Partick Thistle are in the box seat for a return to the cinch Premiership following their 2-0 play-off final first leg win over 10-man Ross County at Firhill.
Jags winger Aidan Fitzpatrick opened the scoring in the ninth minute with a terrific strike before 16-year-old Staggies defender Dylan Smith was sent off by referee David Munro eight minutes later for denying an obvious goalscoring opportunity, after the official upgraded a yellow card to red following the intervention of the VAR Andrew Dallas.
In front of 7,291 fans, Thistle’s 35-year-old striker Brian Graham volleyed in a second for the Championship outfit just before the break to take his season tally to 21 and the home side could and should have scored more against a team a man down for most of the game.
However, Kris Doolan’s inventive side – now unbeaten in 11 games – will travel to Dingwall for the second leg on Sunday, buoyed with confidence while Malky Mackay’s men must dig deep if they are to retain their top-flight status.
Thistle, the first club to reach a Premiership play-off final after finishing fourth in the second tier, exploded into the game.
Winger Steve Lawless’s drive after skipping past Smith was saved by Staggies keeper Ross Laidlaw for a corner which he held.
However, the home side were soon ahead.
Fitzpatrick took a crossfield pass from Lawless, nipped in between Victor Loturi and Owura Edwards and from 16 yards curled the ball past Laidlaw into the far corner of the net before taking the acclaim of the fans.
More drama followed.
Smith was initially booked by Munro for fouling Fitzpatrick on the edge of the box as he attempted to race through on goal.
However, after going off to check the pitch side monitor – VAR was in operation for the first time at Firhill – the referee returned to flash a red and the visitors were down to 10 men, with defender Keith Watson immediately coming on for striker Alex Samuel before skipper Ross Docherty lifted the free-kick well over the bar.
In the 34th minute Graham connected with a Kyle Turner corner but Laidlaw was down smartly to save.
County edged forward as often as they could but they appeared susceptible to losing a second, with Graham thundering a drive over from the edge of the box.
The former Ross County and Dundee United forward was much more accurate from another Turner corner, volleying in from 12 yards to send the Glasgow side into the break on a high.
Ben Purrington replaced George Harmon, who had been booked, for the start of the second half as the Dingwall side looked to keep themselves in the tie but within minutes Thistle’s Kevin Holt had volleyed over the Staggies crossbar from eight yards.
Thistle then swarmed all over the visitors and should have added to their lead.
Graham had a goal-bound drive blocked for a corner by centre-back Jack Randall before Scott Tiffoney also saw his effort from inside the box hit County defender Connor Randall and then Laidlaw somehow kept out a close-range header from Graham.
County hinted at a threat occasionally and in the 64th minute Jags defender Aaron Muirhead brilliantly blocked a shot from Staggies forward Jordan White.
The Dingwall side pushed for a lifeline which never arrived, the home side finishing in control with substitute Danny Mullen cracking the bar with a powerful drive and they will surely travel to Dingwall on Sunday more in belief than hope.