Ross County will always hold a special place in Brian Graham’s heart. But the big centre-forward will be aiming to consign the Staggies to the cinch Championship when his Partick Thistle side cross the white lines at the Global Energy Stadium this afternoon.

Kris Doolan’s side go into the second leg of the Premiership play-off final with a healthy two-goal lead to defend but if recent history tells us anything, the Jags will be playing on the front-foot in Dingwall. In their five play-off fixtures thus far, Thistle have racked up 18 goals and their manager is a firm believer in the notion that attack is the best form of defence.

Graham made the journey down from the Highlands in January 2020 to sign for Ian McCall’s Thistle, and it is a move that has worked out well for both the club and the player. The 35-year-old has bagged 52 goals in red-and-yellow in that time – 21 of which have arrived this season – and although the striker fondly recalls his time at County, he will be pushing sentiment to one side this afternoon as he seeks another crack at top-flight football.

“Of course I do,” he said. “That’s why we’re here and playing the way we’re playing. But I’m under no illusions.

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“I’ve been at Ross County, that’s a special club for me. I won many things. One of the best days of my career was winning the League Cup with them at Hampden. It’s unfortunate that this is against them and if we do it to put them down it will be a sore one. I’m not going to lie.

“There are some very special people at that club. Even wee Susan the kit woman, I still text her. When I was up there she was like my wee woman. She texted me on Thursday night to say she still loves me even though I scored! She’s a very special lady and I can’t wait to go and give her a cuddle on Sunday.

“No [I’m not expecting a hostile reception] as I had a great relationship with [the fans]. And the only reason I left to come to Partick Thistle was because my family was down the road.

“I had a year left up there and took a massive pay cut to come here. It was a decision I made because of my young kids. That’s probably why I took the women’s job as I needed more money as I was skint! But I’ve got a great relationship with the fans up there.”

Graham has made no secret of the fact that he plans on entering coaching once he decides to hang up his boots, but that day remains some way off in the distance. Some might have thought he was edging closer to retirement when he became manager of the women’s side, but the man himself scoffs at that line of thinking.

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“Yeah, well people don’t know me then,” he said. “People can think what they want. I’ve still got plenty left in me. Twenty-one goals – I want a new deal! When’s the last time somebody scored 21 goals for Thistle?”

It is not just Graham who has been banging in the goals of late. With central midfielder Stuart Bannigan injured, Kyle Turner has found himself playing a little deeper, allowing Doolan to squeeze another attacker in the shape of Aiden Fitzpatrick into his starting line-up.

It is a decision that has paid off handsomely. The winger, a product of the Thistle Weir Youth Academy, has been at his electrifying best during the play-offs. The 22-year-old returned to the club this summer, having previously left for Norwich City in 2019, and Graham is convinced that his team-mate has another big move in him after his career stalled south of the border.

“We just have to keep playing the way we play,” Graham explained. “We count on Ross Docherty giving us that balance which gives the front four a real freedom to go and play. You saw that the other night, the link-up play with me and [Scott] Tiffoney was really good.

“I’ve got to give a special mention to Aiden Fitzpatrick. The young kid is phenomenal. He started the season extremely well and was taken out the team through no fault of his own when Tiff was playing in the wider areas.

“But now we’ve got Fitzy playing more regularly and he’s electric quick, can go left or right. I know he’s had a move to Norwich when he was younger but I think there’s another move in that kid. He’s top drawer.”

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Should Thistle get their promotion bid over the line this afternoon, Graham will be keeping his celebrations muted. The aspiring coach has been completing his A license in Edinburgh this week and will be back at it on Monday, but he is under no illusions as to what it would mean to him to get one final crack at top-flight football.

“It would be incredible,” he added. “I’ve been through the mire with this club and could have left but I’ve stuck by it. Maybe it’s written in the stars why I stuck with it.

“Hopefully come the end of the 90 minutes on Sunday that will be the reason why I did that. To come here three-and-a-bit years ago and score more than 50 goals, win a league and then with a chance to get into the Premiership – it’s the stuff of dreams at my age.”