A topsy turvy season, a push for the top six that ultimately failed, an early season change of manager, a late season change of chairman, a new main club sponsor and a new league sponsor. Things are rarely dull around Tulloch Caledonian Stadium. SPL survival ceased to be an issue by Christmas with Gretna propping up the table and an ever-widening gap appearing between twelfth and eleventh spots.
With an early decision not to apply for Inter Toto Cup entry it was back to Italy's Tuscany region for a pre-season training camp. Missing from the squad were Stuart Golabek (to Ross County), Darren Dods (to Dundee United) and Craig Dargo who, after much speculation, signed for St Mirren. Back-up striker Gary McSwegan ended his playing contract but was appointed under 19 coach. In January he was in turn replaced by Alex Clelland and, after a break, McSwegan returned to playing action with Clyde in March.
There were two new faces in the Italian party - Don Cowie (from Ross County) and Dean McDonald (from Gillingham) - plus promoted youngsters Ally MacDonald, Guy Kerr and Garry Wood. Goalkeeper Ally Ridgers signed after a loan period from Clach and Jonathon Smith moved in the opposite direction on a short term deal before heading to college in the USA. During the Italian trip long-serving defender Grant Munro was appointed club captain to replace Darren Dods. The Italian trip included victories against a Qatar U20 side (2-0) and a Romanian under 21 team Universitatea Craiova (2-1)
One reason for giving the Inter Toto Cup a miss was the fact that Tulloch Caledonian Stadium would have been unavailable for the opening round because of the high-profile concert by Elton John on Sunday 15 July. The squad flew back from Italy in time to join the 17000 crowd and enjoy the music of the Rocket Man in the summer sun. The Elton John concert also affected the pre-season programme as preparations and the aftermath meant that all matches were played away from home. There was the usual pre-season circuit of Highland League venues plus matches away to Peterhead (1-2) and Ross County (2-1).
Transfer activity continued with the focus on Marius Niculae. It took a special financial deal to lure the Romanian international to Inverness but gaining a work permit was quite another matter - it was at first refused but, following an appeal to the SFA and a fans' petition, it was granted and he was free to play. The new season saw the start of a lucrative two-year sponsorship deal by regional airline Flybe and thus new kits.
The first match at home, and the start of the SPL campaign, could not have been harder - Rangers in front of the Setanta cameras. The 1230 kick-off created a little bit of history as the first match of the Clydesdale Bank's four-year league sponsorship deal. A new record crowd of 7711 saw Caley Thistle go down 3-0. A small section of stand was opened at the west end of the ground to house a ‘singing section' - thus the capacity was increased and allowed the crowd record to be broken. The aftermath of the match raged on for a couple of weeks with Rangers' fans accused of racist chants but all calmed down and Rangers escaped punishment. Niculae made his debut the following week in a 2-1 defeat away to Motherwell then it was the same score in Paisley against St Mirren.
After these three league games Charlie Christie decided the stress of managing his home club could not continue. He dramatically stood down on 20 August and a stunned Graeme Bennett now had to search for another new manager. The usual suspects were named as contenders - plus some surprises (including former Sheffield United manager Neil Warnock) but in the end Craig Brewster returned to the club as player/manager assisted by Donald Park. Brewster expressed his delight at being back and said he had ‘unfinished business'. Before the appointment Park occupied the hot seat for a home match against Dundee United and a 3-0 defeat - with former ICT favourite Barry Robson converting two penalties.
24 hours after his appointment on 27 August Brewster took charge for a home CIS Insurance Cup tie against Arbroath. It ended 3-1 for Caley Thistle but was not all plain sailing. At 2-0 Arbroath hit back and it took a third goal from Marius Niculae (his second of the game) to settle it. Brewster had been playing for Aberdeen since leaving the manager's post at Dundee United and he was at this point top SPL goalscorer. In his last Aberdeen match he scored twice away to Hibs and now he had to lead his ‘new' club to Easter Road. He opted not to play but may have had some regrets as ICT went down 1-0 to a Steven Fletcher penalty goal.
Brewster's arrival coincided with the last few days of the summer transfer window so he was a busy man off the field. As the window closed Zander Sutherland went off to Elgin City on a six month loan (that was eventually extended until the end of 2007/08) and he was joined at Borough Briggs by Ally Ridgers. Ridgers went on loan but signed for them in January 2008. In turn Ridgers was replaced as back-up ‘keeper by Zibi Malkowski on a season-long loan from Hibs. Steven Watt had already been brought in by Charlie Christie on loan from Swansea City as a back-up central defender but Brewster reinforced the defensive options by signing defender David Proctor from Dundee United and bringing in Phil McGuire on loan from Dunfermline.
After a blank Saturday it was off to Celtic Park on 15 September. It was a black day with a record 5-0 defeat but a stirring ICT performance despite the score. It was better the next day when a young ICT side beat Elgin City at Forres to take the ITP Solutions North Cup 3-2 after extra time. The winner came from rising star Dale Gillespie seven minutes before a penalty decider would have been necessary.
