It’s my club

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This article was first published in Football Weekends in 2016, then altered for use in Edinburgh City’s match programme for our Scottish Cup tie in the capital, and now embellished a little for blog consumption with a wee crystal ball gazing as to just how amazing the end of our 25th year might end! The magazine neutral and distant third person switches to a closer, personal descriptive way in the added bits. The title is dedicated to the sad passing of one of my musical favourites, Mark Hollis, with a re-working of Talk Talk’s famous song “It’s my life”, but then again, Inverness Caledonian Thistle will forever be my club!

A man down, pegged back by an equaliser, Inverness were struggling, it felt like we were on the ropes. Was the Scottish Cup dream about to end? It was Falkirk we were playing after all, a known bogey team for us in years past. They traditionally beat us most August’s and had knocked us out of both cups, and relegated us in one season, indeed that painful demotion game was the last game between the two teams in May 2008. However, this was May 2015, a different generation of player with none of the mental blocks that we the fans associate with the name Falkirk! The clock was ticking down on a sun drenched Hampden, when suddenly the ball broke to Marley Watkins, still in our half, but he started to run, and run with the ball toward goal he sped. A little turn inside, he shot, it wasn’t his best ever effort, a trundler, but the pace caught out the Bairns keeper Jamie MacDonald who merely diverted the ball in to the path of the on rushing James Vincent, who had sprinted from our box! It fell beautifully for him; Goooooooooal!! We had just won the Scottish Cup! A club just 21 years old at that stage had just won the oldest trophy in world football! (FA Cup is an older competition, but the Scottish Cup trophy is older!). It’s a trophy bigger clubs have craved for 114 years without success, or waited more than 100 years to win for the first ever. Nearly four years on it still seems incredible, a boy’s own story, and we have another semi-final versus Hearts soon! It was my 500th game watching ICT, I’d stayed away from some European clinching matches in the run up to make it so!! We finished 3rd in the league, an incredible feat in itself, and qualified for Europe for the first time by virtue our league position alone. It was doubly endorsed by winning the Cup! Will the club ever see the likes again? That is why we are football fans, we can always dream.   

In business, when companies merge, very often it leads to a greater success, a synergy. Football mergers rarely happen, but when they do, it doesn’t always bring the right result. The closed shop nature of Scottish football only in recent seasons has it opened its gate to the possibility of new blood joining via a play off system. Montrose just survived the inaugural play offs with late goals snuffing out Brora’s brave challenge. Edinburgh City are the only new team in four goes thus far, but only dubious refereeing stopped Cove last term. In 1973, one of the constituent parts of the Inverness merger, Thistle were just one vote away from gaining a league place at that time. Had they been successful, I doubt history would have played out as it has now, but following their narrow failure to join, a growing likelihood of a merger grew in the town as the best way to get league football to Inverness. Both Caledonian and Thistle were top Highland league clubs in their own right, and indeed in 1988 every single honour available to the Highland clubs were held by them both. It may have had its acrimonious moments, but much of what has subsequently come to pass has surely silenced any lingering doubters that this was the right thing to have done.

It is unusual perhaps for a fan to have the entire history of the club recollected within your own lifetime, but as we only started out in August 1994 that is relatively easy! While the first season was viewed as a disappointment, it was a bedding in period. A bold managerial appointment of ex-Ukrainian International Sergei Baltacha made a statement of intent. It started brilliantly, an away win at East Stirlingshire in the League Cup, followed by a 5-2 opening day league win at Telford Street, the home of Caledonian, (Kingsmill, Thistle’s home was sold for housing) with a hat-trick from the sadly departed Alan Hercher, but mid-table was where that inaugural season petered out too. Ross County, from 12 miles further north in Dingwall also joined the league at the same time, adding a great new derby to the Scottish League, now known as El Kessicko, which draws fantastic crowds to these games. While the following season saw the club still in the bottom league, a great cup run had taken us to the Scottish Cup Quarter-Final and a home tie with Paul Gascoigne and Brian Laudrup’s Rangers! It was ultimately moved to Tannadice, Dundee to accommodate fans more safely, and while we lost 3-0, it was a great day out, providing a wee glimpse of the future, perhaps!

The club knew it needed a new stadium, a flagship for the merged club, away from the history of either team. Having looked at various sites around the town, the reclaimed land on the edge of Inverness at Longman by the A9 and the Kessock Bridge was chosen. On the 9th November 1996 the Caledonian Stadium was opened with Albion Rovers as the first visitors. It ended in a 1-1 draw, but perhaps the more expansive playing surface at the new ground was to the players liking, as we kicked on that season and won the Third Division title (4th tier). By then Inverness had been added to Caledonian Thistle, giving us one of the longest names in world football, but more importantly, unlike a lot of Scottish clubs, putting the City on the map too. In being awarded City status, like the football team, Inverness has gone from strength to strength. It is one of the most photogenic stadiums in the country, right down by the River Ness, with a view of the Kessock Bridge from the main stand.

