Ross County 0-0 Motherwell: Dingwall men’s unbeaten run hits 35 but first SPL goal eludes them

AT their shiny new ground, in the baking sun and with a pitch as smooth and bright green as baize, Ross County’s unlikely ascendancy to the top flight got underway in a slightly surreal, festival atmosphere.

The First Division championship flag was ceremoniously raised aloft, the crowd of almost five and a half thousand roared its approval, and the Strathpeffer Pipe Band added a touch of class to the preliminaries.

And behind their own goal the small but voluble band of Motherwell fans, many of them with their tops off and merrily basting their plump bodies and shaven heads, roared “we’re here for the sun, only here for the sun!”.

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That, much to everyone’s surprise, was indeed all they got out of this encounter. At no stage did one of last season’s classiest SPL outfits ever look likely to overwhelm the new kids on the block; in fact County were so competitive that Motherwell’s Stevie Hammell afterwards denied that he and his teammates were distracted by their European campaign. If his manager Stuart McCall was left to rue “an under-par performance”, while County’s Derek Adams declared himself “just happy that we weren’t opened up”, all three agreed that a draw was undoubtedly a fair result.

County have a long way to go to prove that they can score the goals they will need to stay in this division, but they don’t lack for composure or work ethic.

Indeed, for much of the match the Highlanders were at least the equal of the visitors, with County showing enough organisation and application to just about shade the opening half.

When the line-ups were announced it appeared that Adams had sent out a team selected primarily to ensure that County didn’t start life in the top flight with a defeat, yet they played with as much purpose as Motherwell and could easily have led at the break.

The left-wing combination of Marc Fitzpatrick and Iain Vigurs was the catalyst for much of the home side’s good early work, but it was striker Colin McMenamin who had the first decent chance after just three minutes of the match when he lamely headed Richard Brittain’s free-kick straight to Motherwell goalkeeper Darren Randolph.

A long-range Paul Lawson shot then whistled past the post midway through the half, but it was Grant Munro who had arguably the best chance in the game to register County’s first SPL goal just ten minutes before the break when he rose at the back post to meet Brittain’s beautifully curled free-kick, only for Randolph to pull off a magnificent fingertip save just as the ball looked to be creeping in under the bar.

Although several of Motherwell’s players still looked as if they were still on the beach, they nevertheless had more than enough firepower to suggest that the second half might be a significantly more challenging 45 minutes for the side which walked last year’s First Division title by a whopping 24 points.

Chris Humphrey had wasted an early chance and a Michael Higdon drive had given County keeper Michael Fraser his first real SPL work.

If County wanted a taste of what life would be like under the cosh, they got it in the dying moments of the first half when Simon Ramsden sent a rasping long-range shot just wide with a minute to go.

That was quickly followed by a beautifully flighted Tom Hateley chip to the back post to set up a header which Higdon seemed sure to bury, only to head over under extreme pressure from a rejuvenated Ross Tokely.

Seconds later, and in the last piece of the action of the half, Higdon really should have converted the resulting corner.

Although Motherwell came out in the second half with a sharper focus, so did their hosts, and at times their increased urgency threatened to overwhelm the Steelmen. Scott Boyd was unlucky not to head County into a lead from a corner ten minutes after the break, and Tokely almost got a toe to a floated Brittain free-kick which needed only the slightest touch.

If County were carving out the better chances, Motherwell were still playing the more intricate one-touch football, with Henrik Ojamaa weaving some particularly pretty patterns after coming on as a substitute. But Motherwell also demonstrated the capacity to bite, which County almost learned the hard way when Omar Daley forced Fraser to save smartly from long range with just 15 minutes remaining.

That was the signal for a sudden rise in the tempo from Motherwell, no doubt in anticipation of manager Stuart McCall’s also no-doubt interesting post-match analysis. County, though, not only withstood everything Motherwell threw at them, they proved they will scrap to stay in this division.

On this showing, that is not a far-fetched ambition. This was, after all, their 35th unbeaten league game, a record which now stretches back 51 weeks.

County may not have registered their first goal in the top flight, but in winning their first point they also made a point.