After a tough third season Ross County are expected to improve in Jim McIntyre’s first full season as Staggies boss. Joel Sked looks at their prospects ahead of their second match of the season.
Between the middle of February and the middle of April Ross County were the form team in Europe, picking up 25 points out of a possible 27. Come the penultimate match of the season, a 2-1 home victory over Hamilton Academical which provoked scenes of jubilation at the Global Energy Stadium you begun to wonder ‘have Ross County won the Premiership’? Don’t be daft! ‘Maybe Europe’? Nope. *looks further down the league table* Now it makes more sense, the Staggies confirmed their place in the Premiership with a game to spare, avoiding the dreaded relegation play-off which turned out to be not so dreaded.
They ended up in ninth place, a drop of two places from the previous season but they garnered four more points. It is testament to the job Jim McIntyre and Billy Dodds have done since they took over from Derek Adams in September. They were drafted in following five straight defeats and what they were met by was the football equivalent of the dirty girl’s apartment in Friends. You know the one Ross dates? Of course.
They had to pick through the remnants of a chaotic recruitment strategy. Adams took to the transfer market like you would have taken to Supermarket Sweep as a youngster. An unbalanced, populated and not very good squad of players had to be analysed with some players easier to dispense of than others.
It did not start well for the new management team. Not well at all. Only two league wins from 19 followed. In that period there were two draws with Inverness Caledonian Thistle as well as a surprise 0-0 with Celtic. The final match of that run was a 4-0 thumping by Aberdeen. While it may have been a nadir it also acted as a turning point. The next game saw a 3-2 win over relegation rivals Motherwell and the first fielding of what would prove to be the starting XI who would enjoy the most chemistry.
Six of the nine games in the unbeaten run were against bottom six rivals, meaning points were even more pertinent with a host of proverbial six pointers. From week to week there was no clue as to how Ross County would line up. McIntyre brought in a host of his own players which made Ross County resemble an overflowing bin, players placed carefully before it eventually tips over and makes a right old mess of the kitchen.
Yet, the Motherwell win acted as a catalyst for the rest of the season which would see the bin hold firm. Brown; Fraser, Boyd, Quinn, Reckord; De Vita, Irvine, Woods, De Vita; Boyce and Curran. Ross County finally had a settled and balance XI. Martin Woods and Jackson Irvine put in a power of work in the middle of midfield to allow the two wide men to push forward into a 4-2-2-2, helping supply the energetic duo of Liam Boyce and Craig Curran and score themselves. The front quartet were involved – either through scoring or assisting – in 24 of the 25 goals the Staggies scored from the Motherwell win through to the last game of the season, a 2-1 win at Kilmarnock.
Arguably the best performance came at St Mirren Park where they swept aside the Buddies 3-0 meaning they avoided automatic relegation. The win which saw the very best of County’s organisation and effectiveness may have brought complacency as they lost two and drew one of their next three games to drop back into danger of the relegation play-off. However the aforementioned win over Hamilton secured Premiership football for the fourth season running.
Rather than a bewildered shake of the head and shrug of the shoulders, Ross County’s summer recruitment has provoked more of a contemplative nod of the head. Key players from the second half of the season, Michael Gardyne, Jackson Irvine and Raffaele De Vita, have been tied to new contracts while other areas of need have been strengthened.
There has been a semblance of a balanced approach to this season’s transfer strategy rather than a slapdash Football Manager-esque raiding of the free agent market. From back to front they have either made improvements to the side or simply solidified what they already had. Scott Fox has been recruited from Partick Thistle with the hope that he becomes a more reliable custodian than either Mark Brown or Antonio Reguero who played a really interesting back and forth game last season of who could embarrass themselves the most. The only winner was us, the neutrals, who had a right good laugh.
Fox has been a distinctly average Premiership goalkeeper since his rise with Thistle. While capable of blinding performances resulting in a call-up for the Scotland national team, he also has a side to his game which is perfect for the end of season blooper reel. According to Wikipedia he is 6ft. Lecturers at university warned about trusting the website and I think this is what they had in mind. Overall he should improve the Staggies.
Up to and including the Aberdeen defeat mentioned previously Ross County’s defence was shi . . . haphazard. In the 28 games played they conceded on average 2.04 goals a game. In the remaining 14 games it dropped to a goal a game. Much of that can be put down to a settled side and settled back line of Reckord, Boyd, Quinn and Fraser. Three of the four remain following Quinn’s departure to Aberdeen. But McIntyre has made what could prove to be one of the signings of the season in Andrew Davies. An accomplished lower league defender in England and if it wasn’t for injuries he would likely have been a Championship defensive stalwart at least. He should be a more than able replacement for Quinn.
