TWO refereeing errors during last weekend’s games, have focussed Highland football fans’ minds. The point gained by Ross County against Celtic at Dingwall courtesy of Alex Schalk’s aerobatics, meant they are eight points above the relegation spot with only 15 points left to contest.
In contrast near neighbours and local rivals Inverness Caledonian Thistle suffered a cruel blow at Motherwell. Having fought back from two down, their efforts didn’t count. Referee Willie Collum and his linesman saw the ball cross the Inverness goal line, when nobody else in the stadium did.
Inverness manager Richie Foran must fear the gods of football fortune have turned their back on his team, which now sits all alone at the bottom of the league.
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It is still possible that both, or indeed neither of the Highland teams will be relegated, but things look increasingly grim for ICT. This has left County fans, including this writer, pondering life without Caley in the top tier. Publicly a collective schadenfreude is on display. When the County supporters’ buses, returning from Hamilton recently, were passing ICT’s stadium at the southern end of the Kessock Bridge, there was a spontaneous rendition of a version of Status Quo’s Down Down.
Certainly much humour would be enjoyed at Caley’s expense. After all these are the supporters who when playing County last year, after the Dingwall side’s League Cup Final triumph, kept singing “Small team, small cup. Big team, big cup,” referencing their winning of the Scottish Cup the previous year. But privately many Staggies admit that life wouldn’t be the same without Caley. Not having the local derby – El Kessocko – to look forward to, clearly would be a miss. Not least when the next nearest premiership team is Aberdeen 116 miles away.
However it is more than that. Having both Highland teams in the top flight means a lot to the Highland sense of identity. Their remarkable rise from the Highland League since 1994 helped underline that the area is no longer the social/economic basket case it was historically.
There is also mutual enjoyment that central belt teams still complain how far away Inverness and Dingwall are, apparently convinced it is further to travel north than the Highlanders’ journey south every second week.
Stuart Cosgrove on the wonderful Off the Ball (a programme whose contribution to Scottish life is not sufficiently recognised – couple of honorary degrees anyone?) talked recently about how many football fans in Glasgow seemed to resent the Highlanders’ presence, particularly that of Ross County.
It is unlikely such “central beltism” is just about distance. Dingwall, with a population smaller than its football ground’s capacity, is deemed undeserving of top flight status by some.
But this is a source of local pride. Roy MacGregor, County’s chairman, enjoys talking about ICT being the “the city club” and the County fans with some justification chant “We are the Highlands”, coming from as far afield as Skye, Sutherland and sometimes the Outer Isles.
But what would be the point if Caley weren’t around?