Ross County left it late to secure their Premiership status, winning their final three games of the season to avoid the threat of relegation.
The Staggies will now prepare for a third successive top-flight campaign, with a number of factors still to be clarified including the future of manager John Hughes and a number of the first team squad.
We look at 10 questions the Staggies’ supporters will be pondering over the summer as the Dingwall side look to build on their strong finish to the campaign.
Will John Hughes still be manager next season?
Having succeeded in the task of keeping Ross County in the top flight which he was set upon his arrival in December, John Hughes is expected to be handed the reins beyond the summer.
Although County struggled to string consistency together, the Staggies picked up some impressive wins over Hibernian, Aberdeen and Celtic during the early stages of Hughes’ tenure.
County also delivered when it mattered most, as they won their final three games of the campaign in order to secure Premiership safety, which further strengthens Hughes’ case for an extension to his short-term deal.
How much of a rebuild will be needed at Ross County this summer?
Should Hughes’ own future be resolved in the coming days, the focus will quickly turn towards shaping County’s squad for the new campaign. The bulk of County’s squad are now out of contract, while loanees Stephen Kelly, Charlie Lakin and Leo Hjelde have returned to their parent clubs.
Among those out of contract are Ross Laidlaw, Michael Gardyne, Blair Spittal and Jason Naismith who all played a key role in executing Hughes’ 4-3-3 system, which came up with the goods at the tail end of the campaign.
Should Hughes be tasked with the rebuild he will likely see the pre-season period as an opportunity to truly implement his style of play at Victoria Park, with the hugely successful effect it had at rivals Inverness seven years ago giving him a strong template.
How do County finally resolve their defensive woes?
Keeping the back door closed has been a long-standing problem for Ross County. After conceding 60 goals in 30 games during the truncated 2019-20 campaign, then manager Stuart Kettlewell made it his priority to make County harder to score against and added fresh faces such as Alex Iacovitti, Connor Randall and Jason Naismith to the backline.
The defensive deficiencies have still been plain to see however, with County ending the season with 66 goals conceded in 38 games.
The loss of cheap penalties has contributed to that tally, with 14 conceded in the league during the course of the season. Although there have been some highly-disputed awards among them, the loss of spot-kicks has often been a key factor in how games have panned out.
With County keeping just seven clean sheets, which was one more than the previous campaign, it is clear that tightening up their rearguard is an area they have still to fully address.
What will the Staggies’ strikeforce look like next season?
Since the arrival of Jordan White in January, it has become evident the former Caley Thistle forward is Hughes’ preferred focal point in attack. White has been an effective outlet since his January move from Motherwell, netting four goals in 13 appearances and also coming up with three assists in the final two games of the campaign.
With White under contract for next season, it seems likely he will continue to be tasked with the bulk of the responsibility. Fellow attackers Billy Mckay and Oli Shaw also showed their worth to the Staggies with strong goalscoring runs last season, but latterly found themselves out of the team when Hughes opted to go with White as the only out-and-out forward.
It will be interesting to see how the system looks next season, and whether a starting role for Mckay or Shaw will be accommodated.
Can Ross County keep hold of Jason Naismith?
The addition of Jason Naismith prior to the January transfer window was something of a coup for the Staggies, with the right back a well-known quantity following his successful first stint at Victoria Park. Naismith commanded a transfer fee when he left Dingwall to join Peterborough United, before making a loan move to Hibernian where he flourished prior to suffering a long-term injury.
Although it was Stuart Kettlewell who drew up the deal to bring him back, Naismith started every game under John Hughes from the point at which he was first available on January 2.
The 26-year-old’s sustained run in the side has proven his injury concerns are firmly behind him, and his short-term deal is likely to have put him in the shop window. Regardless of who is in charge next season, Naismith is a player any manager will be eager to keep hold of.
Can the Staggies produce another Josh Reid?
Among the main highlights of a difficult first half of the campaign was the emergence of teenager Josh Reid, who was handed his senior debut in the opening day win over Motherwell and never looked back.
Reid, who only turned 19 earlier this month, made 24 appearances which earned him a lucrative move to English Championship side Coventry City in January. Although he has not featured yet for the Sky Blues, he is clearly held in high regard and will be hoping to make a first team impact in the coming season.
Dingwall-born Reid will go down as a local success story despite his short senior stint at his hometown club, and County will be hoping more youngsters can follow in the same pathway next term, with the likes of Ben Williamson, Matthew Wright and Adam MacKinnon also featuring last season.
Can Ross County rediscover home comforts?
Home form is the basis for any team’s success, and the Staggies will undoubtedly be disappointed by their return of five victories from 19 games at Victoria Park last term.
After starting so brightly with a home win over Motherwell, County had to wait another five months before their next Dingwall home triumph – which was admittedly a sweet one as they swept aside Aberdeen 4-1 in January.
The Staggies went on to enjoy another memorable home triumph over Celtic, before showing their mettle by defeating Kilmarnock and Hamilton Accies in crucial bottom-of-the-table encounters.
Every team will say much the same, but County will hope the anticipated return of supporters to Victoria Park next season can boost their home form.
Are County capable of emulating the likes of Livingston and St Mirren and pushing further up the table?
County are approaching their third successive season in the top flight, having finished 10th in the previous two campaigns since their promotion in 2019.
Although the Staggies have managed to avoid the relegation play-off spot, their road to Premiership safety has probably been a little too close for the supporters’ comfort.
The challenge for the Dingwall men will be to try and follow in the pathway laid down by the likes of Livingston, St Mirren and Dundee United, who have all been promoted in recent seasons. With Livi claiming a top-half finish and Saints and United falling just short, all three managed to comfortably escape the drama of a relegation tussle, and County would dearly love to follow suit next term.
That will be increasingly difficult however, with Hearts likely to target a top-six place when they replace Hamilton Accies next season, while Kilmarnock or Dundee will have similar ambitions depending on which side triumphs in this week’s play-off.
Can the Staggies strike their recruitment right?
County’s squad will likely be trimmed down for the start of next season, with no players having left in January when six arrivals were brought in. Should it be a tighter squad that will only enhance the need for those who are drafted in to make a big impact.
There have been varying degrees of success among the players who have been brought in over the last 12 months, with the likes of Alex Iacovitti, Jason Naismith and Jordan White having become first picks.
January arrivals Tony Andreu and Mohamed Maouche have seldom featured, while the likes of Regan Charles-Cook and Jermaine Hylton have struggled to nail down consistent starting places following their moves last summer.
Depending on which players remain, there could be an exciting blend of players with a point to prove and fresh recruits come the start of the new campaign.
How big a role will Michael Gardyne play?
Michael Gardyne’s contribution to Ross County truly speaks for itself, with the winger comfortably in command of the club’s goalscoring and appearance records for a number of years to come.
Although he will turn 36 in January, Gardyne’s continued worth to the Dingwall men was there for all to see in the five post-split fixtures in which he netted twice, including the winner in the all-important 2-1 win at Motherwell on the final day.
Gardyne, who is now out of contract, spoke after the game of his hope that would not be his final act for the Staggies.
Although he initially struggled for game time under John Hughes, Gardyne will hope his recent burst of form has shown age is just a number.