John Hughes, who described himself as the “proud” manager of losing finalists Inverness Caledonian Thistle, said he and his players laughed on their way to Celtic Park for yesterday’s League Cup final after they failed to spot a single Inverness supporter. This summed up the size of task facing his team in an arena where more than 40,000 Aberdeen fans had congregated in the hope of seeing their heroes at last lift another trophy.
But Hughes did not believe being vastly outnumbered in the stands contributed to Inverness’ defeat. Instead, he accused referee Steven McLean of having a significant part to play in his side’s downfall. Hughes lamented the referee’s failure to award a penalty in the second-half after Richie Foran claimed he was impeded in the box by Aberdeen defender Andrew Considine. Hughes described the offence as a “stone-waller” and said he could see the offence from where he was standing on the touchline. Foran certainly made his own feelings clear to McLean with an outburst following the incident and the skipper, who was already booked after a series of fouls in the first half, was later substituted.
“It might have been a different outcome,” said Hughes. “I felt we were denied a stone-wall penalty on Richie Foran. A penalty is a penalty. Even from where I was in the dug out it was a stone-waller. You saw from the reaction from my players.”
Asked about an incident in the first-half when Inverness had escaped being punished when Josh Meekings appeared to trip Adam Rooney, Hughes smiled: “That was a dive.”
He added: “But that’s the referee for you. It was one of those days, he was not going to make decisions like that. I thought it was a dive. But Richie Foran, I am standing on the touchline and you can see the reaction of my players. I am not having a go at the referee. I felt he let the match flow and there was a rhythm to the game. But it was a decision to make and you have to make it.”
Foran was also still angry about the incident afterwards, although he did promise to phone McLean to apologise if replays showed that he was not in fact pulled back by Considine. “It’s a clear penalty, simple as that,” said the skipper. “You need brave referees to make the call. I was delighted he was chosen as referee.
“I don’t want to be too unfair to him, because I like him a lot,” he added, with reference to McLean. “If we had 40,000 supporters, we would probably have been given the penalty. But I am expecting a phone call from him to apologise. If it wasn’t one when I look at it again, I will be phoning him to apologise.”
As for the atmosphere inside Celtic Park, where Aberdeen fans accounted for more than 40,000 of the 51,143 attendance, Hughes said it had not affected his players. Rather, he thought it would more likely inhibit Aberdeen’s performance if anything.
“It did not faze us,” he said. “I felt it was Aberdeen who had to handle the pressure, with the history of not having won a cup. They have a city of 500,000 people, we only have 65,000 or whatever it is. The difference was to be expected.
“We started laughing on the bus when he drove in because we never saw a single Inverness supporter,” he continued. “But we needed to be better in terms of getting on the ball and making things happen. We are a better football team than we showed. That is the most disappointing thing. But the shape and game plan worked a treat. We could be sitting here as the winning team, but it was not to be.
“It is penalty kicks, and when it goes to that it is anybody’s match. It is disappointing for the boys, but I am so proud of them. To get to a national cup final and give it a right good shot and take a good team like Aberdeen to penalty kicks, I feel for them. And it could so easily have been our day. I felt the game plan and tactics were spot on. We tried to go and win it in extra-time and I felt it worked great.”
Hughes admitted Inverness had ridden their luck when Russell Anderson hit the post in the first half, with the ball then prevented from crossing the line by a clearance from Foran. “Even in defeat you have to be respectful to the other club and the winners, and I felt their fans were absolutely magnificent – along with ours,” he said. “I felt it was a great cup final. You have to say well done to them.”
The manager was protective of Billy McKay and Greg Tansey, who failed to score with Inverness’ first two penalties in the shoot-out. “It is neither here nor there,” he shrugged, later adding that both players had made significant contributions to Inverness’ success this season. “You have to put an arm around them and console them and come back fighting on Wednesday against Motherwell,” he continued.
“We practised kicks. It’s just on the day, if you strike it well enough and the goalie goes the other way, it is in. As long as you hit the target, that’s what matters.”
McKay did indeed hit the target but saw goalkeeper Jamie Langfield palm his effort round the post. Tansey, however, blazed his shot high over the bar, which meant Inverness were on the back foot from an early juncture in the shoot-out, which was held at the end of the ground where the Inverness fans were congregated. With Aberdeen proving so accurate from the spot, Inverness were not given the chance to recover from the first two failures. “No finger of blame at anyone,” stressed Hughes. “They are all heroes in my eyes.”