Friday, August 11, 2017

Caley Thistle's summer from hell (and how Ross County are making the most of it)

Invernesians tend to display a significant level of snobbery when it comes to Dingwall, a small town just to the north but which is rather less pretty and rather less affluent.  And as in life, so on the football pitch.  Caley Thistle and Ross County joined the Scottish Football League in 1994, and they have spent twelve of their twenty-three seasons in the same division as each other; however, it was always ICT who managed promotion first, who always seemed to be a step ahead.

Quite right too, their supporters would say; Inverness is one of Europe's fastest growing cities, while you could fit the whole population of Dingwall into the Global Energy Stadium (a ground named after a sponsor? Another reason to look down on them).  In fact, they would add, County are only where they are because they are bankrolled by Roy MacGregor, Scotland's 82nd richest man and the closest thing this part of the world has to Uncle Pennybags from Monopoly.

It's that sort of superior attitude that led Caley Thistle to arrogantly adopt 'Pride of the Highlands' as their motto.  Well, pride comes before a fall.  Caley Thistle are falling fast.

Relegation comes as a blow to any football club, but it has hit them far harder than most, and far harder than it should have.  'Turmoil' does not seem a strong enough word to describe their summer, which so far has seen the following:
  • the resignation of the chairman, Kenny Cameron
  • a subsequent delay of the inevitable sacking of manager Richie Foran, during which time he was making decisions on retaining and releasing players he wouldn't be coaching
  • the appointment of a new manager, John Robertson, who didn't even apply for the job
  • initially announcing season ticket prices were to be frozen (which meant, given there is one fewer home game in the Championship, that they were more expensive per game), coupled with a press release that seemed to suggest promotion was a certainty
  • the dismissal of stalwart youth coach Duncan Shearer by voicemail, followed by a cackhanded attempt to honour him by offering to hold a 'Duncan Shearer Cup' game between youth teams
  • trying to cajole a Highland League team into letting their best player sign for us for no transfer fee, and then suggesting that somehow they were the ones at fault
  • Twittergate, which would have just given a few folk a wee laugh had the club not decided to release a statement drawing the entire world's attention to it
  • oh, and don't forget the loss of several first team players
Caley Thistle's relegation was not bad luck, nor was it fate.  Bad decisions and a lack of leadership have led them into this mess, and recent events suggest plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.  The only difference is that this year they will toil against Brechin and Dumbarton rather than Kilmarnock and Motherwell.

Meanwhile on the other side of the Kessock Bridge County have begun their sixth consecutive top flight season in rude health.  Their opening day win at Dundee bodes well for the weeks to come.  And their midfield has just been boosted by the £100,000 signing of...Ross Draper, erstwhile of Inverness Caledonian Thistle.

Caley Thistle are as the Carthaginians, who have spent too much time thumbing their noses at Ross County's Romans over the water and too late realised that the upstarts have superseded them in every respect. Not only do they not have a Hannibal to lead them out of their troubles, but they've just sold Draper, the closest thing Scottish football has to a war elephant, to their deadliest rivals.

Make no mistake, Draper is an excellent fit for Jim McIntyre's side and has been signed purely on footballing merit. But for County fans, and I daresay for the club, the opportunity to rub their neighbour's noses in it is a welcome bonus.  The numerous selfies posted online by supporters with Draper and Billy Mckay, another erstwhile Caley Thistle hero signed by County in recent weeks, have been like Harry Potter Dementors in pictorial form, sucking away our souls.  £100,000 has bought a very decent footballer, along with an opportunity to twist the knife a bit.

There has been little, if any, ill-will towards Draper, no crys of "Judas" or "Et tu, Ross?" If he was miserable at ICT it didn't reflect itself in the efforts he put in on the pitch.  Yet he had plenty of reason to be fed up.  For eighteen months he had been played mostly out of position, not allowed to display his qualities properly as a defensive midfielder and instead used as an offensive battering ram in the thoughtless assumption that a six foot five inch brick s**thouse of a player should always be deployed as such.  The nadir came when Foran inexplicably dropped him for a crucial derby in Dingwall late in the season.  The home team won 4-0.

Draper still had two years left on a lucrative contract at Caledonian Stadium, yet he could also be forgiven for wondering if Caley Thistle would let him see the end of it.  The admission that the six figure transfer fee will not go towards the playing budget also confirmed what many have suspected; that the club is struggling financially.  There was an EGM last week that somewhat flew under the radar - no gazebos in the middle of the pitch up here - the outcome of which is that a million quid's worth of new shares will be created.  The rumour is that these will be used to convert the soft loans keeping us afloat into equity further down the line.  This is not the most reassuring long-term strategy.

It has become increasingly apparent that too many players were receiving ridiculous remuneration.  Goalkeeper Owain Fon Williams has been frozen out.  Stalwart defender David Raven has been, for the second consecutive summer, invited to find a new club.  It was revealed that forward flop Scott Boden's release freed up enough wages to fund two new players, with some change left over; Boden had signed a three year deal, and scored a single league goal.  Whilst John Robertson had made it clear that Draper was factored into this season's budget, what about next year, especially if, as seems likely, there is no return to the Premiership?

And having watched so many of his teammates from the 2015 Scottish Cup winning side move onto better things, its no surprise that he jumped ship too.  And he is indeed moving onto better things - a better run club, a higher standard of football, probably a bit more money.  Not much more - one of the endearing things about County and Roy MacGregor is that his millions have been spent mainly on establishing themselves as a real Community Club.  MacGregor will come up with the funds when required to preserve their top flight status, but he's mainly worked on integrating the club with the locals.

Contrast ICT's botched season ticket launch with County's decision to offer cut price season tickets in the Jail End behind the goal.  Contrast the excellent communication with ICT's PR disasters and their lapsed June promise to have a fans/players/manager event before the season started.  Contrast County's Development League-winning youth squad with ICT's decision to pull out of the Development League altogether.

And going by Draper's own take - that the clubs agreed the fee but Caley Thistle insisted the player submit a transfer request before they would sanction the move, to try to deflect criticism for selling him - it seems that dignity is in rather short supply too.

It is said that it is always darkest before the dawn: the sun isn't rising over Caledonian Stadium anytime soon.  It's shining on the other side of the Kessock Bridge, and Ross County are using it to make hay.

Lawrie Spence (LS) has ranted and spouted his ill-informed opinions on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007.  He has a life outside this blog.  Honestly.

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