Inverness 1-0 St Johnstone: Caley keep up pace

THERE are those who have been quick to opine that the only way is down for Inverness Caley Thistle and whoever picks up the baton from the departed Terry Butcher.

Marley Watkins beats Gary McDonald (lef) to the ball. Picture: SNS

Scorers: Inverness - McKay (4)

Bookings: Inverness - Shinnie; St Johnstone - Scobbie, Edwards, Hasselbaink

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Such is the club’s over-achievement in terms of budget and crowds to league advancement that is a natural, if rather lazy, glass-half-empty style assumption.

How much further can Caley Thistle go than second to Celtic? Well, they could win a trophy in the shape of the League Cup. They could go one short step further than last season and qualify for Europe for the first time in their history.

If the unshakeable belief and obvious steel in the home dressing-room is any measure, the obituaries shouldn’t be written quite yet, either by pundits or pessimistic out-of-work managers.

Billy McKay, matchwinner here in a show of defiance by the Highlanders, summed up the spirit at the end. The Northern Ireland international, who claimed the winning goal with his 11th goal of the campaign, spoke of unflappable belief.

“This job must be an attractive proposition – of course it is,” he said. “You can gauge from just how many applicants there have been that it is a job an awful lot of people want. Our chairman Kenny Cameron says there are a lot from abroad as well, so it shows just what we’re achieving as a team. We’re going in the right direction and people want to be part of it.

McKay had heard the talk of Inverness being on trial to prospective Butcher replacements who might be watching. He didn’t pay the chatter too much heed.

“I didn’t really think about it myself. There might or might not have been managers watching,” McKay said. “We just went out to do our business and get the win. You saw our heart out there on the pitch and how much it means to the lads.

The Inverness players just picked up where they had left off before the international break with a fourth victory on the trot.

St Johnstone’s juggernaut shuddered to a halt with the Perth side unable to muster a clear sight at goal.

Given dramatic events at Pittodrie with Celtic’s late victory, the win kept Caley Thistle five points off the summit.

Defensively resolute, controlled in midfield and every bit as gritty as they had been under the firebrand Butcher, there was also plenty of clever passing from the dominant hosts.

Still, with the early McKay strike all there was to separate the sides, it became a surprisingly nervy affair towards the close.

On current form alone, Tommy Wright’s team were in fine fettle - and chasing a fifth straight win.

Youth coaches Duncan Shearer and Scott Kellacher were handed responsibility in the home technical area.

Saints briefly made the running but, from their first attack after three minutes, Inverness were in front.

Carl Tremarco was released on the left and the summer capture from Macclesfield’s cross was high in quality. As it flew across the six-yard box, McKay’s predatory instincts were typically sharp for a stabbed finish off the inside post.

More creative movement from the energetic hosts after nine minutes ended with an Aaron Doran tilt from distance. Keeper Alan Mannus had to look lively to control it.

Saints’ best threat came from the pace and close control of Nigel Hasselbaink, who wriggled free on a couple of occasions.

After such a comfortable first half, you expected some kind of St Johnstone response into the second period, but it didn’t materialise until far too late

Just three minutes after the re-start, McKay’s clever pass freed Draper to the right side of the box but the big midfielder blasted just over. The finish seemed alien to the game as a whole with Caley

Thistle desperately scrambling to clear their lines.

Justice was served with the final whistle, with Wright, pictured left, admitting: “I didn’t think it was flat, but we lacked a bit of quality in the last third. You have to hand them a compliment in the way they defended.”