Simon Murray’s hat-trick got Ross County’s new season off to a winning start as they defeated League Two Stranraer 5-1 in their opening Viaplay Cup fixture.
The Premiership Staggies were opening their competitive campaign just five weeks on from clinching top-flight safety in the most dramatic fashion courtesy of their memorable play-off victory over Partick Thistle.
As domestic fixtures go, their first port of call could not have taken them further, as the group stage draw landed them the 265-mile trip to Stair Park.
It was a road last travelled in 2014 when County were forced to come from behind to secure a 2-1 victory in the League Cup, just 12 months after they had been knocked out at the same venue by the Blues. Despite triumphing second time around, it was to prove Derek Adams’ final game in charge.
There was to be no scare on this occasion, with the Staggies taking just 12 minutes to break the deadlock. Yan Dhanda slipped in Kyle Turner with a delightful pass, with unfortunate Blues defender Craig Ross knocking the ball into his own net.
County doubled the lead on 26 minutes when Murray latched on to a Jordan White flick on, before slotting low underneath goalkeeper Martin McDonald.
Murray was gifted his second goal on 64 minutes when he latched on to a loose Grant Gallagher pass back, before rounding McDonald and slotting home.
Stranraer pulled one back on 71 minutes when Scott Robertson rose to nod home a James Dolan delivery, but Murray restored the three-goal cushion with a clinical finish from a counter-attack, after James Brown had knocked Jay Henderson’s cross into his path.
Jack Baldwin rounded off the scoring to round off a comfortable afternoon for Malky Mackay’s men.
County sharp out of the blocks
The history of the League Cup group stage shows it can take a number of games for teams to get up to speed.
County need look no further than last season, when they opened their competitive season with a 1-1 draw against Buckie Thistle, before going on to win the penalty shoot-out.
Mackay earlier this week set his side the target of claiming maximum points from Group D, which also includes Morton, Edinburgh City and Kelty Hearts.
Their next action is likely to be their toughest challenge of the campaign, when Championship Ton make the trip to Dingwall on Saturday.
Although Mackay will expect his side to sharpen further over the coming weeks, he will be pleased the Staggies set the tone in such a comfortable manner.
Mackay looks comfortably to deploy back three
County’s backline will inevitably look different this season, following the close-season departure of skipper Keith Watson and Alex Iacovitti.
There was no shortage of experience in the Staggies’ rearguard, however, with Connor Randall and Ben Purrington lining up each side of newly-appointed skipper Jack Baldwin.
Randall and Purrington are both typically considered to be full-backs, but both possess strong defensive attributes which make them capable of fitting into a central role.
Mackay is still actively looking for defensive reinforcements, so it remains to be seen whether he will alter his structure once he has more strength in depth.
In the meantime, though, the Staggies boss looks to have a solid foundation to build the spine of his team from.
Murray has opportunity to stake a claim
Simon Murray became the first Staggies player to get off the mark this season, with a well-placed finish midway through the second half to put County two goals to the good.
Although he was gift-wrapped his second goal, it was his sharp attacking instincts which saw him placed to take advantage of Gallagher’s error.
His third goal was an excellent finish to round off a fine counter-attacking move late in the game.
Murray had to bide his time for starting opportunities after making the switch from Queen’s Park last season, but made some vital contributions in County’s great escape. Most notable was his goal in the thrilling play-off against Partick Thistle, which swung momentum firmly into the Staggies’ favour on the day.
With Eamonn Brophy still sidelined following his permanent move from St Mirren, and fellow striker Alex Samuel also working his way back from injury, Murray looks firmly in the mood to stake a claim for leading the line in the coming weeks.
Mackay started with a 3-4-1-2 formation which was well utilised in the Staggies’ pre-season matches.
Although typically regarded as full backs, Ben Purrington and Connor Randall partnered skipper Jack Baldwin in defence.
New arrivals Scott Allardice and Kyle Turner formed a central midfield partnership, with Yan Dhanda in front of them to support the front two of Jordan White and Simon Murray.
Grant Irvine kept his composure in the early stages when the wet conditions resulted in some meaty challenges, but overall had an uneventful afternoon.
Stranraer (3-4-1-2): McDonald 6; McIntosh 6, Robertson 6, Ross 6; Grant 6, Gallagher 5, Fleming 6, Forrest 6; Walker 4 (Hawkshaw 34); Armour 5, Orr 5 (Dolan 64).
Subs – O’Connor, Hughes.
Ross County (3-4-1-2): Munro 6; Randall 6, Baldwin 6, Purrington 7; Sims 6 (Brown 69), Allardice 6 (Mackinnon 69), Turner 6 (Sheaf 64), Harmon 6 (Henderson 64); Dhanda 7 (Smith 81); White 6, Murray 8.
Subs – Ross, Ewan.
Simon Murray was in clinical mood on the day, getting his tally up and running with a well-taken hat-trick.