A season of high drama on and off the field. Changes at the top, championship contenders, more cup giant-killing and a Hampden appearance. A season that started in economic confusion ended with a Tennent’s Scottish Cup semi-final match at Hampden and a top four league place.
Ken Mackie took over as chairman in May and economic stability was achieved with a £500,000 cash injection by Tulloch in September. In the close season Martin Bavidge left to pursue a full time career in geology but was to continue playing part-time with Forfar. Neil MacDonald went to Clach, goalkeepers Jim Calder and Nicky Walker hung up their gloves and Motherwell’s Mark Brown took over the number one shirt. Richie Hart came from Brora and Chris Miller from Barnsley – Hart was to become a first team regular but Miller left in January after only one appearance. Steve Hislop signed from Ross County during the January transfer window. Emily Goodlad took over physio duties and Drs Ian Smith and Derek MacLeod continued to deputise for Club Doctor John MacAskill while he recovered from a lengthy illness. On April 26th “The Doc” sadly died and a large club contingent attended the funeral service in Fort William. During his nine-season service to the club he made many friends and travelled many miles from his home in Fort William. John will be badly missed by everyone at the club.
Pre season training started on July 2nd and the first public outing was an unsuccessful one at the annual Keyline/Oban Saints tournament on July 13th. Six pre-season friendlies in July produced mixed results. The league season opened on August 3rd with a frustrating goalless draw against Alloa at home. Three days later it was a long midweek trip to Berwick in the Bell’s Cup and a 1-0 victory for the home side. On August 10th Caley Thistle travelled the relatively short distance to Perth to play St Johnstone for the first time and lost to a late goal. The season’s first senior goal did not come until August 17th - Ross Tokely was the scorer against Falkirk at home but the concession of two late goals led to another defeat. The tide turned on the 24th On the last day of the month came an amazing 4-0 away victory against promotion-fancied St Mirren. This result led to the sacking of manager Tom Hendrie and a climb to fourth place in the league. The final of the Inverness Cup took place on September 3rd against Ross County at Grant Street Park and the Dingwall side won 1-0. with a 2-0 home victory against Ross County.
Home victories in the CIS Insurance Cup against Dumbarton and St Mirren earned a third round tie away to Celtic. The match was played on October 24th and many feared a sound beating in revenge for February 2000. In the event Caley Thistle put up a good show and went down 4-2. Steve Paterson was linked with Dundee United when Alex Smith was sacked but nothing came of it. A good league run from September to November led to top place being achieved. The cup victories and league run ensured that Steve Paterson was named SFL Manager of the Month for September, October and November. Dennis Wyness won the player award in September and October with Barry Robson taking the honour for November.
Steve Paterson’s achievements threw him into the limelight just as Aberdeen parted company with Ebbe Skovdahl. A dramatic 3-3 draw at Ayr on December 7th was to be Steve Paterson and Duncan Shearer’s swansong as they left for Aberdeen four days later. On Boxing Day former Hearts and Scotland player John Robertson was named the new manager. He came from the post of first team coach at Livingston and brought in former Hearts (and Caledonian) player Donald Park as Head Coach. Park was appointed on January 3rd. An undefeated December run meant that 2002 ended with Caley Thistle in the number one slot. Robertson made a dream debut with a 4-1 away win against St Mirren on December 28th amidst a blaze of publicity.
The new transfer window system led to speculation that Dennis Wyness and/or Barry Robson would leave in January – perhaps following their former manager to Aberdeen. In the event neither moved despite late bids from Dundee United for Robson. Freezing weather meant that only two games were played in January – a narrow home defeat to Ayr and a 2-0 Scottish Cup victory against Raith Rovers. In the next round Hamilton were beaten 6-1 and this earned a quarter final tie at home against Celtic. Three February league defeats led to a drop to third. The 5-1 home defeat by Ross County in the postponed New Year’s Day match was a major shock and disappointment.
Six league matches were played in March – four wins, one draw and one defeat – but the highlight was the Celtic match on March 23rd live on Sky TV. Tickets were at a premium and the excitement in the days leading up to the match was intense. Martin O’Neill watched the team go down 4-1 at Clyde and this may have lulled him into a false sense of security. Celtic came north just after defeating Liverpool in the UEFA Cup and Martin O’Neill rested some of the big names. This was to prove a major error as a Dennis Wyness goal ensured another historic victory. Henrik Larsson played for the full 90 minutes but his usual strike partner John Hartson only came off the bench in the 62nd minute. This top class partnership could not break down the home defence and O’Neill was left to make excuses.
It was clear by this time that Falkirk were going to be First Division champions but the race for second place was an open one. This all took a back seat as preparations were made for the biggest game in the club’s history – the semi-final of the Scottish Cup at Hampden on Sunday April 20th. The opponents were not known for a long time but eventually Dundee beat Falkirk in a replay to earn their Hampden place. An 11000 allocation ensured that tickets were easy to obtain and thousands went south to enjoy a day out at the National Stadium. The match did not really live up to the pre-match billing and, despite Dundee and Caley Thistle being attack-minded teams, there was only one goal in it. Semi-finals are often nervy affairs and this one did not explode into the thriller that had seemed likely. The game hinged on two incidents – Dundee ‘keeper Julian Speroni produced a wonder save in nine minutes to deny Dennis Wyness then in 78 minutes the winner came from a mishit shot by Georgi Nemzadze. The cup dream was over but heads could be held high.
It was now just a question of where Caley Thistle would finish in the league. A 5-1 victory at Alloa gave some hope of ending in the top three but defeats to Ayr and St Johnstone meant that fourth could not be bettered. Paul Ritchie was named Player of the Month for April with an Alloa hat-trick being his fourth of the season. The season ended on May 10th with high drama around the country. Caley Thistle were guests at Falkirk’s party to celebrate Brockville’s last game but spoiled the day by winning 3-2. Charlie Christie’s 82nd minute goal proved to be the very last at Brockville. In Dingwall Ross County beat Ayr 4-1 to avoid relegation on goal difference.
Dennis Wyness ended the season as club and division top scorer with 27 goals in the league and cups. He was also named First Division Player of the Year. Mark Brown started in all 44 games and Dennis Wyness also played 44 times – including one substitute appearance. The Falkirk match was Wyness’s 119th in a row. Stuart Golabek scooped the pool in the annual awards as he was named Player of the Year by the Official Supporters Club, Players and the Internet Supporters’ Club. Dennis Wyness was named Supporters’ Player of the Year following a vote at the last home game and the Matchday Programme Player of the Year was Richie Hart.
As the close season arrived all the talk was of the re-opening of the transfer window – who would stay, who would go and who would arrive? Time will tell.