Copyright Ian Broadfoot
BACK IN THE SPL
Not a season to remember for Scottish football with a referees’ strike, an SPL manager attacked during a match, bomb threats to football people and post match altercations on the touchline – but for Caley Thistle it was excellent. A very successful first season back in the SPL, close to a top six finish, seventh place achieved, a remarkable undefeated away league sequence, a place in the quarter final of the Scottish Cup and another famous victory over Celtic.
The clearance operation around the stadium after the May Day promotion party had barely been completed when preparations began for season 2010-11. The summer of 2010 was similar to 2009 – a new division anticipated and a search for players to fill key positions for the challenge ahead. This time the aim was not promotion but survival – and hopefully more – back in the SPL. Survival was virtually assured early in 2011 and from October to March Caley Thistle were in the top six.
Many players were out of contract and hard decisions had to be made. Six players departed – reserve goalkeeper Kyle Allison went back to his former club Dunfermline, defender Lionel Djebi-Zadi left but was still without a club at the end of 2010-11, young defender Jamie Duff joined Elgin City after a season blighted by injury, Robert Eagle went to Grimsby Town, Dan Stratford signed for Hereford United and Nauris Bulvitis returned to his parent club in Latvia at the end of his loan period. Most of the out-of-contract players remained and signed new deals. Several had been the subject of interest from other clubs but elected to remain in Inverness. Long serving defender Ross Tokely was the last to re-sign. After 14 seasons at the club he was tempted to move on and he had offers from clubs at home and abroad. In the end he stayed and took his place as a regular in the 2010-11 side. Richie Foran succeeded Grant Munro as captain.
New faces came in to fill the gaps. Stuart Duff had impressed on loan from Aberdeen at the tail end of 2009 but returned to his club after a month. He featured in the Dons first team regularly for the rest of 2009-10 but was released at the end of the season. Despite playing as a trialist for St Johnstone and receiving a contract offer from St Mirren he signed for Caley Thistle in September 2010. Northern Ireland international goalkeeper Jonny Tuffey came from Partick Thistle to act as backup (and competition) for Ryan Esson. Young ‘keeper Max Johnson also joined the club after three seasons as a trainee with Newcastle United. Israeli under 18 midfielder Gil Blumenshtein joined in July, Scotland under 21 defender Kevin McCann came on a loan from Hibs and French defender Kenny Gillet came to Inverness after three years at Barnet.
Life back in the SPL
To prepare for the increased pressure on the admin side of the club former board member Kenny Cameron returned as Operations Director. There was a new shirt sponsor for 2010-11 with former chairman Alan Savage’s Orion Group signing a two year deal worth potentially a six figure sum depending on results and achievements.
Apart from the traditional pre-season matches against Highland League opposition there were some new adventures. The first was a trip to England to play Fleetwood Town and Stockport County in late July – previously the only matches played in England were against Berwick Rangers and the 1st Battalion The Highlanders at RAF Catterick in May 1997. A 2-1 defeat to Fleetwood was followed by a 1-0 victory against Stockport. The second departure from the norm was the visit to Inverness of two foreign sides in early August. Spain’s Real Valladolid was first but the match ended a rather flat 0-0. Next up were Belgian side Royal Antwerp and this time it ended 1-1.
The first competitive match of the season was sandwiched between the English trip and the foreign visits to Inverness – on the last day of July Caley Thistle beat Queen’s Park 3-0 in the first round of the Co-operative Insurance Cup. The SPL league campaign started with the high-profile visit to Inverness of Celtic on 14 August. Before the match the Division One Championship flag for 2009-10 was presented and the team went on to produce a fine performance. They were undone by one solo Paddy McCourt goal but the signs for the season were good. An away trip to Tannadice eight days later proved to be an excellent day out – in a performance described by Terry Butcher as ‘one of the best since he took over’ Dundee United were trounced 4-0. August was completed by a 3-0 win over Peterhead in round 2 of the Co-op Cup then a poor home defeat 1-0 by Hamilton – with former ICT player Dougie Imrie scoring a spectacular goal in 40 seconds. The points at Tannadice ensured a fifth spot finish to August.
There were three SPL matches in September with mixed results – a 1-1 away draw with Hibs, a 3-1 home defeat to Hearts and a 2-1 away victory against St Mirren. The league position was rather topsy turvy but away form ensured seventh spot at the end of September.
