Ross County, now a real force in Scottish football, reflect on a decade of delight

Since 2012-13, County have enjoyed more seasons in the top tier than either Rangers or Hibs

Ross County celebrate League Cup success in 2016. Picture: Rob Casey/SNS

It was right and proper that, when the tenth anniversary of Ross County’s famous Scottish Cup semi-final win over Celtic rolled around earlier this month, it was celebrated with fervour.

Yet, for all that the Highlanders produced one of the most profound upsets in the competition’s history that afternoon at Hampden, what really deserves to be saluted is how little that success has ended up defining them.

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In April 2010, County had never finished higher than fourth in the First Division, never mind that they had never appeared in the semi-final of a national cup competition. Fast forward ten years, and the only small-time elements of the club are their crowds and the town from which they hail, which has a population of just 5,491.

It now seems inevitable that the indefinite lockdown forced by the Covid-19 global pandemic will see this season’s Premiership abridged, as were the three lower divisions last week. The move appears unavoidable because of the uncertainties surrounding when a resumption of the game will be possible, with social distancing measures expected to remain in place for the rest of the year.

As a result, whenever next season does begin, County will embark on an eighth top-flight season in nine years. To place that in context, the life’s passion of multi-millioniare owner Roy MacGregor stand as one of only eight clubs to have claimed a major trophy in the past decade. Meanwhile, only six clubs have spent more time in the top flight across that period. To give it some context, since first gaining entry to the SPL in 2012-13, County have enjoyed more seasons in the top tier than either Rangers or Hibernian. The Dingwall club, who only moved into the senior set-up from the Highland League 26 years ago, are now a force in the Scottish game.

Co-manager Stuart Kettlewell, who shares these duties with Steven Ferguson, is as well placed as anyone to chart the irresistible rise of the Highland side. The 35-year-old has been with the club for all but two of the past ten years. He was on the bench when Celtic were beaten in that Scottish Cup semi-final, and has directed operations alongside Ferguson since early 2018.

“When you think about the last decade for the club, it has been pretty amazing, some journey,” said Kettlewell. “And it has been a fair one for myself, having been a player, coach and now manager. To have all those different roles for County has been special. But the kind of club it is, everyone that has ever contributed has a place in its history. I think the idea of the collective has been so important to sustaining the club and driving it on, and Steven and I certainly have stressed that.”

Kettlewell believes it is natural for the Celtic victory that earned County a first appearance in a Scottish Cup final – which was lost to Dundee United – to have made such a splash, and carved itself into the consciousness of the football public. It is equally natural that he can see beyond it, and beyond even the club’s first major honour –the League Cup final triumph over Hibernian in 2016, after another semi-final humbling of Celtic.

“It seems that Celtic have been part of some high-profile wins for the club, and that’s to be expected when you overcome them in the national cups at Hampden,” he said. “These were thrilling days, and the same is true of the time [in 2013] we came back from 2-0 down at Victoria Park to beat them 3-2. But the County story wouldn’t be one to take pride in without what we accomplished in league competition.”

And on that front, the 2011-12 season laid the groundwork for County gaining a foothold among the country’s elite. Fresh from their Scottish Cup final appearance, the team “didn’t really get going” in the First Division the next season. But, with Derek Adams reshaping the squad, that changed the following season. Though not initially – a 0-0 draw at home to Morton followed by a 5-1 thumping at Hamilton.

“Derek brought us in on the Sunday, and we thought it was punishment,” Kettlewell recalled. “But his assistant Stuart Balmer came in and told us we had played well at New Douglas Park, and that if we continued we could remain unbeaten the rest of the season. He wasn’t just trying to gee us up, he meant it. And he was right.”

In all, County racked up a 40-game unbeaten run that included, following promotion, a top-flight run in which they held their own against Celtic, Aberdeen and Dundee United.

“We had an unbelievable dressing room, and it was incredible what we did in that run,” Kettlewell said. “It probably tops the League Cup win, the Scottish Cup final and the two Challenge Cup victories in the past ten years. The group then had such pride in their work, such confidence and such a strong mentality. Guys like Michael Gardyne, still here and now top for appearances and goals at the club, and my captain Richie Brittain, again still involved, and others like Rocco Quinn. I loved being in the company of those players, their drive and commitment every day in training, and Steven – who also played his part in the early years of County’s senior league days – and myself look to instil that competitiveness in the squad now. The fact there is that bit of continuity with past successful teams here is a big thing, I feel.”

Kettlewell never loses sight of the fact that County are forever upsetting the odds “in having all the biggest draws in the Scottish game” coming to Dingwall “home to only five-and-a-half-thousand people”.

“I always say I don’t think you’ll find any other top-flight club in Europe with so small a population base,” the County manager said.

But the club have size where it matters: the wallet of owner MacGregor. The largesse of the 67-year-old, who amassed his fortune in oil rig logistics, has been crucial to providing the club with a solid financial footing. Kettlewell believes MacGregor’s motivation has been as vital to the flourishing of County as his money.

“His desire to give something back to the Highlands in the form of a club that can compete with the best keeps his blood flowing,” said the 35-year-old. “He is a brilliant man, and has always been on there to offer support and advice to Steven and me. We speak to him several times a day.”

The businessman brought Kettlewell back to the club to become a development coach following two years with Brora Rangers that ended when a knee injury prematurely ended his career five years ago. Guiding his charges to the league title in his first season he puts “up there with anything at the club, with our young players – many discarded by other teams – coming out on top against the best emerging talents in the country”.

Relegation in 2018-19 had been the one blemish in County’s record across the 2010s. They were in a hopeless position when Kettlewell and Ferguson replaced the sacked Owen Coyle in March 2018, but that is not how the co-manager sees it.

“I thought we were capable of staying up when we came in, so we take our share of the responsibility for the fact that didn’t happen,” Kettlewell said. “It was a low point. But it made us all the more determined to come right back up. I’m extremely proud we did that, and proud of everything that County have achieved. All the big city clubs are back in the top flight so it won’t be easy to have a next ten years like the dramatic decade past. But we have aspirations, and I’m convinced we can create more memories to savour.”

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