Super Caley Go Ballistic Celtic Are Atrocious. Having been involved in one of the most memorable sporting headlines of all time, Inverness Caledonian Thistle have decided to create a few more. Rob Macdonald explains further.
In a press conference in 2008, Diego Maradona was asked if he remembered his encounter with Terry Butcher in Mexico in 1986. ‘Who is Terry Butcher?’, asked Maradona. Whether it was said in jest, or if it was one of the great man’s classic ravings, it’s not a question many people in Scotland are asking now. Butcher, of course, while being most famous for bleeding all over his shirt that one time, is now manager of Inverness Caledonian Thistle.
Caley hit the headlines recently (well, November 27… and, well… some headlines) for going an entire year without suffering defeat in an away League fixture. Not since a 2-1 defeat to Partick Thistle at Firhill on November 28 2009 has Terry Butcher’s side failed to accrue at least one point on the road. Not once.
This latest ascent to being ogled at disbelievingly by the rest of Scottish football actually began in the last of their five seasons in Scotland’s top flight. Craig Brewster was relieved of his managerial duties after a 1-0 defeat to Hamilton in January 2009 – a seventh straight league defeat. Terry Butcher was appointed in Brewster’s place, but despite five victories (one at Ibrox) from their remaining 15 matches, Caley were relegated.
It had been a fairly abject season. Caley didn’t make the greatest of starts to life in the First Division either, entering October 2009 with two wins from their first seven matches. Their fortunes lifted slightly as victories (two away and one at home, tellingly) meant 10 points were accrued from a possible 15.
November 2009 though, was a crap month. Two away defeats sandwiched a solitary home victory. The first was against Ross County, 13 miles up the road, so was barely an away game anyway. The second defeat, at Partick, is the important one. It marks the last time Caley lost away from home. That’s November 2009. Pretty much every single person in the world has had a birthday since then. A crap month maybe, but November was the launch pad for an unbeaten calendar year away from home.
Only it wasn’t a great launch pad, really, at least not in the traditional sense. Inverness’s next game, away at Queen of the South, ended 1-1. Caley finished the game with nine men and Butcher finished the game in the stands. If this was supposed to be blast-off, they hadn’t got the message. December was an uninspiring month, with one win and three draws seeing them score just three goals.
By the turn of the year, Caley were 15 points off Dundee, who had been running away with the division. But things suddenly changed. Two league games in January returned maximum points, followed by a win and a draw in February. Then five wins and two draws in March. Then five straight wins in April, the last a 7-0 victory away at Ayr. They celebrated promotion with a 1-0 win over Dundee on the last day of the season who had been inexorably hunted down and ultimately finished second, 12 points behind Caley. Butcher and Maurice Malpas had somehow engineered a 27 point swing. Inverness had gone 22 league matches unbeaten.
Caley’s winning streak at the end of the season was nine in a row. They lost just five games all season, to only three different sides. I know people that resolutely play FIFA on semi-pro setting only and don’t have records as good as that. Admittedly, the standard of opposition in the Scottish First Division may on occasion have been poor, but it remains an incredible sequence.
Back in the SPL for 2010-11, Celtic punctured the mood immediately. Caley’s proud unbeaten home record, which itself had stood since October 2009, went on the opening day. The away record remains intact – and at the time of writing Inverness have played eight matches away from home this season, winning five and drawing three. They have already been to Tannadice (winning 4-0), Easter Road (1-1), Ibrox (1-1) and most recently Celtic Park (2-2, from 2-0 down). They have also beaten St Mirren, Kilmarnock, beleaguered Aberdeen and Hamilton on the road. For the neutral, this is pretty impressive. If you’re a Caley Jag, it must be unbelievable.
If there were precious few hints at the start of last season that Caley were capable of sustaining such a run, there were even fewer to be found in the respective fortunes of the two men in charge of the side. Since Butcher and Malpas were together at Motherwell, the Englishman’s managerial career has (unsuccessfully) taken in Sydney, Brentford and the Scotland assistant job. Malpas took over as manager on Butcher’s departure from Fir Park in 2005-06, went to Swindon for a year, was sacked and then notably missed out on the Crewe job at the end of 2008.
Neither has enjoyed success alone, but together they appear particularly potent, a perfect example of the rather peculiar managerial bromances the game can produce. Their work at Motherwell, then mired in financial difficulties, saw the nurturing and sale of James McFadden in particular, and a Scottish League Cup final, albeit one that ended in heavy defeat to Rangers in 2005.
For the resurrection of his managerial career in so impressive a manner and Caley’s subsequent run of form, Butcher, naturally, credits his players. The players, perhaps naturally, credit the manager and his assistant. But a little unusually, they’re also crediting the man upstairs (not THAT one). Richie Foran, a goalscorer against Celtic a fortnight ago, said: “The chairman was in after the game congratulating us on it. We congratulated him as well, because we are all in it together at this club.”
The small club pulling together mentality isn’t unusual. Indeed, it’s inspired many a side to heroics. Not a season’s worth though. Normally the lack of resources catches up with you, or there’s a spat, or you get some bad decisions but seemingly not at Inverness. While they were fortuitous at Celtic Park – Celtic defended like they were 12-0 up rather than two – Butcher and Malpas appear to have constructed a very effective side.
Like at Motherwell, they have moulded a team with a swathe of exciting young players. Adam Rooney (22), once of Stoke, has 11 goals and is second top goalscorer in the league behind Kenny Miller. Jonny Hayes (23) was signed following his release from a contract at Leicester and has been key. Nick Ross (19), a goalscoring debutant for Scotland’s U21s has started 14 of the first team’s 15 league games this season and has just signed a new two and a half year contract. Graeme Shinnie, another youth product and also 19, has a similar offer on the table.
The future on the pitch looks bright, as it does for Inverness's continued survival. Caley’s business structure, put in place in 2002, protects the club’s leasing of the Tulloch Caledonian Stadium. A meeting between the investors, board and Supporters Trust was able to appease supporters’ concerns over the stadium’s ownership and the terms of its lease – Caley's playing position at their home ground is assured. As Foran says, the club’s best interests appear a mutual concern.
Meanwhile, as Butcher busies himself with loan targets for the January transfer window, some particularly optimistic observers are discussing the possibility of Caley’s rapid rise culminating in a European place. This might be a bridge too far – the hardest work of all might be keeping Caley where they are as the season continues through the winter (if it continues through the winter). But Butcher can nevertheless be satisfied, for after all, Maradona’s away record is nowhere near as good as his.
Rob is one half of the quite magnificent magicspongers and can be found on twitter as @magicspongers