THEY hadn’t won a Highland derby since raining on Ross County’s League Cup final trophy parade back in March 2016.
Last night Caley Thistle went within a few stoppage-time minutes of rediscovering the thrill of local superiority.
Seven local clashes without a win had passed since then but last night a Brad Mckay strike seemed to have the 2015 Hampden Park victors heading into the quarter-finals.
Then up stepped Josh Mullin, with the coolest of finishes, to snatch it away and force a replay, with a trip to Tannadice in wait for the winners a week today.
A ferociously contested match saw Aaron Doran fire the visitors, backed by a 600-strong support ahead. Ross Stewart levelled from the bench, but Mckay seemed to emerge as the unlikely hero midway through the second period.
Mullin though raced onto a long Billy Mckay ball right at the death to force an Inverness re-match a week today.
A deflated John Robertson cursed late slackness as a recurrent characteristic, but still believes his team have a golden opportunity to claim a semi-final place with fellow Championship side Dundee United awaiting as hosts in the last eight.
“That sums our season up, it has been like that for us,” Robertson said. “It was terrific match. We switched off and were punished for it. County have made a habit of coming back in games, turning them into wins and we have been going in front and drawing matches.
“That was the difference again.”
This was the 59th Highland derby in almost 25 years of the north rivalry, but it was only the second time the teams had been drawn together in the Scottish Cup.
The first in December 2012 had brought a dramatic 3-3 draw in Dingwall, before Caley Thistle won the home replay 2-1.
Even the deadening effect on the attendance of a Monday night live television billing couldn’t dull the buzz of anticipation among those who did turn out, with the prize of a last eight place up for grabs.
County, with co-manager Stuart Kettlewell serving the first of a three-match touchline ban, made first inroads with Billy Mckay controlling and cracking an 18-yard shot just over.
For all the early home pressure, it was Caley Thistle who surged ahead after 13 minutes. After a Ross Draper handball near the County box, Joe Chalmers’ free-kick was cleared.
But when Carl Tremarco nodded inside from the left, Aaron Doran controlled and struck with venom on the turn from 20 yards, beating keeper Scott Fox at his near post.
More attacking forays from Gardyne were resisted by Caley Thistle, but it took a terrific Mark Ridgers save to thwart the energetic wide man on the half hour.
Soon after, a piercing Doran pass sent Tom Walsh in again, but Fox raced out to block at his feet.
Just five minutes into the second period, Tremarco’s thunderous 25-yard drive found Fox blocking with his legs.
County made a 54th minute switch with striker Graham removed for ex-St Mirren frontman Ross Stewart.
Stewart’s impact was swift and stunning. Within a minute, a third wave of County attacks ended with a terrific Gardyne cross from the left finding Stewart arriving to strike home a low-smashed volley.
County looked ready to go for the kill but 10 minutes later Caley Thistle regained the lead from a Liam Polworth corner.
The midfielder’s delivery soared all the way over a packed six-yard to the feet of un-marked defender Brad Mckay who managed to control and finish from four yards out.
A mix-up between Marcus Fraser and Jamie Lindsay allowed Walsh to race free with 11 minutes left but Fox’s fingertips spared County a greater deficit.
Declan McManus was denied brilliantly by Ridgers, but then Mullin’s moment came.
County co-manager Steven Ferguson praised his team’s never-say-die spirit.
“It’s a trait we’re really pleased we have in abundance. They never know when they’re beat,” Ferguson said.