Hughes seeks quality for Inverness CT resurgence

By Martin DowdenBBC Scotland
Inverness Caledonian Thistle manager John Hughes
John Hughes has been Inverness manager since 2013

"I hope I get proved wrong next year. It might be a long time before we have the season we had last year."

Not the resounding rallying call supporters may wish for, but a year on from being voted the best boss in the country, John Hughes' message is tempered by realism rather than one designed to manage expectation.

The Inverness Caledonian Thistle manager is long enough in the game to understand the nature of football.

His club seems to have found the inevitable low following their greatest high. What's crucial is where they go from here.

Season 2014-15 was unthinkably good for the club. A Scottish Cup triumph, a top-six Premiership finish and a maiden European campaign earned.

Matching that was virtually impossible and so it has proved.

Inverness Caledonian Thistle celebrate after winning the 2015 Scottish Cup final
Some of Inverness CT's Cup-winning team have moved on and others will follow

It's not all doom and gloom. They came close to a top-half finish this term and reached the quarter-finals of both cup competitions.

"We're not too far away" was Hughes' mantra and in the end they weren't. Just not close enough despite a lengthy injury list this season and the significant loss of key talent they have struggled to replace.

Where next?

The club seem in something of a quandary. Money is tight and money means quality. The game's best managers still need a dose of creativity, a spark, a finisher.

"I'm not going to hide my plans," Hughes told BBC Scotland. "My plan for moving forward is to go for better quality instead of quantity. Hopefully, if we can win the next few games, the finance might be there to do that."

It doesn't appear to be right now. Hughes identified three Partick Thistle players who will be out of contract this summer as player within range who could make a difference: Stuart Bannigan, Steven Lawless and Abdul Osman.

Missing the top six seems to have changed that.

"Right now, I think we have to put the reins on that," Hughes explained. "I don't think we've got the finance to go and try to do that.

"If we were to finish seventh we might be able to go and do one or two and get a better quality of player."

Contrast with County

Recruitment isn't the only issue. Liam Polworth is the latest to commit to a longer-term deal, but the club don't yet have a first-team XI in place for next season, never mind being able to bring in fresh talent.

Home games this season have, at times, been remarkable for their lack of excitement.

And there's a tangible, discontent that appears to have taken grip as Highland neighbours and Scottish League Cup winners Ross County enjoy the best season they've ever had.

That's natural. Not too many County supporters were on cloud nine about their own predicament when rooted to the bottom of the table 14 months ago. Things can change quickly.

But if Manager of the Year nominee Jim McIntyre lifts the award, next season won't necessarily be the struggle Hughes has found this one.

Ross County and Inverness players
County have had an impressive season while Inverness missed out on the Premiership's top six

And here's the difference. County have a squad in place that needs minor tinkering. They have retained players that deliver. They have a chairman who can invest and will back his manager.

Liam Boyce, Jackson Irvine, Michael Gardyne, and now Alex Schalk - all key players - are in place for next term on top of a strong squad that will be added to.

They've planned for the expected increased competition Rangers will bring. So have St Johnstone and undoubtedly others will have too.

To stand still, Inverness CT may have to move forward.

They've done well to retain Greg Tansey, Ross Draper, Gary Warren and Polworth and will undoubtedly agree deals with more.

In forward areas, though, they have suffered a dramatic dip in the quality they possess, with the club seemingly unable to compete financially.

It's those players that get supporters excited, that deliver success.

The squad has been weakened and will be further with James Vincent and Danny Williams moving to Dundee.

Moving forward might mean less has to equal more but with finance so tight, it's a crucial period for Hughes and the club.

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