ST JOHNSTONE were left to take their lumps last night.

But then they did throw a punch of their own in the defeat by Ross County. The Highland side were leading when the ball was floated into their penalty area in stoppage time and St Johnstone substitute Chris Iwelumo used a fist to force it back across goal for Steven Anderson to head into the net.

The defender turned to welcome the acclaim for scoring the equaliser following an earlier goal from Melvin De Leeuw. Anderson was met instead by the sight of referee Bobby Madden pointing to an arm. "I haven't seen it again, but I'm told it was a handball," said Derek Adams. "It was a foul and we deserved to win."

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The County manager had earlier spent the evening prowling his technical area, having been given only a suspended two-match touchline suspension for his part in the ructions that occurred during a win over St Mirren last month. His barney with Danny Lennon would feature only on the undercard of County's season, though, since the Highland side are fighting to stay clear of the relegation play-off place in the SPFL Premiership.

The latest round of that scrap was held at McDiarmid Park yesterday, with a 5.30pm kick-off and live coverage on the television making the match appear prime time. It was a perception which cooled quickly in the chilly Perthshire air as neither side appeared sure of themselves. Nigel Hasselbaink - a St Johntone forward who performs the roles of dynamo and dumpling simultaneously - flicked a header over the crossbar, while Filip Kiss's looping shot bounced wide for County.

The on-loan Cardiff City midfielder was recruited in January and has at times been an intelligent, assured presence in a team which had been struggling to make weight in the top flight. A discomfiting first half of the campaign had left them weakened and compelled to see out the season in the lower half of the league table.

Adams would at least add greater muscle to his squad during the January transfer window and it was the sturdy full-back Evangelos Oikonomou who helped put County ahead last night. The Greek poked a low cross into the feet of De Leeuw and his neat touch opened up enough space in the penalty area to thread a low shot into the far corner of the net.

It would sew up a valuable three league points, although County retained the look of a team preoccupied with the prospect of an unseemly play-off. A bouncing shot from Jordan Slew and another from Kiss would hold off St Johnstone, just not convincingly.

County were perhaps fortunate that they had squared up to such a passive sparring partner. St Johnstone had quelled a rambunctious Dundee United team and reached the semi-finals of the Scottish Cup during the past eight days only to appear inhibited last night.

Their best chance came after 61 minutes when Stevie May's overhead kick was saved by County goalkeeper Mark Brown. The St Johnstone striker was unable to impose himself further and stood out more due to his recently cropped hairdo. He would seem to suffer the same problem as Samson did when he asked for a short back and sides.

Substitute Iwelumo would also look to find a short cut to an equalising goal when he used his hand to set up Anderson but his effort was ruled out. "There is no doubt the ball does touch his hand, but I don't think it was deliberate. I think the goal should have stood," said St Johnstone manager Tommy Wright.