IT WAS a case of new name, old story in the Highlands last night. Inverness Caledonian Thistle were valiant and, for much of the opening leg of their Europa League second-round qualifier, the team making all the running. Yet, it is now practically guaranteed that their first European adventure will begin and end with Astra Giurgiu after the Romanians left the Caledonian Stadium with a victory that was mighty tough on John Hughes’ side.
We have been here before, even if such a bitter experience is all new for the followers of the Caledonian Stadium club. Yet, they are unlikely to reflect on the gut-wrenching nature of the outcome on a night many who have been Inverness Caledonian Thistle supporters for the club’s entire existence thought they would never see.
A historical high for the club helped create the tangible sense of a genuine happening in the minutes approaching kick-off. Hughes had spoken about the momentous nature of the Scottish Cup holders’ debut in European competition. He wasn’t let down by the scene inside the stadium that greeted the teams on their emergence from the dressing rooms.
The combatants walked into the sort of hubbub rarely created at the Highland outpost. Two of the three stands heaved with home supporters, who chanted, cheered and elected to capture the sizeable slice of history for their 21-year-old club on their camera phones. It was a night game in Inverness, but not as we’ve known such a thing.
The same could be said about the side sent out by Hughes. It was anticipated that new signings Dani Lopez and Nat Wedderburn would be fully fledged participants in the club’s new adventure. What no one had any inkling of was the fact that Hughes would elect to field a new keeper whose arrival was announced only hours earlier.
Welsh under-21 international Owain Fon Williams was the club’s ‘wildcard’ signing – UEFA’s rules allowing for a player to be recruited in the 24 hours leading up to a qualifying tie. Yet, the former Tranmere Rovers performer also warranted being considered a wildcard because it was wild that Hughes would consider plunging him straight into such a confrontation. To overlook the experienced Ryan Esson, the player-coach whose last outing had brought him a winners’ medal at Hampden, seemed unnecessarily risky.
Ultimately, it cannot be considered a move that paid off. Inverness produced some slick football in the early stages. They took command of proceedings and were unfortunate not to reap a better dividend when they threaded their way through the visitors’ defences to produce a Ryan Christie effort that failed to trouble the keeper. However, midway through the period, his selection of Williams was placed under question as Astra took the lead.
Hughes had warned pre-match about the threat the Romanians carried through the deadball prowess of Constantin Budescu. Perhaps the Inverness manager didn’t have sufficient time on the training field with his new keeper to impress upon him the whip and curl with which the striker could imbue his free-kicks.
Williams looked as if he was practising for showing his moves on the Wii’s disco dancing game the way he bounced from one side of his goal to the other as Budescu lined-up to strike from 24 yards – this opportunity arriving courtesy of a generous foul awarded following a seemingly legitimate challenge by Ross Draper. Budescu’s effort left the keeper unable to get a strong enough hand on a ball bent in at his left-hand post.
The response of the home side to this setback could only be but admired, even if it did not achieve the desired outcome. They continued to seek to tease openings in probing fashion, and played practically the entire second half in their opponents’ half. Admittedly, with their away goal, Astra did not require to do more than seek to protect what they had. Equally, for all their territorial advantage, keeper Silviu Lung was required to make only one stop after Aaron Doran had burst through on the hour. Indeed, the greater sense of relief later on was felt by the home side after William de Amorim struck the post in the 69th minute.
There was much daydreaming that a fairytale ending to the night might just ensue from the introduction of Richie Foran six minutes from normal time – a move that supplied the club captain with a first senior appearance following 15 months sidelined with a knee problem. In European football, though, Scottish clubs tend to deal in harsh realities all too often when they enter the arena.
Inverness: Williams; Meekings (Raven 80), Warren, Devine: Williams, Draper (Roberts 80); Wedderburn; Christie, Doran, Tansey; Lopez (Foran 84). Subs not used: Esson, Horner, Polworth, Brown.
Astra: Lung; Pedro, Gaman (Oros 47), Geraldo, Morais; Enache (Stan 70), Seto, Boldrin, de Amorim; Budescu (Florea 81), Filipe. Subs not used: Gavrilas, Florea, Love, Dandea, Ricardo.