SCORERS: Ross County - Sproule 72, Quinn 76; Dundee United - Mackay-Steven 18 (pen), Armstrong 20, Gauld 40, Ciftci 65
Gary Mackay-Steven, a talent born and raised in Thurso and shaped through County’s respected youth regime, created and scored the opening penalty. Stuart Armstrong, a Tangerine colleague who spent his formative years in nearby Inverness, struck for the second.
Parochial interest aside, though, this was a riveting game of football, cleaved with controversy and illuminated entertainingly by sparks of United flair and County’s never-say-die grit.
The Dingwall side lost a dubious penalty, had one stone-waller waved away and twice rattled the woodwork, all in the first half. Yet United’s victory was, in the end, thoroughly merited.
Storms had battered the Highlands overnight, but the Global Energy Stadium was serene and green before kick-off, with even a hint of sunshine before the rainclouds burst spectacularly.
There had been a settled look, too, to Derek Adams’ side before the international break, reflected in a recuperative victory over St Mirren and spirited draw at Easter Road.
United had Gavin Gunning and Mark Millar suspended, with the former starting a three-game ban incurred for lashing out at Celtic’s Virgil van Dijk. Notably, striker David Goodwillie had to settle for a place on the bench with little Ryan Gauld joining a fluid, inter-changing attack.
Gauld’s performance was to be pivotal, his link play, invention and scoring contribution at times a joy to watch. Joyous as it was, though, he played with shirt sleeves rolled over fists and face screwed up against the rain as if the contribution came under sufferance.
Early cracks were apparent in the home defence, but there was real controversy in the manner of United’s opener.
The away side created three corners in a bright start and Turk Nadir Ciftci saw a ferocious 30-yard strike tipped spectacularly over the bar by Mark Brown. Chances for both sides were snatched at before the 18th-minute breakthrough. Mackay-Steven raced behind the home defence in a vain chase for a long through pass and appeared to simply run into goalkeeper Brown before crashing to earth.
Referee Brian Colvin pointed to the spot and Mackay-Steven sent Brown the wrong way, facing towards the Football Academy where he had learned his trade as a schoolboy.
To the glee of the travelling support, it was 2-0 barely within a minute of the restart. Gauld nudged a pass to Cifti on the right and his swirling cross was met by an exquisite front post header by Armstrong that arced high over Brown and into the far roof of the net.
County’s anger over the opening penalty award only added oxygen to the white-hot fury that greeted the one that wasn’t given. After 27 minutes, Sean Dillon clearly took down and flattened Kevin Luckassen. This time, Colvin wasn’t interested. Adams, in the home technical area, was incandescent.
It was fast becoming a hard-luck tale for the hosts as a Graeme Carey free kick deflected off a Tangerine shirt and struck Radoslaw Cierzniak’s inside post.
That proved all the more galling for County as Ciftci’s diagonal pass released Gauld into the left side of the box. He showed great poise to clip a delicate shot low across Brown’s body and in at the far post.
Before the half-time whistle, County thumped the woodwork again as Stuart Kettlewell’s header from Ben Gordon’s cross hit the base of the post.
Fortunes scarcely improved for County with Brown making good saves from Ciftci and Mackay-Steven.
Adams made a double substitution, replacing his two full-backs with a midfielder and striker, but the Highlanders’ agony only heightened after 65 minutes. Gauld’s superb pass split the defence and Ciftci strode through to wheel around Brown and score, although television pictures later showed that the striker was offside.
County were not without threat and, remarkably, carved a way back into a game that looked dead. Cierzniak pulled off a terrific save from substitute Orhan Mustafi’s header. From the far right, though, Ivan Sproule’s strike,
arcing off Andrew Robertson’s foot in the challenge, reduced the leeway after 72 minutes.
Just four minutes later Carey’s cross had Rocco Quinn sliding in on his knees to head a fine second.
United, having visibly dropped a gear, seemed incapable of snapping out of the slumber, but steadied just enough to avoid an unlikely collapse.
Ross County: Brown, Kovacevic (Mustafi 59), McLean, Munro (Boyd 70), Gordon (De Leeuw 60), Kettlewell, Sproule, Brittain, Quinn, Carey, Luckassen. Subs not used: Micic, Maatsen, Steven Ross, Fraser.
Dundee Utd: Cierzniak, Watson, Dillon, Souttar, Robertson, Paton, Rankin, Mackay-Steven, Armstrong (Dow 69), Ciftci (Goodwillie 72), Gauld (Graham 85). Subs not used: Wilson, McCallum, Oyenuga, Petrie.
Referee: B Colvin