Scorers: Ross County - Woods (34), Quinn (58), De Vita (62); Motherwell - Grant (53), Kerr (78)
So it was, perhaps, for Ross County today. Jim McIntyre’s Staggies might have been staring at the grim consequences of a nine-point chasm at the bottom had Motherwell won and St Mirren overturned Inverness.
Instead, a spirited, inventive performance, belying a three-month run without a victory, brought rich rewards with the points gap whittled down to a far less intimidating three with 13 games remaining.
It is ten years since a team trailing in the top league in mid-February – Livingston, to be precise – overturned the deficit and survived. County must have hope of doing the same after what may soon be viewed as a coming-of-age performance for the new-look squad under McIntyre.
The relieved manager will hope so, but is taking nothing for granted. “I’m especially pleased for the punters because it has been a long time coming,” he said, after breaking a run of 11 games without victory.
“What we need to do now is get our feet back on the ground. It’s a great result for us. It gets us ever-closer to the two teams above us. And we need to try to put some kind of run of results together.
“What especially pleased me was the way we started the match. I thought we were on the front foot right from the off and put them under severe pressure. Both our wide players – Michael Gardyne and Raffaele De Vita – were getting crosses in at every opportunity. Motherwell’s centre backs will know they’ve been in a game today because our two were a real handful. There weren’t a lot of saves for our goalkeeper to make and we dealt with the pressure.”
If it was a day of jangling nerves in the Highlands for both sides, County’s need was greatest. New signings have flooded into Victoria Park all season but it will be hard to top the early impact of recent Italian capture Raffaele De Vita, the former Livingston attacker. He was to play a pivotal part, creating two goals – for Martin Woods and Paul Quinn – and scoring a cracker himself.
Motherwell lacked nothing in spirit themselves, but a fine debut goal from Everton loanee Conor Grant and a late second from Fraser Kerr proved too little. Grant was exceptional all afternoon but County soon took the game by the scruff of the neck.
Long demonstrated his worth to Well with two saves inside three minutes – tipping over a Liam Boyce strike from 25 yards and then producing more acrobatics to deny Scott Boyd in the box.
But County’s breakthrough came in 34 minutes, when Martin Woods worked a one-two of sorts with De Vita. Receiving the head-flick return just inside the box, Woods sent a beautifully-controlled left-foot volley swerving beyond Long’s reach.
The Staggies paid for a missed Jackson Irvine header as Motherwell mustered a reply nine minutes after the break. Amid pressure on the right, Grant was fouled by Jamie Reckord and the Everton kid’s sweetly-struck left-foot free-kick from 25 yards crashed past Mark Brown.
County showed their mettle, though, and restored the lead five minutes later. De Vita’s free-kick deep right curved to the back of the box where Paul Quinn strode in to thunder a header past Long.
And just four minutes after that blow, they found themselves falling two behind as County scented blood.
This time it was Michael Gardyne who supplied the telling delivery from the right and De Vita smashed a volley past Long to make it 3-1.
They rarely do it the easy way in Dingwall these days, though, and Motherwell’s reply after 79 minutes sent a fresh wave of palpitations bolting around the stadium.
Conor Grant’s corner swung high and Fraser Kerr was barely a couple of yards out as his header smashed in off the underside of the bar.
It was fraught and frantic to the finish but, with an agonising four minutes added time, County held on for potentially one of the most crucial victories in their history.
Ross County: Brown; Fraser; Boyd; Quinn; Reckord; Woods; Irvine; Gardyne (Kiss 84); Curran (Sernas 90); De Vita (Dingwall 71); Boyce.
Motherwell: Long; Reid; Kerr; McManus; Straker; Thomas (Johnson 60); Ramsden; Lasley (Moore 66); Grant (Ainsworth 88); Erwin; Sutton 6.
Referee: Calum Murray. Attendance: 2,982