Almanack: Thistle face a prickly problem

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The Independent Online
THESE are exciting times in Inverness. For many years the town's three football teams, Inverness Thistle, Inverness Caledonian and Clachnacuddin have played in the Highland League; but now the town has a good chance of a place in the Scottish League. One place. For one team. But which one?

Next year the Scottish League will grow from 38 to 40 clubs, playing in four divisions. Applications were solicited from clubs who considered that they had sufficient facilities, management, players, support and, of course, groats. Elgin, Ross County, Gala Fairydean and Gretna formed an orderly queue. The three clubs of Inverness pondered: financially, it made sense to join forces and bid together as, say, Inverness United.

But football loyalties dictated otherwise. Clachnacuddin read the signals early and dropped out - they will stay in the Highland League next year, and their supporters are happy. Not so the fans of Thistle and Caledonian (or 'Caley'). A merger between the two clubs would produce a new club with assets of pounds 1m or more, enough to make progress towards a regular berth among the giants at the top of Scottish football. But fans on both sides - particularly Caley's - are so grief-stricken at the prospect of 'losing' their team that they are doing all they can to block the merger, even if it dooms their teams to an eternity in the Highland League.

It is quite possible that the Scottish League will tire of the endless bickering in Inverness ('It is the only unusual application,' comments Hamish Walker of the Scottish Football League, 'if you'd like to put it that way.') and award a place to nearby rivals Elgin: but even that does not deter the die- hards. 'We are prepared to sacrifice League football,' says David MacDonald, a passionate fan and leading anti-merger campaigner, 'rather than sacrifice Caley.'

Next Thursday the five prospective new members will make presentations to the Scottish League. It is imperative that the arguments are settled before then. Does David MacDonald see his team giving any ground? 'To compromise', he says, 'we've offered to call the club Inverness Caledonian and play in blue and white (Caledonian's colours). Then we'll accept anything else that Thistle want.' Exceptionally generous. Thistle's response? 'There seems to be a bit of a problem with Thistle accepting that,' MacDonald admits. So Almanack found when contacting the Thistle Social Club. 'You'll no get me to comment on that,' grunted a disgruntled fan. 'It'd be unprintable.'

Late last week Inverness and Nairn Enterprise, the local business-generation group, finally managed to manacle both sides to a conference table and make progress: the team to be called Inverness Caledonian, and play in Caley's colours; the reserves to be called Inverness Thistle, and play in Thistle's colours; the new stadium to be called Thistle Park. It may work - but even if it does the town's football supporters will take some time to forget the bitterness of the battle. The conflict has brought other, sadder signs that the area is ready for league football: social division, abusive chants, late-night anonymous telephone calls to club officials. Enjoy your promotion, Inverness.

(Photograph omitted)