Copyright Ian Broadfoot
IRN-BRU CUP SUCCESS 2017-18
A new league, a returning manager, a squad overhaul and two new chairmen in quick succession – quite a start to 2017-18. A fantastic 11 league match unbeaten run up to the end of the season took ICT well clear of any relegation worries and very very close to a promotion play-off spot. Amidst that run the Irn-Bru Cup (Challenge Cup) was won by beating Dumbarton 1-0 at McDiarmid Park, Perth thanks to a Carl Tremarco late goal.
The Championship is notoriously hard. In this ten team division the top side is promoted and the bottom side relegated. Teams 2, 3 and 4 enter the promotion play-offs and team 9 has to endure a relegation play-off. Thus only teams 5 to 8 avoid either scenario. The end result is that it is hard to be optimistic as you have to look down as well as up. This was the position that ICT found itself in for most of the season but the late surge eased any worries. Brechin were anchored at the foot all season with no wins so it was only the relegation play-off spot that was at issue. Dumbarton finished ninth and were relegated after losing a two-leg play-off to Alloa Athletic. Livingston were promoted after beating Partick Thistle in a two-leg play-off. Thus of the ten teams that started the season in the Championship just six will still be there in 2018/19.
As last season the most important order of business for the board was the appointment of a new manager and the media came up with the usual suspects including Paul Sheerin, Maurice Malpas and Gus MacPherson. The club sought permission from Aberdeen to speak to under 20 coach Sheerin and talks were held with the former ICT star. In the end former manager John Robertson was appointed – much to the surprise of many including himself. He did not seem to be on the radar but in the end the board wanted a manager with top level experience and a proven record. Robertson was unveiled at a press conference on 14 June. Football continuity was achieved with the retention of assistant manager Brian Rice and first team coach Scott Kellacher.
A major overhaul of the playing squad was inevitable and it started before the new manager had been appointed. On 1 June the Board intimated that at least eleven players were leaving and negotiations were taking place with others. Players’ contracts ended and loan players went back to their parent clubs. Some were departing for new opportunities and some were not being offered new deals. As the dust began to settle, and the new manager took up the post, the departure list grew longer and new players began to arrive.
Greg Tansey had already signed a pre-contract agreement to go to Aberdeen so he moved east, Alex Fisher rejected a new contract and left for Motherwell, Kevin McNaughton elected to retire after a contract offer was withdrawn, Louis Laing left in similar circumstances and signed for Hartlepool United, Scott Boden joined Wrexham, Jason Brown went to Peterhead, Henri Anier moved to Finland with Lahti, Josh Meekings signed for Dundee and Dean Ebbe joined Welsh side New Saints. Four loan players returned to their parent clubs – Billy Mckay to Wigan (then signed for Ross County), Billy King to Hearts (then joined Dundee United), Larnell Cole to Fulham (then to Tranmere Rovers) and Jamie McCart to Celtic (then to Alloa on loan).
John Robertson’s first signing in late June was John Baird from Falkirk then there was a flood in July. From 3 to 7 July six players arrived – George Oakley came from AFC Wimbledon, former Ross County goalkeeper Mark Ridgers arrived from Partick Thistle (via a number of clubs including Hearts and St Mirren), Dutch defender Collin Seedorf came from RKC Waalwijk, Matthew Elsdon arrived on loan from Middlesborough and Ricky Calder signed from Aston Villa. The sixth newcomer from this period was Zak Elbouzedi a Dublin-born forward of Libyan descent who was last on the books of West Bromwich Albion. Before July was over four more players were added to the squad. Dutch born Felitciano Zschusschen formerly with FC Saarbrucken (Germany), signed on – in 2015 his heritage qualified him to start an international career with Curacao, the 2010 successor country to the Netherland Antilles. Joe Chalmers came from Motherwell, Alex Cooper (son of Neale Cooper – ex Aberdeen and former Ross County manager) arrived from Cheltenham Town and former Servette FC (Switzerland) forward Connor Bell joined in time to make his debut in the Betfred Cup against Forfar. The influx continued in mid August with the arrival of Canadian international Charlie Trafford via Finland and ex Dundee United defender Coll Donaldson. Both joined the squad for the league match against Morton with Trafford starting.
