BILLY McKay was the toast of one half of the Highland divide after snatching Inverness Caledonian Thistle’s second Dingwall triumph of the campaign.
McKay, with just one goal in his previous ten matches, served a timely reminder of his penalty box prowess with eight minutes left to keep alive faint European hopes for John Hughes’ side, while County remain just three points above the relegation play-off spot.
Inverness had managed just one win in their last nine outings, while County were fresh from impressive draws with Aberdeen and Celtic.
Not surprisingly, then, County were unchanged for a third game running, but Caley Thistle counted three switches. Central defender Josh Meekings returned from suspension to replace injured Danny Devine, but midfield pillar Ross Draper was a surprise absentee after a stomach bug.
Aaron Doran made his return for the visitors after missing four matches with a hamstring problem, while Marley Watkins replaced young Liam Polworth.
The pace from the first whistle was always going to be fast and furious, but even by Highland derby standards it was frenetic. Watkins earned a third minute yellow card for a blatant lunge of the foot as County keeper Mark Brown collected a pass-back.
Greg Tansey escaped similar punishment for another late crunch on Graham Carey four minutes later.
County survived their first scare after nine minutes as Mark Brown went to collect a Graeme Shinnie cross swept in from the left. Yann Songo’o, the on-loan Blackburn defender, failed to hear the keeper’s shout and flicked a header backwards just wide of his own goal.
County’s Richie Brittain threatened from distance and a flicked Melvin De Leeuw header rolled just wide as County pressed.
But it was Caley Thistle who went closest to taking the lead after 16 minutes. Watkins’ pass fed Mckay into space and the Inverness top scorer drove low and hard, only to see keeper Brown’s outstretched leg divert the ball for a corner.
There was a slight mist descending on the Global Energy Stadium but it could easily have been mistaken for steam given the heat being generated by both sides.
County celebrations were cut short by the off-side flag after 35 minutes. Graham Carey’s free-kick sat up perfectly for Yoann Arquin and the big French striker thumped a header goalward.
Cameroonian Songo’o intervened with a volley close in to find the net, but seemed to have sneaked just beyond the line before the ball was played.
A minute later, Caley Thistle’s Carl Tremarco became their third player to enter the book with a reckless lunge that sent County midfielder Filip Kiss head-over-heels and then writhing painfully on the ground.
With half-time approaching, Shinnie’s stringing strike was parried for a corner by Brown at his right hand post.
Moments later, Arquin and de Leeuw combined for County before Greek left back Evangelos Oikonomou cracked in a fierce attempt, but straight at Brill.
It looked like finishing goal-less at the break, but Caley Thistle had other ideas. From a 30-yard free-kick, Tansey struck with phenomenal force. Brown, again, parried but McKay recovered the ball at the edge of the box and fed it back to Doran. The Irish winger’s response from an angle 30 yards out on the left was breathtaking as he sent the ball arcing into the far roof of the net.
County, though, could hardly have asked for a better response early in the second period. Melvin De Leeuw’s delivery from the left found defender Songo’o trying an overhead kick at the edge of the box but taking an air swipe.
It fell to Slovakian Kiss and the on-loan Cardiff City man executed the chance brilliantly, angling a right foot shot into the corner of the net from 10 yards.
From the very next attack, Inverness had the home support worried as David Raven’s ambitious dig from distance was only just touched over the bar by a desperately back-tracking Brown.
Hughes’ men had a strong penalty claim waved away after 57 minutes when Kiss appeared to trip Watkins, with back to goal just inside the County box.
The action was unrelenting with County’s Carey drawing a fine parry by Brill low at his right hand post.
As the home pressure continued, there was fury as Shinnie was penalised just outside the box for landing a foot in Kiss’s face.
Chaotic, end-to-end action continued, culminating in McKay’s dramatic return to scoring form.
Watkins ball in from the left was controlled superbly by McKay whose first attempted volley saw marker Scott Boyd slip to earth.
McKay strode on to score at the second attempt close in.
Even then, County went within a whisker of an equaliser as De Leeuw whisked a low shot just wide.
McKay cracked the crossbar before the match was done, but nothing could dull Inverness celebrations.
Ross County: Brown, Cikos, Songo’o, Boyd, Oikonomou (Slew 87), Brittain, Tidser (Quinn 81), Kiss, Carey; De Leeuw, Arquin. Subs not used: McCarthy, Gordon, Glen, McLean, Saunders.
Goals: Kiss, 49.
Inverness CT: Brill, Raven, Warren, Meekings, Tremarco, Tansey, Shinnie, Watkins, Vincent (Christie 69), Doran, Mckay. Subs not used: Esson, Ross, Williams, Polworth, Evans.
Goals: Doran, 45; McKay 82.
Booked: Watkins, Tremarco
Referee: C Murray