A traumatic season with a change of management in early January, the highs of two good cup runs and the desperate low of relegation from the SPL. The campaign had started so well with a win at Aberdeen that meant top of the league for a week but after game 38 relegation was confirmed.
Inverness Caledonian Thistle fans have been very lucky. In 14 seasons they witnessed three promotions, one Bell’s Cup win, two Scottish Cup semi finals and several ‘giant killing’ exploits. It was perhaps inevitable that there would be a setback and it happened in 2008/09.
The spectre of relegation hung over the club for much of the season and it became a major issue after eight straight league defeats from 29 November to 24 January. The board took drastic action in January with the sacking of Craig Brewster and Malky Thomson then put their faith and money on Terry Butcher and Maurice Malpas. The new management duo lifted the spirits around the club and the team began to claw its way back up the league table. By early April ninth place had been achieved and this was the position held after the first two post split matches. In the end it went down to the wire as chances to achieve safety were missed with the loss of late goals to Motherwell and Kilmarnock in matches 36 and 37. In the final match of the season, at home to Falkirk, both sides had everything to play for and you could cut the tension around the stadium with a knife. A single Falkirk goal was enough to send ICT down to Irn Bru Division One.
There was a flurry of transfer activity in the close season and in the period between the start of training on 1 July and a pre season trip to Denmark. Former Aberdeen ‘keeper Ryan Esson arrived from Hereford United to challenge Mike Fraser for the number one jersey. Defender Lionel Djebi-Zadi signed from German side SC Verl – he had spent the 2005/06 season with Ross County so was no stranger to the Highlands. After a long chase striker Andy Barrowman arrived from Ross County – his 29 goals for County in 2007/08 made him a target of many clubs but he chose to stay in the Highlands. Fans’ favourite Graham Bayne left for Dunfermline in the hope of regular first team football and Richie Hart joined Ross County for similar reasons after signing a pre-contract agreement during 2007/08. Dennis Wyness left for St Mirren, Craig Brewster hung up his boots, young defender Ally MacDonald went to Elgin and squad defender Steven Watt joined Ross County. Dean McDonald left the club by mutual agreement and headed for talks with English Conference side Rushden & Diamonds. By arrangement both Richard Hastings and Marius Niculae came back late to pre season training – Hastings helped Canada to reach stage 2 of the 2010 World Cup qualifiers and Niculae played for Romania at Euro 2008.
On Sunday 20 July the squad flew out from Edinburgh to Denmark for a pre season training camp and three games. Marius Niculae did not travel but instead flew to Romania to sort out some personal business amidst rumours that his days in Inverness were numbered. It was no secret that the club was prepared to let him go if the price was right and he was keen to move back to Romania. With a year left of his ICT contract he could have returned but the odds were long. German side Kaiserlautern submitted a hefty bid but Dinamo Bucharest won the race. Negotiations were concluded on 31 July and Craig Brewster continued his search for another striker. On the flight to Copenhagen was trialist Stoke City striker Adam Rooney – he eventually signed up and became the club’s leading goalscorer in 2008-09, albeit with just six goals. It was not to prove a memorable season for goalscoring. The Danish trip included three matches and all were drawn - 1-1 with Lolland-Falster Alliancen, 1-1 with FC Nordsjaelland and 4-4 with Herfolge Boldklub.
The pre season programme included a very special match against Ross County on 15 July with the first Tony Fraser Memorial Trophy match. County won 3-2 in what is planned as a permanent salute to the late and much lamented Tony Fraser who drove both the ICT and County team buses for many years. Teams with a mix of youth and experience made the usual round of Highland League grounds and St Johnstone visited on 19 July only to lose 4-2. Clach were beaten 3-0 in the ITP North Cup on 28 July then the final pre season match took place at Burnley. This was a landmark with the club’s first official visit south of the border – excluding league matches at Berwick and a break at RAF Catterick in May 1997. Burnley won 2-1.
