2006-07 - A First win over Rangers
SPL safety, a top six finish not quite achieved, dramatic and traumatic Old Firm matches and a new chairman.
The prelude to 2006/07 was dominated by the choice of pursuing an Intertoto Cup spot or making a pre season trip to Italy's Tuscany region. Hibs took one Intertoto place but ICT were named on the reserve list. Danish club Odense withdrew when they qualified for the UEFA Cup then a financial scandal in Italy led to the withdrawal of Palermo. It took until 9 June before things became clear. The extra place was allocated to France and ICT firmed up on Italy. They returned for pre season training on 21 June and left for Italy on 3 July with the World Cup in full swing. ICT easily won two matches against local sides then found themselves in the right place to share the excitement as Italy beat France on penalties to take the World Cup on 9 July.
There was the inevitable movement of players over the summer but in line with tradition this was kept to a minimum. Juanjo had struggled to regain a place in the team following injury and, after a loan spell at Hamilton, he went back to Granada CF in his native Spain. Chris Finnigan moved to Elgin, Dennis Wyness completed his signing from Hearts and John Rankin arrived from Ross County after protracted negotiations. There were three further departures in August as Tom Parratt went to Hamilton, David Proctor joined former manager Craig Brewster at Dundee United and Liam Fox moved to John Robertson's Livingston. Mike Fraser was primed for a loan move to Livingston but the deal foundered when no way could be found to bring him back at short notice should the need arise. His patient stint as understudy to Mark Brown was to be rewarded when Brown headed for Celtic in January. Darren Dods had been linked with a move south on many occasions but on 9 August it came to a head when he submitted a transfer request for family reasons - this was turned down but in January he signed a pre-agreement contract with Dundee United.
The highlight of the pre-season programme was Ross Tokely's testimonial against Sheffield United on Friday 21 July. 2500 turned out to honour the ten years' service of the full back and watch the Premiership side beat ICT 3-0. It is a measure of the respect held for Ross that former team mates Paul Sheerin, Paul Ritchie, Steve Hislop and Barry Robson came north to play a part in the celebrations. The pre-season also included a testimonial match for Clach's Bruce McCraw and matches at Elgin, Huntly, Peterhead (the only defeat) and Deveronvale. There was also a 3-0 home win against Ross County.
Newly-promoted St Mirren opened the SPL programme in Inverness on 29 July and celebrated their return to the top flight with a 3-1 victory. This did not auger well for Caley Thistle but, despite a difficult programme, August proved to be much better with draws against Aberdeen, Hibs and Celtic. The latter was played in Inverness in front of the Setanta cameras and Celtic took a 26th minute lead through Stephen Pearson. An excellent second-half performance led to a deserved equaliser from defender Grant Munro ten minutes from time. Three days later Caley Thistle beat Dumbarton 3-1 to move into the third round of the CIS Insurance Cup and August finished with a 4-1 away defeat to Hearts. The score flattered the Tynecastle side and there was a further blow when late in the first half Dennis Wyness dislocated his shoulder which put him out of action for seven weeks. September's highlights were a 4-1 away win at Motherwell and 1-0 at home to Dunfermline. The low point was a 1-0 CIS Insurance Cup defeat at Falkirk.
There was drama at Ibrox on 14 October when Rangers were beaten for the first time by ICT. Rangers' keeper Lionel Letizi was reinstated to the side after injury at the expense of youngster Allan McGregor, who had filled in admirably. The move backfired on manager Paul le Guen as Letizi became the villain of the piece when he dropped a Craig Dargo shot in the 71st minute and Graham Bayne was there to take advantage with a neat touch into the net. It was another ‘Ballistic' moment and it lifted ICT up to fifth in the league. This was perhaps not quite as amazing as the Celtic victory in February 2000 but it was without doubt the finest moment in the club's short SPL history. A home win against Falkirk and a 1-1 draw away to St Mirren led to a climb to fourth and to Charlie Christie being named SPL Manager of the Month for October. Heady days indeed and the highest spot achieved since SPL entry, apart from a very brief second spot in July 2005. The vagaries of football were amply illustrated by the contrasting fortunes of Christie and his predecessor Craig Brewster - on 29 October Brewster and assistant Malky Thomson were sacked as the Dundee United management team after just ten months. Coincidentally 24 hours later Steve Paterson was appointed Peterhead manager with former Ross County manager Neale Cooper as his assistant.
