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Andy Skinner: Two years of Ross County success shows shared leadership can work at top level of Scottish football

Stuart Kettlewell and Steven Ferguson have been a dugout double-act for two-and-a-half years.
Stuart Kettlewell and Steven Ferguson have been a dugout double-act for two-and-a-half years.

Steven Ferguson’s decision to step back from the dugout marks the end for County’s co-management setup.

For just over two years, Ferguson and Stuart Kettlewell have jointly carried the responsibility in a structure which chairman Roy MacGregor openly admitted went against his business principles.

MacGregor was quickly convinced the shared leadership model could work, however, due to the chemistry and aligned thinking of the two Staggies stalwarts.

Even County chairman Roy MacGregor had to be convinced.

The restructure will see Kettlewell assume sole control of the Staggies first team, being assisted by Don Cowie, who will take his first steps into senior coaching in the same way as Kettlewell himself did as part of Jim McIntyre’s coaching team.

That in itself will bring Kettlewell into an element of unknown territory. However, he will be the first to admit he would be far less prepared to go it alone without his grounding alongside Ferguson.

When Owen Coyle’s departure left County without a manager in March 2018, the Staggies were fast running out of time to preserve their Premiership status.

With only 10 games remaining, MacGregor had to think fast and in the end the Staggies chairman did not even entertain the notion of looking outwith the walls of Victoria Park.

In Kettlewell and Ferguson, County had two immensely popular club figures who had caught the eye with their enterprising work within the club’s youth setup. Kettlewell was fresh from guiding the club’s under-20s side to the Development League title, while Ferguson’s role as academy director oversaw all levels of County’s youth programme.

In the blink of an eye the pair were handed the task of reviving County’s fortunes on an interim basis, which would have been an onerous task for even the most experienced of management teams at such a late stage in the season.

Although they did not succeed in their task of jointly spearheading County to safety, by the time County’s relegation was confirmed on the final day of the season in Perth, MacGregor had already seen enough to make their co-managers role permanent.

During the summer of 2018, they undertook a mass overhaul of the playing squad, drawing upon their own playing experience of the Championship to build a squad equipped for the task of bouncing back at the first attempt.

Kettlewell and Ferguson succeeded in imparting their own personalities on to the players, who dealt admirably with the rigours the second-tier posed.

The Staggies netted several late goals and edged tight games to build up a commanding top-of-the-table lead which they never looked like relinquishing.

Ross County won the Championship last season to bounce straight back up to the top-flight.

The league title, coupled with the Challenge Cup, rounded off a memorable double-winning campaign. It marked a thoroughly impressive achievement for Kettlewell and Ferguson in their first full season as managers.

Their reward was a first full crack at a Premiership campaign, with the plain remit of keeping the Dingwall club there.

County were quickly reminded of the challenge of sustaining a winning formula in the top-flight, and were dealt some harsh lessons along the way. The Staggies kept their head just above the relegation parapet throughout the season, with their 10th position enough to keep their place in the top flight when the season was ended due to coronavirus.

County hit their target of Premiership survival last term.

County will return to training this week with the intention of replicating that feat. However, it will be Kettlewell solely mapping out the Staggies’ game plan for doing so.

Kettlewell, and indeed MacGregor, will be relieved Ferguson’s expertise will not be lost to the club, however, as he remains in a director of football role.

Ferguson has built up a rich array of knowledge from his experience of different positions he has held with the Highlanders, which will make him a key asset as the Dingwall club prepares to take its next steps.

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