Inverness may already be out of the Europa League but reaching the competition was an achievement in itself. Craig Cairns assesses whether it would be folly to write them off in their domestic campaign.
Wow. Just wow. This time last year Inverness were tipped to struggle and their manager was the favourite to lose his job before any other in the Premiership. By the end of the season, Inverness had recorded their highest ever league position in their short history, as well as taking the Scottish Cup back to the Highlands with them for the first time.
Formed after a merger between Inverness Thistle and their rivals Caledonian 21 years ago, the Caley Jags successfully applied to the SFL in 1994. Their steady ascent since has seen them establish themselves as a top six, never mind a top flight, side in recent years – save for a minor setback when they were relegated to the second tier in 2009.
They have since recorded another little bit of history, competing in a European competition for the first time, although they did so without some major components of their success last season which looks like it may adversely affect their domestic campaign. Despite this, through fear of being made to look like an idiot, I’ll stop short at writing off their chances for a successful season.
Like Dundee United, Inverness have lost a large amount of their goalscorers and creators from last season. Scorers of 17 of their 28 league goals since the turn of the year are no longer at the club – Bill Mckay, Eward Ofere (five each); Nick Ross (three); Marley Watkins, Graeme Shinnie (two each). The same players were also responsible for 57% of their assists in that time – Shinnie, Watkins (six each); Ross (three); Mckay (one).
Shinnie will be missed more for much more than his goals and assists. His energy, drive and leadership qualities will leave a huge void in the side and it appears that John Hughes will start the season with Carl Tremarco and a converted Danny Williams as his options for the left-back position.
So far Hughes had made one typical Inverness signing in the form of Jordan Roberts. The 21-year-old midfielder, who can also operate out wide, signs from Aldershot Town is quick, direct and will need to make an instant impact if his side are to continue from where they left off from last season.
The sturdy Nat Wedderburn joins from Cowdenbeath and appears to be favoured by Hughes as a midfield destroyer, even though the 24-year-old is known to play in central defence as well. Joining him is targetman Dani Lopez, a Spanish striker previously at Stevenage and Barnet.
Injuries to both young goalkeepers recently left Inverness with just one fit player for this position and, therefore, Owain Fon Williams has been added from Tranmere Rovers. He may have been at fault for the goal they conceded at home to Astra on his debut, but he had been thrown into the side days after joining and has since redeemed himself with a penalty save versus Motherwell in the season opener.
To say these signings are uninspiring, given the talent that has left the club this year, is not an unfair comment to make. However, we have been here before with Inverness and no one will be surprised if these new signings flourish and they are sitting comfortably in the top half again come the season’s end.
What can you say? Not only did he vastly exceed expectation, John Hughes did so by implementing a very different style of play. While it would be unfair to describe the style under Butcher as long ball or agricultural, as some have, it isn’t unfair to say that Hughes has got his side more comfortable in possession. Hughes likes his centre-backs to split and take possession so that the team can dictacte play.
Of the 28 league goals Inverness have scored this year, 12 have been assisted through either a short pass, a low through ball or a cutback, displaying their ability to cut teams open will keeping the ball low. Though Hughes is pragmatic enough to know that he needs to mix it up from time to time and likes his wide men to drift inside, pushing his full-backs forward. This is reflected in the fact that 12 league goals since the turn of the year have come from crosses, with full-backs assisting seven of those.
However, Hughes faces a difficult task in sustaining this style after losing so many top performers from last season. And even though a large core of the defensive unit remains at the club, there are still question marks over the goalkeeper and the left-back position, as well as in advanced areas.
In saying that, Hughes masterminded the semi final and final victories expertly, even if his side were let off the hook by a game-changing decision. He reacted well to events and negotiated his way past a tough Celtic side, albeit against ten men for large parts.
With so many key departures, Greg Tansey will be one of the men Hughes looks towards to continue the momentum from last season. The Huyton-born midfielder arrived at the club to improve the holding midfield positions, depleted after the departure of Owain Tudur Jones to Hibernian and injuries to Richie Foran and Ross Draper.
Not only did he provide immediate cover, he provided them with more thrust from midfield, qualities that came to the fore last season – even if in a less glamorous role than some others. He has made them more threatening with his deliveries from set-pieces – another area where Inverness can be dangerous – and, with his range of passing, will again be one of their main creative outlets from midfield.
Four players that could be the next Inverness hero
Inverness have built success on unearthing rough diamonds from the English lower leagues. Some have been slow burners, taking a season or two to establish themselves. So which players already at the club could endear themselves to the support this season?
1. Daniel Devine
The 22-year-old has only made 14 appearances in his two and a half years at the club, though has started two cup finals. A central defender, he has found himself excluded from an extended run in the team due to the performances of Garry Warren and Josh Meekings. For a while it appeared he may leave the club to seek first team football but he signed a new deal, hopeful that he can establish himself this season. His opportunities will have increased after the recent break suffered by Warren.
2. Lewis Horner
The midfielder has only made one senior appearance for Inverness – a dead rubber at Celtic Park, at right-back in a much changed side – since his move from Blyth Spartans at the start of last season. Though he may still need to work his way into contention past the likes of Tansey, Wedderburn and Daper – not to mention others on the fringes like James Vincent and Liam Polworth – we have seen Caley players rise from obscurity before.
3. James Vincent
Vincent’s time at Inverness has been underwhelming, even though he too will be remembered by the Inverness support as a cup hero after his winning goal in the final. For a spell in Butcher’s side, he was a livewire from midfield, breaking forward to join in attacks. Injuries have played a part in his sporadic appearances since, though he now has the opportunity to establish himself as a key member of the side once more.
4. Carl Tremarco
The Inverness line-ups in preseason and Europe suggested that Danny Williams will at least be tried as a Shinnie replacement. Tremarco was back up in this position last season and was lucky to be bailed out by his teammates after his cup final dismissal. If the Williams experiment fails, he may be given the chance to redeem himself.
This is likely going to come back to bite us but at the Terrace we are predicting a bottom six finish for the Scottish Cup champions. Replacing Mckay, Ofere, Watkins and Shinnie just seems a step too far and Hughes’s signings haven’t done much to change our minds on this.