A season of triumph and an amazing end to the Club’s first decade. 2002/03 had been a tremendous success but 2003/04 was even better. The Bell’s Cup was captured and there was a Scottish Cup semi-final appearance for the second year in succession. The league went to the last day when a full house at Caledonian Stadium witnessed John Robertson’s side take the First Division championship.
After weeks of drama, confusion, ballots and diplomacy entry to the SPL was achieved, but at the expense of a season’s groundshare in Aberdeen. In the close season Barry Robson joined Dundee United, Dennis Wyness signed for Hearts and David Bagan left for Queen of the South. David Bingham came from Livingston then Darran Thomson and David Proctor signed from Hibs. Barry Wilson returned from Livingston as the transfer window closed. A major shirt sponsorship deal was signed with Inverness Medical. Drs Ian Smith and Derek MacLeod took over jointly as Club Doctors. Roy McLennan left the Board but was replaced in October by Nigel Spiller. On the commercial side Debbie Ross left and Les Kidger stepped in to take over most of her duties. The youth and community set-up was revamped when Danny MacDonald rejoined the club as Community and Football Development Manager.
ICT took part in Oban’s Keyline tournament on July 12th then friendlies started with away victories against Clach, Forres and Brora. Three high-profile home friendlies resulted in successes against Aberdeen, Livingston and Hearts. There were also away wins at Lossiemouth and Forfar. August was hectic with three Bell’s Cup and four league matches. In the cup Gretna were beaten 5-0 away, it was 2-1 at Peterhead then 1-0 at home to Ross County. The opening league match away to Falkirk (at Ochilview) was traumatic. Stuart McCaffrey scored, Falkirk equalised, then McCaffrey was red carded for stamping - TV evidence proved his innocence and the card was rescinded. The league continued with a 0-0 home draw against Clyde then St Johnstone were beaten 2-1 in Perth. The first derby in Dingwall ended 1-1. On September 2nd Caley Thistle were clear favourites at home against Queen’s Park in the CIS Cup but the Spiders achieved a 2-1 giant-killing victory. It was better in the semi-final of the Bell’s Cup with a 4-0 away win against Raith. On October 4th Raith were beaten 2-1 in the league and Caley Thistle sat proudly alone at the top of Division One. The stint at the top lasted two weeks until a 3-2 defeat at Dumfries.
October was completed with the Bell’s Cup final against Airdrie United on Sunday 26th 3000 fans made the trip to Perth and they were not disappointed. Airdrie soaked up early pressure and the goals were a long time coming. David Bingham headed home in 79 minutes then Steve Hislop scored to end the contest. Bobby Mann collected the club’s first senior cup and the ghost of the 1999 defeat had been laid. There was more good news at the AGM three days later when the first-ever operating profit was revealed. To be in the black to the tune of £129,000 for the year to 31st May 2003 contrasted sharply with a loss of £272,000 for the previous year. A plan for temporary seating to meet SPL requirements, should promotion be achieved, was also unveiled. at McDiarmid Park.
November saw six league games. It started badly with defeats to Falkirk and Clyde then Ayr were soundly beaten 3-0 at Somerset Park. The derby match was brought forward to Friday 14th because Scotland were playing Holland and it turned out to be a night of drama. Goals from David Bingham, Steve Hislop and Barry Wilson seemed to set up a win but County made it 3-1 then with 20 minutes to go it was 3-2. In added time Steve McGarry equalised and it felt like a defeat. The 4-0 win away to St Mirren on the 22nd led to Saints’ manager John Coughlin falling on his sword. The final game of November was at home to Brechin who were on a mini-revival. They were demolished 5-0 and this took Caley Thistle to the top of the league on goal difference with the first six teams only separated by two points.