The following season saw a new rivalry ignite. Livingston were the incarnate of Meadowbank Thistle, the team who had denied Inverness Thistle a place in the league all those years ago. On the last day of the ’97/98 season we were staying in the third tier, but Livingston were top, albeit narrowly from the two chasing sides, Clydebank and Stranraer. We won 2-1 and the other two chasing teams also won, seeing Livingston fall from first to third in the space of 90 minutes meaning that they weren’t going up, and oh boy they weren’t happy. Roll the clock forward one year, the penultimate match of the season back at Almondvale, both teams were going up this time to the second tier, but it was a case of who would win the title. Incredibly we were 4-0 down after twenty minutes or so, but pulled it back to 4-3 with plenty time remaining! We threw everything at Livingston, but to no avail. They would go on to gain revenge for the year before by winning the title, but our consolation was in scoring an 88th minute equaliser against Alloa the following week, we may not have won the league, but became the first Scottish team since the twenties to score in every league match in a season!

Livingston were to crop up in another remarkable piece of history that Barry Wilson, our ex-winger. now coach can always have to his name, Mr Millennium! For some unknown reason, our match with Clydebank kicked off later than every other game on 27/12/1999 in Inverness, and Barry scored the last goal of the last century in Scottish football in a 4-1 win! What is even more remarkable was the first game of the new millennium, we played earlier than every other game, and in scoring the opener at Livingston in a 1-1 draw, he bagged a brace of goals, and a never to be repeated wee claim to fame! A few weeks later on the 8th Feb 2000, ICT went to Celtic Park and beat them 3-1 in the Scottish Cup! It spawned a headline from the press that will never be forgotten, “Super Caley go Ballistic”. It was an incredible result.

We bedded down in the second flight for a few seasons, and progressed twice in this period to our first ever Scottish Cup Semi-finals. In 2003 we lost 1-0 to Dundee, and the year after, lost 3-2 at Pittodrie in a replay with Dunfermline having drawn 1-1 at Hampden. But the 2003/04 season was to have a wonderful conclusion the first decade in existence. We went on an incredible run and clawed Clyde back at the top of the now Championship. The penultimate game at their Cumbernauld ground, saw a memorable 2-1 win, a result that put us top for the first time in the season, and we duly clinched the title the week after with a 3-1 win at home to St Johnstone. We were headed to the Premier League!!

Aberdeen was to become our “home” for a passage of time until our stadium was upgraded with sufficient seating to accommodate SPL criteria. The lofty 10,000 seat requirement had been eased to 6,000 that summer, much to Partick Thistle’s disgruntlement, who having finished bottom thought they would stay up when we won the league! In 1996 when the stadium was opened it had a capacity of 5,000 with 2,280 seated in the main stand. The total capacity gradually increased to 6,280, but the seating number remained the same. We played our first 10 home SPL fixtures in Aberdeen, ironically the first was against Dunfermline again! We were to do the home double over Dunfermline that season, beating them by the same score 2-0 upon our return to Inverness in late January 2005, by which time two new seated stands had been added behind both goals taking the capacity to 7,500. It was slightly increased to 7,800 by adding seats to half the terracing opposite the main stand, but this is largely unused, however the record crowd was set on 20th January 2008 with the visit of Rangers seeing 7,753 in attendance. A few weeks before we could move home in 2005, a Scottish Cup “home” tie versus St Johnstone was played at Ross County’s Victoria Ground in Dingwall, with ICT winning 1-0. Not many teams will have played in three “home” venues in one season!

We established ourselves in the top flight until a poor run of results in 2008/09, coupled with results in the post split period going against us in other matches, culminated in a final day relegation showdown at the Caley Stadium with our nemesis, Falkirk, who needed to win to stay up. They duly got the win, 1-0, marking the first blot on the short and proud history of ICT, relegated after five seasons in the SPL with the highest points total ever. It didn’t look likely for a quick return either, at one point we were 15 points behind Dundee, but like the previous promotion season, we charged toward the end and went on an unbelievable run that saw us back in the top flight at the first time of asking.

