ROSS County manager Derek Adams was left bemoaning a first-half injury to central defender Brian McLean which, he believes, ultimately led to the Highlanders losing the lead and all thee points.
Scorers: Motherwell - Sutton (54, 68), McHugh (77); Ross County - De Leeuw (30)
McLean was forced to leave the field following an innocuous collision with John Sutton nine minutes before the break and the latter took full advantage of his marker’s absence to score the goals which fired the hosts into third place.
“We didn’t deal with him all afternoon,” he said. “Cross balls were a problem, although it didn’t help that we lost Brian McLean to concussion early on.
“I thought we played well first half. We were a goal up and Motherwell weren’t really threatening us but we need to defend better than that.”
Motherwell manufactured the first opening after only two minutes when Sutton’s knockdown allowed strike partner Henri Anier a sight of goal, but Mark Brown was alert to the danger and managed to divert the Estonian’s shot behind for a corner.
Brown came to County’s rescue again in the 25th minute when he stuck out his right foot to block Sutton’s netbound drive after he had been set up by James McFadden and Stuart Carswell.
It was somewhat against the run of play when County broke the deadlock on the half hour. It also required a large dollop of good fortune. Ben Gordon’s cutback was driven goalwards by Melvin de Leeuw, but the Dutchman’s shot would not have troubled the statisticians if it hadn’t taken a massive deflection off the hapless Stephen McManus.
That setback appeared to deflate the home side and County captain Richard Brittain ought to have increased their advantage three minutes from the interval when he shot over from 15 yards after being picked out by Graham Carey.
Motherwell lost James McFadden at the interval after the former Scotland star complained of his hamstring tightening but, if anything, they looked a slicker team after Lionel Ainsworth had replaced him and the winger claimed an assist when the Steelmen equalised, delivering the corner which Sutton headed home.
Anier was then inches away with a diving header following a surging run and cross from Ainsworth, whose pace was posing problems down County’s left flank.
County still offered a threat, as Stuart Kettlewell proved when he collected a return pass from Rocco Quinn before unleashing a drive which Hollis only just managed to repel.
Sutton showed him how it should be done midway through the second half, racing on to an exquisitely dinked pass from Anier to fire high behind the advancing Brown from 18 yards.
“It was a great ball from Henri for my second goal,” he said. “Everyone looks at the goalscorer, but he put it on a plate for me. The more you can link up like that with a strike partner, the better for both of us.
“I thought our partnership was good in pre-season, but it was nothing like it is now. He puts in such a shift and Lionel also sent in a good corner for my first.”
That proved to be Anier’s final contribution but his replacement, Bob McHugh, also had a part to play, cleverly sending a header arcing over the helpless Brown after stealing away from Mihael Kovacevic to get on the end of Simon Ramsden’s cross.
Motherwell manager Stuart McCall also raved about the performance of Sutton, who is rapidly disproving the old adage that you can’t go home again.
“That’s possibly the best he’s played since he came back,” he said. “I’ve always liked the big man and I didn’t want to lose him [to Hearts] when he left, although I totally understood his reasons for going.
“But once I realised that he was up for grabs and that we were losing Michael Higdon it was a no-brainer for me. He’s good in the dressing room, he’s popular and, if you give him the service, he will score goals.
“He’s a handful, just like Higdon – although Sutty has more mobility.”