The Dingwall club had been ravaged by a pre-season Covid outbreak that affected almost every one of the playing squad, while new manager Malky Mackay was trying to piece together a new-look squad after John Hughes had kept them up the campaign before.
County made some big decisions in the summer, not least by appointing Mackay due to his involvement in a racism and sexism scandal at Cardiff City, but also parting company with record appearance and goalscorer Michael Gardyne, club captain Iain Vigurs and experienced faces such as Ross Draper, Billy Mckay and Jason Naismith. The old guard had been moved on.
This had been the plan even before Mackay’s arrival, as chief executive Steven Ferguson pointed out earlier this season, but the arrival of the pandemic did not allow County to shed its skin as quickly as desired due to costs.
With a host of fresh faces, either on permanent or loan deals, such as Jack Baldwin, Joseph Hungbo and Jake Vokins, this was very much a new dawn in Dingwall. But it didn’t start well. Ten league matches in, Ross County had three points and no wins. The doubters were out in force, already condemning them to relegation. Some further questioned Mackay's appointment. But crucially, nobody in Dingwall was panicking. Not long-standing chairman Roy MacGregor, nor Mackay, nor those that matter at the club. They believed in the project. They knew it would come good. And it has.
Saturday’s 1-0 win over Aberdeen, courtesy of Watford loanee Hungbo’s 86th-minute penalty, moved County up into the upper echelons of the Premiership on 40 points. They are fighting with Dundee United and Motherwell for fourth and fifth places. The former guarantees Europe and the latter may well do so too, depending on who wins the Scottish Cup.
The triumph at Pittodrie may be the crowning moment of County’s ascension but this has been coming. When they tonked Dundee 5-0 at Dens Park on October 27 last year, it was their first win in the league. It gave the players confidence to grow and kick on. Since that win on Tayside, only Celtic, Rangers, Hearts, Hibs and Dundee United have beaten them in the league. The Staggies have been very good at picking off those inferior to them.
Mackay has taken a huge hands-on approach to managing the football department and is a popular figure at the club. His plan for them impressed MacGregor when interviewed for the job last summer. He has constructed a resolute, hard-working team with unsung heroes such as Connor Randall, Alex Iacovitti, Jordan Tillson and Jordan White. They allow flair players such as the league’s top-scorer Regan Charles-Cook and Hungbo to flourish. Team spirit is huge, epitomised by a bonding session in Edinburgh over the Christmas break when go-karting and escape rooms were on the menu.
They lost one of their best players in January when Arsenal loanee Harry Clarke left and joined Hibs shortly afterwards. There is some irony that he is languishing in the bottom six. His team-mates quickly adapted to life without him.
Ross County have never played European football, but they now have a right good chance of qualifying for the Europa Conference League next season. They are the team with momentum, with confidence. The matchwinner in Aberdeen, Hungbo, believes “the sky is the limit” for them. “I don’t understand why we can’t go and challenge,” the 22-year-old said. “We have come from the bottom of the league and taken it to the top six. There’s no reason why we can’t look at Europe and see where we can go from there.”
Hungbo, a thoughtful speaker for his age, gave an insight into how Ross County picked themselves off the canvas earlier in the season.
“We’ve gone through hard times and good times and we have now got our rewards for the hard work,” he explained.
“There was always a process about how we approached everything. We needed to understand it didn’t matter if it didn’t work, it was always the right way. There were times we were losing games but playing well. We just had to believe in ourselves and the way we were playing.
"Everyone has contributed to us being in this position. It’s not just what you do on the pitch it’s what you do off it, around the place, everything matters.
“The manager has been phenomenal. He has understood the process and believed in it. There’s been times when he has believed it and we haven’t but we just needed to see it from his perspective. We have taken it on board, he has shown us the way and we have ended up in the top six. So huge credit to the manager. He has helped me adapt to the situation too.”
There will be other clubs taking note of the manager now. Mackay’s stock was understandably very low in the wake of his departure from Cardiff, but what he has presided over at the Global Energy Stadium is eye-catching. Backed up by talented academy prospects such as Matthew Wright, Adam Mackinnon and Ryan MacLeman, the future is looking brighter and brighter for the Highland club. Perhaps the biggest concern for County is that someone higher up the football food chain may be tempted to hire Mackay at the end of the season, however unpalatable that thought is for some.
For now, it’s only optimism in Dingwall. “We have achieved so much so lets take it all the way to the finish line,” Hungbo smiled as he finished off his post-match press conference. You wouldn’t put it past them.