To predict how Ross County will fare this season is not the easiest of tasks. The squad, which to all expectations bar perhaps only their own, finished fifth. A remarkable run of form after the winter break saw the team climb from battling it out with St Mirren to a position of no little comfort in the top half. That squad has had something of a make-over. Out have gone classy defenders Vaggelis Oikonomou and Andre Hainault, midfield fulcrum Paul Lawson, battering ram Steffen Wohfart, and top scorer Iain Vigurs.
Each and every one of those players is a fine SPFL level player – and no doubt Derek Adams would have chosen to keep them all.
But this was not to be, and into the free agent pool once again waded Derek Adams, a man who retains not only the faith of his players and one hundred percent support from the fans, but also the unerring trust of his director of football (George Adams) and chairman (Roy McGregor). This may seem a non sequitur, but many a manager has departed clubs – including County in the past – citing a lack of backing from the board. Derek Adams was given, along with his trusted scouting network (no longer simply a bloke sitting at home with a can of Fanta and watching YouTube clips) a free hand. And it was to the Netherlands he turned.
In came Melvin De Leeuw, Kevin Luckassen, Marc Antony Klok and Darren Maatsen. De Leeuw, whom I am told is regarded by the club as something of a coup, is a left midfielder/forward. Luckassen is a burly centre forward, Klok a holding midfielder (signed to keep things ticking over, I presume) and Maatsen a raw and extremely quick wide player. That all of these players are under 25, and two of them only 20, perhaps hints that Adams is taking something of a gamble. That they have all signed multi-year contracts suggests Adams believes the opposite.
In addition to the Dutch contingent – County can safely bring out an orange away kit without fear of sectarian reprisals – three well-known defenders came in; from Motherwell came 22-year-old, one-time Scotland cap Steven Saunders, and from Dundee United came Northern Ireland international Brian McLean, and Ben Gordon, formerly of Chelsea. Just when the list seemed to be complete, Graham Carey – scorer of the SPL goal of the season last term – and Orhan Mustafi, a Swiss striker, both joined the Dingwall ranks. And, perhaps best of all, Richard Brittain was retained after an unseemly summer negotiation with St Johnstone.
In short, nine players in, nine players out.
How County line up will be anyone’s guess, but it looks like the 4-1-4-1 of previous seasons may well be emulated.
Brown will be the keeper. The back four seems to pick itself, with Kovacevic and Gordon either side of Munro and Boyd. Richard Brittain will move back to his favoured central midfield role, in essence replacing Lawson. Quinn and Kettlewell will make up the central pairing, and Maatsen will push Sproule for the wide right berth. Fitting Carey, nominally a wide midfielder, and De Leeuw into the same side will be interesting, and Mustafi and Luckassen will rotate up front.
As always, injuries, suspensions and off-the-field issues will sort these things out eventually, but there is certainly a greater strength-in-depth to the County squad this season compared with last.
The rest of the league is, as is often the case, a pick ‘n’ mix of unknown quantities. Dundee were doomed to relegation; Partick should make a far better fist of top flight football, but then again they could struggle. Hearts could struggle; but their squad does have elements of outstanding quality. Again though any number of injuries or suspensions could decimate their squad. St Mirren often look a fine side, but then follow-up great performances with abject displays. Aberdeen… well, you get the point.
Too many County fans compare the team’s performance with that of Inverness. Inverness are a firmly established top flight side. They have achieved nothing that County cannot, over time, replicate. But, at the same time, County still are newcomers to the SPFL. The team must place itself into a position where they are regarded as a rightful member of the elite league, rather than a temporary guest. To do that, a succession of successful seasons must be put together, free from even the faintest threat of relegation. If Ross County’s youthful side can do that in the forthcoming season, they will be well on the way to long-term success.
One last word of warning for the County faithful. County’s summer has largely consisted of signing young continental players with much to prove and much to gain. If they perform as well as they ought to, they will be sold next summer, and the whole process will begin anew. This will not be a sign of a club lacking ambition, merely evidence of wise financial prudence.