ROSS County penned another glorious chapter in the remarkable recent story of Highland football as they consigned Hibs and their supporters to a familiar sense of final desolation at Hampden.
Ten months after their neighbours Inverness Caledonian Thistle’s Scottish Cup triumph, the Dingwall club ensured a second piece of Scottish football’s major silverware would be making its way up the A9 as they lifted the League Cup in dramatic fashion.
A first major honour for County is a rich reward for the admirable work done at the club by Jim McIntyre since his appointment as manager. It was earned by Dutch striker Alex Schalk’s 90th-minute winner after Michael Gardyne’s opener for County had been cancelled out on the stroke of half-time by Liam Fontaine.
For Alan Stubbs, it was a painful missed opportunity to land his first honour as Hibs boss. The Easter Road men were the likelier and more cohesive team for lengthy spells of a final which was absorbing rather than thrilling. But Hibs lacked the levels of conviction which have served County so well under McIntyre and which ultimately came up trumps here.
It was a final which many observers regarded as difficult to call beforehand and it duly met that expectation of being finely balanced. There was even an equal amount of tension evident in the work of both teams as they took time to settle. After some cagey early sparring, it was Hibs who struck the first blow of note in the 12th minute when Jason Cummings burst into life with a sweetly struck left-foot shot from around 22 yards. County goalkeeper Gary Woods was equal to it, stretching out a hand to divert the dipping effort over his crossbar.
The on-loan Leyton Orient man came to County’s rescue again a minute later, diving bravely to save at the feet of David Gray as the Hibs captain looked set to pounce on the ball which had broken towards him from a John McGinn cross.
County’s response saw Darren McGregor have to make a sharp intervention to reach a dangerous Gardyne cross before the lurking Liam Boyce. From the resulting corner floated in by Ian McShane, Martin Woods stole in unmarked at the far post but was let down by a poor first touch before blazing over.
It was Hibs, however, who seemed to have the edge at this stage and they threatened again when Anthony Stokes cut in from the left and drove a shot straight at Woods. But just as Stubbs’ men appeared capable of exerting some authority on the final, they fell behind to Gardyne’s 25th minute opener. Jackson Irvine was the provider, the Australian midfielder pouncing on a slack pass from Kevin Thomson before driving towards the edge of the Hibs penalty area.
Irvine’s perfectly weighted pass found Gardyne in an onside position and although Marvin Bartley got back to make a sliding challenge, he could not prevent the County man taking the ball wide of Mark Oxley and slotting it home from six yards.
As Hibs attempted a rapid recovery from that setback, the impressive Irvine made a valuable contribution for County at the other end of the pitch when he managed to get enough of a touch on the ball to prevent Gray making clean contact from six yards out after Stokes had flicked on a Liam Henderson corner.
Parity was the least Hibs deserved on the balance of play but their frustration was clearly growing as opportunities continued to be scorned. McGregor headed over from a Gray corner, then Cummings could not beat Woods from 12 yards after latching onto a terrific through ball by McGinn.
Just as Stubbs was preparing for an interval address to a side in a losing position, however, Fontaine struck to change the tone. It was an impressive finish from the central defender who spun sharply in the area to lash home a left-foot shot after Gray had flicked on a Henderson corner, the ball finding its way past both Woods and full-back Richard Foster on the line.
Stokes dragged a shot narrowly wide of Woods’ post eight minutes after the restart as Hibs attempted to build on the momentum of Fontaine’s equaliser. But they were unable to impose themselves in the manner Stubbs would have hoped, their play increasingly lacking in fluency.
Foster passed up a decent chance to regain the lead for County on the hour, sending a header tamely wide from close range after Irvine had helped on a McShane corner. The Dingwall side, though, were now carrying a more persistent threat.
Oxley made a good save to keep out a Schalk free-kick, then substitute Brian Graham, who brought greater potency up front for County after replacing their off-colour top scorer Boyce, had a goal disallowed for illegally climbing on Woods when he headed home from close range.
While still enjoying the lion’s share of possession, Hibs were doing little of note with it and looked increasingly vulnerable to the kind of counter attack which duly brought County their dramatic 90th-minute winner.
Gardyne burst clear down the left and whipped a dangerous cross into the six yard box. Fontaine’s attempted clearance merely directed the ball to Schalk who coolly touched it home from close range. In the sixth minute of stoppage time, Hibs almost forced extra-time when Fontaine’s overhead kick was brilliantly touched over by Woods. The party could now start for the 6,000 or so who had travelled from the Highlands, while many of the near 30,000 strong Hibs support were already beating a familiar retreat from Hampden.
Hibs: Oxley, Gray, McGregor, Fontaine, Stevenson, Henderson, Bartley (Boyle 90), Thomson (Keatings 76), McGinn; Cummings, Stokes. Substitutes not used: Virtanen, El Alagui, Handling, Gunnarson, Dagnall.
Ross County: G Woods, Fraser, Quinn, Davies, Foster (Franks 85), McShane (Murdoch 79), M Woods, Irvine, Gardyne. Schalk, Boyce (Graham 59). Substitutes not used: Konopka, Boyd, Robertson, De Vita.
Referee: Kevin Clancy.