In football a couple of inches can have a tremendous effect on a game, a season or, in this case, a cup run.
Dunfermline’s fourth-round meeting with Ross County, a side two tiers above them, was an enthralling match that seemed to be losing momentum in the final minutes as each side tired and a draw looked to be the inevitable conclusion. Then Faissal El Bakhtaoui, who enjoyed a phenomenal afternoon’s work, fought through a challenge 25 yards out and struck a dipping shot towards goal.
It seemed certain to nestle in the back of the net before the intervention of Scott Fox, who was later described as one of the country’s best goalkeepers by team-mate Brian Graham, an assessment hard to argue with on current form, got the slightest of touches to deflect the ball on to the underside of the crossbar. The stopper then scrambled up again and pushed away the rebound before Ben Richards-Everton could poke into an empty net.
Dunfermline had come within an inch of a deserved major scalp and place in the last 16 of the competition, but now will have to make the long journey north to Dingwall tomorrow night when they are sure to be up against it.
Allan Johnston’s team, however, are a League 1 side in name only as they look certain to climb back into the second tier with a nine-point lead at the top of the division. While Ross County will be clear favourites for the return match, the result is by no means a foregone conclusion.
“I thought the boys were excellent,” said Johnston of his side. “We had a real go, we created loads of chances, hit the bar and post and another couple cleared off the line, so I don’t think the players could have done any more.
“It’s about winning and that’s the frustration for us because that’s what we’ve done this year. Sometimes the breaks don’t go for you and I thought we were a bit unfortunate with some of the chances.
“We’ve done well against Premiership opposition already. We did well against Dundee, beat them here, we went to extra time against Dundee United, and obviously put in another good performance here. It shows you what the players are capable of.
“I’m sure it’ll be the same type of game. We don’t know how to play any different. We want to attack, no matter if it’s home or away. We’ve shown that this year. We always create chances and we always score goals. We know we’re going to be in the game. But we know with Ross County’s record that they’ll be desperate to get into the next round.”
It seemed it was going to be a routine exercise for the visitors when Alex Schalk put them 1-0 up inside the first five minutes. But the hosts responded terrifically and were level when El Bakhtaoui finished off an excellent move and run with a shot into the roof of the net.
County then pushed themselves back in front in controversial circumstances. There was no doubting the award of a spot-kick for Brad McKay’s challenge on Schalk, but it appeared Graham had fouled Dunfermline’s Jason Talbot in the build-up. Graham said there was “nothing in it”; Talbot called it a WWE-style “clothesline”. Regardless, the decision was made and Graham tucked away the penalty.
McKay – making his home debut after joining on loan from St Johnstone – atoned for his error with a glancing header to restore parity ten minutes into the second half. The centre-back was making his first appearance since August, so could be forgiven for a bit of rustiness and letting his adrenaline get the better of him when he made the ill-advised lunge. However, McKay was not in the mood to entertain any excuses, but could at least console himself with his goal and the chance to prove his capabilities as a defender in tomorrow’s match.
“Not at all,” responded the defender when asked if his lack of game time explained the mistake. “I’ve been playing for the under-20s, which I know isn’t as high a level, but I’ve been keeping fit every day in the gym. It’s just one of these things where I thought the boy’s going to hit a shot and I’ve gone to block it. I’ve slid, I’ve continued to slide and then I’ve taken him out.
“I feel like I’ve let the boys down, but hopefully I’ve made amends with the header.
“Dingwall is a tough place to go, I’ve played there a few times. It’s a tight park and the fans are right on their side. They are a good side but I think we can match them.”