Tulloch Caledonian Stadium is the jewel in Inverness's football crown and is now home to games at the top level on a fortnightly basis. It was not always so, and indeed its construction and continued existence have been in doubt at regular intervals over the years.
When Caledonian and Inverness Thistle proposed to merge and join the Scottish Football League one important ingredient in the bid was to build a new state-of-the-art stadium. This was a promise that was to prove difficult to keep. The financial and infrastructure goalposts moved many times between planning and construction but it finally opened for serious business on 9 November 1996 with a league match against Albion Rovers.
The first league match in the SFL was very close when East Longman was chosen in June 1994 as the preferred site and Inverness District Council approved in principle the lease of 9.03 acres for a stadium and car parking. Construction was to be completed by August 1995 but this proved unrealistic and dispensation had to be sought from the League for a delay. A one season extension was granted and this slipped a few months to November 1996. A major economic hurdle was the provision of road accesses from both the A9 and the Longman Industrial Estate. This was to allow segregation of travelling and home fans and this worked - but the financial legacy of the road was to remain a burden for years.
Work on the new stadium finally started on 3 October 1995 when Provost William Fraser cut the first ceremonial turf. Local firms shared the work - McGregor Construction (Highlands) built the stadium and Morrison Construction were awarded the infrastructure contract. The escalating costs were partly met by the sale of Caledonian's Telford Street Park (for a retail development) and Thistle's Kingsmills Park (for residential development and a home) and contributions were also received gratefully from Inverness and Nairn Enterprise, the Football Trust (grants and loans) Highland Council, the European Development Fund and Inverness Harbour Trust. There was still a shortfall of nearly £1 million pounds which was funded by bank loans. The total cost, including a section of road funded by the Harbour Trust, was £5.6 million.
When addressing the Council, before they decided whether or not to contribute to the project, chairman Dougie McGilvray stated that the main problem was the infrastructure, the access roads and car park? "We are opening up an area that has not been opened up before". He was to be proved right. In time, the road was to become a popular (and vital) route via the harbour area to the A9 and would eventually service prime development land. Work on the new stadium well under way by the spring of 1996 and pitch contractor Sports Grounds Ltd started turf-laying on April 24th. It was, however, clear that it could not be ready for the start of 1996-97. The Scottish League agreed that Telford Street Park could be used until completion.
The public's first real look at the new structure was on 27 July 1996 at an open day. The squad held a practice match and Richard Hastings claimed the honour of scoring the first goal on the new pitch. When all was in place, and the relevant safety and building certificates granted, it was time for a full scale test. This took the form of a challenge match on Wednesday 6 November 1996 between Inverness Caledonian Thistle and an Inverness & District Select. The hosts won 6-2 and Scott McLean scored four goals. The honour of scoring the first goal went to the Select's Norman Kellas. Caledonian Stadium was open for business. 'Tulloch' would be added to the name in January 2005 following a high-speed upgrade to SPL standards. Of that more later.
Saturday 9 November 1996 was one more red letter day in the story of Inverness football. A crowd of 3734 witnessed the first league match at the new ground and a 1-1 draw with Albion Rovers. The first competitive goal was scored by Rovers' Dave McKenzie. The excellent facilities, including a fine playing surface, were reflected in the team's performance over the rest of 1996-97 and the Third Division championship was won by early April. Teams began to fear the trip north and just two seasons later further promotion to the First Division was achieved. The First Division proved a much harder nut to crack, especially as there was just one promotion place available, but in May 2004 this was achieved amidst much drama and excitement. It was a fitting way to celebrate the end of the club's tenth season in the league.
The drama now switched from football to politics. Caledonian Stadium did not meet the SPL's criteria of 10,000 seats and it looked as if the club's hopes of playing in the top flight would be dashed. Falkirk had suffered from the same rule just 12 months earlier and been forced to remain in the First Division. Eventually a cunning plan emerged - one that at first seemed outrageous, uneconomic and just plain daft. This was a groundshare 100 miles away at Pittodrie, Aberdeen. Even if this was economically feasible - a marginal and brave call - would it be allowed by the SPL board? Despite protests and appeals by Partick Thistle (the team due to be relegated to the First Division) the club received the green light to spend a season on the A96 to Aberdeen. In the event the books were balanced and the board's faith was rewarded.
SPL entry reopened a debate that had been going for years. How could a 10,000 seat stadium be funded? Supermarket giant ASDA had expressed an interest in buying the Longman site and giving the club the chance to relocate. The situation was complicated by the no small fact that the site was owned by Inverness's Common Good Fund and no suitable alternative site could be identified. A revised plan saw ASDA express a desire to take over the site between the Caledonian Stadium and the A9. Cooperation with the club could have meant a new stand but the idea was dropped because of traffic problems. The answer came from an unexpected direction.
After the first few months of the exhausting SPL routine - effectively an away match every week - there was a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. Whispers at SPL board level were that a return to Inverness was possible if Caledonian Stadium could be upgraded before late January 2005. The summer arguments about stadium criteria had resulted in a change to 6,000 seats rather than 10,000 - but this was to come into effect for 2005/06. The 6,000 seat level was brought forward to allow ICT the chance to upgrade by the time each club had played them once at Pittodrie. Enter Tulloch Construction and a remarkable feat. The ICT board took the decision to go for it in partnership with Tulloch. Foundation work for the two new stands had already taken place but full construction work began on 29 November. The target date was 29 January 2005 and, despite snow, frost, rain and a hurricane, the stands were completed in a remarkable 47 days. This included the installation of undersoil heating - another SPL requirement.
The final stage in the stadium upgrading exercise was the formal granting of the appropriate certificates effective from Wednesday 26 January. A Completion Certificate for the building work was granted by the Planning Department of Highland Council followed swiftly by the issue of the all-important Safety Certificate by Environmental Health. The next day Tulloch chairman David Sutherland formally handed back the upgraded stadium to the club and it was all systems go.
Saturday 29 January 2005 was another historic day in the short history of the club. With Thin Lizzy's 'The Boys Are Back In Town' booming from the tannoy, the team ran out to play Dunfermline - the first ever SPL match in the Highlands. Just before 3 pm the Tulloch Caledonian Stadium was officially opened by Highland Council convener Alison Magee with David Sutherland and SPL chairman Lex Gold in attendance. The new name reflected Tulloch's economic backing for the club and the remarkable achievement of building the two new stands in record time. Then it was on with the show. Any worries about a let-down disappeared as Caley Thistle won 2-0.
Records were soon being broken as the Old Firm brought their legions of fans north. Celtic were the first to call and the match on 16 March 2005 drew a crowd of 7045. This was surpassed on 6 August 2005 with the visit of Rangers. The attendance of 7512 still stands as a stadium record.
Tulloch Caledonian Stadium was chosen as the venue for a Scotland Futures international against Turkey on 15 March. ICT players Mark Brown, Craig Dargo and Ian Black featured for Scotland but they lost narrowly 3-2. Despite the score the event was a major success for the club and the stadium. The influx of a large local support (and a fair few vocal Turks) resulted in a 15 minute kick-off delay but otherwise all went well. The SFA delegation was impressed by the whole operation and support. Further international matches in Inverness are a distinct possibility and the future of the Tulloch Caledonian Stadium is most certainly a rosy one.
For those visiting the stadium on a matchday, or for conferencing or other events, directions can be found: HERE