PREDICTED LEAGUE FINISH: EIGHTH
LAST SEASON: 6th, 48pts
NOTABLE INS: Erik Cikos (unattached), Aaron McCarey (Wolverhampton Wanderers), Jay McEveley (Sheffield United), Christopher Routis (Bradford City), Kenny Van Der Weg (NAC Breda)
NOTABLE OUTS: Jackson Irvine (Burton Albion, £150k), Stewart Murdoch (Dundee United), Jamie Reckord (Oldham Athletic), David Goodwillie (Aberdeen, end of loan), Gary Woods (Leyton Orient, end of loan), Raffaele De Vita, Chris Konopka
LAST SEASON'S BEST XI (departed players crossed out): Fox, Fraser, Quinn, Davies, Foster, Gardyne,
Back in mid-June, I was looking across the Moray Firth with envy. In contrast to the uncertainty sweeping around Caledonian Stadium, Ross County looked positively assured. Coming off their most successful season ever, they had held on to their best players and had added to the squad too. With a fine starting XI and impressive depth, it could be argued that they looked even stronger than when they won the League Cup.
Then, in the space of a couple of July days, it all went horribly wrong. The team's spine couldn't have been more dramatically ripped out if Sub-Zero from Mortal Kombat had turned up and performed his Fatality move on them.
Okay, so that's a teensy bit of an exaggeration. But I'm sure Jim McIntyre could have done without the news that captain Andrew Davies' wife hasn't settled in the Highlands - come on, there's lots of lovely places to live near Dingwall, honest - and so he was looking to return south. Davies was outstanding last season, both as a centre-half and as a leader. Whilst new boys Jay McEveley and Chris Routis can also play in that area, it'll be hard to emulate Davies. McEveley has the best chance; the ex-Scotland international has followed a similar path by moving north after years playing in the English lower leagues, though he was better known in his younger days as a left back. And Davies will at least give his all until a new club comes in, though he has handed the armband to Paul Quinn.
But the worst news, at least for the fans, was to come. County will pocket around £150,000 for Jackson Irvine, but the Aussie's well-deserved move to Burton Albion robs them of arguably their greatest ever talent. How the Staggies ever managed to procure a player with such an engine and such ability is beyond me, though that only partly compensated for the worst haircut in Scottish football since Ally McCoist went blonde. They may never see Irvine's like again. Players of his quality only rarely pitch up at provincial Scottish clubs; finding an adequate replacement is a hell of a task.
His departure leaves County woefully short in central midfield; perhaps McIntyre now regrets letting Stewart Murdoch join Dundee United. Martin Woods and Ian McShane are tidy enough but have zero physical presence; Routis could be used in this area to provide some beef, but surely there must be at least one more signing in this area.
Ditto on the flanks, where Michael Gardyne is a fixture on one side and Jonathan Franks adequate enough on the other, but there's scant else besides either Tony Dingwall, who seemed to regress last season, or an out-of-position Ricky Foster. Foster was a revelation at left-back after Christmas, looking like he was enjoying his football for the first time in about eight years. It would be a shame if he had to switch position.
Davies notwithstanding, County are in pretty decent shape defensively, even though veteran Scott Boyd seems to have been frozen out. Thankfully Quinn and Chris Robertson are very capable centre-halves, while Slovak Erik Cikos returns for a second spell at the club to compete with Marcus Fraser on the right, and Foster, McEveley and Dutch signing Kenny Van Der Weg are left-back options. And keeper Scott Fox proved doubters wrong last season with a string of impressive performances between the sticks. He's still iffy at his near post, though.
And most bosses in the league would kill (or at least maim) to have the same attacking options as McIntyre. Liam Boyce, Craig Curran, Brian Graham and Alex Schalk are all different sorts of striker, yet all are capable of getting into double figures. And they can be deployed in multiple combinations too. It's good to see Curran healthy again; the busy Englishman missed most of last season after suffering multiple concussions and it was feared he might have to quit football. If he can rekindle his relationship - metaphorically speaking - with Boyce, then no-one will relish playing them.
But unless they replace Irvine properly, another top six finish might be too much of an ask. That said, I can't see them near the bottom of the table either. There's too much experience, heart and drive in this squad. But, after a glorious 2015-16 season, this year might be a bit of an anticlimax.
THE SQUAD (players born after 1 January 1995 in italics)
Goalkeepers: Scott Fox, Aaron McCarey
Defenders: Scott Boyd, Erik Cikos, Andrew Davies, Richard Foster, Marcus Fraser, Jay McEveley, Chris McLaughlin, Paul Quinn, Chris Robertson, Chris Routis, Kenny Van Der Weg
Midfielders: Tony Dingwall, Jonathan Franks, Michael Gardyne, Ian McShane, Martin Woods
Forwards: Liam Boyce, Craig Curran, Brian Graham, Greg Morrison, Alex Schalk
THE BEST XI?
Lawrie Spence (LS) has ranted and spouted his ill-informed opinions on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007. He has a life outside this blog. Honestly.