The first SPL point was a long time coming but after six defeats it came in style. SPL match number seven was against Hearts at home on 22 September and the pundits were predicting further misery for Caley Thistle. An Ian Black own goal in 34 minutes had the gloom merchants shaking their heads but a Dennis Wyness equaliser and an injury-time Craig Brewster winner changed all that. Three points on the board at last. This was to be Brewster's last competitive goal as he later decided to hang up his boots at the end of 2007/08. ICT were still lying at the foot of the league but at least there was now hope. Three days later Gretna were defeated 3-0 in Inverness in round three of the CIS Insurance Cup then the following Saturday it was 4-2 at home to Falkirk. This completed September's programme with ICT up one precious spot to eleventh.
October started with a 2-2 draw away to Kilmarnock and a bizarre goal for each side making the headlines. Defensive errors led to a tap-in goal for Killie and an own-goal at the other end. Caley Thistle played Aberdeen twice in October but with no success. It was 1-2 on live TV at home (with Dennis Wyness netting his 100th goal) then an even more disappointing 1-4 at Pittodrie in the quarter final of the CIS Insurance Cup. Sandwiched between the Aberdeen matches was a convincing 4-0 win against Gretna at their ground-sharing home of Fir Park, Motherwell. The Gretna match was a basement battle and the result ensured that ICT moved up another vital notch to tenth. There were just three matches in November with 3-0 defeats to Rangers (away) and Motherwell (home) before a 1-0 win at home to St Mirren ensured the month ended in tenth spot. On 26 November Donald Park left his assistant head coach post to return south for family reasons and was quickly replaced by Malky Thomson. Thomson left his coaching post at Chester City to reunite with Brewster.
December was to prove much more successful. A narrow 1-0 win away to Dundee United was followed by a 2-0 win at home to Hibs with Niculae scoring both goals to end his SPL duck. The highlight of December was a classic home match against Celtic on Sunday the 16th. This live TV match was one that Gordon Strachan would refer to several times as the one that could have cost them the league title. Ironically former ICT hero Mark Brown was in the Celtic goal and at the wrong end of another ‘Ballistic' result. The match had everything - five goals, a spirited fight back, a red card, a penalty, a disallowed goal and a wonder save from home ‘keeper Mike Fraser. For the first 41 minutes Celtic looked well in control but John Rankin's converted penalty in 42 minutes spurred ICT on to a great second half performance and ultimate victory - all despite losing David Proctor to a red card. Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink had scored in both the 24th and 25th minutes to give Celtic the lead but when Rankin made it 2-1 just before the break there was hope. David Proctor headed an equaliser in 56 minutes, just eleven minutes before he was dismissed for a last-man tackle on Scott McDonald. In between the goal and the red card Don Cowie slid in to make it 3-2 for the home side and, despite the man disadvantage, Caley Thistle held on for victory. Celtic knew it was not their day when, in the dying minutes, Mike Fraser somehow pushed out a Stephen McManus header that looked destined for the top corner.
The purple patch continued six days later at Tynecastle when Hearts were defeated 3-2. Caley Thistle were 2-0 up, conceded two goals then Graham Bayne scored a winner two minutes into added time. Five SPL wins in a row led to a climb into the top six, albeit only for 24 hours until Aberdeen took a point from Rangers to go above ICT on goal difference. The only black spot of December was on Boxing Day when a flat performance at Falkirk led to a 1-0 defeat. It was much better three days later when Niculae scored twice in a 3-1 home win against Kilmarnock. The third goal came from Don Cowie whose superb performances and goals were proving vital. The calendar year was completed in a very creditable eighth spot and there was a double celebration when the SPL December awards for manager and player went to Craig Brewster and Marius Niculae.
2008 started with the 16th attempt to beat Aberdeen but the away league match ended 1-0 to the Dons thanks to a late Barry Nicholson penalty. Three days later it was back to winning ways with a convincing 3-0 home defeat of Gretna. This was to be ICT's last win until the next match against Gretna in April.
After leaving Inverness Donald Park became assistant manager at Raith Rovers for a short period before moving on 10 January to be assistant to new Hibs' manager Mixu Paatelainen. By coincidence the duo's first match was a Scottish Cup tie at Easter Road against ICT two days later. With the help of Park's inside knowledge Hibs easily won 3-0. A week later it was another big match, at home to Rangers in the league and once more in front of Setanta's cameras. ICT lived dangerously but a battling performance looked like earning a point until Rangers' substitute Jean-Claude Darcheville scored 90 seconds from time. Two blank Saturdays meant no more football in January but as usual the month was dominated by transfer talk and action.
