ROSS DRAPER knows a Highland derby victory today would guarantee Ross County top spot in the Championship heading into the New Year.

He also knows it would deal his former club Caley Thistle a savage blow in the title race. The midfielder, who crossed the Kessock Bridge in August last year, wishes his past employers no ill, but the 30-year-old is well aware that three home points would leave John Robertson’s men languishing 13 behind top dogs County.

The potential swing in the title race is huge given that a Caley Thistle triumph would take them back to seven adrift, with a game in hand against Ayr United.

It is by no means the first time a Highland derby has held such high stakes, but today’s clash at the Global Energy Stadium ranks as one of the most important in recent times.

Draper said: “We’re pleased to be top – that’s been the aim all season – but we need to keep it going and keep churning out wins. We’ve done especially well to stay up there given the injuries that have gone against us this season.

“We’re hopefully getting a few players back now, who can give us that little bit of a boost to kick on – and there’s no better game over Christmas than the derby.

“We know, if we can win, we will top the league going into 2019 and that’s the incentive – to be the team getting chased down by everyone else.

“Ayr have a game in hand after their game against Caley Thistle was postponed but, irrespective of league positions now, we know it is going to go down to the wire.

“We know the teams that will be in and around it come the final weeks and we’re hoping we’ll be one of them, but we try not to look too far ahead.

“The derby is an extra special game but we need to remember it is only three points in the season. The aim is to remain top and let everyone else try to catch us.

“Too many draws have killed Caley Thistle throughout the season, but they’ve shown good mentality in terms of not being beaten.

“Some draws have been good – the two against us and the draw against Ayr – but they’ve obviously slipped up against lesser teams at home. They’ll be disappointed in that but they’re still in and around it. It can turn around so quickly in this league.

“Their aim will be to catch the pack at the top, but it is all about us from our perspective and it is a good opportunity for us to build a significant gap. Every week is so important. We need to keep the momentum going because we are in decent form.”

The Highland rivals produced an entertaining 0-0 stalemate in the first Dingwall fixture followed by a thrilling 2-2 draw in Inverness.

Draper, though, insists leaders County haven’t done themselves justice in the derbies so far – or in the league as a whole.

The 6ft 5in enforcer said: “I think Caley Thistle have upped their game against us, especially in the first game through here in Dingwall. hey got the ball down and played good football, while we played slightly better through at their place, but we haven’t done ourselves justice. We’re at home and will be trying to impose our game on them and take advantage of being at home.

“These are always tough games, usually settled by the odd goal. It will be tight and a really good atmosphere. They’ve always been brilliant games since I’ve been up here. They are big games at scale that we’re at, in terms of location and fan-base.

“Obviously, you can’t compare it to the Old Firm or Hibs v Hearts in scale, but for our population up here they are big games. Everyone enjoys them, players as much as fans.

“We haven’t done ourselves credit in terms of the two games so far, so let’s try to put that right. Even in terms of the whole season so far, I don’t think we’ve played particularly well. We’re still trying to get going and we still have a lot more to give.

“Hopefully when we get a few of the injured back and the boys are flying, performances can kick on and we can have a really good run in the New Year.

“But it is huge credit to the boys that while we’ve not played particularly well in terms of performances, we’re still up there and grinding out results.

“That’s always a good sign for a team looking to win the league.”