Missing John Robertson - still out with a calf injury that can't heal quick enough - and Martyn Campbell, Brian Reid lined up with the same defence that ended United's impressive cup win over Falkirk last Wednesday, meaning Eddie Malone partnered Chris Smith with Adam Dodd dropping to left-back (for a more in depth look at Ayr's line-up and shape see rosscountytactics.com's excellent analysis). It may have been an unfamiliar back four but County's opener was more predictable. Ayr have certainly improved their set-piece play in recent weeks, in defence and attack, but a low ball into the near post was deflected out by McMenamin and the second ball into the box was nodded on for Grant Munro to prod home from six yards.
That early lead really should have put the game into the 'routine' category for the champions-in-waiting but Brian Reid's men should be commended for matching their opponents on a heavy pitch. Ayr had a lot more possession than expected but the usual suspects, McGowan in particular, were often guilty of giving away the ball by trying to pass one man too many and simply not moving the ball about quickly enough. County - despite resting six players for their midweek cup game at home to St. Mirren - seemed to find it difficult to get out of second gear and lacked that creative spark to break through a disciplined performance from the away side.
Reward for that endeavour came on 80 minutes when, almost out of the blue, Blackpool kid Liam Tomsett picked the ball up in space 30 yards out and didn't need a second invitation to unleash an unstoppable shot into the top-right hand corner. (A goal that I really wish I had been paying attention to see...). It capped off another strong performance from the 18 year-old midfielder, full of energy and a game awareness that belies his age. Added into the mix was a goal line clearance at the death as Ross County finally showed some urgency but that, coupled with a couple of excellent saves we've come to expect from Kevin Cuthbert, was enough to see out the final whistle.
|Liam Tomsett struck a sensational equaliser|
|Tiffoney. No stranger to a red card.|
Ayr and Thistle played out a dismal goalless draw at Somerset back in December but that point saw Ayr climb to 8th place. If Ayr are to repeat that on Tuesday it will have to be without Jonathan Tiffoney. Ayr's right back picked up a red card almost immediately after Tomsett's equaliser to add to the three he received last season. With over 50 first team starts under his belt, the majority of them at right back, the oft stated excuse: "he's not a right back" is starting to wear thin. Its natural that any youngster will struggle for consistency but Tiffoney is often his own worst enemy. Losing possession, looking for fouls, snarling at referees and rash challenges are all part of the 20 year-old's game he could do without. Not many agreed when Brian Reid brought in Jim Lauchlan to replace Tiff at right-back towards the end of last season, but the rational was understandable. John Robertson seemed to be Brian Reid's first choice in that position at the start of this season, but injury to Martyn Campbell necessitated his move to the centre where he has forged an impressive partnership with Chris Smith. Now Robbo has joined Campbell on the sidelines, Tiffoney's latest mis-demeanour is less than welcome with the squad so stretched and he may find he's replaced by a new face for a second consecutive season.
To end on a negative would be a disservice, however, to the efforts of Brian Reid's players. Beyond the unbeaten run - seven games if we're only counting 'normal time' - there have been notable improvements to the side, and aspects of United's game, which should stand them in good stead for the run in. If we can somehow have more luck with injuries, Ayr have every chance of staying in this division. That, more than any cup run, would be a massive achievement.