NOBODY could surely have carried more burning desire to clinch a place in Europe than Ryan Esson, the Inverness goalkeeper, who has craved it for some considerable time.
Their upcoming journey into uncharted territory is something of a fairytale and for Esson it marks the return to a stage which he has greater reason than most to want to experience again.
Caley Thistle confirmed third spot in the Premiership to guarantee a first-ever place in the European arena for the Highland club,.
It’s the first time this group of players, who have the opportunity to assume further legendary status by beating Falkirk in the Scottish Cup final later this month, will embrace the wider stage when they launch their assault on next season’s Europa League.
However, Esson has been there before. Back in August 2000, he endured embarrassment along with the rest of his Aberdeen team-mates when they crashed out in the qualifying round of the Uefa Cup to Roddy Collins’ part-time Bohemians, becoming the first Scottish side to go down to Irish opposition, which sparked a stern flow of criticism.
Some 15 years on, and thanks to Edward Ofere’s ninth-minute header which saw off Dundee and put paid to any hopes their chasing rivals had of snatching third place from their grasp, Esson will finally get another opportunity to play in Europe for which he has had to wait so patiently.
“I don’t want reminded of my only European appearance – with Aberdeen we were put out by Bohemians!” said Esson as he let Saturday’s achievement sink in.
“We lost 2-1 at Pittodrie and won 1-0 over there so we lost on away goals. I’ve waited all this time to put that right! “We just knew the stick that was coming after that match.
“We lost a penalty and a goal from a header very late on in that game.
“It was two pretty late goals. We won 1-0 over there. It was just one of those games that never went for us.
You live and learn and take the stick. The expectations were big then.
“And here at Inverness the expectations come from what we put on ourselves.
“It was hard to lose to Bohemians but you take the highs with the lows as a football player.
“There is nothing I can really tell my team-mates now. I wouldn’t even mention it to them now.
“It was just one of those things.”
Inverness have raised more than a few eyebrows with their success this season, having been deemed by many as potential relegation candidates before the campaign got underway in earnest.
But No 1 Esson, 35, has told how Caley Thistle felt all along they were capable of making it all the way into Europe as far back as last summer.
“It’s an unbelievable achievement,” he said.
“Inverness have made a lot of progress over the last few years and at the start of the season we believed we could qualify for Europe.
“We kept it all in-house and there was a wee sticky spell there.
“But we’ve come through it and fair play to the boys because they have put in a shift week-in, week-out and the credit goes to them.
“I think we knew we were a top-six team but we just wondered how far we could go in the top six.
“It’s all about belief sometimes. You look around you and play other teams and you say to yourself that you’re every bit as good as them so why not aim for Europe?
“When we got into the top six we just said to ourselves that we weren’t moving.
“We’ve always been up there really. We never really dropped and while we were up there we said we’d stay as long as we can.
“We were up there that long that we realised we could easily make Europe and now we’ve achieved it.
“It’s writing history. The boys have wanted to do that.
“Some of us were in the League Cup final last season and we want to go one better in the Scottish Cup final as well.”
Ofere’s early header from Greg Tansey’s cross gave the Highlanders a precious lead and evidence would suggest that, whenever they get themselves ahead, they are a decent bet to stay there.
This was no different at Dens Park and Esson more than played his part at the other end with a breathtaking late save from James McPake’s downward header, ensuring the visitors would head home to the Highland capital with another chapter written in the history books.
Things are sweet right now with Hughes having won the PFA Manager of the Year award and the club achieving their highest-ever points total since entering the top tier of Scottish football.
There is, though, a sense of realism which keeps their feet on the ground and means they will not take Falkirk lightly in their 30 May Scottish Cup final, even though they will be strong favourites after ending Celtic’s hopes of a domestic treble .
“I’ve got a mate who supports West Ham and he’s already talking about meeting them, “ smiled Esson. “We’ll enjoy the moment and take the draw when it comes.
“We’ve got two league games to go and must give teams respect and then it’s the cup final.
“We don’t look too far ahead behind the scenes. It’s a slow progression, day to day. The boys have grafted this out and deserve the credit.
“We’re taking the cup final very serious.
“Falkirk are a very good side and we’re not underestimating them.
“Now we can focus on the cup final a bit, but we won’t get caught up in it because we have Dundee United on Saturday and then Celtic and that’s all we’re looking at.”
“I’ve been here a while and now I’m a coach so I know the work that has gone on behind the scenes.
“The hard work runs through the club. We’re trying to push it forward and progress and hopefully this gives the club a little taste of what could be achieved if we want to take it that little bit further.”