December 11, 2012 by mapperleystag1
In the past year, Scottish football has been overshadowed by the financial irregularities at Rangers and their demotion to the Scottish Third Division. Lately, attention has turned to Celtic’s outstanding achievement in qualifying for the Champions League Knockout Stage, beating Barcelona in the process. All this has concealed a story equally as remarkable: the rise of Inverness Caledonian Thistle, currently in second place in the Scottish Premier League.
Until now, Inverness and the Scottish Highlands has not been renowned as a footballing hotbed. Perhaps this is unsurprising, as Inverness is the most remote city in the United Kingdom, closer to the Faroe Islands than to London, with the nearest city, Aberdeen, over 100 miles away. Due to its location and the sparseness of the population, most would still associate the area with Gaelic sports and the Highland Games, not with football. From a non-sporting perspective, the nearby whisky distilleries, Loch Ness and the site of the Battle of Culloden give the region its unique and distinctive culture, one seemingly at odds with the excesses of football in the modern era. These factors make Inverness’ achievements to date all the more impressive.
Just eighteen years ago, Caledonian Thistle (renamed Inverness Caledonian Thistle in 1996) were formed following the merger of rivals Caledonian F.C. and Inverness Thistle, who both played in the Highland League. This new club was created in order to maximise the chances of Inverness gaining one of the two vacancies brought about by the restructuring of the Scottish Football League. Along with Highland rivals Ross County, based in nearby Dingwall, they were successful. Elected to the Third Division in 1994, it took Inverness just three years to win that league, and only a further two more to be promoted into the First Division for the 1999-2000 season. Four seasons later, Inverness celebrated promotion to the Scottish Premier League, beating St. Johnstone on the final day of the season 3-1, to clinch the championship.
After issues with the Caledonian Stadium being unfit for use for the SPL were resolved swiftly, with the club only having to play their home games at Pittodrie for half a season, Inverness competed in the top tier of Scottish football for four seasons, until relegation in May 2009. In that season, manager Craig Brewster was relieved of his duties after a run of seven consecutive defeats, replaced by former England international Terry Butcher, well known north and south of the border as an uncompromising defender and leader, with spells at Ipswich Town and Rangers most famously. Although Butcher was unable to prevent relegation, the improved form under his management crossed over into the following campaign, especially in the second half, when Inverness went on a 21-match unbeaten run to secure a quick return back to the top flight, overthrowing previous leaders Dundee, who had enjoyed a 15 point lead in January. Furthermore, Inverness incredibly remained unbeaten away from home for the whole of 2010, finishing in a record-equalling 7th place in the SPL on their return. As things stand now, Inverness have a realistic chance of qualifying for European football, occupying 2nd place in the SPL.
In this period, the city of Inverness has also developed into one of the most dynamic and rapidly growing places in the United Kingdom. Unlike the stereotypical depictions of Highland communities in films such as The Wicker Man and Local Hero, Inverness is a progressive, prosperous place, typified by a recent study ranking it 5th out of 189 British cities for its quality of life, the highest of any Scottish city. Moreover, the population of Inverness has increased by 14.1% since 2000, now home to a third of Highland inhabitants. The success of Inverness Caledonian Thistle has merely given the region further recognition and attention.
The story of Inverness Caledonian Thistle’s rise from the Highland League to the SPL is a remarkable one and, along with the growth of the city in general, has impacted positively on the region. However, whilst the article does not want to downplay the achievements of Inverness, the very fact that a club which has existed for less than two decades can go from Highland obscurity to potential European qualification is symptomatic of the weaknesses of Scottish football presently. As a nation, Scotland has not qualified for a major tournament since the 1998 World Cup in France and this does not look like changing in the near future. Additionally, the quality of players entering the SPL is inferior in comparison with previous years. Whereas in the past, high calibre players such as Paul Gascoigne and Butcher would choose to play in Scotland, nowadays the top Scottish sides are signing players from the Championship in England, not from the Premier League. With Inverness, this lack of real quality is magnified, as many of their English players have had careers predominantly in the bottom two tiers of the English Football League. Some, such as defender Gary Warren, who joined from Newport County this summer, have made the move from the English non-league pyramid. The position the club finds itself in at the moment with the squad at their disposal is testament to the determination of the players and management. Their success, however, reveals fundamental flaws endemic in Scottish football.