Motherwell 3 - 0 Inverness CT: Well worth top spot
Like a rare goal for Steven Hammell, a lush green playing surface at Fir Park, and, more miraculously still, a position at the top of the Clydesdale Bank Premier League for Motherwell, whose three goals neatly reversed the scoreline by which they lost at Hampden on the closing day of their last campaign.
Just nine weeks after their defeat by Celtic in the Scottish Cup final, Stuart McCall's team are off and running again thanks to goals by Hammell, Jamie Murphy and Keith Lasley, whose spectacular shot 13 minutes from the end is already destined to be one of the best scored in the season ahead. It completed a comfortable defeat of the team that finished just one position below them last season.
The margin of victory was a little hard on Inverness, but Motherwell's two new signings, Michael Higdon and Nicky Law, showed up well, as did Jamie Murphy again. Watched by a long list of scouts from south of the Border, the Motherwell striker is likely to be the subject of a bid before the end of the transfer window. "It's no surprise," said McCall. "There are no games on, are there? That's the downside of starting the season early. They used to have two or three games to watch us. Now they've got five or six."
Terry Butcher, the Inverness manager, had warned that his team were not ready to return so soon, especially after a summer in which they had lost ten of their players, but even he could not have anticipated that they would be caught quite so cold here. The three new signings in his starting line-up must have wondered what they had let themselves in for when they found themselves two goals down after half an hour.
In truth, Inverness didn't do at all badly, twice hitting the Motherwell woodwork, but their opponents played the slicker football, sweeping the ball across the midfield and, more often than not, into the path of Chris Humphrey, whose delivery was responsible for the opening goal. Michael Higdon, signed from St Mirren, didn't so much flick the cross on as struggle to jump high enough, but the outcome was a chance at the back post for Hammell, who barely broke stride as he thrashed it in off the far post.
Within two minutes, the home side had doubled their lead, this time when Murphy collected the ball from Hammell and burst clear of the midfield. He still had Tom Aldred in his way, but with a clever poke of his boot, the Motherwell striker seemed to direct the ball through his opponent and beyond the goalkeeper.
Inverness looked stretched at the back, and sluggish in key areas, but they were entitled to feel hard done by.Before falling behind, their willingness to have a pot at goal nearly paid off, first when Richie Foran thumped a left-foot shot off the base of a post, then when the same player blasted over after Gregory Tade had nodded down a cross by Jonny Hayes.
Motherwell, too, are in something of a transition after several departures, including John Sutton, Francis Jeffers and Maurice Ross, but Law appears capable of taking advantage. The debutant, who has played in England's Premier League with Sheffield United, was a lively presence on the left side of midfield. Twice in the early part of the second half, he showed confidence in himself, first with an angled shot that forced Ryan Esson into a fine save, then with a 20-yard volley that didn't dip quickly enough to find the net.
A brisk, open and competitive game seemed to falter for a period, with neither team showing much imagination in the final third.
Murphy pulled a shot wide after Hidgon's first-time ball had released him down the right, and Lasley settled the outcome with a breathtaking strike from 20 yards. When Tom Hateley's corner broke to the Motherwell midfield player, he had time to adjust his body before ripping a right-footer into the top left-hand corner.
It was a bad start for Inverness, but there is plenty room for optimism. "I don't think there were three goals in it," said Butcher, who signed 21-year-old Austrian left-back Thomas Piermayr from LASK Linz yesterday, but could not complete the paperwork in time for him to play. His team can, and will, do better.
Randolph, Hateley, Hutchinson, Craigan, Hammell, Humphrey, Lasley, Jennings, Murphy, Higdon (83), Law. Subs used: Smith (83).
Inverness CT: Esson, Proctor, Tokely, Aldred, Gillet, Ross, Tansey , A Shinnie (61), Hayes, Tade (80), Foran. Subs used: Sutherland (61), G Shinnie (80).
Man of the match: Jamie Murphy (Motherwell). Scored one goal, and could have had more.
Talking point: Terry Butcher could not understand how his team had failed to score after hitting the post twice.
Referee: S McLean.