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Caley Thistle season review: Emotional rollercoaster to cusp of Premiership return

The scenes at Gayfield after Caley Thistle won their Premiership play-off semi-final against Arbroath on penalties.
The scenes at Gayfield after Caley Thistle won their Premiership play-off semi-final against Arbroath on penalties.

If ever there was a season to be described as a rollercoaster, it was the 10 months of highs and lows at Caley Thistle in the Championship.

A stirring start, an alarming middle-section, a renewed burst of energy concluding with the bittersweet feeling of pride and disappointment with a promotion push falling in the final 45 minutes of the entire SPFL campaign.

Dodds became the new boss in town

Billy Dodds came into the club to assist interim manager Neil McCann in 2020/21 after John Robertson stepped away for personal reasons.

The duo, assisted by Barry Wilson and Ryan Esson, helped take the club from the lower reaches of the Championship to fifth spot, just three points shy of the play-offs.

With McCann opting not to be in permanent charge, former Ross County number two Dodds was the hot favourite to become the new head coach. The appointment was seamless.

Billy Dodds (left) and ICT chief executive Scot Gardiner.

Here, we reflect on a term which ended just 45 minutes away from potential promotion and the reality of remaining in the Championship…

July

The League Cup campaign was over just as quickly as it started for Inverness as the new manager and updated squad sought to find their feet.

A 2-0 win over League 1 Peterhead was followed by a 2-2 draw with League 2 Stirling Albion, with the Binos winning the penalty shoot-out to leave with a bonus point. 

Manny Duku nets from the spot in Caley Thistle’s 3-1 cup loss against Cove Rangers.

Cove Rangers, who went on to win League 1, signaled their intent with a 3-1 victory over Inverness at the Balmoral Stadium which saw ICT exit before the knockouts.

A 1-0 loss at Premiership Hearts was just a dead rubber, although there were positive signs nonetheless.

The last time the club progressed beyond the groups was in 2016. Maybe next season?

August

Caley Thistle started their fifth straight Championship term with a 1-0 win at Arbroath, courtesy of a Shane Sutherland strike. Little did we know that would be the hosts’ only home league loss of the season.

Three further 1-0 victories against Raith Rovers, Ayr United and Kilmarnock made them the division’s perfect starters.

September

A strong second half helped Caley Jags post a 4-0 SPFL Trust Trophy, or Challenge Cup, victory at home to Highland League opponents Buckie Thistle. 

A 3-1 win over Partick Thistle was followed by a 0-0 draw at Dunfermline and a last-gasp 2-1 victory over Queen of the South.

October

The unbeaten league run came to an end with a 2-1 defeat at Hamilton as two early goals from Accies gave them a grip.

Billy McKay and Lewis Jamieson combined to see off battling Elgin City.

Then, Billy Mckay had his shooting boots on as he bagged a Borough Briggs treble in a 4-2 comeback victory in the SPFL Trust Trophy away to League 2 opponents Elgin City.

Returning to league business, a 2-0 home win against Morton, a 1-1 draw at Raith Rovers, a 1-0 defeat against visitors Arbroath and a goalless draw after a fine display at Partick Thistle completed a hectic schedule.

November

Caley Thistle had to settle for a 2-2 draw at Ayr United in a match they led from an early stage and Dunfermline triumphed 2-1 at the Caledonian Stadium just a day after they appointed ICT’s 2015 Scottish Cup-winning boss John Hughes.

Billy Mckay scores for the spot in a 2-1 win at Queen of the South.

ICT rediscovered their form with a Friday night trek to Dumfries as a Mckay double helped secure a deserved 2-1 win at Queen of the South, which moved them to within one point of pace-setters Kilmarnock.

Two disappointing home cup results within just four days were a double blow for the Highlanders.

A 1-1 draw against Morton in the Scottish Cup lined up a Cappielow replay the following month before they bowed out of the SPFL Trust Trophy, losing to their fellow holders Raith Rovers on penalties.

December

There were no signs of the winter of discontent to come for Inverness fans when Christmas-month kicked off with a pulsating 1-0 home win over Killie.

