Football: Baltacha seeks an Inverness united: New joint venture for entry into the Scottish League has caused a few local difficulties. Rupert Metcalf reports

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The Independent Online
THE state of football politics in the Scottish Highlands was not of great interest to Sergei Baltacha when he was winning 54 caps for the Soviet Union in the 1980s and a sporran-full of domestic medals with Dynamo Kiev. Now, however, the outcome of a tempestuous 'marriage' between two former rivals will have a big bearing on Baltacha's brave new world as the manager of Scotland's youngest club.

After five years in British football, first with Ipswich Town as the first Soviet import in this country and then with St Johnstone, down the A9 in Perth, Baltacha became the player-manager of Caledonian FC, then one of three Press and Journal Highland League clubs in Inverness, last summer.

For years, the top clubs in the Highlands had been demanding places in the Scottish League. With the expansion of the League this season, two clubs have been admitted: Ross County, a Highland League outfit from Dingwall, and Caledonian Thistle.

It was always the League's desire to admit a club from Inverness, and there was general approval when Caledonian and Inverness Thistle, proud and intense rivals for 107 years, announced plans to merge in the correct assumption that it would improve their chances of gaining entry to the League. Approval, that is, except in Inverness, where a significant number of Thistle supporters were opposed to the idea. They still are - despite the fact that the new team have already played their first match, a fine 2-0 win in the Coca-Cola Cup at East Stirlingshire on Tuesday. Caledonian Thistle stage their first League match against Arbroath on Saturday at Telford Street, Caledonian's ground.

Thistle members meet tonight to discuss their grievances. They are afraid of being swamped by their old rivals, they are unhappy that the new club's blue colours are those of Caledonian, with no trace of Thistle's red and black, and they want 'Inverness' to feature in the new club's name. They may even decide to pull out of the merger, and leave Caley to go it alone.

The merger was never likely to make everyone happy, but the prolonged bitterness has cast a shadow on Baltacha's preparations for the new season. The Ukrainian was an obvious choice as the manager of the 'united' club and, despite the political wranglings, he is in a position that most of his rivals in the new Third Division must envy. Caledonian Thistle are happily in the black, even if Thistle's assets are not made available to them; and they intend to move to a new, purpose-built stadium this time next year, on land leased cheaply by a supportive local council.

'I hope the politics is settled soon,' Baltacha, 36, who aims to play for his side when a back injury clears up, said. 'I want everybody in Inverness to get behind us. People here have been waiting a long time for League football, and we don't want to disappoint them.'

Baltacha's side are widely tipped to be promotion contenders. 'It is our ambition, of course. It won't be easy, but we don't want to stay in the Third Division long.' His squad features the best of last season's Caley and Thistle players, while the pick of the new signings are two young Scots just released by English clubs: John Scott, a midfielder from Liverpool, and Paul McKenzie, a forward from Burnley.

Baltacha's family are happily settled in Scotland - he has signed his son, Sergei Jnr, 15, on schoolboy forms. 'Everybody here has been very kind to us,' he said. 'Scotland is our home now - but I still feel Ukrainian.' He keeps in touch with his old comrades: he was invited to play in a testimonial at Dynamo Kiev last month, but had to say no because of pressure of work.

According to both directors and officials, Baltacha has been a great ambassador for Caledonian Thistle so far: courteous and communicative, and thoroughly professional on and off the pitch. If he succceeds in the hectic combat zone that is the Scottish League, it will be an achievement to equal any of the landmarks of his playing career.

(Photograph omitted)