Aidan Smith: Highland fling catches me on hop as bottom six looms

Ross Tokely in action for Ross County. Picture: SNS
Ross Tokely in action for Ross County. Picture: SNS
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NINE years ago I attended my first and still only football match in the Highlands.

It was the Highland League, Buckie Thistle v Keith, because I’d been keen to see how they did green/maroon derbies in that part of the country. I was impressed by the keen commitment – slide-tackles begun far back, the just-clattered getting up without complaint – and the keen pricing (£5). I was less impressed with the apocalyptic rain but a transfer to the tiny wooden stand was the best £1 I’ve ever spent.

At full-time, while the TV in hospitality (yes, Buckie has this) pumped out scores, no one was interested in the SPL, far less England’s Premier. There would be half an eye for Inverness Caley Thistle’s progress but really they were waiting for Forres Mechanics and they were waiting for Inverurie Locos. I liked this about Teuchtar fitba; I liked my introduction to this world. It was – euphemism alert – an experience. But afterwards I’m sure I thought: OK, done that.

The same year I also saw Caley Thistle daunder down the A9 to Edinburgh in what was their SPL debut season. In Ross Tokely, they had a big baldie defender you’d call – euphemism alert – uncompromising. They had, among their fans, a mad drummer. There was nothing to suggest: nine years’ time, big force in the game. For Livingston had a mad drummer and also at that time a half-time keepy-uppy “expert”. On a perishing night at Almondvale my pal Grant turned to me and said: “Wait and see, he’ll finish with a shot at the empty net and miss.” That’s what happened and, in hindsight, I probably thought Caley Thistle would eventually get in a ball-juggling clown and then, like Livi, slip back down the divisions. In the same way that keepy-uppy alone doesn’t make you a footballer, the novelty of being the new boys can only take a team so far.

Now, having patronised the Highlands for a bit, I have to thank ICT, also Ross County. They’ve made this dreary season halfway interesting, they’re the story of 2012-13. Pulsating football has propelled both into the top six. If Inverness beat Hibs on Saturday there’s a very real risk that while both Highland clubs will be happily ensconced in the upper reaches of Scotland’s top flight, the two Edinburgh teams will be – euphemism alert – looking forward to their first-ever bottom-six derby as the season peters out for both. Nine years ago I definitely didn’t see that coming.

For long enough, jaunty, jokey Bill McAllister has reported on Highland football for Sportsound. I’ve loved the multi-pop culture references, with Lady Gaga not so much crowbarred into a Nairn County report as prodded in with a caber. But this is a football environment that Ross County and ICT used to inhabit and look at them now.

Caley Thistle have scored an almighty number of goals. When they lost one prolific striker (Adam Rooney) they went out and found themselves another (Billy McKay). Ross County – first time in the SPL, remember – started slowly with draws but have now gone ten games unbeaten, with Ivan Sproule embarrassing Hibs by proving he hasn’t lost all of his audacious ability. No one looks forward to playing these teams, especially up there, and they seem to love battering into each other, the Highland rivalry being the only one worthy of the name this term.

“A nice wee exchange” was how Derek Adams described his touchline confrontation with Terry Butcher after the recent goalless draw. Butcher called it “good fun – he wasn’t swearing but I was” (Adams told me, when briefly at Hibs, that he never swears). This was just a few weeks after the previous derby when the “handbags” occurred at considerably fewer paces than the standard ten. These guys are hurling metaphorical cabers at each other – and human cabers like Tokely, Ross having joined County – but they insist: “We’re good friends.”

The SPL has a pronounced northerly aspect to it now, with Butcher describing that share of the spoils as “two great points for the Highlands”. Bringing points south, you sense, isn’t going to get any easier, as long as both clubs keep their talented young managers. That’s by no means certain and losing one or both would be a shame, but also confirmation that the High-lands are hot.