Early December wins against Queen of the South and Raith gained top spot outright but this was surrendered when the away Falkirk match was postponed. Clyde beat Ayr 2-1 to go top. The final game of 2003 was a six-pointer at home against St Johnstone. Despite ICT dominance Saints held out until a Barry Wilson penalty settled it. In January Darren Mackie came on loan from Aberdeen and reserve ‘keeper Ally Ridgers left for Clach. The New Year’s derby at Dingwall went County’s way 1-0 then a week later it was the start of the Scottish Cup at home to Brechin. On paper this was a banker and Caley Thistle duly won 5-1. There were league victories against Ayr and Brechin then a 1-1 draw at St Mirren before going back to Paisley for a Scottish Cup fourth round tie. The new £2.1m Highland Football Academy situated in Dingwall opened in January and both Ross County and Caley Thistle quickly began to make full use of its facilities.
The Scottish Cup tie in Paisley on February 7th was not a match to relish and Saints dominated. The weather was dreadful and it was a day for defensive heroics. With 12 minutes left a breakaway led to a winning goal from Darran Thomson. The home fans were stunned and even the Caley Thistle camp conceded that the 1-0 result was a steal. Motherwell were drawn away in the quarter final. Back to the league and a win against Raith Rovers before defeat to Queen of the South. Clyde regained top spot and the final Saturday of the month was to be the showdown. Clyde were due in Inverness but snow and frost wiped out the First Division card. The weather relented to allow the away game against Falkirk to go ahead on March 2nd but it ended in a 2-1 defeat. The cup tie on the sixth was another big day out for the fans but, with Motherwell on a roll, there was pessimism. It ended 1-0 thanks to a Barry Wilson wonder goal in ten minutes. He spotted Gordon Marshall off his line and a 30 yard lob came off spectacularly. It was then backs-to-the-wall and Motherwell failed to score. The Scottish Cup semi-final had been reached for the second season in a row.
In the league Clyde were in the driving seat and the games against St Johnstone and Clyde on March 13th and 16th were crucial. Clyde were six points ahead of ICT with Saints a further three points adrift. At Perth, St Johnstone took a 2-0 lead but a brace from Paul Ritchie in the second half set up a dramatic finish. In injury time, Saints’ Keigan Parker scored a spectacular goal to make it 3-2. Clyde only took a point against Brechin but still had a seven point lead. The home Clyde match was quite a night. Paul Ritchie scored, Clyde equalised with a freak goal then David Bingham made it 2-1. With two minutes left a Barry Wilson penalty goal made it 3-1. A vital win which reduced the deficit to four points. A 1-1 draw at a windy Ayr the following Saturday was very disappointing but the conditions made it a lottery. Clyde soundly beat St Johnstone 3-1 and thus extended their lead back to six points. Caley Thistle’s home league derby win the following week came thanks to a goal by Barry Wilson on the hour mark. At the end of March, Clyde were just four points ahead and St Johnstone three points behind Caley Thistle. The visit to relegation-threatened St Mirren on April 3rd was not a match to remember. Enough chances were created to win but it ended goalless. Minds could now turn back to the cup.
On Saturday April 10th Inverness emptied for the day as fans headed for the Scottish Cup semi-final against Dunfermline at Hampden. The crowd of 13,255 was slightly down on last season and the match turned out to be less than a classic. The team gave everything and at the end were running on empty. As the clock ticked over 45 minutes in the first half Paul Ritchie gave Caley Thistle the lead but Craig Brewster equalised in 67 minutes. It ended 1-1 and went to a Pittodrie replay on April 20th. Celtic beat Livingston to reach the final and this ensured UEFA Cup qualification for the other cup finalist. Before the cup replay there were two important home league matches - Brechin and Queen of the South were both beaten. Ticket sales for the Pittodrie replay were slow and Inverness supporters comprised the majority of the 5358 crowd. It turned out to be a great night as the team put on a superb performance but the final score was 3-2 for Dunfermline. It started well when Paul Ritchie scored in seven minutes but with 13 minutes left it was 3-1 to the Pars. David Bingham converted a penalty in injury time but there was no time left for any more heroics. The twin dreams of a Scottish Cup final and European football were over, but it was very close.