There was one cup match in September with a 6-0 defeat away to Celtic in the Co-op Cup. This equalled the club’s worst ever loss and was clearly a night to forget. There was a clear pattern emerging of mixed home results and a better away record. The Co-op Cup defeat to Celtic was clearly a hiccup but in the league Caley Thistle were now undefeated away since November 2009. There was one excellent home result at the beginning of October when at long last Aberdeen were defeated in Inverness. The 2-0 victory was only the second ever against the Dons and this was followed two weeks later by a 1-1 draw at home to St Johnstone. This was another first – the first ever SPL meeting of the sides. Next it was down to Kilmarnock and a 2-1 victory to continue the away record. The month ended with a visit to Ibrox and many thought this would be the end of the run. Eric Odhiambo’s 81st minute goal made it 1-1 and all was well. Caley Thistle finished October in fourth place and Terry Butcher was named SPL Manager of the Month.
November was an exceptionally busy month with five SPL matches and a testimonial for Roy McBain. Third played fourth in the ‘Match of the Day’ when Motherwell came north. The Steelmen took the points 2-1 as home form continued to be up and down. Aberdeen were hammered 9-0 on the same day by Celtic so the midweek match at Pittodrie a few days later took on extra significance. Would there be a backlash from Aberdeen or would their slump continue? In the event Caley Thistle won 2-1 but Aberdeen’s performance had improved and manager Mark McGhee held onto his job for a little longer. A 3-1 win away to Hamilton avenged the defeat in August and continued the away league run. Hibs came north on 20 November under new manager Colin Calderwood and were soundly beaten 4-2. This was just Caley Thistle’s second home league win of the season and continued the record of Hibs never having beaten ICT in Inverness – their only ‘away’ league victory having come at Pittodrie in 2004-05 .
When Caley Thistle lost 2-1 to Partick Thistle in Maryhill on 28 November 2009 it proved to be the last league defeat of 2009-10 and would be the last league defeat away from home for a year – if at least a point could be taken away to Celtic on 27 November 2010. A strike by referees was proposed for that day in protest against criticism in recent weeks (and months) but some matches did go ahead when the SFA brought in referees from abroad. Alan Hamer and his assistants from Luxembourg did the honours at Celtic Park in what proved to be a memorable match. Celtic had not been firing on all cylinders so ICT hopes were high – but memories of the 6-0 cup thrashing in September were still fresh. Caley Thistle travelled down on the day and had a long fraught journey due to deteriorating weather. Perhaps unsurprisingly they took a while to settle but still the first half was pretty even despite Celtic taking a 38th minute lead through Ki. The restless home fans relaxed a little when a superb solo goal from Paddy McCourt put them two ahead in 65 minutes. Caley Thistle continued to play good football and were rewarded in 70 minutes when Richie Foran pounced on a defensive mix up and scored to make it 2-1. The home fans were now very unhappy with their side and things went very quiet. The visitors sensed this and it encouraged them to continue to press the Celtic defence. When Grant Munro scored an equaliser with seven minutes left it was no more than Caley Thistle deserved and, as the home stands began to empty, they pushed for a winner. It did not come but the 2-2 draw was reward enough for a good day’s work and it ensured that the remarkable away league record remained for over a year. The draw ensured that fourth spot in the SPL was maintained at the end of November.
Roy McBain celebrated ten years at the club with a testimonial on 23 November against a ‘Legends XI’. The current ICT side won 4-1 but the 1000 fans who turned up enjoyed the nostalgic sight of past players such as Jim Calder, Charlie Christie, Paul Sheerin, Bobby Mann and Barry Wilson performing once more at Tulloch Caledonian Stadium.
Heavy snow in late November started a period of widespread disruption and the SPL card on 4 December was wiped out. Major efforts around the club ensured that the televised home match against Rangers went ahead on 11 December. A Jonny Hayes wonder goal gave Caley Thistle the lead but Rangers equalised through Kenny Miller. Defeat looked on the cards when Rangers were awarded a late penalty but the legs of Ryan Esson saved the day and it ended 1-1. A week later it was off to Tynecastle and a backs-to-the-wall performance which earned a 1-1 draw. Caley Thistle were lucky to escape a second half onslaught from Hearts. The draw meant three in a row against the top three sides and the calendar year completed undefeated away in the league.
The home match against St Mirren on Boxing Day was less pleasing. An early Lee Cox goal was cancelled out by two Steven Thomson efforts and Saints took the points. Three days later an exciting home match against Kilmarnock ended in a 3-1 defeat – once more the home hoodoo had struck. Despite these setbacks Caley Thistle ended 2010 (and the first half of the SPL season) in a remarkable fourth spot.
