The perception of a nice, wee region of Scottish football has become blurred this season, with both Inverness Caledonian Thistle and Ross County able to refocus instead on the prospect of chasing a Europa League place after the split. It will take time for their eyes to adjust since the clubs had been quite content to gaze upon a Clydesdale Bank Premier League table in which both were merely listed, but it is a shared opportunity which has been hard to take away from them. Indeed, County cuffed second-place Motherwell on a 10-match unbeaten run while Inverness have steadied in third.
References to one side have always followed from talk of the other – they have been tough to separate in the league, too, with just a point between them – and their meeting on Saturday resembled a traditional Highland Games in its capacity to attract national interest only without the quaint sense of competition. The prize for a top-three place extends far beyond local pride.
A goalless derby perhaps felt like regression, then – the only real entertainment was a spat between Terry Butcher and Derek Adams – but one which will be drowned out if both clubs continue to make noises about getting into the Europa League. Saturday had also been teed up as a shot for one of them to bolster individual ambition, although neither will have been too keen to do so at the expense of their neighbours; Butcher later remarking: "Here are your headlines: Two Great Points For The Highlands".
Those were accounted for in the league table but they had been made on the pitch, too. Inverness have taken pride in their appetite for goals this season – the Highland side have scored in all but three of their 29 league games so far – but Saturday brought out a grim resolve, something which has allowed the side to continue to smile towards a place in the Europa League next term. "It's within our grasp now," said Gary Warren, the Inverness defender.
Adams continues to look lower at County – "We are two wins from finishing top-six" – and there is a temptation to treat their season with more restraint. Yet that will become harder the more the landscape at his club changes.