The real business of the season started at Aberdeen on 9 August and this 2-0 SPL victory was the first time Caley Thistle had beaten the Dons in a senior match. It may have been just day one of the season but it was great to see the team sit proudly at the top of the league. It only lasted a week as newly promoted Hamilton came to Inverness for the first ever league meeting between the sides and won 1-0. There was a night of nostalgia on 18 August as Liverpool sent a young team to play ICT in Barry Wilson’s testimonial match. It was a great night all round, apart from the rain, with a 5-0 victory for the home side being a bonus. A mammoth squad of 23 home players included many former ICT stars and all played for at least part of the game. A 1-1 draw at home to Hibs and a 2-1 away victory at Falkirk meant August was completed in fifth place in the league. The renamed Co-op Insurance Cup campaign started on 27 August with a narrow victory at Arbroath but only after a 2-2 draw and a penalty shoot-out.
September in the SPL comprised just three matches with defeats to Hearts and St Mirren then a 3-1 victory at home to Kilmarnock. This win led to a climb to fourth but this was to be the last time in the top six. Round three of the Co-op Insurance Cup took ICT to Greenock on 23 September and another hard match. It went to extra time but this time a late Dougie Imrie goal gave a 2-1 victory against Morton without the necessity of penalties. Things went downhill in both the SPL and Co-op Insurance Cup in October. League defeats to Dundee United, Celtic and Motherwell meant a drop to tenth and a single goal defeat away to Falkirk ended the cup run at the quarter final stage. In October Markus Paatelainen left the club by mutual consent to allow him to fully recover from long term injury in his native Finland.
On 1 November it was off to Ibrox with little optimism after the bad spell. The mood was made worse by a proverbial 5-0 drubbing. It was 4-0 after just 27 minutes then 5-0 on the stroke of half-time. It could have been much worse as the defence was stiffened at the break and a better second half meant at least the leakage was stopped. The rest of November was better with league victories against Hibs and Kilmarnock, a draw with Falkirk and single goal defeats to Hearts and Celtic. This all led to a minor climb to ninth. The Celtic defeat was the start of the eight game run of league defeats which was really the undoing of the season. This ran until 24 January with the only glimmer of light being the 3-0 home victory against Partick Thistle on 10 January in round four of the renamed Homecoming Scottish Cup. This was to be Craig Brewster’s last victory with the club.
17 January away to Hamilton was crunch time as twelfth (ICT) played eleventh (Hamilton). Hamilton reduced admission prices to improve their support and ICT ran free supporters’ buses for this first visit to New Douglas Park. There was certainly an increased away support and it made a lot of noise – not all of it positive. The weather was awful, the match not much better and Hamilton won by a solitary penalty goal. With the team rooted at the foot of the league, a point adrift of Falkirk, the Board took a hard but inevitable decision – two days after the match they relieved Craig Brewster and Malky Thomson of their duties. Brewster’s 100th league match in charge proved to be his last.
As speculation mounted about the managerial succession there was one league game to be played away to Hearts. Coaches John Docherty and Stuart Garden took charge and it proved to be a fantastic match – but it ended in 3-2 disappointment for Caley Thistle. Two minutes from time Dougie Imrie had brought the visitors back to 2-2 with a goal direct from a 30 yard free kick which the BBC radio commentators described as one of the best free kicks they had ever seen. The joy was short lived as Laryea Kingston netted for 3-2 just one minute later.
For eight days the press had a field day banding around names of potential managers. Clearly the chance to manage an SPL side was attractive and many potential candidates came out of the woodwork. The most surprising was Argentinian World Cup winner Ossie Ardiles – with a less than successful management career behind him, and little knowledge of Inverness and the Scottish game, he was very much an outside bet. Archie Knox, John Robertson and Chris Sutton were interviewed but the Board’s vote went to former Motherwell manager Terry Butcher assisted by Maurice Malpas. The announcement took place at 5pm on 27 January giving the new men just six days to bring in reinforcements before the January window (extended by two days as 31 January was a Saturday) slammed shut. The task for the new men was clear – SPL survival.
The January transfer window saw more action than normal and at times it was hard to keep track. Long serving midfielder Barry Wilson’s contract was up in mid January but he was released a couple of weeks early to allow him to join Queen of the South – in two spells with the club he scored 83 goals in 353 appearances and deservedly achieved hero status. Midfielder Don Cowie signed a contract to join Watford in the summer but agreement was reached between the clubs and Cowie left immediately. Goalkeeper Mike Fraser signed a pre contract agreement to join Motherwell at the end of the season and influential midfielder Ian Black did the same with Hearts. Striker Rory McAllister left for Brechin and defender Guy Kerr, who had been on loan at Elgin City, joined East Fife. Young goalkeeper Andy McNulty returned to Elgin City on loan after recovering from injury and Dale Gillespie also joined Elgin on loan for the remainder of the season. Just before he left the club Craig Brewster brought in four players – Filipe Morais and Thierry Gathuessi from Hibs, Latvian Pavels Mihadjuks and Richie Byrne. The new management team quickly signed Richie Foran, Eric Odhiambo and Brian Kerr on short term deals.
