Partick Thistle moved one step closer to the cinch Premiership courtesy of a 2-0 win over Ross County that leaves Malky Mackay’s men perilously circling the top-flight’s drain.

In front of a lively crowd of 7291 fans – around 300 of whom had made the long journey down from Dingwall – the second-tier side made the most of an early dismissal for County to take a significant advantage up north ahead of Sunday’s second leg.

Kris Doolan named an unchanged line-up from last week’s 5-0 trouncing of Ayr United at Somerset Park, with long-serving midfielder Stuart Bannigan having to settle for a spot on the bench after his recent injury lay-off. Kyle Turner sat a little deeper than usual to accommodate Scott Tiffoney playing off of centre-forward Brian Graham as Doolan opted for the gung-ho attacking strategy that has so far borne so much fruit during the play-offs.

It was a cagey opening few minutes a Firhill – understandable, given the gravity of what was at stake – but it wasn’t long before the opening chance arrived for the Jags. Stevie Lawless, out on the right flank, danced his way past George Harmon as the winger cut in from out wide and drove along the edge of the box, rifling a low shot at goal that Ross Laidlaw palmed behind for a corner.

There were barely 10 minutes on the clock when the hosts took the lead. Lawless’ cross-field ball was delicately plucked out of the air by Aidan Fitzpatrick on the left; with a magnificent piece of skill, the attacker slalomed past two men before curling the ball beyond Laidlaw’s despairing reach to give his side a priceless advantage.

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Barely five minutes later and Firhill had its first taste of VAR. Fitzpatrick looked to have burst beyond the Ayr backline before being cynically brought down by Dylan Smith. Referee David Munro initially awarded a yellow card but after being called over to the pitchside monitor and giving it a second look, the booking was upgraded to a straight red to the delight of the sizeable home contingent in the stands.

The Jags could smell blood now as they attempted to press home their numerical advantage, attacking with a renewed sense of gusto. A lovely reverse ball from Lawless sent Jack McMillan barreling through on goal and the full-back drilled a low cross-cum-shot across the face of goal, but County managed to hastily clear it away before it found Graham lurking ominously at the back post.

The visitors were trying to craft opportunities of their own but regularly found themselves repelled by Thistle’s central defensive partnership of Aaron Muirhead and Darren Brownlie. County were getting some joy out wide and finding the occasional pocket of space, but their deliveries into the box were greedily hoovered up by the Jags defence.

The Herald:

Thistle were piling on the pressure with the half-time fast approaching. That reverse ball from Lawless into McMillan was proving difficult to deal with, and Graham really should have done better after being slipped through on goal by Ross Docherty but the big striker’s effort at goal was blocked. The County defence were holding firm, but the same question crossed everyone’s mind: could they keep it up?

Graham would provide the answer in resounding fashion a few minutes before the interval. The home side won a corner and took it short, and Kyle Turner whipped his delivery into a dangerous area where Graham was waiting to volley the ball home with aplomb.

If County were hoping that the Jags would simply hold their two-goal advantage ahead of Sunday’s second leg up in Dingwall upon the restart, they were left sorely disappointed. Within a minute or two, Doolan’s men were threatening a third – and probably should have had it – when Kevin Holt blasted over from close range.

The away side came close to reducing the arrears shortly before the hour mark. Some good work down the right from Owura Edwards resulted in a tempting ball being played across the face of goal; Jordan White got there first, but his effort was smothered by David Mitchell in goal for the hosts and put behind for a corner.

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Thistle were knocking on the door for a third goal that would give them a healthy cushion ahead of Sunday’s reverse fixture in the Highlands. A Graham header was flashed over the bar, a pot-shot from distance from Tiffoney failed to trouble Laidlaw and Graham lashed over as the men from Maryhill laid siege to the County goal to no avail.

Malky Mackay’s team were desperate for something to cling to and White almost pulled one back with 20 minutes to go as the centre-forward snaffled up a loose ball in the box, only to be denied from close range by the outstretched leg of Muirhead.

The visitors enjoyed a decent spell towards the end of the match, asking some awkward questions of the Thistle defence, but they couldn’t find the goal that would have changed the whole complexion of the tie.

County have it all to do in Dingwall – and are more than capable of overturning a two-goal deficit – but it is Thistle who will head to the Highlands confident of seeing the job through and becoming the first fourth-placed Championship team to make it all the way through the play-offs to the promised land of the Premiership.