Every year it’s the same old story. Before the season begins, fans and pundits are…
Ross County’s six-year stay in the Scottish Premiership was brought to an end at the weekend after they were held to a 1-1 draw at McDiarmid Park, with relegation rivals Partick Thistle claiming a decisive win away to Dundee. The post mortem into County’s season will no doubt continue over the following weeks and months as they look to win promotion from the Championship at the first time of asking, regaining their seat at Scottish football’s top table.
Relegation will have a serious impact on the day-to-day running of the club and County fans can expect widespread downsizing as the board cope with the reduction in finances that the Championship brings. In the end, the Staggies finished just four points behind Thistle, which will no doubt raise questions about what else could have been done to retain their Premiership status.
First off, it’s important to get an idea of just how big of a deal relegation is. It isn’t easy to get out of the Championship, especially at the first time of asking. Ross County will no doubt have been watching Highland rivals Inverness’ season unfold with a sort of schadenfreude this year, but now Caley’s campaign should serve as a warning. Even St Mirren, who won the division comfortably this year, almost suffered back-to-back relegations last season when they dropped down the football pyramid.
As the table above shows, it often takes clubs a few attempts to get back in to the Premiership. Club such as St Mirren, Hearts and Hibs all managed to bounce back in relatively speedy fashion but for many clubs, the absence will last years. The likes of Livingston and Dunfermline have been trying for years. The promotion/relegation playoff provides another opportunity for escape but with only one automatic promotion spot, County could find themselves in the second tier for a while.
So how did it come to this for Ross County? What next for the Highland club? There’s an argument to be made that both of those questions have the same answer, and it looks like the County board are well aware of it.
In 2016/17, Stuart Kettlewell guided the County under-20s to the Development League title – an excellent achievement, given the remote nature of the club, and seven players in the squad were rewarded with first team contracts. However, players have found first team opportunities hard to come by in Dingwall. Jim McInytre’s dismissal at the beginning of the season was likely a key factor here – the ex-County boss had a decent record of promoting youth players but was replaced with Owen Coyle, who preferred a more short-term approach.
Many of those who impressed in the 2016/17 Development League were shipped out on loan to the lower leagues, rather than being given any minutes in Dingwall. County’s top scorer that season Greg Morrison was sent to Dumbarton, Dylan Dykes was loaned out to Stranraer and Reghan Tumilty joined Falkirk on loan. Other key players from the league-winning squad left Victoria Park altogether, such as David Brownlie and Christopher McLaughlin.
One of the few players to have broken into the County first team is Davis Keillor-Dunne, who has shown that it is possible to make the jump from the Development League to the Premiership if the ability is there. Keillor-Dunne has enjoyed a good season this year and has been one of the few bright sparks in an otherwise disappointing campaign for the Staggies. And it makes County’s refusal to promote youth players all the more baffling.
Keillor-Dunne took well to the Premiership – he finished this season in the league’s top 30 players ranked by dribbles per ninety minutes, averaging 5.13 a game. In terms of crossing, Keillor-Dunne is in the league’s top ten most accurate players. He’s undoubtedly been a success for a side that’s struggled all season.
Keillor-Dunne’s performances this season have shown that when given a chance, County’s youth can step up to the plate. Of course, the winger’s success comes with no guarantee that others could do the same, but it does indicate that some players are ready to make the jump up. Kettlewell’s own promotion to the senior side seems to indicate that the County board agree. Having coached the under-20s, he’ll likely be keen to promote from within. Especially once, as expected, first team players leave in an effort to reduce the wage bill.
Giving youth players a chance is the logical next step for the Highlanders. It’s partly forced through circumstance, but Ross County now have an excellent excuse to blood some fresh talent and to provide a pathway to the first team squad. It’s a brave call, and one that may not provide immediate rewards, but the long-term effect can only be beneficial. If youth isn’t given a chance, County could end up squandering one of their most exciting generations in years.