In the last few days of July four players went out on loan – Aidan Wilson and Ally Stark to Wick Academy, Daniel Hoban to Brora Rangers and Stephen Foster to Nairn County. An inevitable consequence of relegation was the scrapping of the under 20 Development squad and thus the departure of former player and assistant manager Duncan Shearer. He left with the grateful thanks of the Board for his contribution to the club over many years. Some of the under 20 players were retained on the club’s books but most departed.
The July arrivals detailed above were part of a larger group that played as trialists in a series of pre-season friendlies. These matches also gave game time to the players that remained following the depletion of the squad at the end of 2016/17. The scale of the trial operation can be seen from the starting line-up in a Nairn friendly which included a remarkable eight trialists with a further three on the bench. There were five pre-season friendlies scheduled for the first two weeks in July but the fifth, away to Clach, was postponed from the 10th to the 24th and was thus sandwiched between the Falkirk and Forfar matches. All were played away with a 1-0 win against Forres Mechanics, a 2-0 loss to Elgin City and 4-1 wins against Brora Rangers, Nairn County and Clach.
The Betfred Cup (League Cup) draw placed top-seeded ICT in northern group A with Falkirk, Stirling Albion, Brechin City & Forfar Athletic. The format was the same as in 2016/17. The competition started on July 15 with a group match at home to Brechin City and this marked John Robertson’s second managerial debut with ICT. Four new signings were in the starting eleven and two more made substitute appearances in the emphatic 3-0 win. Gary Warren scored two and George Oakley added the third. Three days later the Betfred Cup group stage continued with a visit to Forthbank Stadium to play League Two side Stirling Albion. It was a very strange match. ICT were on top for most of the 90 minutes but the Stirling players fought hard and took great credit from the game. The lack of goals continued into the penalty shoot-out with only two converted out of eight. Liam Polworth and Iain Vigurs netted their kicks and ICT took the bonus point 2-0. The SPFL confirmed that this was the lowest scoring shoot-out in Scottish football history. New signing Felitciano Zschusschen came on early in the second half and he started the following Saturday in the home match against Falkirk. He was on the losing side as Falkirk won 2-0 to go top of the group. New signing Alex Cooper made his debut from the bench.
With one group match left ICT needed to beat Forfar the following Saturday to achieve the runner up spot and a chance of progress into the knock-out stages. They did win 2-1 but it was not enough to gain one of the ‘best runners up’ spots. It was a lively match on Forfar’s 3G artificial pitch and all the goals came in a seven minute spell early in the second half. Connor Bell signed before the match and made his debut off the bench.
On 4 August former player and coach Danny MacDonald was appointed to the newly created post of Chief Operating Officer with responsibility for the day-to-day running of the club. 24 hours later the opening match of the Championship season kicked-off in Inverness. The visitors were Dundee United and, as anticipated, it was a difficult start to the season. It ended 1-0 to the visitors with just one penalty goal separating the sides. There was further disappointment a few days later when Ross Draper was transferred to Ross County for an undisclosed six figure fee. The big midfielder was always a fans’ favourite and has been an integral part of the team for the last five years.
Hopes of a better result in the second league match, away to Dunfermline the following Saturday, were ended when the home side won convincingly 5-1. Captain for the day Iain Vigurs pulled a goal back at 2-0 but it was merely a consolation. 1-1 at home to Greenock Morton on 19 August was an improvement with one point on the board after three league games.
Off the field August was an eventful month. Chairman Willie Finlayson stood down from his post for personal reasons although the board members knew his chairmanship was an interim one. Graham Rae took over the post. In a separate development it was announced that Highland Hospice had sold their 19% shareholding in the club – a gift from last year – to former chairmen Alan Savage and Dougie McGilvray along with Iain McGilvray.
The final game in August was a trip to Brechin on the 26th – the first competitive visit to Glebe Park since 2004. It was a hard first period on a tight pitch – with three balls finishing up in the famous hedge – but captain-for-the-day Iain Vigurs scored in 27 minutes and five minutes later Brad Mckay headed a second. It was clear that Caley Thistle’s new signings were beginning to knit together and in the second half Alex Cooper added a third and Vigurs a fourth. The valuable three points pushed ICT up to seventh.
