Ross County completed the first part of what they hope will be a cup and promotion-winning double by beating Welsh Premier League side Connah’s Quay Nomads in a thoroughly intriguing Irn-Bru Challenge Cup final on Saturday evening.
The scoreline might suggest it was comfortable enough for the Dingwall men, who still lead the Championship table by five points despite Dundee United gaining further ground on them, but it was only when Jamie Lindsay slotted in their third with four minutes remaining that the outcome was sealed.
Before that it was still in the balance and, in truth, at half-time County were lucky not to have been dead and buried as the feisty and competitive semi-professionals from Flint could easily have led by three goals rather than Michael Bakere’s thundering 21st-minute strike.
Queen’s Park were one of the Nomads’ victims in previous rounds and their goalkeeper Jordan Hart had gone so far as to complain that the Welsh side’s style was so direct he didn’t recognise it as being football. While it might gather few points for artistic impression, there’s no disputing its telling effectiveness at this level. Nomads captain George Horan missed a sitter to make it two and 18-year-old County goalkeeper Ross Munro redeemed himself with a brilliant one-handed save after having kicked the ball straight to opposing striker Andy Owens.
After the break the game was inverted in near textbook fashion, County finding their feet and, after a quick double by substitute Josh Mullins had rewarded their dominance at that stage, there was a ding-dong finale before Lindsay’s calm but decisive finish.
If nothing else it would have been the final ignominy at the end of an utterly humiliating week for Scottish football if none of its clubs could win what is still ostensibly one of its three national cup competitions, though compilers of pub quizzes might be a tad crestfallen at being denied a great brain teaser in years to come.
“It’s a confidence booster,” said the delighted County co-manager Stuart Kettlewell as the Dingwall club lifted the Challenge Cup for the third time. “It was great for the players to show a bit of character and for us to play much better in the second half.
“You don’t get the opportunity to win a trophy very often so there’s always a good feeling about it. You can see the guys in the dressing room. They’re on a high and you can see their unity and togetherness again.”
Youth is at least still very much on the side of Munro in terms of more medal-winning chances and the teenager was naturally thrilled to be part of the time-honoured victory ceremonials.
“It feels amazing, I’ve never felt a feeling like it. Playing in front of the fans, who were brilliant today – I thoroughly enjoyed celebrating with them,” he enthused.
“We looked at videos and analysed what they do. They’re a very physical team who put balls into the box. I knew they would challenge me because of my age. The boys helped me out a lot – they were strong and physical.”
As for the moment that perhaps proved to be pivotal in determining the outcome and which could have weighed heavily on his youthful shoulders but for his superb reflex recovery save from Owens, he admitted: “It was a mistake by me. I tried to pass it to Keith [Watson] but the boy nicked it. I didn’t want them to score and hopefully I’ve redeemed myself.”
For all the ongoing furore over non-Scottish clubs participating in this competition – and misgivings over their playing style – it was hard not to have some grudging admiration for the vanquished.
The Nomads contributed to a competitive final that grabbed the attention throughout. Their Inverness-born manager Andy Morrison voiced both his pride his side’s performance and a hope that Welsh, Irish and non-league English sides would continue to be involved in the future. “We dared to dream when we were 1-0 up and had chances but it wasn’t meant to be,” he reflected. “If we finish in the top two in our league this year, I hope we’ll be back again next season.”