Saints 2 Ross Co 1 - League Table Here
Team : Main, Irvine, Craig, Millar, Rutkiewicz, Caff, Swankie,
Hardie, Holmes, Savo, Sheerin
Subs: Kelly, Anderson, Samuel, Peaso, Morris
For the first time in what seemed like decades, Saints went into a game against the men from Dingwall as clear favourites. A cracking win in Fife last weekend had seen the unbeaten run stretch to seven games and Saints rise to the top of the table as Queens and the other challengers slipped behind. Despite the good form they've shown in recent weeks, this was the ideal opportunity for Saints to try and cement our position at the top and hopefully keep the good feeling going for another week. And there was even some optimism that the McDiarmid crowd would be boosted by some of the additional fans that made the trip to Dunfermline last weekend to keep the party mood going. Alternatively the glass half-empty mentality held sway to the view that today was one great big banana skin waiting to happen.
For Ross County, a stuttering start to the season had seen the honours split at Dingwall in the two encounters so far with an early exit from the Challenge Cup cancelled out by the league win in September. But County have been on a decent run of form themselves and a win at Dens and a convincing humping of the Bully Wee last Saturday had pushed them up the table and made it look more and more likely that they'd be safe come next May. However cup upsets aside, our home record in these games has been pretty good in recent years and it has to be said that we were going into this one under no illusion about the amount of fight and hard work that would be required to keep the three points in Perth.
Compared to last week, the performance was certainly more nervous but Saints were still fairly comfortable in the end as we took the three points, extending the lead at the top of the table into the bargain. As last week, the whole side played their part in the win and again the confidence and spirit shone through as we battled to the win, with things made especially difficult with the physical style of the Ross County style of play aided and abetted by a referee who demonstrated all the competence and common sense of a Radio 2 producer.
Kevin Moon had recovered from being assaulted and having to endure the MRSA risks of a Dunfermline hospital last Saturday and had managed to train during the week, but he wasn't risked today. Jody and James had continued their rehabilitation. Jacko had also made his comeback in the 4-2 closed-doors win over Morton but his ankle injury ruled him out. Nevertheless, Del resisted the temptation to tinker too much with the form side and the starting eleven showed only one change as Swankie came in for Moon while Jody occupied the vacant slot on the bench. One enforced change took place on the bench as Lee Robinson's return to the Death Star had meant a hunt for a new sub keeper with Greg Kelly making a surprising return at the start of a three- month loan spell escaping the shenanigans at Montrose.
The game started with Saints pressing from kick-off and in fact we should have taken the lead as early as the second minute when Sheerinho spread the ball over to the right wing, finding Swankie. Gavin cut inside his marker, before crossing for Sheerinho at the back post and the Wizard fired in a low angled drive that went across the goal and just wide of target. Three minutes later we had another great chance as a long freekick found Savo in the box, but County keeper Derek Soutar managed to come out and clear. The game was being played at a hectic pace and while we tried to keep up the pressure although the opposition were doing well to crowd us out in the middle of the park. Saints meanwhile after their early pressure were starting to look a bit scrappy. It wasn't until the 15th minute that the Dingwall side had their first chance courtesy of Caff attempting to dribble out of defence and losing the ball which allowed County to win the first corner of the game - Chris Millar was there to clear the danger.
Two minutes later we should have taken the lead. We won a throw-in on the left and Liam played a neat one-two with Sheerin before sending a great cross into the box where Mad Mental Martin rose up majestically only to see his great header go wide of the goal. Next up was Millar, who obviously listening to his manager's request for goals tried his luck from distance but his effort went over the bar. Midway through the first half, there was a real sense of deja vu as some good play from Holmes and Sheerin set up Savo only for the Saints striker to be up-ended on the edge of the box. The County defence set up their wall and up stepped the Mad Mental One. Unfortunately this week's freekick was just too soft and although it beat the wall, Soutar had no problem holding the ball.
Rustybitz was harshly punished in the 24th minute for a shove. But the resulting freekick from Hart caused no real problems as the ball was so high as it went over the bar that you'd have thought the kicker had given it some drugs. Even so, County were getting more of the ball in the middle of the park as we struggled to retain possession with too many blue shirts either caught on the ball or else playing the sort of pass that the adjective "telegraph" was invented to describe. Added to that, there was a worry for the home fans as Savo slipped on the greasy surface and looked to have injured his ankle although he was able to run it off. We weren't helped by the referee and on the half hour we had a decent claim for a penalty. Sheerinho set up Liam who crossed for Holmes. The Saints striker seemed to be fouled as he went for the ball but even then, the ball broke for Swankie coming in from the right wing and his follow-up shot was blatantly handled in the box. Referee MacDonald just waived play on though as he continued to do for several similar offences from the Dingwall side.
