The same day that Clachnacuddin of Inverness were due to host Huntly of the Highland League, last weekend Scottish Cup holders Caley Thistle were taking on SPL champions Celtic. Caley result from a 1994 merger, while Clach remain resolutely independent. Tony Dawber headed up the River Ness to meet former Inverness Thistle’s Allan McDonald and Clachnacuddin vice-chairman Alex Chisholm. Top-flight football in a family-friendly stadium or honest Highland League fare?
Backdropped by the snow-capped Cairngorms and straddling the Ness, the city of Inverness is spectacularly set. The Tulloch Caledonian Stadium, home of local Premiership side Inverness Caledonian Thistle, is only yards from the windswept Moray Firth.
And these days the football is matching the scenery.
Now an established top-flight side, the Caley Jags saw off Falkirk last May to win the Scottish Cup, their finest achievement. Next week, victory for the cup holders at Hibernian would seal a return to Hampden Park for the semi-final of this season’s competition.
It’s a real modern-day success story for a club only founded 22 years ago – but there are more sides to the game in the self-styled Capital of the Highlands. It’s a tale of fine tradition, fierce local rivalry, a painful merger and a separate club who took the high road and didn’t waver.
Before 1994, Inverness was a three-team town.
Caledonian FC played at Telford Street Park and Clachnacuddin at Grant Street Park, in working class localities across the Ness from the city centre. The third team was Inverness Thistle, whose ground was on a hill south of town, surrounded by grander housing, prompting Clach and Caley followers to joke that their better-off rivals looked down on the other two.
‘Derby games, especially on Boxing Day, were really hard-fought affairs,’ says Allan MacDonald, who spent 16 seasons at Thistle up to 1994. ‘They had such a great atmosphere. With the crowd so close to the pitch you could hear every comment shouted at you.’
‘Our crowds used to be 150-300 but there would be up to 1,000 for these derby games at Christmas when people came back to see their families.’
‘There was no bar at the old ground. We think it was because of the strong Church influence in the Highlands in days gone by. At half-time, many in the crowd would dash down the road for a quick drink in the Corriegarth pub and then rush back for the second half.’
MacDonald has experienced many aspects of football in the Highlands, recently coaching at Clachnacuddin and in the youth set-up at Ross County, in nearby Dingwall. ‘I was playing as a local amateur in my home village Fort Augustus by Loch Ness,’ relates MacDonald. ‘The referee was a Thistle player and invited me for a trial. That’s how I ended up there.’
Back in 1973, MacDonald remembers how Thistle came within a single vote of getting in the Scottish League, only to be pipped by Edinburgh-based Ferranti Thistle, who became Meadowbank Thistle and later Livingston FC.
The city’s remote setting discouraged Scottish League clubs from accepting an Inverness club into their ranks. Similarly, many locals were wary of committing to the national set-up for the same reason. The Highland League, though parochial, was of a very decent standard. As transport links improved, it became clear that Inverness had the potential to join the Scottish League.
But which club? The two local teams – or all three – joining forces would surely bolster the city’s claim?
After much debate, it was Caledonian and Thistle who decided to merger.
‘The Highland League has always been a good league but it was clear people wanted to see a higher standard of football,’ says Alex Chisholm, vice-chairman of Clachnacuddin. ‘We did not oppose the merger and wished them luck but we decided we wanted to keep our identity.’
And what an identity it is. Their name, ‘Stone of the Tubs’ in Scottish Gaelic, refers to the large boulder that once stood outside Grant Street Park, where Inverness folk would rest the tub holding the clothes they had washed in the nearby river before continuing home.
Grant Street Park lies in the working class neighbourhood of Merkinch, wedged between the Ness and the Caledonian Canal north of the city centre, is still a place of legend.
‘The crowd were so passionate and they gave you some real stick,’ one retired Highland League stalwart recalls. ‘But I loved going there.’
As for the two-club merger, MacDonald concedes that most eventually agreed it was for the best. All the same, it was bitter sweet for the Thistle faithful. ‘I was injured towards the end of Thistle’s last season,’ he remembers. ‘Even though I wasn’t really fit, they brought me on as sub in the very last game at home to Lossiemouth. It was a very emotional day. We even lost 2-0.’
Historically, there had been little to choose between the two clubs but Caledonian (‘Caley’) were the better side at the time of the merger and had more financial clout.
Thistle loyalists always insisted a ‘them and us’ situation developed. Caley boss, former Dynamo Kiev and Ipswich star Sergei Baltacha, was placed in charge of the merged club. Fewer Thistle players made it to the the new squad.
‘There were some very strong opinions at the time. A lot of people, especially Thistle fans, vowed never to watch the new club,’ explains MacDonald.
But with the growing success, animosity has faded. Most fans now back the new set-up, old loyalties just cherished memories.
Ironically, though, given the city’s population close to 50,000, Inverness Caley’s average attendance struggles to reach 4,000. By contrast, SPL rivals Ross County, from a town, Dingwall, of barely 5,500 souls, regularly attract better crowds.
Back at Clachnacuddin, Alex Chisholm reckons Caley Thistle fans will often roll up at Grant Street Park if their own team are away.
‘We had no problem with the formation of Inverness Caledonian Thistle but we were happy with where we were,’ says Chisholm. ‘We have no regrets about staying out of the merger.’
According to Chisholm, many fans of the pre-merger clubs loved watching their football in old Highland League settings rather than hike it to a modern, out-of-town and rather sanitised stadium, the Tulloch Caledonian. ‘They relish the chance to go along to a Clach game and still experience something gritty and intimate.’
Chisholm also claims that the Highland League remains a highly competitive set-up. Even when Clach battle it out against the likes of Turriff United or Forres Mechanics while Celtic rock up across town, Chisholm insists Clach’s core support love the intimacy of their home patch.
So, visitors to Inverness can enjoy top-flight football at a gleaming new stadium or still see the rough and tumble of the Highland League. And, of course, all that spectacular scenery.