Wednesday, August 6, 2014

2014-15 Premiership preview - Ross County

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LAST SEASON: 7th, 40pts

NOTABLE INS: Jordi Balk (Utrecht), Liam Boyce (Cliftonville), Joe Cardle (Raith Rovers), Uros Celcer (Parma), Tim Dreesen (Fortuna Sittard), Jim Fenlon (AFC Wimbledon), Ben Frempah (Leicester City), Jake Jervis (Portsmouth), Rosario Latouchent (Caen), Antonio Reguero (Kilmarnock)

NOTABLE OUTS: Alex Cooper (Falkirk), Michael Fraser (Elgin City), Gary Glen (Livingston), Ben Gordon (Colchester United), Evangelos Oikonomou (Doxa Katokopias), Erik Cikos (Slovan Bratislava, end of loan), Jordan Slew (Blackburn Rovers, end of loan), Yann Songo'o (Blackburn Rovers, end of loan), Michael Tidser (Rotherham United, end of loan), Stuart Kettlewell, Brian McLean

LAST SEASON'S BEST XI (departed players crossed out): Brown, Cikos, Boyd, Songo'oOikonomou, Brittain, Kiss, Tidser, Carey, De Leeuw, Arquin

I'll not lie to you; my original draft for this was pretty damn negative.  After all, only two players remain from Ross County's promotion campaign that finished just two years ago, and only nine who were at the club this time last year. That is a hell of a turnover and not one that is conducive to success.

For the third transfer window in a row, Derek Adams has had to revamp the team.  Last summer, he signed a bunch of players who were mostly woeful; County had to bring in seven more, including five loanees, in January to drag them away from a relegation playoff.  Out of those seven, five have left, leaving big holes in the squad.  In particular the loss of commanding central defender Yann Songo'o will be felt.  Out of those who have remained, striker Yoann Arquin is useful but his brief spell AWOL in April must cause concern; it is unlikely that Adams, a manager who does not balk at confrontation, would have reintegrated the Frenchman so swiftly had the situation not been rather desperate.

That said, the Frenchman is sufficiently back in the good books that he has signed a contract extension.  So maybe I'm miles off the mark when I wonder how much Adams has contributed to the squad's unsettled nature.  However, defender Brian McLean openly told the press that he turned down a new deal in Dingwall because of differences with Adams.  The decision of Ben Gordon to sign for Colchester, days after County announced erroneously that he had agreed an extension, seems fishy.  Gone too is midfield bastion Stuart Kettlewell, who delayed hip surgery to contribute to the relegation dogfight; his loyalty was not reciprocated however - after four years at the club, he was cast aside when it became apparent that he would be out till Christmas after his operation.  Make of it what you will.

The disappearance for most of the summer of Graham Carey was also pretty queer, with no acknowledgement by the club of one of their better performers, but, at the eleventh hour, the left-sided midfielder has signed on the dotted line for another year.  That will be a big boost, but not as huge as the return of Filip Kiss for another season on loan from Cardiff.  On the face of it, the Slovak is everything a Scottish Premiership manager dreams of in a central midfielder - powerful yet mobile, strong in the tackle, a comfortable passer, and a definite goal threat.  The trick will be getting him to play well every week; there were times that, after a bright start, he looked increasingly disinterested and unimpressed with his supporting cast.  But having Kiss in the middle of the park changes everything.  It makes County a completely different prospect, and a much better one.

Not a lot is particularly known about the other incomers, aside from goalkeeper Antonio Reguero, who was wasted on Kilmarnock's bench and should do just fine between the sticks.  The other signings have been left pretty late and until after trial periods, which I always feel nervous about; surely if they were good enough you'd know that before you took them on trial?  Left-back Uros Celcer can't be too shabby, given that Parma were his previous club.  There are high hopes for young central defender Ben Frempah, but not necessarily this season, while outstandingly named teenager Rosario Latouchent is surely another one for a few years down the line.  Jim Fenlon might do a job at right-back, but it's not ideal that his manager at AFC Wimbledon cited "attitude" as a reason for his release.  But given the alternative at that position is Steven Saunders, who won a Scotland cap a few years ago before it became apparent that he was made of glass, Fenlon is likely to see plenty of action.

Adams hardly struck gold with his arrivals from Holland a year ago, with just Melvin De Leeuw proving a success; the only bigger joke than striker Kevin Luckassen was that a Czech club paid £100,000 to take him off County's hands!  And yet the boss went back to the Dutch leagues again to get Jordi Balk and Tim Dreesen.  Belgian Dreesen was quite the prospect a few years back and might prove a decent partner for Scott Boyd in the centre of defence.  Balk has looked good in front of the back line in pre-season...but fans said the same of countryman Marc Klok last year, and he looked out of his depth in competitive action.

What County need, and have never had in the top flight, is a goalscorer.  New strikers Liam Boyce, who was prolific in Northern Ireland, and former Birmingham prodigy Jake Jervis, both seem like signings that will either be spectacular successes or spectacular disasters.  Boyce has been working his way back from injury during pre-season, while early reports of Jervis suggested he was a little bit rotund, so that's not encouraging.  Neither will have joined to be bit part players though.  It will be interesting to see which combination of attackers Adams plumps for, given that he has Arquin and De Leeuw - the club's best player in 2013-14 and a million times more effective in a central role than out wide - available too.

Maybe Joe Cardle, who looked alright at this level for Dunfermline a few years back, will give them some natural width, something that they have lacked since Ivan Sproule's departure.  But if Adams punts De Leeuw out to the wing again then it will be a complete waste of the Dutchman's talent and finishing ability.  At least in midfield they can still count on the leadership and set-piece threat of captain Richard Brittain. Brittain wasn't great in a deep lying role at times last season and would be better off coming in from the flank, but Adams can only use him there if he's comfortable that Balk can thrive in the holding role.

The Staggies still seem a wee bit short of being top six material, but I'd imagine they'll be closer than they were last season.  A slow start is to be expected, given the number of new faces.  Perhaps the pieces will come together to form a coherent jigsaw this time round.  Even if there's a repeat of last season's rocky start, surely Roy McGregor will bail them out again in the winter transfer window.  Whether the chairman would tolerate having to bankroll yet another spell of tinkering by Adams is another matter; he is entitled to expect more from a coach who has previously proven himself to be very adept at setting up a team, but who could really benefit from learning how to make friends and influence people.

THE SQUAD (players born after 1 January 1993 in italics)
Goalkeepers: Mark Brown, Antonio Reguero
Defenders: Jordi Balk, Scott Boyd, Uros Celcer, Tim Dreesen, Jim FenlonBen Frempah, Rosario Latouchent, Steven Saunders
Midfielders: Richard Brittain, Joe Cardle, Melvin De Leeuw, Filip Kiss, Marc Klok, Darren Maatsen, Rocco Quinn
Forwards: Yoann Arquin, Liam Boyce, Jake Jervis, Steven Ross

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