Ross County came through a test of mettle by defeating Airdrieonians after extra-time to progress to the quarter-finals of the Viaplay Cup.
County had been cruising against their Championship opponents, having held a 3-1 lead with eight minutes of the 90 remaining.
A spirited comeback from the hosts forced extra-time, but Eamonn Brophy’s goal on 101 minutes proved decisive.
The Diamonds qualified for the knockout stage of the competition with a 100% record in their section. Buoyed by winning promotion from League One last term, the Staggies were sure to be facing a confident side.
County made light work of racing into a healthy early lead however. Their opener came on six minutes when Kyle Turner neatly exchanged passes with Simon Murray, before curling a beautiful effort Josh Rae for his second goal in as many games.
Turner turned provider two minutes later when he returned a Josh Sims delivery across the face of goal, with Jordan White on hand to turn the ball home on the goal-line.
Airdrie grabbed a lifeline on 36 minutes in all to simple fashion, with Adam Frizzell drifting past Connor Randall and Jack Baldwin before cutting back for Calum Gallagher to knock home.
Within three minutes County restored their two-goal cushion, after Simon Murray shrugged off Aaron Taylor-Sinclair to reach James Brown’s ball, before applying a neat finish beyond Rae.
County looked to be cruising their way to victory but they gifted Airdrie a way back into the match on 82 minutes when Baldwin brought down substitute Josh O’Connor, with Gallagher making no mistake from the spot.
O’Connor forced extra-time in the final minute when he was on hand to tuck home following a poor clearance by Ryan Leak.
A tense extra-time period followed, however Brophy’s header from an exquisite delivery by fellow substitute Dylan Smith sent the Staggies into the last eight.
Staggies made to do it the hard way
Having been 3-1 up at the interval, County were always likely to face a test of their resolve against Rhys McCabe’s high-flying Diamonds.
Malky Mackay’s side initially looked to be managing the second half perfectly, and it appeared to be a case of seeing out the victory with a two-goal cushion.
Airdrie’s introduction of Josh O’Connor proved a turning point but the Staggies boss will be frustrated by the lacklustre defending which brought the home side back level.
Baldwin cheaply fouled O’Connor for the penalty which Gallagher dispatched, and six minutes later Leak made a hash of a clearance which landed directly at the feet of the attacker to slot home.
At this point the Diamonds had all the momentum but County deserve credit for the way they navigated their way through the extra-time period, particularly with a younger side on the pitch following a number of substitutions.
After grabbing the lead through Brophy, County managed to keep Airdrie’s threat at bay which leaves County 90 minutes away from securing a first Hampden Park outing since 2016.
Turner more than up to task
The absence of Yan Dhanda through a bruised hip was a blow to the Staggies, given the increasing influence he has had on Mackay’s team in the last 12 months.
Since replacing Dhanda as a first half substitute against St Johnstone, Turner has wasted no time in grasping his opportunity.
Having netted his first Staggies goal against Saints, within eight minutes of the kick-off at Excelsior Stadium he already added another goal and an assist to his name.
His opening goal was a delight, carving out the opportunity through a one-two with Murray before curling a sublime effort just inside the far corner.
Turner also possesses a big threat from dead balls, which County will hope to profit from during the course of the campaign.
After making the step up from the Championship with Partick Thistle, the 25-year-old is fast strengthening his case to become a fixture in Mackay’s team.
Staggies have cause to relish return to league action
With a quarter-final to look forward to, which will take place between September 26-28, County now have a run of four successive league matches to look forward to.
The Staggies have made a solid start, with a courageous opening day defeat to Celtic at Parkhead followed by a win and clean sheet at home to St Johnstone.
Next up is the visit of Rangers on Saturday, which they will see as an opportunity to put further pressure on a Gers side which has made a far from convincing start to the domestic season.
With Kilmarnock, Livingston and Aberdeen to follow before they return to cup action, County will aim to string a run of league momentum together in the coming weeks.
Mackay’s only change was enforced one, with Yan Dhanda ruled out due to the bruised hip he suffered against St Johnstone last weekend. His replacement Kyle Turner came into the match full of confidence, having come off the bench to net the opener against Saints. There was no place on the bench for Alex Samuel, who was ruled out due to illness.
Steven McLean’s main flashpoint was the award of Airdrie’s late penalty, for which Baldwin’s challenge gave him little option.
AIRDRIEONIANS (4-3-3): Rae 6; Watson 7, Fordyce 6, Taylor-Sinclair 5 (Hancock 101), Ballantyne 6; McMaster 6, Aiken 6 (Telfer 65), Frizzell 7; McGregor 6 (O’Connor 74), Gallagher 7 (Dunlop 106), McGill 7 (Todorov 85).
Subs not used: Hutton, Cassidy, Fellows.
ROSS COUNTY (4-4-2): Laidlaw 6; Brown 6 (Smith 69), Baldwin 5, Leak 5, Harmon 6 (Sheaf 98); Turner 8 (Reid 80), Randall 7, Loturi 7 (Tillson 57), Sims 6 (Henderson 69); White 7, Murray 7 (Brophy 69).
Subs not used: Munro, Mackinnon.
Kyle Turner continued his impressive form, with an early goal and assist to put the Staggies well on track.