ROSS COUNTY’S blue match jerseys were left behind in Dingwall in a bizarre mix-up before kick-off but it was Caley Thistle who were posted missing 14 miles along the road.
Only in the closing stages did John Hughes’ men finally muster the kind of competitive menace they have been renowned for in this northerly meeting.
But it wasn’t enough to prevent the Dingwall team booking a place in the first League Cup semi-final of their 21-year national league history.
Suddenly, the joyous scenes of Hampden Park last May seem a distant memory for Hughes and his injury-hit squad.
A pre-match glance at the record books was reminder of Caley Thistle’s past dominance in the derby – with 24 wins to County’s 11 since 1994.
This, though, was to be Jim McIntyre first win in the Highland fixture at the fifth attempt since joining the Staggies 13 months ago.
The hosts suffered another injury setback before the match, with midfield powerhouse Ross Draper failing to recover from an ankle injury. Draper’s influence was to be badly missed as the midfield battle raged, with County progressively gaining the upper hand.
Throughout, the Staggies looked a threat going forward. Caley Thistle, in contrast, mustered little and lacked inspiration.
County had also failed to capitalise against ten men in defeat at Hearts and made three changes. Most notably, 21-year-old Tony Dingwall won his first start of the campaign.
There had been a spot of comic confusion pre-match as both sides stepped out wearing white strips, with County hastily dispatching a driver 14 miles along the road to retrieve their first kit. County were soon in the driving seat.
There was initial promise for the hosts as Liam Polworth pierced the County’s defence with a measured pass. On-loan Swindon striker Miles Storey raced into the box but was thwarted smartly by County goalkeeper Gary Woods.
Soon after, County had a penalty claim waved away as David Raven seemed to catch Dingwall just a yard inside the home box.
County looked likeliest as Liam Boyce, the Northern Ireland striker, swept a powerful 20-yard strike over the crossbar and then met a dangerous Dingwall cross with a glancing header just a ball’s width past the post.
When Martin Woods rocketed a shot off the underside of the Caley Thistle bar from fully 35 yards after 23 minutes, the hosts were creaking.
After a lull, the breakthrough finally came four minutes before the break.
Woods’ corner from the left held plenty of pace and Jackson Irvine, the Australia international, knocked a brilliant eight-yard header into the corner of the net after sneaking in front of defender Raven.
Hughes’ men were in trouble three minutes into the second period.
Craig Curran’s swept pass was the catalyst for a superb bit of skill by Michael Gardyne, showing sublime control as he darted into space to flash a 12-yard finish past a helpless Fon Williams. But for overdoing it a couple of minutes later, County might have been out of sight, with Irvine, square on goal, opting to slide the ball wide to Gardyne who drew a save from the Welsh goalkeeper.
The hosts were in increasing disarray and a Fon Williams blunder allowed Gardyne a goalbound shot only for Josh Meekings to block on the line.
There was a flicker of hope for the home side after 73 minutes, but it exemplified current fortunes as Ryan Christie’s flick on a low Danny Williams cross struck the post and nestled in goalkeeper Woods’ arms.
And it was game on 12 minutes from the end, with Greg Tansey’s marvellous strike from more than 30 yards halving the deficit.
Inevitably, momentum swept behind the home side as they sought to grasp an extra-time lifeline, but it was too little, too late by Inverness.
SCORERS: Inverness CT - Tansey (78’); Ross County - Irvine (41’), Gardyne (48’)