With the worst of the winter weather seemingly abated and rescheduled fixtures completed we now had a final schedule made up for our remaining 15 games of the season. It was therefore quite disconcerting to wake up early on Saturday morning and hear that many games had been plunged into doubt after an overnight freeze and more worryingly our game at Inverness was one of them. However the bright winter sunshine and clear skies gave us enough hope to set off after 9am and within an hour or so we discovered via a Groundhopper follower on Twitter that the match was on. It turned out to be a glorious drive up the A9 with the crystal clear blue skies contrasting exquisitely with the increasingly snowy mountains and the morning sun shimmering on frozen lochs. After a brief stop once again for a delicious bacon butty and cup of tea in Aviemore we continued our journey north. The further we travelled the clearer it became just how severe the weather had been with several abandoned cars encased in ice littering the side of the road.
Our driver Jamie got us to Inverness in plenty time so we decided to take a quick pit stop in town for a pint and to watch the 2nd half of Celtic’s lunchtime game. I’m sure I had been to Inverness sometime before in the distant past with my parents but I couldn’t recall anything about it. Indeed I was somewhat surprised that, given it was granted city status nearly ten years ago, it wasn’t, well, bigger. The main street is little more than what you get at places such as Perth or St Andrews but it was bustling enough and indeed the pub we stopped in was packed with families and football fans. I watched Celtic scrape an uncomfortable 1-0 win at Hamilton whilst Kieran went to buy himself a new hat and gloves and Jamie popped across the road to put a coupon on before we set off for the Tulloch Caledonian Stadium.
The stadium itself is reasonably decent with just three sides filled with seating and the 4th left looking rather sparse with a few rows of uncovered seats (apparently for when Celtic and Rangers come calling) and a TV gantry. The main stand seems to have evolved over the years with an extra section, again uncovered, added at either side. The small away stand which housed around 100 fans of today’s opponents, Partick Thistle was behind one goal. We took our in place in the North Stand which is situated at the opposite end where the more ‘hardcore’ element of the Caley fans occupy themselves. The stadium does benefit enormously with where it is situated – right on the banks of the North Sea, with a mountainous range in the distance and the Kessock Bridge looming behind it – it is as picturesque a setting as you could get for a football ground.
Caley Thistle and Partick Thistle both harboured dreams of making it to the SPL this season but in truth Thistle’s indifferent form of late had left their hopes hanging by a thread. Caley however, like others just above them, had games in hand over league leaders Dundee who had begun to look nervously over their shoulder as the season wore on. After a rather disappointing pie and Bovril (to be fair it would’ve been hard to match last week’s) we took our seats amongst the other 3,000 or so fans as the teams emerged. It was clear from the off that Caley were struggling to cope defensively with any crosses coming into their box and perhaps even more worryingly for them they seemed incapable of actually stopping the wingers from delivering the dangerous balls in. Thistle’s Mark Corcoran had already caused problems down the right side and he was who opened the scoring in 16 minutes with a simple a goal as we’ll see all season. With the Inverness defence backing off he curled a low shot from the edge of the box into the bottom corner leaving keeper Ryan Esson rooted to the spot. To be fair Caley had their chances too in the early stages but found the again impressive Thistle goalie Jonny Tuffey in fine form. The home fans were aghast when Jonathan Hayes was booked for simulation after seemingly being tripped in the box. However Hayes redeemed himself moments later with a well hit low drive into the corner to level matters and we went into half time all square.
During the break we met up with Newman, a friend of Kieran and Jamie’s who had relocated up North to teach in Dornoch. It turned out the ‘hardcore’ Caley crew at the back of the stand were actually all his pupils who he drives to each home game. Caley came out with much more pace and purpose in the second period and a Sanchez shot from 20 yards once again saw Tuffey called into action. The away side weren’t quite done though as forward Liam Buchanan went close at the near post. Then in the 67th minute Adam Rooney won a rather dubious penalty for the home team but his spot kick was superbly deflected over by the keeper and Tuffey yet again produced heroics with a block as Sanchez passed up an incredible opportunity of a clear sight at goal. It was all Inverness now and Rooney this time was the culprit of a glaring miss when one-on-one with Tuffey he dragged his shot wide. However right on the 90th minute Thistle defender Ian Maxwell hauled down Rooney in the box and was promptly sent off. This time Rooney made no mistake and drove it home to give his team a valuable 3 points leaving Jonny Tuffey despairingly pole-axed on the turf as the young Caley fans danced home in jubilation.
As pleasant the drive up the A9 was in the sunshine it takes on a different mood at night with snow showers, deer occupying themselves at the side of the road and the occasional kamikaze driving from one or two motorists. However it had been an enjoyable if rather cold day and another long trip has been completed on the home stretch.
Journey - 8
Pie - 4
Bovril - 5
Ground - 7
Game – 6