INVERNESS had more reason than most to fear the winter break, which threatened to disturb their momentum and leave them without a manager, but here they were at the Caledonian Stadium yesterday, picking up where they left off in the most spectacular fashion.
Scorers: Inverness: Shinnie (53) McKay (61) (78)
In their first match since he turned down the offer of a job at Barnsley, Terry Butcher, pictured below right, saw his team not just beat Aberdeen, but blow them away with three breathtaking second-half goals – two of them by Billy McKay – that consolidated their reputation as the second-best team in Scotland.
After a first half in which there was little between the teams, McKay took his tally for the season to 20, while Andrew Shinnie also scored in a performance that gave not the slightest hint that Caley Thistle’s bubble is about to burst. After three weeks off – their last scheduled fixture, against Ross County, was postponed – it was a helluva way to limber up for next weekend’s Scottish Communities League Cup semi-final against Hearts.
Butcher, who joked that he thought he’d seen the back of the Scottish press, was thrilled with a performance that can only have made him feel better about his decision to stay. “It took them a while to get warmed up and get back into the pace of the SPL, but you can see they have got the energy and enthusiasm back,” he said. “And they’ve only got a semi-final to look forward to now.”
It can’t be much fun for Aberdeen’s long-suffering supporters, now visiting Inverness in the guise of underdogs. For much of the opening period, they stroked the ball about well – thanks mainly to the returning Stephen Hughes – but they were not incisive enough in the final third. Jonny Hayes, the former Caley Thistle player, was their likeliest source of a goal, but even his best work was too far out. A 20-yarder dipped over the bar, a run and shot failed to properly test the goalkeeper and his low cutback briefly threatened to go in off Ross Draper.
Inverness fashioned the better openings, but were slow to take advantage. Richie Foran’s glancing header nearly slipped in at the far post, but Jamie Langfield was down quickly to turn it wide. When Owain Tudor Jones played a weighted ball over the top of Aberdeen’s back four, McKay squared it to Aaron Doran, who couldn’t keep his shot down. Andrew Shinnie was guilty of a similar fault when he allowed his free header, after a cross by David Raven, to drift over the bar. Josh Meekings, back in the Inverness defence, showed his importance to the team with a couple of strong, well-time tackles, but at the start of the second half, a mistake by his fellow centre-half, Gary Warren, gave Aberdeen the chance they had struggled to produce throughout the opening period.
Warren’s slip allowed Hayes to seize possession, but when the winger found himself with only the goalkeeper to beat, he chose power rather than accuracy. Instead of picking out the bottom corner, he thumped it at the right height and angle for Antonio Reguero to beat away.
It proved to be a costly miss. Just a few minutes later, there was a defensive slip at the other end, this time by Russell Anderson, and Shinnie took full advantage. Given his position, close to the byeline, most were expecting a cutback from the Inverness forward, who encouraged the notion by opening his body in that direction. That, though, was the furthest thing from his mind as he proved with a right-foot shot that curled across Langfield and into the far corner of the net.
It was a fine goal, one that cannot have harmed the bargaining position of a player whose contract talks with Inverness have stalled, but it was soon to be followed by an even better one. Eight minutes after the breakthrough came the home side’s second, the product of a move started by Aaron Doran. When his run and pass was expertly flicked on by Draper, McKay took it in his stride, beat a man and calmly converted with a low shot past Langfield from just inside the penalty area.
More than a quarter of the game had still to be played, but some of the Aberdeen fans were already leaving, which turned out to be a good decision. A threaded ball by Foran set up Draper, who nicked in ahead of the goalkeeper, only to see his effort trundle wide. Then came the third, courtesy of a cross by Raven, a flick by Shinnie and a thumping left-foot swipe by McKay that crashed the ball high into the net.
Craig Brown, the Aberdeen manager, admitted that his team’s reaction to the loss of the first goal had been poor, but he argued that three goals flattered Inverness.
“We have a goalie who has made one save in the game, and he has let in three goals. Every time Inverness had a goal attempt, they scored. If you analyse the possession, it was probably quite even.”