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Paul Third: Caley Thistle must take their shot at glory

Austin Samuels celebrates his first leg winner for Caley Thistle at Partick Thistle on Tuesday.
Austin Samuels celebrates his first leg winner for Caley Thistle at Partick Thistle on Tuesday.

One down, two to go for Caley Thistle in their pursuit of a return to the Scottish Premiership.

It has been five years since Inverness last graced the top flight of Scottish football with defeat confirmed on the final day of the 2016-17 season.

From the dizzy heights of Scottish Cup winners and playing in European football for the first time in the club’s history in 2015 to dropping out of the top flight two years later shows how quickly fortunes can change.

Championship takes its toll on clubs

History has shown just how tough it has been to get the club back up to the Premiership.

This season is Caley Thistle’s fifth in the Championship. Since dropping down a division they have finished fifth, third, second, fifth and third.

The Covid outbreak in 2020 robbed the club of the chance to compete in the Premiership play-off semi-final and their only previous attempt before this season was ended in the semi-final stage by Dundee United in 2019.

Yet here Inverness are, back in the semi-finals with Arbroath standing between them and a place in the final.

Barring a remarkable final week of the Premiership season it will be last season’s cup-double winners St Johnstone who will stand between either Inverness or the Red Lichties in the final.

Caley Thistle are the form team of the three but winning promotion from the quarter-finals is a rarity.

Three rounds, six games, two weeks. It doesn’t get much more challenging for a club at the end of a long, hard season.

A huge week lies ahead for Arbroath manager Dick Campbell and Inverness manager Billy Dodds

Dick Campbell’s Arbroath are the underdogs, the fairytale part-timers who will have the support of the neutrals across the country.

But Caley Thistle cannot and will not allow themselves to be caught up in talk of fairytale endings. They have their own happy ever after to chase and calm heads must prevail this week.

Caley Jags have shown their powers of recovery

Billy Dodds and his players have had been on their own rollercoaster journey this season after sprinting into an early lead at the top of the table only to come crashing back down after a horrendous mid-season run of poor form.

Yet, like a bruised boxer on the canvas they have hauled themselves back to their feet and come out swinging again.

Partick Thistle were taken care of last week with Inverness showing they are growing in confidence by beating the Jags home and away.

Dodds and his players had the home advantage of being at home for the second leg on Friday but from here on there is no such advantage.

The semi-final second leg will be at Gayfield on Friday. To the victors, a second leg final appearance at McDiarmid Park beckons.

The Championship has no respect for reputation.

It has just spat out Dunfermline, managed by Caley Jags’ Scottish Cup winning manager John Hughes, to the third tier of the game.

Dunfermline manager John Hughes and assistant Steven Whittaker saw their side relegated on Saturday after a play-off defeat to Queen’s Park

The Pars have been treading water for years in the second tier and that is why Caley Thistle’s need to get up is so strong.

With each passing year the degree of difficulty increases. The Championship is a competitive environment and the longer you are there the harder it is to go toe to toe with teams without major investment.

Those who drop down with big fan bases such as Hearts, Hibs, Kilmarnock, Dundee and Dundee United can cope with the drop of income being out the Premiership puts on a club.

Others like the Pars, Inverness, Hamilton, Partick and Falkirk, have felt the effects far greater.

Revenue leads to growth and Caley Thistle, like most clubs in the Championship, need Premiership football.

Inverness know what is at stake – not just this week but, they hope, in the next four matches.

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