By Lewis Michie
For Inverness Caledonian Thistle, challenging for promotion to the Premiership each season they spend in the Championship is pretty much the bare minimum. Last season a third place finish gave Caley Thistle a spot in the play-offs, and had they not made a habit of drawing games for weeks in a row in the early to mid-point of the season, they might have further challenged further up the table. John Robertson has had some recruiting to do this summer to replace some of the players heading out of the door, will they manage to push for a return to the top tier of Scottish football again?
Caley fan Sean Selkirk (@Seanboy97 on twitter) helped us out with some insight on the club ahead of the new season.
A third place finish last season was certainly an improvement on missing out on the play-offs the season previous for Caley, and they managed to make it to the semi-finals of the play-offs before being knocked out by out Dundee United. No team drew more games than Caley, they had 14 stalemates, meanwhile eventual champions Ross County lost just one fewer games than their Highland neighbors. This probably shows overall that an added killer instinct in the squad would help Inverness challenge at the very top of the division – even with the two Dundee sides being tipped as champions by many.
Sean admitted that while last season had its moments, this term will require improvements, saying:
Last season was disappointing despite a very good Scottish cup run we had very too many draws in the league which ultimately thwarted our promotion hopes.”
Of last season’s squad, four players managed to put together over 4000 minutes, only half of them will remain at the Caledonian stadium for the 19/20 campaign, with midfielders Joe Chalmers and Liam Polworth departing – for Ross County and Motherwell respectively. Neither were massive goalscorers, with just four between them, but they’ve lost in the two players their chief creators – with transfermarkt crediting the two of them with a combined 30 assists last term – Polworth racking up 21 of those.
Thankfully for Robertson the rest of his top ten minute earners from last season have stuck around, so his recruitment job for this season has mainly involved replacing his central midfield and finding more competition in other areas where he has managed to retain personnel.
Caley were basically on par with many of the sides around them when it comes to goals last season. They scored a decent chunk more than the teams who missed out on the play-offs and scored just one less than Dundee United and two less than Ayr United. With all three play-off teams scoring significantly less than Ross County.
With the main goalscorers of last season sticking around, Jordan White (16 goals), Aaron Doran (11 goals) and Tom Walsh (10) the problem becomes attempting to continue to provide them with service. If a few more goals can be added to that tally, then Caley might be able to challenge for the title.
In goals conceded Caley again line up realistically with their position last season – all the top four performed better defensively than the other six sides, and Caley were within one or two goals conceded with Ayr and United and fell slightly behind champions County. Maintaining these numbers this season will be important, but if they can improve of them it again could move Caley into a title challenge.
Caley are hitting a lot of check marks in preparation for this season – they have maintained a lot of consistency within the squad, a squad which had play-off level number last season and they’ve begun to add some quality.
A few exciting looking players have joined the forward line – which we will talk about shortly, as they could increase on the goals provided by White. But first and probably most importantly the question is if Robertson has recruited enough quality to replace Polworth and Chalmers.
The direct recruits that effectively take the places of those two are a returning James Vincent and 23 year old David Carson who arrives from English None-League Morpeth Town AFC. Of course there are other central midfielders at the club, so they might not come straight in for the departing midfielders, but they’ll certainly compete for the spots in the squad. Another one of the recruits that can play further forward will also essentially look to replace some of the creativity of Polworth who more frequently played further forward than Chalmers last season.
Vincent of course was part of the squad that won the Scottish Cup for Caley, so he holds a special place in the hearts of many Inverness fans, and at 29 he certainly has plenty years to give and has proven his quality at the Caledonian stadium before. Meanwhile, Carson has already made an impression on Caley supporters and has come from an area of recruitment that Robertson has found value in previously.
Robertson has bolstered his attacking options with three recruits this summer. The first is a free transfer for James Keatings who was most recently at Hamilton Accies. With 43 goals and 26 assists in the Championship in his career, Keatings is proven at Championship level and is a smart addition. 22 year old Bulgarian striker Nikolay Todorov has done well in pre-season after arriving from Falkirk where he didn’t score after arriving in January. However, he scored twice in the League Cup group stages to begin this season. 20 year old Mitchell Curry also arrives from Middlesbrough to provide more depth and a whole lot of potential.
Sean gave us some insight as to his thoughts on this summer’s signings:
Last season we lacked depth in our squad but we have lost two big names and signed 4 players. With Carson becoming Chalmers replacement and Keatings becoming Polworths they have both impressed pre-season.”
Sean also feels some of the younger members of the squad can further contribute this season, he said:
I feel like this season we have some fantastic youth players coming through which deserve a chance! Roddy MacGregor and Matteus Machedo has impressive seasons in the under 18’s last season and impressed well over pre-season against premiership opposition! There is also Cammy Harper and the return of highly rated Daniel Mackay too which hopefully will see them get a chance this campaign”
So far in the league cup Robertson has favoured a form of 4-4-2. Ridgers has played in goals with captain Tremarco, Jamie McCart, Coll Donaldson and Brad McKay ahead of him. Vincent and Carson has manned the midfield, Aaron Doran and Tom Walsh providing width and White and Keatings up front, with Keatings seemingly playing as more of a second striker/number 10 – again suggesting he is more than replacement for Polworth.
The aim this season for Caley will undoubtedly be to not just challenge for the play-offs, but make themselves clear favourites to be in those places – and potentially even pushing towards a league title challenge. While on paper many onlookers have been giving Dundee and Dundee United the edge because of their squads, Inverness have shown similar levels of form in the league cup. Of course a defeat to Dundee in the final group stage game shows that while Caley may be capable of putting the sides below them away, they might need to improve on their results against direct competitors.
Sean outlined where he hoped Caley would finish this season, he said:
I think aiming to be near the top of the table and challenging throughout has to be our realistic aim as we merit begging in the top league.”
Overall, it would realistically be a surprise if Inverness were not in the play-off spots come the end of the season and even finishing out with the top three and not at least pushing for the title in 19/20 would probably be at least a slight disappointment.