It was not entirely a positive afternoon at Brechin as a small group of ICT supporters caused trouble in the away stand and six ‘fans’ were evicted. A smoke canister was thrown onto the track and police were involved along with home stewards. A D&E supporters’ bus was damaged on the way back to Inverness and a number of real fans contacted the club to express their dismay at the conduct of this small minority. An SPFL official was at the game and the club received an official notice of ‘Unacceptable Conduct’. Chairman Graham Rae issued a statement on the club’s website condemning this small band of troublemakers and giving an assurance that the culprits would be identified and action taken. In a statement issued on 7 September the Board reiterated the club’s policy on unacceptable conduct and confirmed that banning orders (home and away for the remainder of 2017/18) had been imposed on a number of those involved in the trouble at Brechin. It was also stated that, in addition to the damage to the supporters’ bus, an invoice had been received from Brechin City for damage to Glebe Park.
The Irn-Bru Cup second round produced an interesting away tie against Paul Sheerin’s Aberdeen under 20 side. They play home games at Glebe Park and so there was another Brechin trip on 2 September. It was by no means an easy match but it ended 4-2 with goals from Ricky Calder, Liam Polworth, David Raven and Carl Tremarco on his return from injury. It was back to the league a week later and a visit to Paisley. In a high scoring match St Mirren won 4-2. At 2-2 it could have gone either way but the Paisley Saints scored a decisive final two goals and moved to the top of the league. It was no better a week later when Livingston came to Inverness and won 3-1. Life in the Championship was proving to be hard.
September’s league programme continued on the 23rd with a first visit to Dumbarton’s ground in the shadow of Dumbarton Rock. Sponsorship has renamed it YOUR Radio-103FM Stadium but it is usually known as ‘The Rock’. Dumbarton moved here from Boghead in 2000 and this is the first away match (and the first in the league) against the home side. ICT did visit Boghead in 1997 and 1998 when Clydebank were ground sharing and Dumbarton have visited Inverness twice on cup duty. Thus this encounter was a first in several ways. None of this proved to be helpful on the park as the home side won 2-1. The final game in September was a league match at home to Queen of the South. There was little to write home about as it ended 0-0. At least it was a clean sheet. ICT ended September in a lowly ninth spot.
While an international break gave Premiership teams a breather ICT continued the quest for the Challenge Cup at home to Peterhead. A convincing performance and a 3-0 win took Caley Thistle into the last eight. The final goal came from substitute Dan MacKay. He came on at 90 minutes plus one and scored in 90 plus two. At 16 years 171 days he took over from Liam Polworth as the youngest club player – and, of course, as the youngest scorer.
The league programme restarted on 14 October away to Falkirk. Despite numerous chances ICT failed to make a breakthrough and it ended 0-0. Most observers were amazed that ICT did not win but, on the plus side, it was the third clean sheet in a row. It was rather better a week later away to Dundee United. Iain Vigurs and Connor Bell scored to set up a well deserved and very welcome 2-0 win. The fourth consecutive clean sheet was a bonus but the important prize was three points and a minor rise to eighth in the table. This proved to be Ray McKinnon’s final game in charge of United – two defeats in a row were enough to lead to his sacking in the ruthless world of management. The ICT revival continued on 28 October with a 1-0 home win against Dunfermline. Connor Bell scored the vital goal – it was a narrow win but the margin could easily have been greater. This completed October’s programme with a small but satisfying climb to seventh spot.
On 1 November Jim Oliver was appointed commercial manager – Jim’s Inverness football background as a player and manager should prove a major asset to the club. November’s football started on the fourth with yet another clean sheet – 0-0 away to Livingston. This was John Robertson’s 100th match in charge over two spells and it was a good result against a team lying second top at the start of play. On 8 November ICT played Ross County in Dingwall – a friendly match in aid of Maggie’s Highlands. County won 3-2 but the charity was the real winner. The next day it was announced that October’s efforts had earned two awards. John Robertson was named Championship Manager of the Month and Carl Tremarco was given the equivalent players’ award. 9 November was also a red letter day for former ICT star Ryan Christie who won his first full Scotland cap at Pittodrie in a friendly against the Netherlands.
