Stevie Hislop used to get ribbed for being John Robertson’s “stepson” during his time with Caley Thistle.
As a huge Hearts fan, getting a call from Robertson on Christmas Day 2002 asking him to be his first signing for the Caley Jags was a dream come true.
Hislop repaid his manager’s faith by playing a match-winning role in bringing the first major cup to the Highland capital in 2003, coming off the bench to set up David Bingham and then score the second goal in the 2-0 win against Airdrie United at McDiarmid Park in the Challenge Cup final.
With Caley Thistle preparing for another crack at the same trophy – now renamed the IRN-BRU Cup – this weekend, the stars have aligned, with the club having the same manager taking Inverness to the same venue as 15 years ago.
Hislop said: “Robbo was my hero growing up and he phoned me on Christmas Day when he got the job, asking me if I wanted to sign. It was a special moment. The other boys used to call me his stepson. I still swap a few texts with him and, funnily enough, his wife shared a video on Facebook last week showing his best goals for Hearts.”
Memories of that day and that team are still fresh for Hislop, now 39 and running an opticians in Edinburgh. The game was locked at 0-0 when Hislop was summoned from the bench just before the hour mark.
He said: “When he told me to warm up I thought ‘I have to score the winner’. It would be a dream. I remember being involved in the first goal, putting a cross in for Bingy (Bingham) to head in. I scored the second in the last minute and it’s one of the best I have scored.
“I took the ball from the halfway line and just ran and ran. I slotted it past the keeper with my left foot, which was basically my standing leg, which was a pretty surreal moment.
“Knowing what Robbo is like, he probably would have told me ‘go on and make the headlines – the script is written’. I played my part in doing that, in what was a great team.”
The spirit between the players is something Hislop recalls fondly. Not only did they win the Challenge Cup that season, they went on to win the First Division title on the last day against St Johnstone, securing promotion to the top flight for the first time in the club’s history.
Members of that squad rightly have cult-hero status in Inverness. A get-together between eight of that team – Hislop, Bingham, Barry Wilson, Richie Hart, Paul Ritchie, Bobby Mann, Charlie Christie and Liam Keogh – in the Highland capital last summer did the rounds on social media and gave some fans the chance to see the heroes of 2003-04 together again.
Hislop said: “We had a day out together and relieved old memories. A couple of the old directors and some fans saw us in a couple of pubs in Inverness – hopefully we can do something like that again. It was a long drive home on the Sunday, though.
“That season was totally unbelievable. We got beat in the Scottish Cup semi-final in a replay against Dunfermline but won the league right at the death. I never would have thought of that happening when I joined. The morale was great – we’d eat together and play golf together as a weekly thing. That’s what made the season special and got us over the line.”
Hislop, who played for Ross County before joining Caley Jags, left for Gillingham in 2005 and went on to play for Livingston, Raith Rovers, Arbroath and East Fife before dropping into the juniors.
He had a spell in charge of Lowland League side Whitehill Welfare in 2016, with Bingham as his number two, and he is now assistant manager at junior side Broxburn Athletic.
The last Caley Thistle game he got to was the Scottish Cup final and he hopes to make it to McDiarmid Park on Saturday afternoon, going back to the scene of one of his greatest triumphs.
“It will be a great day for the club and hopefully they can create a few more memories,” he adds. “It feels like fate.”