The simmering rivalry between the two giants of Highland football erupted in Dingwall yesterday in a display of footballing pyrotechnics that produced a truly remarkable finale to this fourth-round cup tie.
Scorers - Ross County: Quinn 49, Vigurs 86, Brittain 90; Inverness CT: McKay 30, Foran 74, 90
Referee: Craig Thomson
This was the first Highland derby in the cup, and with two goals deep into injury time it is unlikely that any of those which follow will be more dramatic.
As well as drama, there was also controversy by the bucketload. Home manager Derek Adams admitted that he was “very disappointed” that Inverness’s final goal had been scored after the allotted three extra minutes, and he also questioned whether the visitors’ second goal should have stood before suggesting that Owain Tudur Jones should have received a straight red for a potentially leg-breaking tackle on Stuart Kettlewell that was “well over the ball” and constituted “serious foul play”. It’s safe to say that referee Craig Thomson, who didn’t endear himself to Adams when the Staggies played Celtic, needn’t expect a Christmas card from Ross County’s manager.
Adams’ counterpart Terry Butcher agreed that it had become a tousy affair as the contest reached its end-game. “That’s another boring Highland derby then, just the ten goals in the last two games,” he laughed. “This game had everything: plenty of incidents and action, especially as it all threatened to boil over towards the end. But we showed great resilience and character to come back. I’m already looking forward to the replay.”
This match wasn’t one of those which started at 100 miles an hour and sustained that pace throughout. Instead the tempo and excitement built slowly, rising to a crescendo in the closing stages, with Iain Vigurs’ goal five minutes from the end of regulation time proving to be the catalyst for ten minutes of white-knuckle drama.
When the Ross County player picked up the ball down the left with the home side trailing 2-1 thanks to a fortuitous second-half goal from Richie Foran, there appeared to be little immediate danger. Yet, just as he was closed down, Vigurs unleashed a shot which spun off the tackler’s foot and over keeper Antonio Reguero for a well-deserved equaliser.
That was merely the cue for ten minutes of remarkable drama, most of which came after the end of the 90 minutes. With the score at 2-2 as the match entered injury time, Vigurs once again turned provider, this time flinging himself to the ground under the mildest of contact from David Raven to win an undeserved free-kick just outside the box.
If Inverness could reproach the referee for that decision, the goal that followed was all of their own making, as home skipper Richard Brittain, pictured left, drilled the free-kick into the box, only to see it go through half a dozen pairs of legs and nestle in the far corner of the net for a goal which gave County an unexpected lead with just seconds of extra time still to play.
Despite the fact that the three minutes of extra time were up, there was still plenty of life in this game. Tudur Jones launched one last attack, smacking a long-range shot from just within the Ross County half, only for keeper Mark Brown to parry the swerving and dipping ball out for a corner. Gary Shinnie’s corner to the back post was met by Gary Warren’s head, and Foran pounced for his second goal with the last kick of the game to send the Caley fans behind the goal into paroxysms of joy and send Butcher fist-pumping his way along the touchline.
That was just one final moment of drama and character in a match that was punctuated with memorable moments. The first had come after half an hour into the game when Caley’s Billy McKay scored the opener, a stunning left-footed volley that smacked off the inside of the post after Foran had risen and headed down Aaron Doran’s free-kick from the left. It was a goal which led to a palpable increase in the tempo of the game, with Caley almost extending their lead seconds later when Andrew Shinnie tried to guide another Foran knockdown into the corner only to see it land in Brown’s paws.
Ross County are one of the most defensively parsimonious sides in the SPL, with only Celtic and Hibs having conceded fewer goals at home this season, but scoring has been problematic for them. Yet they responded quickly and Kettlewell almost scored after Rocco Quinn had threaded a beautiful ball through to Gary Glen on the left, then Reguero had to move swiftly to keep out a Brittain free-kick from the left, after which Josh Meekings cleared off the line from Vigurs. Not that it was
one-way traffic, and Inverness almost finished the half with a second goal when Foran’s close-range header went inches wide.
Whatever Adams said to his troops at half time, it certainly had the desired effect.
Ross County bristled with intent after the interval, and quickly got back on level terms when Quinn received the ball just inside the Caley penalty box and, with virtually no backlift, curled the ball over Reguero and into the top left-hand corner to make it 1-1. If Terry Butcher’s men had bossed the first half, County were dominating the second and Kettlewell almost headed them into the lead.
Yet Inverness still had teeth and showed them when Brown needed to dive full-length to deny Andrew Shinnie from the edge of the area. County didn’t heed that warning though and ten minutes later had cause to rue it when, completely against the run of play, McKay sent a shot into the County penalty area only for Brown to be wrong-footed by a deflection. As Brown picked the ball out of the County net, his defenders appealed for offside and handball, to no avail.
But if that felt dramatic, it was as nothing compared to the finale which that goal set up.
Inverness CT: Reguero, Raven, Warren, Meekings, Graeme Shinnie, Andrew Shinnie, Draper, Tudur Jones, Doran, McKay, Foran. Subs: Esson, Sutherland, Pepper, Roberts, Cooper.
Ross County: Brown, Kovacevic, Tokely, Boyd, Fitzpatrick, Brittain, Kettlewell, Vigurs, Quinn, Morrow, Glen. Subs: Fraser, Munro, Cooper, Ross, Fotheringham.