Monday, January 1, 2018

An ode to David Raven

In their short history, Caley Thistle have had their share of cult heroes at right-back.. 

As they climbed the divisions, there was Mike Teasdale, a gritty, combative player with long messy hair and occasionally a ponytail that borderlined on offensive. He chipped in with a few goals too, including one beauty in a derby win in Dingwall - the one where Ross County's Alex Bone got shown three red cards.

After that there was Ross Tokely, who looked more like a henchman from a Bond movie than a footballer. Tall, built like a house and blessed not so much with pace than momentum, he defied my own father's certainty that every year ICT were promoted he would be found out at the next level to represent the club in all four divisions. He holds the club's appearances record by absolute miles; it'll probably never be broken.

And then there was David Raven.

When Terry Butcher was in charge of Inverness, he had a knack for finding gems in the lower leagues of England - Gary Warren, Josh Meekings, Dean Brill, Marley Watkins, Greg Tansey, Ross Draper and Billy Mckay to name a few. Raven arrived in the summer of '12 from Tranmere Rovers, but his background was different. I thought I recognised the name from somewhere, and I was right: he had been in Pro Evolution Soccer 4! For Raven actually had a pedigree -  he had been in Liverpool's academy and made a handful of first team appearances for them, as well as representing England at several youth levels.

He certainly didn't look like a pedigree, more a cross-breed between a philosopher from Ancient Greece and a Tour De France cyclist. Still just 27 at the time, Raven's almost total baldness and a lithe figure that from a distance looked positively skeletal made him look so much older and frailer. And when he, like many of his teammates, started the 2012-13 season slowly there was a fear that we had signed a dud. That couldn't have been further from the truth.

Raven wasn't the biggest, or the quickest, or the strongest, or the most skilful. But he was reliable - a rare attribute that managers must crave, particularly in their defenders. Mistakes were rare. It was unusual for him to be caught out of position. Whilst like any full-back he could look vulnerable against a talented winger he could be left on an island against them and still win his share of duels. And whilst his attacking prowess was nothing compared to that of Graeme Shinnie on the opposite flank his timing for forays forward and his delivery from wide areas was very underrated. He was a seven-out-of-ten-every-game player.

That in itself does not make one a cult hero. Scoring the winner in a Scottish Cup semi-final against Celtic certainly helps, though. He was certainly not a frequent goalscorer, managing only five in five and a half years; this writer hasn't witnessed any of them first hand. His first for the club came in gloriously appropriate fashion at Ross County, where he literally slide-tackled the ball into the net from a yard. The second was a year later at Hampden.

Celtic fans will of course remember that game for the infamous Meekings handball. Down to ten men themselves, a John Guidetti free-kick had levelled things up in extra-time at 2-2. Given their experience of big occasions, they'd have been overwhelming favourites in a shootout. It says something about the way Caley Thistle played under John Hughes that season that in the 117th minute one full-back (Shinnie) got to the byline and fizzed the ball across for the other to tap-in from six yards out. Actually, that makes it sound easier than it was. The angle was narrow, and Raven had to adjust his stride in order to make proper contact with the ball - easy enough maybe for a seasoned striker, but for a right-back near the end of extra time?

Raven would subsequently claim that he had a premonition that day that he would score. It was as important a goal as the one by James Vincent that won the final itself. Without it Caley Thistle probably wouldn't have won that semi-final...though a calf injury would keep him out of the final. He at least got to take centre-stage in the celebrations in Inverness the next day, taking his guitar up on stage to play Oasis' Stand By Me to a crowd of supporters. Raven's musical prowess was already well-known - at a Christmas do he had once serenaded fans at a grand piano, taking request after request after request.

His absence from the Falkirk game was kept secret from the press right until the teamsheets were released, and understandably so; with Shinnie moved over to the right to replace him, and Carl Tremarco coming into the side and having a nervous nightmare that culminated in a red card, he was dreadfully missed. To be honest, he always was missed when he wasn't there. That's why the way he dropped dramatically out of favour the next season came as such a shock. In 2015/16 Hughes often left Raven on the bench and played Josh Meekings at right-back, a plan that simultaneously weakened the team in that position and central defence as well. When it became clear that Hughes wouldn't be offering Raven a new deal, the fans revolted by naming him their Player Of The Year at the final game of the season even though he'd started less than half of the matches. Handed a microphone in front of the support, he looked embarrassed; later he would insist that he bore no grudge towards Hughes and understood that it was a business decision.

But of course Yogi left and Raven was offered a new contract after all which at the time was rumoured to have been funded by a board member. Injuries held him back last season - he wasn't one of the reasons why ICT were relegated - and then he suffered the ignominy of another manager, John Robertson, trying to get rid of him this year. Raven didn't budge - and then found himself back in the team every week after his replacement, Collin Seedorf, got injured. And once more he has been the seven-out-of-ten-every-game least until his red card against Morton last week.

But Raven's contract is up in January and the match against Livingston on the 2nd will be his one-hundred and eighty-sixth and last for the club- if he can get his place back in the side. He was belatedly offered new terms on a reduced wage but declined them, apparently more out of pragmatism rather than pride. His ambition is to get into coaching, and there won't be many opportunities in this part of the world for that. With his oldest child due to start school in 2018, better to get settled down south again.

I'm not the only one who will lament his departure. He might not be the most talented footballer in the world - or even the most talented one at his club. But you could do an awful lot worse than have a team of David Ravens. Thank you, goodbye and good luck.

Lawrie Spence 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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