staggies following the previous campaign’s top-half finish.
County will be eager to channel the immediate post-match euphoria into laying down the foundations for a fresh push next season.
Mackay made four changes from the side which fell to first leg defeat at Firhill. Dylan Smith and Owura Edwards were ruled out through suspension, while George Harmon and Jordan Tillson dropped to the bench.
Skipper Keith Watson was back in the side, while Ben Purrington made his first start since October, and there were also recalls for David Cancola and Nohan Kenneh.
Nick Walsh had a highly eventful afternoon. His initial flashpoint came in the first half when he consulted the VAR monitor for a Thistle penalty claim after Kenneh had appeared to bring down Ross Docherty, before opting to stick with his original decision not to award it.
County benefitted from further VAR consultations, firstly in the build up to Dhanda’s penalty for Brian Graham’s handball, before Watson avoided a red card for a challenge on Scott Tiffoney.
ROSS COUNTY (4-3-1-2): Laidlaw 8; Randall 7, Watson 6, Baldwin 8, Purrington 7 (Harmon 60); Loturi 6 (Sims 86), Kenneh 6 (Murray 57), Cancola 7 (Tillson 86); Dhanda 8; White 8, Samuel 8 (Williamson 101).
Subs not used: Munro.
PARTICK THISTLE (4-2-3-1): Mitchell 7; McMillan 7, Brownlie 7, Muirhead 6, Holt 6; Turner 8, Docherty 7; Lawless 6 (Mullen 116), Tiffoney 8, Fitzpatrick 6 (Bannigan 72); Graham 7.
Subs not used: Sneddon, Dowds, Smith, McKinnon, Hodson, Owens, MacKenzie.
Yan Dhanda was the catalyst for Ross County’s comeback with the penalty which got them back into the game, and he was involved at the heart of all their attacking play in the late push.