ABERDEEN’S calamitous tumble to earth from heady early-season heights gathered pace last night as Brian Graham’s double elevated Ross County to third in the Premiership.
The ex-Dundee United and St Johnstone striker netted a goal in each half to bring fresh agony to the league leaders who could now be toppled from the summit for the first time this season if Celtic beat Motherwell.
It was a fourth defeat in a row for the foundering Dons, but County deserved it for a sturdy, spirited and inventive show.
After a shimmering blue, cloudless day around Dingwall, Aberdeen were intent on painting the town red - and showed up in typically impressive numbers.
Three successive defeats didn’t stop the Red Army filling County’s north stand in exuberant voice. A League Cup exit and two league beatings by Inverness and, most crushingly, to St Johnstone before the international break had punctured that dazzling start of eight straight league victories.
This was the Dons’ first chance to make amends for the quite incredible 5-1 thrashing at home to St Johnstone and there was also an opportunity to issue a riposte after the furore over league sponsors’ Ladbrokes closure of betting on the manager Derek McInnes’s departure.
County, too, were seeking to bounce back a deflating Highland derby defeat before the international break.
The hosts made three changes bringing back suspension-free Andrew Davies, left back Jamie Reckord and on-loan Leyton Orient goalkeeper Gary Woods, replacing injured Scott Fox.
County also pulled a surprise by restoring longstanding concussion absentee Craig Curran to the bench.
The Dons made four changes, two particularly notable. Captain Ryan Jack was ruled out with a sickness bug allowing Willo Flood to slot into the heart of midfield.
There was also a timely return for defender Mark Reynolds, who had been absent with a shoulder injury since July’s European clash with Macedonians Shkendija, in place of benched Shay Logan.
Reynolds reclaimed the skipper’s armband for the Dons and, winning the toss, switched County’s direction of play away from their favoured first-half ploy of attacking the away end.
The Dons changed shape – Andy Considine pushing forward as wing-back, leaving a back three of Paul Quinn, Ash Taylor and Reynolds, behind a five-man midfield.
There was initially a rejuvenated feel to the Dons as the game kicked off with County under some lively pressure.
Inside five minutes, Jamie Reckord’s foul on Jonny Hayes to the left of the box drew howls from the travelling support, but Hayes’ dead-ball attempt from the angle was weak.
County looked primed to absorb the pressure, though, and counter swiftly.
Liam Boyce took a Stewart Murdoch pass after nine minutes, twisting and turning on the edge of the penalty area before lacking the necessary venom in his dig at goal.
Aberdeen’s energy was strong, though, and two minutes later Michael Gardyne’s loss of possession allowed Andy Considine to feed David Goodwillie into the home box.
Goodwillie controlled with back to goal and tried an audacious overhead kick which was saved by Gary Woods.
Soon after, Goodwillie looked hungry again and from the left of the box whipped a 12-yard shot wide of the near post.
County, though, found a foothold in the game towards the middle of the first half, easing the pressure and taking the game determinedly to the Dons.
Amid the home pressure, there were a couple of penalty claims, firstly after 24 minutes amid a frantic scramble in the Aberdeen penalty area.
Boyce had a sniff, before both Brian Graham and defender Chris Robertson had swipes at goal blocked, with the latter claimed by County to have hit Graeme Shinnie’s hand.
Another Murdoch burst from midfield and slipped pass released Boyce but the Northern Ireland striker sliced wide as the goal opened up before him. Gardyne also went down in the box amid County’s surge of pressure to milder appeals waved away.
Into the last 15 minutes of a breathless first half, County kept foraging. From a Richard Foster cross from the left, Boyce’s downward header was well-saved by Ward.
But the County breakthrough came nine minutes before the break. Foster took a pass down the left and wound his way into the box and past a couple of flailing challenges.
Paul Quinn’s outstretched leg finally nicked the ball away from Foster but Brian Graham strode in to tuck the opener away from inside ten yards.
McInnes took action at the break, hauling off both Reynolds and Flood and blooding Shay Logan and Adam Rooney in more familiar formation.
But the changes did the Dons no good at all as they tumbled two behind after just four second-half minutes.
From a County ball forward, ex-Staggies defender Quinn missed a header as Boyce thumped the ball forward.
Graham raced forward with Considine hot on his tail, seemed to have miscontrolled, but took a kind break of the ball and powered a shot past the diving Danny Ward.
Boyce had a couple of chances to put the game beyond reach but the 11-goal striker, perhaps sapped by international travels with Northern Ireland, was uncharacteristically off the mark.
Niall McGinn hit the upright for Aberdeen after 62 minutes amid gathering pressure, but the Dons never truly looked convincing.
Time and again, County’s players put bodies on the line and threw themselves into blocks and challenges as the Dons pressed in vain.
ROSS COUNTY: Woods; Fraser, Davies, Robertson, Reckord; Gardyne (Franks 75, Murdoch, Irvine, Foster; Boyce (Schalk 85), Graham (Curran 65). Subs not used: Severn, Boyd, De Vita, McShane..
ABERDEEN: Ward; Quinn, Taylor, Reynolds (Logan 46); Hayes, Flood (Rooney 46), McLean, Shinnie, Considine; McGinn, Goodwillie (Parker 82). Subs nut used: Brown, Smith, Robson, McLaughlin.