Malky Mackay says Ross County’s push for European football exceeds the expectations he set out when he arrived at Dingwall last summer.
The Staggies are firmly in contention to qualify for Europe for the first time in their history, after clinching a top-six place.
County will be in the Europa Conference League qualifiers if they maintain their current fifth position, although they are still on the chase of fourth-placed Dundee United.
It has been a marked improvement by the Staggies, who finished 10th in the previous two Premiership seasons.
Although Mackay was always keen to steer the club higher up the league, he did not expect to be competing for Europe in the closing stages of his debut season in charge.
Mackay said: “We’ve got these three games, and that possibility is there, but when we came in last summer it wasn’t one of the things that we wrote down.
“I was watching David Moyes’ press conference the other night when he was asked if he thought West Ham would be vying at the top and in European semi-finals, and he firmly believed they would be.
“I can honestly say that on my first day here, that wasn’t something I was writing down on a piece of paper, but I’m delighted that we are.
“We talked to the players about not putting the tools down. We have to concentrate, we’ve got another three games to play before the end of the season, so we’ll just keep it steady.”
Staggies have struck strong connection with supporters
Mackay says County’s success has been built on a unified dynamic, which he says the Staggies supporters have become a major part of.
He added: “Sometimes good things can happen. How far you get with those good things may not be measurable, but I think when players, staff, directors and fans are all pushing in one direction at a football club, you can feel that.
“There’s a good atmosphere between the players themselves. The relationships between the back office and the players is good.
“Our senior management in Steven Ferguson and Roy MacGregor are communicating constantly. I talk to them every day or two.
“Then you add to that the performance levels, the fans at our home pitch and the connection they’ve had with the boys as the season has gone on.
“It was really difficult for the fans at the start of the season.
“It was a new group of players, a new manager, a lot of them hadn’t been here for a year and a lot of them were still tentative about whether to come back to games – or go to any social gathering.
“As the season has gone on, a bit like our results, that togetherness between the players and the fans has grown. That’s palpable, you can see it week-on-week.
“We had 600-700 fans heading over to Aberdeen all celebrating together with the team, so it’s a really good atmosphere at the moment.
“It comes from culture, it comes from behaviours, it comes from people sacrificing the individual for the team, and we have a group of people who are all pulling in one direction at the moment.”
County players demand hard work from team-mates
Although he is thrilled with the togetherness among his squad, Mackay feels he also has players who are not afraid to make demands of each other.
Mackay added: “I want my team to be scrapping and fighting for everything. I want personalities and I want them to be vocal. I’ve got players who are running so hard for each other.
“I was listening to Pep Lijnders, the Liverpool assistant, the other day. It was a clip about the young players coming into the team who are great talents but who have to realise how hard the team has to work without the ball.
“It’s the same at every level. If you want to play in the rarefied air of the top level of anything then you better realise that you’ve got to work hard.
“And I’ve got players going off at each other, to push each other to make sure they work hard. That’s where this team has got to and why we’re reaping the rewards at the minute.”