Nearly a month since Dundee United last set foot on home soil the Tangerines emerged from the Tannadice tunnel on Saturday rightly in confident mood.
On the road, United had built up momentum that climaxed in a 3-0 Scottish Cup quarter-final hiding of Aberdeen at Pittodrie the previous Sunday.
As to where the Terrors that had so convincingly dispatched of the Dons had gone as they went down 2-0 to struggling Ross County was anyone’s guess.
Somewhere on the A90 between Stonehaven and Strathmartine, I suspect.
A post-match inquisition was conducted by Micky Mellon and his squad, with the assembled press pack, too, seeking an answer for what was a stark contrast in performance.
Hughes has the insight as United head for Hampden
Out of the confusion came clarity from an unlikely source – County boss John Hughes.
His answer for what happened to the team that had travelled so well from the Granite City to Forfar and to Hamilton in recent weeks was most compelling.
The Staggies gaffer was in attendance at Aberdeen to watch United annihilate their New Firm foe as he prepared his relegation-threatened side for calling in to the City of Discovery.
In the end, they got the three points they so desperately needed to alleviate drop concerns thanks to quick-fire first-half strikes from Jordan White and Alex Iacovitti.
However, it was careful planning from “Yogi” that got the Highlanders to their final destination as the Dingwall men executed his strategy to perfection.
“I felt we thoroughly deserved the victory and they did everything I asked of them,” Hughes explained.
“They kept a clean sheet, I don’t think Dundee United had a shot at goal, so we were solid.
“It helped that we got our goals; in the second half we didn’t have to go chasing it.
“It was about keeping a solid shape, seeing the game out and being professional. We’ve got good senior pros on the pitch that can do that.
“I felt the distances were very good and we were good in the wide areas through Michael Gardyne and Blair Spittal.
“It caused them problems and Jordan played a real centre-forward’s role.
“It’s all positives and I’m absolutely delighted for them, I really am, to give me that performance with what’s at stake.
“There’s been times where you’ve seen the trepidation in our play but I think goals help it. It puts you in a better place.
“We were up against a strong Dundee United team, I saw them last week and they were very, very good.
“We nullified them and done a number on them.”
Right side a useful outlet for Staggies as Mellon admits to conscious worries over distraction creeping in
In short, Ross County got it right.
And they did so by, well, getting it right.
Down that flank, either through the aforementioned Spittal or marauding full-back Jason Naismith, the Staggies just kept coming at United.
Courage, Hughes called it.
The Staggies certainly didn’t let their manager down on that front – they had bravery in bucket loads, knowing they needed to win with Hamilton and Kilmarnock still circling around them in the relegation mix.
Where there was fearlessness for County; there was a faraway feel about Mellon’s men.
One eye on the prize for their dismantling of the Dandies, Saturday’s Hampden semi-final against Hibs? The Tangerines boss wasn’t prepared to go that far.
However, what he does accept is they were conscious of falling foul of a wandering eye.
“I don’t know – that’s a difficult question to answer,” Mellon said.
“It’d be easy for me to stand here and say it was a distraction because of the result.
“We spoke all week leading up to Ross County about fighting hard to not allow any excuses to come our way and say: ‘That was a distraction’.
“We want to be a team that can put two performances together and be able to adjust and adapt to what the game’s saying to us.
“We weren’t able to do that.”
United had no answer for County conundrum
In truth, Ross County were a helluva lot better than Aberdeen were and United let their levels drop.
Distraction or not, when asked for his assessment of the contest, Mellon suggested his bemusement was as real as the few watching on, socially-distanced, inside Tannadice.
“Just above your masks the eyebrows came up and I think that sums up how I feel,” he remarked to quizzical reporters.
“If I’m breaking it down and not making any excuse, we gave away two poor, cheap goals and then found it difficult to respond to that.
“We lost the bits of quality that are needed – the passes forward, the decision-making, retaining the ball and imagination.
“We needed to find a way to open up a team that were, quite rightly, sitting in a tight pack fighting for a massive three points for them.
“We didn’t have the answers on Saturday and, when we did get into good areas, didn’t show the quality needed to get a goal that would’ve got us back in the game.
“We’re disappointed with the goals we gave away – it was difficult to understand.”
He continued: “I think when we gave the first goal away it looked like it took the wind out of our sails a wee bit, we went again and then gave another one away.
“You saw the game change in what the asks were against a team doing what I’d do myself at 2-0 up.
“They were stubborn, slowed the pace right down and I’m not complaining about that.
“We just couldn’t find the answers.
“It was a frustrating afternoon and we had a chat about it after the game but we go again this week.”
For all it was a display that merited the introspection and reflection it received, the prize of Scottish Cup glory remains well within reach for the Terrors.
And, whether he likes it or not, Mellon will accept that, with little left to play for but pride in the league, the Hibs Hampden humdinger that lies ahead is all that really matters now in a season close to its terminus.