The quarter final of the Irn-Bru Cup took place on Saturday 11 November with the visit of Falkirk. The tie was chosen for live BBC Alba coverage with a 5.15 pm kick-off time. It was a hard fought encounter which ICT won 1-0 thanks to a 57th goal from Connor Bell. The five added minutes were frantic at both ends with Caley Thistle close to extending their lead and Falkirk testing Mark Ridgers more often than in the previous 90 minutes. Another clean sheet and a place in the semi final. This created a record 7 clean sheets and a total of 657 minutes since losing the second goal at Dumbarton on 23 September. The previous record was 617 minutes set in 2014 and media publicity made this fact known to the squad and management in advance of the Falkirk match. Traditionally the Club Historian has never disclosed potential records lest fate be tempted. On this occasion all was well and the record was broken.
In a major boost to the squad Aaron Doran returned from a long injury absence to play in Wednesday’s charity match and against Falkirk he came on as a substitute – his first senior appearance since 18 February.
Following the Falkirk victory John Robertson reflected on the attitude and work ethic of his squad: “They’re going out there and playing for the name on the front of the jersey, rather than the name on the back.”
Two more home league games were scheduled for November – Brechin on the 21st and St Mirren on the 25th. In the event a waterlogged pitch led to the Brechin match being postponed by one week so next up was St Mirren. It was a proverbial bad day at the office as the visitors won 2-0. The home camp fumed at the referee’s decisions including two yellow cards for Iain Vigurs and a disputed penalty. The opening goal came from a 52nd minute penalty so the clean sheet record was broken after a total of 708 minutes. A fine achievement but the loss to St Mirren was hard to take. The Brechin match went ahead on the 25th but only after an afternoon pitch inspection. The 4-0 victory against the league’s bottom club was an excellent reaction to the St Mirren loss and it meant November‘s programme was completed in seventh spot.
December started with an away fixture to Queen of the South on the 2nd. A trip to Dumfries is always a long one and usually results in a late night home after the match. This time travel to Dumfries proved to be a major problem and one which led to controversy around the country. The ICT squad left Inverness at 1pm on 1 December with an overnight stay planned before the match. Progress was halted at Blair Atholl as a result of a major road accident – cars and light vehicles were able to turn and divert but lorries and buses were stacked for eight hours. It was after 11pm before the road was opened and 3am before Dumfries was reached. While in the queue a request was made to the SPFL for a postponement because it was clear that the delay was going to be long. SPFL secretary Iain Blair refused and the ICT party had to make the best of it. The match went ahead and ended 0-0 but the row will linger on for a long time. Roddy Mackenzie of ‘The Times’ declared that ICT’s 0-0 draw was a ‘standout performance’ in the circumstances. The incident should be a warning to the rest of Scottish Football as it could happen to any team anywhere. Indeed on the Saturday four St Johnstone players were stuck in a similar queue travelling northbound at Dunblane – the delay was of much shorter duration but it still ensured that they missed their club’s match against Kilmarnock.
The two home matches in late November took a heavy toll on the Inverness pitch and this, combined with the first real snow of the winter, led to the postponement of the Falkirk match due on 9 December. It was re-scheduled for Tuesday 12 December but a waterlogged pitch led to a second postponement. The following Saturday the home match against Dumbarton went ahead despite Scotland continuing to be in the grip of a deep freeze. In the SPFL six matches were postponed and a seventh was abandoned. The Inverness pitch was playable after snow clearance, the use of undersoil heating and hard work by ground staff to clear wet patches. It was not in vain as ICT won 1-0 to leapfrog Dumbarton into seventh spot. Carl Tremarco scored the all important goal.
