With the Glasgow and Edinburgh derbies in disarray for 2014-15, further north their Highland counterparts are showing what can be done when supporters come first. Tom Gard treks to Inverness and Dingwall, homes of Caledonian Thistle and Ross County, who face each other this Friday in the last Highland Derby of the season.
Scotland’s own El Clásico, the Highland Derby of El Kessocko is nicknamed after the Kessock Bridge that links its two rivals across the Beauly Firth. Set where the River Ness empties from the famous Loch of the same name, Britain’s northernmost top-flight local dust-up involves two clubs whose league status was achieved with the 1994 restructure of the Scottish game: Inverness Caledonian Thistle and Ross County.
Friday’s last El Kessocko of the season sees each rival seeking different outcomes. Caley need three points to keep alive minimal hopes of a first-ever European slot. County, from the wee town of Dingwall 14 miles north, are uncomfortably close to the dreaded 11th spot and a first-ever Premiership promotion/relegation play-off against contenders from the Championship below.
Exactly two decades after the league restructure elevated the status of the Highland game, another administrative revamp could change the fortunes of football’s two prime clubs in this far-flung region.
Caley’s biggest challenge is to draw out more fans from Inverness itself. The UK’s fastest growing city, with a population more than ten times that of Dingwall, is so steeped in history, whisky trails and Nessie seekers that it doesn’t need to define itself through football.
Despite their progress, average crowds at the purpose-built Tulloch Caledonian Stadium on the banks of Moray Firth have so far failed to breach the 4,000 mark. Caley still have to live with the scorn of a few refuseniks who, 20 years on, still hanker for the Highland League and its cross-city rivalry. League status came at a price, the merger of Inverness Thistle and Caledonian FC to create Inverness Caledonian Thistle.
The response has been to make the club as democratic and non-hierarchical as possible. Caley’s Supporters’ Trust organises match-day travel, fund-raising events and monthly meetings with the chairman and the manager, all bringing the club closer to the fans.
The stadium may bear the name of chairman Kenny Cameron’s company Tulloch Homes, but it is not unusual to find him enjoying a post-match pint with the regulars at the splendid city-centre ICT Social Club. Opposition fans and globetrotting football tourists are equally welcome. Buses shuttle between social club and stadium on match days.
Trust chairman David Balfour puts success on the pitch down to the inclusive ethos off it. ‘Our squad is largely made up of some local lads, loanees and players we’ve picked up from the lower leagues in England,’ he says, amid the din of the post-match banter. ‘Our keeper Dean Brill was third choice at Luton in Conference before he came here. Big names, big egos just wouldn’t fit the model. People buy in to what we are doing here – and it works.’
Up in Dingwall the model is more traditional. A Premier League club in a town of 5,000 needs bankrolling. County chairman is former youth team player Roy McGregor, whose locally-based Global Energy is a multinational force.
Amazingly, County’s average gates are a couple of hundred higher than their Inverness rivals. Founded in 1929, their greater tradition and slightly more northerly location make them the club of choice for fans from the crofting communities and small towns of the Highland hinterlands.
Hardened by years of traversing the single lanes of the local A roads to get to Highland League games, fans from Wick and Thurso on the extreme tip of mainland Scotland think nothing of a four-hour round trip to Dingwall.
Each of Friday’s rivals was a founding member of the Highland League, formed at the Inverness Workman’s Club in August 1893. By the November, Ross County had fallen out with their rivals and resigned. Inverness Thistle won the inaugural trophy, and seven further titles, though then city rivals Caledonian went on to claim a record 18 championships, equal with current Highland Leaguers Clachnacuddin.
Recalcitrant Ross County returned to the League to notch up three wins, two by pipping Caledonian to the title in 1991 and 1992. Two years later, a century of tradition was put to the sword with the Inverness merger.
In the 20 seasons since, Inverness Caledonian Thistle and Ross County have suffered different fates.
Caley, The Jags, have been a top-flight fixture for all but one of the last ten seasons. In his four at the helm, former Rangers and England defender Terry Butcher steered Caley to the upper reaches of the highest division before his defection to Hibernian last November.
Caley’s campaign has stalled in the aftermath of a first appearance in a major cup final, losing on penalties to Aberdeen in the Scottish League Cup after a tense goalless stalemate at Celtic Park.
The Staggies from Dingwall had already made a major final thanks to a famous semi-final win over Celtic in the Scottish Cup of 2010. The populace of the town and surrounding countryside headed back to Hampden Park a month later to see then League One County go down 3-0 to Dundee United. The Staggies joined their Highland rivals in the top flight in 2012.
Going into Friday night’s game, this season each rival has one derby win to its name. Behind the scenes, the two clubs enjoy a healthy level of cooperation for the good of the game in the Highlands, most notably as partners in the Highland Football Academy.
Bolted on to the back of County’s Global Energy Stadium, scene of Friday’s clash, a modern indoor and outdoor complex, with professional coaching, draws in young hopefuls from as far away as the Isle of Lewis.
One of them might just make the Highland Football Wall of Fame, one that includes County product and Scotland international Don Cowie, former Bolton favourite John McGinlay and a certain Tommy Ross. Playing for the Staggies in a Highland League fixture in 1964. Ross scored the world’s fastest hat-trick, inside 90 seconds – a record that still stands to this day.