Affected by a bad pre-season last term, Caley’s Billy McKay is now showing true form
IT was the third game of the season and it was, in some way, the catalyst for everything that has happened since, according to those involved.
Away at Tynecastle, Inverness Caledonian Thistle were 2-0 down by half time, and by the 47th minute they had been reduced to ten men. But they didn’t cave in, they fought back and, in the final seconds of the match, secured a draw.
“I think that was the day we really looked at each other and thought about what we could achieve,” says Billy McKay, Caley Thistle’s top scorer. “To get it back to 2-2 in those circumstances, I think we all thought, ‘yeah, this could be a good season’. We hadn’t been winning games at the start of the season but, after that game, the hard work turned into good football as well and we soon got the rewards. We have been scoring lots of goals and creating chances and that’s made us a great team this season.”
After three draws and two defeats from their opening six games, in the subsequent 20 matches Caley Thistle lost just one, winning 11 and drawing eight. That has taken them to second place in the SPL, into the semi finals of the League Cup for the first time in the club’s history and seen them progress in the Scottish Cup.
“When people look at this club, I don’t really think they expect us to be in finals but we have a good team this season and all the lads are working hard and we are getting rewards. We had a meeting before the season and we set little targets that we thought we could achieve and one of those was reaching the final of a cup, so we are on track. We are only one game away from the final and, if we can get there, it would be brilliant for the club.”
Caley Thistle manager Terry Butcher has made no secret of the fact that he and his players love “bloodying the noses” of the more established SPL clubs and they relish the opportunity to ram pre-conceived ideas down the throats of their detractors.
Their achievements thus far this season have earned them plaudits but silverware would be more tangible and something that couldn’t be swamped by time or lost in the history books.
In the mould of their gaffer, the Inverness Caledonian Thistle squad comprises players who find it hard to accept defeat and, on Saturday, they will face Hearts, the side who allowed that never-say-die spirit to take root back in August.
And they are aware that some will consider circumstances have again conspired against them.
Celtic and St Mirren will battle it out at Hampden in the second of the League Cup semi-finals on Sunday. But in the first of the weekend’s ties on Saturday, Caley Thistle must go to Edinburgh, where Hibs’ Easter Road ground has been chosen as the neutral venue.
However, summing up the positivity in the Caley Thistle camp, McKay says that just provides even greater incentive to reach the final and enjoy the Hampden showcase.
With 18 goals already this season, McKay is one of those likely to have a real say in whether they manage that or not. A bit like his team, he started the season brightly, scoring in the first game. But he then suffered a lull before bursting into life and rattling in goals, seemingly at will.
It’s a turnaround in form for a guy who managed just three goals in all of the previous campaign. That, he says, was down to picking up an injury on the first day of training and missing out on a proper pre-season.
Caley Thistle’s style of play last term was also less conducive to goalscoring. But more than just confidence levels have been tweaked this time around. A proper build-up to the campaign helped McKay, as have tactical and personnel changes made for the new season.
“Last season they weren’t really going in for me but this season they have and I would really love to get into a final and score in that.
“Compared to last season, we have a different style and are a more passing team. Last season we had two wingers in Johnny Hayes and Gregory Tade and they were quite direct players who ran and had shots at goal. This season we have wingers who get down and cross it and get the ball in the box and we have Andy Shinnie in the hole, linking up. Our style is definitely different but it has suited us more
“We had a good start to the season but we weren’t picking up wins.
“Then we got a couple of wins and, although I wasn’t playing in every game then, I got the chance to get back in the team against Dundee, got a couple of goals and then it snowballed from there. I went away with Northern Ireland [after earning his first call-up to the national squad] and didn’t score in the first game back after that but then I scored 12 in seven and they just kept coming and coming. I go into every game confident I am going to score, especially in this team. We have scored in every game up to our last game before the break, which is fantastic. Andy Shinnie, Aaron Doran, Richie Foran, when you play with guys like that then you always know they will set you up so you feel you are going to score.”
But there is more to Caley Thistle than just a goal threat. The key remains hard graft, says McKay, and a team bond few clubs can rival.
“We work so hard – that’s the main thing – but we believe in each other and can score goals and, when you play against a team like that, it is very hard and it’s why I don’t think many teams will find it enjoyable to play against us this season. It’s another reason I think the cup competitions suit us because it is a winner-takes-all scenario and the good thing is I know I’m going into it with a group of boys I know will put absolutely everything into it,” says the 24-year-old.
“We have confidence in each other and, when you have that, you never know when you’re beaten. We were 3-0 down after eight minutes against Dundee United and I looked around me and I had belief that we would get back in the game and we did and we should have won it at the end. But there’s been a lot of games where we have been down and come back into it and we just get on with it. We can score goals and we can grind it out and we are getting results.”
That match against United was turned around courtesy of a McKay hat-trick, just one of the telling contributions which have helped elevate his team in the league standings and himself in the SPL scoring charts, long since eclipsing the exploits of team-mates Andrew Shinnie and Richie Foran.
A team that indulges in various inter-team challenges, such as pool leagues and go-karting competitions, both of which McKay says he performed admirably in – vying with Doran for supremacy on the baize and tying with George Brislen-Hall for the laurel wreath on the track – it’s hard to believe there wasn’t some kind of top-scorer wager between the frontmen at the beginning of the season.
McKay just laughs. “No, we never really said anything. We just want to win the games so it doesn’t really matter who scores. Me, Andy and Richie have had a very good first half of the season and scored quite a lot of goals but, if you look about the pitch, Gary Warren, a defender, has scored some goals, Ross Draper, big Jonesy [Owain Tudur Jones], Aaron on the wing has set up God knows how many this season and everyone is playing their part.”
A team effort and a team ethic, with some quality contributions from individuals, it’s a tough combination to better. Hearts will try to on Saturday but McKay and Co are confident they won’t manage it and that self-belief has been invaluable this term.
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