There were two away games left in 2017. The first on 23 December involved a long trip to play Greenock Morton and it ended in a disappointing 1-0 defeat. The match turned in 22 minutes when David Raven saw red for a tug on Bob Thomson in the box and Gary Harkins netted the resultant penalty. The ten men held it at 1-0 mainly thanks to great saves by Mark Ridgers. The final game of 2017 on 30 December was away to Brechin City. Both earlier meetings in the league had finished 4-0 but this was rather different. By half time Brechin were 2-1 up and John Robertson could not believe that his side were behind. He sent on George Oakley to add to the strike force and he equalised in 65 minutes. Two minutes later Carl Tremarco received a second yellow card and Gary Warren came on to shore up the defence (and make his 200th appearance). With 12 minutes left Oakley scored his second to secure the points. Defender Brad Mckay summed up the afternoon in a tweet: ‘Mad game today! Got there in the end, massive three points! Great to end the year on a high.’ ICT ended the calendar year in seventh place and just three points short of a play-off spot.
2018 started with a frustrating home match against Livingston on 2 January. It should have been a good day as ICT dominated but it did not work out that way. Aaron Doran celebrated his first start of the season (and indeed for almost a year) with an opening goal in just six minutes. Just before the break Iain Vigurs received a second yellow card and ICT had to play the whole second half with ten men – the third match in a row where a man was lost to a red card. The eleven men equalised with eight minutes left and ICT only took a point. New signing Nathan Austin made his debut from the bench.
Fans’ favourite David Raven came on as a substitute in the 58th minute against Livingston for what was his last home match for the club and he made a final start against St Mirren. Raven was sad to leave: ‘Totally humbled by the support I received at my last home game for ICTFC, and thanks for all the messages, they mean a lot. I’ve loved representing the club and will one day be back as a fan to support the lads.’ Chairman Graham Rae paid tribute to Raven after his 188th and last appearance: ‘He has been a truly outstanding servant and we wish him every success wherever his future career takes him.’ The January transfer window also saw the departure of Alex Cooper to Fresno (California) and Owain Fon Williams moving on loan to Indy Eleven (Indianapolis). Matt Elsdon returned to parent club Middlesborough and, at the end of January, Felitciano Zschusschen’s contract was ended by mutual consent.
The visit to Paisley on 6 January ended with a narrow 1-0 defeat. Liam Polworth looked to have earned a draw when his cross came off the post and was clawed back by ‘keeper Craig Samson. The ICT players were convinced it had crossed the line but assistant referee Sean Carr later told John Robertson that he just did not know. Robertson praised the assistant: ‘We don’t want them to guess and he hasn’t guessed. He just said he didn’t know and that’s the correct decision.’
The home league match against Falkirk went ahead on 9 January after two December postponements and ICT won convincingly 4-1. By the half hour mark it was 3-0 through George Oakley, Connor Bell and Jake Mulraney but it was more even in the second half. Four minutes from time Falkirk pulled one back then within two minutes John Baird added a fourth. Gary Naysmith’s Queen of the South came to Inverness the following Saturday to complete a busy period of five games in 15 days. It was another fine win with an early goal from Iain Vigurs, a first for Joe Chalmers and one from Aaron Doran. With the game won and legs tiring Queens scored four minutes from time but 3-1 was enough to see a climb from seventh to sixth and just three points off a potential play-off spot. There is a long way to go but things are definitely looking up.
The club’s entry into the Scottish Cup at round four threw up the chance to test the revitalised side against Premiership Dundee. Thus on 20 January it was down to Dundee with a Scotland-wide freeze causing havoc with travel and fixtures. This match was not in any doubt and it was a great day out for the 347 ICT fans. Aaron Doran’s 15th minute goal gave Caley Thistle the lead amidst dominance by the visitors. Chances were missed at both ends and Dundee equalised straight after the break with a deflected shot that gave Mark Ridgers no chance. Mark O’Hara gave Dundee the lead in 65 minutes after a run from the half-way line. It stayed that way until two minutes from time when George Oakley touched the ball home after a strong run and cross from Ricky Calder. All agreed that a draw was about right.
