Appearances can be deceptive. A scoreless draw after a 17-month cessation of hostilities points to anti-climax. This crackling, energy-filled spectacle was anything but.
Two teams with high ambitions for the season ahead underlined their credentials with both grit and class in a compelling confrontation. With close to a sell-out attendance, the Highland derby was back in business.
The first half was Caley Thistle’s and the second, increasingly, County’s. The only element lacking was a killer finish amid an abundance of chances for both sides.
The performance of home goalkeeper Scott Fox, in fact, drew lavish praise from Steve Ferguson, the County co-manager, as dust settled on a draw that hauled Caley Thistle off top spot and County from second to fourth in the table.
“We were off it a little bit in the first half, but we grew into the game,” said Ferguson. “We had to rely on our goalkeeper on a couple of occasions and we need to acknowledge that.
“I felt for football in the north, the noise and the crowd, it was a great spectacle. Every player left everything they had out there.
“Scott Fox was excellent. We believe we have the best goalkeeper in the league.”
Ferguson acknowledged it had been a big call to start with former Caley Thistle midfielder Iain Vigurs on the County bench along with winger Josh Mullin.
Amid a 100 mph start, with nine minutes gone, County were spared by a full-stretch fingertip save from Fox to thwart Doran’s rising strike.
Caley Thistle looked increasingly dangerous and Doran’s low strike was blocked by Fox. The County keeper then had to get back on his feet sharply to deny Jordan White on the rebound.
As the first period settled, John Robertson’s side remained in charge, but County opened the second half with greater urgency.
A quick Brian Graham free-kick found Jamie Lindsay slipping a short pass inside to Billy Mckay, but the ex-Caley Thistle striker shot straight into Mark Ridgers’ arms.
County made a double switch, with Vigurs and Mullin injecting menace and creativity, the latter teeing up striker Brian Graham for a back-post header he might have netted.
County’s best chance of the half came late on as Mckay dummied a Sean Kelly pass into the path of Gardyne. From 20 yards, the winger’s dig rose just over the bar.
Caley Thistle boss John Robertson said: “For the first hour we were the better side. We dominated possession, played the slicker football and got in behind County. The fact the home goalkeeper is walking off the pitch with the man-of-the-match award from the sponsors tells you everything.”