New Ross County manager John Hughes radiates positivity, but the club remain engulfed in gloom.
County are bottom of the Scottish Premiership, winless since September, and beset by problems at both ends of the pitch.
The removal of Stuart Kettlewell as manager, with Hughes installed in his place last week, has been followed by successive 2-0 defeats.
So why have things gone so badly wrong in Dingwall and how can Hughes turn it around?
‘Trying too hard’ to stop the rot
After a decent start to the league season – one defeat in five – County’s form has plummeted.
Their winless run stretches to 12 games and over three months since a 1-0 away victory over St Johnstone on 19 September.
Hopes of last month’s stunning League Cup success over Celtic marking a turning point have been shattered by a six-game losing run, including a quarter-final exit against Livingston, without mustering a goal in response.
County have continued to flatline in Hughes’ two matches in charge. Little was expected of his debut, away to Celtic, but a home game against St Mirren on Saturday offered the chance to begin a recovery.
However, after an excellent opening half-hour, the hosts lost Josh Reid and Ross Draper to second bookings either side of the interval before succumbing to late goals in a 2-0 defeat.
It has left Hughes – who takes his team to fourth-placed Hibernian on Wednesday – feeling things have “conspired against us” early in his tenure, but he maintains the players’ confidence remains intact.
“Maybe they are trying too hard and trying to impress too much,” the manager says.
“I’ve seen a real, honest, authentic, hard-working bunch of guys. I’ve heard we’re not getting much luck, but I’m not buying that. You make your own luck by having a go and being the player you can be.”
County’s defensive vulnerability is not a new issue since their return to the top flight last season. They finished two points above the relegation spot in 10th and their backline was the leakiest in the curtailed Premiership with 60 goals conceded in 30 matches.
Those flaws have continued, with only second-bottom Hamilton Academical having shipped more than County’s 38 at the halfway stage of the current campaign.
Their total of seven penalties conceded – two more than any other club – hints at a tendency towards rash and chaotic defending.
And, having won just two points from losing positions, it’s clear that scoring first against the Highlands side is usually enough to beat them.
A lack of a settled starting line-up is another factor in the search for stability. County’s 50 changes to their first XI is the highest number in the top flight.
Faltering attack & seeking reinforcements
If you’re not great defensively, you have to be capable of scoring more goals than your opponent. But County’s defensive woes are compounded by a horribly misfiring attack.
They are averaging just one goal every two games and their haul of 10 in 20 outings is comfortably the worst in the division – St Mirren are the next lowest scorers with 14, but have played three games fewer.
The struggles of star striker and prize asset Ross Stewart – who is out of contract in the summer and has been linked with a move to Aberdeen – are symptomatic of their problems. The 24-year-old’s two league goals this season were both penalties in early August.
He hasn’t been helped by a lack of service, though. County’s current five-game league run without a goal is worrying enough for their fans. But perhaps even more concerning is the team’s struggle to create chances. Of their 10 Premiership goals, only two have come from open play.
Pressed on the shortage of goals, Hughes says: “The simple answer is we have to do something about it and we’re working very hard on the training pitch.”
Addressing the lack of creativity will surely be a priority for Hughes in the January transfer window. He admits he is “looking to bring a couple of players in to help the others along”.
One thing he won’t tolerate is pessimism, adding: “We can’t just mope and feel sorry for ourselves. Let the challenges in front of us be inspiring.”