ON AN afternoon of farewells to the home support from several Motherwell players, Ross County also said goodbye to their hopes of playing in Europe next season.
The Highland side were in the ascendancy for much of a match they simply had to win, but headed back up the A9 with nothing to show for their efforts after two brilliant counter-attacking goals from James McFadden and Chris Humphrey secured all three points for Stuart McCall’s side.
It allowed Motherwell to savour their traditional post-match lap of honour in front of their fans following their last home game of a memorable campaign, albeit it was tinged by sadness at the imminent departures of goalkeeper Darren Randolph, midfielder Nicky Law and probably a few others including McFadden.
For County, their debut season in the SPL has still been an unqualified success but the battle for Scotland’s remaining Europa League place will now be won by either Highland rivals Inverness Caledonian Thistle or St Johnstone on the final day of the campaign next Sunday.
Motherwell fans have savoured the reprise of McFadden’s Fir Park career over the past four months and he provided them another moment to cherish yesterday when he put the home side ahead with the fifth goal of his short-term return to the club.
Having dominated the initial stages with some precise and controlled possession football, County were undone on the first occasion they gave the ball away cheaply in midfield. Paul Lawson was the culprit, allowing Humphrey to exhibit his blistering pace down the right wing for the first time. The Jamaican international winger sprinted clear and delivered a low cross to the far post, which McFadden met with a first-time left-foot shot from around eight yards that beat County goalkeeper Michael Fraser to his left.
The visitors looked for a quick response to that eighth-minute setback and Motherwell defender Shaun Hutchinson had to make a brave block to keep out a Steffen Wohlfarth effort. But for all of the time they enjoyed on the ball, County lacked the kind of incision that has characterised Motherwell so often as an attacking force this season.
Richard Brittain drove a 20-yard shot just wide of Randolph’s right-hand post but it was not until the 35th minute that he had to make a save, comfortably holding Ivan Sproule’s attempt from a tight angle.
There was more significant work for Randolph to do two minutes later, the big Irishman racing to the edge of his penalty area to save at the feet of Sproule who had pounced on some slack play by Hutchinson.
Derek Adams’ men continued to probe insistently in search of an equaliser but their task became all the more implausible when they were hit with another classic sucker punch in the final action of the first half.
Having earned a corner kick when Lawson’s shot was deflected wide, County opted to play the set piece short rather than deliver the ball into the penalty area. The upshot was a complete mix-up between Lawson and Iain Vigurs which saw the latter give the ball away to Humphrey who set off on a breathless run from his own half of the pitch. It took him all the way into the County penalty area and this time he decided to do it all by himself, ignoring McFadden’s supporting run and driving a shot beyond Fraser from eight yards.
It was a dispiriting blow for the Dingwall side but they brought a renewed intensity to their work in the second half nonetheless, again dominating lengthy periods of possession. Martin Scott lobbed a clever effort just off target after a neat exchange of passes with Mihael Kovacevic but their attacking work continued to lack real menace.
They suffered a significant blow in the 56th minute when captain Brittain was carried off on a stretcher, clearly in considerable agony after jarring his leg in making a challenge on Humphrey. He was replaced by Mark Fotheringham, while Adams also introduced Gary Glen for Scott in a bid to bring a more threatening edge up front.
Fotheringham came close with a 20-yard shot, while County had loud appeals for a penalty turned down for handball against Hutchinson. But despite being on the back foot for so long, Motherwell looked just as likely to add to their tally on the break as they did to concede.
McFadden should have made it 3-0 in the 77th minute, heading over from little more than a yard out after Humphrey had brilliantly engineered space on the right to send over a cross.
When Sproule then struck the crossbar at the other end with an intuitive effort from distance, County could sense the game was up as far as their quest for European football was concerned.