INVERNESS Caley Thistle’s Europa League adventure withered and died in the fearsome heat of Romania’s border country but the team’s refusal to wilt in spirit and desire through the closest of 90 minutes will surely be the enduring memory.
Hopes of West Ham in the next round were far from fanciful, but it wasn’t to be.
The dream died, but not in disgrace. The energy levels, intent and, most strikingly, the maturity and poise on the ball displayed by the novice Scottish tourists were a sign of just how far Inverness have come since manager John Hughes began imprinting his passing and possession ideals on an unconvinced squad.
The Romanian side held bags of attacking talent, but not enough to trouble the Highlanders on more than a small handful of occasions.
Temperatures 40 miles away in Bucharest, where Inverness were based, had soared to 39C earlier in the day and remained sultry in Giurgiu city as darkness descended. It was always a great home advantage.
There the neat, modern Stadion Marin Anastasovici stood in stark contrast to the grimy, dilapidated Soviet-era estates scarring a host city that straddles the mighty Danube and Bulgarian border. The anomaly was the making of Romania’s richest man, one Ioan Niculae, the industrial magnate club owner now jailed for illicitly funding a political party.
The notorious Niculae, then, wasn’t there last night to watch the team he arbitrarily relocated from its 91-year home in Ploiesti in September 2012 toil.
Given his incarceration, though, Niculae would surely have appreciated how Astra got out of jail in the first leg.
Astra’s enforced flit means home crowds are sparse, but the historic nature of Caley Thistle’s first competitive match on the continent drew an impressively vocal 500-strong Scots’ travelling party.
Placing it in context, the Highlanders were backed by somewhere near double the number who habitually make the short trip down the A9 to watch them play St Johnstone.
The Romanians had survived an exuberant Caley Thistle start a week previous before delivering a classic sucker-punch through talisman Constantin Budescu.
As the first half took shape last night, that outcome looked increasingly fortuitous. A tame effort from Budescu seven minutes after the break would be their first of the night on target.
Caley Thistle, though, were weakened by injuries to Carl Tremarco, James Vincent and summer signing Jordan Roberts, leaving them one short on the substitutes’ bench.
The heat dipped to around 30C as play opened, but it was all very un-Scottish. Astra dominated early possession, without adding much to the away side’s glistening sweat.
You sensed early in the game that Inverness certainly believed they could salvage this. There was the usual willingness to harry and close-down, but also a fierce confidence on the ball.
Twenty minutes in, they were keeping the ball better while remaining vulnerable on the counter, as witnessed when Gabriel Enache broke at blinding pace after Dani Lopez carelessly skewed a pass.
Astra’s confidence, though, had been dented by a crushing 5-1 league defeat to rivals Targu Mures between Europa League legs. Inverness, perhaps, sensed it.
Seven minutes before the break, they had the hosts on the rack. Initiated by a clever David Raven pass down the right, the determined Aaron Doran tested keeper Silviu Lung with a rising strike.
A Ryan Christie header from Josh Meekings’ throw was flicked on and thudded goalward by Doran for Lung to make the diving save. Then came the best of the lot as Greg Tansey slipped in Christie to let rip from the edge of the area, only for Lung to tip it over spectacularly.
Astra surely had to react after the break – and did. Budescu, again, tore his foot through a shot from 20 yards which Welsh international keeper Fon Williams did well to take the sting out of with a strong parry.
Junior Morais served a further reminder of Astra’s lingering threat with a powerfully snapped shot from tight left, touched over by keeper Williams.
As Inverness tired in the last 15 minutes, the mercurial
Brazilian William made an increasing impression, curling one delightful shot just wide of target. But Inverness, thin on the bench, decided to turn to their own greatly-influential figure Richie Foran to lift matters in the last dozen minutes.
It certainly lifted the fans and filled the jaded away players with a fresh gulp of oxygen for the final, desperate exchanges.
The great character and indefatigability of Inverness was epitomised as Danny Devine made a lung-busting, stubbornly-defiant run to nick the ball away from the constant irritant Budescu late on.
Budescu had been the only thorn in the flesh over 180 minutes of football. For that alone, Inverness can be proud.
Astra Giurgiu: Lung; Morais, G. Alves, Gaman, Queiros; Boldrin (Dandea 84), Seto; Enache (Florea 80), Teixeira, William; Budescu (Lovin 89). Subs: Gavrilas, Oros, Lovin, R. Alves, Stan.
Inverness: F Williams; Meekings, Warren, Devine, Raven; Wedderburn (Draper 79); Tansey, D Williams (Foran 78), Doran; Christie; Lopez. Subs: Esson, Horner, Polworth, Brown.