BY MARK GODFREY
Finally, we’re coming towards the business end of the Scottish Cup and, with any luck, an exciting conclusion on our epic journey on the Road to Hampden – anyone who’s actually taken any real notice of this blog will know that, because of redevelopment of Scotland’s national stadium for the 2014 Commonwealth Games, this year’s final will actually take place at Celtic Park!
Unfortunately for our previous charges, Stranraer, the Premiership big boys proved to be just too strong – but only after a cracking performance at Stair Park, when they gave Inverness Caledonian Thistle a real fright, and a brave showing in the replay, going down 2-0.
This means – for the first time in the competition – our little endeavour of following various teams in their quest for glory, sees The Football Pink cheering for a team outside Scotland’s south west.
So, we travel to the Highlands and to the club based at the Tulloch Caledonian Stadium on the banks of the Moray Firth, and before we take a look at Caley Thistle themselves, in-keeping with brief tradition; what of the fair city of Inverness?
Well, it isn’t all whisky and pretendy sea monsters (OK strictly speaking that’s Loch Ness but anything to get a Family Ness picture in).
Inverness gets it’s name from the Scottish Gaelic ‘Inbhir Nis’– meaning ‘Mouth of the River Ness’ – and is the capital of the Highlands. According to statistics, the population grew from 52,000 in 2003 to over 62,000 in the 2011 census, meaning a third of all people in the Highlands live in or around the city. It also makes Inverness one of Europe’s fastest growing cities.
In political and military terms, Inverness and its environs have played an important role in Scottish and British history. The area was pivotal to various conflicts involving the Picts, the Gaels, the Vikings, the Scots and the English. The Jacobite rebellion of 1746 (Bonnie Prince Charlie and all that) was crushed at nearby Culloden and other famous figures from the ages have also played a part in events that have affected Inverness; MacBeth killed King Duncan there and Mary, Queen of Scots was denied entry into the castle by the governor, who she later had hanged.
The distilling industry has played a major part in the city’s economic story over the centuries but Inverness has, in more recent times, become a hub for more high-tech business such as those from the health sciences sector.
Being the focal point of the Highlands and steeped in the Gaelic culture (approximately 5% of the population speak the local language) , Inverness plays host to many Shinty finals including the Camanachd Cup Final. For anyone who’s never seen Shinty before, it’s a rugged-looking team game played with a stick and ball often compared to field hockey and the Irish sport of Hurling.
So where so Inverness Caldeonian Thistle fit into the picture of this beautifully scenic and historic area?
Well, actually they are fairly new addition to the local sporting landscape, having only been founded in 1994 after a merger between the town’s two Highland League sides – Caledonian and Inverness Thistle. The purpose of this was to give an Inverness-based club more chance to successfully enter the restructured Scottish Football League when they opened up to new entrants in 1994 (the two clubs having been prevented from attaining league status on several occasions).
From their introduction into the Scottish Football League, Caley Thistle gradually rose through the divisions, eventually making it into the Premier League in 2004. Due to ground restrictions at the time, they spent their first season in the top tier as tenants of Aberdeen at Pittodrie while changes were made to the Tulloch Caledonian Stadium.
One couldn’t talk about the history of Inverness Caley Thistle without mentioning the club’s most famous night, immortalised by The Sun’s back page headline “Super Caley go ballistic, Celtic are atrocious“. It was February 8th, 2000 when the mighty Celtic, managed by former Liverpool and England winger John Barnes, faced the Highlanders in a Scottish Cup game that everyone considered to be a walk-over.
The Bhoys included stars such as Eyal Berkovic, Stilian Petrov and Mark Viduka. Trailing 2-1 at half-time, the languid Aussie had a dressing room set-to with Barnes and failed to reappear for the second half and things went even further down hill as Caley Thistle extended their lead and dumped the overwhelming favourites out of the Cup; condemning Barnes to the dole queue the very next afternoon.
So to this year’s Scottish Cup, and with runaway Premiership leaders and holders Celtic having been dispatched by Aberdeen in the last round, Inverness and their quarter-final opponents, Dundee United, will fancy their chances of going all the way to the Celtic Park showpiece in May.
Caley Thistle already have silverware on their minds this season (no not the League title, don’t be silly) having already reached the final of the Scottish League Cup. John Hughes’ men won an incredible semi-final against Hearts on penalties having been reduced to nine men. They’ll take on fellow northerners Aberdeen on March 16th; another final being played at Celtic Park due to the closure of Hampden Park.
In Sunday’s tie, Inverness face a Dundee United side making quite a name for itself this season. Jackie McNamara’s youngsters have helped keep the Arabs in contention for a European place for next season while attracting plenty of attention from scouts from many of Britain and Europe’s top clubs.
Amongst those rising stars in the United side are left-back Andrew Robertson, centre-half John Souttar and exciting winger Ryan Gauld (nicknamed Messi for his similarity to the Argentine superstar). All three are on the radar of Roberto Martinez of Everton in particular and the Tannadice club can expect some sizeable bids for their prize assets in the summer.
The two clubs are separated by goal difference only in the League this season with Inverness winning one and drawing one of their games in that sphere, while the Caley Jags also defeated the Taysiders on their way to the Scottish League Cup final.
Sunday’s game promises to be yet another close encounter, especially with the sniff of an Ibrox semi-final firmly in the nostrils. Anyone interested in watching the game without taking the time consuming trek up the A9 or the picturesque train journey can watch it live on BBC Scotland – Kick off 12.30pm on Sunday March 9th.
Although I won’t be one of those taking in the game in the Highlands I’ll be watching intently to see which of these two we’ll be following to the semi-final. Best of luck to Inverness Caledonian Thistle – The Football Pink and our six readers will be cheering you on.