I’ve taken a while to try and calm down before writing this, and I still haven’t. Regardless, it’s time to focus on the 1-0 defeat to St. Mirren as a whole, rather than one incident. Events unfolded largely depending on tactics, and it was an interesting match overall, despite the justified anger of the Staggies’ support.
Here’s how the two sides lined up:
The opening exchanges, and most of the first half as a whole was very poor. Neither side could keep a hold of the ball for an extended period of time. This wasn’t even due to intense pressing- player after player took turns to give it away under no pressure. It was clear both sides wanted to bide their time in trying to find an opening, but it became comical as teams trying to pass out from the back casually kept turning the ball over to the opposition. It’s strange how similar to each other County and the Saints’ first half performances were. A further similarity than being poor in possession is that both teams’ end product was shocking. It’s not exaggerating to say most shots were skied, the remaining shots were scuffed and every cross was overhit.
St. Mirren had marginally more about them across the half, and Conor McCarthy forced a brilliant save from Ross Laidlaw in the County net. The Staggies weren’t completely useless though, fashioning a chance from a corner as Keith Watson headed wide. These were the most significant moments of the half. A big reason for this was key players for both teams playing poorly. The ball just didn’t stick for talented players such as Tony Andreu of Ross County.
The two managers might have been forgiven for sending their teams out for the second half in the same way they set up in the first, but they both recognised change was needed…
A game of two halves
Both sides elected to change shape at the half, effectively swapping. St Mirren changed from a back three to a back four, with Richard Tait coming on for Joe Shaugnessy. Ross County did the opposite, changing from a back four to a back three, with Coll Donaldson coming on for the booked Carl Tremarco. This saw first half centre back Leo Hjelde shifted out to left back. To complete the change in shape, Alex Iacovitti came on in place of Michael Gardyne to slot into the back three, and Oli Shaw came on for Tony Andreu in order to partner Jordan White up front.
The major changes to each side totally changed the tempo of the game, and suddenly both sides were scrapping for every inch. County were the ones who took the game by the scruff of the neck, and it was baffling that the ball stayed out of the Saints net. Jordan White had his effort saved onto the bar by the brilliant Alnwick, and in the same move the excellent Stephen Kelly was desperately unfortunate to see his belted shot crash against the crossbar.
Again, both sides played the game incredibly similarly. They both played the second half with incredible urgency. St Mirren in particular bombed forward whenever they could, but their end product was dreadful. Their performance was summed up when Kyle McAllister attempted to cross into the Staggies’ box from deep but hit it into the stand without the ball even passing over the penalty area.
County weren’t as egregiously bad at shooting, but they were still far from perfect. Most shots they had were extremely poor, and Oli Shaw showed uncharacteristically poor finishing when he had it on the edge of the St. Mirren box and scuffed it wide. However, the Staggies once again came close to scoring when Iacovitti showed flexibility nobody knew he had to volley a shot towards the top left corner of the goal. However, the Saints had their wits about them, and had a man on the line to head away.
This was the last thing of note to happen before the talking point of the match…
The elephant in the room
Before I speak about the penalty incident, let me talk about the build up. It’s a footballing pet peeve of many when a defender goes down under pressure when there’s no contact. Jake Doyle-Hayes of St. Mirren took this to extreme, going down under absolutely no contact from a bemused Harry Paton. Referee Greg Aitken was close to the incident, and inexplicably blew his whistle. Players need to start getting booked for diving again, it’s too simple just to go down looking for a foul to get out of an awkward situation. It was an outrageous dive from Doyle-Hayes to get the Saints on the front foot again, and what was to follow was equally outrageous.
Substitute Collin Quaner ran at the County defence, and Leo Hjelde came up alongside him. Hjelde attempted to get the ball from him and failed. There was little to no contact on Quaner, but he went down nonetheless. He wasn’t running at pace, so there’s no way he should have gone down that way. The Staggies support would have been happy to have the ball back, but the whistle was blown. Penalty. It was an outrageous decision that has bemused many in Scottish Football. Jamie McGrath, ever reliable from the spot, tucked it away.
There was time left for the Staggies to nick a goal, but it simply wasn’t happening for them. Harry Paton cut a frustrated figure and clearly couldn’t focus, smashing over the crossbar when he should have given the ball to Jordan White in the penalty area. Jordan Tillson put the ball narrowly wide from inside the box when he should have tested Alnwick.
The final whistle went, and St. Mirren walked away with the points.
The most important match of the season so far comes on the 6th of March. Kilmarnock visit Dingwall sitting one point behind County, albeit the Staggies have a game in hand. Kille haven’t tasted victory in nine matches, but they must be taken seriously. Well respected manager Tommy Wright has joined them after the sacking of Alex Dyer, and they’ll be a threat regardless of form. County must look past the frustration of today if they are to beat their relegation rivals.