It has been a difficult year for everyone off the field, and tricky for Ross County on it.
As the Dingwall outfit head into the new year with a new manager and potentially rock-bottom of the top-flight, pending how today’s final fixtures of 2020 turn out, Press and Journal sports writer Andy Skinner asks the five burning questions facing the Staggies in 2021.
Will John Hughes keep Ross County in the Premiership?
John Hughes arrived in Dingwall just two days after the sacking of Stuart Kettlewell, with the simple remit of keeping Ross County in the Premiership.
Despite falling to defeat in his opening two games in charge, there have been some brief signs of encouragement in a brave defensive display against Celtic and a dominant start against St Mirren prior to the Staggies being reduced to 10 men.
Hughes will know that counts for nothing unless County can start producing some tangible signs of improvement in the form of points.
County have been somewhat fortunate they have not been left further adrift, with Hamilton Accies back to within a point of them after a 3-0 win they were awarded due to a non-fulfilled fixture against St Mirren was suspended.
Kilmarnock, Motherwell and St Johnstone are four points ahead, but it is clear the Staggies do not have time to look elsewhere for favours in the weeks to come. With 18 matches remaining, County will need to show a drastic improvement from their recent form, otherwise their top-flight status looks to be under serious threat.
Will John Hughes ring the changes during the January transfer window?
Since his appointment on December 21, a busy fixture schedule has limited John Hughes’ time on the training pitch, with the basis of the early assessment of his newly-inherited squad coming in the matches themselves.
With confidence visibly low following the dismal run of league form, which has seen County go without a win in their last 12 games, Hughes has already spoken of his desire to bring in reinforcements to help lift a suffering group of players.
Hughes will already have a known quantity available this weekend in Jason Naismith, who rejoined the Staggies for a second spell earlier this month, but has been unable to feature until January due to registration.
Recent injuries to Michael Gardyne and Regan Charles-Cook have left County short of options in the wide areas further up the field, so it would come as no surprise to see Hughes target that position in the weeks to come.
With leading scorer Ross Stewart coming into the final six months of his contract and already attracting interest, Hughes could look to bring in another forward to compete with Oli Shaw and Billy Mckay.
Hughes is likely to give the players already at his disposal a chance to stake their claim, however, and what he learns in the coming weeks will form a greater picture of what his squad will look like come the end of January.
How do the Staggies solve their defensive issues?
County’s goals against column of 60 last season made strengthening the defence a key focus for previous manager Stuart Kettlewell in the summer.
Kettlewell and former co-manager Steven Ferguson had already signed Coll Donaldson in January prior to last term being curtailed, and his partnership with new addition Alex Iacovitti has largely formed the basis of County’s defence this season.
Another summer recruit, Connor Randall, has shown promise in the right-back position, but has been hampered by a number of injury problems, while the breakthrough of local teenager Josh Reid at left-back has been a major boost for the Dingwall men.
There were early indications the Staggies had strengthened their foundations after opening the season with two clean sheets, and there have continued to be some stern defensive showings – most notably in the 2-0 victory over Celtic in the Betfred Cup at Parkhead.
These have proven to be all too intermittent, however, with the 38 goals conceded after 20 games indicating the problem has not been solved. A change in shape has occasionally been deployed to include the experience of the likes of Callum Morris and Keith Watson, however, any sense of continuity has been disrupted by injuries.
The arrival of right-back Jason Naismith could prove to be a timely masterstroke given his qualities which were evident for all to see during his previous stint at the club, and Hughes may look to bolster his defensive options further.
County will also hope midfielder Ross Draper has finally put his injury woes behind him, as the Englishman offers the backline a layer of protection that has been difficult to compensate for during his absence.
Can the Staggies rediscover their goalscoring spark?
County are the Premiership’s lowest scorers by some distance with only 10 goals all season – including just three during their 12-game winless run.
The Staggies would typically look towards leading scorer Ross Stewart to provide goals, however, the increasing doubt over his future means County will have to find another source of firepower should he be prized away during the January transfer window.
It seems likely Stewart will leave in the summer at the latest, with no advance having been made on a new deal which has been on the table since the start of the season.
Should Stewart’s future remain unresolved, or if he signs a pre-contract agreement to leave at the end of the season, John Hughes will hope the 24-year-old can make a big contribution to County’s survival effort.
Oli Shaw has offered the closest glimpse of a scoring run when he netted four goals in six matches during the Autumn, before suffering an injury which kept him sidelined for a month.
Hughes will also hope he can get a known quantity back among the goals in the form of his former Inverness striker Billy Mckay, who has just two strikes to his name so far this term.
Mckay endured a similarly frustrating period in front of goal during the early part of last season before producing an excellent run of form after the turn of the year, and Hughes will be confident the 32-year-old has a key role to play.
Hughes will also be keen to get more goals from his attacking midfield players, such as Harry Paton, Michael Gardyne and Charlie Lakin, who have yet to find the net on league duty this term.
How key a role will experience have to play?
John Hughes inherited a squad containing some trusted performers of his former Caley Thistle side, in the form of Ross Draper, Billy Mckay, Carl Tremarco and Iain Vigurs.
These players know exactly what Hughes demands of his players and, given the experience all four players possess, they will be expected to lead from the front in communicating Hughes’ commands to their team-mates.
County’s all-time leading goalscorer Michael Gardyne will turn 35 in January, but he has continued to hold down his place this season and he will be eager to come to the fore in the Staggies’ time of need.
County’s side contains plenty youthful energy as well, however, which was a major part of their successful start to the campaign that already seems such a long time ago. The emergence of Josh Reid has been a plus point, along with the consistent displays of Alex Iacovitti and Harry Paton.
It will undoubtedly take a squad effort to claw County out of their predicament, with a mixture of youth and experience required to show their mettle.