THE first-ever Highland derby in the SPL was a cause of celebration for both clubs, but it was only Caley Thistle who felt like celebrating at the end of a pulsating match.
Scorers: Inverness - Draper (9), Shinnie (28), Doran (87); Ross County - Vigurs (48)
Bookings: Inverness - Raven, Draper, Pepper, Doran; Ross County - Brittain, Scott, Fotheringham
They only wrapped up the three points with five minutes to go, but they could have had the win in the bag by half-time.
This was a third successive defeat for Ross County, who must feel that their 40-game unbeaten run is very much a thing of the past. They fought back well in the early stages of the second half after being two down at the break, but after losing five goals at St Mirren last week they can be thankful that they only conceded three last night.
The win takes Inverness into the top six, albeit only until this afternoon’s games. But if they keep playing as they did in this match, they have a realistic chance of claiming a place there come the split.
The bulk of the away support had only made the journey of a dozen miles or so from Dingwall, but the occasion had also attracted some from much further afield. There was Dave, a musician from Hull, for example, who had made the trip north on his motorbike to see his first Scottish football match.
Why had he chosen this one? “”Well, when the fixtures came out this one jumped out at me, because I’ve liked Inverness for a long time,” he said. “They beat Celtic, remember?
“”But I play double bass and I’m usually booked up at weekends. Then when it changed to a Friday I thought right, that’s it, I’m going. So I bought my ticket yesterday and drove up today. It’ll be more exciting than watching Hull City anyway.”
The opening ten minutes of the game were certainly exciting for the home support, and nerve-wracking for the away fans, as Caley Thistle seized control. They nearly scored in the opening 30 seconds, when former Inverness player Ross Tokely misdirected a defensive header and sent it crashing off his own crossbar.
A minute later Owain Tudur Jones came closer, this time intentionally, but his sliced shot was cleared off the line by Grant Munro.
The first chance had come via a cross from the right, the second following a run through the middle. The next attempt was created wide on the left, when Philip Roberts sent in a low cross and Andrew Shinnie shot a couple of feet wide.
With such superiority across the width of the pitch, Inverness seemed sure to score, and they duly did with eight minutes played. A corner from the right was taken by Graeme Shinnie, and Ross Draper rose high on the edge of the six-yard box to send a looping header into the far corner of Michael Fraser’s net.
Ross County had done little but defend –and badly up to then, but the goal stung them into action, and they nearly pulled off a surprise equaliser when a curling shot by Mark Fotheringham from 25 yards beat stand-in goalkeeper Antonio Reguero, but came back off the bar.
That began a brief spell in which Inverness had to engage in some scrambled defence, but before the half-hour mark they went two in front.
The impressive Roberts began the scoring move with a pass to Tudur Jones, and the Welshman slipped a through ball into the path of Richie Foran. As he neared the right-hand edge of the 18-yard box Foran passed inside to Andrew Shinnie, who slotted the ball past Fraser.
Munro had a chance to pull a goal back with a free header from six yards out, but Reguero got across goal well to save. Despite that and their other scoring opportunities, however, County were on balance fortunate to go in at half-time only two goals adrift.
In fact, they had Fraser to thank for preventing the loss of a third goal just before the break. After an attack was broken up on the edge of the Caley Thistle box, Roberts put Doran clear with a superb pass. The winger had the pace to stay clear of the cover defence, but his shot lacked conviction and the ’keeper blocked it with his legs.
Had that effort gone in there would surely have been no way back for Derek Adams’s side. Instead, they roared back into the game with goal direct from a free-kick by Iain Vigurs.
The award, for a tackle by Andrew Shinnie on Martin Scott, was debatable, and half the home team certainly tried to debate it with the referee the instant the ball struck the back of the net. But there was no denying the quality of the strike by Vigurs against his former club, as the speed and direction gave Reguero no chance.
Suddenly, the uncertainty which had understandably gripped Ross County for much of the first half was gone, and it was Inverness’s turn to look nervous. Terry Butcher’s response was to introduce more pace to his team, bringing Conor Pepper on for Foran. Pepper took up a wide-right position, with Roberts moving infield and further forward.
The idea was for the substitute and the teenager to keep the County defence pressed back, but they saw little of the ball for long enough as the visitors took command of midfield. As the match entered the closing 20 minutes, County looked the more likely to score, and Vigurs was not too far off doing so with a shot from open play, spinning it wide of the left post.
Rocco Quinn was next with a scoring attempt, but this time Reguero saved well. At the other end, a stronger shot from Draper was blocked by Fraser.
With time running out County had no option but to press forward, allowing Caley Thistle the space with which to grab the winner. Pepper provided the assist with a header, and Doran sent a volley crashing into the net to send the Inverness fans delirious.
Inverness Caledonian Thistle: Reguero, Raven, G Shinnie, Tudur Jones, Warren, Foran (Pepper 59), A Shinnie (Morrison 74), Meekings, Doran, Roberts (McKay 85). Subs not used: Mathieson, Oswell, Polworth, Cooper.
Ross County: Fraser, Fitzpatrick, Munro, Boyd, Tokely, McMenamin, Brittain, Vigurs, Quinn, Scott (Kettlewell 76), Fotheringham (Glen 76). Subs not used: Brown, Kovacevic, MacPhee, Ross, Dingwall.
Inverness CT: Reguero, Raven, Meekings, Warren, Graeme Shinnie, Doran, Tudur Jones, Draper, Roberts, Foran, Andrew Shinnie. Subs: Mathieson, McKay, Oswell, Morrison, Polworth, Pepper, Cooper.
Ross County: Fraser, Tokely, Fitzpatrick, Boyd, Munro, Quinn, Vigurs, Brittain, Scott, Fotheringham, McMenamin. Subs: Brown, Kettlewell, Glen, Kovacevic, MacPhee, Ross, Dingwall.