Why Jim McIntyre's sacking from Ross County wasn't much of a surprise
On the face of it this looks like the harshest sacking of recent seasons. McIntyre’s record as Ross County boss reads ninth, sixth, seventh in the league, and winners of the 2016 League Cup. Given the size of the club - they’ve only played five top flight seasons - that’s a terrific return. They’ve been poor to start this season, but it was assumed he had enough credit in the bank to survive through more than seven games before being given the chop, especially as County are still above the relegation places in tenth place.
It’s only by taking a closer look at the Highland club that you begin to appreciate why McIntyre’s past accomplishments never secured him the full backing of the fans or board. With the exception of the League Cup victory, and perhaps his first season when he managed to keep the club clear of relegation after taking over a mess of a squad from Derek Adams, there’s never been a sense that he’s overachieved.
In the past two campaigns, even though sixth and seventh were achieved, supporters believed the team was capable of more and only McIntyre’s failings stopped them from doing so.
Is this expecting too much? Though never explicitly stated, fans have long assumed that chairman Roy McGregor invests in the playing side, and that County actually spend more than a club of their size typically would.
The Sporting Intelligence survey has Ross County down in ninth for average wage of first-team player. This doesn’t paint County as much of a spending club - it correlates with their average attendances - but there are other factors to take into account. Even if we believe that this information is rock solid, with footballers notoriously reticent about discussing their wage packet, it’s still only an average per player. You could be 12th on the list with an average of £52,000 a year for each first-team member, but if you have 30 players in the squad then you’ll be paying more than a team in 7th with a player wage average of £65,000 per annum if there are only 20 players in their squad.
Ross County have traditionally had one of the bigger squads in the Scottish Premiership since they recruited a number of foreign imports at the halfway point in their debut campaign. Last season they used a whopping 33 players. There were several youngsters in this group, but again that’s only going to take their average player cost down in the SI survey, and doesn’t give a true reflection on what the likes of Andrew Davies take home per week.
McIntyre has brought in 49 players in just over three years. It not only speaks to a lack of continuity, with McIntyre prone to changing both the personnel and shape of the team at the drop of a hat, it’s also a condemnation on this season’s squad, which is fairly unbalanced. Davis Keillor-Dunn has looked good in recent weeks, but the 19-year-old is arguably the only player they have in the squad capable of taking on and beating an opponent. The only other real wide player is Michael Gardyne, and his game is more about energy, work rate and getting his crosses in early. For a manager whose main strategy tends to be to get crosses into the box, recruiting out-and-out wingers has been a blind-spot for him.
In the centre of midfield there’s a lack of guile, with no-one really capable of making defence splitting passes. Christopher Routis, Jamie Lindsay, Tim Chow, Jim O’Brien, and Ross Draper are all players who’ll run and get stuck in, but don’t have the ingenuity that County require.
At the back there’s a lack of presence whenever Andrew Davies isn’t playing, and in attack there are four middling options with no talisman. After Liam Boyce’s sale to Burton Albion, his place was taken by Thomas Mikkelsen and Billy Mckay. That’s one player who was unable to fire their club to the top flight last season, and another who failed to save theirs from relegation. What’s more, they’re both different players to Boyce, who had excellent technical and aerial skills. Not surprisingly, neither have hit the ground running.
Speaking of Boyce, the deployment of the striker in a deeper midfield role for three months last season was something which rankled with supporters and had many predicting gloom for the Staggies before a ball was kicked this term. Between the end of January and start of April, Ross County only won one match - against Ian Cathro’s Hearts, so it barely counts - with their top goalscorer playing in the No.10 position.
It was complete mismanagement of one of the best goalscorers in the country. Boyce only netted once, from outside the penalty area, and the club’s form plummeted. Defeat to Partick Thistle had them three points off the bottom with eight games to play, but results picked up once more when he was returned to his natural position. It was perhaps this eight-game unbeaten spell which gave McIntyre a stay of execution.
For supporters the lengthy Boyce-in-midfield trial was typical of the manager. He would often select the wrong option and then be hesitant to change. Paul Quinn never impressed in his second spell at the club following his return from Aberdeen. The defender couldn’t perform alongside Davies, as neither had the pace to deal with nippy attackers, but the pairing was persevered with for too long. A back three experiment with Jay McEveley alongside the aforementioned duo - individually they were thought to be among the highest paid players at the club - was a complete disaster, and contributed heavily to County meekly dropping their League Cup crown without being able to escape the group stages.
Even in the cup-winning campaign there were a number of question marks, most of which revolved around Martin Woods. Ironically, County might actually be missing Woods this season, as he was a player who could spot a pass, but his energy levels left a lot to be desired for a two-man central midfield duo in McIntyre’s preferred 4-4-2. Despite this, Woods appeared undroppable at times, and his presence in the side hampered the form of fan favourite Jackson Irvine, who was forced into doing the running of two men. Incredibly, when County began to waver a little around the turn of the year that season, it was Irvine who spent time on the bench.
All in all, if we’re looking at football from an emotional point of view then this sacking remains very harsh. McIntyre gave the club something nobody expected when they defeated Hibs in the League Cup final - a game where he got his tactics spot on. As a result of this, he would have felt entitled to more time in the hotseat to turn things around.
But if we’re looking at this from a business perspective, through the eyes of their chairman, then it’s hard to argue too much with the reasoning. Just like Derek Adams three years ago, McGregor no longer felt the man in charge was the right one to take the club forward. And just like with Adams, there was more than enough evidence to support his opinion.