Highland springboard: Inverness poised for Europe

ICT manager Terry Butcher (right) celebrates with Richie Foran. Picture: SNS
ICT manager Terry Butcher (right) celebrates with Richie Foran. Picture: SNS
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Inverness are poised to qualify for European football 20 years after the club’s controversial formation

IT IS 20 years ago this week since The Scotsman proclaimed that an “Inverness United” could take its place in the “pantheon” of Scottish Football League clubs: the bold pronouncement following a meeting on a possible merger at which the town’s three teams, Caledonian, Inverness Thistle and Clachnacuddin took part along with the local council and Inverness and Nairn Enterprise. This afternoon could see the very club that grew out of those initial, torturous talks join the pantheon of clubs to have represented Scotland in Europe, and in so doing ensure that the Highlands will stage continental competition for the first time.

The team in question was never going to be United in name, of course. The club we now know as Inverness Caledonian Thistle started out life in 1994 as merely Caledonian Thistle, the Inverness added a year later to ensure certain council grants would be forthcoming. Moreover, though, the town – now a city – has never been united in celebrating the success story that has been their 19-year existence, the high point of which will arrive today should results work in the favour of Terry Butcher’s men, who will make the short hop to Dingwall for a Highland derby against Ross County as St Johnstone, a point below Inverness in fourth, entertain Motherwell. Just how much resentment remains from certain locals towards the “superclub” ICT – don’t dare call them Caley or Thistle say those disgruntled and disenfranchised supporters of the formerly separate sides – is disputed in impassioned fashion. Naturally enough, since the one element that no one disputes is that the club that plays out of the Caledonian Stadium was birthed in bitterness and rancour that reached extraordinary levels.

“They stole our club, they stole our name, they stole our ground and they stole our status, and I have nothing but contempt for Inverness Caledonian Thistle,” says Alan Douglas, a hardcore Caley fan in 1993 and one of the members of anti-merger group The Caley 2086 Group, so named because of their determination to celebrate the club’s bicentenary on that date. He describes the merger as like “forcing together Rangers and Pollok Juniors”. Caledonian were a “powerhouse” in the Highland League who were made to disappear for others’ ends. “They expected us all just to swallow it but practically no one in my social circle did,” he claims. Rangers are now the team he follows home and away. “I know only one fan of this [merged] Inverness club, and it is only those from outside the place and those too young to know what football here used to be about who go to see them.”

If Douglas himself admits he is from the extreme wing of the anti-ICT faction, this is not a position occupied by Peter Corbett, vice-chairman of Clachnacuddin, and co-manager of that club at the time of the merger talks. A main mover in these discussions was the then Clach chairman David Dowling. In 1992, to much derision, he said a Highland club would go on to play in Europe, thus overcoming the cartel of Scottish Football League clubs in the central belt who had unfairly prevented representation from the north of Scotland in the senior game. Yet, within a year, his club had stepped aside to make it easier for a two-club merger. That was the scenario strongly pushed for by both the Scottish Football Association and the SFL as they sought two clubs to fill vacancies created by reconstruction.

“Clach didn’t bow out for purely selfless reasons, as the thought was that by staying in the Highland League, every second week they would pick up supporters who wanted to watch football in Inverness. Perhaps naively, because it didn’t happen,” says Corbett, who returned to the club three years ago after financial problems that have now been addressed forced it into administration.

Yet Clach prize their independence more than being part of the fantastic adventure that is on-going for Inverness Caledonian Thistle. “They have done really well, what with the Celtic wins, and now this season,” he says. “But you know what football fans are like. They value their identity, their club, and at Clach we have that now as we have always had. I was manager of Caley and I know that some of their supporters didn’t transfer their backing to the new club. The merger created ill-feeling because you are talking about great rivalries and great histories. Just imagine if you tried to merge Dundee and Dundee United, or Hearts and Hibs.”

Local journalist Charles Bannerman, who covers football in the Highlands for the BBC and wrote a book on the Inverness merger entitled Against All Odds, believes those who would present the football fraternity in Inverness as deeply divided and fractured for 19 years are simply myth-making on a massive scale. “Between them, Caley and Thistle mustered 600 people on average at their home games,” he says. “Now, 4,000 come to see Inverness, which, though they would like to be better, is three-and-a-half thousand up. It is just not true that events of 19 years ago resonate for many now, or resonated in such widespread fashion even back then.”

He points to the fact that at the increasingly heated 1993 meetings held by Caledonian, run as a members club, to vote on the merger, the largest ‘no’ vote was 226, those ‘for’ numbering 252. He does acknowledge that the acrimony surrounding the merged club lasted the best part of two years, but now, he claims, at most there are “a couple of hundred” stay-aways, who previously fervently followed either Caley or Thistle. The issue did, however, prove so emotive that between 1993 and 1994 both Caley and Thistle supporters turned to lawyers. Indeed, a court action by Thistle fan Martin Ross prevented the sale of the club’s Kingsmill ground until 1995.

It proved to be worth £486,000, with Caley’s Telford Park adding almost £800,000 to the monies at the disposal of the new ICT. Council grants and government backing with game-changing sums followed, which Bannerman maintains would not have been forthcoming if Caledonian, as many of their supporters believed they could, had applied for SFL membership independently. “The money that flowed into the club was given on the proviso that it was a team representative of the entire area. Caledonian certainly were one of the top three clubs in the Highland League but if they had gone it alone in the senior set-up, at best I think they would have became an Arbroath, Brechin or Forfar, a First and Second Division yo-yo club. And while there will always be some in Inverness who take a ‘bah, humbug’ stance to the new club, through what it has achieved there are many more who have embraced it, even among them a number that do so very reluctantly initially. Ultimately, any fall-out from the merger was a small price to pay.” Yet, in football, for right or wrong, those diehards who feel it is they who bear such a cost are always going to see franchising, as effectively this was, as a selling of the soul.