Scorers: Inverness - McKay (3, 27, 84), Shinnie (24); Motherwell - McFadden (36, 64), Higdon (49 pen)
Bookings: Inverness - Draper, Foran; Motherwell - Hammell, Law, Ojamaa (sent off)
Those Caley Thistle supporters dragging their heels on the £70 passport renewal fee might be advised to get a shift on. There remains no clarity as yet in the chase for the coveted third Europa League qualification spot but Billy McKay’s predatory instincts pushed his club another stride closer to the doorway in a remarkable match in Inverness.
McKay managed to miss a penalty and still spear ten-man Motherwell with a splendid poacher’s hat-trick. St Johnstone remain a point behind, while County take on Celtic today five adrift.
Play tore breathlessly from end to end and, in truth, it could have been anyone’s game. But McKay, conspicuous by his absence from PFA shortlists, had the last laugh against opponents who had stuck 12 goals past his side in three previous routs this season.
He felt pressure had now been heaped on derby rivals County today. “When I missed that penalty I thought, ‘here we go’. They got the equaliser and I’m just delighted we got the win,” the Northern Ireland cap admitted. “I thought I’d cost the team two points, but [Motherwell] got a man sent off and we took the initiative from there.
“It puts a bit of pressure on County. They [face] Celtic and if they lose they will be five behind us with two games left.”
For home supporters, there was the heart-warming sight of Chris Hogg back in a starting jersey after 18 months out with cruciate ligament damage. It had been a long, demoralising road for the former Hibs defender, with his return accelerated slightly by headaches in the home camp. Terry Butcher had been unable to call upon two mainstays, suspended David Raven and injured Gary Warren.
For someone who hadn’t played since December 2011, Hogg’s calm assurance was eye-catching at times against the Motherwell attack.
It came as no shock that Motherwell were unchanged after spearing Celtic so impressively at Fir Park the previous Sunday.
There was a frantic quality to play immediately and first blood was drawn for Inverness after just four minutes. Simon Ramsden caught Andrew Shinnie just outside the box for a free-kick thumped against the wall by brother Graeme. But Aaron Doran chipped the rebound back to the right of the box and loitering defender Josh Meekings stabbed across goal. McKay slid in with
perfect timing almost on the line.
With the game still just nine minutes old, Richie Foran smacked the outside of the near post. Then the dam burst for Well. Meekings’ free-kick was controlled with back to goal by McKay and neatly stroked back. Andrew Shinnie switched feet and struck sweet and low from 18 yards into Randolph’s left-hand corner.
It was 3-0 within two minutes. Richie Foran’s long ball released Andrew Shinnie on the right and his timed cross was again tucked away by McKay for his 26th of the campaign. In what might have been a pivotal moment, Aaron Doran burst clear of the leaky away defence but lost composure before he could stick away a killer fourth.
The fightback ignited as Henrik Ojamaa fed James McFadden and the ex-Scotland man eluded keeper Reguero in lethal fashion from a yard outside the area.
The influence of the wind was emphasised as the second half opened and pressure turned in home faces. Hogg, in an otherwise exemplary showing, downed Ojamaa in the box and Chris Higdon netted his 27th of the season from the spot.
The remarkable, ragged action tore on but when Chris Humphrey upended Nick Ross for a home penalty after 62 minutes, McKay blew his hat-trick chance meekly.
The missed opportunity was savagely punished. Two minutes later, Ojamaa’s pass found McFadden again stroking calmly in off the inside post for the equaliser.
When Ojamaa’s terrific turn of pace on the right set up Nicky Law for a fluffed attempt over the bar, it was to be his penultimate act.
The Estonian’s mis-timed tackle on Andrew Shinnie brought a second booking and early exit after 73 minutes, as he had previously been cautioned for a foolish dive.
Still there was more. With six minutes left, home pressure told as Meekings’ fierce strike was parried but McKay kept composure to net the rebound.
Motherwell’s McFadden felt his team would have prevailed had they retained ten men. “I think, when we got the equaliser, there was only one team going to win the game,” he said.
“Unfortunately, the sending off swung the momentum back to them. If we had 11 men on the pitch, we would have won the game. The second booking for Ojamaa was his first foul in the whole match, so it was a bit harsh but we can have no quarrel with the booking for the dive.”
Whatever McFadden’s feelings, with two games to go, the Highlanders’ quest for a first taste of Europe creeps tantalisingly closer.