They had just witnessed one remarkable escape, and Dundee United’s thunderous travelling support filed out of sunny Dingwall dreaming of, and more importantly, believing in another season-defining Houdini act.
Depleted by Mark Durnan’s red card and trailing 2-1 from Ross County’s resultant penalty on the hour, few would have given the Tangerines much chance of salvaging a Scottish Cup replay, never mind a place in a Hampden semi-final.
April’s big day out can wait for now. United, with six wins from the past nine matches, must be putting the fear of life into poor Kilmarnock just above them in the Premiership relegation fight.
Mustered from the wreckage of the first hour’s events was Henry Anier’s equalising second goal and then, with seconds ticking away, Billy Mckay’s winning tenth goal of the campaign. It was exactly the kind of show of spirit and defiance Mixu Paatelainen needs from his men in the league.
“There was tremendous character,” the Finn acknowledged, “but it’s nothing new to me. This was an unbelievable effort from them, unbelievable spirit and togetherness. This gives us, again, loads of confidence.
“In the last few weeks the way we’ve performed has been good, better, and that has improved our belief that we can save the season. A result like this, being a man down against a very, very good Ross County team, gives us so much hope.”
Much had changed in the six years since the two teams did battle in the Scottish Cup final, with County then starry-eyed First Division hopefuls and United nowhere resembling a relegation-endangered operation.
These days an established top- flight club, County might have had thoughts of the club’s second major Hampden final next Sunday lurking in the back of their minds.
United at first fizzed with energy, but were wild and wayward in early glimpses of goal, with Mckay and the lately seldom-seen Anier chief culprits.
After almost 15 minutes of United pressure, County sprang into life. Liam Boyce turned niftily deep in the United half and worked a 1-2 with Jackson Irvine. The Northern Ireland international’s first strike was saved by stand-in keeper Luis Zwick, and the second was cleared off the line by Paul Paton.
Moments later, the lively Irvine drove an Andrew Davies lay-off just inches wide, with pressure building to County’s 24th minute breakthrough.
Many of County’s goals this season have come from well-worked set pieces and, from Jonathan Franks’ well-flighted corner, defender Davies thumped a powerful header at goal from 16 yards.
Boyce, without a goal since his Boxing Day hat-trick, was perfectly-placed to re-direct it upwards into the roof of the net with his head for his 18th of the campaign.
Boyce might have had a second from another Franks cross after 37 minutes but the flicked header from Brian Graham flew at him too quickly and he failed to control a few yards out.
United started the second half forcefully, driving County back into their own third before a deserved 57th minute equaliser. Mark Durnan’s dig at goal did the damage as it broke kindly to Anier six yards out to net the equaliser.
United’s celebrations in front of their 1,400-strong travelling support were frenzied. Durnan, though, was about to turn villain to those adoring fans, taking a straight red card after clearly tugging Richard Foster to earth in the penalty box as he wriggled free.
Brian Graham tucked the penalty under the diving Zwick, but the ten men mustered the perfect response just five minutes later.
John Rankin’s measured ball from the left evaded the County defence and found Anier cutting an angled shot past keeper Gary Woods.
It was fast and furious from there on in but just as a replay seemed certain, the excellent Blair Spittal wove into space and released a cross that found Mckay glancing home a diving header.
“We got ourselves in a great position and then threw it away,” home manager Jim McIntyre complained. “Quite clearly, it wasn’t good enough on the day. That’s three times this season we’ve been done by ten men, which is quite embarrassing, really. We should be better than that.
“It’s sore. I’m angry because we have better in the dressing room than we showed today. We’ve also blown a huge opportunity to get to another semi-final.
“I’ll be brutally honest, I haven’t even thought about the cup final but now the sole focus is to try to win it.”