AUSTIN SAMUELS was the Highland hero all over again as Caley Thistle booked a Premiership play-off semi-final against Arbroath.

Billy Dodds’ side secured the 3-1 aggregate win to leave Partick Thistle contemplating another season in the Championship after a tense, hard-fought 90 minutes in Inverness.

After eight wins from their last 10 games, momentum is with Caley Jags, now in their fifth season outside the top-flight and second play-offs tilt.
The visitors had their moments and Brian Graham struck the crossbar soon after the opener.

Partick would surely have noted how Rangers turned around a single-goal first leg deficit the night before to secure a Europa League final, albeit in front of their own faithful.

Certainly, the tie was live, with all to play for, at 2-1 in the Highlanders’ favour.

Caley Jags’ 20-minute transformation at Firhill had put one leg in the play-off semi-finals, but there was a keen awareness that the job was incomplete.

The young fans in the singing section opposite the main stand served a pre-kick off reminder of just how high the stakes were, unfurling a banner reading: ‘Take your place in history’.

That was a reference to the fact no team had ever made it from the 3rd against 4th showdown to the top-flight since the play-offs were introduced in season 2013/14.

Momentum was with the home side after seven wins from nine, while Partick had just two wins in 10 - and only seven goals in that spell.

For the hosts, Austin Samuels, matchwinner in the first leg, came in for injured Tom Walsh, lively from the off.

Partick made two changes from the defeat as Richard Foster and Cammy Smith stepped in for Alex Jakubiak and Ciaran McKenna.

The first threat came after five minutes with Richard Foster’s slack ball forward striking Dundee United loanee Logan Chalmers. Chalmers raced forward but scooped his attempt way over the bar.

Partick always looked dangerous when playing balls into the home box and Scott Tiffoney’s delivery forward after 10 minutes ended with Robbie Crawford volleying over the bar.

Slackness from Kirk Broadfoot also gave Brian Graham a sniff of a chance at the edge of the 18-yard line, but the big striker shot high and wide. There was a tension crackling in the evening air, but the first piece of calm, measured play produced a fine opener.

A loose pass from Partick’s Kevin Holt sparked danger, and the two men who combined for Caley Jags’ Firhill winner did the rest. Shane Sutherland punished the slackness, threading a through pass perfectly into the path of pacy Samuels. About 10 yards out, the ex-Wolves and Aberdeen man smashed his angled shot hard and high, beating keeper Jamie Sneddon in the middle of his net where the keeper seemed to have shaped for a low drive.

Partick’s luck was out four minutes later. Steven Hendrie’s corner created havoc in the home penalty area and, after a couple of rapid-fire blocks, Graham’s snapshot rattled against the crossbar and away to safety.

Graham hadn’t netted in 12 games since striking a hat-trick at this very ground in early February’s 3-3 draw. He was foiled again out again six minutes from the break as he met Foster’s delivery from deep right with a glancing header which held not enough power to evade Mark Ridgers’ grasp.

For the hosts, on half-time, Billy Mckay glanced a front post header beyond the far post from Robbie Deas’  measured cross. After a double half-time substitution, Partick exerted strong pressure and a last-ditch Sean Welsh tackle saved the home side as Jakubiak threatened close in.

But Caley Thistle went agonisingly close to a second from Reece McAlear’s 55th minute corner, with Broadfoot’s powerful header brilliantly palmed wide by keeper Sneddon. It became even tenser, more heated and scrappy as the second half progressed, Partoick desperately trying to find a spark, Caley Thistle hellbent on dousing it.

A stunning save from Senddon denied Sutherland at the death. For Caley Thistle, it’s on to Arbroath.

“We're through and that's the main thing," said Inverness manager Billy Dodds. "We managed it and put bodies on the line. We had to defend properly and I felt our defenders were great.

"Thistle asked a lot of us and kept going at us, showing a lot of energy. I can't say they had outstanding chances, but they were a credit to Ian McCall.

"They never gave up and believed if they nicked one they would put us under pressure. I felt my experienced players managed it really well.
"I would have liked us to have at times passed the ball a bit better. I don't want to be downbeat because they were a credit to themselves.”

Opposite number Ian McCall felt his side were desperately unlucky.

McCall said: “I thought we were the better team for the vast majority of the game and missed some decent chances.

“Kevin Holt has been one of the best centre halves in the league, but tonight the goal we gave away came from his mistake.

“I was really proud of them. They gave everything with a lot of great play.

“One thing I'll say is I have a very clear picture of what is needed for next season.

“For the size of our club, we’ve got to finish top three and we only finished fourth this year.”