NONE of Inverness Caledonian Thistle’s driven, disciplined group will be making outlandish claims of title candidacy even if they repeat August’s feat and humble Ronny Deila’s unconvincing Celtic all over again on Saturday.
Only in Scotland could such aspirations be considered barmy for a team with a healthy winning habit now perched joint top of the Premiership table as the first Christmas decorations sneak into shop windows. Yet a thought struck in the chill air of the Tulloch Caledonian Stadium on Saturday evening. Could the Highlanders’ sheer willpower and stolid solidity preserve the Premiership as a contest deep into the new year?
At its best, there is a mesmerising quality to Caley Thistle’s slick and stubborn ball retention – one that seems to wear down opposition will and energy.
For all his critics, John Hughes, the Inverness manager, has hit on something here. Six times this season, his side have held leads without conceding – a trait the club faithful will tell you is new and encouraging.
For Greg Tansey, one of Saturday’s outstanding performers, it is all down to graft and a healthy desire right through the squad to keep on improving. The Huyton-born Scouser was everywhere on the park, linking play and piercing United with intelligent passes. He felt the 1-0 margin flattered the Tayside visitors.
“I think we dominated for long spells and if we’d won by three goals it wouldn’t have flattered us,” Tansey said. “They’re a very good side. The lads were fully aware of that. This was a big game in terms of who we were playing and in terms of placings in the league table. To have come through it so convincingly is pleasing for all the lads. We’re delighted to go joint top – it was a good day all round.
“The thing about this group of players is we make sure we match the opposition’s work-rate and desire. Then, once we do that, we always feel we’re a good enough side for our football to come out on top over the 90 minutes.
“We might have won the game by more but, the fact is, we’ve gained another three valuable points and another good clean sheet. We head for Celtic next week and it is going to be very difficult down there as always, but we’re travelling with a lot of belief and confidence.”
Inverness won without the creative talents of young Ryan Christie, suspended after a red card in the previous match against St Mirren.
But James Vincent, back from injury, slotted in seamlessly a couple of days after Hughes stated he had three equally able candidates to replace Christie. All this augurs well for a sustained push into the upper reaches beyond Christmas.
“Ryan’s been fantastic for us. He’s a joy to train with and he’s got a massive future in the game,” Tansey added. “It’s great watching him develop as a player and a person. But James Vincent slotted in very well and I’m really happy for him because he’s just come back from another injury. It just goes to show the kind of competition we have at the club. Nobody can afford to lose their place in the team.”
Dundee United had two absences of their own, given that Paul Paton and Mark Wilson are currently under club investigation. Ryan Dow stepped into the central area alongside John Rankin, and, in the opening minutes when Chris Erskine struck the post, it looked like United might dominate.
Quickly, though, Inverness took a grip on the game and after 11 minutes the hosts were ahead as Tansey’s excellent low cross from the right found Marley Watkins sliding in between United defenders to strike the close-range finish.
Inverness kept chipping away at United’s resistance for long spells but never quite managed to kill the match as a contest.
United’s forays were rare and tame, with captain Rankin scathing in his assessment of not only the performance but the team’s attitude on the day.
“I’ve spoken before about winning games without being pleasing on the eye,” he said. “Well, today we were neither. We didn’t win and we weren’t pleasing on the eye. Maybe that will give us the kick up the backside we’ve been needing.”