IN THE continuing absence of a sponsor for the new Scottish Premiership, it is unclear whether they will be handing out a Manager of the Month award for August.
Even with one round of fixtures remaining in this opening month of the campaign, it would be difficult to look beyond Terry Butcher as the outstanding candidate for the prize.
In other circumstances or other leagues, it may have appeared anomalous for the big man to celebrate in the manner he did at Celtic Park on Saturday after his Inverness Caledonian Thistle side had to settle for a point after taking a 2-0 lead.
But Butcher was perfectly entitled to indulge in his trademark choreography of the hardy band of travelling fans at full-time, before emitting an almighty roar of satisfaction in the direction of no-one in particular as he left the pitch and walked down the tunnel.
For while Inverness missed out on the chance to record another notable victory at Parkhead, this was still a result and performance which enhanced their outstanding start to the season under a manager whose work at the Highland club is increasingly impressive.
A haul of ten points from their first four matches is an exceptional return for Inverness and not one that many pundits had predicted. Their position at the top of the table may be temporary but no-one can say it is not fully merited.
Despite the apparent upheaval at the club during the summer, in which no fewer than 12 new signings arrived while influential performers such as Andrew Shinnie and Owain Tudur Jones departed, there is a hugely effective stability in Butcher’s side. Of his close-season recruits, only goalkeeper Dean Brill and the outstanding James Vincent were in the starting line-up on Saturday.
They have slotted in seamlessly to a well-oiled machine, from the robust central defensive partnership of Gary Warren and Josh Meekings, through the midfield graft and craft of Richie Foran and Aaron Doran, to the intelligent and selfless forward play of Billy McKay.
“It’s a team effort and we have good partnerships all over the pitch,” observed Brill, the 27-year-old who is on loan from Luton Town.
“Has the start to the season exceeded our own expectations? Yes and no. Having trained with the boys and seen all the hard work they put in pre-season, I knew how good they were. To get a point at Celtic Park possibly exceeded expectations. To be 2-0 up in any game and come away with a point is slightly disappointing. But maybe on reflection we will go away and think a point here is a good result.”
If Butcher is putting Inverness firmly on the footballing map of Britain, the geography still comes as something of a shock to those English compatriots he is able to tempt north. Brill admits he did not bargain for the eight-hour drive he made from Luton to sign on the dotted line for the former England captain.
“I didn’t know it was that far north, to be totally honest,” he added. “I got to Glasgow and thought ‘that was easy enough’ but didn’t realise there were another 150 miles to go! I better not say I thought about turning back.
“The manager is a big draw. When Terry Butcher phones you, it’s like ‘Wow!’ But apart from being a huge name in the game, he is a fantastic person and he sold it to me. The club is brilliant and Inverness is a lovely place to live. I’m here until January as it is, but I’d definitely be open to staying longer.”
Butcher had adopted a motto of “Stamina, Style and Steel” to describe his team this season. He could now add “Substance” to that list, as Inverness displayed this quality in abundance against Celtic, facing ferocious pressure from the champions after forging their way to that 2-0 advantage.
They took the lead with a magnificent goal by Doran in the 14th minute, the young Irishman receiving Vincent’s pass before curling a right-foot shot beyond Fraser Forster’s left hand into the corner of the net from around 20 yards.
Celtic, who were without the attacking quintet of Kris Commons, Georgios Samaras, James Forrest, Anthony Stokes and Derk Boerrigter because of injuries, struggled to find a response although Efe Ambrose was unfortunate to see a header clip the top of Brill’s crossbar.
The task for Neil Lennon’s men became even tougher when Inverness doubled their lead in the 35th minute. It was an unwelcome case of déjà-vu for Lennon as Celtic conceded from a long throw-in, just as they had in last Tuesday’s Champions League defeat by Shakhter Karagandy in Kazakhstan.
Here it was Meekings who launched the ball into the penalty area from the right, prompting a feckless effort to head clear at the near post from Emilio Izaguirre. The full-back merely succeeded in helping the ball on to McKay who nodded it back down for Foran to get in ahead of Izaguirre and stab home a close-range shot.
Crucially for Celtic, they managed to cut the deficit four minutes before the interval. Charlie Mulgrew actually mishit his shot into the turf from Izaguirre’s cutback, wrong-footing Brill who was unable to keep it out.
It was a goal Celtic deserved for the dominance of possession they had gained, and they maintained that momentum in the second half. Amido Balde, who has still to come to terms with his new environment, passed up a couple of decent headed chances to put Celtic level.
As it was, Inverness might easily have snatched a third goal on the counter-attack had Doran not dithered in possession. His appeal for a penalty as Virgil van Dijk recovered the situation for Celtic was half-hearted.
Celtic’s persistence, driven by captain Scott Brown, finally paid off in the 82nd minute. It was Brown’s cute pass which picked out Adam Matthews’ run on the right of the penalty area and the Welshman drove a low shot beyond Brill.