Two teams with high ambitions for a top-six push in the Premiership this season drew a stalemate last night in a ferocious Betfred Cup contest in Dingwall.
But Championship winners Hibs, with a strong away display, proved they will be ready for the rigours of a top-flight return.
Almost 600 travelling fans saw the game settled 4-3 on penalties in County’s favour, Michael Gardyne hammering in the clincher after misses by Steven Whittaker and Olly Shaw.
On the face of it, it was all about the Betfred Cup but both managers would have privately been gauging readiness for the Premiership campaign.
Craig Curran attempted to set a positive tone for County in the opening seconds but his ambitious strike spun well wide.
But Curran, with three goals in the two opening group games, limped off injured after only five minutes, with summer signing Thomas Mikkelsen his replacement.
Hibs quickly took a grip on early play, moving the ball confidently and at pace. John McGinn came crashing down after a strong surge to the edge of the box, while a Danny Swanson dig deflected for a corner. Swanson seemed in the mood and, after 11 minutes, cut in from the left and teed up Martin Boyle to test keeper Scott Fox from the edge of the box.
Moments later, Simon Murray drove forward, cutting onto his right foot, before forcing a strong save from Fox.
County earned a little reprieve after 17 minutes, winning their first corner. From Sean Kelly’s swirling delivery, an Andrew Davies header stung the glove of Ofir Marciano who parried to safety.
Hibs’ energy kept troubling County, but the hosts showed intent, too, on the break. Schalk’s 18-yard strike deflected for a corner before Michael Gardyne lashed just wide from an angle in the box.
County’s attacks were fewer, but a Ryan Dow cross almost created the opener as Lewis Stevenson stubbed it just wide of his keeper’s right-hand post. Gardyne also flashed a 20-yard effort over the bar.
Stevenson, at the other end, rippled the side-netting after patient Hibs probing.
After 56 minutes, Simon Murray flashed a powerful strike just over the County bar, while a couple of minutes later Fox struggled to hold a rasping John McGinn blast from 25 yards.
Brian Graham, on for Murray, took up the fight against his former employers.
County’s luck was in moments later as Martin Boyle’s meek shot squirmed through keeper Fox’s grasp but spun just wide of target.
Hibs were turning the screw with a succession of corners, but the home defence stood strong.
Swanson was then lucky to escape with just a booking for scything through late on Gardyne near the touchline. The pace and effort was relentless to the finish and County finished strongly with Marcus Fraser fizzing a 20-yard strike wide.
In stoppage time, a Darren McGregor header struck the County bar before penalties beckoned.