In what Ross County knew would be a tough game, they found countless ways to make it harder for themselves- losing 1-0 to St. Johnstone with a late sickener. Don’t put the late goal down to bad luck however, the Staggies were architects of their own downfall, offering another twist in the relegation battle rather than pulling themselves away from it.
Here’s how the sides lined up:
More of the same
County picked up where they left off last week, with predictable, uninspiring play that entailed nothing but belting the ball up the pitch at every opportunity. This was already bad against Hibs, but against St. Johnstone, who are well known to be comfortable dealing with long balls, it took away any threat we might have had.
With our strikers left isolated with our non-existent build up play, the vast majority of the first half was played in County territory. The Staggies did well to soak up the pressure for the most part, but never looked truly comfortable, Alex Iacovitti in particular looking shaky and giving away fouls like samples in an ice cream shop.
There were no positives going forward for County to take in the first half. The only way we could get the ball up the pitch was via set pieces, with our players seemingly allergic to playing passes on the ground. We offered so little threat, and were also leaving pockets of space for St. Johnstone at times, causing several goalmouth scrambles. Ross Laidlaw was forced into a smart save from Ali McCann when nobody closed the young midfielder down around 30 yards from goal. The County keeper was further tested when Saints striker Chris Kane was played through on goal. Laidlaw did really well to stop the charging striker from slotting it home.
County had so little play in the St. Johnstone half. The lack of play into the strikers feet was telling- the only times we looked like creating anything was when it was drilled into White and Mckay, who were both incredibly slack in possession.
The performance wasn’t good enough, but against a strong, proven Saints side going down the tunnel 0-0 at half time wasn’t disasterous.
More of the same (x2)
County were marginally brighter than they were in the first half. In the first five minutes of the second half they played the ball on the ground more and at least attempted to attack with purpose. The key word is attempted- St. Johnstone continued to snuff out any moves forward, and by the 55 minute mark the Staggies were playing the same frustrating, lethargic game they did in the first half. When the ball was with the Saints, County were competent in defence, but there was nothing resembling a press. The back line and midfield simply sat back and soaked up the pressure. In possession, County couldn’t play a five yard pass, even under no pressure. It was constant aimless hoofing in the general direction of Jordan White, who was beaten to the ball by the back three of the Saints many a time.
John Hughes clearly saw it was time for change, with Michael Gardyne coming on for the ineffective Billy Mckay, and Iain Vigurs coming on for the uncharacteristically slack Charlie Lakin. This changed the pattern of the game. The Staggies were still poor for the most part, make no mistake, but Vigurs was crucial in improving the transition from defence to attack (there wasn’t one previously) and Gardyne served as an effective ball carrier, which was much needed as Harry Paton had a poor game. These changes provided a spark, and this spark provided our only shot of the game. Gardyne found Coll Donaldson with a cutback, but as probably expected from a defender he sliced it over.
Callum Davidson was chasing a win for top six, so he wasn’t about to settle for his St. Johnstone side simply being dominant. He brought on Greg Tanser for a set piece threat, and on loan Rangers winger Glen Middleton. Tanser was very quiet, but Middleton was as lively as they come, beating Keith Watson for pace and going one on one with Ross Laidlaw. Once again however, Laidlaw stood firm. The Staggies goalkeeper was debatably their only player to get pass marks after today’s shocking performance, however his efforts proved to be in vain…
It was coming
Up to this point, County had been nothing short of woeful, but a positive was that as it stood in the 85th minute they were heading for a rare clean sheet. Two Saints substitutes had other plans though.
In what was a simple, cheap, poor goal to concede, Stevie May ran down the left hand of Ross County’s penalty area, where he played it past Coll Donaldson too easily. It found Middleton who still had work to do. Iacovitti was tight to him, and he capped a shaky, unconvincing performance by getting turned too easily like he has so many times this season. Middleton had worked time and space, and finished past Laidlaw who had no chance.
For the Staggies, it was a gut punch, but they had nobody to blame but themselves. It was undeniably the worst performance under Hughes so far, and there’s absolutely no excuse for the slackness on display today. St. Johnstone fought to the end, and deservedly booked a top 6 place, leapfrogging St. Mirren in the final game before the split.
It’s unknown who County will play first going into the split, but they have a lot of collective soul searching to do during the coming international break. Today simply wasn’t good enough and whether they play St. Mirren, Dundee United, Motherwell, Hamilton or Kilmarnock in two weeks time they must be on their A game. The curtains to this season will draw sooner rather than later, and with only two points separating the bottom three, every game is as big as the cup final five years in the past. As it stands, we’re a shadow of what we were on that spring day.