Ross County chief warns of Premiership dog fight and impact of Aberdeen, Hearts and Hibs getting act together
Crossing the train tracks to the Global Energy Stadium, one Thistle fan, who appeared to have started on the drinks early doors, was being kept on his feet by a couple of mates as they approached the stadium. The visiting fans seemed to outnumber the home support by 10 to 1. Leading 2-0 from the first-leg of the Premiership play-off final, there was a real sense that this was going to be the Jags’ afternoon. Ross County reduced to mere participants, background characters as the likes of Kris Doolan, Brian Graham and Aidan Fitzpatrick took centre stage, the focus fully on the Maryhill Magyars.
It, of course, was a great disservice to the Staggies, whose home support was marginally bigger than the travelling fans. A club which is hugely hospitable, whether visiting as a fan or in a professional capacity. A club which is viewed by many supporters within the Premiership as an important top-flight addition. There is no other away day in the country which has quite the welcome, stepping off the train and within a few paces into The Mallard pub.
Fortune and experience
After the quite stupendous comeback from his players, scoring three in the final 20 minutes to come back from 3-0 down, taking the game to extra-time then penalties, which they won, Malky Mackay alluded to it. “It's quite clear that it would have been lovely for them to go into the Premiership and teams not to have to travel on the A9,” he noted.
Make no mistake. This victory was absolutely massive for the club and the county. Relegation would have meant that for only the second time since the 2009/10 season, the top-flight would have had no Highland representation. Both the ecstasy and relief were evident at full-time, from players, staff, fans and board members, namely owner Roy MacGregor. A man who has done more than anyone else to put Dingwall and this club in the footballing map, he admitted “fortune” was on his club’s side as he praised Mackay's “experience”.
“For this part of the world, the people of the Highlands, we need to have one team in the Premier League," MacGregor said, also being sure to highlight his pride in rivals Inverness CT reaching the Scottish Cup final.
Getting act together
MacGregor stuck by manager Mackay after the 6-1 shellacking at Hearts, a result which left the side four adrift at the bottom going into the split. Relegation would have brought difficult decisions, such are the finances at play. Yet, difficult decisions could still be taken. The County chief spoke of the “dogfight" at the bottom of the Premiership and financial strength of the "city teams" namely, Aberdeen, Hearts and Hibs who all finished in the top five for the first time since the 2004/05 campaign.
"It is a relief and we need to take stock," he said. “We need to see what we got right and what we got wrong. To fall out of this league is really difficult and to play in a game like that was so difficult, with so much at stake for both teams.
“It could have big consequences. We have had the privilege of being in the Premier League all but one season in the last 11 years. It is a great place to be. It is getting harder because the city teams are getting stronger. All the teams in the bottom six you will find will question their budgets for next season. We have all been dragged by the city teams, who after 10 years have got their acts together. Financially, they are more sound.
“If you get into Europe like Hearts, their budget was up to £10million or £11million. The other clubs are down at £2million to £2.5million so it's a dogfight down there. The league doesn’t lie and St Mirren have done really well to get up to sixth.
“You have to have exceptional leadership on and off the park. A lot of us dream. We got sixth last season and could we go better? We brought in better technical players but we maybe lost a wee bit of our soul. We need to examine that to get the balance right. We finished 11th in the league and that is something we will look to improve on.”
‘A bigger gap’
MacGregor is wary that the gap could get bigger between those who finished in the top five and everyone else, especially with the prospect of European group stage football for the team which finishes third, as Aberdeen have this season. Something he calls a “game changer”.
“I think the financial challenges that are here, the Rangers debacle, the whole thing has been really, really challenging," he said. “I am hearing on the grapevine the other so-called community teams overspent, as we did, to try and get in there. There probably has to be some realism for the bottom teams and that might mean a bigger gap.
"The team who wins the Premier League gets £3 million and now you finish third and get £5 million. It is good for Scottish clubs because we need to get our coefficient up. I wouldn’t condemn it but we all got caught up in that trap that it is easy to get into the top six, it isn’t. St Mirren have done a great job and did it and Motherwell pushed all the way.”
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