How the Highlands became a Scottish football power

On Saturday, the holders of the Scottish Cup and the Scottish League Cup will meet in the Scottish Premiership.

A few seasons ago you would have expected this to be a clash between Rangers and Celtic but it is fair to say that the Scottish football landscape has changed dramatically since Rangers’ demise. Currently, the holders of the Scottish Cup and the League Cup are Inverness Caledonian Thistle and Ross County, respectively.

With Ross County winning their first major honour in the League Cup final on Sunday with a 2-1 win over Hibernian and Inverness winning the Scottish Cup last season, it is the first time in Scottish football history that both of the major domestic honours have been held by teams from the Highlands.

Caley Thistle will make the 14 mile journey from Inverness to Dingwall, a small town of just over 5,000 people where Ross County reside, and will be hoping to crash the party that is awaiting them. Before the match, County are planning to parade the League Cup around the pitch in celebration of the club’s first major honour in their 87 year history.

The Inverness players and fans will not be perturbed, however, and will proudly point to their Scottish Cup, which in Scottish football is perceived to be the bigger of the two trophies, which they won last May with a 2-1 win over Falkirk.

Rather than brag and argue over which achievement was better this is an opportunity for both teams to celebrate what has been a sensational year for football in the Highlands whilst also reflecting on what has been a meteoric rise from their humble beginnings just over 20 years ago.

That might be rather difficult though, as the teams share a bitter rivalry and will be facing each other in the fiercely competed Highland Derby. But as the two teams have risen to the top, their journeys have intertwined with both sides sharing a number of parallels along the way, starting in 1994.

At the start of 1993/94 season, amid growing calls to expand the Scottish Football League, Ross County were playing in the Highland League, a semi professional league that at the time wasn’t even part of the league pyramid system.

While Ross County had just won their first Highland League since 1967, Inverness Caledonian Thistle weren’t even born. In their place were two clubs, Inverness Thistle FC and Caledonian FC. Between them they had dominated the Highland League for most of the century, winning a combined 26 league titles.

It was announced during that season that the league structure was going to be reorganised from a three tier 38 team system to four tiers of 10 teams. This new system would commence at the start of the following season but before that the league needed two new teams. Both Inverness Thistle and Caledonian FC applied for one of the available spots, both believing that they were big enough to make the transition to the professional leagues on their own.

The SFL disagreed, however, and wrote back to both the clubs and the local council strongly advising them to consider pooling together their resources and making a joint bid as a merged club.

The idea of merging together two inter city rivals is a hugely controversial one, as displayed by the reaction of the Hibs fans when Hearts owner Wallace Mercer attempted to merge the two Edinburgh clubs together back in 1990, and it was opposed by both Caledonian and Thistle fans.

Inverness Council were adamant that the two sides joined together. They argued that a merged club would be more successful thanks to their shared knowledge and resources, in turn bringing league football to the Highlands. The boards of both Inverness Thistle and Caledonian FC eventually agreed to join together despite the resistance of the fans and were rewarded in January 1994 when their joint application to the SFL was successful.

A number of issues remained however. What would this new club be called? Where would they play? What colour would they wear? In the end the clubs compromised as much as they could naming the club Caledonian Thistle, ‘Inverness’ would only be added as a prefix in 1996, and combining the two club colours to make a blue and red striped home kit. One of conditions behind the merger was that the local council would build the city a new stadium in which Inverness Caledonian Thistle would play. The club played their first few seasons of SFL football at Caledonian FC’s old stadium Telford Park until Caledonian Stadium was finished in 1996.

With Inverness Caledonian Thistle taking one of the two available spaces in the SFL, Ross County were free to take the other. Three days before the vote in January 1994, Ross County shocked Second Division side Forfar Athletic 4-0 in the Scottish Cup. They could not have been more convincing and were elected into the SFL with 57 votes, 11 behind ICT’s 68.

In August of that year both teams kicked off in their new league for the first time. Inverness won the first Highland Derby of the new SFL era 3-1 away at Ross County’s Victoria Park, but the Dingwall side bounced back and finished their debut season the higher of the two teams in 3rd place.

Inverness were the first Highland team to be promoted into the SFL’s third tier, Division One, when they won Division Two in 1997 but County weren’t too far behind and they also moved up a league in 1999. Inverness were a step ahead however and by that time they had already sealed automatic promotion in to Division One, although County sealed back to back promotions in 2000 after they benefitted from a reorganisation of the league and were moved up a division.

While they stayed in Division One for five seasons Inverness recorded a number of ‘giant killings’ over bigger, superior teams including what is perhaps the greatest cup shock in Scottish football history.

The game has been immortalised by the famous headline that appeared on the back page of The Sun the morning after. ‘Super Caley go Ballistic Celtic are Atrocious,’ was the genius summary of that match after Inverness had embarrassed Celtic 3-1 away from home in the Scottish Cup in 2000, a result that sent shockwaves around the Scottish game and signalled an end to John Barnes’ tenure as Celtic manager. Inverness manager Steve Paterson said afterwards: “I think this is the moment Inverness arrived in Scottish football”. To this day the famous headline is still framed and displayed in the foyer of Inverness’ stadium.

Over the following years, Inverness also knocked Hearts, Motherwell and, again, Celtic, out of the cup. In 2003, Inverness beat a Celtic side that would go on to reach the UEFA Cup final 1-0 at home, recording another famous result against The Bhoys.

A season later in 2004, Inverness made the step up to the Scottish Premier League and in just under 10 years had risen from the bottom to the top of Scottish football.

