Spark found but voices lost as Caley Thistle reach the last eight

THE PAUL CHALK COLUMN

IT was a job well done in the end as Caley Thistle defeated Alloa Athletic 3-0 to reach the quarter-finals of the Tunnock’s Caramel Wafer Cup on Saturday. The cold facts from a chilly afternoon at the Caledonian Stadium were that a much-changed ICT team got the goals they deserved and, in the end, the performance was worthy to take them through.

Let’s not forget Alloa are also a Championship side, who only eight days previously defeated leaders Dundee United with a perfectly judged display where their stout defending was backed up by the match-winner from Kevin O’Hara.

That result gave the Inverness team all the motivation they needed to see off joint leaders Ayr United the next afternoon 2-0 to return the Highlanders back to within two points of top spot.

The Caley Jags fans love their trips to the seaside town of Ayr. The 7-0 romp when Terry Butcher and Maurice Malpas guided the club back up to the top-flight at Somerset Park will live with ICT supporters forever.

The old fashioned rickety ground with terracing which is loved more than seats make for a great atmosphere, but the away fans from ICT have turned the advantage in their favour and the players relish visiting there too.

Caley Thistle have won six of their last eight matches in Ayr, including all three fixtures there last term, none more important than the 3-1 play-off win, which set them up for a 4-2 aggregate triumph and shot at Dundee United.

They didn’t get past the Taysiders, of course, but their latest success in Ayr catapults them back into this title chase.

It lifted the mood of the club following their rare reversal recently against Partick Thistle.

It also came after the emergency general meeting for shareholders in which they learned that the club face a projected loss of £872,000 and new chairman Ross Morrison and ICT chief executive Scot Gardiner issued an SOS for a rescue cash injection of half a million quid.

A follow-up meeting for fans in general last week confirmed that £250,000 has been pledged with the other quarter million seemingly well on track to be added.

Both these high profile figures have been, on the face of it, refreshingly honest about the severity of the situation, but have allayed fears that the club is on the brink.

Without wealthy owners from overseas, the Highland capital or wherever, Caley Thistle – like many clubs in the Championship with the hope of reaching the Premiership – have mountains to scale. 

Money floods out rather than in, while the manager and his coaches must strike the perfect balance and have a group of players with enough quality and momentum to go all the way. 

I want to pick up on a telling quote from Scot Gardiner after the meeting last week where he admits a lack of love for the club in Inverness caught him on the hop since he moved north in April.

He told the Press and Journal: “Inverness is one of the fastest growing cities in the United Kingdom, but there is no mark of the football club around the city. It came as quite a shock to me.

“We have got to change this. We need to re-engage the club with the city because there is a disconnect between the supporters and the club.”

I was in the Main Stand for Saturday’s game and the crowd seemed healthy enough for an enticing £10 entry fee but was confirmed as just under 1000. It had a low-key feel to it and those energetic voices so vocal at Ayr seemed to still be 200 miles away.

It’s like being at the cinema with popcorn and waiting on the main event. It’s a two-way street. Although players have a duty to entertain, surely some backing wouldn’t go amiss?

Raise your voice here, expect unwelcome glances or glares.

As for the chief executive’s statement about a disconnection? Who is to blame for that?

As I’ve stressed in this column, following that 4-1 day one drubbing by Dundee United, it’s crucial that the Caley Jags combine consistency and wins most weeks with beating United (and potentially Ayr) in their remaining head-to-heads.

Boss John Robertson has a really strong squad, although a broken metatarsal for midfielder Sean Welsh rules out, for me, their top player well into the New Year.

Goals from on-loan Middlesbrough striker Mitch Curry, midfielder Charlie Trafford and talented Brazilian attacker Matheus Machado were enough to knock Alloa out of the Tunnock’s Cup, which ICT won two years ago under the IRN-BRU banner and Ross County retained it for the Highlands last term.

Curry cashed in on a Nathan Gilhooly mistake to clinically give ICT the advantage moments before the break.

Canadian Charlie Trafford, who pre-match spoke up for this oft-ridiculed competition (mainly by fans not involved in it anymore), made it 2-0 in a much improved and lively second half with a deflected shot.

Part-timers Alloa should have been back in the tie when experienced frontman Alan Trouten only had keeper Cammy MacKay, but placed his close-range shot off the right post.

Matheus Machado stepped off the bench to poke a Miles Storey assist past Jamie MacDonald, who was Falkirk’s keeper on the day Caley Thistle defeated them in the 2015 Scottish Cup final at Hampden.

This was a far cry from the National Stadium, but first-team coaches for this competition Barry Wilson and Scott Kellacher will be chuffed that their charges took care of potentially dangerous opponents from their own division.

The draw for the quarter-finals takes place on Wednesday afternoon and Caley Thistle will be a  team the other seven won’t want to be paired with.

And, as happened with Morton earlier this season, ICT face the same opponents next week when Alloa return to Inverness on league business. 

With co-leaders Dundee United and Ayr on away trips to Queen of the South and Dunfermline respectively, there may be a chance of ICT leapfrogging at least one of their rivals by Saturday night. 

  • Paul Chalk’s Alive and Kicking sports show airs every Friday from 7pm. Email your comments or stories to studio@northhighlandradio.co.uk or send a message via the Alive and Kicking Facebook page.

Listen to the show via the North Highland Radio website, the Tune In app or your smart speakers.

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