THE PAUL CHALK COLUMN
MAKE no mistake, Saturday’s 2-0 win for Caley Thistle in Dundee could be seen as massive come May. The Highlanders are now in pole position to finish best of the rest in the Ladbrokes Championship behind Dundee United, in effect the champions-elect.Had Inverness left Dens Park on the back of a defeat, the Dark Blues would be level on points with them in second spot and their tails up, packed with belief.
A week is a long time in football. Seven days ago, ICT suffered a 1-0 loss to Arbroath, their second loss to the part-time Angus outfit, who looked fit and more than able over 90 gruelling minutes.
Bookie basher in the Scottish Sun, Jim Delahunt, was just one of the pundits on Saturday morning tipping Dundee to dish out another lesson to Inverness CT, supported largely by a point they picked up in the previous week’s Dundee derby.
To their credit, they were the first team to deny United a league victory at Tannadice and had put a mini run together since losing 1-0 at the Caledonian Stadium in November.
If Caley Thistle don’t win promotion via these play-offs, they will ponder two defeats to both Arbroath and Partick Thistle as well as dropped points against lowly Alloa and Morton.
Pace-setters Dundee United are not showing any signs of weakness, aside perhaps from the derby draw, although with their chasers all stumbling they extended their advantage to 14 points over ICT just over a week ago.
By all accounts, United’s game at Queen of the South on Saturday would’ve got football stopped it was awful, yet they did enough to win 1-0 and maintain their weighty lead over ICT.
United opened up the door to a possible title challenge earlier in the campaign with three away defeats at Queen of the South, Morton and Alloa Athletic.
However, they’ve not put a foot wrong for ages and it’s all about who finishes second, third and fourth to get into the promotion play-offs.
I’ve stated since the early stages that Inverness must ensure that, if they don’t win the title, they must be the runners-up.
That would mean no need for a two-leg quarter-final play-off swiftly followed by 180 minutes of a semi-final and, if still standing, the knackered players would tackle the second worst team in the Premiership.
Ayr and Caley Thistle contested the quarter-finals last season and, after walking on Ayr, ICT were visibly done as they tried to somehow match second-placed but rested Dundee United, who eventually blew their own chances in a penalty shoot-out against St Mirren.
United’s bottle crashed in Paisley that day and Caley Thistle’s mental strength and overall ability was questioned last week after their latest defeat by Arbroath.
Their weekend trip to Dundee was a real six-pointer, with the energised Taysiders sensing an opportunity to draw level on points with the Inverness side had they won it.
Thankfully for John Robertson and his charges they held their nerve and Aaron Doran and James Keatings goals moved them six clear of Dundee, who fell to fourth.
Ayr’s 1-0 victory at Dunfermline kept them within four points of ICT as they moved into third place.
For me, Caley Thistle deserve praise for that gutsy Dens Park win but they cannot afford to have too many more off-days against any opponents in this division.
After the Arbroath defeat, a furious Robbo stressed only man-of-the-match Mark Ridgers and forward Miles Storey were certainties to start on Saturday.
Fans wishing for nine changes were disappointed – but they didn’t have enough players to make that happen.
The only change I thought he would have opted for was to hand young Roddy MacGregor a start as he looked lively as a sub amid the Arbroath shambles.
However, the manager will be delighted to have got his selection spot on and a 2-0 win will be a shot across the bows to many.
Caley Thistle have seen off Dundee, Ayr and Dunfermline at home in recent months to bat away genuine threats to their second spot status.
They’ll need to ensure they get back to what they are capable of when Queen of the South visit this coming Saturday.
Fans were rightly worried and frustrated by the dire display just over a week ago, but hopefully they will rally behind the players to roar them on against the Doonhamers.
* Just on the subject of the Championship and Dundee United seemingly coasting towards the 2019-20 title.
The fact that, despite United appointing Robbie Neilson as their manager in October 2018, Ross County with two rookie co-bosses in Stuart Kettlewell and Steven Ferguson held firm to see off that formidable test perhaps deserved more credit than they received.
Neilson won this Championship crown with Hearts in 2015 by a country mile and he’s repeating the feat with United. For the Dingwall team to see off that threat last term deserves a mention.
* Paul Chalk’s Alive and Kicking sports show is on North Highland Radio every Friday from 7pm.
Listen via the station’s website or using the TuneIn app or your smart speaker.