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Steven Ferguson details Ross County’s challenges and opportunities in maximising vast catchment area

Chief executive Ferguson recently undertook a reshuffle of the Staggies' youth academy.

Ross County chief executive Steven Ferguson. Image: SNS
Ross County chief executive Steven Ferguson. Image: SNS

Steven Ferguson believes the challenges brought on by Ross County’s geographical location present opportunities in equal measure.

The Staggies reshuffled their youth academy during the summer, with Gary Warren spearheading the new-look structure.

It is a role which Ferguson held prior to assuming his current role as chief executive, with the 46-year-old having also served as co-manager alongside Stuart Kettlewell between 2018 and 2020.

As one of two full-time clubs in the Highlands and Islands, County have made big efforts to put their stamp on a vast catchment area.

Gary Warren has stepped into the role of academy manager with Ross County. Image: Ross County FC

County’s under-18s were given the opportunity to play at Victoria Park for the first time on Friday, with Carl Tremarco’s side showing up well in spite of their 4-1 defeat to Elite League side Kilmarnock in the Scottish Youth Cup.

Ferguson says the Staggies are determined to leave no stone unturned in their efforts to develop homegrown players.

Staggies ‘punching above weight’

He said: “For a club our size, and the resources we have got, I think we punch above our weight like we do with the first team.

“Geographically we all know the challenge. There are kids that have to travel so far to even get to our academy, but we never have any complaints.

“For an academy player to be successful, there are so many people involved.

“You need an input from their school and education, along with their parents and family. You also need an input from coaches.

“We need to keep on top of the trends, whether it be sports science, medical provision, analysis and data collection.

Ross County chief executive Steven Ferguson. Image: SNS

“It all goes into the pot, but there needs to be enjoyment in it as well and that’s what I’m seeing through all the age groups.

“They are accepting of how difficult the challenge is as well.

“Clubs will get labelled for having no kids coming through, or they aren’t doing enough for the players.

“It’s really not the case for any club. It’s very difficult, but it’s the challenge we all accept.”

Islanders making mark with Staggies

The Staggies have had a number of success stories from the islands, with Lewis-born pair Matthew Wright and Adam Mackinnon having racked up a number of first team games between them.

Forward Wright is currently on loan with Elgin City while Mackinnon recently joined Brora Rangers on a temporary spell, with both players having impressed at League One side Montrose last term.

Matthew Wright celebrates after scoring a late equaliser against Rangers in 2022. Image: SNS

Andrew Macleod is also from Lewis, while George Robesten grew up in Shetland, with both players on loan with Nairn County at present.

Ferguson says the club’s emphasis on identifying the best talent from the islands is beginning to pay off – with the club boosted by their close proximity to the Highland League.

He added: “The relationship with the islands has been strengthened and built on for years.

“It is great when you see the fruits of the labour that has been put in.

“That’s why I think it’s so important, when you speak about academies, that you talk about 10 years.

“If you have a kid coming in at the age of eight, which is pretty normal, you will leave the system at 18 whether that be leaving the club or going into the first team setup.

“It’s a 10-year development cycle. That’s a lot of input from a lot of different people.

“Academy football is fine from a development point of view, but the experience kids get is great.

Andrew Macleod in action for Nairn County against Strathspey Thistle. Image: Sandy McCook/DC Thomson.

“Everybody says it’s good for them to play in a man’s league, but for me as someone with such a big passion for the academy it’s equally as important for them to play with men.

“We speak about geographically how difficult it is for us up here. I genuinely believe this is one way we do benefit from having the Highland League.

“It’s real football development – it’s not tarted up with a cherry on the top. It’s the actual hard graft of going out and playing games alongside men and against men.

“That is a great learning curve.”

County excited by fresh academy structure

Ferguson oversaw a reshuffle of County’s academy structure in the summer, which he believes will give young players the best possible opportunity to progress with the Dingwall club.

The Staggies chief executive hopes more can follow in the footsteps of homegrown youngsters Dylan Smith, Josh Reid and Ross Munro who are part of the Staggies’ first team at present.

Dylan Smith in action for Scotland under-17s against Malta last year. Image: Shutterstock.

Ferguson said: “Ross County, over a number of years, have had a really proactive academy.

“Everybody that has been involved in it through a number of years has contributed hugely.

“We reshuffled our academy in the close season after a lot of thought, linked to what our long-term strategy is and how we best see us developing young players.

“We reshuffled some staff, and some job specs that cover the model we’ve got.

From left: Gordon Duff (head of youth and academy operations), Gary Warren (academy manager), Carl Tremarco (head of professional academy and loans). Image: Ross County FC.

“Although it’s not vast in numbers, we feel what we’ve got in place this year really fits the model we are working to. That’s what’s most important for the club.

“I’m excited – it was a big call from me to change it in the summer.

“I just felt I needed to look at what was best for the club, and for the young players.

“Time will tell whether the decision I’ve made is correct, but I’m comfortable it has been made for the right reason.

“I’m looking forward to seeing the success of this next phase for the academy.”