With an energetic performance and four fine goals against a stuttering defence, Ross County hauled themselves up to within a point of St Mirren.
St Mirren: Thompson (50); Ross County: Brittain (22) Morrow (67) Sproule (71), (74)
What’s more, the Dingwall club has two games in hand over the Paisley side and on this form they could soon be challenging for a top-six place. St Mirren manager Danny Lennon gave a brief debut to Conor Newton, on loan from Newcastle, while Greek defender Evangelos Ikonomou and former Hibs winger Ivan Sproule made their first starts for County.
After a minute’s applause in memory of St Mirren’s best-known supporter Jimmy “Toshie” McIntosh, who has died aged 90, there was a subdued opening to the match, though both goalkeepers had to use their legs to save from Steven Thompson and Sproule respectively, the latter put through by the first of many telling Brittain passes.
County appeared more eager than the home side, despite not having played since Boxing Day – their break in the Spanish sun seemed to have done them a power of good. “We’re heading straight back out to Marbella,” joked County manager Derek Adams. Sproule was looking lively and, after 15 minutes, Graham Carey felled the Northern Irishman outside the box and was rightly booked. Iain Vigurs’ free kick looked to be curling in at the near post until Craig Samson threw himself across goal to parry the ball behind.
St Mirren’s best chance of the half came when Gary Teale’s cross found Sam Parkin deep in the County area but his header was straight at Mark Brown, before the visitors opened the scoring with a cracker after 22 minutes.
Referee Euan Norris judged that Marc McAusland’s hand had hit the ball rather than the other way round, and from 25 yards directly in front of goal, Brittain hit a strong curling shot that bulged the back of the net. He may have signed a pre-contract deal to join St Johnstone at the summer, but Brittain retains both the club captaincy and his influential role in midfield, while he looks to be forming a useful partnership with Sproule.
St Mirren tried to come back at County, but failed to create any meaningful chances while the visitors always looked more dangerous, Brittain and Sproule combining only for the latter to shoot wide.
Near the end of the half, Thomson had what looked like a decent penalty appeal turned down, the referee lecturing the St Mirren striker and Mihael Kovacevic for their “chat” afterwards. At least Mr Norris was consistent, as he had ignored Gary Teale’s earlier appeal for a penalty, too.
With Newton replaced by Dougie Imrie at half time, Saints looked much more business-like and it took just five minutes for them to equalise. From the right wing, David Barron found Thompson inside the visitors’ box with a direct pass. The striker had just enough space to control the ball with one touch and then fire in a hard low shot that beat Brown all the way into the goalkeeper’s right hand corner.
Vigurs was booked for a bad tackle on Barron as the match became a tussle long on effort but short on skilful quality. Both sides were manfully trying to play decent passing football, but too often the execution was poor.
Both defences were also generally sound, until the 67th minute, when Barron’s miscued back-pass header allowed substitute Sam Morrow to run in and stroke the ball home just two minutes or so after he replaced Gary Glen.
Four minutes later, the St Mirren defence was posted missing when Vigurs intercepted a poor throw in from Barron and fed Sproule who fairly lashed the ball past Samson.
The visitors’ fourth started with Brittain’s cross being headed out to Rocco Quinn, whose blistering shot was palmed away by Samson to Sproule who reacted much quicker than the home defence to score. Mark Brown then denied St Mirren the last word, superbly tipping away a raking shot from substitute John McGinn before getting down low to save Lewis Guy’s penalty – a highly dubious one it must be said – with his legs in injury time.
St Mirren manager Danny Lennon said: “We shot ourselves in the foot in the second half. I didn’t really recognise that group of players today.”