WHEN Inverness Caledonian Thistle and Ross County were elected to the Scottish Football League back in 1994, few could’ve predicted the impact both clubs would have on our game.
In the 23 years, they’ve climbed the Leagues, established themselves in the top flight and even collected a major trophy apiece along their amazing journey, with Inverness adding a brief stint of European football to the Highlands.
However, this season has been a struggle for both The Staggies and Caley, with both battling to avoid dropping into the Championship next season. This weekend, both clubs do battle in the third Highland derby of the season at the Caledonian Stadium, and very few previous meetings between the two have had more at stake than this one with just four points separating bottom club Inverness and 8th place County.
Inverness were always going to find life tough in the wake of John Hughes’ departure from the club, a year after lifting the Scottish Cup and taking the club to a highest ever position of third place in the League, and have propped up the Premiership table for much of the season. Richie Foran has found his first managerial role a difficult one for a club who have been downsizing despite their glorious 2014/15 season and their once steady defence has looked ropey all season, with only Motherwell shipping more goals than Caley in the top flight.
Things haven’t been much better in Dingwall as County have struggled to hit the heights of last season, where they achieved a top six finish and a League Cup triumph. Their form since the turn of the year has been particularly alarming, with only one victory in their last seven League matches that’s seen them slip from the top six into a relegation battle.
Such is the tightness of the League from 6th to 12th, with only ten points separating seven teams, victory for either side could see them back in contention for the right to play their post-split matches against the Old Firm, Aberdeen, Hearts and St Johnstone, which is the only guarantee to avoid the relegation or playoff places.
For Inverness, a top six berth is unlikely and Foran has made it clear that survival is the ultimate priority if they are to have a 13th top flight campaign in 14 seasons, stretching back to the 2004/05 season. They’ll be encouraged by their mini revival that’s only seen them lose once in the last five matches, though they’ve only won once in that period that ended a four month wait for victory.
Defensively, they’ve been more solid recently and in Billy McKay they have a proper goal threat that had been lacking in the earlier months of the campaign, giving them a solid platform to build on in their fight for survival.
County, on the other hand, know that three points will ease their relegation worries slightly and have both Kilmarnock and Partick Thistle, who occupy 7th and 6th respectively, in their sights as they seek that coveted top six berth and secure top flight football for a sixth consecutive season.
In Liam Boyce, they have one of the most prolific strikers in the League with 15 goals and have players like Michael Gardyne and Craig Curran to help provide the goals that could see them, not only preserve their top flight status, but towards the freedom of the top six.
Saturday’s game will go a long way to defining the season for Jim McIntyre’s men. Victory will see them sensing fixtures against the top five clubs in the country, whilst defeat plunges them right into a relegation dogfight.
Inverness will be determined to drag their Highland rivals into the heat of the battle whilst overtaking Hamilton, who go to Ibrox on Saturday, in the process. For them, defeat is unthinkable and will dent a huge psychological blow to their survival hopes, therefore it is imperative they win this game, especially in front of their own fans.
So the scene is set for, potentially, the most important Highland derby to date. Will Inverness Caledonian Thistle get the win they need to boost their survival ambitions, thus dragging their bitter rivals into a relegation dogfight in the process? Or will Ross County ease their worries by placing a dagger to the hearts of their Highland rivals?