What a job Malky Mackay is doing in Dingwall. He had to deal with a nasty pre-season Covid outbreak, needed time for his new-look squad to gel but my goodness, since a late-October 5-0 destruction of Dundee, the trajectory has been upward.
In this winner-takes-all clash at Pittodrie in the last fixture before the split, the expectation was on Aberdeen. The decision not to award Andy Considine a new contract dominated the build-up to this match. This campaign has been unremarkable for the Dons but it has now turned wretched for new manager Jim Goodwin. They are only six points clear of 11th place, missed out on the top six for the first time since 2013 and have no chance of European football.
This is County’s first dalliance with the top six since 2016. They now have the chance to qualify for Europe, sitting on 40 points and in right fight now for fourth and fifth places. Their moment of joy came four minutes from time when substitute Joseph Hungbo netted from the penalty spot after a controversial handball decision.
Both teams knew before kick-off that only a win would take them into the top six. The start of the match was cagey, littered with errors. The Dons fans were quiet, perhaps nervous given what was at stake. County were backed by a sizeable travelling support by their standards.
Such was the paucity of action in the first 45 minutes, only two opportunities are worth documenting – both for Aberdeen. A 26th-minute strike from inside the penalty box by Ross McCrorie sailed high over Ross Laidlaw’s goal before, two minutes before the break, David Bates headed straight at Laidlaw from a Jonny Hayes free-kick.
Aberdeen’s fans were roused by the news that Hearts led Hibs, the pre-match prey in sixth place, which in turn had to fire up both sets of so far sleepy sets of players. Aberdeen did come back out with a spring in their step. Besuijen sent over a couple of dangerous crosses before Ferguson’s effort from a tight angle brushed the post on its way wide. At the other end, Jake Vokins shot over the bar from a promising position. This game had finally come out of its slumber.
Both teams knew that, with things going their way at Tynecastle, a knock-out blow was required by them. The tempo increased, but the quality levels did not, as Pittodrie became increasingly agitated.
County had been pinned back but, on the counter, Charles-Cook burst into the box. He looked be fouled in the box by the outstretched Connor Barron, but referee Greg Aitken was unmoved.
Aberdeen then had their best chance eight minutes from time. Connor MacLennan’s cross found Ramirez and his strike was just slow enough for Laidlaw to stop before County scraped the ball away.
Surely a goal would come. Surely? And it did, in controversial circumstances.
Hungbo had only been on the pitch a few moments. The Watford loanee was sent scampering down the right and as he clipped the ball back towards the D, it struck Hayes’ arm. This time, Aitken pointed to the spot. Aberdeen protested desperately but Hungbo kept his cool to net the crucial goal on 86 minutes.
Rejoicing for Ross County. Real, real regret for Aberdeen. “You’re not fit to wear the shirt,” sang their fuming fans at full time. County celebrated wildly with theirs.