RYAN Christie is a sensible lad so he received the news of John Hughes’ arrival in the Highlands with a degree of trepidation. Never known for his subtlety, the former Falkirk, Hibs and Hartlepool manager “Yogi” is a force of nature and someone renowned for keeping young players on their toes.
But while Christie confesses that the association has been a bruising one, the 20-year-old Inverness Caledonian Thistle midfielder has nothing but praise for the man who has guided the club into the Scottish Cup final and taken them to third place in the Premiership, maintaining the club’s ascent in the Scottish game and helping Christie develop into the kind of talent that has seen him recognised by his peers on the four-man shortlist for Players’ Young Player of the Year.
“I have yet to see him completely explode,” said Christie, who will find out if he has won the award at the PFA Scotland dinner next Sunday. “Maybe with age he is calming down a little bit. He has been brilliant ever since he came in. Before he came in, I was hearing stories of him headbutting walls, so I didn’t know what to expect.
“The way he wants to play and the way he has had us playing over the last 12 months has been brilliant, obviously for me, but I think all the players have enjoyed learning his style of football. It is showing now – we are playing games and being successful.”
For Christie there have been hard knocks along the way, though, courtesy of Hughes’ toughening-up tactics in training.
“He will never give fouls against me, he just tells me to get up all the time. But I think I am pretty level-headed in that way.
“If he thinks it is going to improve my game and my attitude, then why not? It was a wee bit frustrating, but I can’t really go against him. I think he has my best interests at heart and I probably would say that I feel the benefits of that. As soon as I started playing with the first team, I knew the physical side of things was something I was going to have to improve on. Even just training every day with men, that has helped me.
“Throughout the youth, I always played up a year and I was very small when I was younger as well. I think I have had that from a very early age, so I am used to it by now. In training, even though boys might kick me and stuff, the players around me always protect me when it comes to a Saturday. I wouldn’t say it affects me. Going into actual games I always knew I had a good squad of players with me.”
It’s a quality squad, with a manager who is in the running for individual honours of his own come the end-of-season hand-outs, and Christie is a bright and promising component. Which is why the club have already had to shoo away suitors and will have to do that on a more regular basis if the youngster continues to improve. Even Hughes has stated that he could make it in the English Premier League. But while that may prompt a few enquiring glances, it hasn’t turned Christie’s head.
“For him to say that is a giant compliment. I have to take that and thank him for it. But just now we still have plenty of games to go and the cup final, so it is important that I don’t think about that. I need to keep concentrating on my football. I would say I have still probably got a lot of learning to do in the SPFL and I think being based in Inverness – I have grown up there my whole life – I think that is the perfect place to continue my learning.”
Especially under a guy who is not shy about highlighting the role he played in getting others to a higher level.
“The gaffer never stops talking about Scott Arfield. He always says ‘that was me’. It’s good to see I’ve got the same manager who helped him get down there.”
But he isn’t the only young Scot doing well south of the Border.
“The likes of Andy Robertson have gone down there and been superb. That gives people like me a real boost, because it shows it’s possible to go down there and hold your own. The youth set-up down there is far superior to Scotland, but because teams are looking to youth it gives us a wee advantage because we’ve played more professional games at an earlier age.”
Punching above their weight and performing beyond their years is something Inverness Caledonian Thistle can relate to. With one of the smallest budgets and one of the shortest histories as an amalgamated club in the professional leagues, they have long surpassed expectations. One-off successes can happen but the Highland club are finding a way of sustaining the good times.
“Maybe nobody really sees how well we have really done, when you look right back to when the club was formed,” says Christie. “It is an amazing achievement – it is not random or sporadic, we have just kept consistently improving. If we keep going the way we are we will make history this season. That is what all the boys are aiming for.”
Christie understands that as well as anyone. His father, Charlie, is a former player and manager and a major figure in the club’s relatively short history, meaning his son has grown up immersed in it all, but the Young Player of the Year contender wants to see his generation write the next chapter.
“I think the boys have got a real belief this season that we can challenge with Aberdeen and Dundee United now, that we belong in that side of the table. The gaffer says every day we train and aspire to beat the likes of Celtic. It is not just to be as good as Aberdeen and Dundee United, it is to go even further than them. That is what we are aspiring to do now. In terms of maybe being overshadowed a little bit, what we have done previous seasons and what we are hopefully going to do in the next couple of seasons will really cement people’s thoughts about how big a club we can be.”