IT PROVED a tale of two goalkeepers as the dust settled at honours even after a frenetic first Highland derby of the season.
Where Dean Brill had heroically pulled off four superb stops to deny Ross County a greater lead before the break, Mark Brown surpassed even those acrobatics with one gravity-defying stop among several to deny the unlucky Inverness striker Billy McKay.
Yoann Arquin’s simple header had carved a deserved lead for County, but the bottom-of-the table Dingwall team faced a sharp reversal after the break as Caley Thistle stormed back through Marley Watkins.
It was also the classic, cliched game of two halves – with Inverness manager John Hughes admitting he had to jolt the host team to life after a troubled first half dominated by County.
Hughes said: “We started very well in the first ten or 15 minutes – and after that it was all Ross County before the break. We were huffing and puffing. We just couldn’t get to grips with it and we were second best to every ball.
“I was disappointed with the manner of the goal we lost. If it had come across flat, then fine, but to come in with height and the header not to be challenged was disappointing.
“At the break, we just tweaked it and changed shape a wee bit. And we pointed out the importance – that it was a derby match and what it means.
“For them to go out in the second half and implement it, all credit to them. We had enough chances in that second half to win two games.”
It was no classic for the purists,
perhaps, but a thoroughly enthralling contest worthy of better than the first sub-4,000 attendance in a Highland derby on a top-flight stage.
County, having earned their first points in victory over Dundee last week, recalled defensive stalwart Scott Boyd after a two-game absence with a dead leg.
Manager Jim McIntyre shuffled the ranks with Michael Gardyne out, switching Rocco Quinn wide left in a decision that was to prove pivotal in the opening goal. Caley Thistle, who were unchanged from the narrow defeat to Aberdeen last weekend, saw recent Scotland under-21 cap Ryan Christie
create the first threat of real note.
The young striker’s deftly-weighted pass sent McKay weaving away from marker Boyd before striking hard and low, only for Brown to smother confidently.
Opposite number Brill, though, was the keeper called upon repeatedly in the first half as County confounded the form book and took control.
Quinn might have drawn first blood after only four minutes but lacked composure and scuffed wide at the back post from Joe Cardle’s telling cross.
It took a timely interception from Ben Frempah to shut down the hosts soon after when Aaron Doran fed
Graeme Shinnie down the left.
That was a rare first-half glimmer from Caley Thistle, with County’s Graham Carey swerving a free-kick over the bar before Brill’s influence spared the hosts again. Ross Draper’s misjudged back-pass also allowed Filip Kiss to race in to shoot, but Brill closed the angle superbly.
After 21 minutes, though, County made the breakthrough. Quinn received the ball on the left and played a first-time ball high into the danger area. Arquin, free of any challenge, glided in to casually angle a five-yard header past the exposed Brill.
There was a shaky hesitance to the hosts as their recent fluent-passing style deserted them, with County quick to press them high up the field.
A second goal seemed certain when Jackson Irvine drove into the box and left Quinn with a clear sight of goal, but he shot straight at Brill.
For all that they were lacklustre, Hughes’ men might have levelled just six minutes before the break.
Greg Tansey’s terrific cross from the right held so much pace Christie could only jab a shot under the bar, but Brown leapt superbly to tip over.
Brill’s crucial first-half role was underlined again before half-time as he leapt to his left to touch a dipping Carey free-kick around the post.
Hughes switched to two up front at the break, nudging Watkins into attack – and it was a change that worked almost immediately.
First Arquin sliced inside Gary Warren to the right of the box and blasted just over the bar.
Then, Christie’s cross from the left took a ricochet off a County defender and planted itself perfectly in front of the unmarked Watkins to side-foot the equaliser – his third goal in three games from a few yards out.
Suddenly, it was McIntyre’s men who were flapping, with Irvine forced into a fine saving tackle on Warren inside the six-yard box as pressure mounted.
It took another brilliant Brown save to deny Watkins from ten yards after a thunderous Doran run and cross from the right.
And County’s charmed life continued with the luckless McKay clipping a shot agonisingly just the wrong side of the post after the cleverest of back heels into the box by Watkins.
Keeper Brown, again, spared County with a truly world-class tip for a corner after McKay struck from Warren’s knock-down.
County were creaking and scrapping as if their lives depended on it as the minutes ticked down – and held on for a point in the end.
Hughes heaped praise on old Hibs charge Brown, adding: “Mark Brown had a few good saves – and that one from Billy was just different class and kept them in it.
“I’ll say this about Mark Brown, I had him at Hibs and Jim McIntyre has a right good lad in there – a right good character and right good goalkeeper. He was inspired in that second half.”
For McIntyre, after his first taste of the Highland derby, there were mixed feelings. The Staggies manager said: “It was a great atmosphere and the proverbial game of two halves.
“We just need to be a bit more ruthless, but how we pressed them and won the ball high up the park was pleasing.
“On the whole I thought our shape was excellent in the first half and we got in their faces, allowing us to create chances. But I have to say after that we had to make some heroic saves and blocks. What that tells me is that the spirit here is good and it’s encouraging for the future.
“People will look at the league table and think it’s two points dropped by Caley Thistle but we deserved a point from this game.”
Inverness CT: Brill, Raven, Warren, Meekings, Shinnie, Watkins, Doran (Williams 69), Draper, Tansey, Christie, Mckay. Subs not used: Esson, Vincent, Tremarco, Ross, Devine, Polworth. Booked: G Tansey.
Ross County: Brown, Toshney, Boyd, Irvine, Carey, Brittain, Frempah, Quinn (Jervis 49), Cardle, Kiss (Boyce 78), Arquin (Barr 69). Subs not used: Reguero, De Leeuw, Maatsen, Balk. Booked: G Carey, F Kiss.
Ref: C Thomson