Much of the focus will fall on the good fortune which fell on Ross County at Rugby Park – but they still had to make the most of it to claim victory against Kilmarnock.
The Staggies, who had taken an early second half lead through Simon Murray, looked to have conceded in the dying stages of the match when Stuart Findlay rose to nod home a free-kick.
By that point referee Kevin Clancy had already blown for a penalty to the home side for Josh Reid’s foul on Brad Lyons however, meaning play had to be pulled back.
It sparked a furious reaction from the Killie players and fans, and to compound matters for the hosts Ross Laidlaw was on hand to save the spot-kick from Danny Armstrong.
The contentious incident should not take the gloss away from a hard-earned victory for Malky Mackay’s men at a notoriously difficult venue, where both Rangers and Celtic have already come up short this season.
Murray’s breakthrough followed a first half bereft of action, although he saw a penalty – which had initially been awarded in his favour for a challenge by Findlay – overturned by Clancy following a VAR check.
The striker was well placed to net the game’s decisive goal on 53 minutes, when he rose to nod home a Yan Dhanda free-kick at the near post.
Much of the late controversy could have been spared had Jordan White found the net from an excellent position just after the hour mark, following fine build-up play from Jack Baldwin.
Laidlaw’s penalty save came amid a late rally from Derek McInnes’ side, however County defended superbly throughout to guard the clean sheet and sign off for the international break on a high.
Tremendous defensive effort from Staggies
After taking the lead early in the second half through Murray’s header, County had chances which could have killed the game off.
The best of those fell to White, who should have found the net following excellent work down the right flank by Baldwin.
As long as there remained a single goal in it there was always likely to be an onslaught from the home side, which required the Staggies to stand up to the pressure.
The award of Killie’s penalty prior to the ball finding the net was a major point of contention from the home side. Nevertheless, the spot-kick was a massive chance for the Ayrshire side to draw level which Laidlaw was equal to.
Countless balls were flung into the visitors’ box, with the Dingwall side digging in impressively to secure a hard-earned clean sheet.
Staggies found way to win
Should County continue to keep clean sheets, it will only take one goal to settle matches in their favour. Mackay’s side have already shown they have the firepower to do that.
Murray’s winning goal was already his eighth goal of the season, albeit his first of the league campaign.
Although there was an element of good fortune that fell their way, the Staggies certainly earned it with their gutsy performance. All too often last season, matches of this nature either fizzled out or fell in the favour of the Staggies’ opponents.
County will undoubtedly find themselves in matches of a similar ilk throughout the campaign, and knowing the pathway to victory in difficult circumstances – even in unglamorous fashion – is a trait they will hope to replicate.
Staggies sitting pretty going into international break
County’s victory guarantees they will occupy a top-half place going into the first international break of the season.
It is early days, but the Staggies will take huge encouragement from landing an early blow on both St Johnstone and Kilmarnock who they will expect to be competing closely with throughout the season.
Mackay put the final piece of his squad in place by rounding off the summer transfer window with the loan addition of Huddersfield Town midfielder Scott High.
The Staggies now have a fortnight out of action before they host Livingston in their next game, which precedes a double header against Aberdeen.
The second fixture against the Dons offers the carrot of a Viaplay Cup semi-final place, meaning there is plenty for County to be excited about following the restart.
Mackay made three changes for the trip to Ayrshire, in order to facilitate a change to a 3-4-1-2 formation. Kyle Turner and Will Nightingale returned, while there was a first start of the campaign for Josh Reid.
Making way to the bench were Josh Sims, Victor Loturi and George Harmon, who were joined among the substitutes by new signing High.
Kevin Clancy was the centre of attention following the match, with Killie boss Derek McInnes claiming he apologised for being too hasty in blowing his whistle to award the penalty in the build up to Findlay’s headed goal.
Although that was the dominant talking point, Clancy used VAR to his advantage earlier in the game, when he changed his mind over awarding County a first-half penalty for Findlay’s challenge on Murray.
KILMARNOCK (3-5-2): Dennis 6; Mayo 6 (Wright 90), Findlay 6, Deas 6; Armstrong 5, Watson 6 (McKenzie 66), Lyons 6 (Murray 90), Magennis 6, Kennedy 6; Watkins 5 (Cameron 90), Davies (Dallas 66).
Subs not used: O’Hara, Sanders, Warnock, Polworth.
ROSS COUNTY (3-4-1-2): Laidlaw 8; Nightingale 7, Baldwin 8, Leak 7; Brown 7, Randall 7, Turner 6 (Smith 90), Reid 6 (Harmon 89); Dhanda 6 (Loturi 72); White 6, Murray 7 (Brophy 72).
Subs not used: Munro, Purrington, Sims, Henderson, High.
Jack Baldwin produced an inspirational captain’s display, on a day in which the Staggies’ backline stood up to the task to secure the clean sheet.