Old foes, Elgin v Inverness

 

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Elgin and Inverness are separated by a mere 39 miles of the A96, but a Scottish Cup 4th Round tie (FA Cup Round 3 equivalent!) between the two cities main football teams at the end of January 2017 brought together two old foes (or three?!!). Elgin City FC have a proud Scottish Cup tradition, and they were hosting a top flight team for the first time in 45 years! The visitors Inverness play in the “new” guise of a merged team, and whereas they once went toe to toe for silverware in the Highland League, a three tier chasm existed between the two clubs at that time. The form book goes out the window in such cup ties especially with the hosts playing well and Inverness bottom of the Premier League without a win since late October. It had all the hallmarks of a potential shock, and as the Elgin fans took great joy in singing, “you’re not Caley any more”, it was a hint at those bygone days, and the anticipation of a cracking tie. It had been a “Red” letter day from the minute the draw pitched the two clubs together, but sadly the significance was largely missed by the Central Belt media, but we are used to that!

As the Black and Whites, Elgin City, and the Blue and Reds of Inverness Caledonian Thistle (ICT) trotted out in front of 3,624 fans, a fabulous crowd, these two names were once three stalwarts of the yesteryear Highland League. Remarkably this was the first ever competitive fixture at Borough Briggs, Elgin’s wonderful home stadium, between the two clubs as they are today! The kick off was even delayed to let the crowd in, a rare occurrence these days sadly!

They had met once previously, having been drawn together in the same round of the Scottish Cup in January 2010 in Inverness, when two very late goals denied Elgin a deserved replay. Sadly, the Scottish weather caused great issues with furious wintry snow fall across the mountain passes of the A9, thus preventing me from getting up from Edinburgh to see that match. I was doubly determined not to miss this one!

It’s the weight of the past, nee nostalgia that makes this a special fixture. Given the 22 year absence of regular league matches between Inverness and Elgin, a generation or more have grown up without knowing anything about those days gone by. If you consider the fact that between these “three” Highland Clubs, they have 42 League titles between them (Caledonian 19, Elgin 15, Thistle 8) it emphasises how Caledonian v Elgin was the big fixture of any given Highland League card. Caledonian and Thistle came together as one, albeit it was understandably thorny at the start, joining the league at the same time as Ross County in 1994, thus instigating a “nouveau” derby of Highland significance, amusingly known as El Kessicko, as the Kessick Bridge partly separates the two by the fastest route across the Black Isle! Yet Ross County have a mere three Highland League titles, two arriving in the clubs “purple” patch in the early ’90’s, coupled with them taking some league club scalps in Scottish Cup campaigns in that period too, which nicely coincided with the Scottish League inviting clubs to apply for an expanded league format. Given both ICT and Ross County have both established themselves in the Scottish top flight, and have both won a National Trophy (They held the two big cup trophies, the Scottish Cup and League Cup, briefly at the same time!), their impact on modern day Scottish football is irrefutable but it could have panned out so differently.

In 1994 it must have been a frustration for Elgin watching these clubs step into the Scottish National League set up, as they had won the 1992/93 Highland League in the clubs centenary year, only to see that title stripped from their grasp?! They had brought a game forward to relieve two players of suspension ahead of a crucial match, needlessly too! I have read more on this shabby incident in recent times, and it seems this practise was not uncommon at the time, but the whole title stripping centred more on a witch-hunt against the Elgin boss, John Teasdale, who was a charismatic character to some, an an outspoken idiot to others. I have signed a petition to get this harsh decision overturned, and the title re-instated for the Borough Briggs team! Had this situation not arisen they surely would have applied to join, and I suspect, they would have been favourites for acceptance ahead of County! As it was, a further expansion six years later allowed Elgin, together with Peterhead to also come out of the Highland League. Neither of them have had the same impact as the pioneers of the northern inclusion, indeed, in many regards the ghost of that title stripping has been slow to clear at Borough Briggs, and they have merely ploughed a furrow in the 4th tier of Scottish football ever since. The signs are that they are getting closer to being able to make that first step up, as they are regulars now flirting near the play off zone, whereas in the earlier years they were sadly jousting with East Stirlingshire predominantly to avoid the bottom spot. This term, a play off looks unlikely, as Elgin would require an Annan collapse to claim fourth spot. They have the fan base, and another game I was at versus Forfar in late 2016 drew a crowd of 1,100, (a rare 4 figure attendance for the basement these days!) and with nearly 4,000 at the Inverness cup tie, the potential is there for Elgin if they can advance. One less known fact outside the highlands, is that Elgin City are the most northerly league team in Scotland!

