FROM the seventh tier of English football to the Europa League – Ross Draper’s transformation from non-league journeyman to becoming a key man for the Scottish Cup winners is just one of many remarkable tales linked to Inverness Caledonian Thistle’s historic triumph at Hampden on Saturday.
Just six years ago, Draper was turning out for Hednesford Town in what was then known as the Unibond League and experiencing some soul-destroying away days in a career which appeared to be going nowhere fast.
The Wolverhampton-born midfielder did manage to earn a move to Macclesfield Town in League Two but even then he admits the extent of his football ambitions had focused on a possible switch to the Welsh League in a bid to taste European football.
But since Terry Butcher persuaded him to make the trek north to the Highlands in 2012, Draper has flourished in an Inverness side which John Hughes has now guided to the dizzying heights of a third place Premiership finish and Scottish Cup glory.
“I actually agreed to join Inverness before I knew all of the travelling that’s involved for away games,” said Draper. “But although I didn’t initially realise how far north Inverness was, it was actually an easy decision for me.
“I had offers to stay in League Two in England but you just rattle about there and it’s hard to get spotted by bigger clubs, especially when you are a holding midfielder like me.
We played Bolton in the Carling Cup. Now I look back and realise it wasn’t really that glamorousRoss Draper
“The standard isn’t very good, it’s long ball football and you go to sh**** grounds on a Tuesday night. For me to come here and play teams like Celtic and play in front of 50,000 crowds and have cup runs like this was a no-brainer.
“It wasn’t a hard decision – it was the right one. When I was at Hednesford, I played at places like Cammell Laird and it’s not pretty. There’s barbed wire on the fence around the ground, there were portakabins for changing rooms and horrible conditions.
“That was in the Unibond North so that’s a couple below the Conference. I got a move to League Two, so the facilities go up but I just find the football down south is so long ball and I feel I’ve improved personally since coming to Inverness.
“A lot of my mates down south moved to the Welsh League and got into Europe playing for clubs like TNS. I thought that’s where I was going to end up, but I’ve gone down a different path and I’m grateful for that.
“There are no Big Time Charlies in our dressing room at Inverness. It’s not like someone has been at the top and they are dropping down and finishing their career and just picking up money.
“It’s all hungry boys who have been in the non-league and scrapped around and had jobs. Myself, Gary Warren and Danny Williams have all had jobs and played part-time football and you appreciate it when you come up here.
“I had a job in a mortgage company and got a promotion within the business which was for ringing people and collecting mortgage payments. Gary likes to say I was a bailiff knocking on the doors with a baseball bat but that’s rubbish!
“It was a good job for me but then I got the chance to go to Macclesfield full time so I had to quit. When I was there we played Bolton in a Carling Cup tie and I was like ‘Wow’. Now I look back and realise it wasn’t really that glamorous.
“Realistically, the first or second round of the cups is as far as you’ll go with smaller clubs down in England. In Scotland, there is more chance of a cup run because you’re with a good team.
“That’s why it’s easy to rattle about League Two for your entire career and never achieve anything, which is why I think it’s an easy decision to come up here and I’d recommend it to anyone who gets a chance.
“It doesn’t matter what club it’s with. Inverness is fantastic but I’d suggest it to anyone. But you still need to have the personality to knock about with the boys – players have moved to Inverness and struggled because it’s small and three hours away from everywhere else. I think you need to be the right person and all of us together are a good mix.
“I think the fact we keep going in games is down to camaraderie and character. Inverness is a small place and we all live two minutes from each other so we all knock about together.
“Even the girlfriends knock about together and we go out for food. Danny Devine and Aaron Doran go out with two sisters – that’s how tight the boys are. Don’t ask me what goes on in that house!”
Having been Man of the Match when Inverness lost out to Aberdeen on penalties in last season’s League Cup final, Draper took greater satisfaction from Saturday’s gritty triumph over Falkirk which was achieved with ten men after Carl Tremarco’s dismissal.
“It’s unbelievable,” added the 26-year-old. “I knew the game would be tight – Falkirk are a tidy team with good players – but in the first half I thought we were comfortable and deservedly got a goal late in the half through Marley Watkins.
“Falkirk obviously did a lot of work on us and changed their tactics in the second half so fair play to them. They put us under pressure and were on top and deservedly got their equaliser.
“But the boys showed great character to keep going and pressing with ten men. It would have been easy to sit in and park the bus and try to take it to extra-time and penalties.
“Marley has been brilliant all season and to bully their lad and then go on a run and get the shot away for James Vincent to come from nowhere and put the rebound away for the winner was unreal.
“It was a bit like David Raven in the semi-final against Celtic, coming from nowhere to score – it must be something about bald right backs!”
Inverness face the prospect of losing the influential Watkins, who is now out of contract, but Draper is hoping to persuade his friend to stick around for a crack at the Europa League.
“I will be in Marley’s ear and try and get him to stay on,” said Draper. “I haven’t spoken to him yet but if he moves on and it’s the right move for him then you would have to say fair play to him. He has been brilliant all season. He’s a real raw talent and is still learning. He’s 24 now and he could learn more under John Hughes. Hopefully we can keep him here.”