In the 2009-10 season, Ross County became a national concern after a famous win against Celtic in the semi-final of the Scottish Cup. The result was just reward for a club that showed confidence in promoting a young, ambitious manager from within after previously suffering from short-term strategies. Derek Adams took a long-term view with the building of his squad, leading to their run to the cup final. Ross County eventually lost to Dundee United at Hampden, but following the match, Adams made clear he had a two-year plan to gain promotion to the SPL.
For a number of reasons outwith the scope of this article, Ross County’s league campaign in 2010-11 started very slowly. Erratic form led to County sitting in sixth place by mid-November, but only a point in front of ninth place Stirling Albion in a compact division. Last place was occupied by Dundee, who had suffered a 25 point deduction for falling in to administration.
Derek Adams’s head was turned by the vacant assistant manager’s position at Hibernian, a move he might later regret, and which left Ross County with a strategic decision to make of their own.
The County board appointed Willie McStay, a coach at Celtic who had moderate success with Sligo Rovers in Ireland and who had spent a year in Hungary with Ujpest Dosza before returning to look after Celtic’s reserves.
The general feeling was that McStay was a natural successor to Adams. In McStay, the Ross County board looked for a young, determined manager who could mould the squad into his own vision and in turn, provide McStay with a platform on which to build a reputation on.
However, despite the recent trend for appointing inexperienced managers (in 2011-12, the four senior divisions in Scotland were won by managers under the age of 40), the approach always carries the risk that the appointment might fail. Ross County would have thought that, with a team that did so well in 2009-10, the danger of ultimate failure was quite unlikely (particularly in a division with two part-time teams). Indeed, chairman Roy MacGregor stated that he was looking for “progress and consistency” in the league.
The beginning of McStay’s time at Ross County was innocuous. His introduction to the club and the media’s coverage of him was all as one would expect. He showed respect to the club generally. He thought he was in the right place at the right time, with the Challenge Cup Final scheduled to be his first match in the dug-out.
There was one quote of interest from McStay’s initial media briefing:
“I always remember walking across the pitch against Steaua Bucharest at looking at 30,000 fans. I realised ‘this is what I want’. It was a good introduction because the Hungarian v Romanian rivalry is huge.
“Over there gave me an insight into management and everything was quite extreme in Eastern Europe. You could say it has prepared me for Dingwall!”
This was a playful quote and there was little controversial about it, but during his tenure at Victoria Park, McStay mentioned his experience of managing in front of thousands of supporters on more than one occasion, perhaps to illustrate his experience of managing under-pressure situations. It was a point lost on Ross County supporters, who had a recent memory of a national cup final at a crowded Hampden Park.
With McStay taking charge from the last week in November, he had five weeks before the transfer window opened again, giving him enough time to assess his squad before making any necessary changes. The traditional winter fixture disruptions meant that McStay only had two matches before the turn of new year: a 1-1 draw away to Partick Thistle and a fortunate 2-2 draw at home to Greenock Morton, where Scott Boyd’s injury-time equaliser salvaged a point from what should have been an Alan Jenkins-inspired away win.
It is almost always the case that a new football manager wishes to bring in his own players; players whom he can trust and associate with. Nevertheless, from this unqualified point of view, the priority of player signings should be to improve the first team or to provide the required cover for certain positions in the squad.
The beginning of McStay’s downfall was his signing policy. While it was obvious that several signings were required to improve the imbalanced squad inherited from Adams, McStay’s signings arguably made worse the lack of equilibrium. For instance, Ross County’s team at the beginning of the 2010-11 season had an excess of central midfielders and centre-forwards, but not enough cover at full-back or wide-midfield positions.
McStay brought in:
- Jason Marr, a natural centre-back drafted in on-loan for a six-month spell from Celtic who, more often than not, was asked to play at right-back.
- Marc Fitzpatrick, a natural central-left midfielder from Motherwell, who started in central midfield but was quickly required to cover at an unfamiliar (at the time) left-back position.
- Steven Milne from St Johnstone, another forward to compete with Garry Wood, Andrew Barrowman, Paul Di Giacomo, Steven Craig and Michael Gardyne.
- Graham Gartland, a young but talented centre-back also from St Johnstone, to help cover after Darren McCormack’s broken leg against Dundee at the beginning of January, but who was surprisingly only signed on a month-long loan.
All four players were good enough to play well in the First Division, there can be no doubt.
However, three of the four were often played out of position in order to find a place for them in the team, which meant they were unable to reach their best form during McStay’s time at the club. The fourth, Gartland, was not at County long enough to make a lasting impression. Although Fitzpatrick eventually consolidated his place in the team at left-back in the first half of the 2011-12 season, none of the signings could be seen as particular improvements on the players already in the squad.