Our 10th season in the top flight saw us finish in 3rd place, and as mentioned previously, also winning the Scottish Cup! Following that was always going to be hard, but as a European football lover, it was always my dream to see my team play abroad. So much so, on 6th July 2005 I was one of only 5 visiting fans in the town of Nykobing, in southern Denmark, to see us lose 2-1 to Nykobing Falsters Alliancien in a friendly, with Liam Fox able to claim our first ever goal on the continent. Three days later one or two more fans had joined as we won our first continental match against the now more famous Nordsjaelland, 1-0 in Farum, with David Proctor grabbing the goal in our first ever overseas win. But having qualified for Europe for the first ever time, an incredible 500 or so Inverness fans flew to Romania and journeyed down to the Bulgarian border town of Giurgiu to see if we could overturn a 1-0 home loss and play West Ham in the next round! Alas, a brave effort in the heat ended 0-0, and sadly we left the European stage without even a goal to cheer, but seeing my team run out that night in Romania was one of the proudest moments for me in the history of the club. My little claim to fame will always be, as none of the other 4 from Nykobing, including Don Taylor and his family made the trip to Romania, so I might be the only ICT fan to see them play the first friendly and competitive games in Europe! It was such a great experience in Romania, I am sure I am not alone in hoping we see the likes again! A future article on Romania to follow, but my one regret was that none of my small “central belt” gang of fans were able to make the trip. I decided to go, and even though I only left Edinburgh at 6am on the day of the game, even with changing plane in Amsterdam and losing two hours in the time difference, I had time to check into my Bucharest hotel and still be across the Danube to Ruse in Bulgaria for a late lunch before heading back to Romania for the game across the water! I had been very lucky in respect of a Port Alegre, Brazil based friend Luciano, who put me in touch with a translator chum in Bucharest, and he very kindly acted as my driver, guide and companion at his first and only ever ICT game, just one seven different countries that have been represented with me at one of our games!   

The International contingent of ICT followers has undoubtedly been increased by my efforts over the years throughout my considerable chums throughout the world, I am a lucky chap. I have had three Italians at our games, and one most likely has a collection of 600+ ICT programmes as well as having been at 10+ games! The Scottish Cup Final programme and DVD also resides in Skopje, and Buenos Aires, where ten friends have all been through the Caledonian stadium doors, a few of whom got to lift the Scottish Cup, and while only one was here when a game was on, he was at Banff for a friendly with Deveronvale, respect! An American had the misfortune of being at Greenock on a Friday night when we got murdered 5-0! Two Chilean girls ended up at a Scottish Cup tie at Stair Park, Stranraer as they would! The aforementioned Brazilian was at a rare home win versus Motherwell, as was a Bulgarian at Fir Park for an equally rare win the last time we got relegated.

That International theme I always endeavoured to bring to the Inverness programme for some five years in our first spell in the top flight under the banner “A look at world football”, one of which was written to coincide with Gretna’s first ever visit to the stadium, and especially their Uruguayan player Fabian Yantorno. That article helped start a friendship that has spawned 12 years now, and I have subsequently seen him play in England and Uruguay. Doing these articles for Bryan the editor of the programme got me the proud opportunity to present the Programmes Player trophy to Don Cowie, and as a tipping of the hat to my “foreign” legion, I wore my Racing Club shirt for the occasion, see slide show! It has been a real bone of contention for me that the club have chosen to go down the route of an awful “online” programme, especially in this our 25th year. There was irony in attending the QOS match earlier in the season and to be handed a flyer for a Programme and Memorabilia event at the stadium. A programme is a cherished piece of memorabilia for a fan, and digital is just a nonsense. There, I got that off my chest!!         

There have been a more lows than highs since with a second relegation from the top flight. If we’d managed to score one or two penalties late that season, or if two St Johnstone players hadn’t both been sent off at Hamilton for fighting each other, gifting points to Accies, we’d have clawed back that one point between the two sides at the final count. Instead, we went down with the second highest ever points in a 12 team top flight, beaten only by our first demotion! One season on, another incredible run towards the end of last season would have brought Play off action to the club for the first time were it not for a very late Dunfermline equaliser in Inverness. This season, the league form started with that “unbeaten” streak, a new club record, albeit a draw or five too many in that amazing 25 league games unbeaten, but clawing back a 3-0 deficit to draw, and nearly winning that game in Dumfries shows that the belief is strong in the squad, although the Scottish Cup Semi Final could prove a distraction, reaching the promotion play offs is still within our grasp, and on our day, while we lack quality or belief at times, we can beat anyone.                       

So when the dust settles on the first 25 years of our history, wouldn’t it just be magnificent if we could be involved in the Scottish Cup Final and the Play Off Final, and even win them both!!

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