THERE was a time earlier this season when the goals had dried up and it seemed to some that Billy Mckay would have struggled to hit the proverbial cow’s bottom with a banjo. That was always a harsh assessment of a player who consistently brought so much more than goals – and, boy, did he bring them – to the table for Inverness Caley Thistle in terms of work-rate and creativity.
Scorers: Inverness Caledonian Thistle - Watkins 38; Ross County - Warren 76 og
Mckay’s two-and-a-half years at Inverness reaped 59 in all, rendering it more than inevitable that yesterday would be described in terms of “life after Billy” from an Inverness perspective following his £150,000 move to Wigan Athletic.
Step forward Marley Watkins, a recent Wales international reservist and viewed more as an attacking midfielder than striker, to stake his claim yesterday.
Watkins netted a sublimely-taken first-half goal as he leapt into Mckay’s boots, before County eventually levelled through what looked like a Gary Warren own goal under pressure from substitute Jake Jervis.
The Welshman, strengthening his credentials as Mckay’s successor, might have written his name all over the third Highland derby of the season but was controversially denied a late penalty after going down from a clip by County keeper Toni Reguero.
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It was an inconclusive outcome that neither dismayed nor delighted either camp, with Caley Thistle breaking a run of five victories in 2015 and County’s run without a win stretching to 11 as they slipped six points adrift at the bottom.
Home manager John Hughes, though, felt a strong sense of injustice over the Watkins incident.
“Speaking to Marley, it was certainly a penalty and, certainly, from where I was, the boy Reguero has clipped him,” Hughes asserted.
“Watkins took his goal well and he’s got that in him. I’m hoping they are all hungry to fill [Billy Mckay’s] position.”
On this kind of evidence, Watkins may yet provide a longer-term answer, provided of course he is prepared to sign an extension beyond this summer.
While Caley Thistle were eyeing outright second spot, County’s need for points was more grimly urgent but in freezing, blustery conditions, difficult also underfoot, the hosts took the early ascendancy.
The first hint of Watkins’ menace came from a lightening counter from Danny Williams, spearing through midfield and touching a pass into the Welshman’s path, only for Reguero to shut him down.
But County might have gained the upper hand after 35 minutes after a lovely move down the right.
Ex-Celtic defender Marcus Fraser’s delicately-measured cross from the right was only headed to the back of the box by Gary Warren, where young Tony Dingwall was positioned to strike hard and low. Esson proved he was alert to the task.
Three minutes later, the hosts were ahead after good build-up play as Watkins claimed his seventh goal of the season.
As County toiled to close them down, Greg Tansey rolled a pass inside to Watkins and he showed a goalscorer’s instinct by calmly stroking a low curler beyond Reguero into the bottom corner.
Home superiority stretched into the second period and County’s Fraser made a crucial block on Williams in the away penalty area with Graeme Shinnie screaming for a pass.
Substitutions enlivened the away team and with snow swirling in, the Staggies mustered what had previously looked an unlikely reply after 76 minutes.
On the break, Jackson Irvine raced away on the right. He flighted in an early cross that veered in the wind and Gary Warren, pressured hard by substitute Jake Jervis, knocked the ball into his own net.
There was drama at the death as Watkins went down in the box under Reguero’s attentions as he raced on to a Ryan Christie pass, but referee John Beaton waved away the appeals.
“The players showed great desire to fight back,” Jim McIntyre, the County manager, said.“Every point is a prisoner and we are desperate for them. We were pushing for a winner at 1-1 but it wasn’t to be.”
ICT: Esson; Raven, Warren, Meekings, Tremarco; Draper, Shinnie; Ross (Christie 76), Tansey (Doran 87), Williams; Watkins. Subs: Mackay, Vincent, Devine, Horner, Polworth, Christie.
Ross County: Reguero; Fraser, Boyd, Quinn, Reckord; Kiss (Palazuelos 63), Woods, Irvine, Curran (Jervis 74), Dingwall (Carey 66); Boyce. Subs: Brown, Saunders, Ross, De Vita.
Referee: J Beaton. Attendance: 4,021