There is an argument – a fundamentally flawed argument, but an argument nonetheless – that Ross County’s faintly ludicrous fifth place finish last season was the worst possible outcome for the club.
If we had been relegated last term, we would have been able to clear out the squad, convalesce at what may be regarded as our natural level, and start sorting out the books. If we had finished tenth or even eleventh, we would have been prepared for an even harder battle this year, given that the rest of the league no longer has the built-in security of competing with a team managed by savage atavist John Brown. Finishing seventh or eight would have allowed the team to quietly go about the 2013/14 season, slipping under the radar and mixing the odd surprise in with a bunch of draws and the odd tanking. But finishing comfortably in the top half, at one stage being legitimate European competition candidates, and looking vastly superior to most of the division… well, that has caused an element of discomfort. In reality, Ross County’s second season in the top flight was
always going to be that little bit harder, and not merely because of the absence of an incompetent Dundee side.
The sophomore slump is a trait in American sports, for standout players in their debut (rookie) season (American sport does not care much for promotion and relegation) in the big leagues to struggle in their second. Many a study has been made of Rookie of the Year winner in the three major US sports, cross referenced with their performance in the follow-up season. The general consensus? That a player who over-performs one year, will have a below average one the next.
Eventually, the player finds their level, and performs, consistently, at that level. In other words, players who have breakout seasons inevitably regress to the mean. The mathematical extension carries over, as it were, to teams.
Motherwell, season 1994/5 is a perfect example. They finished second that year. Behind Rangers and two places above Celtic. They had a goal differential of +/-0 despite attaining 54 points, which perhaps hints, in retrospect at a little good fortune, but it didn’t seem like it at the time. Motherwell, season 95/96? Eighth position and a season-long battle against the drop. 39 points and a =/- goals differential of -11.
Birmingham City’s 2010/11 season is another case of the sophomore slump. The previous year, their first in the top flight having gained promotion in 2009, they finished the year in a remarkable ninth position. Given the money flying even around at that point, this was no mean achievement. They followed it up with… abject failure and relegation. They have since bounced around the upper echelons of the Championship without really ever looking like reaching those dizzy heights again.
And so on, and so forth. It is easy enough to look at these examples, and the cases of second year quarterbacks in the NFL in isolation (waves to Robert Griffin III). Yet it has been disputed within sports. Certainly it doesn’t take into account intangibles like confidence, momentum, injuries and, heaven for-fend, flat-out luck. Nor does it take into account squad changes. But it happens across the board often enough to be observable. The sophomore slump is widely acknowledged to be a thing, a theory, and something worth contemplating. Sports fans react with venom and hyperbole. Social science and mathematics reacts with a shake of the head and a not to inevitability. Ross County were never going to finish in the top six again, not this year at any rate.
Fans need to calm down a little and read their Game Theory texts. We’ll be just fine folks; in the skilled hands of Derek Adams, and with genuine class in the form of Richard Brittain, Mihael Kovaçeviç and Melvin De Leeuw, and the best to come yet from now-fit Marc Klok and Darren Maatsen, this team will bounce back to the mean. Right where everyone intended.
Put the knives away, and back the team. We’re not going to get relegated, but the players need support, not to be written off as duds and wastrels after four months. Fighting against the dying of the light is all very poetical, but in the end, you can’t defeat the power of mathematics. Or Scott Boyd.