Terry Butcher and Maurice Malpas took over a side lying bottom of the SPL, two points behind eleventh placed Falkirk, so clearly the only way was up. There was a baptism of fire on 1 February with a home match against Celtic but it proved a major tonic as it ended 0-0. The precious point did nothing for the league position but there was now hope. The following Saturday it was round five of the Homecoming Scottish Cup and a fine 2-0 home victory against Kilmarnock. Back to the league and a 1-1 draw at Dundee United, a 2-0 home win against Hibs and a 2-1 away defeat to Motherwell meant that ICT completed the February programme still propping up the SPL.
On Wednesday 4 March there was a daunting trip to Ibrox but it was to be a match that changed both the top and bottom of the SPL. The visitors made no apology for a defensive game plan and it looked as if it would end 0-0 until a dramatic injury time. David Weir brought down David Proctor in the Rangers’ box, the defender saw red and Caley Thistle were awarded a penalty. The coolest man at Ibrox was Ian Black as he stepped up to confidently score a dramatic winner. Caley Thistle moved up a vital place to eleventh and Rangers were knocked off the top. The following Saturday it was the Homecoming Scottish Cup quarter final and a home tie against Falkirk. The season seemed to be all about Fakirk and they did the same as they had in the Co-op Insurance Cup by winning 1-0. Two good cup runs but two disappointing defeats to the Bairns. Terry Butcher described the next SPL match at home to Kilmarnock as ‘ugly football’ but it paid off with a 2-1 win. There was confidence going down to Falkirk on 21 March but once more the Bairns took the honours. This time they did it in style with a 4-0 result that meant no change to the league positions but the gap between them was reduced to one point.
There were mixed fortunes in April but it started well with a 2-1 home win against St Mirren that pushed ICT up to ninth above Falkirk, St Mirren and Kilmarnock. The optimism lasted a short time as a defeat at Aberdeen and a home draw against Hamilton meant back to eleventh spot. The post split matches began with a 2-1 away win at St Mirren’s new ground which pushed ICT up to ninth and this was held with another draw at home to Hamilton. There was now real hope of SPL survival and spirits were cautiously high. On 13 May a midweek match at Motherwell could have led to another SPL season and it was looking good at 2-1 with eleven minutes left. A goal from John Sutton changed the mood and thoughts turned to the next Saturday’s visit to Kilmarnock’s Rugby Park. With the score at 0-0 things were once more optimistic but a 79th minute goal from Kevin Kyle gave Killie victory and set up an ‘all or nothing’ home match with Falkirk on the final day of the season.
A large travelling support came up from Falkirk to cheer their side on and home fans also turned out in large numbers for what was arguably the biggest match in the club’s history. Falkirk had to win to survive but Caley Thistle only needed a draw. Even with defeat there was an outside chance of survival if Hamilton could defeat St Mirren by two goals more than those lost by Caley Thistle. This would have relegated St Mirren. In the event Hamilton did win but only by 1-0. In the 15 years of the unified club’s existence this was the first time that relegation had loomed so large but with home advantage and just a point needed the odds were in favour of ICT. A wonder save from Falkirk ‘keeper Dani Mallo in the 12th minute, a red card for Ross Tokely just before the interval and a goal from Falkirk’s Michael Higdon in the 68th minute changed all that.
