TERRY Butcher used a boxing analogy last week to talk up the pounding beauty of this local joust. He also took time to remind everyone that he and Derek Adams remained very good friends away from the 90-minute heat and steam of the Highland derby.
Scorers: Inverness - Shinnie (5), McKay (59); Ross County - Lawson (35)
Bookings: Ross County - Kettlewell, Lawson, Vigurs
To those competitive minutes when peace and understanding break down and verbal punches fly, you can now add the post-match handshake. Tempers flared again between the pair at full-time, with Adams enraged by a controversial and pivotal penalty award against Mihael Kovacevic.
Judging by Butcher’s reaction he took exception to something said. It all added fresh drama to this fifth, feral meeting of the clubs this season.
“It’s a passionate game,” Butcher admitted later. “We felt we should have had a penalty up at Victoria Park as well so maybe justice has evened itself out. I couldn’t give a damn [about County complaints], because we won the game – that’s all that matters!
“There were a few words exchanged [with Derek] but that’s what happens. I’m not going to go into it and tell you what it was.
“He obviously didn’t think it was a penalty but I felt that way two weeks ago and we didn’t get it. But we never moaned and groaned. We just got on with the job.”
Adams glossed over the exchange, but made no secret of his fury at Iain Brines’ 59th-minute award.
With a glorious Paul Lawson leveller having cancelled out Andrew Shinnie’s opener, the game was finely-balanced before the decisive penalty tucked away by Billy McKay for his 24th goal of the season.
Butcher is now all but ensured of Caley Thistle’s first top six success, a piece of history for Highland football County, too, can still emulate.
It was classic, ragged, heart-on-sleeve stuff yet again as County’s wonderful 11-game unbeaten run ended.
Adams sprang the big pre-match surprise with the complete omission of captain and top scorer Richard Brittain, though in fairness Celtic had been humbled in his absence seven days earlier.
The hosts had lost Graeme Shinnie – having previously played every minute of every game – to suspension.
On-loan Leeds United teenager Charlie Taylor slotted into the role and was expected to be given a torrid examination by Ivan Sproule.
Crucially, though, the County talisman was soon nursing a hamstring problem and departed early in the second period.
The Dingwall team were certainly second best through the first 35 minutes. Billy McKay’s snap shot after just four minutes was parried for a corner at his near post by Michael Fraser. Taylor’s corner was flicked goalward by Richie Foran and, despite Fraser’s block on the line, Andrew Shinnie was there to force the ball over the line.
As the heavens opened and the rain beat down, County mustered a reply from nowhere.
Iain Vigurs won a foul from Aaron Doran 30 yards out and rolled the ball square left to Paul Lawson. The County midfielder’s response was truly astonishing as he unleashed a glorious strike high into the top left corner of Ryan Esson’s net.
Suddenly, County were in the ascendancy, but Sproule limped off before controversy exploded.
A tremendous 20-yard burst by young Taylor took him scything through into the left side of County’s penalty area. Kovacevic seemed to win the ball superbly but, to the away side’s astonishment, referee Brines pointed to the spot.
The near-side assistant had to wade in to break up a ruck of opposing players as tempers flared.
It fell to top scorer McKay to step up calmly and send Fraser the wrong way.
Caley Thistle successfully dug in to protect the lead with Sam Morrow heading straight into Reguero’s arms and Scott Boyd flashing another just wide.
Adams made clear his anger afterwards.
“You’ve seen it. It’s not a penalty kick,” he said. “Kovacevic has clearly won the ball and put it out of play.
“It’s another big decision that has gone against us. Twice in the Scottish Cup game [a 3-3 draw] two offside goals went against us – and today again. It changed the game.”