Ross County co-manager Stuart Kettlewell insists the pressure will be off the Staggies’ colts team in the club’s defence of the newly-rebranded Tunnock’s Caramel Wafer Challenge Cup as a free hit.
County’s first team lifted last season’s IRN-BRU Cup courtesy of a 3-1 victory over Connah’s Quay Nomads in March in the first instalment of a double-winning campaign which ended with the Staggies winning the Championship title.
Promotion to the Premiership means County will now be represented in the tournament by Richie Brittain’s reserves side, who were yesterday drawn to face Fraserburgh away in the opening round. A home tie against Raith Rovers awaits the winners in round two.
Kettlewell, who steered County to the Development League title when he was in charge of the under-20s side two years ago, says the youn Staggies can treat the competition as a free hit.
Kettlewell said: “They go in with that added pressure of being the defending champions, but from that perspective there are no expectations on them other than gaining experience and pitching themselves against some really good opposition.
“That’s the opportunity that comes forward for them. In recent years we have had some really good experiences, managing to progress through a couple of rounds. In one of the years I took a team which played at Stark’s Park against a good Raith Rovers team.
“That experience, for young guys, is absolutely terrific. It puts them into the types of high pressure situations they are going to face as senior professionals.
“We really embrace it – it’s a free shot at it for them in the sense nothing will be expected of them against senior teams.”
County’s run to the final last year included a last-eight victory over Motherwell under-21s, whose progress to the quarter-final was unprecedented for a colts team, and Kettlewell says the Staggies’ youngsters can take inspiration.
He added: “I think Motherwell maybe paved the way last year in getting through three or four rounds and getting to a stage to play against ourselves.
“They put up a really good challenge against us, so it does show you what’s achievable in the cup competition.
“It has a really good value for the young players and pitches them against senior professionals, which is the type of situation you can’t put them into every day.”
County have added six players to their reserve and under-18s teams for the new campaign. Midfielder Josh Black, who was previously on County’s books, has returned to Dingwall following a stint with Queen’s Park, and will be part of the Brittain’s reserve team.
Goalkeeper Jamie Stephen, defenders Ben Williamson and Harvey Kane and midfielders Craig Mackenzie and Adam Mackinnon have graduated from the Staggies’ academy, and will be part of Don Cowie and Liam Fontaine’s under-18s team.