Jackson Irvine struck up an energetic partnership with Woods in the latter stages of the season but he will have more of a football player beside him this season in Ian McShane, signed from Queen of the South. A technical midfielder and fine passer of the ball, he is ready for the step up following a fine season for the Doonhamers. The only issue is how he will fit in McIntyre’s 4-4-2. Not as ‘leggy’ as Woods, he relies more on his game intelligence and passing ability than covering ground, which could see him stretched in a midfield four. However his efficient passing should see the wide men get plenty of the ball to put into the box.
In attack Brian Graham has been brought in to complement the diminutive duo of Boyce and Curran. A laboured, slow and inelegant striker, Graham is a difficult striker to warm to. But he is a number 9 and will chip in with his share of goals especially through the De Vita and Gardyne supply line. His signing gives McIntyre greater variety in attack.
In football there is the tendency to write off a manager after a dismissal or if he left the club following a downturn in results. We often fail to take into account what the manager has learnt from any setback and that there is a chance for him to improve and shape his ideas. No manager is complete when entering their first job or second or third. Jim McIntyre did a sterling job at Dunfermline, leading them into the Premiership before departing with the side four points adrift at the bottom with the season entering its latter stages.
It would have been easy for McIntyre to fall onto the scrapheap following his departure but after a short stint with Derek McInnes at Bristol City he was back in the second tier of Scottish football with newly promoted Queen of the South. Despite early criticism from fans who had just witnessed their side storm the third tier with Allan Johnston, McIntyre turned it around, building an astute squad. They finished in the play-offs in his first season and with a fine squad built, were primed to be competitive in the Championship. They proved just that even before McIntyre moved north to Dingwall.
It was a brave move for McIntyre, leaving one of the best Queen of the South sides in recent years, one which would have been one of the favourites for promotion any previous year, to a side ready to battle against relegation. One which was chaotically put together. And 19 league games in it looked like McIntyre had made a disastrous decision with only the ineptitude of other teams preventing County from being cut-off at the bottom.
While it perhaps took longer than it should have for McIntyre to decide on a settled side with many of his January signings not working out, he eventually got there. They played effective football which secured survival meaning he achieved what he set out to do when he walked through the door.
A key aspect of Ross County’s rise up the table in the latter part of last season was the collective effort. There were no stars, it was workmanlike performances with creativity and flair from the wide areas but most importantly efficiency. For that reason Ross County’s goal will likely come through the ingenuity of Michael Gardyne and De Vita.
Gardyne is one of those unusual players who appears to fit at one particular team even if, it could be argued, he is too good for that team. In his second spell with the Staggies he played in behind a lone front man and was excellent in County’s promotion season resulting in a move to Dundee United. That move did not work out and neither did his loan move to Kilmarnock. But he is comfortable in his Dingwall surroundings.
He has never been a player blessed with pace but he has a creative mind, able to pick up spaces behind the midfield line and play passes through even tighter gaps. He is a competent user of the ball on either foot which is key for being able to get the ball into the box for his strikers whether he goes down the line or cuts in. It is also important that when the ball is on the other side he complements his strikers by arriving in the box at the back post.
There would be no surprise if he finished as County’s assist king and even chipped in with more than seven goals.
Four reasons why Ross County can be this season’s surprise package . . .
1. Boyce & Curran – The duo must be an absolute nightmare to play against. Especially for defenders of the ilk of Stephen McManus. They are both squat and nippy and full of energy. They are very similar in the way they play but instead of getting in each other’s way they have built a partnership of understanding. One can run the channels and fend for scraps while the other keeps a more central presence. They can both run in behind as well as coming short and being involved in a the build-up. Neither will likely score more than 10 goals but they will both run themselves into the ground and create openings for others.
2. The signing of Andrew Davies – Normally on the show we are quite dismissive of the lower leagues in England. Similar to players coming from Irish football, players who have kicked about the English leagues, are greeted with suspicion. But Davies comes with a pedigree having played for 10 different English clubs, some of which were in the Premiership as well as receiving a cap for the England Under-21s. His career has been hampered with injuries but in the last four seasons he has played between 29 and 34 games each season, the best run in his career. Not only is he physical but he is mobile and won’t look out of place with the ball at his feet. The fact he has been awarded the captain’s armband demonstrates how highly McIntyre rates him.
3. A settled squad – Ross County go into the season in an unusual position of being able to fit everyone into the dressing room. There is a familiarity around the squad with players having been added methodically. There is an unknown quantity in some of the players signed but the majority of the squad know what to expect in the division and they showed last season, in the latter stages, that they are capable of challenging for a possible top six finish and even putting together a cup run.
4. Their terrifying support who resemble menacing stags.
A comfortable finish with few worries about relegation but just not enough to break into the top six.