Thistle do nicely

Nathan Lee Davies explains why Inverness Caledonian Thistle revel in cup glory and league success

Celtic supporters will never forget February 8, 2000 when Inverness Caledonian Thistle won 3-1 at Parkhead in the third round of the Scottish Cup – a result that cost manager John Barnes his job. However, they could be for­given for thinking their team only had to turn up at Caledonian Stadium to progress to the last four of this year’s competition given that, three days earlier, they had comfortably dis­patched Liverpool from the UEFA Cup at An­field. There was little in the first half to suggest a shock was in the offing, but shortly before half time ICT striker Dennis Wyness struck and his side were 45 minutes away from re­peating their feat.

On entering the Scottish League in 1994, Inverness and fellow Highlanders Ross Coun­ty quickly progressed to the First Division where they have now established themselves. Yet the game’s administrators are not helping Gala Fairydean, Whitehill Welfare and other similarly ambitious clubs rise from the ama­teur ranks. Those interested in developing Scottish football have long advocated the imp­lementation of a pyramid system, similar to the one in England. The arguments put for­ward for such a set-up seem very persuasive. Teams from the Highland League, the East of Scotland League and the Juniors (the latter with its own ruling body separate from the Scottish FA) could form one league with pro­motion to the SFL as the championship prize.

Junior football is already moving in the right direction with the creation of an Eastern Super League bringing together clubs from Tayside, Fife and Lothian. However, only a tiny minority of clubs have facilities of a standard that will make such a system work. The High­land League, which has recently lost Peterhead and Elgin to the SFL, undoubtedly contains the best equipped sides, but elsewhere there are very few grounds with seated stands.

The English model could serve as inspiration here too. Before automatic promotion and relegation between the League and Conference, clubs finishing at the bottom of the base­ment were forced to stand for re-election along with non-league applicants who had resources necessary to go full-time. While such a system would probably result in a self-protection rack­et being established by SFL clubs – similar to the one keeping likely First Division champions Falkirk out of the SPL – it would only need to be a stop-gap while smaller clubs upgrade their facilities on the understanding that they will get the chance to compete in a pyramid.

The current Scottish league stragglers would also benefit from the threat of re-elect­ion, and eventually relegation. In the Third Division, East Stirlingshire have been stuck at the bot­tom on 12 points since before Christmas and seem to have given up the ghost. The prospect of a six-pointer between themselves and Queens Park to decide which team stays in the SFL may even attract the man who aban­doned his dog at a Firs Park match during 1988-89.

The eventual adoption of a pyramid system is essential if Scottish football is to ever regain any semblance of excitement and unpredic­tability. Why bother spending half your weekly earn­ings on a ticket for Tannadice or Pittodrie when the team has nothing to play for but pride? Excitement levels and attendances are not much better at cup matches. The last time neither Old Firm side reached a domestic cup final was in 1997 when a Paul Wright goal secured victory for Kilmarnock over Falkirk in the Scottish Cup final.

Hence the sense of revolutionary achievement in the air back at Caledonian Stadium. The players collapsed with emotion on the final whistle while fans performed jigs at the front of the Main Stand and hugged complete strangers to chants of “Martin, Martin, What’s the score?”. Another chapter had been written in the remarkable rise of ICT but this result was a victory for Scottish football as a whole.

From WSC 195 May 2003. What was happening this month