There was an element of Inverness Caley Thistle’s last-gasp victory over Dumbarton in the Irn Bru Cup final on Saturday that was down to following the road less travelled. Not many folk would care to make the testing car journey from the Highland capital to York and then back to South Queensferry as manager John Robertson did over the course of Friday and the early hours of the following morning. However, it proved ultimately to be a trophy-winning gamble.
The purpose of Robertson’s epic road trip was to watch and then ferry back a couple of Caley’s youth players who were involved with the Scotland Under-18 Schoolboys side as they took on their English counterparts on Friday night. One of them, Daniel Mackay, scored a goal that helped carry the Scots to a famous victory.
Having been taxied across the border, the remarkable Mackay then came on as a substitute less than 24 hours later at McDiarmid Park and proceeded to set up the only goal of the game for team-mate Carl Tremarco in time added on to win the cup and crush the hopes of their gallant part-time opponents.
It is as close to the stuff of comic-book hero stories as you could get without walking into a newsagents. For Robertson, who has seen a few things as a player and a manager, there was a mixture of pride and something approaching bemusement as to how it had all played out. His side were far from their best on Saturday, with Dumbarton enjoying the better of the first half and the limited number of genuine openings that presented themselves over a well contested but mainly uninspiring final.
No one would have begrudged Stevie Aitken’s men another 30 minutes of extra time in their attempt to win the first national cup competition for the club since the 19th century. Cometh the hour, cometh the kid, however.
Mackay, pictured inset, was introduced as a 78th-minute substitute for Connor Bell with a gentle reminder from his manager to do something to make that long trek back up the road worthwhile.
The youngster missed a penalty before scoring against England Schoolboys so there was an element of déjà vu as, within minutes of him taking to the field, experienced team-mate Iain Vigurs fluffed a spot kick straight at Sons goalkeeper Scott Gallacher to blow a great chance of putting the Highland side ahead. Unfazed, Mackay made an immediate pacey contribution and, with seconds remaining, delivered a defence-splitting low cross which Tremarco put away.
Disarmingly level-headed, Mackay was as amazed as anyone by the unfolding of events. “I can’t put it in words how it’s been,” he reflected. “Yesterday I was all the way down in York playing for Scotland youths, then today I was playing for Caley, my boyhood club. It can’t get much better than that.
“I’ve been a season ticket holder for over ten years now. It’s been my dream – to see all the players warm up, I want to be like that – and this season it’s come true.
“In 2015 I was at the Scottish Cup final against Falkirk and one of the ones going crazy when James Vincent went through and scored. It was just that pure emotion that I felt out there today – it doesn’t matter what the competition is the emotion you have for your boyhood club never changes.”
For Mackay it is literally back to school this morning as a pupil at the city’s Millburn Academy. The same grounded approach was applied by Tremarco for whom the match-winning goal was a form a redemption after his sending off in that 2015 final. “We still know to celebrate, but it’ll be low key – we’ve got a game on Tuesday, so back to business,” remarked the Liverpool-born full-back.
The flip side of the Inverness fairytale was, of course, the Dumbarton heartache, summed up by Gallacher whose penalty save was in the end to no avail. “I’m just disappointed. The boys all put the effort in but that’s just the way football is. The back four in front of me were great and there were no real mistakes but football’s cruel.”