It all went wrong at Falkirk a week after the Dundee cup tie. Suspensions, injuries and sickness conspired to reduce John Robertson’s options and teenagers took three of the six bench spots. Caley Thistle more than matched Falkirk in the first half but, as the break loomed large, two yellow cards in quick succession saw Jake Mulraney dismissed and left his manager fuming at him. Discipline was proving a major issue with eight red cards this season. Before the ten men had settled into a revised formation the 0-0 half time score quickly changed with a converted penalty after 48 minutes and another in 66 minutes. Teenage substitutes Dan MacKay and Jack Brown combined to set up MacKay pulling one back six minutes from time but it was not enough. Falkirk scored a third late on and it ended 3-1. The January league campaign ended in seventh spot.
That left one more January match – the cup replay against Dundee on Tuesday 30th. On a wild, wet, windy evening Dundee took the tie 1-0. A noon inspection declared the pitch playable but it was rather damp and with little bounce. It was a difficult match for everyone (including rather wet supporters) and Caley Thistle did play some good passing football. There was no cutting edge and Dundee’s Scott Allan took his chance just after half time. Mark Ridgers kept the score down with several excellent saves but the strike force of Oakley and Bell, augmented by substitutes Baird and Dan MacKay, could not find an equaliser. As the old saying goes ICT can now concentrate on the league – apart from the no small matter of a Challenge Cup semi final.
February should have started with a home league game against Dundee United on the 3rd but a waterlogged pitch caused a cancellation. The pitch had taken heavy toll with the cup tie and rain added to it. Thus the first game in February was the semi final of the Challenge Cup on Sunday 18th live on BBC Alba – three months after the previous round. It was a strange match all round with the opponents Crusaders from the Northern Irish Premiership. ICT were 3-0 up at half time and seemingly cruising but it was a proverbial game of two halves. Crusaders pulled one back through Paul Heatley then Brad Mackay received two yellow cards in quick succession. Crusaders were a man up for 27 minutes, Heatley scored a second 11 minutes from time and it could easily have been 3-3 then extra time. There were three added minutes but this stretched to six when Liam Polworth was brought down in the box by Declan Caddell. He was booked, argued then red carded. Iain Vigurs took the penalty hit it wide and the whistle went at 90+6. For the fourth time ICT have reached the Challenge Cup final – this time to face Dumbarton who beat Welsh side The New Saints. Thus the SFA were spared the embarrassment of a Wales/Northern Ireland final.
February finished with a 2-0 home defeat to Greenock Morton on the 24th. There was an early pitch inspection to avoid unnecessary travel but the match went ahead. It was hard in places which made skilful play difficult. It was all very close for long periods and three times ICT hit the woodwork. At 1-0 Scott Tiffoney went down rather too easily in the box, a penalty was awarded and Gary Harkins made it 2-0. February ended in seventh place. ICT should have completed February away to Dumbarton on the 27th but the snowstorm ‘The Beast from the East’ brought the UK to a standstill and the football calendar was badly disrupted. It was a similar story on Saturday 3 March when Brechin’s visit to Inverness was cancelled. Inverness was relatively unscathed by the snow but road travel was very hazardous and safety quite sensibly took priority. Similarly ICT’s away match at Dunfermline on 6 March fell victim to the weather. Next up was an away match at Livingston on the 13th but a frozen pitch caused yet another cancellation and the backlog just got worse.
The weather was playing havoc around the country but finally the away match at Dunfermline took place on the 13th March. Ricky Calder was injured in the warm-up and young Cameron Harper stepped into the left back role. His match only lasted five minutes as he went off injured to be replaced by Brad Mckay. The Pars won 1-0 and only a tremendous save by Mark Ridgers from Kallum Higginbotham prevented further damage. It was much better the following Saturday at Tannadice. An excellent performance but the 1-0 lead given by Iain Vigurs on the half hour mark was cancelled out by Dundee United’s Thomas Mikkelsen on 64 minutes. It ended 1-1 and a valuable point was gained, but it could easily have been three..
