There are plenty of 17-year-old lads who would prefer to spend their Sunday afternoons with a Playstation or an Xbox rather than running around the Highlands in the cold, wind and rain. Ryan Gauld spent much of this match clutching the cuffs of his long-sleeved undershirt, his hair plastered to his head by the drizzle. He looked as if he had been made to play as punishment for not doing his homework. And his performance? An absolute joy. There was not really any right to expect the sort of display he delivered for Dundee United in a win which was more convincing than the scoreline suggested.
Stuart Armstrong, Gary Mackay-Steven and Nadir Ciftci impressed as United rose to fifth in the SPFL Premiership table but it was Gauld who really lit up Dingwall. He is yet another small Scottish forward but if his stature is unremarkable his poise and intelligence mark him out as a talent with real potential. His footwork, passing and movement was a constant threat. He did as much as anybody to expose County's defence as an absolute mess.
"His touch, awareness and ability are frightening," Jackie McNamara, the United manager, said. "I see him every day in training and I know what he's capable of. I don't want to say too much too soon but he's streets ahead in terms of football knowledge, and the rest of his game is coming."
Gauld admitted to chastising himself for not taking some of the chances which came his way yesterday, but everyone else purred over his contribution. "I don't get nervous, I just try to enjoy it. That is the most important thing. If you enjoy it, then the chances are you'll play better. I just get on with things as they come and I don't get a big head. It is a really exciting team with young players and a lot of competition for places."
United clicked from the start. David Goodwillie was dropped and McNamara's attack was not remotely the worse for it. Ciftci was powerful and eager leading the line and what a runaround the County defence got from Mackay-Steven, Armstrong and Gauld just behind him. The two wide men were full of imagination while Armstrong released intelligent, dangerous passes between defenders. By the end, all four of United's four front men had scored in a compelling, entertaining game.
County were outraged by the opener. Mackay-Steven had raced through on Mark Brown at the edge of the box and nicked the ball away before clattering into the goalkeeper. Referee Brian Colvin saw that as a penalty, the only mercy shown to County being that he did not show Brown even a yellow card, let alone a red for denying a clear goalscoring opportunity. Mackay-Steven buried the penalty himself and within two minutes United had another goal when Gauld beat a man in the corner and passed to Ciftci, who crossed for Armstrong to send a looping header inside the far post.
County's sense of injustice deepened when they were denied a far clearer penalty than the United one. Sean Dillon brought down Kevin Luckassen, even landing on top of him, but Colvin was not interested. When Graham Carey hit a free-kick, it was deflected on to the far post and then Stuart Kettlewell struck exactly the same upright with a header. Those near things came either side of United's third, when Armstrong put Gauld through to roll a lovely shot across Brown and inside his far post.
United walked through County, opening them up to such an extent it was baffling that they added only one more goal in the second half. Adams was so unimpressed by his back four that he substituted three of them. Brown saved from Ciftci twice, then from Mackay-Steven. County were far too open and square, although when Gauld sprung them again Ciftci was offside when he took the ball before rounding Brown to score.
The game was done, although the closing stages were made a little uncomfortable for United by two County goals. Radoslaw Cierzniak had saved Orhan Musfafi's header but was soon beaten when Ivan Sproule's shot deflected wildly up and over his head. When Carey then whipped a cross into the goalmouth, Rocco Quinn stooped to bury a header for 2-4. County did not have enough about them to do any more damage.
Only three teams had a better defensive record than County last season but they've already conceded 13 in half-a-dozen league games this term. If United's finishing had matched the quality of their build-up play they would have had at least half-a-dozen. Adams found the whole thing painful, perhaps literally given that his voice seemed to have gone within 20 minutes. At the end he ducked out of his media obligations, which was poor although it probably spared him from lacerating either the match officials or his own players.