Hurtling past Celtic towards 2015’s Scottish Cup final, sage counsel from within the Caledonian Stadium told Aaron Doran to soak it all up, savour it, and remember. The clear message was those remarkable times might never come again.
Hammered soon after by the first of two grievous knee injuries within 18 months, the Irish winger recalled those wise words from older team-mates. It wasn’t just that Doran feared his Hampden days were over. Back then, it took a big stretch of the imagination to believe he would walk normally again, never mind move at pace with ball at feet.
Catastrophe soon struck his club, just as it did him personally, in the shape of relegation from the Premiership in May 2017. Like Doran, a pale shadow of his former self for long enough, many wondered if Inverness Caledonian Stadium, ravaged financially, could ever make it back to the big stage.
Doran’s renaissance, then, mirrors that of his employers. A player of guile and trickery once tipped for great things at Blackburn Rovers, he has defied expectations by rediscovering his dynamic best this season, with 11 goals from the wide areas. At 27, he is only just approaching peak years.
Recalling the days when a Terry Butcher team honed superbly by John Hughes was lording it in the top four, the Europa League and the Scottish Cup, Doran said: “The older heads back then told me to make the most of it because it didn’t happen often. I don’t think many expected us to be back here again, so quickly.
“At the start of last season we were down at the bottom of the Championship, with pretty much a new team. We then kicked on at the end of the campaign, only just missing out on the play-offs.
“This season we had a lot of draws at the outset, but now we are one of the form teams in the league – and this Scottish Cup run has helped us hugely.
“Our confidence is high. We can go and play Hearts with no fear. We have a lot of good players and we now know each other inside out, whereas, we were only just gelling when Hearts knocked us out of the Betfred Cup. I am sure it will be a lot closer this time.”
Doran visibly flinches when asked about the two traumas to opposite knees. Florid, smile-shaped scars testify to the extent of damage. Caley Thistle very nearly lost a player comparable in talent to past club greats like Jonny Hayes, Ryan Christie and Adam Rooney.
“When I heard I would be out for nine to 12 months with my first knee injury, it was tough,” Doran explained.
“During the 2015 cup final I felt something. Coming into the Europa League games with Astra Giurgiu, it was so painful I came off the plane in Romania and couldn’t walk. I knew it was serious.
“I went from the incredible high of winning the final to real low depths. I came back and played for four or five months, but then did my other knee. It was incredibly tough knowing I had to go through it all again.
“I wondered if I would ever get back to playing at this level again. I didn’t know if it was possible to be the player I had been. It was a long time away from the game and it has taken a lot of time and work, but I’m feeling good and strong again.
“When I was out injured we got relegated and, if I’m honest, I couldn’t see another day at Hampden coming around. It feels a little different this time, but to get to the semi-finals as a Championship team is a great achievement.”