A Scottish Cup replay penalty shoot-out loss at then managerless Morton was mired in controversy when the portable changing rooms were plunged into darkness for the visitors who could not even see one another during the team talk.

Caley Thistle responded with their most striking win of the season at the same venue just four days later as they smashed the Greenock side 6-1.

The final match of 2021 ended with a 2-1 home set-back against Hamilton. Arbroath were the shock division pace-setters, but ICT were still within striking range.

January

As ever, the start of the year is always a busy one, but there was no cheer to accompany the bells for ICT supporters.

A goalless draw at windy Arbroath will never go down as a classic, although four points from two trips to Gayfield was a better return than most.

On-loan Norwich City starlet Reece McAlear earned Inverness a late 1-1 home draw against Raith Rovers and a topsy-turvy contest ended in four goals shared when Queen of the South visited the Highlands.

Sutherland’s strike then put Inverness in the driving seat at Dunfermline, but a Steven Lawless spot-kick with 10 minutes to go denied them a much sought-after three points.

ICT’s Shane Sutherland celebrates his goal against Dunfermline.

Former Aberdeen manager Derek McInnes was now in the Kilmarnock hot-seat, replacing Tommy Wright and bringing back proven scorer Kyle Lafferty was a master-stroke.

The former Rangers star, who only left last summer after Killie’s relegation, netted the only goal when Caley Thistle visited Rugby Park as ICT slipped to third spot.

February

A low-key start to the month began was a 1-0 home defeat against Dougie Imrie’s Morton before a midweek 3-3 thriller against Partick Thistle.

Sam Pearson scores for Inverness against Hamilton Accies in February, which was his first senior goal.

Ayr United’s 2-1 victory at the Caledonian Stadium dampened the spirits again before on-loan Bristol City livewire Sam Pearson earned the side a 1-1 draw at Hamilton Accies. They had fallen six points away from the top by this stage.

March

The unwanted winless run reached 11 games as they slid to a 1-0 loss at Partick Thistle when a late Kevin Holt goal made all the difference.

What followed in the rest of the month, however, turned the tide from misery to happiness.

No one expected anything other than a testing 90 minutes when Arbroath came calling, so for the drought to end with a spectacular 3-0 victory was something to savour.

Two very late Logan Chalmers goal then averted a first league loss to Raith Rovers in more than 20 years. The dramatic 3-2 victory kept ICT inside the top four.

They capped off that high moment with an impressive 2-0 home win against battling Dunfermline. 

ICT were now sitting in third position, four points clear of Partick and six ahead of Raith.

April

After those three wins, ICT had to settle for a 2-2 draw at lowly Ayr United in a contest they led 2-0 after just 13 minutes.

They responded with a 2-1 statement victory over eventual champions Kilmarnock, which reopened the door for a period for an Arbroath title steal. It was a result which guaranteed Inverness would be in the promotion play-offs.

Basement side Queen of the South needed to win when ICT visited and they deservedly won 2-1 after another wonderful Chalmers goal. It offered the Doonhamers a brief reprieve before they were soon relegated.

A 1-0 win at Morton secured third position and this was followed by a swash-buckling 4-0 cruise against Hamilton to maintain the feel-good factor. This completed the regular Championship schedule, but there was much more to come.

May

The play-offs began with a gutsy 2-1 comeback victory away to Partick Thistle in the fourth v third showdown. Match-winner Austin Samuels also bagged the clincher in the second leg to secure a 3-1 aggregate win.

After a goalless home semi against Arbroath, the second leg will be remembered for referee Willie Collum sending off ICT defenders Danny Devine and Wallace Duffy being sent off and striker Shane Sutherland injured.

Still no goals, but nine-man ICT made it to penalties where they triumphed 5-3 to line up a final against St Johnstone, the Premiership’s 11th-placed finishers.

A home comeback earned Inverness a 2-2 draw and, after an encouraging opening 45 minutes in Perth a few nights later, Saints took over to run out 4-0 winners to retain their place in the Premiership.

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