How Ross County's stunning play-off win unfolded, wild 22 minutes, Partick Thistle agony, VAR controversies
Few in the Global Energy Stadium were contemplating anything other than another Thistle win, including the most positive of Staggies supporters or fatalistic of Jags fans. The visitors were tiring but comfortable. The home side devoid of inspiration. They had started brightly but quickly faded. Thistle keeper David Mitchell had found himself in difficult positions but with the exception of a big save to deny Alex Samuel he was rarely tested. If there was a team who were going to score it was going to be the visitors. In fact, there was a moment where it seemed they could win ever so handsomely.
Then, out of nowhere, something happened. There were just 22 minutes remaining of the Scottish football season. Twenty two minutes for Thistle to see out. Twenty two minutes for County to save themselves.Twenty two minutes for the team who had scored just 37 goals in 38 Premiership games to score three. Nick Walsh was called across to the side to look over a potential handball in the visitors’ box following VAR advice, setting in motion a sequence of events which produced one of the all-time great finales to a play-off final.
Graham was penalised for handball and Yann Dhanda equalised Aidan Fitzpatrick’s first-half opener for Thistle. Within a minute County led 2-1 after Alex Samuel and Simon Murray combined to take advantage of suspect defending with the latter tapping home. Down and out. The Staggies were now up and in. They couldn’t, could they? Those hopes appeared dented when they went down to ten men, Keith Watson shown red for a cynical challenge on Scott Tiffoney. Only, he didn't. Another VAR intervention, the third, saw the red downgraded to a yellow. Walsh had already rejected its intervention when advised to look at a potential penalty for Thistle in the first half.
It would prove important. County, with 11 men, would equalise in stoppage time through the unlikeliest of scorers in George Harmon, last season playing in the sixth tier of English football, expertly converting a Dhanda cross at the back post. The same man would produce a huge block deep into stoppage time to deny Thistle a goal which would have handed them a dramatic aggregate win. Instead 30 minutes of largely drama-free extra-time and then penalties.
To the Jailend…
‘We’ve got Holt, always believe in...’ chanted the Thistle fans as Kevin Holt stepped up for the team's second penalty, the score 1-1. He was the first to miss. Ross Laidlaw beating it away. Now, 3-3, Jack Baldwin to make it 4-3 and advantage Ross County, Thistle supporters were turning away. Then an eruption. Delight and relief. David Mitchell came up with a big save to deny Jack Baldwin. Thistle stalwart Stuart Banningan wasn’t going to miss, surely? Today was one of those days, however. But then so did Keith Watson, the Thistle fans who couldn’t watch running back around to celebrate. Now for captain Ross Docherty. It was Laidlaw once more, a stupendous save. Josh Sims now had the baton, the opportunity. The Englishman who had missed so much football prior to his move north due to injury. With one strike of the boot, he became the hero after an afternoon of football which could only be described as unexplainable.
Thistle players fell to the floor, while County’s ran to their fans for an embrace. After a second and despite pleas, the pitch soon became engulfed by the home support. In time some of those who travelled north made their way onto the pitch to console their hurting heroes.
County’s goal change
It was all set up to be the story of Partick Thistle’s redemption. Of Kris Doolan cementing his place as one of the all-time Partick Thistle greats. Instead it became a huge afternoon for Ross County. For Roy MacGregor. For Malky Mackay. At the turn of the year they were bottom of the Premiership. As they were coming into the split, four points adrift. But something had changed between the end of 2022 and the final stages of the season. They had managed to score more. They had only managed 14 in 19 games in the first half of the season. It improved to 23 in 19 for the second half. Including three in a vital victory at Tannadice and then another three in a draw at home to St Johnstone.
That’s what gave Mackay hope coming into the second leg. He continued to commit attackers into his team as the game progressed. Three strikers and Dhanda. Sims, a winger, at right-back. It paid off. By the time the penalties came around Mackay took it upon himself to turn cheerleader, encouraging the home support who were, for long periods, outsung by the away fans. They responded. And they will be watching Premiership football once more. Ensuring Highland representation in the top-flight. Ensuring one of the favourite away days remains.
What of Thistle? Promotion would have been huge financially. Thistle would have been an exciting addition to the Premiership. Doolan has taken on the fine work of Ian McCall and moulded a team which excites and entertains. They play one way and it was clear from the way the support responded at a moment of despondency that they remain hugely proud of what the team have done these last 27 days, these six games. They were oh so very close. But if these final weeks of the Scottish football season have taught us anything it is to expect the unexpected.
Only 41 days before it all starts again.
Ross County – Laidlaw; Randall, Watson, Baldwin, Purrington (Harmon 60’); Loturi (Tillson 86’), Kenneh (Murray 58’), Cancola (Sims 87’), Dhanda; Samuel, White.
Partick Thistle – Mitchell; McMillan, Brownlie, Muirhead, Holt; Turner, Docherty; Lawless, Tiffoney, Fitzpatrick (Bannigan 72’); Graham.
Referee: Nick Walsh
Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.