Matchday One at Firhill
Saturday afternoon in Maryhill, under the twisted leer of Kingsley and assorted Buckied freeloaders on the canal towpath, sees the first match of Inverness Caledonian Thistle’s 2016-17 Scottish Premiership campaign, and another new chapter in the club’s already rich history well and truly underway.
From the opening paragraph, you might have detected that Altenative Maryhill is the author of this Preview.
Opinion among the Inverness support was divided, sometimes fiercely, over John Hughes’ recruitment, tactics and management style last season, but while his eventual departure was mourned by some and celebrated by others, the majority of ICT supporters seemed to welcome the announcement of club captain Richie Foran as his successor. Naturally, however, questions were raised: would Foran still be too close to the players to command the respect of his squad in his new role? Would he have the profile, contacts and scouting network to attract a decent quality of player to the club? Would he be able to develop a playing style that was more attractive and effective than the latterly much-criticised, but overall largely successful, approach adopted by Hughes? Would his lack of experience tell in periods of adversity and increased pressure? Was the board’s awarding of a four-year management contract to an existing employee simply the cheap option?
Obviously, these are very early days, and it will be some time before we can say confidently that all these questions have been answered, but the signs so far are very promising indeed. Foran in his early interviews, while acknowledging the benefits Hughes’ playing philosophy had brought the players, promised a return to a more direct, attacking style of football which would yield more chances and goals, and this commitment was reflected in the signings of striker Scott Boden from Newport and winger Jake Mulraney from Queen’s Park Rangers on three- and two-year deals respectively, and the recruitment of Billy King, a winger with significant Scottish top-flight experience, on loan from Hearts. Meanwhile, the signing of Kevin McNaughton, a Scottish international with 201 appearances for Aberdeen and almost 300 for Cardiff City, seemed to suggest that Foran could indeed attract players of quality to the club.
The real hope, however, has come from the team’s performances on the field, in the Betfred Cup group stages. In the first two games, against Cowdenbeath and Dundee Utd, the team’s play sometimes lacked fluency, and there was a failure to capitalise on final balls, but Foran’s avowed attacking intent was evident in King’s frequent threatening runs and particularly in the pace and trickery exhibited by Mulraney in his two second half substitute appearances, while Kevin McNaughton, deputising at centre half for the injured Josh Meekings, strolled through the games, showing his class and experience. With the promotion of Mulraney to the starting line-up against Dunfermline, Foran’s team clicked as an attacking force. While a positive and combative Pars side caused Caley Thistle problems in the first half, defensively they simply could not cope with Jake Mulraney, and where chances had been squandered in the previous two games, here the Inverness attackers were clinical, with Iain Vigurs claiming the perfect hat-trick from an advanced midfield role, King being rewarded for his willingness to run at players and shoot on spec with a deflection that brought another goal, and even left-back Carl Tremarco getting in on the act after being first to the rebound from a Greg Tansey free kick. The pattern continued in last Saturday’s 7-0 trouncing of Arbroath: Vigurs, King and Tremarco, with an unlikely brace, all found the net again; Scott Boden provided even more cause for optimism, with a well-taken hat-trick; and despite not being on the scoresheet, the man of the match, by common acclaim, was Mulraney, who already looks to be a gem of a signing. In terms of style and recruitment Foran is already beginning to answer the questions posed when he took over, and those who doubt whether he may be able to command and motivate players, and make difficult and unpopular choices, may be encouraged by the apparent increase in the fitness and work rate of Iain Vigurs, and the surprising decision to leave Ross Draper, a mainstay during the club’s most successful period, on the bench for the games against Dunfermline and Arbroath.
Foran has stated that the club is still keen to bring in one or two more players, and most supporters would agree that another, more mobile attacker is needed to either complement or provide an alternative to Boden and Alex Fisher, but with any new deals looking increasingly unlikely before Saturday’s game, Foran’s main area of focus, and the supporters’ main source of intrigue and debate, will be deciding who gets the nod to start against Partick. Will Draper be restored to the team against a side that has frequently overpowered and over-run the ICT midfield in recent seasons, and if so, will it be Polworth, or Mulraney, the man for whom Draper made way, who drops to the bench? Will there be any room for Aaron Doran, finally restored to the squad again against Arbroath, after a year out through injury? How close to fitness is Josh Meekings, and when he is ready to return, will it be in central defence? And if so, does the impressive McNaughton drop out, or does he take one of the full-back roles in place of either fans’ favourite David Raven or the vastly-improved Carl Tremarco? These are, to employ a football cliché, pleasant problems for a manager to have, and the result of the club managing to put and keep together what looks, on paper, like one the strongest first-team squads the club has yet had.
Of course, the optimism could yet prove premature; some of the new players, notably Mulraney and Boden, are as-yet untested against Premiership opposition, Partick Thistle are a team that has a strong record against ICT, notwithstanding a 4-0 home defeat to John Hughes’ team in the final weeks of last season, and they too are entitled to feel positive about their prospects this season after a 100% record in the Bedfred Cup group stages, and a summer recruitment programme that looks to have strengthened the first team squad. Chris Erskine, a folk-hero at the club, has returned in midfield after a spell at Dundee Utd where his talents seemed to be squandered by poor management, and has already impressed in with two goals in the Betfred Cup games; Ziggy Gordon, one of Hamilton Accies’ standout players over recent seasons, will be the new first choice at right back, while attacker Ade Azeez apparently rejected a new contract offer at Wimbledon to join the Maryhill club. A Partick recruit more familiar to ICT supporters is Danny Devine, signed to replace highly-rated central defender Danny Seaborne, who rejected a new contract. While Devine was a very useful deputy to Josh Meekings and Gary Warren in his first two seasons in Inverness, his period last season as a first choice centre half, during Meekings’ injury lay-off and then mystifying deployment at right back, revealed some shortcomings in positional sense and decision-making, and while he was perhaps scapegoated by supporters to some extent for defensive frailties that stemmed from the team set-up as a whole, Foran may see him as a potential weak link to be exploited in the Partick defence. Predictably, a recent press interview with Devine, in which he claims to have made a step up in his club career on the grounds that Glasgow is, shock, horror, a bigger city than Inverness, has been used to ramp up the non-existent tension ahead of this interview. Expect blood to flow in the streets of Maryhill.
An intriguing and potentially very enjoyable game lies ahead then, and hopefully the interest and positivity around the Foran revolution will see a large and noisy travelling support there to back Inverness. [A quick note to travelling supporters; the underground is off, and the best options for getting to Firhill from the city centre are either to share a taxi, which shouldn’t cost much more than a fiver, or to get a number 60 or 61 bus from the corner of Hope St and Sauchiehall St, to around Queens Cross church on Maryhill Road. Don’t try to go to Maryhill train station – it’s almost as far from the ground in the opposite direction as Queen St is.] It’s hard game to call, and one that I suspect will feature more goals than we’re used to seeing between these sides, but in the spirit of optimism, I’m going to predict a final scoreline of Partick Thistle 2, Inverness Caledonian Thistle 3.
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