Ross County have kept themselves at arm’s length from the relegation zone throughout the season, which makes the Staggies deserving of another crack at Premiership football.
In their first season back in the top-flight, it does not come as a huge surprise that Stuart Kettlewell and Steven Ferguson’s men were part of the bottom-half conversation.
Although County were at times closely pursued by the teams below, the co-managers will take a degree of satisfaction from the fact they were never sucked into the bottom two places, making their eventual 10th place outcome a reasonably fair one.
The squad, which fairly convincingly won the Championship title the previous year, contained plenty top-flight experience, so there was always a quiet confidence they could handle the step up.
That side was largely kept intact, with the most significant change being the loss of goalkeeper Scott Fox to former club Partick Thistle. Ross Laidlaw and Nathan Baxter were subsequently drafted in and were both given decent runs between the sticks, with Laidlaw appearing to edge the contest by regaining his place for the final four games before the shutdown.
There was varying success with other arrivals, with the return of Richard Foster from St Johnstone proving one of the shrewdest moves, given his experience and effectiveness in both full-back positions.
Blair Spittal and Joe Chalmers have both shown glimpses, but have struggled to nail down consistent spots in the side, with Chalmers latterly sidelined through injury, while loan arrivals Ewan Henderson and Simon Power came and went with little impact.
Lee Erwin has struggled to hit the goal trail having also suffered injury problems, but his physical frame has given the Staggies an important attacking focal point in certain games. The goalscoring mantle has predominantly been taken on by Ross Stewart and Billy Mckay, who both ended the campaign on 11 goals.
The pair both produced the goals from the very start of the campaign, helping the Staggies complete their Betfred Cup group campaign with a 100% record from four games.
That teed County up for an excellent start to their return to the Premiership, and their 3-0 opening day triumph over Hamilton Accies will go down as one of their most enjoyable outings of the season.
They ought to have followed that up with a victory the following week against Hearts, but the dominance they enjoyed in their 0-0 draw at Tynecastle suggested County were back with purpose.
There have been highs and lows ever since. County enjoyed fine late victories against St Mirren and Motherwell before going nine games without a win.
Some chastening defeats have had a confidence-sapping effect, having been hit for six by Celtic and twice lost four goals against Livingston, but home victories over Hibernian, Kilmarnock and Livingston have also offered a reminder of how strong County can be at Victoria Park.
The fact County have the highest goals against tally in the league has been well magnified, and it goes without saying they will need to substantially cut down on the 60 goals they conceded in 30 games.
The Dingwall men equally showed more than enough evidence to suggest they can compete against the majority of sides, and one of their most impressive victories against Aberdeen at Pittodrie in February will remain fresh in the memory as one of their most recent outings prior to the shutdown.
Best days still to come for County
Stuart Kettlewell and Steven Ferguson will hope this season’s learning curve will stand Ross County in good stead following their first full Premiership season in charge.
The Staggies had been preparing for a run of eight fixtures against bottom-half rivals which would have determined their fate, prior to the coronavirus shutdown.
The SPFL’s decision to end the campaign on a points-per-game basis now allows County the luxury of planning with a longer-term view, in line with their target of prolonging their top-flight stay for many years to come.
County’s most recent recruitment in January suggested they were looking this way, with the additions of Coll Donaldson, Jordan Tillson and Oli Shaw on long-term contracts.
English defender Tom Grivosti has recently agreed terms on a two-year extension to his deal, and the co-managers will clearly feel these players have their best days in County colours still ahead of them.
The biggest test of County’s resolve could be keeping hold of attacker Ross Stewart whose successful step up to top-flight football is a nod to Kettlewell and Ferguson, who identified him as a raw lower-league talent they could develop.
Stewart’s 11-goal return came despite him missing the final two months of the campaign with a hamstring injury, and County were fortunate to have Billy Mckay ready to step in and fill the void.
With Stewart just returning as the season drew to a close, the prospect of him pairing up with an in-form Mckay would give County the basis to expect plenty firepower next term.