A dramatic season for Scottish football and a fantastic season for Caley Thistle – a top six finish, a first full Scottish cap for a current ICT player (Andrew Shinnie), a semi final appearance in the League Cup and a first league defeat of Celtic at Celtic Park. A place in the Europa League seemed likely until the last day of the season when St Johnstone won and Caley Thistle lost.
The liquidation of Rangers led to their expulsion from the SPL and ‘Newco’ Rangers joining the SFL Third Division. With Rangers out of the SPL there was never any doubt that Celtic would dominate but it did leave a fascinating chase for second place and the European spots. Highland derby matches were renewed with Ross County’s promotion to the SPL and also when the sides were drawn together in the Scottish Cup. County made the top six in their maiden SPL season and were in the chase for Europe until close to the end.
Dunfermline entered administration in March 2013 and the inevitable points deduction led to relegation to the Second Division. Celtic won the SPL as expected and Dundee were relegated. As the season drew to a close it was possible that Hearts would go down instead of Dundee as their parent company UBIG were seeking insolvency in the Lithuanian courts – the SPL board could not decide whether this constituted insolvency according to their rules so Hearts were reprieved, at least for the moment.
For Terry Butcher and his management team the summer of 2012 was another time of reconstruction. Players left for pastures new, voluntarily or involuntarily, and replacements arrived from far and wide. Ross Tokely, the longest serving ICT player by a country mile, left for Ross County after a remarkable 569 appearances in 16 seasons. In these days of short contracts this total is unlikely to be bettered anytime soon. David Proctor left for Canadian side FC Edmonton after two spells at the club, Jonny Hayes signed for Aberdeen, Kenny Gillet moved to AEK Larnaca in Cyprus, Gregory Tade joined SPL rivals St Johnstone, and Greg Tansey went south to Stevenage. Moving rather further afield was Claude Gnakpa who joined Iraqi side Al-Minaa. Steve Williams returned to parent club Bradford City and similarly Sam Winnall went back to Wolves. Roman Golobart had been on loan from Wigan Athletic and he returned there – in May 2013 he was part of the Wigan squad that won the FA Cup then were relegated from the Premiership. Thomas Piermayr returned to Wiener Neustadt in his native Austria. Reserve goalkeeper Jonny Tuffey moved to St Johnstone in search of first team football.
The long list of outgoing players was balanced by an equally long list of arrivals. Defender David Raven arrived after being released by Tranmere Rovers. Gary Warren played for Newport County in the 2011/12 FA Trophy Final at Wembley and was offered a new contract – he chose instead to come to Inverness. Simon King signed after being released by Gillingham but injury forced his retiral after just four appearances. Former Macclesfield Town midfielder Ross Draper joined ICT on a one year contract and Dublin-born Conor Pepper came from St Patrick’s Athletic. Former Crewe Alexandra striker Jason Oswell signed on but left in January 2013 after just two league appearances. With Jonny Tuffey’s departure there was a need for a goalkeeper to challenge Ryan Esson and this gap was filled by Spaniard Antonio Reguero – he started his career at Real Madrid before spending time at five other Spanish clubs. Andre Blackman was sent out on loan from Celtic to Inverness to gain experience but after two appearances he returned to the Glasgow club. Former Arsenal defender George Brislen-Hall signed a short-term deal but could only manage four unused substitute appearances. Teenage striker Philip Roberts came from Arsenal initially on a six month loan deal but he stayed for the whole season. Portuguese born Andre Martins reached Inverness via England, Belgium, Bulgaria, South America and Scandinavia but failed to make any impact – he made just one unused substitute appearance.
Through the season youngsters Kyle Whyte, Matthew Cooper, Ryan Christie and Calum Ferguson were introduced to the first team squad – with young Christie, son of club legend Charlie Christie, becoming the 200th squad player.
Following pre-season training, preparations for the new season began with a series of friendly matches around the north of Scotland and Angus including a testimonial at Buckie for long serving Jags player Jamie Ewan. July’s highlight was the visit to Inverness of Coventry City – newly relegated from the Premiership. It was a good test for Terry Butcher’s revamped side and resulted in well-deserved 3-1 win.
The first target in any league season is to avoid relegation. When that spectre recedes you can look upwards. The demise of Rangers led to an accelerated promotion to the SPL for Dundee but their economics and organisation were not ready. Very quickly they became anchored at the foot of the SPL and this enabled other clubs to look upwards with some confidence. For Caley Thistle league safety was never in doubt and it was just a question of whether a top six could be achieved for the first time – the word ‘Europe’ was rarely mentioned until a series of good results led to a league climb and a top three finish suddenly seemed possible.
