Title contenders Ross County placed one hand on the Champions trophy as they ran out 1-3 winners at Somerset Park on Friday night, with the BBC Scotland cameras there to watch the drama unfold.
With the squad once more hit by injury, Bell, Shankland and Rose were all missing from the line-up giving starts to Nicky Cadden and Calvin Miller, with Miller playing upfront with captain Michael Moffat. Ross County put out an attacking line-up as they looked to finish the league by the weekend and bounce back to the Premiership in one season.
The Staggies were the first to get a shot at goal as Brian Graham fired a shot at goal from 12 yards out on the left hand side of the box but the finest of deflections off Harvey’s outstretched leg pushed the ball over the crossbar and out for the corner, which the visitors were unable to put to good use on this occasion.
United, with Miller and Cadden in particular causing Ross County problems as they repeatedly got in behind the defence, were pressing their visitors hard and in the 5th minute nearly opened the scoring for themselves. McDaid got on to the ball from a slack clearance on the right wing and squeezed the ball through to Miller in the penalty box who was forced away from goal and could only ping the ball back in to centre field. Eventually coming to Andy Geggan, he swung an inviting ball across the front of the box where it fell to Cadden right at the edge and his left footed strike was smothered by keeper Scott Fox getting down low to his right-hand side.
It wasn’t to be much longer before the scoreboard clicked over, and it was to be the home team that were the beneficiaries. Slow and patient build up from mid-field suckered in Ross County and when Cadden ran the ball down the left wing he was well in behind the last line of defenders and he bulleted a teasing ball across the goal where all Calvin Miller had to do was stick his foot out to set the back of the net bulging and get his first goal for Ayr United. 11 minutes on the clock, it was 1-0 and the dream start the home fans were dreaming of.
The goal shook the visitors and they struggled to deal with the pace and intricate play from Ayr for the next ten minutes as they looked to regain their composure and try and get back in to the game. Miller nearly got a second on 17 minutes, but the lofted ball just popped off his chest and in to the arms of Fox who had come out his goal to snuff out the attack.
The tide was turning against United though as the physicality of their opponents began to take hold and they slowly gained traction in the game, pulling and probing at the United goal as they looked to pull things back to all square.
On 32 minutes Gardyne headed the ball into the box where it found Graham who blasted his shot wide. The resulting corner was cleared off the line by Geggan and County got on to the rebound only to fire the shot over the bar from 12 yards out.
The visitors got the breakthrough they needed with four minutes of the half left. A mistake by Ayr United was capitalised on big time by Graham as a loose pass from Robbie Crawford on the wing was pounced on by Josh Mullin and his whipped in ball could only be punched away by Ross Doohan straight to the feet of Graham who cannoned the ball past the prone keeper to bring the Staggies right back in to the game.
County repeated the trick with barely 90 seconds of the second half underway. A free kick by Mullan was initially cleared by Ayr only to be picked up again by Mullan and his clever diagonal ball got in behind the Ayr back line and onto the head of Graham who met it perfectly and in to the goal. Two for Ross County, two for Brian Graham and they had come from behind to lead and the Premiership was within touching distance for Ross County Football Club.
Just as the goal for the home side rattled the visitors, so it was the reverse this time round as it was Ayr’s time to struggle to contain a now rampant Ross County who were smelling blood in the air. Moffat was substituted by Alan Forrest on the 66th minute having picked up a slight knock earlier in the game.
The hammer blow came in the 71st minute when Graham snagged his hat-trick. The striker chased the ball in to the corner and got it back to Gardyne who sneaked the ball in to the box where Graham had continued his run. A neat deft flick with the left foot left Doohan stranded and the ball landed in the net for arguably one of the most important goals in the history of Ross County.
County now put the game to bed and closed down their hosts as they defended in numbers and gave Ayr few and far between any sniff at goal. Ross Docherty and Mark Kerr both came on for Geggan and Cadden as McCall looked to get something out the game to take in to the last three games of the season, but there was to be no more scoring and the game ended 1-3 to Ross County.
Ayr’s woes were compounded after the final whistle had blown when Ross Docherty was adjudged to have thrown the ball at a Ross County player and was red carded for the offence. He will now miss the next two games against Partick Thistle.
It was not all bad news for Ayr though, as Dunfermline were unable to gain ground losing away to Queen of the South, meaning that Ayr have confirmed their position in the promotion playoff quarter finals regardless of the remaining results. Next up is a double header against Partick Thistle on Tuesday at home then Firhill on Saturday, with the last game of the season at home against Alloa Athletic seven days later.
Doohan, Harvie, Geggan, Moffat, Crawford, McDaid, Murdoch, Smith, Cadden, Miller, Muirhead
Subs: Hare-Reid, Kerr, Forrest, Ecrepont, Docherty, McCowan
Fox, Fraser, Kelly, Gardyne, Lindsay, Boyle, Mullin, Graham, Cowie, Stewart, Grivosti
Subs: Fontaine, McManus, Vigurs, Spence, Munro, Paton, Armstrong
Referee: Euan AndersonAttendance: 1692