Alex Schalk: The Highlands has felt like home from the start

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It’s fair to say that Ross County fans are rather fond of Alex Schalk. The Dutch hitman netted the winner against Celtic to deliver a first League Cup crown in the club’s history last season, and hugely contributed to an impressive top-six finish.

But the former NAC Breda striker is excited by the challenge posed by Rangers’ Ladbrokes Premiership return, as well as improving his game under Staggies’ boss Jim McIntyre. Oh, and he loves the people of Dingwall – as you’re about to find out.

Over to you, Alex…

Ladbrokes News: It’s been a mixed start to the Ladbrokes Premiership campaign for Ross County, with a defeat to Dundee and a victory away at Highland rivals Inverness Caledonian Thistle. What have you made of the side’s performances so far?

Alex Schalk: Obviously we started the Dundee game really badly, and the result was disappointing, but in the second half we showed our quality. We had about 70-75 per cent possession, so we showed even then that we were capable of dominating the play – we just weren’t ruthless enough in front of goal to claw a result back.

I felt we really deserved our three points against Inverness. We were excellent in the first half, but once they’d grabbed a couple of goals, it gave them a lift. When you’re ahead and concede, it can totally change the game. But we handled those setbacks really well – and deserved the three points.

I hope we can match that standard in the coming games.

LN: County face Kilmarnock this weekend, a side you have a great record against – winning the last six. You scored against them back in March. Why do you think you always do so well against Killie?

AS: I think last year we had more quality than Kilmarnock. And it’s a game we should win again this time. We’re at home, we’re on good form and I think our record against them is a real positive.

They’ve brought in some very good young players this summer, but I still think we have to aim to win games like this.

To be honest, I like to score against every team! [*Laughs*] It would be great to be among the goals again, but it doesn’t matter who scores provided we get the win.

Building consistency this season is huge for us. We need to show the Ladbrokes Premiership that we’re a tough team to beat, week in, week out.

LN: Obviously last season was a great one for the Staggies. A top-six finish and a League Cup trophy. Do you feel you can replicate that league finish, and maybe end up even higher in the table this year?

AS: I think that’s the question a lot of people have about us – whether we can build on last year.

Our attitude to do that is right. Every player wants to improve, and even though the League Cup run has ended for this season which is disappointing, we’re just looking forward and focusing on the league and the Scottish Cup, once we’re involved with that.

In the league, top six is the main aim. Fifth would be fantastic, but it’s going to be tougher this season with Rangers back in the top-flight, but playing sides like that is a good test to push ourselves and it’s a great motivator.

I feel really positive about this season. In the short term, we need to carry on in the vein of our win last week and – as I said – build some consistency.

LN: One of your former NAC Breda teammates, Kenny van der Weg will be back alongside you this season, having joined Ross County. Did you encourage Kenny to join the club?

AS: Yeah, I spoke to Kenny a few times before he made the move over here, to ask me how I was finding it up here.

I absolutely encouraged him to come to Ross County. The season we had last time out was very special, and Dingwall is such a great place to be a part of. The people up here are lovely and they’ve made the Highlands feel like home for me from the start.

I said to him, ‘don’t worry about that’. The club were a huge help to me, as was the community in general, so I knew that would be the same for Kenny.

LN: In a footballing sense, what do you think he’ll add to the team?

AS: He’ll be a huge asset for the team. Kenny’s versatile – he can play centre-half and left-back, and we needed someone with a decent left peg!

He’ll add some extra quality to the team, and it’s a good step for him too because the Erste Divisie [Dutch second division] isn’t the level you want to be playing at. The Ladbrokes Premiership is a huge step-up from that, but I think he’s ready for it.

In any country, you want to play at the top level and I’m sure he’ll enjoy showing his ability up here.

LN: On a personal note, you’ve started the season well, with three goals in four starts. Do you feel you’re growing and developing as a player, under Jim McIntyre?

AS: Yes, 100 per cent. I still feel like I’m improving my technique and my all-round game under the manager. I’m confident right now, as well, though I know we’ve got a number of good strikers, Brian Graham, Boycey [Liam Boyce], [Craig] Curran – and each of us has to fight for our spot.

But that’s a good thing. We all help each other improve in training, as well. Being at a club where I’m developing is one of the main reasons I’ve decided to stay with Ross County.

LN: So what do you think are the main strengths in your game, and which areas do you think you can improve in?

AS: My biggest strength is obviously my pace, which allows me to stretch defences. I feel I have good technique on the ball, and I do well inside the box – but there’s still room for me to improve my positioning and finishing.

I think outside the area I don’t think I’m quite as strong and want to make sure my link-up play gets better.

I don’t think any player is ever completely satisfied with how they’re playing – we always want to develop.

LN: Finally – you’ve been in Scottish football for just over a year now, having spent several years playing senior football in the Netherlands before that. In terms of style of play, fans, etc. – how do you think football in the two countries compares?

AS: In Holland, the speed of the game is much slower. A lot of teams like to pass, pass, pass, keep the ball for a long time and wait for an opportunity to go forward.

Here, the games are more end-to-end. There are a lot more opportunities for strikers, because of that. And it also has the advantage that I feel much fitter now than when I played back in Holland. My stamina has improved so much.

In terms of the fans, there’s more commitment to the team. There’s a great atmosphere for the matches, and people in Dingwall are always chatting about the football! The people round here truly love the club.

Ross County host Kilmarnock on Saturday, looking for a seventh straight win over the East Ayrshire club at 4/5, with 7/4 for a certain Mr Schalk to score anytime.

Meanwhile, those confident the Dutchman has a memorable campaign ahead can back him to finish as the Ladbrokes Premiership top scorer at 100/1.

And you can check out all Ladbrokes’ News exclusive interviews with Scottish football’s finest on our dedicated SPFL site, including chats with the likes of Partick Thistle hitman Kris Doolan and Arbroath wing wizard Bobby Linn.

All Odds and Markets are correct as of the date of publishing

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Dave Burin

Dave graduated with an MA in English Literature at Durham University, and worked in marketing before joining the Ladbrokes News team. A Man United fan and avid groundhopper, he’s also an ardent follower of Rugby League. You can usually find him at a ground near you, clutching a big cup of tea.