Higgins fired a freekick over for County before they missed a gilt- edged chance in 37 minutes. A break forward found the Saints defence caught out and a square ball and a couple of poor tackles saw the ball end up into the box at the feet of an unmarked Adam Strachan who with only Main to beat managed to sclaff the ball well wide of goal - well it made us all laugh. Saints tried to hit back with a well-worked long ball which almost found Millar who made a great run through the middle of the park but Soutar managed to come out and beat him to the ball.
We were forced into an early substitution again four minutes from the break as Caff, who seemed to have over-stretched himself in an earlier challenge went off to be replaced by Pamela. Three minutes later the referee decided to annoy the home support even further by showing the first yellow card to Hardie for a relatively soft tackle from behind - and it's to his credit that Hardie didn't react more given the number of hefty challenges he was on the receiving end of. Even worse was when the resulting freekick was sent into the Saints' box and ended up with Main blatantly fouled as he came to collect with the sort of mid-air challenge more suited to the wrestling ring than the sacred turf. No card was shown although at least we got the freekick and Main was able to continue after treatment. The injury time did have some good though as we piled up the park and thanks to Sheerinho doing his best irritating puppy impression his persistence forced County into conceding a late corner. Time for some simplicity then and a deep corner kick from Liam soared over everyone to the back post where Mad Mental Martin was there to do his Zebedee impression and spring up to send a looping header in from six yards out which floated over Soutar and into the net. It was a nice way to end the half.
Saints tried to get off to a similar start for the second period but Savo especially suffered from a couple of dodgy offsides against him. Millar had to look sharp to block a shot, while Main was caught in no-man's land as a header went behind in the 48th minute. Craig saw a freekick cleared and Savo and Holmes came close to robbing the ball from Soutar as he struggled with a passback. The game had opened up a fair bit and while goalmouth action was about as frequent an occurrence as a Celtic European goal, it was still fairly entertaining stuff with Saints by no means in full control. The yellow card tally was evened up by a booking for Keddie in the 55th minute although again the actual reason was a mystery.
Saints were creating chances. Holmes tried to set up Sheerinho but he was tackled. Then Savo broke after a County corner finding Swankie but his good cross for Holmes just failed to find the mark. Sheerin set up Liam for a cross next and his final ball found Savo who tried a header from the edge of the box that went just wide. There was another stoppage as County substitute Gardyne had to receive treatment following the ball hitting him in the face - as he was on the pitch. Even better it was his own teammate that took the kick.
With 25 minutes remaining Del made his second switch replacing Swankie (who had had a decent game) with Jody Morris for his long-awaited comeback. Within a minute we'd almost doubled our lead as Savo chased a long ball and won a corner. Liam's inswinger was punched out by Soutar as far as Hardie and his cross back in found Liam who fired a decent drive in that was blocked on the line. County hit back immediately and a deep cross from the right was missed by Irvine. It was played in and headed in but thankfully the flag was already up for offside. Irvine and Millar combined well on the right in the 71st minute to set up Jody in the box but he hooked his shot across the goal. Millar had a shot booked then Hardie sent a good ball in that Holmes headed down for Millar. He turned his marker and cut the ball back for Sheerinho who turned and fired in a low drive that brought out a good save from Soutar.
Del made his final change fourteen minutes from the end as a tiring Holmes was replaced by Samuel. He immediately held up the ball before sending a great through ball for Savo to run onto. Savo went forward and squared to an unmarked Millar on the edge of the box but Chris hesitated and ended up shooting at the keeper. No real worry though as with eleven minute to go the Wizard of the Wing gave us some more Sheerinho magic, beating his man before sending a pinpoint cross in from the left into the six yard box where Sammy outjumped everyone to head the ball down and home.
At two-nil up we should have been comfortable but despite Morris just failing to find Sammy for another chance a minute later, the defence decided to go to sleep. First of all County were able to cut in from the right along the goalline and try a shot that brought out a good save from Main. But the Saints keeper was caught out a minute later as he couldn't hold a cross from the left, only succeeding in palming it into the path of McCulloch who dived to head the ball home.
That led to a nervous closing stage to the game but even though the play became scrappy Saints stayed calm with Rustybitz and Millar solid. The referee wasn't helping with some strange decisions against Saints but even so the final chance fell to us as Sammy set up Savo only for the keeper to beat him to the ball.
This was a hard-fought win against a Dingwall side that were out to frustrate us throughout the ninety minutes. We deserved the win although my MoM choice in Chris Millar is perhaps more an indication of the sort of game that it was. However we can't argue with the result and I can't emphasise enough how much of a team performance this was - and that's what wins titles.
It's been 5 years since we won six in a row. On this form, I don't think anyone will bet against us extending that record next week.
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