Roy MacGregor never hid his admiration for Malky Mackay after hiring him as Ross County manager.
That underlines how difficult a decision it must have been for the Staggies chairman to call time on Mackay’s two-and-a-half year reign at Victoria Park.
After the Staggies escaped relegation on the final day in 2021, MacGregor and chief executive Steven Ferguson were intent on transforming the entire structure of the club.
Following the departure of John Hughes, former Watford and Cardiff City boss Mackay was tasked with a remit which stretched far beyond that of first team manager.
It was an opportunity which Mackay had long waited for, having not managed at club level since a short spell at Wigan Athletic which ended in 2015.
There was talk of a three-year plan, which would see Mackay use his experience to drive the modernisation of a number of key areas of the club.
The likes of recruitment, sports science, medicine and analysis were fields which Mackay, a former English Premier League manager, was well-versed to implement improvements in.
Perhaps most crucial of all was youth development. It was an area which Mackay, whose previous role was a four-year stint as Scottish FA performance director, clearly remains hugely passionate about.
There has been a concerted effort to plan a route-map for the Staggies to develop their own prospects into first team players, and the full fruits of that may only be revealed in the years to come.
Mackay also did not hesitate in applying drastic change to the first team squad he inherited.
Big changes from start of Mackay’s reign
The Staggies parted company with 10 players just days after Mackay was appointed, with 12 new faces arriving by the end of the summer transfer window.
It was far from plain-sailing from the start, with County forced to forfeit two League Cup group stage matches – resulting in their elimination from the tournament – due to a Covid-19 outbreak at the club.
The Staggies also made a slow start to their league campaign, with Mackay at a particularly low ebb following a 3-2 home defeat to Livingston in October that year, which made it 10 matches without a win.
A pivotal turning point came days later when County ended that barren cycle in the most spectacular way possible – courtesy of a thumping 5-0 win at Dundee.
The nature of that win gave County the impetus to approach the remainder of the season with increasing confidence and swagger, spearheaded by some flamboyant attacking play from the likes of Regan Charles-Cook and Joseph Hungbo.
A dramatic turnaround in fortunes was capped at Pittodrie, when a 1-0 victory over Aberdeen secured a top-six finish for just the third time in the club’s history.
It put the Staggies in a strong position for unprecedented European qualification, however that proved to be a stride too far for the Highlanders.
Difficult second season in charge
In what became a recurring theme, Mackay had to make vast changes to his squad ahead of the following season.
Recruitment this time around was not so successful, with a number of the 10 players drafted in going on to have short-lived stays in Dingwall.
It became increasingly apparent that the Staggies were destined for a relegation scrap, with a 6-1 defeat to Hearts at Tynecastle leaving them four points adrift at the foot of the table going into the split.
The decision was taken for Mackay to continue to spearhead County’s fight, and he managed to salvage a play-off spot from a perilous position by leapfrogging Dundee United.
In their two-legged tie against Partick Thistle, County looked destined for the Championship after falling to a 3-0 deficit with only 20 minutes of the second match remaining.
For the second successive season, Mackay had navigated a way out of a problem position.
Hopes for Staggies to kick on from play-off drama
It was a victory which prompted jubilant scenes at Victoria Park, with supporters piling on to the pitch to show an affection for their club which had not been palpable all season.
Despite a promising start to the campaign, the recent run of nine matches without a victory has clearly deflated that feel-good factor.
Although the Staggies are now second bottom in the Premiership they have plenty time to salvage their campaign. They are only two points adrift of eighth spot in the table, a final position which would be seen as a more than decent season given the competitiveness of the top-flight.
A vital run, which sees the Staggies at home in five of their next seven matches, starts with the visit of Kilmarnock on November 25. Assistant boss Don Cowie is in interim charge, but it still remains to be seen who will lead that charge.
The direction in which MacGregor and Ferguson go from here will be of huge interest to the Staggies’ fans, given the foundations Mackay has put in place at Dingwall.