ONLY a couple of weeks ago, 19 May, 2013, had looked like being a quite historic date for Caley Thistle. Until recently, European football had seemed their destiny.
Scorers: Ross County - Haintaul (44)
Bookings: Ross County - Boyd, Kettlewell, Sproule; Inverness - Raven, Shinnie, Meekings
That was a gross under-estimation of the strength and passion of a rivalry now almost 20 years in the making.
Defeat to Dundee United had proved the first costly blow and yesterday’s rugged, bone-shaking finale killed the dream for Terry Butcher’s depleted side. It became, instead, by full-time a celebration only of great progress for both teams, although one clearly tinged in deep disappointment for the men from across the Firth.
After watching his makeshift side fail to keep County at bay, Butcher even claimed: “I don’t think our club could cope with Europe.”
Having failed to savour victory against their great foes in five earlier derbies this season, County had the bit between their teeth as they capped a quite remarkable SPL debut campaign with a fifth-place finish. Inverness, so long Motherwell’s closest contenders in third, had to settle for fourth.
Proof of the transition in progress in Dingwall came in the shape of the match-winner. Where ten of the 11 County men who stepped out in the 2010 Scottish Cup final were Scots, Andre Hainault, a Canadian, is part of the new and growing cosmopolitan band at the Global Energy Stadium.
Before a ball was kicked, there was selection intrigue in both camps.
County goalkeeper Michael Fraser, it transpired, had torn his calf in training on Friday. With colleague Mark Brown still injured, it fell to former Dunfermline man Paul Gallacher to make his County debut. Highland derby veteran Grant Munro was also denied a crack at his old club, with Scott Boyd restored to central defence. Influential midfielders Richard Brittain and Rocco Quinn were injured for the hosts, meaning starts for Mark Fotheringham and Stuart Kettlewell.
County’s shuffling paled in comparison to the revamp forced upon Terry Butcher, though. Suspensions robbed the Englishman’s side of its familiar look, with skipper Richie Foran and Ross Draper absent from the engine room. Wales cap Owain Tudur Jones seemed a natural replacement, but he was nowhere to be seen. That left Butcher with Danny Devine, and a left back, Charles Taylor, as replacements in the heart of midfield.
On a hard, rutted surface, it was always going to be as much of a physical scrap as a football match, but County were able to craft the better football.
In an uncompromising opening, both sides fought to stamp their authority with Caley Thistle first to threaten with a shot from Leeds-loanee Taylor. Both teams then passed up further opportunities, with Devine stabbing wide from six yards and Ivan Sproule blowing another chance when he shot over from just eight yards out.
There was bedlam in the away stand as erroneous news filtered through of a Motherwell opener, when in fact St Johnstone had scored and County’s breakthrough, two minutes before the break, soon silenced them with Hainault smashing a ten-yard volley beyond Reguero after Paul Lawson’s cross had been cleared to him.
The derby remained evenly-poised, though, with Caley Thistle’s Doran testing keeper Gallacher.
It became even more of a tit-for-tat scrap, with neither side able to take a second’s breather. There were few clearcut chances, but, with 12 minutes remaining, a deflected Paul Lawson strike caused a flutter for Caley Thistle before Reguero smothered down low.
At the other end, Gallacher had to make a rare save from David Raven with Andrew Shinnie lurking. There were few real scares for County, though, as the Inverness dream died and it was County’s Vigurs who shook the junction of bar and post with a late free-kick. Moments later, only a stunning Reguero save denied the same midfielder.
Beach balls were dispatched from the Inverness end before the final whistle, but rather than a taunt it felt like a sombre act of resignation. The Highlands will have to wait a little longer to welcome European football.
Butcher was only half-joking as he picked over the ashes of his European dream – and he questioned the Highlanders’ readiness for a continental adventure with such a modestly-funded club, taking the manner in which his depleted team capitulated as some proof of the limitations he has been working with.
“Fair play to County,” he said. “We’re not in Europe, but I don’t think our club could cope with Europe, to be honest, when you consider what happened when we lost four players for this fixture. You need your big men [in a game like this] and we didn’t have them.
Butcher also said the Dingwall the game would be the last for a number of the team, with Tudur Jones yet to agree a new deal, goalkeeper Antonio Reguero bound for Kilmarnock and Andrew Shinnie set to join Birmingham. Others are likely to be released. He said: “Yes, one or two will be leaving and I thank them all very much, but I’ve got the core of a very good side and the future is looking good for Caley Thistle.”
Ross County: Gallacher, Kovacevic, Boyd, Hainault, Oikonomou, Kettlewell, Sproule, Lawson, Fotheringham (Scott), Vigurs, Wohlfarth (Glen 67). Subs not used: McCarthy, Munro, Cooper, MacPhee, Porritt.
Inverness CT: Reguero, Raven, Hogg, Meekings, G Shinnie, Taylor (Sutherland), Devine, Pepper (Ross 36), A Shinnie, Doran, McKay. Subs not used: Esson, Sutherland, Laing, Polworth, Ferguson, Christie.