With a population of just over 23,000, Elgin is significantly bigger than Dingwall home of Ross County! Elgin is perhaps by normal standards too small to be a city, the same could be said of Brechin with an even smaller population, but both are Cathedral cities and by ancient rules could be classed as a city by virtue. Elgin’s Cathedral is a mere ruin these days, but it is the capital of the Moray Region nearly halfway between Inverness and Aberdeen on the A96, and with no bypass, the traffic shuttling along this main artery can cause very busy roads through the city. The River Lossie flows through Elgin, and is right behind the covered terracing side of Borough Briggs before emerging into the Moray Firth at Lossiemouth a few miles further north on the coast! Until recently, when significant sums were spent on flood prevention, Elgin would suffer all to often from the vagaries of raised river levels. The centre of Elgin is compact as you’d expect of a small city, but it can be very busy. The pedestrian precinct main shopping area is a welcome escape from the traffic, and is a mere 10 minute walk from the stadium. The Bus station is even closer by a couple of minutes, but if you arrive by train, allow 15/20 minute walk to the ground! Bars and places to eat are all in the central area, with no real amenities other than a Tesco or Aldi near the ground. Match day catering will keep you fed and watered inside, all at reasonable prices, served with a friendly smile. A visit to Elgin for any length of time will pitch you right in the middle of many possibilities to taste Highland League action with Lossiemouth, Rothes, Forres, Nairn, Buckie and Keith no distance at all! This is whisky country, with the whole county awash with distilleries, another opportunity not to be missed!

The Scottish Cup was the only way Highland clubs of yesteryear could pit their wits against clubs from elsewhere, but even with access to such competition more freely available now, the Scottish Cup still has a special place in the heart of a “highland” fan. Elgin’s proudest moment in the National competition came in 1967/68 when they reached the Quarter- Finals of the cup, going down 2-1 away to Morton, but it remains the only occasion a Highland League club has ever got that far, albeit Brora Rangers came mighty close last season. In an earlier round, Elgin drew a crowd of 12,608 (a record crowd, never to be repeated with health and safety constraints, let alone diminished crowd pulling capability of all teams!) packed into Borough Briggs to see them host and beat Arbroath. This ironically is a regular Scottish League fixture now and rarely will it trouble the 800 mark! A few years earlier in 1960 Celtic came calling to Elgin (oddly not the record crowd, only 11,207!) and it is told that two late goals by the Glasgow giants snuffed out an Elgin opener and gave them a 2-1 win, but undeservedly so on the day! History was about to repeat!  

Given ICT’s horrendous period without a win in the ‘16/17 season, and having been off in “winter shutdown” mode since Hogmanay, would a three week holiday make them ring rusty and allow a buoyant Elgin to claim a famous win? Well in the first half it seemed like a shock was really on! After a reasonable opening by ICT, Elgin grew into the game and were causing real problems for the Inverness back line. Amongst the Elgin forwards was Shane Sutherland, an ex-ICT player, whose claim to fame will probably still make him the toast of Ibrox?! To this today, the fixture at the Caledonian Stadium that season between ICT and Celtic remains the only time that a post split fixture saw two teams in separate “groups” play, as a combination of heavy rain claiming the original date, and Celtic’s heavy fixture card resulted in this anomaly. Big Shane broke free and scored the winner in a 3-2 success for ICT, a result that stopped Celtic going top and effectively helped Rangers win what was there last ever title before meltdown! If the Caledonian Stadium had gone wild that night, Borough Briggs did likewise as Mark Nicolson’s free-kick “trundled” round the wall and over Welsh International keeper Owain Fon Williams to give the hosts the lead. For a period thereafter they had Caley Thistle rocking, and all those uncertainties I’d witnessed in countless games in the last two months of 2016 were rearing their head again. The one bright light that gradually shone brighter and brighter was our on loan starlet from Fulham, Larnell Cole (Andy’s boy!). He’d dribbled through the Elgin ranks once or twice and they were struggling to handle his trickery, and before they could fathom out the best way to stop him, he did it once more this time with great success bringing the tie level, and steadying the panicky visiting fans with a lovely finish. All level at the break, but what a different ICT came out in the second half, controlling the proceedings and pushing Elgin backwards. Only dreary finishing, a common theme in the last few ICT seasons, was preventing another goal. Losana Doumbouya, a hard working lad signed from Cercle Bruges has the right attitude, if at first you don’t succeed, try and try again. A variety of glaring chances had been passed up, but eventually the tall striker got the angle right on a header and we were 2-1 up!! Despite continuing to boss proceedings, with only a goal lead you always know the opposition will get another chance, and in those last minutes, throwing caution to the wind, Elgin came within a whisker of scoring an equaliser. Big Shane shanked an effort that might have troubled the keeper or the net. The final whistle brought relief and delight at the visiting end, but Elgin had competed brilliantly and given a glimpse into what a fabulous fixture this would be if a regular on the football roster. I wish Elgin well, indeed, when I can’t get north to watch ICT and they are playing in the central belt I always make an effort to go see them to add my support! We “highland” fans need to stick together in a central belt orientated world!              

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