Halfway stage of the league
After 19 matches Caley Thistle had 27 points – 17 ahead of bottom club Hamilton (who had played three games less) and 11 ahead of Aberdeen who lay second bottom after playing 18 matches. With all the cancellations due to the weather Caley Thistle’s completion of 19 games was the most by any SPL club – thanks mainly to just one postponement at Tulloch Caledonian Stadium and that was due to conditions on the A9 and around Inverness rather than the pitch. So much for the doomsayers who predicted many weather problems when Caley Thistle joined the SFL in 1994-95.
2011 started with another first – the first SPL clash with St Johnstone at McDiarmid Park, Perth. It was due to take place on New Year’s Day but was shifted 24 hours to 2 January. With icy roads and lethal footpaths around Perth there were doubts about the game going ahead despite a very gradual intermittent thaw. A meeting with police and Saints’ officials on the morning led to it going ahead. The 24 hours made all the difference as Saints were having real difficulty clearing ice on the 23 acre site of McDiarmid Park. In the end it was not much of a game but Saints 1-0 win was significant as it ended Caley Thistle’s undefeated away league record.
Snow and freezing temperatures threatened many of the Scottish Cup fourth round ties on 8 January but Caley Thistle’s home match against near neighbours Elgin City went ahead. It took two late late goals to see off plucky Elgin in this first ever senior meeting of the clubs. Indeed for Caley Thistle this completed the set as Elgin City were the only league side which they had never faced competitively before now. The home side dominated for almost the entire match but a late flurry from Elgin nearly paid off for them. Just when a replay seemed certain Dani Sanchez sent a 16 yard volley into the net to effectively take the tie. This was two minutes into added time and a further two minutes later Adam Rooney added a second.
January as usual saw the opening of the transfer window but there was little business around Scotland. Caley Thistle’s fear was losing prolific striker Adam Rooney whose contract was to expire at the end of 2010-11. He was free to talk to other clubs and was being linked on a weekly basis with different clubs including Russian side Kuban Krasnodar who were reputed to have had a £100,000 offer turned down – the club denied that any offer had been received. Rooney stayed and the squad was strengthened by the arrival of Chris Hogg from Hibs, Aaron Doran on loan from Blackburn Rovers and Alex MacDonald on loan from Burnley.
The league campaign in January was very disappointing with a drab 0-0 draw at Motherwell, a narrow 1-0 defeat to Rangers at Ibrox, a 1-1 home draw against bottom club Hamilton then a 2-0 home defeat to Aberdeen, resurgent under new manager Craig Brown. There was controversy surrounding the Rangers match – it had been originally scheduled for 29 January, was put back to 2 March then hurriedly rearranged for Tuesday 18 January to fit in with Rangers’ heavy programme. There was clearly little regard for Caley Thistle who had been down to Motherwell three days previously and were given little time to prepare to face Rangers. In the circumstances losing just 1-0 was an achievement. The goal was controversial as the referee allowed an Andy Webster foul on Adam Rooney to go unpunished and Rangers ran upfield and scored. Despite the poor January Caley Thistle remained fifth.
February started with a Scottish Cup tie against Greenock Morton on the fifth – a home match which ICT comfortably won 5-1. There were just three league matches in February starting with a six goal thriller away to St Mirren on the 12th , end to end stuff and a 3-3 result. A 2-0 home win against St Johnstone the following week was sweet revenge for the January defeat in Perth. A 2-0 defeat away to Hibs ended February and saw Caley Thistle in sixth spot – but only just. Dundee United were close behind with three games in hand. There were also just three league games in March with two defeats to Dundee United (2-0 at home and 1-0 away) and a good 3-0 win at home to Motherwell.
Drama against Celtic
March’s highlight was the Scottish Cup Quarter Final at home to Celtic on the 16th – postponed from the 13th because of a waterlogged pitch. It was another dramatic night in the short history of Caley Thistle. The postponement cost the home club up to £100,000 as Sky TV had to pull out of the rearranged date and other revenue was lost. Caley Thistle took the lead through an Adam Rooney penalty just before the break but Celtic’s Joe Ledley equalised right on half time. Celtic ‘keeper Fraser Forster brought out a world class save early in the second half to deny Shane Sutherland and Ledley scored his second midway through the half to earn Celtic victory. An exciting match but the wrong result. The 13 March postponement was the third similar call-off in a short time and Chairman George Fraser vowed that the matter of the drainage would be investigated.
