Three Inverness teams were founder members of the North of Scotland Football Association in 1888 – Thistle, Caledonian and Clachnacuddin. Thistle was formed in 1885 with Caley and Clach both dating back to 1886. Over the years rivalries thrived and each had its period of dominance. Clach won four back-to-back Highland League Championships in 1902/06 and again in 1920/24 but in the modern era Thistle and Caley dominated the Inverness scene.
Thistle had an excellent spell in the early 1970s and this led to an application to join the Scottish League in 1973. They came very close but lost out by one vote to Edinburgh’s Ferranti Thistle. In 1986 a proposed breakaway league nearly led to another opportunity but it came to nothing. Similarly in the early 1990s Berwick Rangers were struggling to survive and the Inverness sides watched every move.
The opportunity came in 1993 when the Scottish League voted to expand from 38 teams to 40, split into 4 Divisions. This time the question of geography was not an issue as the A9 trunk road had been upgraded to a high standard and Perth was only 2 hours away.
The Scottish Cup is the vehicle by which teams in the south have come to know and fear Highland League sides. Each year the four semi-finalists in the North Qualifying Cup gain a place in the Cup draw and the hope of giant-killing or at least a big pay-day. Thistle and Caley took part in many cup classics over the years with the modern-era highlights being matches against both halves of the Old Firm. In 1983/84 Caley defeated Stirling Albion in a 3rd Round replay to clinch a home tie against Rangers. The town buzzed with excitement but there was to be no upset as Rangers easily won 6-0.
Thistle’s claim to fame in modern times was a classic 3-0 win over Kilmarnock at Kingsmills Park in February 1985. They went on to a lucrative tie against Celtic at Parkhead and a 6-0 defeat. In 1990 Caley scored a penalty shoot-out victory against Airdrie in a third round replay at Telford Street and in 1991 they held St Johnstone to a home 2-2 draw. They lost the replay 3-0 but the thousands of fans who went south that night to Perth sent out a strong message – Inverness could support a Scottish League team.
When the first discussions regarding a combined Inverness team took place, set up by Inverness and Nairn Enterprise Company, it was mooted that all 3 teams would amalgamate but Clach pulled out. The full details of the merger of Caley and Thistle is told in Charles Bannerman’s book “Against All Odds” (published by the Club in August 1997) and there is no room here to detail the saga. This book should be required reading for any teams considering such a merger. The financial troubles of some Central Scotland teams would suggest that other combinations should happen but it would not be easy. We can gloss over the troubled merger with the excuse of lack of space and move on to the Scottish League vote on 12th January 1994. The Inverness side amassed 68 votes to top the poll with Ross County second on 57 votes – their cause having been greatly enhanced by a fine Scottish Cup run. In fact on the Saturday before the vote they trounced Forfar 4-0.
The stage was now set for top-flight football in both Inverness and Dingwall. The last League derby match between Thistle and Caley took place on May 11th 1994 with Caley winning 1-0. May 14th 1994 saw both clubs play their final Highland League matches. Thistle lost 2-0 at Kingsmills Park to Lossiemouth while Caley drew 1-1 at Huntly – Huntly’s manager being Steve Paterson who eventually led the combined Inverness side to the Third Division Championship in 1996/97.
The wrangles between the anti-merger camps at both Caley and Thistle continued and on several occasions the existence of the merged team was thrown into doubt. The teams which had lost out in the Scottish League vote waited in the wings ready to take their chance – notably Gala Fairydean. This was a time of meeting after meeting, threats of Court cases, legal advice and general acrimony all round. Inverness and Nairn Enterprise Chairman Norman Cordiner brokered a deal between the clubs in order to present a united front to the Scottish League. Former Thistle Chairman Jock MacDonald became the new club’s Chairman and his 21 year involvement with the SFA was a major asset. His Vice-Chairman became Caledonian’s Norman Miller. The compromise name of Caledonian Thistle F.C. was chosen and Caley’s Sergei Baltacha became manager. Thistle captain Dave Milroy joined him to run the reserve team.
The club’s application to join the League contained a promise to move to a new Stadium after one season – this was to dominate the activities of the new Board for some considerable time and it is no exaggeration to say that it nearly led to the club’s financial downfall. Initially matches were to be played at Telford Street Park – Thistle’s Kingsmills Park was originally the choice but it proved unsuitable. The stage was now set for season 1994/95 and the start of Scottish League football in the Highlands.
Article by Ian Broadfoot