IT IS curious to recall, now he is such a vital part of the Caley Thistle squad, that Billy McKay was a misfit during his early months in Inverness. On the sidelines injured for some of the time, and ineffectual when he was in the team, the Corby-born striker was played out of position and often looked out of sorts.
Despite that inauspicious start, then-manager Terry Butcher kept faith in his forward, offering him a new two-year contract after his initial one-season deal expired in 2012. That faith has been vindicated many times over, as McKay has developed into one of the most reliable strikers in the Premiership. He is only human, of course, and has had his lapses, such as the perplexing miss against Hearts in last season’s League Cup semi-final, which Inverness lost. But far more often than not, including the times when his team are playing badly, McKay can be relied upon to come up with the goods.
“I didn’t have a very good start – first training session I got injured,” the 25-year-old recalled at Caley Thistle’s media day earlier this week. “Come back, got injured again, so it wasn’t the most positive of experiences for me.
“But I was happy to get the chance to play in the Scottish Premiership. It took a while to get into the team, but I’ve really enjoyed it since then. It’s a lovely place to live, and a lovely place for me and my family to be. So I’m just happy to be here.
“The second season I was here, we had a little chat as a squad about what we wanted to achieve. Top six and cup finals – we missed out on penalties to Hearts, but this season we’ve gone further and we’re achieving what we set out to do. At one stage in this year’s semi-final we thought ‘here we go again, we’ve blown it’, but we stuck together. Last year’s experience spurred us on to get the win.”
Inverness showed mental and physical strength in adversity to get through that semi-final at Easter Road, where they were a goal and two men down with 30 seconds to play before eventually winning through on penalties, and they may well have to display similar character in Sunday’s final if they are to get the better of Aberdeen. The key to victory against Hearts, according to McKay, was when Graeme Shinnie got the squad into a huddle at the end of the regulation 90 minutes and convinced them they had the fortitude needed to win.
“The semi-final shows the character of the lads,” McKay continued. “We never give up. Graeme just said, ‘keep going. We’re down to nine men and extra time will be a struggle, but keep going, keep working hard for each other and never give up’. I think we did that and we got through. At one point I thought I was going to get cramp, but I felt alright. Marley [Watkins] was saying to me, ‘How can you run all day?’, but I had to do a job for the team. I was up there on my own against four lads, but I was just happy to get it to penalties and we won.”
That victory at the start of last month was not the only time McKay had been involved in a successful penalty shootout. Back in September 2010, he was a member of the Northampton Town team that went to Anfield on League Cup duty and won.
“Yeah, we played Liverpool in the cup – we actually beat them on penalties. That was a big night for me – I managed to get a goal. If I can get a goal Sunday, that will top that as well. To play in a cup final is always going to be a great achievement in your career. That’s what you play for: you want to win medals, and hopefully I’m going to get one. I think if we win it we’ll probably go down as the best team that’s played for Inverness. That’s something we’ve got to strive for. We want to make history, we want to win the cup: that’s why we’re at Inverness.”
In common with his team-mates and manager John Hughes, McKay was keen to put pressure on Aberdeen by insisting they are strong favourites. Having done that, however, he felt obliged to remind his interviewers that results between the two clubs in the league this season have been mixed, and that Caley Thistle should not be fearful going into the big occasion.
“A lot of people see them as favourites, but we like that. We like going into games as underdogs and we’ve got nothing to lose,” he said. “Everyone expects them to win. We’ll go there, we’ll put in a performance, if we win it’s going to be great for us.
“We’ve had some good results against them. The 4-3 result [in Inverness just before Christmas] we were 4-0 down and gave ourselves a lot to do. I think another ten minutes and we’d at least have got a draw. We played them last time away and we beat them 1-0, so we’re confident going in there and we know if we play our game we can win.”