With three games to go before the SPL split Caley Thistle were lying seventh but with tough April matches ahead. Motherwell were four points ahead but with one game more played. A match against Celtic was due to be played on Saturday 2 April with a 1200 kick off and TV coverage on ESPN – it also should have been Terry Butcher’s 100th in charge. Heavy overnight rain resulted in an 0945 postponement and bitter disappointment all round. An attempt was made to contact the SPL to request delaying the kick-off but this proved impossible and despite the pitch improving by the minute the game was off. In midweek Motherwell played their 32nd match, beat Dundee United and this put them seven points ahead of ICT which made the task of catching them almost impossible.
Top six hopes disappeared on 9 April when Caley Thistle took a point at Kilmarnock and Motherwell did the same away to Hearts. The seven point gap remained and Caley Thistle had to be content to aim to be the ‘best of the rest’. The 1-1 draw at Kilmarnock was the 100th game in charge for the Terry Butcher/Maurice Malpas management team. In an unusual move the SPL decided May 4th was the date for the re-arranged Celtic match – thus a pre split match was scheduled for a post split date! The post split timetable was issued before the first 33 matches were completed by most clubs but by now the top six/bottom six split was known. Match 32 for Caley Thistle was a 1-1 home draw against Hearts which saw Aaron Doran score for the home side and Ross Tokely seeing red for two yellow cards. Thus ICT went into the last fixtures knowing their SPL status was secure and, of the bottom six, only Hibs and ICT could say this with certainty. After 33 games Hamilton lay nine points adrift from second bottom St Mirren with Aberdeen just three points better.
Post split in the bottom six
Match 34 was away to St Johnstone on Easter Monday, 25 April. Originally it was to be at a rather unusual 1400 for ESPN TV reasons but was quickly amended to 1945 after representations. With many players out of contract they were now playing for their futures and the management team was planning for next season. Saints were finding goals hard to come by and so it proved once again with ICT running out very worthy 3-0 winners. It was rather different the following Saturday when they lost 1-0 at Aberdeen with a performance that angered the manager.
On 2 May the club issued a press release highlighting four veteran players who were not being offered new contracts for next season – Roy McBain, Stuart Golabek, Russell Duncan and Grant Munro. It was indeed the end of an era to see these stalwarts move on. A further six players were heading for the exit door as Terry Butcher planned for next season – Max Johnson, Chris Hogg, Chris Innes, Gil Blumenshtein, Dani Sanchez and Eric Odhiambo. In addition loan players Alex MacDonald and Aaron Doran were expected to return to their parent clubs.
Inverness chairman George Fraser singled out former captain Munro for special praise: ‘Grant has been an exceptionally loyal servant to the club and demonstrates to all in our existing youth set up that with the correct application, skill and determination you can progress to become captain of the club. Unfortunately due to the current financial environment generally, but football in particular, contracts are all now short-term one to two-year deals and it is highly unlikely we will see a player with the service profile of Grant at the club again. On behalf of everyone at the club we wish Grant well for the future whilst extending our thanks to all the players who have served the club over the seasons through the lows and highs of relegation and promotion.’
Having not quite achieved top six status it was rather strange to face Celtic post split. The postponement of the match on 2 April proved to be a fixture headache as Celtic could not fit in all pre split matches. In the event this clash had no effect on the split so it was agreed it could be played on 4 May. To avoid Champions League TV the kick-off was a less than popular 1800. The rearranged match proved to be effectively the SPL title decider. Celtic lay a point behind Rangers before the match and were expected to overtake their Glasgow rivals but Caley Thistle had other ideas. Celtic should have learned their lesson from the classes of 2000 and 2003 but once more Caley Thistle did Inverness proud. The home side lifted itself from the depths of the Pittodrie performance to astound Scottish football and beat Celtic 3-2. It was a well deserved victory which could easily have ended 4-1. A Charlie Mulgrew own goal in six minutes gave Caley Thistle the lead but Kris Commons equalised two minutes later. It was 2-1 in 53 minutes when freed defender Grant Munro drove home from 20 yards. A Shane Sutherland volley in 61 minutes made it 3-1 before Adam Rooney nearly increased the lead. He was one-on-one with Fraser Forster but the big ‘keeper managed to block Rooney’s shot with his legs. In added time Commons made it 3-2 from the penalty spot and there it stayed despite Celtic claiming a second penalty when Paddy McCourt collided with Munro. Rangers’ one point lead stayed intact and indeed it remained that way at the end of the season.
