Barry Wilson looks forward to a first-ever Highland derby in the top flight

WHEN Inverness Caledonian Thistle first met Ross County in the Scottish Football League, the two clubs already were pinching themselves. Just six years earlier, County had been an amateur team, bottom of the Highland League. A month earlier, Caley Thistle had not even played a competitive match.

If you had told them that in less than two decades they would be contesting a Scottish Premier League game, broadcast live by an American satellite TV channel, they would have dismissed the idea as too surreal even for Salvador Dali, never mind the 5,000 inhabitants of Dingwall.

That, though, is what will happen on Friday night when the two clubs meet at the Caledonian Stadium. The SPL has lost its Old Firm derby and welcomed back the Dundee one but, of all the rivalries that will help Scotland’s top flight through these difficult financial times, the Highland one is the freshest. It started in the Highland League, when County regularly played Caledonian FC, who later merged with Inverness Thistle. It continued in the Third Division 18 years ago, when County and the new club were voted into the SFL. Since then, they have clashed on various rungs of the league ladder, developing an unusual relationship along the way.

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Barry Wilson, who has played for both teams, and participated in the Highland derby – league and non-league – says that their long and successful battle to redraw the map of Scottish football has given them a pride in each other, albeit one that is forgotten when they meet on the pitch.

“A lot of Inverness fans will go and watch County games this season,” explains Wilson. “And a lot of County fans will go and watch Inverness. In general, they want each other to do quite well because they want two SPL teams in this neck of the woods but this week will be totally different. That’s when the real rivalry sets in. It’s not overly hostile – there’s no crowd trouble or anything – but I wouldn’t describe it as a friendly rivalry either. What makes this game especially interesting is the return to Inverness of so many Caley players, guys like Grant Munro and Ross Tokely, pictured, who are now playing for County. That will add quite a bit to the occasion.”

Wilson, now 40 and retired, had two spells in Inverness and one in Dingwall. He started his career with County – then managed by his father, Bobby – and is rather embarrassed to be reminded of the day he celebrated a goal against Caledonian by revealing a T-shirt that read: “Let’s all laugh at Caley”.

“I was probably about 17 at the time. It’s not one of my best moments. It wasn’t even my T-shirt. It was meant as a bit of a joke, and I only showed it to the County fans but word got around. It’s not something I’m proud of, especially when you consider where I went on to spend most of my career. You’ve got to laugh about it now I suppose.”

Wilson only made three appearances for County in the Third Division, the last of which was that first-ever league derby at Victoria Park, on 27 August 1994. It was a typically frenzied affair, with nine bookings, a red card and a penalty in what turned out to be a 3-1 win for Inverness. Some fans remember Wilson being body-checked by a stray linesman. “That used to happen regularly,” he insists. “I was quick in those days.”

A few days later, Wilson joined Raith Rovers. County finished third that season, and fourth a year later, neither of which was good enough for their board, who sacked Wilson’s father and replaced him with Neale Cooper. Inverness beat them to promotion and there was a spell during which the rivalry faded. Caley Thistle were more interested in beating Livingston, who effectively led them up the leagues.

Only when the two Highland clubs reconvened in the First Division, just one step from the top flight, were the old hostilities resumed. Even now, 35 meetings after joining the SFL, the derby that stands out is the 3-3 draw at the Caledonian Stadium in November 2003. Coincidentally, it was held on a Friday night, then to avoid a clash with Scotland’s European Championship play-off with Holland on the Saturday. County, who had been 3-0 down, secured a point thanks to Steven McGarry’s last-minute stunner.

For all its drama, it was not enough to prevent Caley Thistle being promoted to the SPL, where they have remained, with the exception of one season, ever since. That they have at last been joined by County is a healthy development for Scottish football, as well as for the Highland region.

Wilson, who recently gave up a coaching post with Elgin City to run a shop in Dingwall, says that the benefits are not just economic. He says that more children are playing football, and hopes that more will support their local clubs. “There was a little disappointment in Dingwall about the Rangers situation because it meant that Celtic would be the only Old Firm club coming north. On the other hand, a lot of people are now saying ‘what’s the point in going to watch a Third Division club when our local team is in the SPL?’ Hopefully these people will be supporters in three or four years because one of our biggest bugbears used to be driving down the A9 and getting passed by busloads of Celtic and Rangers fans.”

The only pity is that Friday’s derby is not at Victoria Park, where the acoustics make for a better atmosphere. It will still be an emotional night in Inverness though, perhaps more so for the SPL newcomers. When Cooper was their manager, County signed most of their players from far afield, sacrificing some of their identity in the process. Now, they are stowed out with Highlanders, many of them from the other side of the fence.

Wilson, who enjoyed a total of nine years with Inverness, says that the strong Highland contingent with which they rose through the ranks has now gone. Terry Butcher, their manager, has assembled a team with more Englishmen and Irishmen than Scots.

“These signings might be good or they might be bad but my concern for Inverness is that they are short-term. Steve Marsella, their chief scout, has maybe more contacts in England than Scotland, and the feeling I’m getting from Inverness is that there is a lack of connection between fans and players at the minute. I remember thinking exactly the same thing about County 15 years ago. It has come full circle.”