I’ve been giving this subject a lot of thought this week and as I now put virtual pen to paper before Ross County begin the season at Celtic just after noon tomorrow I realize that I want to take two approaches to it. First, what my best friend and I refer to as a “mind dump”, and then, something with a bit more of a narrative to it.
The Mind Dump…
Here is what I (think) I know about the upcoming 2013-2014 Scottish Premiership season.
First, and once again, Celtic will be by far the best team. They will likely run away with the league, they will likely win at least one of the cups, and I won’t be happy about any of it.
After that, I’m fairly confident that Motherwell will finish a distant second and probably win whichever cup Celtic doesn’t. Being able to re-sign James McFadden (who only joined at mid-season last year and could easily lead the league in scoring) and getting Paul Lawson and Iain Vigurs from Ross County should be enough to ensure their quality again this season.
Next, I’m sure that with the exception of Heart of Midlothian (more about them below) the remaining nine clubs are going to be in a dog fight for the entire season and that trying to predict the finishing order would be futile. The best I can do is to say that, after 38 matches, Dundee United, St. Johnstone, Ross County, and either Inverness Caledonian Thistle or Aberdeen will finish in the top six.
Finally, Hearts. Hearts will start the season in a 15 point hole, which is exactly the amount of points that would have seen them relegated (instead of Dundee F.C.) last season- and this is the “best case scenario!” The fact is that this year’s Hearts team will be far weaker than last years due to the club having to sell off its highest earners and to a transfer embargo on players over the age of 21. So, barring a miraculous season, Hearts will be relegated. There also still exists the potential that due to the confluence of bankruptcies of the pitch (theirs and that of their owners, Ukio Bankas), Hearts could cease to exist at some point during the season. Should that happen I would assume that there would simply be no relegation form the Premiership at the end of the season.
Many promoted clubs suffer from a “sophomore slump” in their second season and drop down the table- some are even relegated right back to the division they fought so hard to climb out of. I don’t think this will happen to Ross County, and here is why.
This is a better Ross County than the 2012-2013 version. Not because the talent is better, but because there is more of it from top to bottom. First off, there is still a good core of players left (Kettlewell, Boyd, Brittain, Quinn, etc.) who have been through the wars and know what it takes to succeed. Sure, the departures of Oikonomu, Lawson, and Vigurs were particularly tough to swallow, but the signings of Saunders, Gordon, Carey, and McLean more or less make up for that in my mind. Add to that what appears to be a return to the form that made him a target of Liverpool by Alex Cooper, a healthy Branislav Mcic, and an opportunity for the homegrown Steven Ross to make a name for himself, and I think things are looking up. If recent loan signing Orhan Mustafi starts banging in the goals, well, things could be looking way up! I still wish manager Derek Adams had gone after a better goalkeeper, but I doubt that the Michael Fraser/Mark Brown tandem will be the downfall of this club and that’s probably why Adams “left well enough alone.”
To look at it a different way- and to provide a nice segue to the next topic!- the worst case scenario this year is that the “squad players” this year are better than last year’s. The best case scenario is that there are, in fact, no squad players on this team at all. I think the truth, as it so often is, will be found between those two extremes. Based on last season and what has happened so far during the preseason, it really looks as though only Gary Glen, Darren Maatsen, and Steven Ross will struggle to get playing time and on a squad of 22, that’s not bad.
Specifically, competition for places. With potentially only those three players on the outside looking in, there will basically be two players competing for every spot (including goalkeeper) on this team. That, to put it plainly, is great. The result may be that it takes Derek Adams a little while to sort out his starting line-up, but it also means that when the inevitable injuries happen, there will be able replacements ready to step in. These players will also know that- based on the club’s recent past- if they are not delivering the goods on a regular basis, the trio of Adams, Adams, and McGregor will not hesitate to bring it players that will.
Of particular interest to me will be the competition for places among defenders, where 3-5 players (Adams appears to be leaning toward playing a 3-5-2 or 5-3-2 depending on the opponent/circumstances) of the current 6-8 will need to separate themselves from the pack. Going into the season I would have said that Boyd, Munro, and Kovacevic were locks to be starters, but Mcic is coming on, a healthy Saunders is an international level player, and Brown and McLean bring a wealth of experience. And speaking of experience…
There are two kinds of experience in this case. First, there is the kind of experience that comes from being at the same club, with the same manager, over a number of years. As I mentioned above, there is still a strong core of these players at the club (including the club captain), players who know how the system works, who understand the club, manager, and supporters expectations. They are, in the best sense of the word, “professionals.” These players will be of particular importance in educating the new players- especially the young Dutch quartet- in the ways of Ross County F.C..
Second, the club as a whole, has now been through a season in the top flight. They’ve gone on the road trips, they’ve payed before the big crowds (home and away), they’ve gotten used to the increased media spotlight, and, one would expect, they have learned how to handle all of these things while continuing to thrive on the pitch. As individuals, there is now more top flight experience at the club than there has ever been and this can only help to improve the club’s chances. And what are those, “chances?”
About the same as last year.
Last year County finished 5th and had a chance to finish as high as 3rd going into the final few matches of the season. I think that more of the same is a reasonable expectation for this season- certainly top six (Championship group after “the split”). My hope would be that when the January transfer window opens County find themselves already in the top five (it was a second half run that put them there last year) and that one or two key signings (and corresponding departures) during the transfer windows will get them over the hump and that they will spend the second half of the season successfully chasing a spot in Europe.