November was a disappointing month with defeats to Hibs and Celtic as well as draws with Aberdeen and Hearts - but it was a difficult run of games and little was expected. The 2-0 Hibs defeat included a penalty goal after Mark Brown had brought down Chris Killen and been shown a red card. Substitute ‘keeper Mike Fraser came on for the last nine minutes and, with Brown suspended, he also played at Celtic Park a week later - the 3-0 win for Celtic was no reflection on Fraser's performance and he set himself up well to take his chance when the goalkeeping spot became vacant in January. The early matches in December extended the poor run with defeats to Motherwell, Dundee United and Kilmarnock before a 0-0 draw at home to Dunfermline. None of this gave confidence for the visit to Inverness of Rangers - but football is a funny old game.
The home SPL match against Rangers on 27 December 2006 was another classic that will be talked about for a long time. Rangers were in the midst of a revival when they came north to play this live Setanta TV match. Caley Thistle went behind to a Nacho Novo penalty but captain Darren Dods equalised just before half time. ICT were the better side throughout the second half but it looked like ending 1-1 until John Rankin struck in added time with a dipping shot from over 25 yards that completely fooled Rangers ‘keeper Allan McGregor. A second victory over Rangers this season and a major blow to the Glasgow side - one game and eight days later manager Paul Le Guen left ‘by mutual consent' to be replaced by Scotland manager Walter Smith. For Caley Thistle hopes of a top six finish were once more raised. The year was not quite over and the vagaries of the game were well illustrated when Caley Thistle lost 3-1 away to Falkirk on 30 December (with Ian Black sent off) and ended the calendar year in tenth spot. This changed just two days later with a New Year's Day home 2-1 victory against St Mirren and a move up to eighth. With Dunfermline 13 points behind at the foot of the table, relegation was beginning to look very unlikely. A Spring revival for the Pars under new manager Stephen Kenny was to lead to an unexpectedly tight finish at this end of the table but Caley Thistle were never to be realistically drawn into the struggle.
The January transfer window opened to usual ICT speculation but this time some of it was real - Mark Brown left for Celtic and Darren Dods signed a pre-contract agreement to go to Dundee United in the summer. Ally Ridgers came back from Clach (on loan) to act as back-up to Mike Fraser and teenage ‘keeper Jonathon Smith replaced him on loan to Clach. Liam Keogh left for Peterhead, Stuart Golabek went to Livingston on loan and Markus Paatelainen joined from Cowdenbeath. Don Cowie was linked with a move from County and he signed a pre-contract agreement. Attempts to lure him south of the Kessock Bridge during January failed and his arrival had to await the close season.
The last Tennent's Scottish Cup campaign started on 6 January with an emphatic third round 6-1 win against Second Division high-fliers Stirling Albion. After 18 years a new sponsor is required after Tennent announced a switch of financial backing to the Scotland international side. January continued to be a good month with a 1-1 draw at Aberdeen in ICT's 100th SPL match. John Rankin scored in the 86th minute and a first victory over the Dons looked to be coming until Stevie Lovell equalised in the dying seconds. A 3-0 home win against Hibs preceded the league highlight of the month on the 28th - home to Celtic with Setanta in attendance. Caley Thistle matched Celtic all the way but went behind in 37 minutes to a Derek Riordan goal. Graham Bayne headed an equaliser in 57 minutes and Caley Thistle pressed hard for a winner. Instead of that Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink grabbed a winner right on the ninety minutes then promptly earned a second yellow card for his exuberant celebrations in front of the visiting fans. January was a bad month for injuries to strikers when first Craig Dargo dislocated his shoulder against Hibs then, 30 seconds into the Celtic match, Dennis Wyness did exactly the same thing for the second time this season. Dargo was to be out for eight weeks and Wyness would not return until the final match of the season.
With the striking pressure now on Graham Bayne and Rory McAllister, backed up by Gary McSwegan, February started with an important home Scottish Cup tie against Dundee United. Russell Duncan scored a wonder goal to earn a 1-0 win and a money-spinning home draw in the quarter final against Celtic. 1-0 defeats to Hearts and Motherwell were not the best build-up to this important cup tie on 25 February but Caley Thistle turned in a five-star display. Graham Bayne's 18th minute goal was all that separated the sides until the last couple of minutes and the headline writers were preparing imaginary headlines to highlight Caley Thistle's third Scottish Cup victory against Celtic. This all changed in dramatic circumstances with two minutes of regulation left when Stephen Pressley headed an equaliser. A replay was now on the cards but into added time Kenny Miller stunned the home camp when he netted a winner. There was disbelief, and not a few tears, but ICT were out of the cup in cruel circumstances.
