The moral highlands

Dingwall, home of Ross County, is the smallest town in Great Britain with a senior league club. Gordon Cairns explains the secret of their success against Inverness

When the Scottish Football League was formed in 1890, the founding members gave their new organisation a very misleading title. The clubs were clustered within Scotland’s industrial heartland – the central belt – and could hardly be said to represent the nation. Only now, with two Highland teams, Inverness Caledonian Thistle and Ross County, on the cusp of the Premier League, can top-level football truly be seen to encompass the country. These two teams have reached this position ten years after admission, but whether they can take the next step up depends on the whims of the clubs who make up the Premier League.

At the time of their promotion, it was assumed that Caley Thistle would be the likelier of the two to succeed. They were the larger club and have had successful Scottish Cup runs, reaching the semi-finals for the past two seasons and gaining two famous victories over Celtic. However, not only is the rise of Ross County more surprising, it seems they have the more solid foundations for long-term success.

The amalgamation of two Inverness teams, Cale­donian FC and Inverness Thistle, seemed to be a risky decision. A universal truth of football is that having a rival to hate is almost as important as having a team to support. However, the ambitious owners of the senior partner in the merger, Caledonian, felt there was no point joining the national league simply to be also-rans in the lower divisions. Not only would a merger give the club a notional larger group of fans, but also two grounds to sell rather than one.

Caley Thistle share a dynamism with Inverness, which has recently become Scotland’s newest city. It is perhaps this drive from a club used to success and now impatient for the big time that has caused them to overreach. The club has paid high wages to attract SPL players north, but the rise up the leagues has not been as fast as anticipated. Caledonian Stadium outside the city is unloved and attendances average just over 2,000. In a recent online poll, the majority thought the cold winds were keeping the crowds away.

The club were recently taken over by David Sutherland, owner of local building firm Tulloch, who cleared a £400,000 debt. Even with this backing, they are struggling to maintain the income needed to keep a promotion-winning squad together, having to rely on cup runs and selling players. Now the rise of Ross County may, ironically, help bring support back to Caley Thistle, as a look at both clubs’ unofficial websites shows a healthy contempt for the other. The New Year derby attracted an impressive 6,000 crowd to Victoria Park.

In the Highland League Ross County’s attendances were in the hundreds. Now they attract the largest crowds outside the SPL, averaging over 3,000 at home in Dingwall, a town of 5,000 souls, the smallest in Britain to host a senior club. There are a number of theories why Ross County are so popular. Many of the 80,000 people in the Highlands live in rural communities and may find a rural club more attractive than a city one. Inverness Caledonian have always been an unpopular team, described as the Manchester United or the Rangers (because of their colours) of the north, and for a while Ross County were the only senior Highland alternative. Also, as a market town, Dingwall attracts farmers from across the Highlands and islands who feel a connection with the place.

The traffic is not all one way. Ross County have been sending scouts across the region looking for talent – over 15,000 children pass through the club’s coaching system each year. This talent will be nurtured at the new £5 million Highland Football Academy based in Dingwall. This is only the second such institution in Scotland and is a joint venture between the Scottish Executive, Ross County and Caley Thistle. Although Inverness assumed the academy would be based there, SportScotland were persuaded to build it in Dingwall.

The appointment of ex-Scotland Under-21 boss Alex Smith as the County manager was partly due to his ability to nurture talent and Graeme Smith and John Rankin have followed Jamie McCunnie into the Scotland Under-21 squad. Another change has been Smith’s insistence that all players live locally, creating a stronger community connection. Caley Thistle players still travel north to play for the club.

The greatest threat to both clubs’ progress is the seemingly closed shop of the top division, caused by the SPL’s 10,000-seat criterion. This season Caley Thistle look the more likely to win promotion, in which event the club have put three options to their supporters – ground share at Pittodrie, or at another ground, or stay in Inverness in the First Division.

Caley Thistle’s recent Scottish Cup semi-final replay at Pittodrie against Dunfermline highlighted the absurdity of the SPL’s demand. Victory would have qualified Caley for Europe; Caledonian Stadium would have been allowed to host Manchester United in a UEFA Cup tie, but not Livingston in the SPL. Only 5,728 supporters watched the semi-final, the lowest ever attendance for that stage of the competition. If so few make the 220-mile round trip from Inverness to watch a cup semi-final, how many would travel to watch Motherwell?

From WSC 208 June 2004. What was happening this month