The final three games of the season in May meant nothing to Caley Thistle except pride, points and pounds but they resulted in three victories. The first was at home to St Mirren on the 7th and a win for Saints would have ensured their SPL survival – Caley Thistle won 1-0 thanks to a late Adam Rooney goal. The following Wednesday Hamilton lost to St Johnstone and St Mirren were safe. In the final home game on Wednesday 11th it was 2-0 against Hibs with goals from Richie Foran and Nick Ross then three days later it was 2-1 against relegated Hamilton at New Douglas Park. Caley Thistle ended the season in seventh spot on 53 points.
Adam Rooney came out top in the appearances record for the season with 43 out of 44 and Ross Tokely and Grant Munro both made 40. Rooney also topped the goals chart with 21 (15 in the league and 6 in cup competitions) and second was Richie Foran with 9 (7 in the league and 2 in the Scottish Cup). Ryan Esson took most of the annual club awards – Supporters’ Player of the Year, Players’ Player of the Year, Supporters’ Club Player of the Year, CaleyThistleOnline.com Player of the Year and Supporters Trust Player of the Year. Nick Ross took the other two awards – Matchday Programme Player of the Year and Supporters Trust Young Player of the Year.
The club was well represented on international duty throughout the season. Jonny Tuffey played for the full Northern Ireland side in November against Morocco then in February against Scotland in the Carling Nations Cup. Prolific striker Adam Rooney was capped for the Republic of Ireland under 21s against Turkey and Switzerland in September 2010. Nick Ross scored on his debut for Scotland under 21s against Northern Ireland in November. Alex MacDonald was an established Scotland under 21 international when he joined in January and he continued his under 21 career with a substitute appearance against Belgium in March. Liam Polworth gained 13 caps for Scotland under 17s including captaining the side against Malta in January.
In July 2010 Charlie Christie took an under 16 squad to compete in the 2010 Barcelona Cup and they came home as winners. They survived a tempestuous semi final against a Valencia side despite the referee needing police protection from angry parents of the Spanish players. Their side was being outplayed by the Caley Thistle youngsters and they did not like it. They won through to the final on penalties and took the cup 3-1 against Catalonian side Centro Tecno Futbol. With the under 15s having won the Como Cup at Easter and the under 12s winning in Orkney in June this was the third trophy for Charlie Christie’s youth players.
In November the fine work of groundsman Tommy Cumming over many years was recognised when he was named SFL Groundsman of the Year and Scottish Groundsman of the Year. A compensation case involving former striker Marius Niculae passed another hurdle in December. Niculae had claimed a percentage of the transfer fee received by the club from Dinamo Bucharest in August 2008 but the club insisted that the transfer had been instigated by Niculae. With £130,000 at stake this was a major case for the club. FIFA’s dispute resolution chamber ruled in favour of Niculae but this decision was overturned by the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland. There is still a case to be heard at Inverness Sheriff Court. On 21 April Tulloch Caledonian Stadium was the venue for an under 18 schoolboy international between Scotland and England. Scotland won 1-0 to share the Centenary Shield with Northern Ireland.
The issue of reorganisation was a thread running through the season. On 16 December Henry McLeish published the second part of his review into Scottish football. Its main recommendations were the merging of the SPL and SFL, an earlier start to the season, the regionalisation of the lower leagues and a change to two Premier Leagues of 10 teams each. An SPL Strategy Group was already on the reorganisation case and they also recommended two SPL leagues of ten clubs – this was a major surprise to some (notably the ICT board) who had been of the impression that the Strategy Group was to choose between the status quo and an increase in the SPL to 14 clubs. A meeting of all SPL clubs took place on 3 January and afterwards SPL chief executive Neil Doncaster was confident the plan would be adopted when put to the vote on 17 January. An 11-1 majority would be required and very quickly cracks began to appear. Dundee United chairman Stephen Thomson was strongly against the idea, other clubs expressed a similar view (including Caley Thistle) and, crucially, a vote arranged by Supporters Direct showed fans were 88% against the ten team proposal. This was no straw poll – 5000 fans were canvassed and this strength of feeling was very important. Fans bombarded the media with their views and there was a strong feeling that the SPL’s proposal was just a reversion to the four division set-up established in 1994 – albeit with 42 clubs instead of 40 and with ‘SPL’ badging for divisions one and two. Lower league clubs felt ignored – especially as they had not taken part in any of the discussions – and many people in the Scottish game could not see how football as a whole could benefit from the plan. There were strong views in favour of expanding the SPL to 14 or even 16 teams but those opposed to this felt the economics would be wrong. In the light of the massive opposition, and when an 11-1 vote in favour was clearly impossible to achieve, the meeting proposed for 17 January was cancelled. Back to the drawing board! By the end of the season the issue had still not been resolved.