Ross County and Caley Thistle’s involvement in the North of Scotland Cup has been a breath of fresh air for this season’s competition.
The Highlands’ two full-time clubs had not participated in the tournament for several years – with County winning it the last time they entered in 2018, while Inverness were defeated finalists against Brora Rangers in their most recent involvement the following year.
Nairn County’s penalty shoot-out triumph against Caley Jags on Wednesday shows it has not been the stroll to the final sceptics may have predicted.
Having been at the Staggies’ semi-final against Brora on the same night, I can testify that their 3-0 win could also have been an entirely different story had the home side taken their chances.
Barring an 8-0 victory for the Staggies against Wick Academy, in which the home side were down to 10 men after only five minutes, both full-time sides have been involved in entertaining, closely-contested matches.
Clearly, there has been a mixture of motives for both clubs in their approach.
New additions, senior players returning from injury and those on the fringes of the first team have been afforded key minutes.
Valuable experience for young players
Perhaps the biggest benefit has been to the youngsters who have been involved, however, with the North Cup giving them an invaluable opportunity to play alongside experienced professionals in a similar vein to that of the now extinct top-flight reserve league format.
After Jay Henderson went off injured against Brora, the Staggies’ line-up included five teenagers who will have taken major learnings from testing themselves against some of the Highland League’s top talent.
By simply wearing the Staggies’ badge, they had the added pressure of being seen as a scalp in the eyes of their opposing players – it’s an experience that simply cannot be replicated in academy football.
These youngsters are looking to pursue a big dream, and it is a pathway which can be achieved.
In fact, one of my abiding memories of County’s involvement in the tournament five years ago was seeing a young striker called Ross Stewart for the first time, when he netted a semi-final winner against Brora.
Whatever happened to him?
The competition provided a launchpad for Stewart to break into the Staggies’ first team that season, and from there he has never looked back.
He is now a multi-million-pound Southampton player, and a Scotland international.
Balance has been struck
There is clearly a balance to be struck in how strong the County and Inverness sides are for North of Scotland Games, ensuring they are getting what they want from it while maintaining a competitive tournament.
For me, that balance has been just about right.
Going too far the other way will result in a colts team scenario like we have seen in the SPFL Trust Trophy, which frankly nobody wants.
The involvement of Premiership and Championship first0team players has also given the matches some added gravitas for the Highland League clubs, along with North Caledonian League outfit Golspie Sutherland, who they have come up against.
Just ask Nairn, who have a memory they will long cherish against a strong Inverness side, with another one to potentially follow in their final against the Staggies.
Hopefully County and Inverness are back in the competition for the long haul.