Inverness not feeling the play-off pressure as St Johnstone prepare for two cup finals of a different kind

A year ago this week, St Johnstone were preparing to make history in the Scottish Cup final against Hibs.

Now they are bidding to avoid being cast as the victims of history makers.

No team has managed to come through three play-off rounds and gain promotion to the Premiership. The enterprising Inverness Caledonian Thistle remain on course to become the first. Once the players leave the pitch at the Caledonian stadium at the end of the teams’ Premiership play-off final first leg tonight, the next performer to grace the field will be Andrea Bocelli on Friday 1 July.

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His most famous song, Time to Say Goodbye, will ring out across the Moray Firth. The Italian tenor might be persuaded to dedicate it to St Johnstone if the Perth side have come to grief in the tie, with the second leg taking place on Monday down the A9 in Perth.

Inverness hope the song is applicable to them. They are itching to leave the Championship behind after a stay of five seasons.

The Perth club’s sudden decline will long remain a source of fascination. Chroniclers of Scottish football history will puzzle over the swift reversal in their fortunes. What happened? Callum Davidson will point to injuries. Fans will question decisions. Callum Hendry, the striker they are pinning their hopes of salvation on, spent the first half of the season on loan at Kilmarnock.

Whatever the reasons, going from double cup winners to relegation candidates within a few months is almost an achievement in itself.

St Johnstone have another two cup finals in front of them. But neither of them is about glory. The best prize on offer is simple preservation. Although it is not something they can tie ribbons to and put on display in a trophy cabinet, St Johnstone will accept this reward gladly enough. Prevailing against Inverness will extend their stay in the top flight to 13 seasons, which would match their best-ever number of consecutive seasons in Scotland’s top division.

Inverness manager Billy Dodds celebrates after the play-off semi-final win over Arbroath. (Photo by Ross Parker / SNS Group)Inverness manager Billy Dodds celebrates after the play-off semi-final win over Arbroath. (Photo by Ross Parker / SNS Group)
Inverness manager Billy Dodds celebrates after the play-off semi-final win over Arbroath. (Photo by Ross Parker / SNS Group)

Win or lose, manager Callum Davidson’s future will be a subject for discussion. "It's huge for the club," Davidson said. "We don't want to be in this position, but St Johnstone don't have the right to be in the Premiership.”

Neither do Inverness. But they also have little to lose. The club are nursing a sense of grievance having failed in a bid to overturn the red cards shown to Danny Devine and Wallace Duffy in last week’s semi-final second leg penalty shootout victory over Arbroath.

They sensed the world was against them that night and the evidence seemed to back this up when they lost defender Devine to a controversial red card in the second half.

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A serious injury to Shaun Sutherland after they had already stopped the game three times to make four substitutions meant they had to see out the 90 minutes with nine men. Extra time brought some relief in that they were briefly able to augment their numbers. But ten became nine again when Duffy picked up a second yellow for what looked like a meaty but fair challenge on Bobby Linn.

Inverness learned on Wednesday that their appeal had failed in both cases. Pointedly, referee Willie Collum's name wasn't mentioned in a statement outlining the club's disbelief.

These suspensions means their options are further reduced. As well as Sutherland, Inverness are without skipper Tom Walsh and Roddy MacGregor due to long-term injuries. “It has galvanised everyone,” says chief executive Scot Gardiner. “Even losing the appeal. We have said to the boys just ‘go and enjoy yourself’.”

Inverness expect as many as 4,500 at the first leg. Arbroath manager Dick Campbell noted the difference in attendance in the two semi-final games. He suggested Inverness’ claims to be a top flight club in all but name were misplaced since more than twice as many attended the second leg at Gayfield, where over 5,000 gathered, compared to the Caledonian stadium for the first leg. “That’s Dick,” said Gardiner.

While many had hoped to see Arbroath contest the final, there is a lot of intrigue in this tie. The first time Inverness gained promotion to the top flight came with a 3-1 win over St Johnstone on a memorable afternoon in 2004.

Inverness manager Billy Dodds, meanwhile, is a former St Johnstone player. He was signed by the McDiarmid Park club for a club record fee of £400,000 from Dundee in 1994 in an attempt to stave off the threat of relegation. It wasn’t successful. Dodds scored six times in 20 games as the Perth side joined Dundee and Raith Rovers in going down.

"I'm really looking forward to it," said Dodds. "My players are ready for it. We're in a good place, we've got momentum, we've got confidence, we've earned the right to be here and we're going to give it our best shot.

"It's a hard route to go right through the play-offs. Nobody's done it and we'd love to be the first team to do it. My boys are more than capable.”

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He won’t be distracted by what victory might mean for his budget – or the price of failure. Gardiner insists it is not a boom or bust situation. Automatic promotion was always a long shot with Kilmarnock in the same division. Going up via the play-offs would be a bonus before the excitement of seeing Bocelli – and Duran Duran, the following night – come to town.

“It will fast forward things,” said Gardiner. “We have really exciting plans for the stadium and the land around it. Going up would accelerate that. But it won’t be the end of the world if we don’t (go up).

“My office backs on to the changing room here,” he added. “It was like an Ibiza nightclub yesterday. I could hear all the players singing. I was so pleased to hear it.

“It feels different,” he added, with reference to the Arbroath tie. “I was much more tense about Friday night. There is clearly more pressure on the Premiership club.”



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