Transfer activity usually resumes in January but this season it started early when, in December, Dean McDonald went back to former club Gillingham on trial. Things did not work out and he returned north for a few months before heading for Canada in March, returning to Inverness in April and being released at the end of the season. Stuart McCaffrey had been finding a regular first team slot difficult to achieve so in January he went off on loan to St Johnstone then signed a deal with the Perth club at the end of the season. John Rankin had fallen down the midfield pecking order and his departure was known in advance of the transfer window. After considering a number of options he joined Hibs. Alan Morgan moved to Kilmarnock after a short loan spell at St Johnstone. Rory McAllister went off on loan to Peterhead but returned for the tail end of the season. Phil McGuire signed a 2 ½ year permanent deal following his loan from Dunfermline. There was a financial bonus for the club when Barry Robson was transferred from Dundee United to Celtic for £1.25 million - his May 2003 move from Inverness to Tayside included a clause giving ICT a share of any future transfer fee.
February was a disappointing month but the 1-1 away draw at St Mirren on the ninth did include the club's 1000th goal scored by skipper Grant Munro. It was the same score at home to Dundee United a week later then three defeats on the road - 3-1 at Motherwell (the club's 500th league match), 2-0 against Hibs and 2-1 at Celtic Park. March was no better with a 3-0 defeat at home to Hearts, 0-1 away to Falkirk, 1-4 at Kilmarnock (ICT's 600th senior match) then a pulsating 4-3 defeat at home to Aberdeen. This match on 29 March will be remembered as a classic despite the result. It was 2-2 at half time then in the interval ICT were reduced to ten men with Russell Duncan's dismissal - he had been booked for an over exuberant celebration of his 39th minute goal then he kicked the ball into the stand after the Dons equalised just before the break. A dramatic second half saw a goal for either side then a last gasp winner by Chris Maguire for Aberdeen, four minutes into added time. Maguire was suspiciously offside and there was amazement when Dons manager Jimmy Calderwood embraced the linesman! Grant Munro was less than complimentary to the officials as he left the pitch and was shown a red card in the referee's room ten minutes after the final whistle.
In early March the Gretna bubble burst and they were forced into administration. An immediate ten-point penalty was enforced and this should have eased any last remaining relegation worries for the rest of the lower SPL clubs. Instead there were rumours that, if Gretna went out of business before the end of the season, another team would be relegated. Crunch time was the period leading up to their match away to Aberdeen on 15 March - the administrator had doubts as to whether a team could be fielded and the media carried alternative league tables with points won against Gretna removed. ICT would lie ninth just three points from the foot. In the event the Aberdeen match went ahead and emergency SPL funding assisted temporary survival. Gretna were to survive to the end of the season but their existence beyond that was in grave doubt. On 29 March they lost to St Mirren and were formally relegated.
On 5 April Caley Thistle's long run of no wins (11 games) ended with a 2-1 victory away to Gretna - but the score flattered the home side. This was the last match before the SPL split and Caley Thistle took their place in the bottom six. Kilmarnock were soundly beaten 3-0 at home on the 19th and April ended on a disappointing note with a 1-0 defeat away to Hearts. On 3 May Gretna came back north and were soundly beaten 6-1. Despite their troubles Gretna put up a strong performance but were eventually crushed by a new ICT SPL record score. The six goals came from six different players including Barry Wilson who had spent March on loan to St Johnstone. This move, in his testimonial year, had looked like the end of his long ICT career but he came back to produce some stirring performances, score his 82nd and 83rd goals (and become the club's second top goalscorer) and earn a new deal. The final match on 17 May saw St Mirren come to Inverness but, despite creating chances, neither side could score and the whistle went on another season. This still left the final league position undecided but two days later St Mirren lost to Rangers and ICT were confirmed in ninth spot.
Don Cowie ended an excellent first season in the SPL by taking all the ‘Player of the Year' titles and he was also the player with the most appearances - 41 out of a possible 42. Marius Niculae was top of the goalscoring charts with ten and Don Cowie was runner up with nine.
International recognition was achieved by a number of players at different levels - Dale Gillespie played for Scotland under 19s, Rory McAllister appeared for Scotland's under 21 side, young goalkeeper Andrew McNulty was named as a standby player for the Republic of Ireland under 19 squad in March, Richard Hastings returned to the Canadian full international side and Marius Niculae was reinstated to the Romanian team prior to Euro 2008. While the focus of attention is naturally the first team congratulations must go to the youngsters. The reserve side pushed hard for the SPL Reserve League title and finished as runners up to Celtic. Congratulations also to the under 14 and under 17 sides that won their respective age groups in Dublin's Umbro Cup in August.
At the annual Highlands and Islands Business Awards in November the club was presented with a Special Achievement Award to reflect the many successful aspects of the club in addition to football. On 7 September the ICT Supporters' Trust held a fund raising dinner and inaugurated a Hall of Fame for past players. It is intended that this will be an annual event and the first inductees were Bobby Mann, Mike Teasdale, Mike Noble, Alan Hercher and Jim Calder. Club secretary Jim Falconer received a special award for his long service on the administrative side of the club. In January the Rev Hugh Watt took over as club chaplain in succession to long-serving Arthur Fraser.
As has been the pattern most years the composition of the board changed during the season. Mike Crowe of Lifescan resigned due to a move back to his native United States and he was replaced by David Cameron. Alan Savage stood down as chairman in April and Rok's George Fraser took over the post.
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