The tension was almost unbearable for both sets of fans but it looked good for the Inverness contingent in the 12th minute when Filipe Morais forced his way to the bye line and his cut-back left Richie Foran with a seemingly empty goal. From six yards out he hit goalwards and as the home crowd rose to its feet Dani Mallo appeared from nowhere to save. It was a major turning point and proved to be Caley Thistle’s best chance. The odds turned in Falkirk’s favour in 39 minutes when Ross Tokely and Lovell chased a ball heading towards the home area – there appeared to be a minor tussle and Lovell went down. After checking with his assistant, referee Eddie Smith showed Tokely a straight red card. It seemed very harsh and the home crowd made their feelings known to the referee for a long time afterwards. Terry Butcher sacrificed Roy McBain and introduced Russell Duncan at right back with Pavels Mihadjuks moving into Tokely’s central defensive role. The ten men continued to take the game to Falkirk after the interval but it all counted for nothing as Michael Higdon netted just three minutes after coming on as a substitute. The south stand erupted in a sea of blue as the Falkirk fans saw survival on the horizon. Falkirk held out for victory and for Caley Thistle it was back to the first division after five seasons in the top flight.
For many supporters the club’s relegation was directly related to the leakage of key players over recent seasons. The loss of Mark Brown in January 2007 and Darren Dods four months later were defensive watersheds and they were followed by John Rankin, Marius Niculae, Craig Dargo, Dennis Wyness, Graham Bayne and the retiral from playing of Craig Brewster. Youth had been given its head to fill the gaps but it did not work. The influx of players in January brought experience to the side and it nearly paid dividends. The new players all arrived on short term deals so important decisions now needed to be made as to who would be released and who would stay in the club’s reduced financial circumstances. The close season would most certainly be a time for rebuilding.
Nobody played in all 44 of the club’s senior matches but Dougie Imrie managed a very creditable 43 including six substitute appearances. Ross Tokely was close behind on 42. Top goalscorer was Adam Rooney with just six – testament to the season-long problem of finding the net. Ian Black won four ‘Player of the Year’ awards having been voted top player by his fellow players, the Supporters’ Club, the match-by-match judges from the Matchday Programme and those of CaleyThistleOnline.com. Ross Tokely broke the sequence by taking the Flybe Supporters’ Player of the Year award. On the international front Richard Hastings played regularly for Canada including earning his fiftieth cap against Honduras in September. Jamie Duff played for Scotland’s Under 21 side against Northern Ireland in November – he was a last-minute call-up to the squad but played from the start – and Ian Black played for the Scotland ‘B’ side in May, also against Northern Ireland. Shane Sutherland won the Clydesdale Bank U19 Rising Star award for August 2008. Liam Polworth & Matthew Murphy were called up to a training camp for Scotland’s Under 15 squad in June 2009. Pavels Mihadjuks was brought into the Latvian squad for two World Cup qualifying games but he remained on the bench for both. In August the club sent Under 13 and Under 14 squads to Dublin to take part in the annual Umbro Cup. The Under 13s beat St Josephs in a penalty shoot-out to take the trophy for their age group and the Under 14s went out on penalties to FC Town in the semi final of the older age group competition. The boys were great ambassadors for the club on and off the field and many parents made the trip to Dublin to cheer them on. A young Caley Thistle side reached the final of the ITP Solutions North Cup by defeating Clach, Brora Rangers and Wick Academy on the way. The match was played at Grant Street Park on 21 September but it ended in disappointment with Nairn County, managed by ex Caley Thistle ‘keeper Les Fridge, winning 2-0.
In February the under 19 squad headed for a training camp in Antalya, Turkey with coaches Scott Kellacher, Fiona McWilliams and Alec Clelland. The trip included four matches and there were three wins and one draw. The only downside was the broken leg suffered by Daniel Park in training. The Under 19 side then went on to create their own bit of history when they beat Celtic in a penalty shoot-out to reach the semi final of the SFA Youth Cup. In the semi-final on 29 March they went down 6-2 to Rangers at Ibrox. The occasion was marred by a double jaw fracture to ‘keeper Kyle Allison and he was taken to Glasgow’s Southern General Hospital. Happily both Daniel and Kyle are on the road to recovery and should be back in action next season.
Willie Finlayson joined the Board in February but long serving member and former chairman Ken Mackie announced that he would be standing down at the end of the season. There was economic good cheer in December when Flybe announced an extension of their sponsorship contract until July 2010. In December the club lost its Life President with the death of John ‘Jock’ McDonald OBE. Jock was a major influence in the unified club’s achievement of league status and was its first chairman. The club suffered a further loss in May when its oldest season ticket holder Bunty Grant passed away at the grand old age of 95. Tulloch Caledonian Stadium will certainly not be the same without the presence of Jock and Bunty.