SOMETIMES the sheer lunacy of it all can suddenly hit you. Football’s crazy path is no more crazily paved than in the case of Terry Butcher, who will take a sip of something red and fruity on Christmas Day in the knowledge that his team are riding high in the Scottish Premier League.
When watching footage of classic football moments, it can still be hard to link the England skipper in the bloodied bandage with the manager who has become such an established part of the scene in Scotland. Perhaps we are now guilty of taking him too much for granted. Perhaps because of his bonhomie we might overlook the fact he has become a serious operator in the Highlands with a side that is not only currently successful, but also attractive to watch.
As he skippered England to the World Cup semi-finals as a Rangers player, imagine someone told you that Butcher would in time lead a team called Inverness Caledonian Thistle to second top of the Premier League, where they are lodged behind Celtic. As an additionally lunatic aside, this soothsayer circa 1990 might also have asked you to imagine Rangers – the team Butcher had just led to a second consecutive championship title, and whose eyes were now set on the European Cup – will also be in the fourth tier of Scottish football.
Not that there was a fourth tier of Scottish football back then. Most would have chosen to believe the one about the Mayan apocalypse before entertaining this wild-eyed nonsense.
The Scottish football landscape had been home to so many bonkers moments in the last year that Inverness’ free-scoring progress has tended to be achieved a little under the radar.
However, such has been the regular nature of their multi-goal performances of late that they can have little hope of avoiding the glare of attention. It is something they might not completely welcome given that interest in those, such as 18-goal Billy McKay, is likely to become intense come the transfer window.
But the secret of Butcher’s success appears to have been creating a contented environment for his players in Inverness, where he has managed to meld together a collection of footballers from the lower leagues in England with a back-bone of more recognisable SPL talent in the likes of Richie Foran and the Shinnie brothers.
As of Saturday, they have scored four goals against Dundee on two occasions this season, as they have done against Dundee United. The last strike on Saturday afternoon against Dundee, contributed by newly established Scotland internationalist Andrew Shinnie, was their 42nd SPL strike of the season, the total managed in the whole of their last league campaign.
They have lost only three times in both the league and cup competitions since the start of the current campaign and might be nearer to Celtic at the top – the gap is currently five points – had they not lost a late equaliser to Hearts at home in November. Indeed, draws littered the early part of their season. If just a couple of them had been turned into wins, then might we have been celebrating a Christmas miracle where Inverness were sitting at the summit?
Who knows what else can be achieved before the winter break? It’s hardly a completely favourable selection of opponents, but their Christmas fixture schedule could conceivably see Inverness pick up three more victories, with a home game against St Mirren on Boxing Day followed by a trip to St Johnstone and the shorter hop across to the Black Isle to play local rivals Ross County. Indeed, the achievements of Ross County in reaching the SPL and then hitting the ground running at the start of the season seems only to have motivated Inverness to greater heights.
Of course it hasn’t been all sweetness and light in the Highlands. Attendances at Inverness have been derided, sometimes by their own players. But when not even 3,000 home fans can be counted on to turn up for a home game, reaching second place is made to seem even more remarkable. Some have also criticised Butcher for picking up a host of short-term and loan signings, and for not caring enough about the development of young talent.
It is not Butcher’s current job to give a tinker’s cuss about Scotland – although, judging from the comments he has made consistently since setting up home north of the border all those years ago, you know that he cares deeply about the place – and also its national football team, given that he has previously spent time as assistant national coach.
Those who like the idea of a team such as Inverness trashing expectations should celebrate what Butcher has achieved so far this season with a little toast before the turkey is served up tomorrow. You know he will.
Mic’s off, but we’ve still got Begg’s memories
Yesterday’s tribute to the BBC Scotland radio commentator David Begg was an essential listen and a reminder of what has been lost when he retired earlier this year.
Football fans often form a close relationship with the voices who have described significant moments to them over the years.
And the goosebump count was high again yesterday as we re-lived some of Begg’s commentaries on BBC Radio Scotland’s Sportsound programme, while also being invited to glimpse the man behind the microphone. For those who didn’t hear the documentary, it is perhaps worth repeating some of what we learned.
A favourite game he witnessed from the gantry? It wasn’t Scotland’s victory in the Parc des Princes in 2007, despite his glorious shriek of “glory, glory hallelujah” becoming a favoured ringtone at the time.
Rather, it was St Johnstone’s 3-1 win over Airdrie in 1990 at the then recently opened – and rocking – McDiarmid Park, which saw the Perth side gain the upperhand in a fevered First Division title race.
Begg’s self-deprecating streak was also in evidence as he recalled his astonished reaction to Chris Iwelumo’s open goal miss against Norway – he originally thought the ball must have passed through a hole in the net.
He also recalled being dropped for a spell after what was deemed to be an overly hysterical reaction to Rangers’ European Cup win over Dynamo Moscow in the late Eighties.
“Fired for being frenetic,” Begg mused, with a typically poetic flourish. If he had any bias, it was one that we all fall prey to at times.
He admitted to favouring the underdog – hardly a crime. A humble but exceptional operator, it was gladdening to know Begg, yesterday, was able to hear how highly he was rated.
You imagine that the compliments expressed by those listeners who emailed in afterwards were as appreciated by the commentator as those which were offered by the likes of Neil Lennon and Walter Smith.