THIS match provided the perfect warm-up for Ross County’s attempt to reach the League Cup final for the first time.
Motherwell - 1
Ross County - 2
Irvine 20; Graham 69
Jim McIntyre’s side face Celtic at Hampden on Sunday and there will be no shortage of confidence in the underdogs’ camp after this thoroughly merited victory, one which lifts them into fourth place in the Premiership.
County suffered an early blow when Martin Woods felt ill during the warm-up and had to be replaced by Jackson Irvine.
However, even that worked to their advantage when the former Celtic midfielder broke the deadlock. The goal wasn’t a classic but at least it signalled an end to 20 minutes of mind-numbing tedium.Ian McShane floated in a corner which was allowed to travel beyond the far post to Irvine. His controlled volley struck Kieran Kennedy on the line but he couldn’t keep it out.
Manager Mark McGhee will want to know why his side had to fall behind before they started playing but it was all Motherwell for the remainder of the first half.
Scott Fox made fine saves to keep out a looping header from Louis Moult and a shot from distance by Chris Cadden, while numerous other efforts were blocked.
The hosts continued to pour forward after the break but County looked even more threatening on the counter attack and Connor Ripley managed to keep out McShane’s close-range header from Michael Gardyne’s deep cross.
Gardyne came even closer, nodding on a header from Andrew Davies which Marvin Johnson cleared off the line and Ripley then spread himself to block a full-blooded drive from Gardyne.
County’s more coherent probing merited a second goal and it arrived when Brian Graham timed his run perfectly to meet substitute Stewart Murdoch’s driven cross and guide the ball high past Ripley from 10 yards.
Yet Motherwell refused to abandon hope and Stephen Pearson handed them a late lifeline when he drove home from 12 yards after Kennedy had nodded Lionel Ainsworth’s corner into his path.
That prompted a frantic finale, with Fox doing well to clutch an attempted lob from James McFadden and excelling himself by diving to his right to turn over a dipping 25-yarder from Keith Lasley.
“I felt we deserved to take something from the game,” said McGhee. “We were in their final third on 87 occasions but maybe we didn’t create enough clear-cut chances.
“However, there was nothing wrong with our performance – my only complaint was that we conceded the opening goal from a set-piece – and there was a positive reaction after the defeat at Tynecastle last weekend.”
Even a broken nose (sustained when an attempted header found only the back of Pearson’s skull) could not dilute the joy, or the optimism, of goalscorer Irvine afterwards.
“Someone told me that Sky had given it as an own goal so it’s good to have it confirmed as mine,” he said. “As for the fracture, it doesn’t seem to be too serious – it doesn’t need pushed back in or anything but I need to go to the hospital just to make sure. I’ll be fine for the Celtic game, though. It’s odd because no-one has been talking about it in the dressing room, probably because our recent results haven’t been all that great.
“However, there are two guys – Scott Boyd and Michael Gardyne – who played in the team which beat Celtic in the Scottish Cup semi-final six years ago so we know that it can be done.”
“I thought we deserved it,” said County manager McIntyre. “It was a scrap but we produced a couple of decent moments going forward.”