It was back to the league and into March. A late Barry Wilson goal broke the deadlock at home to Dundee United on the third and led to a move up to seventh place - with a ‘top six' finish still possible. This hope vanished a week later at Kilmarnock with a 3-2 defeat. It would then have taken a mathematical miracle to reach the top six and it never happened. It may have been a reaction to this but one of the most disappointing league results came a week later when basement side Dunfermline came north and won 3-1. Not for the first time things were at a low ebb prior to an Old Firm match - this time away to Rangers on 31 March. Charlie Adam gave Rangers a 1-0 lead in 14 minutes but Craig Dargo struck nine minutes from time to keep ICT undefeated to Rangers in the SPL for the season. A 1-1 home draw against Falkirk on 14 April was not a match to write home about but defeating Motherwell 2-0 at home a week later, in the first post-split match, removed any lingering relegation doubts. A ‘game of two halves' at Tannadice on 28 April led to a 1-1 draw then three May matches were played for pride and places. A 1-0 defeat at Falkirk was disappointing, 2-1 at home to Dunfermline finally sealed their relegation fate then the season ended with 1-0 away win against St Mirren - this could have been vital to the Saints survival but that had been settled the previous week and this was of less moment. It was however good for ICT and for Stuart McCaffrey who came into the side at the expense of the departing Darren Dods and scored the winner.
Caley Thistle ended the season in eighth place with 46 points - one place below last season but well above relegated Dunfermline. Graham Bayne was the only player to feature in all 43 matches - 38 league (including nine substitute appearances) and five cup. Craig Dargo was top goalscorer with 12 goals (10 league and two cup). A number of players passed important milestones - Ross Tokely became the first player to reach 400 appearances and he finished the season on 401. Barry Wilson reached the 300 mark (and ended the season on 310) and Richard Hastings made his 300th appearance on the last game of the season - both players over two spells at the club.
The club was represented on the international front by five players. Mark Brown was capped at Scotland B level on 14 November 2006 when he came on for the second half in Dublin against the Republic of Ireland. The match ended 0-0. After a three year gap Richard Hastings was recalled to the Canadian international squad for their 3-0 victory in Bermuda on 25 March. Rory McAllister made three substitute appearances for the Scotland under 20 side with the highlight being a two-game tour on the west coast of Canada in preparation for the under 20 World Cup in that country in summer 2007. Preparations for Canada continued with a match against Northern Ireland on 24 March and McAllister scored in the 4-0 victory after coming on at half-time. His ICT colleague Zander Sutherland was brought on for the last 20 minutes to make his debut. In the event neither was chosen for the final World Cup squad. Youngster Iain Vigurs completed the international quintet with a 35-minute appearance for the Scotland under 19 team in their 2-0 victory over Austria at Firhill on 1 May.
Off the field a new chairman took over the reigns in August. Alan Savage, managing director of engineering recruitment consultants Orion, took over from David Sutherland with the latter pledging to transfer Tulloch's shares to a new Inverness Sports Trust and to top this up with a £200,000 donation. Lifescan Scotland's Mike Crowe also joined the Board. The AGM on 24 August ratified these appointments and a pre-tax profit of £220,000 for year ending 31 May 2006 was announced. This compared with a loss of £102,415 the previous year with the outgoing chairman highlighting an increase in season ticket holders and average attendance. The Members Club, which had been formed in 1994 to represent the interests of the two constituent clubs, dissolved after an EGM vote and its minimum 10% voting rights passed to the ICT Supporters Trust.
Towards the end of the season discussion took place on the possibility of once more submitting an application for an Inter Toto Cup slot. The confusion of last season had left management wary and the answer came from an unexpected source. As part of the ‘Highland 2007' celebrations an Elton John concert was arranged for the stadium on 15 July and there would have been no time for the pitch to recover before round one of the cup. This settled the matter and it was decided to repeat last season's successful training camp in Tuscany. The players thus headed off for a well earned break then a trip to Italy and back to the challenge of the SPL.