Life without Jackson Irvine began in uninspiring fashion for the Staggies, who required a late penalty from substitute Brian Graham to begin their defence of the League Cup with a victory.
The Premiership side toiled against their League 2 opponents, whose resilient performance frustrated County.
The Angus outfit showed belief, with County having goalkeeper Scott Fox to thank for preventing the home side taking the lead early in the second half.
The Highlanders’ full-time training and status increasingly showed as the match went on, with attacker Graham coming to their rescue.
The level of opposition will only rise from this point, and quickly jumping to the top of Jim McIntyre’s list is the task of replacing Australia international Irvine, who departed for English Championship side Burton Albion late on Friday.
Stewart Murdoch’s departure to Dundee United meant McIntyre was in the market for a new midfielder in any case, but the void left by Irvine’s departure will require him to step up his search, with the former Celtic player’s energy and willingness to drive from box to box so important to County.
McIntyre made it his summer priority to shore up a defence that leaked 61 goals in the league last season, which was reflected by the signings of Erik Cikos, Jay McEveley and Kenny van der Weg, who were all in from the start against the Gable Endies.
The trio slotted in alongside Andrew Davies, who is looking for a new club.
The Englishman hobbled off with a calf strain on 26 minutes, replaced by Chris Robertson, but not before the defence was nearly given a rude awakening after just five minutes when a long ball by Andrew Steeves released Gary Fraser, only for Montrose’s leading-scorer of last season to shoot wide with only goalkeeper Scott Fox to beat.
It was an early warning for the Highlanders, but they soon made their presence felt with Jonathan Franks hammering wide from a narrow angle, before Martin Woods was narrowly off-target with an acrobatic scissors-kick effort from Michael Gardyne’s delivery.
A crucial season lies ahead for Dutch attacker Alex Schalk following a blistering finish to last season, most notably netting the winning goal against Hibernian that secured the Dingwall side’s first major silverware in March, and he got his first sniff on 16 minutes, but goalkeeper Jordan Millar smothered his low effort from the edge of the box.
County had Fox to thank for keeping them level just two minutes after the interval though, the goalkeeper making an excellent double save to first tip away Chris Templeman’s diving header from Paul Watson’s cross, before blocking Gary Fraser’s follow up with his legs.
That appeared to spark the visitors into life with Gardyne rattling the post and Schalk prodding over, in his last action before being replaced by Craig Curran, who made his first competitive appearance since January following a prolonged absence through illness.
County thought they had made the breakthrough on the hour mark when Robertson flicked Woods’ corner home, only to be thwarted by an offside flag when Liam Boyce was penalised for interfering with play.
Curran was denied a goal on his return with his powerful header from Franks’ delivery destined for the top corner until Millar rose to make a superb fingertip save.
With a penalty shoot-out looming, the Staggies were handed the opportunity to secure all three points from 12 yards when Gardyne’s run was halted by Montrose defender Greg Pascazio, with substitute Graham confidently sending Millar the wrong way to spare his side’s blushes with his cool conversion.