Written by Ramsay Banks
I’ve put a lot of thought into whether I should write this article. After all, the Staggies tasted the success of a major trophy only five years ago, which for a club of our stature is very respectable.
However looking at clubs like Livingston, and to a lesser extent St. Mirren, I think the question should be “why can’t we keep up?”. Here’s what I think Ross County are doing right, along with what I think is holding us back from pushing on.
This point I feel is both a positive and a negative, but let’s begin with the obvious positive- it’s always brilliant to take the scalp of a team higher up the food chain. This season we’ve beaten Hibs 2-0, Aberdeen 4-1 and most notably Celtic 2-0 in the League Cup. In these matches, we’ve defended with focus and attacked with purpose.
After taking the lead with our creativity, we made these three teams slowly run out of ideas throughout the match, and hit them on the counter. There’s a clear pattern with these games, which shows that we can hang with any side in the division. However, this is why 2020-2021 has been such a mind-numbingly frustrating season.
Despite beating some of the top sides, the Staggies are 11th in the table fighting for their lives.
I believe our woes are due to being seemingly unable to pick up points against the teams in and around us. We always allow games that are 50/50, or 60/40 either way, to go the way of our opponents. For example, before the season most would probably say the squads of Ross County and Livingston were even on paper. Now that there’s less than half the season to go, we’ve seen the Lions play their game no matter the prowess of the team they face, and keep going the whole 90 regardless of the score. This saw them go fourteen games unbeaten.
Then there’s County. Our mentality changes completely depending on who we’re playing, and in important matches against teams in and around us we usually play well, but ultimately capitulate. The pressure to perform in close matches proves too much time and time again.
This is one key point that I think is currently stopping the Staggies from kicking on: inconsistency. The word inconsistency is a bit of a cliche in football- often seen as an easy answer to a deeper problem, so I’ll elaborate. County clearly have a huge mental block against teams we are seen as having a reasonable chance against. For example this season we’re yet to win against St. Mirren, Kilmarnock, Dundee United or Livingston. Against Hamilton, the only team in the league I think we’re favourites against, we have two very late wins and a loss that saw Stuart Kettlewell sacked.
The Staggies haven’t picked up two wins on the bounce since the first games of the season, but if they can start to do this under John Hughes I have no doubt we can stay up and build on it next season. The question is though, can they start to do it?
Yogi to the rescue?
When John Hughes took over the post of Ross County manager, I was skeptical. He didn’t have the best tenure at Raith Rovers to say the least. Despite two defeats to start, he had me won over with his infectious enthusiasm and clear idea. The squad clearly buys into the way he wants to go about things too. It speaks a lot to how well he’s done that we’re not adrift at the foot of the table- I love Kettlewell as a Staggies legend, and the atmosphere of the club was never anything close to toxic but results were nothing short of dreadful.
Hughes has seen fantastic wins in his short time, but I think the main thing marking his legacy at the club will be whether or not he can make Victoria Park a fortress. His only win at home so far was against Aberdeen, and we need to be building on huge results like that to make the home ground one that teams fear coming to. This goes back to the mentality problem, if we succeed in this, then we’ll have to contend with being favourites every now and again. It will be interesting to see if ‘Yogi’ can coach a team mentally as well as he clearly can tactically.
If he can, then the Staggies should be able to start picking up wins against teams similar in quality and start climbing up the league table.
Defence leaves work to do
The previous points have been negatives, with some positives and also some potential positives. This however, is nothing but negative. There is no player in the County defence (or team for that matter) that I consider to be a liability. As a unit however, I can’t think of a single back three, four, or five that hasn’t conceded goals that made the Staggies faithful collectively pull their hair out. Opposing teams never have to work hard to score against us. John Hughes has highlighted that he wants his team to enjoy defending and being under the cosh for large periods of time. This was shown particularly when we held out for large periods against Aberdeen, but the actual defending ability, as opposed to our character, has proven woeful time and time again. This leads on to how we chase games after going behind…
I’ve heard calls of County having a lack of fight. The argument behind this is usually that we never come from behind to win, which is true. Despite this, I don’t think there’s a lack of fight at all. On the contrary, I think we have it in abundance, but to use that fight you need a coherent plan. After conceding, the Ross County players simply appear lost. No players communicate with each other after letting a goal in, it’s just heads down, trudging back to the halfway line.
When play resumes, we’re usually static, each player only springs to life when they’re on the ball and even then they try and shoulder the responsibility of getting back into it all on their own. The creativity as a unit and team cohesion that’s been built under Hughes goes out the window for at least twenty minutes every time we go a goal down.
Dreaming of improvement
Building on this, never coming from behind means we’re having to draw first blood in every game. We do this relatively often, but our finishing can be a disgrace, which completely undermines how great a creative force we are. It’s what I think is the main problem with County, we have the quality but our matches are decided by moments.
Whether it be a simple error at the back, or a missed sitter, we can’t make key moments go in our favour at the moment. If we can do this, then we should be challenging for top six. That’s typical Ross County though. The ifs, buts and maybes.
I’m being harsh here – provided we can stay up, I’m hopeful for our future. Here’s to change.