Saturday 24 March was Challenge Cup Final day in Perth. The crowd was 4602 and they created a party atmosphere for the BBC Alba cameras. The 4.15 kick-off time was dictated by Alba’s broadcast timetable but it made no real difference to the event. ICT unveiled new mascot Lionel Nessie and young Arran Macdonald proudly led out the ICT team alongside Gary Warren. John Robertson’s side started rather nervously against a well organised and motivated Dumbarton and through the first half neither goalkeeper was really troubled. ICT looked much more lively after the break and created a number of good chances while Dumbarton held firm until the latter stages. With seven minutes left a hand ball in the penalty area resulted in an ICT penalty but the effort by Iain Vigurs was saved and the chance was lost. With extra time looming it was time for a hero or two to emerge. Substitute Dan MacKay had scored for Scotland schoolboys against England the evening before and now he became the creator of the winning goal. A Joe Chalmers pass set him off down the right and he sent a dangerous ball across the six yard area – Carl Tremarco ran onto it at the back post and hit it high into the net for the match winner. Captain Gary Warren had missed two cup finals through suspension so it was a particularly proud moment for him as he stepped up to receive the cup in the same week that he became a father. After that it was party time.
The priority now was to catch up on the many postponed matches with two matches a week for the final five weeks of the season. Brechin City had been bottom all season and were officially relegated on the 24th but there were still play-off places to be filled. The draw at Tannadice and the cup victory marked the start of an unbeaten purple patch which took ICT to within a whisker of a promotion play-off spot.
The final ten league matches started with two at home to complete March – Dundee United on the 27th and promotion certainties St Mirren on the 31st. A fine performance against Dundee United produced a 1-0 win thanks to an Aaron Doran goal. The St Mirren match was expected to be very hard and it started that way. Losing a penalty goal after just four minutes was a major blow and it looked even worse when Saints were awarded another penalty just before half time. Man of the Match Mark Ridgers saved the kick to add to his many great saves during the match. It stayed 1-0 until 70 minutes when Saints scored again. ICT fought back and scored two late goals to take an unexpected point.
The next day it was announced that, in view of the success and popularity of the new mascot Lionel Nessie, the club was to be renamed ‘Loch Ness Monsters FC’ and the stadium ‘Nessie Football Arena’. An excellent tribute to a new icon. The fact that this was announced on the morning of 1 April led to suspicion that this was an April Fool – but perhaps not.
The league catch up continued on Tuesday 3 April with a convincing 4-0 home win against relegated Brechin City. This opened up an 11 point gap between ICT and ninth placed Dumbarton. With a faint hope of making the play-offs ICT could look up and not down. The excellent run continued at Dumfries the following Saturday with a 2-0 win including Nathan Austin’s first goal for the club. Queens were now sixth and still with play-off aspirations but ICT lay seventh just two points behind and with three games in hand. The fine run continued the following Tuesday with a 1-0 home win against Falkirk. Jake Mulraney scored the vital goal eight minutes from time and with it removed any lingering relegation play-off worries. ICT were now sixth and could safely look up to the promotion play-off positions. A hard ask but possible.
A flamboyant performance and a 5-1 win against Dumbarton at home on the 14th continued the tremendous run-in with the highlight being a hat-trick from Nathan Austin. Losing an early goal was a blow but an Aaron Doran cracker set things on the right track. Iain Vigurs scored the fifth and the outside chance of a promotion play-off spot was still alive. With Dumbarton confirmed in the relegation play-off spot they had nothing to play for when ICT headed to ‘The Rock’ – this postponed match was to go ahead on Tuesday 17 April but it was delayed by 24 hours because of a waterlogged pitch. The match was not as one sided as Saturday but an Iain Vigurs goal in 56 minutes was enough to take three points, move ICT up to fifth and continue the winning run. Dunfermline lay in fourth spot 5 points ahead of ICT – Saturday’s match at home to The Pars would prove crucial.
On 21 April Dunfermline brought a large number of noisy fans to Inverness and they were ecstatic when their team took an early lead. Joe Chalmers equalised direct from a free kick and it was 1-1 at half time. Early in the second half a solo goal from Nathan Austin gave ICT the lead and it stayed that way until a minute from the end of six minutes added time. Only the referee knows where six minutes came from but it was to prove disastrous. Nicky Clark made it 2-2 to all but guarantee The Pars would take the last promotion play-off spot. It was a cruel twist of fate that made a draw feel like a defeat. It is not all over but ICT’s chances hung by a thread. A 1-0 win at Livingston the following Tuesday kept the winning run going and ensured that the dream was kept alive until the final day of the season. Two months ago only a strong optimist would have predicted this position.
