Friday, February 2, 2018

Are Ross County doomed?

Admittedly, Ross County have been in this sort of trouble before.

Only a strong finish to the season and St. Mirren's remarkable incompetence saved them from the drop in 2015. The year before that, Derek Adams had brought about a gazillion (give or take a few) of January signings - Jordan Slew and Yann Songo'o spring to mind - to turn them around.

Usually at the first sign of catastrophe the club's owner and Sugar Daddy-in-chief Roy MacGregor busts out the cheque book to sign whoever it takes to salvage their top flight status. Such is his overwhelming love for the club that MacGregor would undoubtedly see relegation to the Championship as a personal failure.

He would be wrong to do so; he has yet again funded a posse of new additions - seven in the January window in fact, including former Liverpool striker David N'Gog and (on loan) Aberdeen midfielder Greg Tansey. Many central-belt journalists have continued to bemoan the dismissal of manager Jim McIntyre in September, based on little more than the belief that anyone who wins the League Cup with such a provincial club should get a job for life, but it was the right decision by a chairman who does not have an itchy trigger finger. County had been guff for a year, and were looking even more so after the sale last summer of Liam Boyce.

Moreover, appointing Owen Coyle as McIntyre's replacement looked like a coup at the time, similar to Steve Clarke's arrival at Kilmarnock. Coyle's successes at Burnley are still memorable though they were several years ago; perhaps his poor record in more recent posts at Wigan, Houston Dynamo and Blackburn Rovers should have sounded alarm bells, but hindsight is a wonderful thing. And within weeks players were extolling his training to the press; "it was like Barcelona", Chris Eagles, the veteran winger signed by Coyle for the third time in his career, claimed on his arrival in November.

Unfortunately, on the pitch it has been more farce-a-lona than Barcelona.

Eighteen league and one cup game into Coyle's reign, County have managed three wins - all in his first six matches - and last won on 4th November, thirteen games ago. His league record of thirteen points in eighteen matches is dismal. They are six points adrift at the bottom of the Premiership, and the teams immediately above them all have at least one game in hand.

For comparison, Staggies will remember how dire Caley Thistle were last season, as they were relegated from the top flight. Well, ICT were actually two points better off at this stage last year. That's how dreadful the situation is.

That's not to say it isn't salvageable. But County will surely need to at least double their current points total in the remaining thirteen games just to get to eleventh spot and a playoff to survive. Their best hope is that one of the sides above collapses; Hamilton would seem the best bet, though they have past form for proving doomsayers wrong.

But recent viewing has been grim. It's quite clear that Coyle wants his players to pass their way out of trouble, a marked change from the direct style that was employed by his predecessor. The trouble is that very few of the squad he inherited have the quality to do so. The others are, as would be expected, shorn of confidence.

In pretty much every match there is an individual error that results in a goal conceded, whether it be a goalkeeping blunder like Aaron McCarey and his limp wrists against Rangers, or Scott Fox's attempt to dribble round Kenny McLean three days later (what do you do when neither of your keepers can be trusted?) or Harry Souttar bulleting a header into his own net at Fir Park, or Andrew Davies' short backpass at Firhill. These are the sort of disasters that plagued Inverness last season and Dundee United the year before that.

Add in the fact that the Global Energy Stadium pitch, whilst in much better nick than a few years ago, is hardly a bowling green and one wonders whether Coyle is being stubborn and foolish by sticking to his principles in this situation. He will be praying that Greg Tansey hits the ground running when he returns from injury, but whilst the Englishman is an excellent passer and can dictate a game he needs his side to dominate possession and attackers in front of him who can stretch play and find space.

Tansey's former Inverness teammate Billy Mckay has proven himself more than capable of the latter in the past but has done nothing during his spell in Dingwall to justify a sustained run in the team. Given there is still a lack of pace in wide areas - it was bizarre that this wasn't addressed in January - the best hope is that N'Gog hasn't lost a step. If once fully fit he proves to be anywhere near the player that Coyle once signed for Bolton for £4million, then the situation looks rather more rosy.

Otherwise, there is a dreadful feel here not so much of round pegs being put in square holes, but of a jigsaw puzzle being constructed with a mixture of pieces from different boxes. Unless there are signs of life soon, County's five year stay in the Premiership will end, and Coyle will be back where he started his managerial career, in Scotland's second tier...if he lasts that long, of course...

(with thanks to John A Maxwell for his input)

Lawrie Spence has ranted and spouted his ill-informed opinions on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007.  He has a life outside this blog.  Honestly.

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