John Hughes: Settling in at Ross County, working within Covid protocols, the transfer window and the job in hand

“File:Home of the Staggies – – 922193.jpg” by Gordon Hatton is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

You took charge of the club on 21st December. How does it feel to be back in management and how are you settling into life at the club?

It’s great to be back. Nothing much usually changes in football as when you go into any club, you always have the same challenges. However, I’ve came in here at Christmas, with the window on the horizon and of course with the Covid situation that we all find ourselves living with.

We played Celtic in my first game and we’ve played five games in fourteen days so it’s been intense since day one. We also lost our striker Ross Stewart to injury against Celtic which wasn’t ideal as we’ve been without him.

But at the end of the day that’s football and you just have to get on with it. One thing that is for sure, I have a group of players that are full of enthusiasm and who all work as hard as they can on the training pitch each day.

They’ve suffered a little with confidence given the position we are in at this moment but I want to instil them with the freedom to express themselves especially on a match day. I see it everyday in training and the challenge is to do that on a Saturday when it really matters.

So far, I’ve seen bits of it and we’ve been unlucky at times. If you look at the St Mirren game before we had the red cards, we were the better team. We played very well against St Johnstone in the first half particularly the first thirty minutes then St Johnstone improved their game in the second half.

The Hibs match was just brilliant for us and the key now is to strive for consistency because if we can ensure we have a consistent level of performance then we will be alright.

Football is a simple game in that regard. We need to shut the door at one end and make sure we score goals at the other. Every manager has that problem.

Credit: M J Richardson / Stadium House at Almondvale Stadium / CC BY-SA 2.0

If you look at our game against Livingston you can see the challenge of deciding whether to stick or twist in the game. It wasn’t a great game of football as it was more of a battle. We lost a poor goal in the first ten minutes then got ourselves back into the game with a wee bit of luck and a great finish. Second half, Livingston were the better team but we stood up to them. I was playing with a sitting midfielder to ensure we had three in midfield but I felt that we could have a go at Livingston and I put another striker on as I felt that it would allow us to get up the pitch.

Unfortunately, the game finished with a 3-1 defeat and that sums up the challenge of deciding whether to stick or twist. Your damned if you do and damned if you don’t but we have a brilliant group and it’s been great to work with them. That passion for the game never leaves you to be honest. Football is fantastic and it’s great to be back.

You’ve always been open that you like to play an expansive style of football. Given the position that the club were in when you took charge, is that principle still at the forefront of your mind?

It’s absolutely still at the forefront of my mind and to be fair to the group, we played that way against Hibs and it worked very well. If you look at our first goal we played seven passes from our goalkeeper to the final finish without any Hibs players touching the ball so we can do it.

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I see that confidence in training and as a group we just need to have the trust in each other to carry it out on each match day.

That being said we aren’t just going to go gung-ho in every single game. I’ve been consistent from day one that I’ve come in here that everything we do has to be built on a solid shape. Sometimes that may take a little bit from the front players as Oli Shaw can battling away against two big centre backs at times but you’ve got to weigh up the pros and cons and make sure you strike the right balance.

We are constantly looking to improve each and every day as a group of staff and the players appreciate that. They give me everything in terms of effort with the demands that I place upon them.

Another big talking point within society at the moment is whether elite football should continue. Do you feel safe with the Covid protocols that are in place to ensure the game can continue as it is?

I feel as safe as I possibly can do. For example, at the club we have a full time Covid compliance officer who is a former policeman and he ensures that the protocols are as clear as they can be and that they are stringently enforced.

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We socially distance and ensure we wear masks as appropriate at the club. To give you an example that showcases the challenges for clubs especially ahead of the transfer window, we have a few trialists at the club. Before they get anywhere near the club they must produce a negative Covid test before they arrive. They aren’t allowed into the main building. They change separately to the group in accommodation that is set up for them as individuals to ensure they are distanced from each other and the group.

We also take 3 coaches to matches to ensure that we are following the social distancing guidelines to the letter. If that’s what it takes then it’s important that we do it.

So in terms of safety, I feel 100% safe because we have to be sensible and follow all of the rules which we do so to the letter because of the stringent guidelines that we have at the club. It doesn’t change how I feel when I’m coaching in the training field and that is the main thing.

What has it been like returning to the game and managing the club without fans at both home and away matches?

Credit: Callum McFadden

It’s said that football without the fans is nothing and I would say that it just isn’t the same. We played against Celtic at Celtic Park and it was eerily quiet. I looked over at Neil Lennon during the game and said to him that it just wasn’t the same and didn’t feel like the way football should.

Neil agreed with me and laughed as he realised it was my first game back and said to me that it’s a weird situation.

Of course, teams have adapted to it and some have coped better than others but you have to adapt as we can’t avoid it. Covid is a reality in all of our lives and with the talk of football continuing or stopping, I feel for the decision makes as you can’t get it right for getting it wrong. You’ll never please everyone.

What I will say is that when I was out of the game and people were calling for fans to get back in as soon as possible while people were losing their lives, I wasn’t of that view. My thoughts were to hold off as ultimately there are more things than football. As a country, we do need to keep striving to move forward but we can only do that by sticking to the protocols.

Football still gives a lot of people joy during these times and it’s great that fans can still watch the games online and interact with the clubs but it’s not the same without them there. It will be great to have them back when it’s safe to have them back.

You referenced the transfer window, what are you looking for this month?

I’m open about it. I want to get the best available players into the football club to enhance the group. The players know this and understand it. My message to them is always to ensure that they give everything in training to keep their place in the side and improve as footballers because in this game if it’s not you who is doing it then someone else is desperate to do it.

In terms of specific positions, it’s clear that we will need another goalkeeper with Ross Doohan returning to Celtic. We do have some talented young goalkeepers at the club but I think that it’s just a bit too soon for them at this stage.

Anything that catches my eye and will enhance the group that we have has to be the aim. That may well be a younger player with fresh legs who isn’t fazed by anything.

As ever, the challenge is our location as certain players don’t want to come up the highlands for family reasons. Recruitment is such a crucial part of the game and you can have to be very careful that you recruit the right types of player.

That’s why the players that I’ve signed so far such as Tony Andreu have came in as he is the right profile for us. We are also looking at Sam Stanton as he’s a player who can look after the football and is a good professional. A deal for Sam isn’t done yet but we will look at it this week. In terms of fitness he’s at a good level and being comfortable on the ball has never been an issue for Sam.

Lastly, what would your message be to the supporters for the rest of the season?

My message is simple: please stick with us and stay safe. I feel for you all as you can’t watch the team as you normally would but if we all stick to the protocols together then we will get out of the this.

Be supportive of the players and the club and know that we are doing everything that we can each and every day to stay in this league. We won’t always win every game but we will battle in every match and ensure our opponents know that they are in a game.

The players give me and you as fans everything and that won’t change. My job is to ensure that we remain positive and retain belief in ourselves and go again week in week out to make our you proud of our team.

Credit: Ross County Football Club

Published by Callum McFadden

Football CFB founder. Freelance football writer & broadcaster of over 350 interviews with professional players and managers across all levels of football.

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