Despite the disappointment there was a determination to fight for the league title. Raith were beaten, Clyde drew in Dingwall and there were now only two points in it. On Sunday 25th April it was the final of the North Cup at Forres but a 1-0 defeat to Elgin. On May Day Caley Thistle entertained Falkirk and Clyde went to Ayr – both ended in jittery draws. The crunch match at Broadwood on May 8th was akin to a cup tie - a win for Clyde and they would take the title but otherwise it would go to the last day of the season. The atmosphere was electric and the first half was played at a frantic pace. It was goalless at half time then Caley Thistle took the lead through Liam Keogh in 54 minutes. Ian Harty equalised with a penalty in 72 minutes then seven minutes later Steve Hislop scored the winner. The visitors were triumphant as they moved to the top of the First Division by one point. A day to remember but a job only half completed.
The climax to the season – and the decade – came on May 15th against St Johnstone at Caledonian Stadium. The deadlock was broken on the half-hour mark when a David Bingham overhead kick fooled ‘keeper Craig Nelson and it was 1-0. Near half-time Keigan Parker hammered the ball past Mark Brown from long range to equalise then in 56 minutes Barry Wilson converted a penalty. Clyde were now 4-0 ahead at Brechin but any doubts disappeared when Paul Ritchie headed goal number three with 14 minutes left. The whistle went and the Inverness fans again went ballistic. The players were swamped in a good-humoured pitch invasion. The SFL helicopter landed at Culloden House Hotel, the official party was brought to the stadium in double-quick time and Lord Macfarlane presented the trophy to Bobby Mann. A magic moment for the crowd and everyone involved with the club. The management team and players went off on a lap of honour and it was a long time before the party ended.
A major decision had now to be made as the only possibility of promotion was a groundshare. Pittodrie was the nearest SPL ground and, after a series of meetings with shareholders and fans, the Board was convinced there was backing for the temporary move. Agreement was reached with Aberdeen for the groundshare and the details submitted to the SPL on May 28th. SPL members voted on the issue on June 1st but only seven votes out of the necessary eight were gained. Three ‘No’ votes and two abstentions did the damage. Relegation-threatened Partick had been lobbying hard and it paid off. At issue was whether the groundshare agreement should have been concluded by March 31st. The affair dominated the media and Ken Mackie was constantly in the spotlight. Hearts and Hibs asked for a second vote and this was fixed for June 22nd. Crucially Dundee United Chairman Eddie Thompson reversed his position and pledged support for the Inverness cause. He also wanted to table a motion allowing Inverness to be used subject to high-speed improvements. The SPL had agreed that the seating requirement would come down to 6,000 from 2005/06 and Thompson suggested a dispensation. ICT lodged an appeal with the SFA against the June 1st decision but this was overtaken by events.
Partick went to the Court of Session to try to stop the second vote but an interim interdict was refused by Lord Brodie just before the SPL meeting. This time the vote went 10-2 in favour and the champagne flowed in Inverness. There was no real support for Eddie Thompson’s second proposal so the groundshare was on. Partick Chairman Tom Hughes accepted the result but his Board did not agree. An appeal to the SFA was lodged but meanwhile ICT began to plan for the big time. There was no other choice – the appeal was not to be heard until July 8th and the organisation of a year in Aberdeen would need all the time available. The three-man SFA Appeals Committee duly met at Hampden and, after over three hours deliberation, found against Partick. SFA Chief Executive David Taylor revealed the decision: “The Appeals Committee has decided that Partick Thistle have no grounds of appeal in terms of their submissions under Article 133.1 of the SFA Constitution. The appeal therefore fails.” After overnight consideration Partick decided to take the matter no further and to concentrate their energies on football. Thus on July 9th the curtain came down on Partick’s hopes and removed all doubts surrounding Caley Thistle’s SPL membership. The saga could now pass into history and the lessons learned would hopefully ensure that nothing similar ever happened again. Finally everyone could move on with some certainty. It was time for a year on the A96 with the prime aim of SPL survival whilst Caledonian Stadium was being improved to the new SPL standards. SPL entry was a dramatic but fitting end to the Club’s first decade.