Scorers: Ross County - Sproule 11
They were up there in the celestial heavens, metaphorically at least, last night after another convincing stride forward in their maiden SPL voyage of discovery. Rangers are banished and traditional powers such as Hibs, Hearts and Aberdeen seem incapable of sustaining a convincing challenge within the remaining vacuum.
On Saturday, a team touted for a relegation struggle way back in July made it seven games unbeaten and moved, significantly, to just three points behind neighbours Inverness. Not so long ago, it was Terry Butcher’s side who were being rightly lauded for a magnificent campaign having seemingly left their derby foes for dust.
Ivan Sproule, back in the team after a two-game absence because of a hamstring injury, scythed home a spectacular finish after only 11 minutes. Saints, for all their huffing and puffing through long sections of the match, just couldn’t find a way back.
Afterwards, manager Derek Adams admitted to taking a serious risk on Sproule, who has hit four goals in as many games since leaving Hibs in January, but it was one that paid off handsomely.
“Ivan did very well indeed in his performance and for the goal,” Adams said. “And he only trained on Thursday, so there was a gamble there to play him today. But he got 80 minutes and it was a delight to see him score a spectacular goal. I don’t think St Johnstone troubled us in any way. They had a lot of possession but I thought they would have worked Mark Brown more than they did.”
Adams refuses to accept that Dundee’s chances of catching County are dead and buried, but has no qualms about also focusing on the teams above.
“I’m delighted with the progress we’re making,” he said. “We’ve had a very good season so far and closed the gap between ourselves and the teams in the top half of the table.
“And we’ve moved ourselves 21 points ahead of Dundee and three points off Inverness who have had a terrific season.
“We have had nearly the same number of clean sheets as Celtic. We’re up there.
“You always start from the back. George Graham will tell you that from his time at Arsenal in the 1980s and 1990s. Listen, we’ve come from the Second Division to the Premier League and these things don’t happen overnight. We’ve been working for five years.
“We’ve had five years of continuity and a team we’ve had to build year on on year.”
Sproule replaced suspended Iain Vigurs, who missed his first match this season in County’s only change. Unchanged Saints came north in equally buoyant mood having hammered Hibs on Monday.
But it was County who surged ahead early on the rutted surface.
Mihael Kovacevic’s burst on the right ended with Sam Morrow neatly teeing up Sproule, who caught the ball beautifully just outside the box, swerving it high past Alan Mannus.
For long spells, Saints took charge of possession but County were always a match for everything thrown their way – and the Dingwall side were also a constant threat on the break.
Mark Brown made a couple of solid saves from Steven Maclean and Liam Craig but Alan Mannus also had to deny Sproule before the break. Richard Brittain – performing against the side he will join in the summer – went close with a swerving free-kick in the second half. By the end, Saints were bereft of ideas – and beaten.
“On every statistic in the game, we were miles ahead – possession, corners, shots, territory,” manager Steve Lomas said. “But it is difficult when you concede the first goal. They are hard to break down. They camp in and get five behind the ball in midfield.
“But I can’t fault my players’ effort and their willingness to try and play football the right way on a poor pitch.”
Ross County: Brown, Munro, Boyd, Lawson, Brittain, Quinn, Sproule, Morrow, Oikonomou, Cooper, Kovacevic. Subs: Fraser, Kettlewell, Wohlfarth, Glen, MacPhee, Ross, Fotheringham
St Johnstone: Mannus, Vine, MacLean, Anderson, Craig, McCracken, M Davidson, C Davidson, Abeid, Cregg, Wright. Subs: Tuffey, Hasselbaink, Tade, Millar, Scobbie, Edwards, Doughty