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Ross County Blog: Highland Derby Preview

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At the time of writing, Ross County are third in the SPL. A win against fourth-placed (which in itself is a remarkable thing) Inverness Caledonian Thistle will all but ensure the Dingwall club will finish in the top six following the split. This is, for those in the Daily Record offices who haven’t noticed, Ross County’s first season in the top flight. The club operates with the smallest playing budget in the division, plus Rangers, and are third, challenging for Europe and preparing to travel across the Kessock bridge to the home of their rivals with the knowledge that they are favourites for the game against a very strong Inverness side.

This season, riding on the back of a 40-game undefeated run which was dismissed by many as “only the first division”, has seen Ross County largely retain the same squad, the same staff and the same playing style. It is, whether people recognise it or not, a remarkable achievement, which somehow is overlooked by hacks in favour of Hearts’ financial woes. You get the sense this is perhaps a motivating factor for Derek Adams’ team. There is, even now, the feeling that many expect the club’s bubble to burst, and for the defeats to pile up as expected.

Within the context of the tumultuous season in Scottish football, the Inverness Caledonian Thistle versus Ross County derby may seem like just another fixture, but the intensity has been ramped up a notch with the immensely likeable Terry Butcher calling this “the biggest Highland Derby so far.” Inverness even went to the odd lengths of making a promotional video specifically for the game, appealing, Lord Kitchener style, for fans to turn up. I say odd; it would be very surprising indeed if Inverness fans, whose team is quietly having another superb season, needed any motivation to attend. With Ross County sure to sell out their allocation, the Tulloch Stadium will be packed to the rafters (flimsy as they may be) with another 6,000-plus crowd. And to think Jim Traynor said we’d all be bankrupt by now.

The Highland derby is one which, if perhaps lacking in history (the clubs had never played each other prior to joining the league, largely on the basis that ICT did not exist), certainly represents a fundamental difference to the Edinburgh derby, and what was formerly known as the Old Firm derby. There’s an mutual respect between the two clubs; Terry Butcher once began a BBC interview after an ICT victory by congratulating Ross County on their own win over Aberdeen, before moving on to praise his own players. Inverness stalwarts such as Grant Munro and Ross Tokely…. okay, such as Grant Munro, move from one side of the bridge to the other with nary a word of protest or condemnation. The two clubs share access to the excellent Highland Academy, although Ross County do get first dibs. Football forum ‘banter’ between the Staggies and the Caley fans is often littered with heavy irony, but usually underpinned with subtle good grace, and a humour very obviously missing from the supporters of the bigger teams on derby day.

And so, on derby day, you will find fans in Inverness’s many fine speakeasies murmuring rather than yelling, mixing rather than congregating and generally nervously preparing for the game. It’s a scene which the aforementioned Glasgow based cynic told us would never happen. For the most part the police keep a low profile. Do not mistake any of this for patronisation or apathy, its more a rich sense of perspective. From the Highland league to third and fourth place of the SPL? Fans of Inverness and Ross County are more than aware of how well they currently have things. There were times before all seater stadiums that, during derby games fans at Victoria Park, or Telford Street as was, fans would all but swap ends. I remember as a kid running behind the linesman as play progressed. Black and white programmes, eight pages in length, would set you back a pound, and the club tuck shop would have a splendid choice of a pie (contents to be confirmed) or a Mars bar. This really was not all that long ago. Now, however, the chance

of playing in Europe is on the horizon, as it were. These are heady days for both clubs, and it is testament to the genuinely progressive management on and off the pitch in Dingwall and Inverness that both sides are where they are today, however unexpected that may be.

Both sets of fans retain a certain relationship with the players, too. Twitter, that hubbub of gossip and innuendo, has for the last few days been full of team-building and point scoring – albeit with no little trolling. County captain Richard Brittain took it upon himself to gauge the ticket sales, praising the County support with genuine admiration when he established a figure of over 2,000 sold for the away end already. From a County perspective there is a tangible sense of optimism. It has been an incredible season already; victory over an excellent ICT side would provide the club with a further injection of fuel. Theres every chance we’ll be playing in Europe next season. Just typing that sentence puts into perspective the significance of a Ross County victory, and it won’t be lost on the players, either.

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