The league season started on 4 August with a 2-2 away draw with St Mirren followed by a 1-1 home draw with Kilmarnock, 2-2 away to Hearts then a 4-2 home defeat to Celtic. At the end of August ICT were in tenth place in the SPL. August also saw the start of an excellent League Cup campaign with a 2-0 victory at Arbroath. September was very mixed with a 4-1 drubbing away to Motherwell followed by a 1-1 draw at home to Aberdeen and 2-2 away to Hibs. Such are the vagaries of football that September ended with a comprehensive 4-0 win at home to Dundee United and a jump from eleventh to seventh. Stenhousemuir proved a difficult destination in the third round of the League Cup but ICT won 6-5 on penalties after extra time.
Friday 5 October was a red letter day in the Highlands with the first meeting of ICT and Ross County in the SPL – it took place in Inverness and a crowd of 6766 saw the home side win 3-1. A 4-1 away win at Dundee and 1-1 at home to St Johnstone meant that ICT finished October in fifth spot. The last day of October was a strange day – a League Cup quarter final tie against Third Division Rangers at Ibrox. ICT ran out easy 3-0 winners.
The league campaign was now well into its stride and things were definitely looking up. Three wins and a draw in November ensured a climb to second and this was the start of the top six and Europe challenge. Kilmarnock were beaten 2-1 away, it was 1-1 at home to Hearts, and 3-2 away to Aberdeen. The league highlight in November was a 1-0 win away to Celtic – Billy McKay’s 64th minute goal was the difference and ensured a first league win at Celtic Park. The only downside in November was a 5-1 defeat at home to Motherwell.
Two wins and three draws in December meant that the year was completed in second spot. It was 3-0 at home to Hibs, a remarkable 4-4 away draw with Dundee United (including a Billy McKay hat-trick) then 4-1 at home to Dundee. The year ended with a Boxing Day 2-2 draw at home to St Mirren then a goalless draw with St Johnstone in Perth. December’s highlight was the Scottish Cup fourth round clash with Ross County. The original match took place in Dingwall on 1 December and it looked like a County win when they took a 3-2 lead in added time – the Staggies were staggered when Richie Foran made it 3-3 in the dying seconds. The replay in Inverness on 11 December was in contrast a rather tame affair with ICT running out 2-1 winners.
Going into 2013 confidence was high and a top six finish was in sight – only a major slump would prevent that. There were only two league games in January – a 3-0 home win against Aberdeen and a surprise 2-1 defeat to St Mirren in Paisley – and second place was maintained. The big event took place on 26 January with the League Cup semi final at Easter Road against Hearts. The 3000 ICT fans were dwarfed by four times that number of Hearts fans – it was almost a home match for them. Caley Thistle took the lead through Andrew Shinnie in 49 minutes but Hearts equalised and it was on to extra time then dreaded penalties. Nine penalties were converted before ICT’s Philip Roberts sent the ball over the bar and Hearts took the tie. There was further cup disappointment on 2 February at Kilmarnock in the fifth round of the Scottish Cup with a 2-0 defeat.
Early January was dominated by the possibility of Terry Butcher leaving for Barnsley. He was given permission by the club to speak to Barnsley but in the end he rejected the chance in favour of staying in Inverness – to the relief of everyone at the club and the fans. As the season drew to a close he was linked with the managerial vacancy at Doncaster but this came to nothing. On the playing side the January transfer window saw the arrival of Belfast born Danny Devine from Fleetwood Town and loan deals brought Charlie Taylor from Leeds United and Jordan Gibbons from QPR.
With all cup interest now removed it was back to the league. There were mixed fortunes in February starting with a 3-1 defeat to Celtic at home then a 1-1 home draw with Kilmarnock. By the time Caley Thistle played Motherwell on 16 February it was clear that the Steelmen were the main opponents for second spot although Ross County were by no means out of it. For the third time this season Motherwell took the points in a high scoring match – they won 3-0. This pushed Motherwell into second place but ICT regained it the next week with a 3-2 win away to Hearts. February ended with a 0-0 draw at home to Dundee United on 27 February and this enabled Motherwell to climb back to second and they were to stay there through to the end of the season.
On 2 March all eyes turned to Dingwall and a local derby. At this point Motherwell were second on 43 points, ICT were third on 42 and Ross County shared fourth spot with St Johnstone on 41 – but Saints had played one game more. Thus if County won the derby they would leapfrog into third place. Despite the pre match hype it ended 0-0 and the league placings remained unchanged. A week later Caley Thistle could only draw 1-1 with bottom club Dundee while County came back from 2-0 down to beat Celtic 3-2 in Dingwall and climb to third place. This only lasted a week as the next local derby in Inverness ended 2-1 to ICT. Caley Thistle regained third place and would hold that until the final day of the season. With Motherwell secure in second place and one Europa League place dependent on the Scottish Cup destination it was clear that third place would mean European football. One more win in March (2-1 away to Hibs) kept everything on track but things began to get very tight in April.