The chance of a promotion play-off place now rested on two matches – ICT away to Greenock Morton and Dunfermline at home to Dumbarton. ICT needed a win and they duly obliged 3-0 but hopes that Dumbarton would prevail were not realised as Dunfermline ran out 4-0 winners. They took the final promotion play-off spot and ICT went home disappointed.
ICT thus finished in fifth place – a remarkable achievement considering the difficult start to the season. Liam Polworth was top of the appearance charts with 46 out of 47 including one Scottish Cup sub. Brad Mckay and Joe Chalmers were one behind on 45. Top goalscorer was George Oakley with 12.
Jake Mulraney represented the Republic of Ireland at under 21 level and made three appearances (and one unused sub) in U21 Championship qualifiers. Youngsters Dan MacKay and Kieran Chalmers were capped for the Scotland Schoolboys team that played in the under 18 Centenary Shield – Dan played in four matches and Kieran in two (plus two unused subs).
The AGM on 18 December was another significant milestone in the history of the Club as Chairman Graham Rae set out the new Board’s plans for the future. Prior to the Chairman’s statement shareholders were given full details of the various land and stadium transactions at East Longman – the first time this information had been in the public domain in such detail.
The Chairman’s statement is of such importance that it merits being included in full:
“We are delighted to announce that the Board has reached agreement with Tulloch regarding their gift of December 2016 of the stadium and North and South stands. The Club’s accounts for 2016/17 reflect the removal of past and future rent, and that subject to verification from The Highland Council, Tulloch and ICTFC are aligned on the partial lease assignation of the stadium and stands land back to the Club.”
“This is a major milestone and facilitates our future operational integrity, underpins new investment and secures the Club in a full say in any potential development. For the record, and on behalf of my fellow Directors, I would like to thank George Fraser, Chief Executive of Tulloch, and the Tulloch Board of Directors for their support and commitment to ICTFC.”
“This helps the Club to go forward by securing a substantial part of the land lease and adding considerable value to our balance sheet. It also represents the end of an era of rental debt and provides an opportunity to begin again. This change augers well for the future financial success of our business, and the Board of ICTFC ask that all shareholders recognise this significant development.”
“Major objections without viable alternatives are not in the Club’s interest. ICTFC would love to have a direct lease for the adjacent land, but it’s not currently a realistic outcome, as the Club has not had the lease for the land since 2001.”
“The Board believes that it is critical to design and implement a well-chosen and innovative strategy that ensures the Club adopts a scalable and sustainable business model that is predicated on strict fiscal discipline and realistic levels of income and expenditure.”
“Working together, we commit to propose an alternative ICTFC corporate structure, legal basis and ownership framework for review and consideration by ICTFC shareholders in 2018. This re-structuring will help to ensure that the Club lives within its means and is managed with the full knowledge and cooperation of its shareholders. The new corporate structure envisages a new architecture as a Community Interest Company, balanced shareholder framework and voting rights, involvement of supporter’s trusts, business and property ownership, governance controls and community integration.”
“The objective is to provide a stable and viable future for ICTFC with no one person or institution controlling the Club. With this, we will restore the good name and rebuild the brand and reputation of ICTFC in the local community and within Scottish football. The transformation of ICTFC to being organised as a community club is estimated to take 1 to 2 years. In the mean-time and to ensure survival on a credible basis, the Club needs to increase income with continued budgetary restraint, as well as further substantial investment.”
“A successful football team promotes a sense of community and fosters a culture of pride wherever it exists. Moreover, a flourishing football club is good for the local economy as it generates employment and new business – direct and non-direct – as well as having a positive social and commercial impact relative to civic reputation, tourism, travel and retail activities in the Highlands. We have engaged an expert to undertake an economic impact assessment of ICTFC, and preliminary analysis estimates that our Club made a direct economic contribution to the local and regional economy of between £4.6 and £.5.1 million for the 2016/17 season.”