Ross County’s season has been one of gradual progression so far, which the Staggies fans will hope has still to reach its peak.
County will reach the midway point in their campaign following Wednesday’s crucial match against St Johnstone at McDiarmid Park.
Bottom-placed Saints are only a point adrift of Malky Mackay’s men, who could move up to ninth place with a victory in Perth depending on other results.
Despite some strong performances, the opening sequence of 10 matches without a victory was becoming a serious cause for concern.
There has been a marked improvement in form in recent weeks, however, with the Staggies losing just two of their last eight matches – against both Old Firm sides.
Although the Staggies are still at the wrong end of the table, the persistence they have shown to force their way back into the bottom-six pack offers grounds for optimism in 2022.
Disruption before a ball was kicked
It was a summer of transition at Victoria Park. Despite the widespread expectation John Hughes would stay on after keeping County in the top flight, chairman Roy MacGregor opted to hand the manager’s job to Mackay.
It ended a six-year absence from club management for Mackay, who had most recently served as Scottish FA performance director.
The squad which finished last season with three straight victories was immediately dismantled, with a total of 16 players departing over the course of the summer.
The club was forced to shut down for 10 days, with players struggling to get back to fitness in the days that followed.
That forced County to cancel their Premier Sports Cup ties against Dundee and Forfar Athletic, which prevented them from progressing in the competition before a ball had been kicked.
Wins over Brora Rangers and Forfar Athletic in the final two group matches provided their preparation for the league campaign, which they opened with a 0-0 draw at home to St Johnstone.
Mackay was continuing to add to his squad after the season got under way, with the likes of Harry Clarke, Joseph Hungbo and Jack Baldwin drafted in later in August.
Following defeats to Hibernian and Rangers, County ended the month with an encouraging 1-1 draw against Aberdeen at Pittodrie.
Mackay subsequently took his summer signings haul to 12 with the deadline day arrival of striker Alex Samuel.
First league win of campaign proved elusive
County’s difficult run of games continued, but they earned plaudits for their showings in a 3-0 loss to Celtic at Parkhead and a 2-2 draw at home to high-flying Hearts.
The subsequent run of games in September and October offered County some targetable points at a point when they were eager to kick start their season.
However, they were left empty-handed following trips to Motherwell and Dundee United, although Mackay came away from both games encouraged by the threat posed by his side.
Back-to-back home matches against St Mirren and Livingston only served to prolong the frustration.
Some lousy defending cost the Staggies dearly on both occasions, causing them to suffer successive 3-2 defeats.
The second match, against Livi, was particularly galling – with Jordan White missing a penalty which would have put County 2-0 up, before they were ultimately undone by a Tom Parkes’ goal in stoppage time.
It was a result which left County four points adrift at the foot of the Premiership.
Mackay took responsibility for the Staggies’ league position following the game, but remained adamant he remained the right man to turn it around.
A stunning night on Tayside proved the turning point
County made the midweek trip to Dens Park knowing they risked being left in a perilous position. A Dundee victory would have opened up a seven-point gap at the foot of the table.
With that in mind, the Staggies could not have picked a better night for it all to click so spectacularly.
The 5-0 triumph was County’s biggest top-flight victory on record, and an undoubted highlight of the campaign so far. Joseph Hungbo’s sublime free-kick, which earned him the October goal of the month award, is a particular moment the Staggies’ support will long cherish.
Much of County’s early season frustration was unleashed in that game alone, giving them the impetus to turn around their campaign.
Their hopes of quickly capitalising on the feel-good factor were dashed, however, when their match against an out-of-form Hibernian side just three days later was postponed due to a Covid outbreak at the Easter Road club.
That left the Staggies with only one match – a spirited 4-2 loss to Rangers at Ibrox on November 7 – in the space of nearly a month.
County marked their long-awaited return to action with a victory in the rearranged match against Hibs on November 24, with Blair Spittal netting the only goal of the game.
It marked an excellent start to a busy 10-match stretch before the winter break, which culminates with their home fixture against Aberdeen on January 2.
Draws against Dundee United and St Mirren followed, before County notched their second victory over Dundee in a thrilling 3-2 triumph on December 11.
The victory, which saw the Staggies twice come from behind before Regan Charles-Cook netted the winner, was a significant day in the Staggies’ campaign thus far. For the first time since early October, they moved off the foot of the table.
Despite losing late goals in the 2-1 defeat to Celtic and Saturday’s 1-1 draw at Livingston, County have remained in 11th place above St Johnstone ahead of Wednesday’s crucial Perth encounter.
Staggies set up for exciting run-in
In recent weeks, the dynamic style which promised so much earlier in the campaign has translated into results.
If County can keep more clean sheets, they are bound to reap the rewards given the goal threat they pose. Despite their lowly position, the Staggies have the fourth highest strike rate in the top flight.
The initial sights will be set on moving clear of the relegation zone in the four games that remain before the winter shutdown. But this County side will have designs on moving much further up the table when they return in late January.