McStay stuck predominantly with a 4-4-2 formation during his time at Ross County. This is no different to the majority of managers in the SFL, but it was the use of the players that was concerning. There was no creativity from the centre of the park, little natural width in midfield and the full-backs did not overlap.
He seemed to prefer Jason Marr at right-back to Gary Miller, who had previously made the attacking right-back role his own. Marr scored with a powerful shot from range against Cowdenbeath, but it was the exception to his otherwise uninspiring contribution going forward. That is not to fault the player, who is much more comfortable as a covering centre-back than a marauding full-back. Marr proved himself as a useful defender at centre-back later in the same season.
However, the most attack-minded full-back in the squad – Miller – was left on the substitute’s bench or out of the match-day squad altogether, when the 4-4-2 system deployed relied so heavily on the full-backs pushing forward.
There was no balance to the centre of midfield. The use of 4-4-2 typically relies upon mixing industry and passing ability at the heart of the team, but the whole midfield was flat and failed to link defence with attack, which meant that long balls were pinged from defence down the line for possession to turn over more readily than under Adams. The classy Michael Gardyne was played on the right wing to no success. McStay dabbled with various midfielders in his nine matches in charge, but never found the same blend as Adams had in the 2009-10 season with Paul Lawson and Stuart Kettlewell (Lawson was injured for most of January, which did not help McStay’s position). Incidentally, McStay’s reprisal of Kettlewell’s role in central midfield was one of his few enduring legacies, with the player used sparingly earlier in the season under Adams.
Meanwhile, the two centre-forward positions were swapped with every match as McStay desperately attempted to find a goal-scoring formula. None of the forwards used looked likely to score, but with no confidence from a consistent run in the team and little assistance from runs from midfield, County were becoming increasingly goal-shy.
McStay never won a competitive match in his nine matches in charge. His team had a points per match average of 0.57, nearly half of Derek Adams’s from earlier in the season (which, in itself, was below expectations). By the time of McStay’s departure, County had a goal-per-match average of 0.58 – an alarming statistic.
The manager might have still been in a job for several matches more if it was not for a man of the match display by Dundee United’s 39-year-old goalkeeper Steve Banks, as United were held to a goalless draw at Tannadice in the Scottish Cup. The replay in Dingwall was an entertaining match and Ross County belied their league form to almost win the tie. McStay broke from his recent convention by deploying a 4-2-3-1 formation, with wide forwards and Martin “Jimmy” Scott supporting Barrowman up front. Tactically, it was a quick fix to the tired 4-4-2 but it seemed to work. Banks was forced into a couple of point-blank saves in normal time and saved a couple of penalties after extra-time. County in effect had two 0-0 draws with United, but the performances were promising.
The small success of the United matches made the last two home matches (1-1 against Cowdenbeath and 0-0 against Stirling Albion) all the more frustrating to those involved with the club. McStay reverted to 4-4-2 formations, leaving out Barrowman and insisting with Milne and Wood up front. The flat midfield four could not provide for the front men regularly enough and the confidence of both strikers was low (both forwards were guilty of missing from promising opportunities). Gardyne was played on the right wing once again against Stirling, where he tried to cut in too often into Stirling’s ultra-defensive five-man backline. With Marr failing to support on the overlap, Gardyne was double and sometimes triple-marked, in a position unnatural to him. When County should have been creating two-on-one situations on the flank, Stirling Albion were completely untroubled.
The successive draws against Cowdenbeath and Stirling were looked upon as lost opportunities to keep County away from relegation. Instead, they found themselves joint second bottom with Cowdenbeath and only four points ahead of Stirling with 16 matches remaining. Dundee were on the same points as County and Cowden, but were in the middle of an inspired unbeaten streak that would make a mockery of their 25 point penalty.
McStay left the club “by mutual consent” on the evening after the Stirling Albion match.
Given the hopeless nature of the final two matches, it was no surprise to see McStay given his jotters. It might be harsh on any football manager to lose their job after only nine matches in charge (Alex Smith certainly thought so), but the levels of performance in the league were plummeting after an average start. Relegation beckoned.
Jimmy Calderwood was given a mandate to keep Ross County in the First Division, which he succeeded by the penultimate match of the season. Calderwood suffered from the same kind of tactical decision-making as McStay, sometimes playing even more players out of position than his predecessor. Calderwood eventually found his first-choice XI – unsurprisingly similar to Derek Adams’s – which coincided with safety from relegation.
Maybe McStay would have kept Ross County from relegation. Maybe he only needed some more time to recover the situation. From the point of view from the board of directors, it was never likely.
Willie McStay is now the head coach at Bristol City’s academy, spear-headed by former St Johnstone manager Derek McInnes. McStay will likely do a good job of coaching the youth players, as he did at Celtic. The opinion, though, is that his coaching ability does not transfer easily to being a first-team manager.