Inverness enjoyed five seasons in the top flight, recording their highest finish of 7th in 2006, but were ultimately relegated in 2009 before bouncing straight back a season later. During that season in Division One, Inverness and County were reunited for the first time in five years and although it would be Inverness that got promoted to the SPL at the end of the season, it would be County that burst onto the national limelight thanks to a remarkable cup run.

Beginning with 4-0 and 9-0 wins over Inverurie Loco Works and Stirling Albion respectively, County went on to record remarkable wins over SPL sides Aberdeen and Hibs to claim a place in the semi-finals and a date with Celtic at Hampden Park.

More than 7,000 fans travelled from Dingwall to Glasgow to support County, an incredible turnout for a club with no real expectations of winning. But just 10 years after Caley went ballistic, Celtic were shocked once again as County won 2-0.

County faced Dundee United in the final and were supported by 17,000 travelling fans, not bad for a side with a population less than a third of that. There would be no fairytale ending as County were beaten 3-0 but if Inverness’ defining moment was their victory over Celtic in 2000, County’s cup run was undoubtedly theirs.

It certainly gave them the momentum to make the push for the SPL and two years later County were promoted. They only lost one match during their Division One winning season and their unbeaten run ran for 40 games from August 2011 until September 2012.

Whilst Rangers, Hearts and Hibs have all been relegated from the Premiership in recent years, both Inverness and Ross County have established themselves in Scotland’s top flight. County impressively finished 5th in their debut season in 2013 whilst over the past three seasons Inverness have finished 4th, 5th and 3rd.

After settling in the Premiership both Inverness and Ross Country have built upon their positions in the league and have challenged for silverware. With Rangers no longer challenging for major honours, Celtic have had firm grip of the league title but the cups have been as open as ever before. St Mirren and Aberdeen won the League Cup in 2013 and 2014 respectively with St Johnstone winning the Scottish Cup in 2014.

Last season as Inverness were on their way to recording their highest ever finish of 3rd place they also reached the semi finals of the Scottish Cup after safely negotiating their way past St Mirren, Partick Thistle and Raith Rovers. Celtic stood in their way but for the third time in 15 years, Inverness knocked them out of the cup in what was a hugely controversial encounter at Hampden Park.

In the final Inverness faced Falkirk of the Championship. It was a nervy affair, what else would you expect in what was Caley’s biggest game in their history, but Inverness were ahead with 15 minutes to go. But when Carl Tremarco was sent off it let Falkirk back in to the game and they duly levelled the match only five minutes later. Inverness were on the ropes. With only a few minutes left the game looked set for extra time but James Vincent popped up to score the vital goal and win the cup for 10 man Caley. It was the club’s first ever Scottish Cup and their first ever major honour, only 24 years after joining the SFL.

Ross County were watching in envy and would have undoubtedly wanted to get in on the action. They started their League Cup journey in August of that year, brushing aside Ayr United and then thumping Falkirk 7-0. Their victory over the Scottish Cup runners up set up a clash with the champions and Highland rivals Inverness in the quarter finals.

Inverness had been on an adventure of their own that season. Their Scottish Cup triumph ensured their qualification for the Europa League, meaning that Inverness would play in Europe for the first time in their history. They were drawn against Romanian side Astra Girigu but were eliminated after losing their home leg 1-0 and drawing the away leg 0-0.

The experience would have given the Inverness players and fans a taste for Europe and they would have been desperate to win another trophy. County had other ideas however and beat their rivals 2-1 away from home, securing a place in the semi-finals and a first Highland Derby win in over two years.

Once again Ross County were drawn up against Celtic in what was a repeat of their famous semi-final encounter six seasons earlier. It was also the second year in a row that Celtic had drawn a Highland side in the semi finals. It would also be the second year in a row that Celtic would lose to a Highland side in the semi finals. Ross County beat 10 man Celtic 3-1, another famous win and another final to look forward to.

Hibs would be the opponents. Like Inverness, Ross County were a division above their final opponents as Hibs were still in the Championship. Hibs had been on a good run though, knocking out Premiership clubs like Aberdeen and St Johnstone on their road to the final.

Once again the entire population of Dingwall descended upon Hampden. County took the lead inside 25 minutes with Michael Gardyne, who played for County in their last cup final in 2010, opening the scoring, only to be pegged back on the stroke of half time.

With time running out and the match level it was looking eerily similar to Inverness’ final a year earlier. Ross County needed a hero and found one when Alex Schalke scored in the 90th minute as Hampden erupted once again with the sound of the Highland roar. County held on to win their first ever major honour and secured an improbable double for Scotland’s Highland representatives.

Within 23 years, Inverness Caledonian Thistle and Ross County had risen to the very top of the Scottish game, and had done so by matching each other every step of the way.

Many said that when Rangers were relegated to the fourth tier of Scottish football in 2012 any competition in the Scottish game would fizzle out, with Celtic sweeping up the cups as well as the league. This hasn’t happened. Instead, it has presented an opportunity to clubs like Ross County and Inverness in areas like the Highlands, and both clubs have seized the opportunity to establish themselves and compete for the top prizes in the Scottish game.

Like the metropolitan areas of Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee and Aberdeen, the Highlands has become a force in the Scottish game. You could argue that the Highlands have taken over everyone else apart from Glasgow, and you can back that up by looking at the league table.

If we didn’t know it already, The Highlands are officially a Scottish football powerhouse. With Ross County and Inverness both already eliminated from this years Scottish Cup, the Highlands will lose one of the trophies. But as we have seen over the past 23 years, there may be a time in the near future where they’ll be holding both cups once again.

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