John Hughes has warned Ross County cannot afford to let Ross Stewart leave next month if he is to stand a chance of rescuing the Premiership basement boys.
The new Staggies boss made it his first priority to sit down with in-demand frontman Stewart – whose deal expires at the end of the season – to work out where his loyalties lie.
Stuart Kettlewell’s replacement was delighted to be told by the 24-year-old that he is happy to see out the campaign with County and lead their fight for survival.
But with Dundee United, Aberdeen and a host of English clubs sniffing around, Hughes admits he may well end up losing his most prized asset in January if chairman Roy MacGregor decides to cash in rather than losing the former St Mirren striker for free in the summer.
However, Hughes admits that may kill off his attempts to rescue County – who are four points adrift at the bottom – before he even gets started.
“I’ve already spoken to Ross and what will be will be,” said Hughes.
“The ‘big yin’ told me he was just concentrating on the football. He has said, ‘If it’s to the end of the season, I’m happy to do that’.
“We’ll have to sit down and see what’s best for the club.
“Can we afford to lose a player like Ross given the position we’re in? Right at this moment in time, no.
“I have to be honest and say that but sometimes the business side takes over.
“I’m just in the door. I’d be delighted to keep him but I don’t even know if there’s been a bid put in, it’s all just speculation.
“If that happens, I’ll have to sit down with the chairman and weigh up the pros and cons. But one thing the chairman has said to me is, ‘We don’t have to sell’.
“And the ‘big yin’ has said he is ready to play his part until the end of the season, so we’re leaning more towards him still being here until the summer.”
The former Inverness boss is back in the Highlands after three years in the managerial wilderness.
His last spell in management with Raith Rovers was a disaster but there is no disguising the scale of his achievements with Caley Thistle, who he led to both a Scottish Cup triumph and qualification for Europe with a third-place league finish back in 2015.
Saving County from relegation is likely to rank alongside those feats for the Dingwall faithful but ‘Yogi’ insists there is not much to fix after picking up the pieces left by Kettlewell.
“I enjoyed my time at Inverness and if I can do that here with Ross County then I’ll be successful,” he said.
“It’s small things that could turn things around. Even just a performance which sets the benchmark. I can then jump in and say to the players, ‘We’re not coming below that’.
“I’m just keeping my fingers crossed we can get that wee bit of luck that kick-starts us.
“I want to acknowledge Stuart. From being in here for a couple of days now and seeing the way people speak about him, his attention to detail, his organisation skills and speaking to the players – and a few of them have said they let him down – then I can see it’s going to be a hard act to follow.
“I’m trying to find faults so I can then spray the gold dust on the guys.
“But that’s not the case. I’ve found nothing and that’s all down to Stuart’s level of attention. I’m asking, ‘Can we try this?’ – but it’s been done.
“He is a great guy who cares so, so much. Not one of the players have said a bad word about him – unfortunately it’s a results business we’re in.”
Hughes could hardly ask for a tougher first game in charge as he prepares for Wednesday’s trip to Celtic Park to face Neil Lennon’s newly-crowned quadruple-treble winners.
But he fully believes lightning can strike twice after seeing County dump the Hoops out of the Betfred Cup last month.
He said: “I think Celtic will have had a lift from winning the cup. I don’t know about Neil’s team. With them going into extra-time he might have to rest one or two but we have to take inspiration from the last time we went there and got a fantastic result.
“If you can do it once you can do it twice.”