For the second time this season I was heading for the Highlands, this time to Victoria Park. As a first, I was heading in a different direction on a train. Peterhead was visited on a bus and Inverness in a car. Apart from that almost every Saturday morning this season has been spent travelling south.
I had been slightly nervous that the game might have been called off, which would mean a wasted weekend in terms of visiting a ground, with Dingwall fairly isolated. However I was assured by Ross County that their game would be going ahead.
The train journey was first to Inverness, with a connection to Dingwall taking around 30 minutes. The second train was brilliant. The ultimate destination was Kyle of Lochalsh and a lot of the stops had interesting names. After Dingwall it stops at Achanalt, Achnasheen and Achnashellac. If you’re still on the train after that, it calls at Duirinish. Some of the stops were even optional or on demand! Given how little I’ve heard about any of these places, I may as well have been in a different country. Part of me wanted to keep going right to the end of the line, but Dingwall was the destination for me.
Dingwall is quite an isolated town in a rural part of the country, but this counts in the football team’s favour. Of course there will be people in the town that support other teams, but Dingwall is a one team town with no real competition for support locally.
The town itself is home to around 5500 people. It would be a remarkable feat for a population of that size to maintain a top flight football team. However, it’s worth remembering that ‘Ross County’ (as the name suggests) attract support from a wide geographic area with a population around ten times that of the town. Even with that in mind, establishing a top flight football team in the area is still an impressive achievement.
The last few seasons have seen the Highlands cement its status as a footballing area. With Inverness Caledonian Thistle winning the Scottish Cup two seasons ago and Ross County winning the League Cup last season, both trophies (or their replicas) resided in the Highlands at the same time.
County’s rise over the years has been remarkable. They were admitted to the league in 1994, having spent many years playing in the Highland League. The club have won each of Scotland’s divisions below the top flight once. Over the course of 18 years The Staggies built themselves as a club. They developed their facilities, including Victoria Park and grew their support. Their chairman, Roy MacGregor deserves credit for the work he has done with the club and the backing he has given them.
The reward for that work came in 2012 when they were promoted to the top flight for the first time. They have built on that success further and are now a mainstay in the Premiership.
Today’s game with Hamilton was an important one. Both sides found themselves towards the bottom of the table, with The Staggies just one point ahead of the day’s visitors.
County have disappointed so far this season. With a manager whose stock has been rising in Jim McIntyre and players like Andrew Davies, their strong captain in defence, goal scorer Liam Boyce and Michael Gardyne in midfield, to name a few, they don’t lack quality (on paper at least). Despite this they have won only three games so far this season. They started the day in eighth, two points clear of bottom placed Dundee.
Victoria Park has undergone a lot of work over the years, but it has remained close to the pitch. There are four seated stands of a good size. My seat in the ‘Jail End’ was in row C, right behind the goal. After spending much of the warm up hoping not to be hit by a wayward shot, the seat grew on me. In the second half when Ross County were shooting towards their own fans it was an exciting place to be.
The game began with Ross County on top. Within the first minute they had a good opportunity to take the lead. A free kick was whipped in and met by a diving Ross County player. It was a free header which he earned for himself with an impressive gymnastic style leap, but Gary Woods was able to push it away.
The onslaught continued, and the hosts could have taken the lead three times in the first five minutes, however Hamilton defended resolutely.
The Staggies eventually managed to beat the away defence with a high cross to the back post. Liam Boyce was first to the ball and he headed it in to a free corner of the net. That was Boyce’s eighth goal of the season, and it lifts him to second in the goal scoring charts.
The home side would have been happier at half time having created all of the big chances in the game.
The second half started in a similar fashion, with County’s League Cup hero Alex Schalk on as a substitute. He caused further problems for the away defence and on three separate occasions he found himself in space and on his stronger foot in front of goal. He should have scored on at least one occasion, which would have wrapped up the points. However, Woods deserves credit for thwarting him.
His team were left ruing missed chances when Hamilton’s Ali Crawford levelled the score. He struck a free kick perfectly from outside the box which flew in to the top corner. From the opposite end of the pitch it looked like Scott Fox had been well beaten, and he barely moved for the ball. It was a moment of brilliance from Crawford, which will deserve multiple replays on Sportscene this week.
Both sides then went on the chase the winner, but neither had the cutting edge required.
Leaving the stadium there was a sense of frustration among he home fans. Their team had created enough chances to win comfortably, but they failed to take them.
They didn’t look like a side that belongs in a relegation battle today, but if they continue to waste chances that is where they will end up.
Ross County 1 Hamilton Academical 1