Rivals for third place remained Ross County and a resurgent St Johnstone. There were only three league matches in April but all were significant. Two matches against St Johnstone ended in a 0-0 draw at home and a 1-0 away defeat. Defeat away to Celtic on 21 April was not unexpected – three points would give Celtic the league title and they duly obliged their fans with an emphatic 4-1 victory. The St Johnstone defeat was especially hard to take as ICT had to play 78 minutes minus red-carded David Raven. Two exciting Scottish Cup semi finals produced a final between Celtic and Hibs which meant that Hibs would be in the Europa League no matter the result of the cup final. Thus at the end of April Celtic were champions, Motherwell were secure in second place on 57 points, ICT were on 51, St Johnstone on 50, Ross County on 49 and Dundee United off the pace on 44.
There were just three league matches left and when ICT beat Motherwell 4-3 at home on 4 May all looked good. This was an incredible match. ICT were 3-0 up but Motherwell stormed back to 3-3 before Billy McKay completed his second hat trick of the season to make it 4-3. These two clubs shared 21 goals over four league encounters but this was the first time ICT had taken anything from the games. The final home match of the season on 11 May saw Dundee United as the visitors. In the early kick-off Celtic had hammered St Johnstone so a win would see Caley Thistle in Europe. It did not happen. United came from behind very late in the game to win 2-1 and take the Europe decider to the last day of the season. Ross County dropped out of the race 24 hours later when they lost 2-0 to Motherwell.
It was all down to the final day of the season on Sunday 19 May. Caley Thistle were up against local rivals Ross County in Dingwall and confidence was high. St Johnstone were at home to Motherwell and had not beaten them all season. It all went wrong when County won 1-0 and Saints beat Motherwell 2-0. Thus the Perth side took third place, and a Europa League spot, by two points and Caley Thistle had to be content with a top six finish. Thus the dream of a European adventure was gone but everyone at the club could reflect on a fantastic season.
The club was well represented at international level throughout the season. On 14 November Andrew Shinnie became the club’s first Scottish international player when he played in the 2-1 win away to Luxembourg – other Scottish internationalists have been with the club but have never been picked while in Inverness. Billy McKay made his full Northern Ireland debut on 6 February in the 0-0 draw away to Malta. Aaron Doran played twice for the Republic of Ireland under 21 side in the UEFA under 21 championship – on 6 September he played in the 2-1 away victory against Hungary then again away to Italy four days later. The Irish side beat Italy 4-2 and Doran scored twice.
Andrew Shinnie was on the PFA Player of the Year shortlist and was named in the PFA SPL Team of the Year. Clydesdale Bank Premier League awards were Manager of the Month November 2012 – Terry Butcher; Player of the Month November 2012 – Billy McKay; Young Player of the Month November 2012 – Aaron Doran; Young Player of the Month March 2013 – Josh Meekings. Billy McKay ended the season as the club’s top goalscorer on 27 strikes including 23 in the SPL – second only to Motherwell’s Michael Higdon on 26 but McKay had to share second place with Leigh Griffiths of Hibs.
Three players played in all 45 matches – Aaron Doran started all matches, Andrew Shinnie’s total of 45 included one league substitute appearance and similarly Billy McKay’s total included five league substitute appearances.
A thread that ran through the season was the possibility of an overhaul of the football structure in Scotland and league reconstruction. This subject is an ever-present undercurrent in Scottish football but this year there seemed to be a groundswell of support for action. The disparity in the finances between the SPL and the rest of the league has always been a major grievance and many have long felt that the three-organisation structure in a small country was incongruous. Crunch day for league reconstruction came on 15 April with a meeting of SPL chairmen at Hampden. After seemingly endless discussions the plan now being proposed was a new league structure of 12/12/18 with the top two divisions splitting mid season into three divisions of eight. There would also be a pyramid structure, play-offs, a redistribution of cash and a merger of the league bodies into one structure. There was division amongst supporters and within clubs but it went forward to the SPL meeting needing an 11-1 vote in favour to succeed. After that it was to go to a meeting of SFL clubs for final approval. St Mirren’s Stewart Gilmour expressed his intention to vote against it in advance and Ross County’s Roy MacGregor’s position was still open. In the event the Ross County vote was against the proposals with their chairman stating that he had listened to his club’s supporters. It was back to the drawing board but any new proposals were not likely to see the light of day in the near future.
With many players out of contract it was set to be a summer of persuading players to sign new contracts and to bring in new faces.