A SENSE of occasion will envelop a pocket of the Highlands this evening. The ancient territory that covers more than a third of Scotland’s landmass will be party to a European tie for the first time. In the process, Inverness Caledonian Thistle will begin their 21st season by becoming the country’s 21st representative in continental competition. The club’s manager John Hughes hopes the experience will bring the key to a door that opens up the possibility of enduringly warm memories.
Even allowing for their games against Celtic in the Europa League group stages, Romanian side Astra Giurgiu are hardly a name with which to conjure for Inverness as they make their bow in cross-border skirmishing. Yet, such has been the diminishment of Scottish teams at this level, unknowns have made a habit of making first European ties unhappy last outings for the country’s debutants in the domain.
Falkirk flopped against Liechtensteiners Vaduz in 2009, Queen of the South were nobbled by Nordsjaelland of Denmark the year previously, and Gretna had to give up the ghost following a 5-1 whipping by Derry City in 2002. A far cry from Hibernian reaching the semi-final of the European Cup as the first British side to take part in it 60 years ago, title winners Dundee destroying German champions Cologne 8-1 on their way to the European Cup semi-final as continental first-timers in 1962 and Dundee United enjoying a spectacular introduction to the arena by defeating Barcelona home and away on entering the Inter-Cities Fair Cup in 1966.
Hughes’ team may have made their lasting mark on the current era simply by snaring a place in the Europa League second-round qualifiers courtesy of their Scottish Cup triumph in May. Yet, although they have now been shorn of three of the winning side at Hampden following the departures of Graeme Shinnie, Marley Watkins and Nigeria striker Edward Ofere during the summer, the Inverness manager certainly gives the impression of believing his team can perform as befits their platform. And he wants the local inhabitants to play their part too.
“It’s absolutely massive, not just for us but for Scottish football as well,” he said. “It’s very historic for us. Ticket sales are going great and I hope we get the full house. We’re playing for Scottish football, but, first and foremost, we are doing it for the Highlands. It’s fantastic for the young fans and I imagine everyone would want to say they were there when Caley Thistle first played in Europe.”
The expected 5,000-strong crowd will only do so if Inverness are solid and switched on against a club that seem constantly in a state of churn. That fact has no doubt heightened Hughes’ hopes of ousting the seeds. The Leither pointed to the fact that Astra have brought in 14 new players since they drew with and lost narrowly to Celtic at the Europa League group stages in the second half of last year. Moreover, they are without the domineering presence of their controversial owner, Ioan Niculae, after he was jailed for two-and-a-half years in April for bribes paid to officials as he attempted to engineer a successful outcome to the 2009 presidential campaign of Mircea Geoana.
The coaching staff at Astra could be forgiven for breathing a little more easily with Romania’s richest man behind bars. He has had a habit of changing the men in charge of his footballing interest as others do underwear. In little under two decades, there have been 37 separate coaching stints as his megalomania has run wild. Marius Sumudica, in charge for little over three months, is in his third spell as the club’s head coach. Across the past year-and-a-half, five different men have taken charge of team affairs at Astra. A revolving technical area might be in order, but for the costs involved with the threat of financial difficulties hanging over the club following Niculae’s incarceration.
In spite of that development (or maybe because of it) Astra finished strongly to claim fourth place in their league set-up last season. Hughes, though, has done his homework and sees reasons to be optimistic.
“I feel our style of play might suit Europe but we will find out tomorrow,” said the manager, who could utilise new arrivals Nat Wedderburn, Jordan Roberts and Spanish striker Dani Lopez. “We’re capable of beating them. They are a good side, we respect them, they have a history of playing in European competition [in recent years]. Away from home they like to counter-attack so we have to make sure our team shape is right. The most important thing is keeping a clean sheet. If we can keep a clean sheet and maybe nick one, then we are right in the tie.
“You have to be 100 per cent concentrated. Nine times out of ten you are playing against technically very good players who play the game in a different style. They have got a free-kick specialist [Constantin Budescu] that likes to shoot from anywhere. We have to guard against giving away silly free-kicks around the penalty area.”