Against a St Johnstone side already in end of season mode, the Highlanders gave survival a shot but it was too little, too late. A fourth-minute goal gave them hope in Perth but, for fans who have had to endure so much this season and been rewarded with just six league wins, this was cruel. It is the hope, after all, that gets you in the end.
County needed to better Partick’s result at Dundee if they were to avoid automatic relegation. With Thistle drawing at Dens Park, Craig Curran’s early goal looked as though it might give the visitors a lifeline.
However, Kris Doolan’s strike for the Jags midway through the second half turned the afternoon on its head. David Wotherspoon’s late equaliser for Saints just added to the misery as County’s tenure in the top flight came to an end.
“It goes without saying that everybody’s head is down and nobody is feeling good about themselves, ourselves included,” County’s co-manager Stuart Kettlewell said after the game.
“The emotions are a bit raw. It isn’t the scenario we wanted but we knew it was a possibility. Nothing will ever prepare you for it, though. Nothing will ever make you feel better, no matter what anyone says.
“We have to take what has happened today and we need to go away and regroup and decide how we move forward as a football club. Things will change a lot in the coming months.”
Next season will begin with no Highland side in the Premiership for the first time since 2010.
While the St Johnstone players had been taking snaps with their kids pre-match, signing off for another season, the visitors looked edgy. Starting the day bottom of the pile, the weight of it all looked like it might be too much for them. But they gave themselves some impetus when, in the fourth minute, Jason Naismith drove a ball into the area and the guests enjoyed some luck as it was deflected into the path of Curran who stabbed home.
It was the ideal start and as news of it made its way up the M9 to Dundee, it served to ease some of their jitters and pile the pressure on to Thistle.
If that was a positive, County co-managers Kettlewell and Steven Ferguson had to rethink personnel when captain Andrew Davies was forced off injured in the 14th minute and was replaced by Harry Souttar. But they remained the better team, pushing for another goal to give themselves some breathing space. They couldn’t manage it, though.
Alex Schalk had been left on the bench but both Curran and Michael Gardyne tried to manufacture something in his absence. It was the latter who had a shot just after the goal but it was straight into the body of Alan Mannus, playing his last game for Saints.
It has been six years since the Dingwall side joined the top flight and there have been cups and plaudits along the way but it was all to come to an end. News filtered through that Thistle has taken the lead at Dens and County were back at the foot of the table.
The Highlanders stuck at it and Curran had a chance. His angled drive ruffled the netting, causing some celebration in the away support but it was another disappointment as it turned out to be the outside of the net. With hope all but gone for County, Saints were still looking for a goal to ensure sub Chris Millar and Mannus did not sign off their careers at McDiarmid Park with a defeat and, while Scott Fox foiled Wotherspoon in the 80th minute, he couldn’t stop him wrapping up a lovely move in stoppage time to level the scores and compound their guests’ misery.