After three years in the Scottish Championship with Hibs, Liam Fontaine is accustomed to the demands of trying to win promotion to the Premiership.
The 32-year-old centre-back intends to put this experience to good use by helping revitalised Ross County back to the top flight at the first time of asking. Fontaine left Easter Road as a Scottish Cup-winning legend in January to sign for the Dingwall club as he sought regular game time. At that time County were plummeting towards the Championship under Owen Coyle.
However, after a summer rebuild overseen by joint managers Stuart Kettlewell and Steve Ferguson, they are motoring in the right direction once more, with Fontaine, as vice-captain, a key figure.
County are currently second in the Championship, three points behind surprise leaders Ayr United, after an 11-game unbeaten run. This Saturday the Highland outfit welcome third-place Dundee United, resurgent under former Hearts boss Robbie Neilson, in one of the most eye-catching fixtures of this weekend’s Scottish football schedule.
“The season’s going great for us, it’s great to be part of it,” Fontaine told the Evening News. “We’ve got a great squad of players and two very good managers who have picked up back-to-back manager of the month awards. Everybody’s working hard to rebuild after relegation from the Premiership. It’s a completely different place to what it was last season. The vibe is much better, without a doubt. The managers were caretakers before but now that they’re in charge permanently they’re able to put their spin on it and put a new structure in place.”
Dundee United were the pre-season Championship favourites, but teams like County, Partick Thistle and Inverness Caledonian Thistle were also hotly fancied to be in contention. From spending three years in the second tier with Hibs, Fontaine is all too aware about how hazardous a division it can be to negotiate a way out of. The fact Falkirk, Partick and Dunfermline are currently in the bottom four underlines just how competitive it is.
“At the start of the season, you could probably have picked out about six teams who you would think would have a chance of winning the league,” said Fontaine. “It’s not always pretty in this league, it’s about churning out results, especially when you’re one of the favourites to win the league and you come up against teams who are trying to disrupt you in any way they can. We faced that many times at Hibs. I remember we had some crazy games against Dumbarton, for example. Over the course of the season you’ve just got to try and be as consistent as possible. Every game is massive for us. We’re 11 unbeaten now but we’re disappointed that our last two were draws because our standards are so high.”
Fontaine will come up against a couple of former Hibs colleagues this weekend in the shape of Sam Stanton and fellow Scottish Cup winner Fraser Fyvie, the two midfielders who joined United after leaving Easter Road last year.
“I’m looking forward to seeing Fraser and Sammy again,” he said. “I saw them when we were down at Tannadice for the last game. They’re friends so I’ll say hello before the game, play the match and then chat afterwards.”
That last game at Tannadice brought a thumping 5-1 win for County in what proved to be Csaba Laszlo’s final match in charge of United. The Hungarian has since been replaced by Neilson, who has presided over a stark upturn, with the Tayside outfit taking ten points from his first four games.
“I don’t think you can bring that last game into it with regard to this weekend,” said Fontaine. “For months before that game there was always talk in the papers about how Dundee United were an unsettled club and everything like that. You can see now that they have a manager who’s been there and done it in this league. He knows what it takes and it looks like he’s rejuvenated them into the side that everyone expected them to be at the start of the season. We’re expecting them to bring a good crowd and it should be a great game. I just love games like this.”
Fontaine hopes to return to the side after missing the last few games following a minor hamstring issue.
“I’ve been in and out of the team this season,” he said. “I broke my arm at the start of the season and then in the Ayr game recently I had to come off because I was feeling my hamstring. I used my head with that one rather than trying to play through it and now I’m fit again. I’ve been training this week so I’m available for selection on Saturday.”